For world Jewry today, what could be a more contemporary take on the Exodus story than portraying the Egyptians as Nazis and the Hebrew slaves as European Jews? This vision, Arthur Szyk’s illumination of his Haggadah for Passover, is widely acclaimed as the famed Jewish activist artist’s masterpiece.

First published in 1940 in London during the Battle of Britain, many around the world own a copy of one of the handful of subsequent Israeli and American editions of the book, and many more have seen reproductions of its artwork.

However, until a new exhibition at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco opened on February 13, more than 60 years had passed since the public last saw all 48 of the Haggadah’s uniquely stunning and powerful water color and gouache paintings displayed together.

Although the artwork has changed hands several times since the Polish-born Szyk’s death in 1951 in the United States, the paintings were preserved amazingly well by their various owners over the decades. But they were rarely shown publicly, and never as a complete collection.

In 2006, the paintings were purchased by Bay Area Judaica collectors Paul and Sheri Robbins, who have lent the 48 pieces, along with many other Szyk Haggadah-related artworks and documents in their collection, to the museum to mount “Arthur Szyk and The Art of the Haggadah.” The show runs through June 29.

The Four Questions  Lodz, 1935 Watercolor and gouache on paper The Robbins Family Collection

The Four Questions
Lodz, 1935
Watercolor and gouache on paper
The Robbins Family Collection

“We have owned an original 1940 edition copy of the Hagaddah since 1993,” Sheri Robbins tells The Times of Israel. “It is a prized piece of Judaica in our home that we would regularly take out and look at with our children on Shabbat.”

“Then when the couple that owned the original pieces [Richard and Lois Janger of Chicago, who bought all of them as a single lot at a Sotheby’s Judaica auction in 1982] was selling them, we decided to buy them. We wanted to make sure they would all be kept together. After that, we began acquiring  Szyk Haggadah-related pieces from other collectors or at auction,” Robbins explains.

Irvin Ungar, curator of the Arthur Szyk Society and the person responsible for introducing the Robbins to the art of Arthur Szyk, calls the Szyk Haggadah “a Jewel of the Jewish people” and “a gem of giving insight into Jewish history and survival.”

He regrets that most people appreciate Szyk’s recognizable Haggadah artwork merely for its vibrant colors and precision of line. With this new exhibition, however, visitors can look closely at the 48 true-to-book-size paintings displayed on the walls of a large gallery on the museum’s first floor, and see for themselves that they pack a very strong political punch.

In a political sense, the Haggadah resembles a large part of the rest of the Szyk’s oeuvre, especially the popular caricatures of the Axis powers he did during World War II. A fighter against injustice and anti-Semitism, he viewed his art as a tool for achieving social and political change.

“Art is not my aims, it is my means,” he is quoted as having said.

Activist artist Arthur Szyk (Courtesy of The Arthur Szyk Society)

Activist artist Arthur Szyk (Courtesy of The Arthur Szyk Society)

Already during the interwar years, Szyk was well known as a book illustrator and graphic artist. After World War II, he devoted himself to promoting the Zionist cause and supporting the establishment of a Jewish state through his art. Original lithographic prints and posters of his rich illumination of Israel’s Declaration of Independence can be found in private homes and Jewish institutions worldwide.

Born in Lodz, Poland in 1894, Szyk studied art in Paris, where he was exposed to modern art, but ultimately chose to follow his own style, which was heavily influenced by medieval illuminated manuscripts. Although he returned to his homeland in 1913 and stayed there for some years (including serving as a Polish Army officer in the war against the Russian Bolsheviks), he went back to Paris in 1921. The artist and his family remained in the French capital for the next decade.

When the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, Szyk saw the writing on the wall for the Jews, and his work became even more politically charged than before. A sketch by Szyk from 1933 shown in the exhibition depicts Hitler as Pharaoh and Göring as a vizier.

In 1934, Szyk began work in Lodz on what would eventually become his Haggadah. With urgency, he produced the illuminated manuscript over the course of the next two years. Strapped for cash, did his small paintings on any paper at hand. On close inspection, one can see the title page of a book printed on the verso of the frontispiece of the Haggadah.

