CHICAGO — When it comes to William Gropper’s illustrations of Jews, it’s a tale of two artists. Some of the New York-born cartoonist’s drawings of fellow Jews epitomize the worst of anti-Semitic caricature — hooked noses, large foreheads, big lips, and hunched shoulders. (Perhaps most egregious is his character, Chauncey Critch, identified in the Yiddish language Freiheit as a “Socialist union and synagogue leader,” who received similar illustrative mistreatment to Gropper’s self-declared nemesis, Forward founder Abraham Cahan, for whom Gropper said it was always “open season.”)
But Gropper (1897-1977), who grew up as one of six children in a poor Jewish family on the Lower East Side, has another Jewish repertoire. This body of work by Gropper, a 1931 recipient of the Young Israel Prize, includes dozens of depictions of rabbis often in prayer, dancing hasidim, biblical scenes (such as Jonah, Joshua, and Adam and Eve), Talmud scholars, a “Shtetl series,” and other scenes of Jewish life. Rather than denigrating Jews, these pieces celebrate a Jewish identity which seems to have lain dormant in Gropper until he saw the Nazi atrocities of World War II.
In his 1966 Ph.D. thesis “The America of William Gropper, Radical Cartoonist,” submitted to Syracuse University, Joseph Anthony Gahn notes that Gropper’s parents, Harry and Jenny, emigrated from Eastern Europe and lived in “desperate poverty.” Harry — who had been labeled a black sheep of his wealthy Jewish family in Romania which made its money selling military uniforms — left for the United States in the 1880s. Unable to find work, Harry and Jenny had to take undesirable jobs, Jenny’s in a sweatshop. Although William’s parents eschewed religion, Jenny spoke to the kids in Yiddish, and they replied in English, “as was common on the East Side,” Gahn writes.
But William’s grandparents threatened to disown his parents if they didn’t send him to cheder. “His grandfather cried that otherwise the boy would grow up a wild animal,” Gahn writes. “This warning [of being cut from the inheritance] had a strong influence on William’s parents.”
It’s easy to understand how William developed his critical views of Jewish “self-rightesouness” studying with an abusive rabbi in the “damp cellar below a synagogue on East Broadway,” as Gahn describes. Returning from home one year after his grandfather dragged him to Yom Kippur services, throughout which he was bored, William was impressed to see his parents fasting but working. “Years later he attacked such pomp and pedantry with his pen and brush in numerous caricatures,” according to Gahn.
Gropper would ridicule Zionism and Jewish labor unions in drawings he published in Socialist papers, but he later changed his tune. A typical perspective on Judaism surfaced in a 1925 cartoon for New Masses. Three businessmen with yarmulkes hold siddurim in one hand, while their other hands bear moneybags or a whip. The first prays “God forgive us for eating pork, but it was for business”; the second, “God forgive us for not beating the workers, because they would not let us”; and the third, “God forgive us for oppressing the people so much, because we do not know how to do anything else.” The cartoon caption: “They pray in front and sin in back.”
As Hitler rose to power, however, Gropper unleashed a constant barrage of damning illustrations that more than eclipsed his hatred of Cahan. And Gropper decided to visit Eastern Europe and Soviet Russia to see the destruction first hand, including the rebuilding of Warsaw.
“Gone were the former diatribes against kosher businessmen, imperialistic Zionists, and rabbinical fakers,” Gahn writes. “Gropper’s childhood sufferings shared with thousands of other Jews on the East Side seemed at last to have emerged as a strong feeling of brotherhood in the face of Hitler’s horrible persecutions.”
In a lecture at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Matthew Baigell refers to an October 9, 1943 drawing of Gropper’s for Morgen Freiheit, a Yiddish Communist newspaper, which shows a Soviet soldier doing kapparot with a rooster. “This is the scapegoat. This is Hitler going to his death. A scapegoat for all of us,” the Yiddish caption reads.
Scapegoat is an appropriate term to apply to the artist himself, who trained at the National Academy of Design and the New York School of Fine and Applied Art (now Parsons). That aspect of Gropper’s life is the subject of the exhibit “Blacklisted: William Gropper’s Capriccios” at Northwestern University’s Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art (through August 11).
The exhibit, which features all 50 of the lithographs from Gropper’s biting series of atrocities — modeled on Goya’s “Los Caprichos” of the late 1790s — gathers the series in its entirety for the first time in nearly 60 years, according to the museum.
In the 1950s, Gropper came under fire from Senator Joseph McCarthy, and he was blacklisted.
“Appearing before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Gropper refused to name names, pleading the Fifth Amendment,” according to a wall text at the Northwestern exhibit. “Even though the charges were trumped up, his reputation was tarnished. He could no longer get work.”
Writing on his Capriccios series, Gropper observed, “‘The right to life, liberty or pursuit of happiness’ are mere words without meaning when mouthed by corrupt politicians, the State Dept., intellectual [sic] or artists who stand by in silence while bigotry is at work,” according to Smithsonian Institution records.
There’s no literal Jewish content in the Northwestern show — although Gropper’s politics seems inseparable from his evolving perspective on faith — but about 18 miles southwest of the Block Museum, West Suburban Temple Har Zion in River Forest, Ill., features stained glass windows on the book of Genesis created by Gropper and installed in 1967. The windows, which depict the creation of light, Adam and Eve, Noah’s ark, Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph, among other figures and biblical stories, surface frequently in Gropper’s papers.
On September 17, 1970, Julius Schatz, the director of the American Jewish Congress, asked for permission to reproduce (and sell) Gropper’s Sholem Aleichem paintings.
“It would help us considerably to meet the soaring demands of new and serious crises confronting the Jewish people,” Schatz wrote. And the following year, Blanche Schiff, the director of fund raising activities at B’nai B’rith Women, wrote to Gropper asking to reprint images of the Har Zion windows on Rosh Hashanah and other greeting cards. (Although Gropper’s papers include a response asking Schiff how much B’nai B’rith was offering to pay for the cards, there doesn’t appear to be a response from the latter.)
In 1972, M.A. Lipschultz, an art collector based in Illinois, wrote to the Groppers to tell them about a violent storm that cut the power in the synagogue midway through the rabbi’s Kol Nidre sermon. Ushers lit candles, and the congregation saw the windows in “all their glory,” Lipschultz wrote.
“God did what man could not accomplish,” he added. “Each flash of lightning emblazoned the windows and they moved. It was spectacular.”
Perhaps the Northwestern exhibit will have a similar effect on Gropper, a lesser-known artist, whose emblazoning and moving works have a lot to say to students of American history and Judaism alike.