Donald Weber reviews a new book about author and artist Bruno Schulz.
In Bruno Schulz: An Artist, A Murder, and the Highjacking of History Benjamin Balint re-visits issues he pursued in Kafka’s Last Trial, awarded the Sami Rohr Prize for 2020 by the Jewish Book Council. In each case, Balint’s subject is “the political implications of who controls cultural heritage”. For Balint, the story of the Polish Jewish author and artist Bruno Schulz (1892-1942) raises questions regarding the fate of art created by Jews in Eastern Europe during the Holocaust. In asking “Who Owns Bruno Schulz?” Balint explores the arguments and reactions–raw and still unresolved–concerning the meaning and, above all, the location of Holocaust memory in our own time.
In his time Schulz’s profoundly influential fiction focused on fantastic stories of childhood; his drawings depicted men, recognizable as iterations of Schulz himself, prostrated at the feet of indifferent, dominating women. In Balint’s estimate, Schulz was a “gifted explorer of his own inner life”. Indeed, “He mapped the anxious perplexities of his time”.
Schulz was spiritually and geographically bound to his native Drohobycz, in Eastern Galicia, a multicultural city saturated with Yiddish-speaking Jews (Balint counts 20 synagogues in the 1930s). Schulz himself, however, came from an acculturated Polish Jewish family and spoke and wrote only in Polish. In a 1978 review of an English translation of Schulz’s 1937 story collection, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, I. B. Singer notes that Schulz “was Jewish and surrounded by Jews, but the word ‘Jew’ is almost never mentioned.” For Singer, Schulz was “a genius completely submerged in his private gloom.”
As for the matter of Jewish identity, Schulz claimed to be unaffiliated, “without denomination”. Instead, for Schulz “the borderland was the center”, the source of his creative life, his alternate homeland. Still, Schulz’s distinctive Jewish sensibility, along with his fate as a victim of the Nazis, who occupied Drohobycz beginning in June 1941–Balint’s focus in the last half of the book–has inspired numerous Jewish writers, among them Philip Roth, David Grossman, Cynthia Ozick, Nicole Krauss, and Jonathan Safran Foer. Schulz’s figural afterlife, shaped by the trauma and grief of modern Jewish history, flows through his biography.
The disturbing core of Balint’s Bruno Schulz recounts, in granular detail, Schulz’s murder, in cold-blooded revenge, on the streets of the Jewish ghetto of Drohobycz, on November 19, 1942, a day of planned mass killing remembered as “Black Thursday.”
Because of his reputation as an artist, Schulz had been designated a “necessary Jew” by Felix Landau, the head of the Gestapo overseeing Drohobycz; Landau, Balint notes, was also “a sadist beyond Schulz’s imaginings”. It was “a relationship of protection and predation”. Landau forced Schulz to create pictures on the walls of his children’s nursery in exchange for his “protection.” Schulz’s art was, we might say, “executed” under duress, under the anxiety and terror of death at any moment.
As the story is told, Landau, who in his diary boasted about shooting Jews for sport from the balcony of his villa, killed a local Jewish dentist named Adolf Löw on a whim. Löw had been designated a “necessary Jew” by Landau’s fellow Nazi, Karl Günther. In revenge for Landau’s action, Günther murdered Schulz. “’You killed my Jew,’” Günther is reported to have announced to Landau, “In a stagey voice”, “’I killed yours.’” About Schulz’s death Balint grimly reflects, “neither Schulz’s artistic achievements nor his formal renunciation. . . of his belonging to the Jewish community carried any weight for his murderer. . . The end of Schulz’s life was determined by people who behaved like predatory beasts”.
In a final section, designated “Afterimages,” Balint turns to the debate over Schulz that was ignited, in the winter and spring of 2001, during the filming of Bernard Geissler’s documentary, Finding Pictures (2002), about the search for Schulz’s murals sixty years later. In an astonishing, unanticipated sequence, the film captures the moment of revelation itself: layers and decades of paint are carefully scraped away from the walls of the pantry in the present-day villa Landau, as Schulz’s murals, based on Grimm’s fairy tales, begin to emerge. At this charged moment we are witness to Holocaust memory rupturing into the present.
In May 2001, after representatives of Yad Vashem secretly negotiated with the owner of the villa and, perhaps, bribed Ukrainian officials (after the War Schulz’s Drohobycz became part of the Ukrainian region of the Soviet Union; in 1991, with Ukrainian independence, it officially became part of Ukraine), Schulz’s murals were hurriedly removed and dispatched to Israel, to be displayed at Yad Vashem, Israel’s state museum dedicated to Holocaust history and memory. The “highjacking of history” of Balint’s title refers to the controversy between Ukrainian officials, cultural figures, and municipal leaders in Drohobycz who wanted the murals to remain in situ.
Balint reports this fascinating sequence of events in rich detail, incorporating interviews with Geissler, who remains troubled by (in his view) the unjust appropriation of Schulz’s art. For Balint, the controversy over Schulz’s murals unearthed layers of denial buried in post-War Poland, inviting unwelcome memories, still under repression, to break through.
In a moving Epilogue Balint reflects on the meaning of the controversy over who owns Schulz’s murals–ultimately a debate over the location of Jewish memory and the question of its legitimate homeland. Balint makes a pilgrimage to Drohobycz himself, where most of the old synagogues, he learns, have been converted–to a bakery, or to apartments; others have either been gutted, or firebombed. “How does Schulz’s orphaned art,” he asks, “figure in the politics of erasure?” A poignant, cosmic question, without self-evident, let alone easy answers.
In the end, Balint does not appear to accept the logic of Yad Vashem, that it has the “moral right to [Schulz’s] remnants”, or the argument that “even the most acculturated European Jew belongs to Israel”. Nor does Balint trust that Schulz’s murals could survive the physical neglect, latent antisemitism, or the need to repress Holocaust memory that marks present-day Drohobycz. [The current war in Ukraine, he observes, makes the case for the murals’ removal to the security of Israel even stronger.] The murals loom in memory as a rebuke, recalling Landau’s casual murder sprees, the Nazi genocide in Drohobycz, and the horrific fate of Polish-Ukrainian Jewry in general.
Was the case of Schulz’s murals a rescue or a theft? A highjacking or a necessary, moral “Aliyah”? Balint concludes that, ultimately, Schulz “eludes his exegetes”. In the end, the story of Bruno Schulz’s life, death, and controversial afterlife requires our own interpretation. In light of Balint’s evocative account, the case of Bruno Schulz appears irresolvable. Schulz will continue to loom in Jewish memory as a haunted, indeed a haunting figure.
Bruno Schulz: An Artist, A Murder, and the Highjacking of History is published by WW Norton, priced £23.99.