A new life for Bruno Schulz in a new, independent Ukraine began with his repeated – and repugnant – murder. Luckily, the second of these ‘murders’ was only metaphorical: it consisted of the partitioning and theft of his wall-paintings from one small, but very important storage room in a private residence within the town of Drohobych (Polish ‘Drogobycz’), and along with it the brutal foreclosure of one noble and important idea, which, had it been fulfilled, could have influenced and altered a great deal.
But we have to admit: wherever the name of Bruno Schulz meant and signified something, his grand life began in a different time, and was fulfilled only post mortem, post bellum. This fulfilment initially began in postwar and post-Stalinist Poland which began in 1956, in this most free and freethinking country of the oppressed socialist block. There lived one man, a poet himself – actually an outstanding poet and writer – Jerzy Ficowski (1924 – 2006), who became Schulz’s ‘personal Max Brod’, as John Updike aptly put it. (Updike himself was one of many world-renowned authors who publicly acknowledged Schulz’s influence on him, and greatly admired his writings and works.) It was first and foremost Ficowski’s achievement that Schulz was returned from oblivion. Later the news of Schulz’s work was spread throughout Ukraine, Israel, the United States, Germany, Western Europe, and subsequently the rest of the world. And everywhere there were people – many people, in fact – for whom Schulz’s prose became the central poetic revelation of their lives. Dozens of prominent modern writers from across the world testified about the decisive influence of Schulz on their works. Many acknowledged his prose as a permanent source for their inspiration. Hundreds of thousands of readers have testified, in the many different languages of the world into which Schulz is translated, about the inner revolution they went through after reading him. They speak about his influence on their lives, on their levels of sensitivity and on their entire sensibilities.
His life began in Ukraine, and it ended here. He was born in the Galician town of Drohobych in the Carpathian region. And exactly here, in his native town, he was killed by SS men on the border to the Jewish ghetto on 19 November 1942.
Bruno Schulz was a genius writer, writing in Polish; a secularised, but not baptised Galician Jew; a masterly graphic, obsessed with the theme of male humiliation in front of a self-confident, domineering, and ruthless female beauty; a timid, shy, and sad man; a prophet, who felt and predicted the end of the world – his world, the world of the Eastern European Jews. He saw the fulfilment of his prophecy, and he didn’t survive it. He experienced the degeneration of the time, but he never became a witness of its renaissance.
Bruno Schulz spent most of his life in Drohobych. His studies at the Lviv Polytechnic University, as well as his rare and short visits to Lviv, Vienna, Paris and Warsaw, were exceptions. After completing his education, he returned to his native town, and taught graphics and manual labor in the local gymnasium, named after Władysław Jagiełło. Here he created his graphic works, gave private lessons in drawing, shyly and clumsily fell in love with certain women and girls, made some unsuccessful attempts to get engaged and get married. He suffered from disastrous and long-lasting bouts of sadness, uncertainty, doubts, and shame. At the beginning of the 1930s, on the encouragement of Lviv poet, philosopher and critic Debora Vogel, with whom he was then in a romantic (though short-lived) relationship, he began to write his prose: short stories, tales, and essays. Very soon – in fact immediately – his texts were recognised as works of genius, with no equals either in Polish, or in any other literature of the world. But before the Second World War he was recognised as one of the best – but only by the best and most renowned of the Polish literature. His works did not break through to mainstream world recognition – in part because of the war, but also because of the complexity and peculiarity of his writings.
As a Jew, in the Nazi times Schulz was immediately locked in the Drohobych ghetto, where he was constricted to forced labor. But his artistic talents were privately exploited by one of the Shoah organisers, a psychopath and a sadist, and one of the first members of Hitler’s movement, the SS ‘Hauptscharführer’ from Vienna Felix Landau. It was the same Landau who ordered Schulz to call him ‘the Jewish General’. He took this very talented artist under his personal protection. Landau expropriated one ostentatious villa in Drohobych, at St. Jan Street, and lived there with his lover Gertrude Segel. He also had a former wife in Vienna, and two small children from this first marriage. At their father’s wish, both children traveled to Drohobych in 1942 to spend their summer vacation there. In the process of meticulously renovating and repairing his new home for their arrival, Landau ordered Bruno Schulz to paint the walls of the storage room, which was situated near the kitchen, and originally used by servants. It was now to be turned into a children’s room, decorated with drawings, based on themes from German fairy tales. Most likely, Schulz was forced to work on these wall paintings (all in tempera technique) in the spring of 1942, just before the arrival of Landau’s children to the town.
