Searching for Bruno Schulz
The New Yorker
(published in The Borderline Foundation)
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.
At about this time, Schulz began to write in earnest. While teaching, he would tell stories to get his rowdy students to calm down and pay attention. One former student recalled "those tales in which a pencil, an inconspicuous water jug, or a tile stove had their own histories and lived in a manner close to us and so much like human beings." As Schulz recounted the tales, he illustrated them "with a few strokes of chalk on the blackboard." He seems always to have done his best work before an audience, a tendency that made him an extraordinary correspondent. In a series of letters to the poet Debora Vogel, he composed elaborate postscripts-long, descriptive passages based on episodes from his childhood. Vogel encouraged Schulz to turn his postscripts into a book, which eventually came to the attention of the novelist Zofia Nalkowska, an important figure in the Warsaw literary scene. After reading Schulz's manuscript, she proclaimed him "the most sensational discovery in our literature!" and promised to take his book to the publisher herself. "Cinnamon Shops" was published in 1934; "Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass" followed, three years later.
"The books we read in childhood don't exist anymore; they sailed off with the wind, leaving bare skeletons behind," Schulz wrote in a 1936 letter. "Whoever still has in him the memory and marrow of childhood should rewrite these books as he experienced them." This was the foundation of his creative project, and he realized it most vividly in a story called simply "The Book," which opens his second collection and may originally have been part of a novel, now lost. The story's narrator recalls a volume whose pages, when rubbed, reveal fragments of kaleidoscopic color:
Sometimes my father would wander off and leave me alone with The Book; the wind would rustle through its pages and the pictures would rise. And as the windswept pages were turned, merging the colors and shapes, a shiver ran through the columns of text, freeing from among the letters flocks of swallows and larks. Page after page floated in the air and gently saturated the landscape with brightness. At other times, The Book lay still and the wind opened it softly like a huge cabbage rose; the petals, one by one, eyelid under eyelid, all blind, velvety, and dreamy, slowly disclosed a blue pupil, a colored peacock's heart, or a chattering nest of hummingbirds.
When, years later, the boy asks his father what happened to The Book, he is told that it is "a myth in which we believe when we are young, but which we cease to take seriously as we get older." One day, he finds some tattered pages that he believes were part of the treasured volume. Alas, all the text has been destroyed; only old advertisements remain. Yet even these rise "over the sphere of daily affairs into the region of pure poetry": an ad for canaries carries the sound of chirping birds, a procession of cripples yields to distant landscapes beyond. No image ever appears twice; the writing "unfolds while being read, its boundaries open to all currents and fluctuations." This book, the boy is certain, is "the Authentic," to which all books aspire. Without it, "they live only a borrowed life, which at the moment of inspiration returns to its ancient source."
All artists, Schulz believed, spend their lives interpreting images that are stamped in their minds during childhood. He wrote, "They do not discover anything new after that, they only learn how to understand better and better the secret entrusted to them at the outset; their creative effort goes into an unending exegesis, a commentary on that one couplet of poetry assigned to them." For Schulz, this "couplet" was the mythology of his early life-a "spiritual genealogy," he called it. The linked stories that make up his two collections are all narrated from the perspective of a young boy who is an apparent stand-in for the author. His father, the central figure of the stories, combines physical frailty with prodigious psychic power. In an illustration for "Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass," the father is bedridden, but his force manifests itself in an enlarged, bulbous forehead and in his hair, which sticks up in thick ropes. In the story "Tailors' Dummies," a mannequin inspires the father to imagine how man might be re-created in disposable form: "For each action, each word, we shall call to life a different human being." His son labels him a "Heresiarch," though this particular heresy is an attack not on religion but on the banality of life: the linear flow of hours and days, which Schulz's stories, with their magical transformations and moments outside time, seek to overcome.
"Reality is as thin as paper, and betrays with all its cracks its imitative character," Schulz wrote in one story. His fiction peers through those cracks. Familiar streets unexpectedly become labyrinths of hidden corners and strange courtyards; forgotten passageways become gateways to another, more vibrant world. In "Cinnamon Shops," the boy is sent to run an errand at night and becomes lost: "There open up, deep inside a city, reflected streets, streets which are double, make-believe streets. One's imagination, bewitched and misled, creates illusory maps of the apparently familiar districts, maps in which the streets have their proper places and usual names but are provided with new and fictitious configurations by the inexhaustible inventiveness of the night." In "Tailors' Dummies," the father recalls a surprising discovery he made upon entering a neglected room in an old apartment: "From all the crevices in the floor, from all the mouldings, from every recess, there grew slim shoots filling the grey air with a scintillating filigree lace of leaves: a hot-house jungle, full of whispers and flicking lights-a false and blissful spring." The vision vanishes almost as soon as it appears: "The whole elusive sight was a Fata Morgana, an example of the strange make-believe of matter which had created a semblance of life."
Like prose poems, the stories work not through conventional structures of plot or character but by building up a welter of images that create their own logic. Their anthropomorphism can be dizzying. "Now the windows, blinded by the glare of the empty square, had fallen asleep," Schulz writes in "August." "The balconies declared their emptiness to heaven; the open doorways smelt of coolness and wine." In "Birds," we are told, "The days hardened with cold and boredom like last year's loaves." Then Schulz prods the simile just a bit further than expected: "One began to cut them with blunt knives without appetite, with a lazy indifference." The sensuality that characterizes Schulz's language is rooted in the Polish poetic tradition, but the surreal and grotesque tweaks are his own.
