Freedom Song

Arthur Szyk's Haggadah is both a spiritual text and a political broadside.

As the written narrative of the Passover story, read aloud during seders for over a thousand years, the Haggadah is a holy book. But as it recounts slavery in Egypt and then liberation and exodus, it’s also a political book, a poetic and passionate plaint against social injustice, exile, and bigotry.

“It’s based on a religious event, yet it’s dealing with the issues of the world,” said Irvin Ungar, who was a pulpit rabbi for thirteen years before becoming a world-renowned expert on Polish artist Arthur Szyk, a master miniaturist and illuminator whose greatest work is a lushly vivid Haggadah that was first published in 1940. Ungar’s Burlingame-based company, Historicana, has produced a facsimile edition, whose history and use he will discuss at UC Berkeley’s Doe Library on Monday, March 1.

Well-known in his lifetime but largely forgotten by 1975, when Ungar first happened upon the vintage Haggadah in a New York secondhand bookstore, Szyk — “pronounced ‘schick,’ like the razor” — studied at Paris’ prestigious Académie Julien and Krakow’s Academy of the Arts. A guerrilla during World War I and propaganda-poster artist during the Polish-Soviet War, he emigrated in 1940 to the United States, where — calling himself a “soldier of art” — Szyk mounted a fierce campaign against fascism. Used in government-issued fliers and posters, his caricatures of Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito were constantly in the public eye. Along with this work came many books, both secular and spiritual, including the Haggadah and an illuminated version of the Statute of Kalisz, which Ungar calls a medieval “magna carta” for Eastern European Jews, in 1927.

“He had a broad knowledge of traditional Judaism,” said Ungar, who has curated museum exhibitions of Szyk’s work around the world. “He was not a very observant Jew, yet inside he was deeply spiritual, deeply religious.”

Using Hebrew text and gem-bright tones, Szyk depicted the Israelites in his Haggadah as 20th-century Eastern European Jews wearing patched trousers and vests, their Egyptian oppressors as blonde, blue-eyed Nazis. His original drawings included swastika insignias on the latter’s clothing, but under pressure from publishers he ultimately removed them.

“When he sat down to start this book, it was 1934. Hitler had been in power for a year. Szyk saw Hitler as the new Pharaoh, the Nazis as the new Egyptians,” Ungar said. “The story of the Exodus in Egypt” — which is the story the Haggadah tells — “was for him the story of what was happening in his own day.”

“There’s one page in the Haggadah that I especially love. It’s a page about the ‘bread of affliction,’ and it shows two Israelites in chains. They’re afflicted; they’re in servitude, working for the ancient Egyptians. The same page also shows two men who are not chained, who are going off to the land of Israel to work for themselves. This is Szyk’s way of telling us that he’s an advocate for freedom. When I look at this page, it just lights me up.” 7 p.m., free.


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