The Lost - Searching for Bruno Schulz

A self-portrait drawing by Bruno Schulz 


In 1941, when the Germans seized the Polish town of Drohobycz, Felix Landau, the notorious Gestapo officer in charge of the Jewish labor force, took an interest in Bruno Schulz, a local writer and artist who had submitted samples of his work to the Judenrat in the hope of gaining employment. Landau had an eye for design—after the war, he went on to start an interior-decorating firm in Bavaria—and he commissioned a number of works from Schulz, including a set of murals for his young son's bedroom depicting scenes from fairy tales. In return, Landau supplied Schulz with extra food and with protection that temporarily spared the artist's life. Ultimately, though, Landau's favors contributed to Schulz's death. In November, 1942, Landau killed a Jewish dentist favored by a rival Gestapo officer, Karl Günther. Soon after, on a day that has come to be known as Black Thursday, Günther saw his opportunity for revenge. That morning, a “wild action”—a spontaneous Gestapo shooting spree—broke out. Schulz was not at work but in the ghetto, perhaps getting food in preparation for an escape, which he had planned for that night. According to Schulz's friend Izydor Friedman, who witnessed his death, Günther caught up with Schulz at the corner of Czacki and Mickiewicz Streets and shot him twice in the head. “You killed my Jew—I killed yours,” he later boasted to Landau. 

After the war, Drohobycz became part of the Soviet Union, and bureaucratic difficulties made searching for the murals nearly impossible. In February, 2001, however, the German documentary filmmaker Benjamin Geissler went with a crew to Drohobycz, now part of Ukraine, to look for them. With the help of several residents of the town, they were able to gain access to Landau's house, which had been converted into apartments. There, in a tiny room being used as a pantry, they discovered the faint outlines of Schulz's paintings, hidden beneath a coat of whitewash. As they rubbed the walls, bright spots of color began to appear: Schulz's kings and queens and gnomes, released after their long period in hiding.

It is cause for celebration whenever a work of art thought to have been lost is found, but in the context of Schulz's life the discovery seemed like a miracle. At the time of his death, Schulz had published only two books of short stories, “Cinnamon Shops” (which appeared in English as “The Street of Crocodiles”) and “Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass,” and some illustrations and other graphic art works. These books have established him as one of the most original voices of European modernism. Schulz has been called a symbolist, an Expressionist, and a Surrealist, and compared to writers as different as Kafka and Proust. His work shares the former's fascination with metamorphosis and the latter's reverence for childhood, while embodying a radical sensuality that is unique. But it is hard to evaluate Schulz's work with confidence, because much of what he wrote, or may have written, has been lost. When he was forced to move to the Drohobycz ghetto, a year before his death, he divided up his papers, which are said to have included at least two unpublished manuscripts and hundreds of drawings, prints, and paintings, and entrusted them to a few non-Jewish friends for safekeeping. They have not been seen since.

Restoration work on the murals began immediately. The Ukrainian minister of culture announced that they would be put on the country's list of protected national monuments. Shortly afterward, three people representing Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, came to the apartment and removed Schulz's paintings. Fragments “were pried from the walls hurriedly and crudely,” leaving behind “mutilated remnants,” Jerzy Ficowski writes in his biography of Schulz, “Regions of the Great Heresy” (Norton; $25.95), which has been newly translated by Theodosia Robertson. All of a sudden, Bruno Schulz became front-page news. “THEY STOLE SCHULZ,” a headline in Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland's leading newspaper, announced. Dora Katznelson, a member of the Drohobycz Jewish community, wrote in a letter to the editor, “Not only Jews and Poles but Ukrainians as well, reading daily in the Ukrainian papers about the barbaric theft of Schulz's paintings, cry out in amazement: 'Yad Vashem? It can't be!' ” After several days of silence, a Yad Vashem spokesperson claimed that the removal “was conducted with the full coöperation of the Drohobycz municipality,” adding that, since Schulz was a Jew and had been killed by the Nazis, the museum could assert a “moral right” to the art work. Ficowski believes that such arguments “offend logic and common sense and invalidate the work of a generation of Polish intellectuals whose goal it has been to force a nation to come to grips with its past.” He adds, “Despite local and world protest, a work of art was allowed to disappear.”

The murals' disappearance, though, was strangely appropriate. Schulz's fiction is preoccupied with the attempt to locate things that have been lost, from an exquisite book, glimpsed in childhood and never seen again, to his own father, whose death is reënacted in many of the stories. Indeed, the idea of loss is a crucial aspect of Schulz's principal endeavor: to reconstruct the world of childhood, a world that the writer can approach only through memory and imagination. It is a phantasmagorical region in which mundane incidents—a nighttime walk, an encounter with a tramp—expand to take on a mystical dimension. “An event may be small and insignificant in its origin, and yet, when drawn close to one's eye, it may open in its center an infinite and radiant perspective because a higher order or being is trying to express itself in it and irradiates it violently,” Schulz wrote. “Thus we shall collect these allusions, these earthly approximations, these stations and stages on the paths of our life, like the fragments of a broken mirror.”

Schulz's biography, too, is a collection of fragments. Ficowski calls his book a “biographical portrait,” but “sketch” would be more apt, since much about the writer's life is simply not known. Schulz was born on July 12, 1892, in Drohobycz, which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. (The high school he attended was named after Franz Josef, but by the time he returned there as a teacher, in a newly independent Poland, it had been patriotically rechristened after the medieval Polish king Wladyslaw Jagiello.) Schulz grew up speaking both Polish and German. He started to draw as a very young child, long before his first attempts to write. “Before I could even speak,” he told a friend, “I covered any piece of paper and the edges of newspapers with scribbles that caught the attention of those around me.”

After graduating from high school, in 1910, Schulz went to Lwów, the provincial capital, to study architecture. His studies were interrupted by poor health—he suffered heart and lung ailments throughout his life—and with the outbreak of war in 1914 he had to abandon them. His father died the following year, and responsibility for the upkeep of the family, which included his widowed elder sister and her two children, fell in part to Schulz. In the first years after the war, he concentrated on his art, exhibiting his work in galleries in Lwów, Wilno, and Warsaw and assembling a collection of prints under the title “The Booke of Idolatry,” which he bound and sold. Whether from embarrassment or modesty, he told the students who assisted him that the prints were illustrations of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's “Venus in Furs.” This gives a fair idea of their content—highly erotic, with a recurrent motif of men collapsed in worship at the feet of a long-legged nude woman. (When Schulz's art was displayed in a spa town where he periodically went to take the cure, a senator condemned it as pornography and threatened to have the exhibit shut down.) But he was unable to earn a living through art, and his family responsibilities weighed heavily. In 1924, he began teaching drawing and “handicrafts”—essentially, shop—at the high school in Drohobycz.

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