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Jewish Journal

The Continuing Mystery of Bruno Schulz

Ian Shulman

June 15, 2013 | 11:12 pm

The great writer and mystifier Bruno Schulz left a plethora of puzzles, myths and hidden chambers in two thin booklets of essays. However, one of his lesser-known and most challenging riddles was forgotten under a thick layer of paint in one of the former villas of Drohobych.

Bruno Schulz has emerged as one of the most important writers and innovators of the Polish language in the 20th century, his works translated into 39 languages. He was born in 1892 in the then Austrian (later Polish and now Ukrainian) town of Drohobych to Jakub Schulz, a Jewish cloth merchant. The provincial oil town on the outskirts of Poland and the fading visionary image of his sick father later became the key characters of his magical metaphorical prose. Apart from being a writer and a painter, Schulz was earning his living as a school teacher.

He never left Drohobych for an extended period of time; the Nazi invasion of Poland trapped Schulz within the town's ghetto. In order to save his life, Dziunia Szmer, a friend of Schulz's, put him into a life-prolonging contract with a Nazi officer Felix Landau. As an ‘indentured Jew’, Bruno Schulz had to catalogue loot, make cliché verres and drawings and produce inlays, as well as paint murals in at least four different buildings in Drohobych - the SS casino, a new annex to the riding hall, the former Jewish orphanage and the ‘play room’ of the mansion Landau had confiscated. The officer lived there with his mistress, the Gestapo secretary and former dancer Trude Segel, along with the children from his first marriage, Wolf-Dieter and Helga.

On the 19th of November 1942, Schulz was shot dead on a street in Drohobych. His murderer is believed to have been Karl Günther, Landau’s rival. However, Schulz was murdered on the day of ‘Black Thursday’, coinciding with the massacre of 230 other Jews in the ghetto; identifying the actual killer of Schulz is thus difficult.

The murals of Schulz were painted over and subsequently forgotten. So were Schulz’s essays, rediscovered and appreciated only decades after his death. Despite an intense search for them, none of the murals were ever found.

In 2001 German film director Benjamin Geissler came to Drohobych , together with his father the writer Christian Geissler, hoping to discover the lost ‘fairy tale mural’ in the former playroom of Landau’s villa. Their search and its outcome are described in Geissler’s documentary ‘Bilder Finden’ (‘Finding Pictures’). With the help of Alfred Schreyer, the last living student of Bruno Schulz, Landau’s villa was identified; a closer look at the walls of a present-day storage room in a private apartment revealed the shapes of Schulz’s images. An official commission of Polish and Ukrainian experts arrived at the spot and, having uncovered some fragments of the mural, verified that Bruno Schulz was the author of the paintings. The next step was to obtain international funding needed to professionally uncover, restore and preserve the murals.

Nonetheless, the discovery of the seemingly lost mural was not the end of its mysterious story. Shortly after the finding, representatives of Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, removed three fragments of the mural and transported them to Israel. The act was claimed to be illegal, since such appropriation could only have been possible with the special permission of the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture. Another five fragments were removed in 2002 by Ukrainian restorers.

The controversy over national claims to Schulz’s heritage, which broke out right after the Yad Vashem incident, was naturally triggered by the region’s diverse background, so typical for pre-war Central Europe. For Yad Vashem, Schulz is a Holocaust victim and his murals are part of a Holocaust story. For Poland, Bruno is a Polish writer, innovator of the Polish language and literature, and last but not least, a Polish citizen. For Ukraine, he was a resident of the Ukrainian town Drohobych, and this is exactly where the very mural was created and later found.

Yet according to Benjamin Geissler, Schulz’s work cannot be torn apart, neither metaphorically nor literally. Geissler suggests the characters Schulz depicted in his last mural are not merely fairy tale figures, as expected in the decoration of a children's room. On closer observation, one can unmistakably recognize Felix Landau on his beloved horse, his lover Gertrude, Schulz’s mother and many other subtle images among the depicted characters. Schulz’s mural is a Brothers Grimm tale on the surface and a Holocaust story, likewise a personal tragedy on a deeper level, says Geissler. Turning a task demanded of him into something much more meaningful and personal was an act of both childishness and prophecy, inherent to Schulz's art. It’s because of its messages that the mural cannot be separated and can only be viewed in the way it was created, in the way its elements were placed in relation to each other.

Luckily, there is still a chance to see how the room used to look. Benjamin Geissler has created a 3D model of the chamber with pictures, and it was recently exhibited in Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin. Once one enters the model of the dark narrow storeroom, Schulz’s drawings start to project on each wall, accompanied by a mysterious tune. Outside of the 3D installation, one can read about the life of Bruno Schulz and the story of the discovery and loss of the mural.

Despite having perished over 70 years ago and remained virtually unknown for years after his death, Schulz's work appears to attract more interest with every passing year. Yuri Andrukhovych, a renowned Ukrainian writer and poet, who took part in a panel discussion during the exhibition, said he felt sceptical about publishing his translation of Schulz’s works into Ukrainian. It was not only about the great responsibility of translating the complicated metaphorical language of Schulz, but also about the unclear demand for this book in Ukraine. However, the edition was sold out faster than estimated, even by the bravest of expectations. Over the last few years, Bruno Schulz has been transformed from a complete stranger, a weird Polish Jewish ghost from the past into a local genius, a beloved figure from Drohobych for many Ukrainians. Andrukhovych claims his translation is meant to make Schulz even more accessible to the Ukrainian reader; he tried to unload the complicated text of unnecessary polonisms and local words, inherent to some previous translations, and pay due attention to the rhythm and pace of the text.

Andrukohvych’s colleague Yuri Prokhasko also took part in the discussions, and not only due to his own fascination with Schulz’s prose and story - Prokhasko himself served as Geissler's assistant during the filming of ‘Bilder Finden’ in Drohobych.

The Schulz exhibition has found its place among an immense series of memorials and exhibitions called ‘Diversity Destroyed’, taking place in Berlin in 2013. Under the caption ‘Berlin 1933 - 1938 - 1945,' it approaches the wartime European tragedy from the perspective of the flourishing diversity characterising pre-war Europe. The fantastic and mysterious semi-fictional and real worlds of Bruno Schulz, who as the exhibition introduction states ‘was born as an Austrian, lived as a Pole and died as a Jew’, is certainly one of the last and most intense embodiments of this epoch.

Edited by Benjamin Geissler and Dmitri Macmillen.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Jews visiting Central & Eastern Europe frequently come with stereotypes and prejudices about the region.  In particular, group heritage and education tours for young Jews...

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