Although Schulz's stories revel in the metaphysical, his letters reveal that he was preoccupied with mundanities. He found teaching burdensome, and fretted constantly about not being granted the leaves of absence that he requested. "Time to which someone else has laid claim, to which someone made the slightest allusion-is already tainted, ruined, inedible," he wrote in a 1934 letter. "When I have to prepare a lesson for the next day, buy materials at the lumberyard-the entire afternoon and evening are already ruined for me." He was also obsessed with the pettier details of a writer's career: reviews of his books (which were mixed), nominations for prizes (which he seldom received), foreign translations (which did not occur in his lifetime). He longed to escape his family, with whom he lived, and marry Józefina Szeli´nska, a Catholic schoolteacher to whom he became engaged in 1935, but he worried that his meagre income could not support two households. After two years, they broke off the engagement.
In addition to his financial concerns, Schulz was oppressed by fears of personal danger; in one of the biography's few personal details, Ficowski poignantly recounts that, when Schulz was anxious, to calm himself he would sketch the outline of a little house. If he found himself without a pencil, he would trace the shape with his finger. These worries, naturally, interfered with his writing. After he wrote the stories in his two published books, he never enjoyed another period of sustained productivity. For years, he labored over a novel, to be called "Messiah," in which the Jewish Messiah appears in Drohobycz. Except for a couple of stories published in Schulz's second book which may originally have been part of the novel, nothing of "Messiah" ever made its way into print. The romantic allure of this apparently lost masterpiece has inspired endless speculation and at least two novels, Cynthia Ozick's "The Messiah of Stockholm" and David Grossman's "See Under: Love." But, considering the slow pace of Schulz's progress, it seems fair to wonder how much of "Messiah" ever got written. "I am waiting for more free time in order to return to work on the novel 'Messiah,' " Schulz wrote in a 1935 letter. "My work progresses very slowly" was the next report. "I've not had good periods. Over vacation I couldn't write anything. Now when I could write-school." In 1937, the book was "still in its infancy."
In September, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. Just two weeks later, the Soviets took Drohobycz. Schulz was safer under the Soviets than he would have been under the Germans, but he suffered in the new political climate. He was unable to publish his written work, which clearly did not conform to the dictates of socialist realism, though he did earn money by painting portraits of officials, including Stalin. (When a Stalin portrait he had done for the Drohobycz town hall was destroyed by jackdaws, Schulz is said to have told a friend that the loss of his own work actually brought him satisfaction.) This relative reprieve did not last long. The Germans retook Drohobycz in June, 1941, during Operation Barbarossa, and Schulz was forced to give up his home and move to the ghetto. Ironically, this may have galvanized his art. Ficowski reports that ten days before his death Schulz told an acquaintance that he was collecting material for a work about "the most awful martyrdom in history." Already, he said, he had amassed a hundred pages of notes.
These notes, like the rest of Schulz's manuscripts, have never been found. The search for the writer's papers has been Ficowski's lifelong occupation, and he has pursued it with a fervor that sometimes looks like mania. "For a half-century I have lived in expectation, believing and not believing by turns that I will see it in the end," he writes of "Messiah." Described as Schulz's "chronicler and archeologist," Ficowski has acted as the writer's agent, producing numerous editions of his stories, letters, and drawings and getting them published in Poland and abroad. He has also served as a one-man literary detective agency, placing advertisements in Polish and Ukrainian newspapers imploring the people to whom Schulz entrusted his work to make themselves known, and attempting to track down every living correspondent of Schulz's in the effort to find any remaining letters or other papers, no matter how insignificant.
At times, Ficowski seems to have come excruciatingly close to the jackpot. In 1987, a man named Alex Schulz, who claimed to be the writer's cousin, contacted him to say that a man from Lwów, possibly a diplomat or a K.G.B. official, had offered to sell him a package of Schulz's manuscripts and drawings weighing two kilograms. Ficowski readily agreed to verify the authenticity of the documents; months passed; and then Alex Schulz died of a brain hemorrhage, leaving Ficowski with no way to contact the mysterious man from Lwów. Several years later, he met the Swedish ambassador to Warsaw, who told him that a "bulging packet" containing Schulz's manuscripts, "with the novel 'Messiah' at the top," was hidden in the K.G.B. archives. The ambassador had learned about this from a "Russian" who had come upon the packet by accident, hidden under the name of an unknown Pole, presumably one of those to whom Schulz had given his papers. He asked Ficowski to accompany him to Ukraine to look for it, but the authorities twice denied the ambassador a visa, and he, too, died before the quest could be completed.
Amid these spy-novel machinations, one begins to wonder whether Ficowski could have been the object of a terrible joke-the bulging packet with "Messiah" at the top sounds too good to be true. And the fact that fifty years of searching have turned up only about a hundred letters might well be evidence that nothing else ever existed. Still, the chapters in which Ficowski writes autobiographically about his quest are the most engaging in his book. And the frustration of the ongoing search for Schulz's traces explains the magnitude of the excitement when the Drohobycz wall paintings were found, and the disappointment that ensued when they vanished. For local devotees of Schulz, the removal of the murals was deeply wounding. A national treasure had been lost and, it was claimed, the force required to remove the murals from the walls could have damaged them irrevocably.
Yet the events in that Drohobycz apartment have a certain chilly logic. For Schulz's stories suggest that, like the childhood episodes he reimagines, works of art, too, have an inherent ephemerality, vanishing almost as soon as they are experienced. The Book, the mysterious landscape of "Cinnamon Shops," the Fata Morgana in the empty room-all are momentary creations of the imagination, glimpses through a crack that is already closing. They exist for just one glorious instant, made all the more beautiful by the impossibility of their reconstruction. Schulz, in one story, compared books to meteors. "Each of them has only one moment, a moment when it soars screaming like the phoenix, all its pages aflame," he wrote. "For that single moment we love them ever after, although they soon turn to ashes."