Treasure Trove: How a Polish-Jewish artist told Canadians about the horrors of Nazi Germany and produced beautiful illustrations

Arthur Szyk (1894-1951) was a Polish-Jewish artist whose work reflected the historic times he lived: the two world wars, the rise of totalitarianism in Europe and the birth of the State of Israel. In 1940, with the support of the British government and the Polish government-in-exile, he visited Canada to popularize the struggle against Nazism.  

Szyk’s depiction of the brutality of the Germans so inflamed Hitler that Halifax’s Morning Herald reported about the alleged bounty put on his head. Szyk lived in Ottawa from July to October 1940 before moving to New York.

In 1945, Kasimir Bileski, a Winnipeg stamp dealer, commissioned Szyk to create a series of illustrations for the frontispiece or title page of a series of stamp albums. The illustrations for nine countries (which are together referred to as the Visual History of Nations) were completed before Szyk’s sudden death at the age of 57.  

One of the nine countries was Canada (separately he also did an illustration of the history of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland) which is presented here in celebration of Canada Day.

The work contains the coat of arms of Canada and of the nine provinces at the time, Generals Wolfe and Montcalm who both died on the Plains of Abraham battlefield in 1759, a North-West Mounted Police officer, a First Nations person and other iconic Canadian symbols.

Szyk lived when there were immense challenges to democracy and to the Jewish people, challenges we are still experiencing.  He used his palette, pens and brushes to fight for the things he cared about. Each of us should do the same and use our own tools to help fix the world. It needs the help.

Happy Canada Day.