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Pesah Haggadah with illustrations by Otto Geismar

Seder Haggadah shel Pesah
arukha u-metzuyyeret al yede Otto Geismar
Berlin, Bendet bar Hayyim Kohen, Hotza'at Yalkut [1927]
4°, 46 p., illustrations, sg. Jc 4730, acquisition no. 113.336

Some of the most original Haggadah illustrations were made by Otto (Nathan) Geismar (b. October 30, 1873 – d. March 30, 1957), an art teacher at the Berlin Jewish Community school (later called ‘middle school’) for boys from 1904 till 1936. In 1930 the Jewish community granted Geismar a scholarship for a several-month-long stay in Palestine. In 1939 Geismar and his wife emigrated to Brazil and, after the Second World War, they both moved to England to be closer to their daughter.

Geismar’s first published work is closely related to his profession: his book Tier-Schnell-Zeichnen was published in Berlin in 1926 as a drawing manual. A year after his Haggadah, in 1928, Geismar’s biblical illustrations for children were published as Bilder Bibel by Rubin Mass, again in Berlin (and republished by the same in 1940 in Jerusalem; later in Israel the illustrations accompanied books of children’s poetry and rhymes by L. Avishai and by L. Kipnis). Still in Berlin, in the 1930s, Geismar illustrated and designed an edition of the Biblical Book of Esther in scroll form (as read on Purim), which was published by Dr. Herbert Löwenstein in Berlin and Tel-Aviv in 1936, as well as other texts.

The Haggadah with Geismar’s illustrations was published in Hebrew/Aramaic alone and in two separate bilingual editions with the original text and a translation into German and Dutch (Berlin, c.1928 and reeditions). Geismar’s early style has been characterized as ‘minimalist’ and ‘expressionistic’; his Haggadah illustrations are marked by bold typography, radically simplified lines, freedom of treatment of traditional themes (e.g., the illustration for the song Had Gadya) and humour (the wicked son as a mocker who thumbs his nose at the wise one; the Plagues of Egypt; a child overcome by the wine and festivities at the end of the seder banquet, etc.). Geismar’s optimistic ‘logo’ can be seen at the end of the book: a little bird chirping in a tree next to an open cage, with the Hebrew initials Aleph Gimel = Otto Geismar.

This copy of the book comes from the ‘Hebrew Library’, which – at the behest of and with material looted by the Nazis – was established in the Terezín ghetto during the Second World War by the Talmudkommando, a special work group under the supervision of Dr. Otto Muneles. It was originally owned by the Library of the Rabbinical Seminary in Berlin.

Many thanks to Dr. Hermann Simon and Michael Cramer for kindly sharing information about Otto Geismar’s life and work.

OS, March 2010

Title page

The Four Sons: the wise one, the wicked one, the simple one and the one who does not know how to ask.

The Ten Plagues of Egypt: water, frogs, lice or gnats, beasts or flies, disease, boils, hail, locusts, darkness and death of the first-born.

Illustration for the song Had Gadya (One Little Goat).

Catalogue card for the book made by the Talmudkommando in Terezín.

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