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Illuminating Szyk

After the Bible, the haggadah is the most widely read classic text in the Jewish tradition. Read during Passover, this religious text tells each new generation the story of Jewish liberation from slavery in Egypt.

The dedication leaf to Britain's King George VI from “The Haggadah,” by Arthur Szyk. 1940. Rare Book and Special Collections Division. Reproduction Information: Not available for reproduction. Self-Portrait. 1946. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Information: Reproduction Nos.: LC-USZC4-7398 (color film copy transparency), LC-USZ62-125460 (b&w film copy neg.); Call No.: Illus. in NC1670.S9 B8 Case X [P&P]

In the mid-1930s, Polish-Jewish artist Arthur Szyk created his haggadah in the stunning style of medieval illuminated manuscripts. It’s housed in the Library’s Rare Book and Special Collections Division. The haggadah was highlighted in a program marking the publication by Abrams of a new facsimile edition with translation and commentary by Rabbi Byron L. Sherwin and Irvin Ungar.

Arthur Szyk (1894–1951) was an acclaimed artist, activist, illuminator and political illustrator. During World War II, his anti-Nazi caricatures were widely published in the United States, most memorably as covers for news magazines such as Time and Collier’s. For almost a decade, Szyk labored to create an elaborately illustrated haggadah that attacked the Nazis, but he could not find anyone willing to take the risk to publish his version of the Passover story. Szyk retold the ancient narrative as if it were an event unfolding in his own time, imagining the Hebrews as Eastern European Jews in need of a modern Exodus to the Land of Israel. His masterpiece was finally published in England in 1940, stripped of its anti-Nazi iconography.

In 2000, the Library celebrated the acquisition of several important original works by Szyk with an article in the Library of Congress Information Bulletin and exhibition in the Swann Gallery titled "Arthur Szyk: Artist for Freedom." The display featured 17 representative works, from caricatures of Axis leaders to masterpieces of illumination such as the Szyk Haggadah.