Art’s tragic tug of war

Like Scheherazade, Bruno Schulz traded his art for life


This article is taken from the July 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Bruno Schulz was born in Drohobych, then part of Austrian Galicia, in 1892. Following the Treaty of Versailles, the town became Polish. It was annexed by Soviet Ukraine in 1939 before being occupied by the Nazis in 1941. Schulz frescoed the children’s room of an apartment commandeered by the SS officer Felix Landau, a sadistic, conscienceless brute. Landau’s surviving diary is the quintessence of Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil”. “I’m fine, the Jews take care of me. That’s why I send them to heaven” is Landau in lyrical mode.

Schulz’s art is filled with images of men performing obeisance before women. A fetishist with a castration complex, his masochistic aesthetic intersected with Landau’s sadistic psychosis. Like Scheherazade, Schulz traded his art (in this case, murals) for life.

Landau’s “protection” was insufficient to prevent another SS officer murdering him on “Black Thursday” in 1942, however, when around 200 Jews were indiscriminately butchered. A contemporary regarded Schulz’s death as suicide, the logical extension of a drive towards self-annihilation. Why else had he chosen to go out on a day when Jews were being randomly shot?

After the war, Schulz’s murals vanished along with much of his other work, including his only novel, The Messiah. (His literary reputation rests on two surviving volumes of modernist short stories. Isaac Bashevis Singer considered Schulz a greater writer than Kafka.)

Bruno Schulz: An Artist, a Murder, and the Hijacking of History, Benjamin Balint (W.W. Norton and Company, £23.99)

Ironically, it was two German documentary-makers, Benjamin Geissler and his father Christian, who rediscovered them in 2001, in the pantry of the Kaluzhnis, an elderly Russian couple who had lived in Landau’s former apartment for 44 years. The Polish consul in Lviv, Krzysztof Sawicki, had written his master’s thesis on Schulz. He told the Geisslers that, as Germans, they had “the least rights to this heritage”.

In his previous book, Kafka’s Last Trial, Benjamin Balint focused on the struggle between Israel and Germany over Kafka’s literary remains. Schulz’s story is a natural segue. Like Kafka’s, his work was to become a battleground, with Israel this time opposed by an amalgam of middle-European interests.

In a deft operation, agents of Yad Vashem, operating with the approval of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, arrived at the Kaluzhnis’ apartment armed with tools for the murals’ removal to Israel. Dismissing contemporary Poland as a wasteland for Jews, Yad Vashem claimed Israel was the rightful home of displaced Jewish culture. As Dora Katznelson, a Jewess from Drohobych, complained, “The implication from Yad Vashem is that I should leave … If this place isn’t good enough for objects made by the hands of Jews, it’s certainly not good enough for living Jews.”

Przemyslaw Grudzinski, a Polish Melina Mercouri, argued that Schulz’s works “grew in the soil of Drohobych. As such, they are an inseparable part of that cultural and historic environment. To transplant them into a different environment would give them a lifeless existence”. Grudzinski had a point. Schulz spent his life in Drohobych. The town and its people were the source of his creative inspiration. “I can’t live anywhere else, and here I will die,” he had prophesied.

Though a Jew, Schulz — like the poet Julian Tuwim — was a consummate writer of Polish, not Yiddish. Olga Tokarczuk, the Polish Nobel laureate, has said of Schulz, “I love him but I also hate him because there’s no way to compete with him. He’s the genius of the Polish language.” Schulz’s ties to Judaism were not strong. He spoke neither Yiddish nor Hebrew, and in his haste to marry a Catholic convert, he publicly announced his withdrawal from the Jewish community.

More crucially, the very labelling that has been employed to claim Schulz as Jewish or Polish would have been anathema to a man who wrote, “The word ‘human being’ in itself is a brilliant fiction, concealing with a beautiful and reassuring lie those abysses and worlds, those undischarged universes, that individuals are.”

In Schulz’s world, neither reality nor identity were fixed

To quote Philip Roth, “Schulz could barely identify himself with reality, let alone with the Jews.” In this he finds further common ground with Kafka, who wrote, “What have I in common with the Jews? I have hardly anything in common with myself.”

In Schulz’s world, neither reality nor identity were fixed. It was in constant, Heraclitean flux. “There are no dead, solid or bounded objects,” he wrote. “Everything diffuses beyond its borders, lasting only for a moment in a certain form, only to abandon it at the first opportunity.” For Schulz, writing was “a need to order the world”. He harnessed Polish to the needs of his remarkable visual imagination to penetrate the essence of human beings and inanimate objects.

“A drawing,” he said, “sets narrower limits by its material than prose does. That is why I feel I have expressed myself more fully in my writing.”

Balint’s thoroughly-researched book, its notes as engaging as its text, does full justice to his complex subject, placing Schulz in context whilst advocating sensitively for his place in the pantheon of the great creatives of the mid-20th century.

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