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Arthur Szyk’s Haggadah and the Jews of Lviv

avatar by Irvin Ungar

Opinion

An image from “Family at the Seder,” from the 1935 Haggadah by artist Arthur Szyk (b. 1894, Lodz, Poland—d. 1951, New Canaan, Connecticut). Photo: courtesy Irvin Ungar

This Passover, we are sickened by the degradation, oppression, and murder of Ukrainian civilians at the hand of a hardened, modern pharaoh, as we witness a new exodus of those seeking refuge. We are commanded, then, to enforce the directive of the Haggadah narrative “Let all who are hungry, come and eat,” by feeding the needs of our fellow human beings and being sensitive to their plight.

Arthur Szyk’s Haggadah art of the 1930s speaks directly to the Jews of Lwów (now Lviv, Ukraine, a.k.a. Lemberg), providing a measure of affection and inspiration, awareness and vigilance, in another time of need.

Family at the Seder. Image: “The Haggadah,” Arthur Szyk, 1935.

At the top center of the above image lies the emblem/coat of arms of the Polish city of Lwów. Additionally, on the fluttering ribbon, Szyk inscribed the Latin words Semper Fidelis, meaning “Always Faithful.”

Why did Szyk include this coat of arms in his Haggadah, both to the Jews of Lwów and its local government, at a time when Hitler had come to power in neighboring Germany? The answer: Jews from that city had formed a cooperative to support the artist’s work, and he reciprocated with recognition and appreciation.

The Lwow medallion: Szyk draws iconic images on his chest as a proud Jew and Pole for the cooperative seal. Image: Lwów Medallion, Arthur Szyk, 1933.

Out of this consortium — following a 1936 visit by Szyk to the Lwów home of Herman Horowitz, in which he showed the Haggadah drawings to a group of his fellow citizens — the Beaconsfield Press in London was established for the sole purpose of publishing “The Haggadah.” These Lwów Jews would enable the Lodzer Jew, Arthur Szyk, to declare through his visual Haggadah commentary a heroism in the face of evil during their own day.

The Great Halleil: One of Szyk’s many heroic warriors featured in his Haggadah. Image: “The Haggadah,” Arthur Szyk, 1935.

In honor of one of the easternmost cities in Poland (now a western city of Ukraine), Szyk even considered calling his masterwork The Lemberger Haggadah, in honor of its former name, as witnessed in an unpublished dedication page.

The Yiddish and Polish text there reads: “Wanting to pay tribute to my ancestral homeland, the residence of my forefathers, I dedicate with great devotion and affection this particular Haggadah. And in honor of the notables of the city of Lemberg, who were stimulated by my work, I am calling this book The Lemberger Haggadah.”

Dedication to the Jews of Lwów page. Image: Arthur Szyk, 1936. Unpublished.

Eventually, two other dedication pages were chosen to be included in the 1940 First Edition, published in London. One was dedicated in English to King George VI, with Szyk identifying himself as an “Illuminator of Poland. A second was dedicated in French, beginning with the words, “I am but a Jew praying in art…” and signed by Szyk as “Imagier d’Israel” — painter of Israel. Still, Szyk never forgot the Jews of Lwów and its city, combining both his Polish and Jewish identities, with the placement of its coat of arms at the beginning of his Haggadah.

While he had numerous, shifting identities during his lifetime, one thing remained the same: Arthur Szyk’s unwavering loyalty and commitment to pursue freedom and justice wherever and whatever the place-name, while enabling us through the spirit of his Haggadah to inspire, uplift and support our brothers and sisters in every age. 

Irvin Ungar, a former pulpit rabbi and antiquarian bookseller, has devoted the past quarter-century to scholarship on Arthur Szyk. He has curated and consulted for numerous Szyk museum exhibitions and is the author of “Arthur Szyk: Soldier in Art,” the co-producer of the documentary film, “Soldier in Art: Arthur Szyk,” and the creator and publisher of the luxury limited edition of The Szyk Haggadah. He has also served as the curator of The Arthur Szyk Society in Burlingame, California.

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