The Haggadah that challenged Hitler
By Dr. Rafael Medoff
One of the most popular haggadahs in the world almost didn’t make it into print – because nervous publishers were afraid that some of its illustrations might offend Adolf Hitler.
The story of Arthur Szyk’s controversial haggadah begins in the early 1930s when Szyk [pronounced ‘Shick’], the renowned Polish Jewish artist, began creating a lavishly illustrated edition of the traditional Passover haggadah. But Szyk’s was no ordinary haggadah. Deeply pained by the Nazi persecution of German Jews, Szyk hoped to call attention to their suffering by linking it to the plight of the Jewish slaves in ancient Egypt. The illustrations in his haggadah featured numerous overt references to the Nazis. The armbands worn by Szyk’s Egyptian taskmasters bore swastikas, as did the snakes. Two of the snakes had the faces of Nazi chieftains Joseph Goebbels and Hermann Goering. The ‘wicked son’ was dressed in distinctly German clothing and sported a Hitler-style mustache. When Szyk began looking for a publisher, he immediately ran into problems. Publishing houses in Czechoslovakia and (according to some accounts) Poland rejected Szyk’s haggadah for fear that the anti-Nazi imagery would offend Adolf Hitler.
It was a tense time in Europe. Hitler had recently annexed the Saar region, remilitarized the Rhineland, and launched a massive military buildup, in blatant violation of the peace treaty Germany had signed at the end of World War One. The Poles, Czechs, and other nations bordering Germany watched nervously, wondering if they might become the next meal on Hitler’s menu. In 1937, Szyk moved to London, where his haggadah was accepted for publication by the newly formed Beaconsfield Press. But the publisher insisted on one condition: all overt anti-Nazi images had to be removed. The faces of Goebbels and Goering on the snakes were removed, as were the swastikas on the snakes’ bodies. The swastikas on the armbands of the Egyptian taskmasters were replaced with a small black circle. The small black mustache on the wicked son was the only surviving symbol.
Public opinion in England during the 1930s strongly supported the government’s policy of appeasing, rather than confronting, Hitler. Oxford University students voted, by 64 per cent to 36 per cent, that they would “in no circumstances fight for King and Country.” More than 130,000 Englishmen signed a petition by the Peace Pledge Union renouncing war. Even something as seemingly small as an anti-Nazi caricature in a Jewish religious book could be seen by jittery Britons as an unnecessary provocation of Berlin. “The English public was so desperate for peace that they averted their eyes to the reality that war was coming,” says the eminent British author Michael Moorcock, whose recent novel, The Vengeance of Rome, deals in part with the international community’s failure to stop Hitler in the 1930s. “People really believed or simply wanted to believe – that appeasing Hitler would work. They were horribly mistaken.”
As it happened, Szyk’s anti-Nazi passion became an asset after England was forced, by the German invasion of Poland, to go to war against Hitler. Impressed by the powerful illustrations Szyk contributed to the war propaganda campaign, the British government asked him to go to America to rally public opinion to support US aid to England. Settling in New Canaan, Conn., in 1940, Szyk became the editorial cartoonist for the New York Post while also contributing anti-Nazi illustrations and cartoons to Collier’s, Time,Esquire, and other leading magazines.
His work earned him widespread praise, including from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who remarked, “This is a personal war of Szyk against Hitler, and I do not think that Mr. Szyk will lose this war!” Szyk closely followed the news reports in 1941-1942 about German massacres of Jews. He was appalled at the Allied leaders’ refusal to acknowledge that the Jews were being singled out for persecution. “They treat us as a pornographical subject – you cannot discuss it in polite society,” he protested.
Szyk decided to use his art as a weapon to raise public awareness of his people’s plight, as he had attempted to do with his anti-Nazi haggadah. He became a leading member of the Bergson Group, a Jewish political action committee that raised public awareness of the mass murder and lobbied the US government to rescue Jewish refugees. Szyk’s illustrations appeared in the Bergson Group’s full-page newspaper advertisements, brochures, and publications. Bergson activist Ben Hecht, the famous playwright, called Szyk “our one-man art department.”
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As Passover approaches this year, many of us will take our copy of the Szyk haggadah down from the bookshelf and gaze admiringly at its extraordinary artwork. It is mostly a show piece, since owners enjoy viewing and discussing it but hesitate to bring it to a seder table laden with things that spill and stain.
Nevertheless, we remember Arthur Szyk’s greatness, not only for his remarkable artistic talent, but even more so for his determination to use that talent on behalf of the persecuted Jews of Europe. “I am but a Jew praying in art,” Szyk would sometimes say. At a time when most of the world ignored the plight of Europe’s Jews, Syzk answered their cries with his unique “prayers” – his art and activism on behalf of an abandoned people.
Dr. Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies,