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My Journey With The Szyk Haggadah

I first met Arthur Szyk (1894-1951) and discovered his Haggadah in 1975. In search of a gift for each member of my wedding party, I wandered into Bloch’s Judaica bookstore on Manhattan’s West Side and purchased several copies of the blue velvet-covered 1956 first Israeli edition of the Szyk Haggadah. Thus was kindled my intimate relationship with a dead and virtually forgotten once-famous artist and the spark to revive both his legacy and his almost equally forgotten Haggadah.

First published in London in 1940, The Haggadah (later, The Szyk Haggadah) was printed on vellum in an edition of 250 copies. At $500 per copy, it was the most expensive new book in the world — this at a time when the Battle of Britain was raging in the skies over London. Almost lost in the smoke and devastation spread by the German Wehrmacht’s advance across Europe was the acclaim accorded Szyk’s masterpiece by the Times of London, which hailed it as “worthy to be placed among the most beautiful of books that the hand of man has produced.”

What the Times did not know at the time, and what Jews of the world today are still not aware of, is how fully and intimately bound up Szyk’s Haggadah was with delivering a warning to Europe’s Jews about the rising threat of Nazism and Hitler’s planned genocide against them and what they and the nations of the world should do about it.

My mission over more than two decades has been to reveal to new audiences the unparalleled beauty and power of Szyk’s illustrated narrative, and in doing so, to explicate what Cecil Roth, the renowned Oxford historian and editor of Szyk’s Haggadah, meant when he wrote:

“To call Arthur Szyk the greatest illuminator since the sixteenth century is no flattery. It is the simple truth which becomes manifest to any person who studies his work with the care which it deserves.”

This article is the log of my journey with Arthur Szyk and his Haggadah, a journey deeply enriched by my close kinship with his daughter Alexandra Szyk Bracie. Since the mid-1990s, she has blessed my devotion to her father’s memory and my work with his magnum opus. In her later years she would often say to me, “Irvin, my father’s soul is in you, he speaks through you.”

The “official” beginning of my journey with Arthur Szyk took place on June 3, 1994 in Jerusalem. As I stepped to the podium to deliver my first public talk about Szyk at the International Seminar on Jewish Art at the Hebrew University, it was as if some magical script had been written for me. For that day was, in fact, the 100th anniversary of the very day Arthur Szyk was born in 1894!

Immediately following my presentation, David Moss, a prominent Jerusalem artist, asked if I had ever seen the original watercolor and gouache paintings of Szyk’s Haggadah, and did I plan to produce a new edition which would showcase his art more brilliantly than any previous reproduction. I confessed that I had not seen Szyk’s original Haggadah manuscript illuminations but stored away David’s suggestion. What has remained with me was how fitting it was that my first serious conversation about engaging with the Haggadah art took place in Jerusalem on Szyk’s milestone birthday. This seems even more remarkable to me when I consider the words of the psalmist who wrote, “If I forget you, O Jerusalem…” Indeed, these are the very first words on the illumination Szyk chose to introduce his Haggadah and the very last words on the illumination that concluded his masterwork!

I went on to both curate and consult on several museum exhibitions of Szyk’s original art. In preparation for two of the earliest of these exhibitions — “Justice Illuminated: The Art of Arthur Szyk at the Spertus Museum, Chicago” (1998), and “The Art and Politics of Arthur Szyk at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC” (2002) — I was privileged to examine first-hand the original Haggadah art. To see all 48 illuminated manuscript leaves as Szyk had created them was, needless to say, breathtaking.

At that time, this stunning collection was privately owned by Dick and Lois Janger of Chicago. The Jangers had purchased the original Haggadah art at a New York Sotheby’s auction in 1982. This sale of the complete illuminated Szyk Haggadah manuscript was reported to have set a world record for “any Judaica work of art, for any Twentieth Century Judaica illuminated manuscript, and for any work by Arthur Szyk.” Would you like to guess the date of the sale? June 3rd —Szyk’s birthday.

In 2004, in my capacity as an antiquarian bookseller, I initiated discussions with Dick about his plans for the Haggadah manuscript. Was he planning to give it to his children, I asked, or might he be interested in selling it? He answered by asking me what I thought it was worth and if I really believed I could sell it at that level. Recalling Moss’s suggestion of ten years earlier, we also began to explore the possibility of publishing a new edition of the Haggadah based upon the original artwork. After months of back and forth we signed a contract for me to serve as his exclusive agent. When my first two prospects declined to purchase the Haggadah at the asking price and our agreement term was about to expire, I went back to Dick and asked for an extension of our contract. It was then that I looked more carefully at the exact date of our initial agreement to sell the Haggadah and it was, sure enough, June 3rd.

Two years later I successfully brokered the sale of the complete Haggadah manuscript to Szyk lovers and collectors, Paul and Sheri Robbins of Palo Alto, California. Knowing Paul and Sheri as I did, I knew how excited they were about showing the Haggadah manuscript to their three grown children, but there were numerous delays in getting the family together at the same time. Finally, Paul let me know that his entire family had gathered on the past Shabbat to view the Haggadah for the first time. “Paul, do you know what date that was,” I asked. “No,” he responded. And again, I could hardly believe it myself when I informed him, “That was June 3rd!” Since then, the Robbins and my wife and I have celebrated Szyk’s birthday together each year on or around June 3rd.

