I was recently watching "When Do We Eat?" an otherwise forgettable movie about a disastrous Passover family reunion, when the setting of the seder table suddenly evoked some haunting memories.
Sure enough, the credits noted that the scenes were based on illustrations from the late Arthur Szyk's famous Passover haggadah. Szyk (pronounced Schick) was a Polish Jew, whose mordant drawings of Hitler and his henchmen during the Nazi era were equaled in ferocity and wit only by David Low, the great British cartoonist. But while Low was a skillful draftsman, Szyk was a true artist of illuminated miniatures, rooted in his studies of medieval manuscripts.
His works and life are now open to a new generation through the documentary, "Arthur Szyk," screening May 4 as part of the Polish Film Festival Los Angeles.
Szyk illustrated the visual histories of many countries, but, he once said, he truly loved only three -- Poland, Israel and the United States. In each instance, he expressed his affection through his art: "The Statute of Kalisz," commemorating the Charter of Jewish Liberties in 13th century Poland for his native country; the Declaration of Independence for Israel; and a series on the Revolutionary War for the United States, which President Franklin D. Roosevelt hung in the White House.
His greatest impact on America (and me) was during World War II, when his devastating illustrations -- one hesitates to call them cartoons -- of the Axis leaders graced the covers of Time and many other American magazines. His works even enlivened U.S. Army barracks next to pinups of Betty Grable.
I was moved to write my very first fan letter to the artist, along with an idea, now forgotten, for a future cartoon. Since Szyk never responded, our relationship remained rather one-sided.
Szyk was born in Lodz in 1894, and the precocious lad started drawing portraits of guests in his parents' home at age 4. As a 16-year-old, he moved to Paris, the world's art capital, and in 1914 he went to Palestine and Constantinople.
Deported from Turkey, Szyk was drafted into the czar's army but deserted when the Russian army abandoned his native Lodz. As an ardent Polish patriot, he fought with the legendary Marshall Jozef Pilsudski against the Soviets in 1920.
While growing as an artist in the 1920s and 1930s, Szyk enjoyed life in "warm-hearted" Lodz and fondly remembered all-night parties with famous musicians and actors in his parents' home, accompanied by his singing mother and piano-playing father.
With the rise of Nazism in neighboring Germany, he became one of the first anti-Hitler cartoonists, explaining that "the painter of books wants to reply to the wall painter." At the outbreak of World War II, Szyk fled to England and in 1940 moved to the United States. After the war, he applied his talents in support of Israel's struggle for independence, in the process creating a new image of the muscular Jewish worker and soldier.
Throughout his life, until his death at 57 in 1951, Szyk always returned to his Jewish themes, from argumentative shtetl figures and paintings of Jewish craftsmen and merchants to Jewish refugees and fighters.
"Arthur Szyk" by director and cinematographer Piotr Zarebski is among the 24 feature films, seven documentaries and four short films to be shown at the Polish Film Festival, April 27-May 7.
Most of the works are by Polish filmmakers, but an exception is "Betrayal: The Battle for Warsaw," by Andrew Rothstein, a product of Venice High School, Santa Monica City College and UCLA.
Rothstein, whose grandparents on both sides spoke both Polish and Yiddish, documents the 1944 uprising by the Polish underground, aided by the few survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto revolt of the preceding year. During bloody house-to-house battles that lasted 63 days, the Nazis killed 250,000 Polish civilians and soldiers.
In one of the bitterest episodes in Poland's tragic history, Soviet armies, encamped within sight of Warsaw, stayed put until the slaughter was completed and then moved on to "liberate" the shattered city. Polish historians have never forgotten the betrayal nor the feeble role played by Britain and the United States during the uprising.
The local Polish Film Festival was created seven years ago by Polish-born producer Vladek Juszkiewicz.
"I felt that this was the best way to connect people of Polish descent, especially the young ones, with their old roots," he said.
Juszkiewicz estimates that there are some 150,000 Polish Americans, both Catholic and Jewish, in Los Angeles. In addition, he said, "I understand that the ancestors of 80 percent of American Jews came here from Poland."
He includes at least one or two films of special Jewish interest in his annual program, and all movies have English subtitles.
"Arthur Szyk" will screen at 5 p.m. on May 4 at Laemmle's Sunset 5 Theatre, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. "Betrayal" will be shown at 7 p.m. the same day at the same venue. For information, call (818) 982-8827, or visit www.polishfilmLA.org.
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