In November 1942 Bruno Schulz was shot by some SS men, at the time of the so called ‘wild action’, when dozens of Drohobych Jews were killed. His body lay outside for a long time, and afterwards was secretly buried at the local Jewish cemetery. The nature of his tragic death, the war, and the post-war events in this part of Europe are the primary reasons Schulz, his graphics, and literary works were almost doomed to oblivion. ‘Almost’, as many of his contemporaries survived, as well as witnesses and students who were later dispersed all over the world, along with the preservation of his prewar publications and books. Having gathered all that heritage, Jerzy Ficowski managed to ‘reconstruct’ Schulz’s life piece by piece. Beginning from 1960s, he aimed to preserve Schulz’s work and revive his legacy. Ficowski prepared a fundament for the aesthetic canonization of Bruno Schulz not only in Poland, but around the world. Due to Ficowski’s work we might even talk about Schulz’s cult status in some circles.
Ukraine of that time was not only Soviet, but also one of the most repressive places of the region. The country belonged to those areas where recognition of Schulz – both postwar, and also postmortem, of course – began rather early, even though his works and his name itself remained censored or prohibited until the late 1980s, along with the names and works of many others, including Joseph Roth, Franz Kafka, James Joyce, Marcel Proust, and Robert Musil. In the 1970s Schulz was read in the Ukrainian SSR in his original language. Translation of his texts was forbidden, but copies in Polish were easily, and even officially, spread here, through the net of the socialist bloc’s bookstores Druzhba (‘Friendship’). What Ukrainians knew really well was how to read in Polish. I still can’t forget the feeling, as I touched that cherry-coloured cover with golden embossing. It was a volume of The Cinnamon Shops and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass. This Polish edition from 1978 (the publishing house Wydawnictwo Literackie) was kept in our family library, and I read it for the first time, when I was nearly ten.
In the mid of 1980s, at the end of the perestroika decade, the first translation of Schulz into Ukrainian appeared in diaspora. Translations, produced in Ukraine, followed afterwards. At first these were self-published books, then publications in different magazines. In 1995 Schulz’s prose was officially published in Ukraine for the first time, in a mesmerising translation by Andriy Shkrabyuk. Many newer translations into Ukrainian appeared afterwards. Not only did the number of translations increase – the quality of the books was getting each time better, which soon included publications of his essays, letters, and sketches. In 2017 the whole body of fiction works was congenially translated by Yuri Andrukhovych, one of today’s most prominent masters of words. Which is to say that there was no problem with Schulz’s recognition as a writer in Ukraine. At least his popularity was growing here in synchronicity with his recognition in other countries. The only exception was Poland, where Bruno Schulz has already belonged to the national canon and has long-since been included in school curriculum.
Things were different with his graphic works. Qualified sometimes as ‘pornography’ or ‘perversion’, they did not have the slightest chance of being published during Soviet times, and in 1990s, because of the extreme economic decline, one couldn’t even have dreamed of his album of high-quality reproductions.
All of this is just a necessary introduction to my story – these are the details which led to the above mentioned repeated symbolical murder of Schulz in Drohobych. But at the same time, this incident was the reason for his fame in Ukraine today, which now extends far beyond the realms of literature and art.
In 1990s a large, traveling exhibition of Bruno Schulz’s graphic works took place in Germany. Jerzy Ficowski prepared a huge catalogue with detailed commentaries for the occasion. There also were memoirs of Schulz, created by his students and acquaintances from Drohobych. One of these testimonies belonged to his former student, also a Drohobych Jew, who survived the Holocaust. There were some words about Landau there too, who ordered Schulz to paint walls for the room of his children.
This catalogue fell into the hands of the now deceased German writer Christian Geißler, who at that time was already rather old, and who himself belonged to the cache of admirers of Schulz’s prose. The writer’s adopted son, Benjamin Geißler, was a known documentary filmmaker. Father and son decided to go to Drohobych in a hope of finding these lost, or maybe hidden, wall-paintings in the Landau’s Villa, and to make the film about their search.
