THR Web Features   /   May 12, 2023

A Portrait of the Artist as a Victim of the Holocaust

The cultural legacy of Bruno Schulz.

David Stromberg

( THR illustration; Bruno Schulz in 1935/Lebrecht Photos.)

Reviewed Here:

Bruno Schulz: An Artist, a Murder, and the Hijacking of History.
Benjamin Balint.
New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2023.

Bruno Schulz is an author who never tires of being discovered. A writer and artist whose known corpus includes two slim collections of stories, a bundle of letters, and a handful of visual works, mostly drawings, Schulz was born in 1892 in Drohobycz, a small Galician town that was then under Austro-Hungarian rule. He died in that same town in 1942, shot in the head by a Nazi officer. His life and work would likely have been unknown but for the efforts of a handful of people for whom his work meant the world.

Schulz was a master of the unrealized. He used language to give expression to the fancies of the mind. He wrote not about events but about the mental impressions of yearning, hoping, dreaming. He was rooted more firmly in the possible than the actualized. His words traveled on intellectual journeys of philosophical meandering. He brought his prose into the realm of the unfinished. This is part of what made him so attractive to readers in the post–World War II era. His imagination was an open field onto which others could project their own fanciful desires, nostalgia, and regrets.

The cultural reverberations set off by his work were greater in postwar Europe and America than they were during his lifetime. Beyond his writing being reissued in Polish and translated into other languages, he stirred the imaginations of Cynthia Ozick, Philip Roth, and David Grossman—Jewish authors who all tried to imagine the fate of his lost manuscript, The Messiah. Nicole Kraus’s History of Love featured a Schulz-like character named Bruno, and Maxim Biller’s In the Head of Bruno Schulz is a novel written as a letter from Schulz to Thomas Mann. In 2010, Jonathan Safran Foer took another approach to the mystique of Bruno Schulz, cutting away parts of Schulz’s writing until new sentences emerged from the remnants. This symbolic act, regardless of its artistic result, reflected a sad state of affairs: With his stories, letters, and drawings already published, and Jerzy Ficowski’s Regions of the Great Heresy: Bruno Schulz, A Biographical Portrait appearing in both Polish and English, there was little material to add to Schulziana.

This is what makes Benjamin Balint’s Bruno Schulz: An Artist, a Murder, and the Hijacking of History such a literary-historical feat. He has stepped beyond the legend of Bruno Schulz as a writer and artist to explore the nature of legend itself, especially its historical, cultural, and political implications. Balint treats Schulz not as a symbol but as a specimen, examining each facet of the man in order to explain what makes him such a significant cultural figure.

Balint interweaves literary history with investigative reporting to explore Schulz’s consequential afterlives. The fact that Schulz wrote in Polish made him important to Poland’s cultural legacy. But he also wrote in German with nearly the same fluency, tying him to German culture almost as much as his death at the hands of a Nazi. His life in Drohobycz, a town that became part of Ukraine at the end of World War II and whose inhabitants lived under Soviet rule until Ukrainian independence in 1991, made Schulz part of Ukraine’s cultural history as well. Finally, as a Holocaust victim who died because of his ethnic, religious, and cultural heritage, he is also seen as belonging to the Jewish postwar legacy. The question of who would be the custodians of these trajectories was always going to be difficult.

The event that offered a possible answer lies at the center of Balint’s book: the “extraction” in 2001 of portions of a mural painted by Schulz and discovered in the pantry of a villa in Drohobycz. The structure, dubbed Villa Landau, had housed Felix Landau, a brutal SS head squad leader who made sadistic sport of randomly killing Jews as they walked in the streets. Landau had taken Schulz under his protection in return for artistic favors, including painting the walls of his children’s room. One of several stories holds that Schulz was shot by a rival Nazi officer, who allegedly said to Landau, “You killed my Jew, so I killed yours.” Balint is careful to offer four other versions, including one that has Landau himself killing Schulz. In the end, however, what matters is that Schulz died from a bullet to the head on a day known as “Black Thursday,” when hundreds of other Jews were killed the same way. His body was left face down in the street for a day before anyone came to pick it up.

Schulz’s murals were rediscovered in early 2001 by a German documentary filmmaker and his son. They informed various officials in Ukraine, Poland, Germany, and Israel. Discussions ensued about what to do with the murals—including the idea that the elderly owners of the apartment be relocated so that a museum could be established to memorialize Schulz and the horrors of the Holocaust. As Balint tells it, while these discussions took place, representatives from Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, arrived and asked the owners, Nadezhda and Nikolai Kaluzhni, to donate three sections of the murals to them. The Kaluzhnis had lived through several months of media mayhem. They had no desire to be moved out of the house in which they had lived for decades. In their daughter’s words, they “just wanted to be left in peace.” So they gave sections of the wall to Yad Vashem.

Aside from Balint’s deft handling of Schulz’s life and artwork, his meticulous treatment of the murder—the lead-up to it and its aftermath—is crucial to the central questions of the book: whether Schulz’s greater cultural legacy comes from his writing or his art, and how his martyrdom as a victim of the Holocaust figures into his reputation. Balint provides no definitive answer, but he makes it clear that it is nearly impossible—if not inexcusable—to read Schulz without at least asking such questions.

Balint’s book raises another important question, this one about the role of Jerusalem, the spiritual center of Jewish life for millennia, as the physical repository of Jewish social, cultural, and historical memory. In a way, this was the subject of Balint’s two recent books. In Kafka’s Last Trial (2018), he recounted the court battle over the effort to bring Franz Kafka’s manuscripts to the National Library of Israel. In Jerusalem: City of the Book (2019), he and his co-author with Merav Mack explored the city’s hidden libraries. By focusing on the story of how a Jewish artist’s murals ended up in Jerusalem, Bruno Schulz amounts to a third installment in Balint’s ongoing investigation. As a Jerusalem-based writer preoccupied with the afterlife of Jewish cultural memory in this city—writing at a time of political and national crisis in Israel—Balint challenges us to look beyond our own noses and cultivate a perspective that spans decades, centuries, or even millennia.