Some men fought the Nazis with guns. Arthur Szyk used his pen.
The Jewish artist drew political cartoons showing the persecution of fellow Jews at Hitler’s hands. His work helped persuade the United States to join the conflict in Europe.
“His images were so instrumental in making the [American] public aware of what was going on. Because of that, they swayed public opinion for us to enter World War II,” said Molly Dubin, curator for Jewish Museum Milwaukee, a program of Milwaukee Jewish Federation.
The museum is hosting an exhibit on Szyk and his work from Feb. 7 to May 15, 2016.
Szyk’s political drawings weren’t shared in Europe during World War II due to censorship at the time. But in the United States they were distributed widely on the covers of leading magazines like Time, Collier’s and Esquire, Dubin said.
Szyk’s images are powerful — and sometimes hard to look at, she said.
“He tends to show Hitler, sometimes in connection with other Axis dictators or with demonic figures or skeletal figures,” Dubin said. “Often times Hitler’s in front of a globe planting flags to show where the Nazis have conquered. There are really brutal images where he’s trampling on the broken bodies of Jewish families.
“There’s a disturbing element to some of them, but that’s very much the intent. [Szyk] was looking to disturb the American population. He was looking to say, ‘Look at what’s going on in Europe. It’s time for the United States to get involved and to try to prevent further evil.’”
Szyk was born in Poland in 1894. He moved to England in the 1920s and eventually to New York in the late 1930s. When in Europe, he witnessed the slow but calculated efforts to dehumanize Jews and strip away their rights, Dubin said.
“In all the information I’ve read, he doesn’t talk about personal experiences, but he talks about witnessing the rise of Nazism and the persecution of the Jewish people,” she said. He did lose family in the Holocaust, she said.
He was deeply impacted and felt strongly that people deserved to be free. In fact, much of his work focuses on the theme of the human struggle for freedom. There are drawings of the U.S. founding fathers, heroes of the Civil War, and soldiers supporting Israeli statehood, Dubin said.
Szyk visited Palestine, believed that it should become a homeland for Jews and advocated for Israeli statehood through his art.
Szyk was a self-taught artist. He started his career drawing medieval-style letters for the beginnings of documents. He drew Persian miniature paintings and illustrated versions of famous literary works like Andersen’s fairy tales and “The Arabian Nights.” He also drew a well-known version of the Haggadah, Dubin said.
As the Nazi regime was coming to power, “he really redirected his artistry and focused on political cartoons with the idea of unmasking the face of the Nazi enemy,” she said.
“It’s so important for people to realize what these images did,” she added. “They spoke to life and death.”
How to go
WHAT: “Arthur Szyk: The Art of Illumination,” an exhibit at Jewish Museum Milwaukee, 1360 N. Prospect Ave.
WHEN: Feb. 7 to May 15. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Fridays, and from noon to 4 p.m. Sundays. Open late until 7 p.m. the third Thursday of each month.
COST: Museum admission is $6 for adults, $5 for seniors, and $3 for students and children.