At the end of January 2001, a small film crew reached their destination: the snowy and frosty town of Drohobych. Thanks to the involvement of one of Schulz’s former students (only two of them were alive at that time, and both are now deceased) the violinist Alfred Schreier, they managed to find the place rather quickly. And on the fourth day they found the desired wall-paintings, under some layers of whitewash. Every step of their search, as well as the moment of the finding, are documented by the minute. Obviously, it was an extraordinary sensation. They managed to find the last work of Bruno Schulz, created during the tragedy of the Shoah! Geißler’s idea was to establish the international meeting point here. He wanted to get state support from Ukraine, Poland, and Germany, as well as from some respectable international foundations. Film-maker Benjamin Geißler took several important steps to support the process: he reported his findings to the local authorities, to the German embassy in Ukraine, and to the Consul General of the Polish Republic (RP) in Lviv. With the mayor of Drohobych, and the head of the department of culture and international relations of the town, he drew up a protocol about the findings. Representatives of the town, for their part, committed to take these wall-paintings under their protection. At the same time, Benjamin Geißler initiated a meeting of the Ukrainian-Polish state expert commission, which came to Drohobych the next day to confirm the originality of Schulz’s paintings. Crucially, all sides also made a commitment to non-disclosure, since there existed a highly plausible risk that when the discovery became known, some rich and unscrupulous collectors might decide to acquire the finding by criminal means. This commitment was broken very shortly afterwards by the General Consul of RP in Lviv. Suspecting that the ‘Germans and Ukrainians’ would conspire among themselves and misuse the works of a man he deemed to be ‘Polish artist’, he decided that widespread awareness was the only solution – so single handedly, and without group consultation, he informed the Polish media about the findings. The next morning the street by the villa was full of Polish cars with broadcasting devices (for many days and weeks they besieged the house, trying to get an access to the room, which was now occupied by a pair of Ukrainian elderly people – or to get an interview with the owner of the apartment, who was seriously ill at that time). Very soon the news spread around the world. Many leading media informed the world public about the wall-paintings.
Meanwhile, the film crew, upset with this unanticipated and unwelcome publicity, but inspired with their finding (maybe the most incredible in this part of the world), was preparing to travel to Israel in order to talk to some other students of Schulz – former Drohobych inhabitants, who were still alive at that time. These shootings took place at the same month, in May 2001. On their first day in Jerusalem the crew visited the memorial complex Yad Vashem, where they ‘officially’ informed the administration about their Drohobych findings, made in February of the same year. In return they heard congratulations and shouts of delight.
In two days, Benjamin Greißler received a call from the Polish representative of the international commission for authorization and preservation of the findings, which was still working in Drohobych. With a trembling voice the man informed Greißler that wall-paintings from the Drohobych apartment had been partly dismantled by some unknown people. Some parts had been taken off the walls with plaster, and taken to an unknown destination. Integrity of the composition was irrevocably destroyed, and the idea of the international meeting point in Drohobych was now buried as well. It was some days later when the Yad Vashem memorial officially informed all parties involve that this action was conducted by their staff members, and on their order.
It is difficult to describe the embarrassment, confusion, and outrage, caused by this news, and its international resonance. It was, in fact, a brutal theft and destruction of one state’s vitally important cultural site, undertaken by the representatives of another state, and rather clumsily disguised as a legal act. Even worse, it was made by the most respectable state institution of Israel, intended to preserve memory of the catastrophe.
Officials of Israel explained this outrageous act as an alleged necessity. It was alleged, according to their estimates, that the works were not safe in Ukraine. But it was exactly they, who, in trying to ‘save’ the works, destroyed and distorted their integrity. Furthermore, they claimed that works of Bruno Schulz, who died because of his Jewishness, must be preserved in Israel. In other words, the found paintings belonged to Israel just by the right of belonging. One further ‘argument’ waged was that Schulz’s works were allegedly unknown in Ukraine, and that therefore no one would need them here.
The repugnant, shameful international scandal caused by this theft clearly demonstrated an unfortunate fact: the heritage of Schulz became a cause of an archaic discussion between the nations about the ‘affiliation’ of the artist – to which nation, state, or territory one belongs, and on what grounds. (In 12 years very similar ‘arguments’ would be articulated in order to ‘legitimise’ the Russian occupation and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula).
For the cultural community of Ukraine those events around Schulz’s wall-paintings in Drohobych were not just an unbelievable shock, but also an impulse to radically reconsider the attitude towards many similar findings, and artefacts all over Ukraine. It also stimulated Ukrainians to change their paradigms in dealing with the memory and heritage not only of Schulz, but of a number of other important people, who lived and worked here, including S. Y. Agnon, Paul Celan, Joseph Roth, Manès Sperber, Debora Vogel, and Ida Fink, as well as Joseph Conrad and Stanisław Lem. To never appropriate someone, but never to alienate them either; to never rely on the help of others, but, as far as possible, to engage their heritage in the circulation of any individual’s body of work and their legacy – things that are never that individual’s property as such, but do belong to them, are theirs in a fundamental, anthropological sense. That are one element of a big and diverse self.
This text was created specifically for the essay book UKRAINE! UNMUTED of Cultural Strategy Institute, which was published as part of the 5th triennial of contemporary Ukrainian art «Ukrainian Cross-Section» with the same-name UKRAINE! UNMUTED theme. Compiled and edited by Oksana Forostyna.
The project was implemented by the Cultural Strategy Institute together with the NGO “Institute of Contemporary Art” and “Virmenska 35” with the support of the Lviv City Council, ZMIN Foundation, the International Renaissance Fund and Lithuanian partners Kaunas 2022. Ukrainian Cross-Section was launched in 2010 and aims to present a cross-section of Ukrainian contemporary art and culture primarily abroad.