Locomotive is a gorgeous children’s book, with mod illustrations and luscious color. An 80-year-old Polish children’s classic, it was reissued by the indie British publisher Thames & Hudson a few months ago. Rendered in rollicking yet sophisticated rhyme—Here is the engine, black, stupendous,/Dripping with oil, its heat tremendous./Eager it waits; and its body glows,/While the bursts of steam that it pants and blows,/Seem proud, impatient.—it is a delight.
The author, Julian Tuwim (from the Hebrew Tovim), survived the Holocaust by fleeing to Brazil. The illustrators, Jan Le Witt (born Abraham Lewitt) and George Him (born Jerzy Himmelfarb), designing under the joint moniker Lewitt-Him, managed to escape to London. Tuwim—who returned to Poland after the war—is today considered one of Poland’s most beloved poets but is virtually unknown outside the country. Lewitt-Him, on the other hand, embraced their new identities as Englishmen. By the time Locomotive came out in Poland in 1938, they’d been in the U.K. for a year, designing high-style propaganda posters, murals, booklets, and stamps for the U.K.’s Ministry of Information, Ministry of Food, and postal service. If you’re in London, you can see their work in the just-opened British Postal Museum, as well as in the National Archives and the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Le Witt (1907-1991) and Him (1900-1981) met in a Warsaw café in 1933. When they arrived in London, they joined a lively émigré community of artistic Jews that included Marcel Breuer and László Moholy-Nagy, the great Hungarian designer who eventually moved to Chicago to establish the New Bauhaus.
Juliet Kinchin, curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art, said in an interview, “Lewitt-Him’s work is so gently humorous, and has such a fresh and graphically striking style, people instantly responded to it. The color palette is wonderful—very modern—and there’s such a strong narrative element in their posters. You can see how that kind of imagery translates very well to children’s book illustration and poster design.”
Kinchin used Lewitt-Him’s work in two shows she curated: Century of the Child: Growing by Design, 1900 to 2000 and Counter Space: Design and the Modern Kitchen. She’s particularly fond of their propaganda posters about not overcooking vegetables and rearing rabbits as a means of off-ration food, as well as their famous Vegetabull poster depicting a bovine made of carrots, potatoes, and turnips. “A vegetable dish made with dried eggs or household milk is as good as a joint,” the poster assures the wartime consumer, who would not be blamed for doubting this very much.
By 1942, Lewitt-Him were illustrating a lot of children’s books (including some by Le Witt’s wife, Alina, who has—surprise, surprise—seemingly been erased from history) in addition to their graphic design work. Lewitt-Him were some of the earliest British illustrators to incorporate modernist touches like abstraction, Cubism, and snippets of surrealism into picture-book art for children.
In addition, they exhibited their graphic work in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in 1948, made murals for the Festival of Britain in 1951, and had shows in New York and Philadelphia in 1953. In 1954 they ended their partnership; Le Witt wanted to focus on fine art and Him on advertising and illustration. For 15 years in the 1950s and ’60s, Him was the vision behind the fictional English county of Schweppshire, which had a great affinity for effervescent Schweppes beverages.
Him also did extensive work for Jewish causes. As a young man in Poland, in 1933, he illustrated a spiffy Hebrew primer; later he designed the first major exhibit about the Warsaw Ghetto. He visited Israel in 1952 (he documented his visit in lovely personal sketches) and art directed the first touring exhibit about the excavation of Masada. He designed the Israel Pavilion at the Brussels and Montreal Expos, and became the first design consultant and creator of brand identity for El Al airlines. (You can see some of his work for El Al here.)
Unfortunately for those of us who love snazzy picture-book illustration, the republished Locomotive—from publisher Thames & Hudson, whose founder was also an escapee from Nazism, fleeing Austria for London in 1938—is the only Lewitt-Him children’s book in print in the U.S. The U.K. is fortunate to have The Football’s Revolt, about a purported football (I say it’s a soccer ball and I say the hell with it) that has had enough of being kicked and refuses to return to earth; it was republished by the V&A in 2015. The rest of the midcentury graphics-relishing community must content itself with design blogs (Chris Mullen’s Visual Telling of Stories is a delicious option; Bob Shea and Lane Smith’s Curious Pages: Recommended Inappropriate Books for Kids is a sneakily snarky one) and/or hopeful jaunts to used bookstores.
I was lucky enough to find a copy of 1943’s Blue Peter (words by Alina Le Witt, design by Lewitt-Him) on eBay. It’s the story of a blue dog born to a white mother. Mother hopes “the master” won’t mind Peter being blue, because he’s “such an amusing little chap,” but the master does mind, very much. “He said he had never seen such an undoggish colour, which indeed was true,” and he kicks Peter out of the house. Homeless, Peter wanders through the city and winds up in a pound. Other dogs are mean to him until he escapes (he stops eating until he can squeeze through the bars) and winds up roaming the seas with a kind sailor until the sailor vanishes. Finally, Peter finds Blue Dogs Island. “Now you can well imagine Peter’s amazement! Till then he had believed himself the only blue dog in the world, and suddenly he discovered a whole island of blue dogs!” But the blue dogs are sad because the island has accidentally blown north and it’s cold. Peter tells them briskly, “You shouldn’t cry! Look at me: I’ve been kicked out of my house, I went through a terrible storm, and I lost my dear Sailor Jeff! Still I don’t give in and I wouldn’t cry! There is always a way out, no matter how serious things are.” Then he saves the day, makes the island more temperate, and is reunited with Sailor Jeff.
Metaphor, anyone? Kimberly Reynolds, professor of children’s literature at Newcastle University, notes that the story must have felt awfully resonant to “a Jew who witnessed the Russian Revolution, was living through the persecutions and atrocities of the Holocaust at the time of publication, and was a supporter of the project to create a Jewish state.” Peter, the wandering Jew in this parable, saves himself as well as his people. Sailor Jeff means well but disappears during the clutch.
Refugee stories often have narrative elements in common. Blue Peter feels a lot like another midcentury British children’s book Kinchin mentioned loving: The Table That Ran Away to the Woods, by yet another pair of Polish-Jewish wartime émigrés to London, Franciszka and Stefan Themerson. Published first in a Polish newspaper in 1940 and then as a collage-art book in 1963 in the U.K., The Table That Ran Away to the Woods is about a wooden writing desk that escapes into the countryside. Like Le Witt and Him, the Themersons were refugees in London. And “like Pippi Longstocking and the Moomins, The Table That Ran Away to the Woods deals with terrible issues of forced migration,” curator Kinchin told me. “These books help children process some of that reality.” How many other books, like Blue Peter, were published during WWII and are now lost—and how resonant might they be for today’s young readers?
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Marjorie Ingall is the author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.