Arthur Szyk Four Sons Lodz, 1934 Watercolor and gouache on paper The Robbins Family Collection

Arthur Szyk
Four Sons
Lodz, 1934
Watercolor and gouache on paper
The Robbins Family Collection

In 1937, he moved to London and worked on getting the book published. British Jewish historian Cecil Roth acted as translator and commentator for the Haggadah, which was eventually published in 1940 by Beaconsfield Press.

Printed in a limited edition of only 250 copies on vellum, it was at the time the most expensive new book in the world, selling at $500 apiece. The Times of London called it, “a book worthy to be considered among the most beautiful of books ever produced by the hand of man.”

Szyk struggled to find a publisher for the Haggadah, as many houses balked at putting out a work so blatantly political in nature.

“Szyk lost control of the process,” notes the museum’s associate curator Lily Siegel as she pointed out letters between Szyk and various publishers displayed in a vitrine.

Szyk ended up toning down many of his illustrations. Early studies for the image showing Moses killing the Egyptian taskmaster were much bloodier and more violent in nature than the one that eventually made it in to the published book. The original illustration for the wicked son on the Four Sons page was clearly cut out and replaced (there is tape on the back of the page).

“We don’t know what the original image was,” says Siegel. One can only assume that while the wicked son that appears in the Haggadah has a Hitler mustache and carries a whip, the original version might have resembled the Führer even more closely.

An original proof page of The Four Questions, with swastikas on snake. The swastikas were ultimately painted over. (Courtesy of The Arthur Szyk Society)

An original proof page of The Four Questions, with swastikas on snake. The swastikas were ultimately painted over. (Courtesy of The Arthur Szyk Society)

It appears that Szyk had originally intended to include swastikas in a number of the paintings, which would make the analogy he was drawing between Pharaoh’s Egypt and Hitler’s Germany unmistakable. The exigencies of publication necessitated his eliminating the symbol.

A comparison of a 1936 proof page of the Four Questions and the published page for that passage show that the former included swastikas painted along the spine of a menacing snake, while the swastikas have disappeared in the latter. Also, an x-ray of the We Were Slaves in Egypt page shows that a swastika lies beneath the painted-over breastplate worn by Pharaoh.

While Szyk, who immigrated to America in late 1940 and subsequently became an American citizen, was forced to eliminate obvious symbols like the swastika, he retained more subtle symbolism of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism in the Haggadah.

The exhibition contains five elaborately painted dedication pages for the book, two of which were actually included in the original 1940 edition. Each is a manifesto of the artist’s outrage at the injustices perpetrated against the Jews, both present and past.

Szyk painted an image of himself at the bottom of the dedication page to King George VI of England, which he signed, “Arthurs Szyk, Illuminator of Poland.” The dedication reads, “At the feet of your most gracious majesty I humbly lay these works of my hands shewing forth the afflictions of my people Israel.” According to Ungar, there had originally been three additional words at the end of the sentence: “unaddressed and un-avenged.”

Arthur Szyk Dedication to King George VI  Lodz, 1936 Watercolor and gouache on paper The Robbins Family Collection

Arthur Szyk
Dedication to King George VI
Lodz, 1936
Watercolor and gouache on paper
The Robbins Family Collection

While that last phrase may have ultimately been removed, the image at the bottom of the dedication page conveys their meaning nonetheless. The painting shows a huddled, shackled mass of European Jews looking toward Zion, with a British warship in between. At the same time that Szyk was honoring the King of England, he was criticizing the British government’s policies barring Jewish refugees from entering Mandate Palestine.

If one looks beyond the obviously eye-catching vibrant colors and precise lines of the paintings in The Szyk Haggadah, once clearly sees that it is a vigorous response to its time. But it is its timelessness that has made it so popular and enduring. The visual messages embedded in it by the artist resonate for all generations.

“Szyk was conscious of l’dor vador (from generation to generation),” says Siegel. “The Haggadah is an opportunity for everyone individually and personally to engage in the Jewish experience, which is what you are supposed to do every year at Passover.”

In this video (beginning at the 2:53 mark), Shalom Sabar, Hebrew University professor of Jewish art and folklore, comments on The Szyk Haggadah.