The Daily Heller: A Message to Ukraine From the Past Today

Posted inThe Daily Heller

Jews the world over celebrate Passover tonight, when the story of Exodus is retold in traditional and modern yet always ritualistic ways. One modern tradition is when Irvin Unger, the leading expert on the illustrator Arthur Syzk, reads portions of the Haggadah, beautifully illustrated by Syzk and reprinted in deluxe and mass editions by Unger. In his preamble to the 2022 Passover celebration, Unger writes:

“As we are sickened by the degradation, oppression and murder of Ukrainian civilians at the hand of a hardened modern pharaoh and witness a new exodus of those seeking refuge this Passover season, we are commanded to enforce the directive of the Haggadah narrative ‘Let all who are hungry, come and eat’ by feeding the needs of our fellow human beings and being sensitive to their plight. Arthur Szyk’s Haggadah art of the 1930s speaks directly to the Jews of Lwów (now Lviv, Ukraine, a.k.a. Lemberg), providing a measure of affection and inspiration, awareness and vigilance, also in a time of need.”

I am moved by Unger’s words and Szyk‘s art. And as we safely witness from afar the unspeakable, unimaginable daily horrors occurring in the Ukraine, Szyk’s drawings have more resonance than when they were made in 1935, just a few years before Europeans and European Jews rose to the heavens in plumes of smoke.

Unger continues:

“Look at the top center of the above image, where you will see the emblem/coat of arms of the Polish city of Lwów (now Lviv, Ukraine). Additionally, on the fluttering ribbon, Szyk inscribed the words in Latin, Semper Fidelis, meaning ‘Always Faithful.’”  

“Why did Szyk include this coat of arms in his Haggadah, both to the Jews of Lwów and its local government at a time when Hitler had come to power in neighboring Germany? Answer: Jews from that city had formed a cooperative to support the artist’s work, and he reciprocated with recognition and appreciation.”

“From this consortium, following a 1936 visit by Szyk to the Lwów home of Herman Horowitz, in which he showed the Haggadah drawings to a group of his fellow citizens, the Beaconsfield Press in London was established for the sole purpose of publishing The Haggadah. These Lwów Jews would enable the Lodzer Jew, Arthur Szyk, to call out through his visual Haggadah commentary for heroism in the face of evil in their own day.”

“In honor of one of the easternmost cities in Poland (now in the western city of Ukraine), Szyk even considered calling his masterwork The Lemberger Haggadah in honor of that city (Lemberg, a.k.a. Lviv), as witnessed in an unpublished dedication page” (above).

The city has altered its name from Lviv to Lemberg to Lwow and back to Lviv, but as Unger writes, “Arthur Szyk’s unwavering loyalty and commitment to pursue freedom and justice wherever and whatever the place-name [enables] us through the spirit of his Haggadah to inspire and uplift and support our brothers and sisters in every age.”