The cover of Collier’s magazine in November 1941 displayed a political cartoon that predicted the bloodshed the U.S. would be thrust into during World War II.
The illustration showed a caricature of Adolph Hitler engrossed in a poker game with “Ivan,” a Russian leader from the Soviet Union. Death — depicted by a skeleton — looks on.
The United States had not yet entered the war when that edition of Collier’s was published. That would happen a month later, after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. But the illustrator, a Polish-Jewish émigré, Arthur Szyk, knew the threat posed by Nazi Germany — he had fled his homeland of Poland after the German Army invaded on Sept. 1, 1939 — and was determined to alert the American public to the danger.
The cover was the first of eight Szyk would draw for Collier’s, then one of the largest general-circulation magazines in the U.S. Already well-known for his illustrations by the time he came to the U.S. in 1941, Szyk’s fame would grow exponentially during and after the war years. The White House had 38 Szyk illustrations hanging on its walls. The New York York Post published more than 100 of his cartoons. His work graced the covers of the Manhattan and Brooklyn phone books and was plastered on billboards in New York City. More than 500 USO centers, which aimed to be a “home away from home” for soldiers in combat, exhibited his drawings, as did numerous art galleries.
“He went viral,” Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, a professor emerita at NYU and the chief curator of the POLIN Museum in Warsaw, said at a February talk about Szyk at the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life at UC Berkeley.
A new exhibition at the Magnes, which is on Allston Way in downtown Berkeley, seeks to restore Szyk’s position as a humanitarian crusader, an artist who effectively used his pen, visual eye and sense of humor to decry injustice.
“Basically, his political cartoons of World War II, they went viral. Especially the ones dealing with the American military, millions of people saw them and they were very, very, very popular,” said Kirshenblatt-Gimblett.
Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, said in a newspaper column in 1943 that Szyk’s work “fights the war against Hitlerism as truly as any of us who cannot actually be on the fighting fronts today.”
Yet Szyk slipped into semi-obscurity after his death in 1951. His artistic genius and fight for human rights, for Polish sovereignty, for a Jewish homeland, for the end of discrimination against African Americans, his love for nations have largely been forgotten.
The Magnes exhibit shows that he was a man who “ridiculed dictators of all stripes.” His work not only stands magnificently as a historical reflection of the horrors of the 1920s through the 1940s, a period in which European democracies collapsed, Fascist regimes rose, Hitler and his henchmen killed 6 million Jews, and WWII displaced millions, but speaks to the humanitarian crises the world is now experiencing.
“Issues that are relevant today are issues he took up,” said Kirshenblatt-Gimblett. “He lived through the major events of the 20th century. He lived through World War I and fought in the Polish Army. He lived through World War II. He engaged with those events and was a voice of protest.”
Numerous illustrations in the exhibit are arresting. There is a drawing Szyk made in London in 1939 that shows Hitler standing next to Joseph Stalin, Stalin’s right arm draped around Hitler’s shoulders. Hitler is pointing at three graveyard crosses. Szyk is suggesting that the nonaggression pact Germany and the USSR signed in August of that year would lead to many deaths. (The pact collapsed after Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941.)
Another arresting illustration shows two young Jewish children in front of a tribunal of three military men seated behind a table. The boy and girl appear to be siblings. Their clothes are tattered, and they look frightened. Three German military officers ponder their fate. The illustration, drawn in 1943 and published in PM Magazine, is titled, “To Be Shot, as Dangerous Enemies of the Third Reich.” This was a time when the U.S. had sharply curtailed Jewish immigration to the U.S. It was just one of many illustrations Szyk to draw attention to Hitler’s Final Solution. Other drawings of Jews in Europe included portraits of men fighting in the Warsaw Ghetto or as partisans in the Polish countryside.
Szyk also drew numerous illustrations of the men fighting in World War II. His depictions of American servicemen often showed soldiers of different races working together — a direct challenge to Hitler’s philosophy that purity, as depicted by the “Aryan race,” should be the basis of a civilization.
Szyk also criticized American racism. One of the drawings on display shows a trussed up African American solider wearing a Purple Heart medal. Two hooded members of the Ku Klux Klan stand behind the solider, guns held in the air. The illustration was published in the Sunday Compass in New York in 1949. Handwritten on the bottom of the illustration are Szyk’s words: “Each Negro lynching is a national disaster, is a stab in the back in our government in its desperate struggle for Democracy…”
It was just in late February, after more than 120 years of trying, that the House of Representatives passed the Emmett Till Antilynching Act which makes lynching a hate crime. The Senate passed a similar bill in 2019. Lawmakers in the House and Senate have been unsuccessfully introducing antilynching legislation since 1900, according to the New York Times.
Szyk “saw himself in service to mankind,” said Irvin Ungar, who collected the Szyk artwork that makes up the Magnes’ collection. “Szyk not only cared deeply about his own people, but he used the best of his tradition as a Jew to be an advocate for humanity at large.”
The Magnes exhibit includes 50 works by Szyk — a fraction of the collection’s 250 illustrated prints and 200 drawings and other artifacts. To showcase the holdings, all of the illustrations have been digitized and can be seen, magnified — and projected — via an interactive workstation on an iPad. A group of UC Berkeley students, working with Francesco Spagnolo, the curator, also created a way for people to isolate individual images and remix them to “repurpose individual elements, characters, and motifs drawn from the Collection, and create new cartoons,” according to The Magnes website.
The arrival of Szyk’s work at The Magnes came about because of the passions of two men — Irvin Ungar and Tad Taube. Ungar, a former rabbi and antiquarian book dealer, first saw Szyk’s work in 1975 when he came upon one of the artist’s rare illustrated Haggadah, the book Jews read from on Passover. He started to collect Szyk’s work in the early 1990s, eventually amassing one of the world’s largest collection. He also became friends with Szyk’s daughter, Alexandra. Ungar did extensive research on Szyk’s life, lectured widely on its importance, and helped organize museum exhibits around the world.
Taube’s parents traveled in the same circles as Szyk. The Taubes had also fled Poland to escape the Nazis and Taube’s father became friends with Alexandra’s husband. “We had little miniature paintings at home by Arthur Szyk,” said Taube.
Taube has always had a strong connection to Szyk’s work because of that family connection, because of the Polish connection, because they shared a strong Jewish identity, and because both are proponents of the American ideal, said Ungar.
For decades Taube and Ungar have talked about Szyk and those conversations led Taube and his Taube Philanthropies to support museum exhibits in Warsaw and San Francisco, said Ungar. In 2017, Taube Philanthropies contributed $10.1 million to UC Berkeley to acquire the Szyk collection and house it at The Magnes Collection. It was the single largest contribution to acquire art in the history of U.C. Berkeley.
Update, March 9: This article originally had information about a March 12 talk about Szyk. The event has been canceled.