The Hagaddah That Took on Hitler

One of the most popular Hagaddahs in the world almost didn't make it into print, because nervous publishers were afraid that some of its illustrations might offend Adolf Hitler.

Dr. Rafael Medoff,

Dr. Rafael Medoff
Dr. Rafael Medoff
צילום: INN:RM
One of the most popular Hagaddahs 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 Hagaddah begins in the early 1930s, when Szyk, the renowned Polish-Jewish artist, began creating a lavishly illustrated edition of the traditional Passover Hagaddah.

But Szyk's was no ordinary Hagaddah. 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 Hagaddah 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.

Szyk completed his Hagaddah around 1936 and began looking for a publisher. That's when his difficulties began. Publishing houses in Czechoslovakia and (according to some accounts) Poland rejected Szyk's Hagaddah 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, re-militarized the Rhineland, and launched a massive military buildup, including the development of an air force, the Luftwaffe - all in blatant violation of the peace treaty Germany had signed at the end of World War I. The Poles, Czechs and other nations bordering Germany watched with apprehension, wondering if they might be the next meal on Hitler's menu.

In 1937, Szyk moved to London, where his Hagaddah was accepted for publication by the newly-formed Beaconsfield Press. But the publisher insisted on one condition: all of the overt anti-Nazi images had to be removed.

Although he refrained from publicly commenting on the changes, it is not hard to imagine the regret Szyk must have felt at the censoring of his art. The faces of Goebbels and Goering on the snakes were removed, as were the swastikas on the snakes' bodies. Each of the swastikas on the armbands of the Egyptian taskmasters was replaced with a small black circle. The small black mustache on the wicked son was the only surviving symbol, apparently because while some might have regarded it as an allusion to Hitler, it was at least theoretically open to interpretation.

Public opinion in England during the 1930s strongly supported the government's policy of appeasing, rather than confronting, Hitler. From the Oxford University student vote (64% to 36%) vowing to "in no circumstances fight for King and Country," to the 130,000 signatures on a petition by the Peace Pledge Union renouncing war, there was ample evidence of the nation's overwhelmingly pacifist mood. 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 latest novel, The Vengeance of Rome, deals in part with the international community's failure to stop Hitler while it was still possible. "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 the United States to help rally public opinion to support US aid to England. Settling in New Canaan, Connecticut in 1940, Szyk soon became the editorial cartoonist for the New York Post, while simultaneously contributing anti-Nazi illustrations and cartoons to Collier's, Time, Esquire and other leading magazines. His work earned him widespread admiration, including the accolades of 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 reports reaching the US in 1941-1942 about German massacres of Jews and was appalled at the refusal of the Allied leaders to take the atrocities seriously. "They treat us as a pornographic 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 Hagaddah years earlier. He became a leading member of the Bergson Group, a Jewish political action committee that tried to raise 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."

As Passover approaches this year, many of us will take our copy of the Szyk Hagaddah - which has thankfully been reprinted many times - down from the bookshelf and glance admiringly at its extraordinary artwork. It is really more a show piece than anything else, since owners enjoy viewing and discussing it, but are understandably reluctant 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, Szyk answered their cries with his unique "prayers" - his art and activism on behalf of an abandoned people.

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