We might say dayenu to my personal magical mystical tour were the Szyk Haggadah narrative to end here, but it continues. In 2008, with the cooperation of the Robbins Family and the blessing of Szyk’s daughter, I produced a luxury limited edition of The Szyk Haggadah. With a new translation and commentary by Rabbi Byron Sherwin, a fresh design, fine imported materials, expert craftspeople throughout the United States, and the development of higher resolution ink-jet printing, I set out to create for the 21st century what Szyk and his publisher had accomplished in the 20th century.

Copies of this luxury edition—the Deluxe and Premier versions— now reside in some of the world’s finest museums and educational institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Morgan Library & Museum, the Vatican Library, the British Library, the Library of Congress, the National Library of Israel, and many universities including Yale, Princeton, Georgetown, Oxford and Cambridge.

To accompany the Haggadah, I published a companion volume titled “Freedom Illuminated: Understanding The Szyk Haggadah,” a fully illustrated and comprehensive survey of Szyk’s masterpiece with scholarly essays including Hebrew University Professor Shalom Sabar’s analysis of each work of art within the Haggadah. This book also draws attention to earlier Haggadah-related artwork that Szyk painted while living in Paris in the 1920s for his first, but unpublished, Haggadah, as well as artwork painted for the Haggadah in Poland and England during the 1930s but never included in the 1940 vellum edition — three unpublished dedication pages among them.

Working with Los Angeles filmmaker Jim Ruxin, I also produced a short 17-minute documentary film about the creation of the new limited edition titled “In Every Generation—Remaking The Szyk Haggadah.” It may be viewed on my website.

On one of my several visits to Israel in the 1990s, I met Joseph Horowitz, an elderly Tel Aviv-resident, whose father, Herman Horowitz, headed a cooperative that supported Szyk’s work in Poland in the 1930s. In 1937, Herman and other financial backers established the Beaconsfield Press in London. Together with the Sun Engraving Company and the Sangorski and Sutcliffe bindery, the Beaconsfield Press set out to publish only one book — The Haggadah. After completing the original artwork in Poland between 1934 and 1936, Szyk relocated to London with his wife and daughter, art in-hand, to supervise its printing. He was to remain there until mid-1940, when he immigrated to the United States.

In his small walk-up Tel Aviv apartment Joseph Horowitz told me the following story: “When I was a young boy growing up in Lwów, I remember Arthur Szyk coming from Łódź to my father’s home one evening. While sleeping, I was awakened by men surrounding Szyk and talking in our living room. I came down the steps from my bedroom and saw before them on a table the original Haggadah manuscript leaves. I could see swastikas painted on the Egyptians and on snakes.”

For Szyk, it was clear that the Nazis were the “new Egyptian taskmasters” bent on the annihilation of his people — his prescient warning to European Jewry. The artist painted over all of the swastikas prior to publication, most likely due to pressure from his publishers to get The Haggadah printed without controversy. No swastikas can be seen on either the printed editions or the original artwork — no doubt a painful compromise made by Arthur Szyk.

However, I later told Mr. Horowitz’s story to the curatorial team at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum as they were preparing their Szyk exhibition in 2002. Included among the numerous poignant and powerful World War II political caricatures and cartoons by this anti-Nazi artist were several original leaves of The Haggadah manuscript. One known as Avadim Hayinu, meaning “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt,” featured a blonde, blue-eyed Egyptian taskmaster forcing a Hebrew slave to paint an Egyptian god before him. In another vignette on this same illuminated leaf sits the god-like Pharaoh on a throne surrounded by his attendants, all wearing armbands. The curatorial team examined this original work in the conservation lab of the museum using a microscope with special lighting designed to reveal art beneath layers of paint. Swastikas were indeed found on the chest of the Egyptian taskmaster and on the armbands of Pharaoh and his court.

A few years later, I came across a rare extant lithographic reproduction printed in 1935 of Szyk’s “Four Questions” Haggadah illustration. Made prior to the artist’s revisions of his work for publication, this lithograph clearly shows swastikas on the back of the snake attacking the Israelites on their Exodus from Egypt. Mr. Horowitz was right on both counts — there were swastikas on snakes and Egyptians. Additionally, he reported that he even saw a swastika on the “Wicked Son” of “Szyk’s Four Sons” painting.

In 2011, I created a popular trade edition of The Szyk Haggadah for Abrams Books, one of the largest distributors of art and illustrated books in the US. Based upon the 2008 limited edition, this new edition retained all of the Haggadah artwork and a commentary adapted from Rabbi Sherwin’s earlier work, but at a price designed for use at a Passover meal. Equipped with practical instructions on Seder usage and Passover customs, as well as transliterations of selected Hebrew passages, this Haggadah serves as an invitation to welcome Arthur Szyk into every Jewish home on Seder night.

Three years later, the first public exhibition of the complete 48 paintings of the Haggadah in over 40 years opened at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum. Curating this show and leading dozens of private and group tours through the exhibit was virtually a dream come true for me and my traveling companion Arthur Szyk.

Next on my agenda is a revised and updated popular edition of “Freedom Illuminated: Understanding The Szyk Haggadah,: adapted from the 2008 limited edition. And more is planned! The table is set for a whole new generation to experience the “second coming” of Arthur Szyk’s Haggadah and its narrative. Don’t be surprised if it happens on June 3rd!

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 exhibitions, including the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the Deutsches Historisches Museum (Berlin), the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Library of Congress, and the New-York Historical Society. Ungar is the author of Arthur Szyk: Soldier in Art (winner of the 2017 National Jewish Book Award), 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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