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Bruno Schulz’s misplaced Messiah.


Part one of the Drohobych Diptych.

A GENERATION AGO, it was a book with which nobody could be bothered. The sales reps thought it was not worth adding an unknown, foreign writer to their already heavy sample cases. It became an orphan, placed on a special shelf in our warehouse in case someone in the provinces, having perused the publishers’ catalogues, made a pest of themselves and ordered a single copy — then we would cut a corner and sell them the sales sample. But nobody asked and so, eventually, I took home the 1979 British hardcover edition of Bruno Schulz’s 1937 collection of stories, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass. I have it still.

I cannot recall what shade of curiosity enticed me to pluck it from the shelf. Later, it would seem the book had chosen me. I have not forgotten the profound sense of revelation on reading the first story, “The Book”. Reading through the other stories in the collection I had to remind myself I was approaching Schulz through translation. How good was he in his original Polish?

After that whiff of literary ozone, not much else ever quite measured up.

Schulz’s drawings: ‘…obsessive, sly depictions of a febrile world, they are as furtively confronting and distinctive as his prose’.

And then, too, there were Schulz’s drawings. Over the decades I returned to browse and contemplate the images scattered throughout that and other volumes published since: obsessive, sly depictions of a febrile world, they are as furtively confronting and distinctive as his prose. Looking at his sketches of men grovelling like dogs at the feet of coolly indifferent darlings, you have to wonder at the coincidence that Schulz came from the same heretical region as Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, born and raised in L’viv.

Those of us gone forty something sometimes need reminding of just how time-consuming it could be to obtain even basic information in the days before Google and Wikipedia. Many younger people have probably not experienced that implacable dead end at exhausting a library’s resources. I can tell you, for a fact, the fifteenth edition (1981) of the Encyclopaedia Britannica had an entry for Charles Schulz, creator of the comic strip “Peanuts”, but not for Bruno.

THE YOUNGEST SON of a not particularly prosperous Jewish textile merchant, Bruno Schulz was born in 1892, in the market town of Drohobycz. He came to maturity as a subject of Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria, in the province of Galicia, which stretches along the northern side of the Carpathian arc. At the end of the First World War, Drohobycz came under the control of the short-lived West Ukrainian People’s Republic, but for most of his adult life Schulz was a citizen of the Second Polish Republic, scratching a meagre livelihood as a self-effacing, over-worked arts and crafts teacher. After the Molotov-Ribbentrop “Peace Border” of 1939, Schulz’s classroom displayed portraits of Stalin and Marx — images removed when the Germans arrived in early July 1941.

Schulz was murdered on 19 November 1942, shot on a street of his hometown by an Einsatzkommando settling a personal grudge against a fellow Nazi officer. Until then, the arts and crafts “professor” had been employed by and was under the protection of SS-Hauptscharführer Felix Landau. What conceit or vanity motivated Landau is an open question. There was certainly no humane consideration in his action: this was a man who entertained himself by shooting at passing Jews from the second-storey window of his house. Recording his part in the murder of 23 Jews in July 1941, Landau wrote in his diary, “I am completely unmoved. No pity, nothing.”

Perhaps it amused Übermensch Landau to have a writer and artist of some standing as his personal pet. Schulz was thought to be the Polish translator of Kafka’s The Trial. The work was actually done by Schulz’s fiancée, Jozefina Szelinska, but this was not known until after her death in 1991. Schulz was also publicly associated with Witold Gombrowicz, providing the cover illustration for that deliciously decadent writer’s 1937 novel, Ferdydurke. That Schulz spoke good German and had briefly studied architecture in Vienna, Landau’s hometown, may have also helped him gain the Gestapo officer’s favour.

But then Landau wantonly killed a Jewish dentist named Löw — Einsatzkommando Karl Günther’s dentist — and the tit-for-tat payback was Bruno Schulz. Landau, finally arrested in 1959, was pardoned in 1973 and died in Vienna a decade later, aged 73. I do not know Günther’s fate.

A COUPLE OF years after encountering Sanatorium I chanced upon a 1980 paperback of the miraculous The Street of Crocodiles, first published in 1934 in Poland as Cinnamon Shops. It was in that book, in translator Celina Wieniewska’s preface, that I read a very intriguing thing about Schulz: “It is said that he was working on a novel entitled The Messiah, but nothing has remained of it.”

