The Arty Semite

Getting to Know Cartoonist Georges Wolinski

By Benjamin Ivry

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The French Jewish cartoonist Georges Wolinski has long entertained his compatriots with drawings spoofing romance and sexuality, as well as making serious points about politics and society. In collections such as “Everything is Politics” (Tout est politique) from Les editions Temps actuels and “The Right-Wing Plan” (Le Programme de la droite) Wolinski offers merciless caricatures of the French far-right wing politician Jean-Marie Le Pen.

A memoir by his wife Maryse Wolinski out earlier this year from Les éditions du Seuil mulls over how Yiddishkeit has inspired her husband’s achievements. Entitled “George, If You Only Knew,” (Georges, si tu savais), her account traces how Wolinski was born in Tunis to Lola Bembaron, a Tunisian Jew, and Siegfried Wolinski, a Polish Jew. The latter, fleeing Europe’s pogroms, settled in Tunisia to open a wrought iron manufacturing business. In 1936 Siegfried Wolinski would be murdered by a disgruntled ex-employee, and although Georges was only a toddler at the time, he tells his wife today: “The ghost of my father has haunted me all my life.”

The younger Wolinski later sought solace in the Tunis pastry shop, Chez les nègres, owned by his maternal grandfather; he also ogled the city’s less family-friendly prostitutes’ quarter Sid Abdel Aguèche. In 1946, his surviving family moved to France, where Wolinski graduated from art school. Stationed during his French military service in Reggane, Algeria, a remote town in the Sahara Desert, Wolinski there admired poster art by the French artist of Polish Jewish origin Roland Topor, advertising a satirical magazine, “Hara-Kiri.”

Wolinski would soon become a friend and colleague of Topor in the pages of “Hara-Kiri” and subsequent publications. He also never abandoned his Jewish identity, providing knowing drawings for the French version of Dan Greenburg’s 1965 international bestseller, “How to be a Jewish Mother: a very lovely training manual.” Whatever the French-language version, “Comment devenir une mère juive en dix leçons,from Les éditions Seghers may have lost in translation, it gained immeasurably by the witty visual inspirations of Wolinski.

More recently, Wolinski collaborated on a 2007 book with the Algerian-born French attorney Pierre-Philippe Barkats, “Thanks, Hanukkah Harry” in which the title hero valiantly faces down climate change and other ecological crises. Earlier this year, The University of Melbourne hosted a tribute exhibit devoted to his early inspiration, Topor, and Wolinski himself has also become something of a modern-day classic.

Watch Wolinski in March describing his caricatures of President François Mitterrand.


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