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June 20, 2022 3:46 pm

Arthur Szyk: An Illustrator of Moral Clarity and An Artist for Our Time

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avatar by Irvin Ungar


Arthur Szyk. And (what) would you do with Hitler? New York, 1944. Image courtesy of Irvin Ungar / Historicana.

As the United States celebrates Juneteenth, commemorating the emancipation of enslaved African Americans, there is no better occasion to consider the life and work of the painter Arthur Szyk (1894 – 1951).

The United States military—from West Point to the Naval Academy, from the Marine Corps to the more than 500 United Service Organizations recreation centers spread throughout our country—had more respect, admiration, and interest in Szyk than any political artist in America during World War II. In addition to exhibiting his artworks for both officers and enlisted servicemen and women at military bases and airfields, military brass and GIs looked to him for inspiration. Perhaps no greater accolade could be paid to Szyk, who saw himself as “F.D.R.’s soldier in art,” than when Colonel Edgar E. Glenn proclaimed him “citizen-soldier of the free world.”

How is it then that Szyk had the vision, moral courage, and outrage to attack the US military establishment, which in the midst of fighting Nazi and Japanese racism abroad simultaneously and egregiously manifested racial segregation and dehumanization at home? How is it that a Polish-Jewish immigrant who arrived in America in 1940, and grounded only four years on its soil, would possess such sensitivity and empathy as a Jew toward Black Americans while risking his rising stature and popularity as a prominent and important figure in America’s war effort?

Nowhere do these two monumental questions come to a head more than in a provocative Szyk 1944 drawing. Measuring merely 4 x 7 inches, a weapon wielding white GI walks beside a similarly armed Black GI with pointed guns at their captured German soldiers and asks: “And (what) would you do with Hitler?” The Black GI responds: “I would have made him a Negro, and dropped him somewhere in the U.S.A.”

As Szyk saw it, racism was so bad in the United States, that the greatest punishment for Hitler would be to capture him and drop him here in America where he would endure the torment, degradation and shame visited upon American citizens who were singled out simply because of the color of their skin.

For Szyk, the segregation of the American military into separate Black and white units was on par with the Nazi’s racist Nuremberg Laws of 1935 against Europe’s Jews and the Japanese racially-inspired assault of the Chinese people—each reprehensible in its own way.

From his earliest days as a director of art propaganda for Poland in its war with the Soviet Union (1919-1920) following World War I (yes, a Jew as head of Polish propaganda!), he held “art is not my aim, it is my means.” As the leading artist for the rescue of European Jewry during the Holocaust, he wielded pen and paintbrush in defense of his people while in the service of humanity at large. As an East European he championed Black Americans as early as pre-war 1930s when he painted and featured a Black man, Prince Estabrook, wounded while fighting for freedom for Americans during the Battle of Lexington and Concord.

At the bottom of his illuminated Declaration of Independence which now resides at the Library of Congress, Szyk added his own dedication: “To my fellow Americans, I dedicate with love this immortal heritage of our forefathers. May these words live in our hearts forever and ever, for no good man loses his freedom but with life. Arthur Szyk, New Canaan, Conn. July 4, 1950.”

Szyk believed that only death itself, not mankind, should have the power to take away our God-given right to a life of freedom and the pursuit of happiness in a place and time where every man shall be able to “sit under his vine and fig tree with none to make him afraid.” He inspired us to not merely seek the good in every human being but to take an activist stand and speak out to make certain others do it as well.

At the dedication ceremony in 1950 of his Declaration on Independence Day at New Canaan’s town hall, the chairman of the event called Szyk “one of the world’s great free men who has dedicated his life and art to the preservation of freedom.”

Fifty years later, the Library of Congress in the year 2000, held an exhibition—it was called “Arthur Szyk: Artist for Freedom.” Szyk and his ideals of justice and freedom live on. Our job is to ensure them.

Irvin Ungar is a Szyk scholar whose book Arthur Szyk: Soldier in Art won the 2017 National Jewish Book Award.

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