Eric Godal had a target on his back.
Hated by the Nazis for his cartoons mocking Adolf Hitler, Godal was one of the first artists whom the Gestapo—the Nazi secret police—sought to arrest following Hitler’s rise to power in Germany in early 1933. But a twist of fate saved the artist from the Gestapo’s torture chambers: he had recently changed apartments, and the officers sent to apprehend him mistakenly went to his old address. Alerted by his former neighbors, Godal caught the first passing taxi and headed for the German-Czech border, 150 miles away.
The path that led to that fateful day began with his parents’ fierce opposition to teenage Eric becoming an artist. “My mother was convinced I would end up in the gutter,” he later wrote, “and on Sundays, my father took me to the Kaiser Friedrich Museum to remind me of Rembrandt’s poverty.” Sometimes a “family court” would convene, with Godal as the defendant and his Uncle Heinrich and Aunt Klara “hurling accusations at me” about the folly of an artistic career. They were unable to change Godal’s mind.
Ultimately Godal graduated from the prestigious Berlin-Charlottenberg School of Applied Art, and began to make a name for himself as the father of the daily political cartoon in modern Germany. In 1922, he proposed to the editor of 8 Uhr-Abendblatt, a leading German newspaper, the novel idea that he should contribute an editorial comment on the news each day in the form of a cartoon.
Godal’s successful artistic career in Germany was cruelly cut short, and his life forever changed, on that fateful day in 1933 when he fled to Czechoslovakia, leaving behind his elderly, widowed mother. He was joined in Prague, the Czech capital, by many other exiled German Jewish artists and writers. There they published an anti-fascist satirical magazine and staged exhibits of artwork that was forbidden by the Nazis.
In 1935, Godal relocated to New York City, where he drew illustrations and cartoons for Harper’s Magazine and Collier’s. In 1942, he succeeded Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel) as the chief political cartoonist for the New York City daily newspaper PM.
Godal anxiously followed the news from Europe, as the Nazis’ persecution of Jews intensified from severe discrimination in the 1930s to mass murder in the 1940s. At a time when some American newspapers downplayed news about the killing of the Jews, Godal used his art to draw attention to their plight. He was also active in the campaign to establish the State Israel.
When Godal drew cartoons for PM about the plight of Jewish refugees, it was personal. His mother was one of the passengers on the doomed refugee ship St. Louis, which was turned away by Cuba and the United States in 1939 and forced to return to Europe. She was later murdered by the Nazis.
America in the 1930s was a land of freedom, democracy, and opportunity. But it was also afflicted by widespread prejudice against Jews, African-Americans, and other minorities, and many neighborhoods, schools, and professions were racially segregated. Godal devoted much of his artistic energy to trying to make American society more tolerant.
For Godal, fighting antisemitism was part of a broader struggle against all religious and racial bigotry. Thus he participated in an influential anti-racism project undertaken in the 1940s by the American Jewish Committee, a leading Jewish rights organization. He and other artists created posters and cartoons opposing bigotry and promoting democracy and civil rights.
The idea of the campaign was to publish the cartoonists’ work so widely that “the cumulative effect of our materials” would “saturate the very air which people breathe, with a message of wholesome group relations.” The illustrations and cartoons by Godal and his colleagues were published in numerous daily newspapers and labor union magazines, and displayed in union halls around the country. Many of the images were also distributed to teachers for classroom use and were published in best-selling comic books. This unique, years-long anti-racism campaign contributed to the discrediting of antisemitism and other forms of bigotry in postwar America.
In 1954, Godal returned to Germany and established himself anew as an illustrator for newspapers, books, and magazines. He passed away in 1969, at the age of 71.
Curated by Rafael Medoff and Charlotte Bonelli, with translation assistance from Sonja P. Wentling.