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Black History and Arthur Szyk

Archive for February, 2016

Black History and Arthur Szyk

By: Ellie Gettinger, Education Director
As we near the end of Black History Month, I wanted to take a moment to explore our current exhibit, Arthur Szyk: The Art of Illumination, within the context of civil rights. Szyk was born in Poland in 1894 and he moved to the United States in 1940 to try and get the United States to join the war against the Nazis. He loved the US and in particular felt passionately about American civil liberties, our freedoms of religion and speech were the best possible ways for Jewish people to be treated well. In 1948, he became a citizen, but he never saw his adoration of American values as a rubber stamp for everything going on here. He was especially sensitive to the plight of African Americans in this country and used his art as a way of exploring the black experience. In 1942, when asked what he planned on doing after World War II ended, Szyk responded, “Only time will tell what my new mission will be, it may be complete Negro enfranchisement and social equality. Who knows? That is a subject dear to my heart.”

We highlight several of his cartoons that explore Civil Rights in the 1940’s, including a piece in which a

decorated soldier is bound by two Ku Klux Klan members. The heading says, “Oh Lord do not forgive them, for they know what they do” and the piece is captioned by saying that every lynching is a detriment to American democracy. He also embedded African Americans into his American pieces to highlight their centrality in US history.

Courtesy of the Arthur Szyk Society

Szyk died in 1951, before the central battles of the Civil Rights Movement started. I would have loved to see how he took on the forces at play in Montgomery, Little Rock, and Birmingham in the 1950’s. He was ahead of his time and perhaps his status as an outsider made it easier for him to see the racial divide. We feel privileged to celebrate this pioneer and can only hope that one day his vision of African American, White and Jewish is fully realized.

Courtesy of the Arthur Szyk Society

Courtesy of the Arthur Szyk Society

Courtesy of the Arthur Szyk Society

Courtesy of the Arthur Szyk Society

Arthur Szyk’s Work Swayed World War II Opinion

By: Patti Sherman-Cisler,
Executive Director, Jewish Museum Milwaukee

This editorial appeared in the February 2016 edition of the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle.

Outside Banner

The Jewish Museum Milwaukee will present the work of mid-20th century artist and activist Arthur Szyk, (pronounced “Shik”), through the originally curated exhibit, Arthur Szyk: The Art of Illumination, which will be on display from February 7 to May 15. Szyk’s work has enjoyed a renaissance and has been displayed at museums throughout the United States and Poland. The exhibit’s four thematic pillars are Art as Propaganda, Democracy/Freedom, Civil Rights, and Zionism/the State of Israel. The diverse accompanying programs will allow the public in-depth opportunities to engage in these timeless and timely ideas.

Szyk, a Polish Jew who immigrated to the United States in 1940, personally experienced the Nazi persecution against the Jewish people. In response to world events, Syzk created meticulous and fiercely morale caricatures of the WWII Axis powers in his political cartoons, depicting them as hate-filled mad men. His graphic images appeared on the covers of the major magazines including Life, Colliers and Time. His work had a common theme according to Irvin Ungar, the foremost scholar and co-curator of the exhibit, “Freedom, not tyranny; justice, not oppression – which, when combined with the uniqueness of his style, is why Szyk became one of the leading political cartoonists of the first half of the 20th century.”

His poignant, profound and often provocative images were instrumental in swaying public opinion toward entering World War II. Indeed Franklin D. Roosevelt dubbed him his “soldier in art”. Eleanor Roosevelt in describing Szyk’s work said “This is a personal war of Szyk against Hitler, and I do not think that Mr. Szyk will lose this war!”

The banner on the front of the Jewish Museum Milwaukee depicts the Collier’s cover from January 1942 with the noted Szyk work Madness. In this anti-Axis drawing, Hitler, Goring, Goebbels and Himmler are shown plotting world domination, while the Minister of Propaganda hands out Nazi flags. The words “Don’t Believe a Word of It” are printed at the bottom and refer to the Nazi propaganda machine, which was bent on convincing Americans that the Nazis were not intent on global domination. Szyk fought this claim through his searing imagery, pushing the American public to think critically.

These messages of understanding the source and being accurately informed resonate today. Current sweeping rhetoric about Muslims, Syrians, and Hispanics are eerily reminiscent of the propaganda against Jews in Szyk’s time. As we ponder the words “never again” Szyk’s work provides a jumping off point for reflecting on important events and for discussing essential topics such as the use of propaganda both historically and today, how images sway people’s ideas, and how art can be used as a vehicle for social justice. JMM will offer in-depth programs to engage these ideas and we hope the community will join us in these discussions.

The not-so-secret history of the Democratic Debate Location

When the Democratic candidates for president face-off tomorrow in the Helen Bader Concert Hall in the Helene Zelazo Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, we are fairly certain that this is the first time a debate will take place in a former synagogue. (If anyone can counter this, we are excited to have that information!) Until the end of the 20th Century, this building held Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun, the oldest synagogue in Milwaukee. The congregation was founded in 1856 and saw several mergers and splits in the following century.

This building was constructed in 1922 and was a central part of Jewish Interior 1926Milwaukee for decades. The interior was noted for its fourteen stained glass windows that were designed by the longstanding rabbi of the congregation, Joseph L. Baron. He incorporated Jewish values and ideals into these windows and that is the single remnant that remains within the debate space of its proud synagogue tradition. The themes of the windows are (try and keep an eye out for them on the PBS telecast tomorrow!):

  1. Blessing
  2. Commandment
  3. Worship, service
  4. Praise, psalm
  5. Loving kindness
  6. Law, learning
  7. Light
  8. Wisdom
  9. Sanctification
  10. Faith
  11. Righteousness
  12. Liberty
  13. Building
  14. Peace-486

Baron explained the twelfth window in the following terms:

The greatest adventure of the modern age is the building of the New World. This is brought out in the twelfth window which has for its pictured emblem the familiar Liberty Bell, suggesting the time when the ancient proclamation of Leviticus resounded from one end of the earth to the other. It is of particular significance to us, American Jews, mindful as we are of the great moral and material contributions which the Jew has brought to America from the days of its earliest pioneers to the present, and the bountiful blessings which America has in turn bestowed upon the Jew. Beneath the emblem is the word which links the Hebrew Scriptures with the spirit of America, deror, “liberty.”

We hope the candidates recognize the importance of minority contributions to this country and understand the unique history of the location in which they are debating.

1954 Confirmation Class.Temple Emanu-El Bne Jeshurun Emanu El B'ne Jeshurun 2419 E. Kenwood Blvd. exterior