That missing work — or rather, perhaps, the idea of it — has intrigued many.

The plot of Cynthia Ozick’s 1987 novel The Messiah of Stockholm pivoted on the discovery of a manuscript said to be Schulz’s lost novel. Ozick left open the possibility of such a document being a forgery and reinforced that notion by offering her readers, as homage to Schulz, the text of her own fictive Messiah.

Mutable myths, hovering like mirages on the hazy horizons of the east European marchlands, always have the potential for a collective quickening. Andrzej Stasiuk’s novella Dukla (1999) ponders John Paul II’s June 1997 visit to a small Polish town 130 kilometres east of Drohobych. The Pope was there to canonize John of Dukla (1414-84), a patron saint of Poland and Lithuania. A large crowd assembled and waited all the long summer’s day for the arrival of the Holy Father. Finally, his white robes glowing in the darkening twilight, the frail old man appeared and moved amongst his people. Stasiuk’s description of the visitation is a messianic vision.

‘From interviews with former residents of Drohobycz who heard Schulz read parts of his manuscript, the poet believed he had salvaged the opening sentence…’

Fiction may tease out ideas about artistic authenticity or reflect national moods, but the reality is that Schulz’s missing novel has not yet been found. Jerzy Ficowski, the Polish poet who spent a good part of his life chasing down any trace of Schulz, and who wrote a biographical portrait, Regions of the Great Heresy (2003), died in 2006 wondering about a few tantalizing leads.

Information about Schulz’s lost book is, as Ficowski said, “very scant”. Its central premise, he wrote, “involved the coming of the Messiah, who, having made his appearance somewhere in the eastern Carpathian Mountains, was making his way toward Drohobycz”. Ficowski thought some sketches he discovered were in fact Schulz’s visual annotations for the novel. And from interviews with former residents of Drohobycz who heard Schulz read parts of his manuscript, the poet believed he had salvaged the opening sentence:

Mother awakened me in the morning, saying, ‘Joseph, the Messiah is near, people have seen him in Sambor.’

Sambor, now Ukraine’s Sambir, is only thirty kilometres north-west of Drohobycz; but of course, it was not the Messiah who came from the west in the summer of 1941.

FICOWSKI ASSUMED THE novel was unfinished and Schulz, given his known character and circumstances during the last year of his life, must have found it difficult to focus upon a work conceived in better times. It seems the horror unfurling around him may have compelled him to record what he saw and heard because, ten days before his death, he told a friend he was “collecting material for a work about the most awful martyrdom in history.” But then, perhaps Schulz’s record of his times incorporated his Messiah; perhaps the darkness drove him deeper into the shining depths of his imagination. For now, we can only wonder.

We do know Schulz bundled up his drawings, manuscripts and letters, and entrusted them to several people he thought had better chances of surviving. A large cache of drawings did survive and were acquired thirty years ago by the Museum of Literature in Warsaw. Ownership of this collection is contested by Schulz’s last surviving relative, his great-nephew, a 70-year-old retiree in Germany. Given that in December 2013 a single 15×18 cm pencil sketch brought just under $120,000 at a New York auction, the disputed collection may be worth as much as eight million dollars.

Although anything Schulz touched is now turning into gold, The Messiah has not appeared. We know the manuscript was left in the care of “a Catholic outside the ghetto”, but the identity of that person and their fate are not known. Even Ficowski’s persistence over six decades failed to find the elusive papers. There were leads—which went cold. People who may have known something grew old, became confused—and died.

Then, at the beginning of this century, the apparently empty tomb was found to have a secret chamber. Hope stirred, stretched and looked about.

In his last year Schulz kept himself and his dependant relatives alive under the protection of SS-Hauptscharführer Landau. One of the tasks that otherwise vicious man with artistic pretensions set was that Schulz was to paint a set of murals on the walls of his child’s nursery. Thought to be lost, painted over, they literally came to light in February 2001 when found by a German filmmaker. One image, the face of a coachman, is a self-portrait of a sombre Schulz looking out at us across the haunted void.

The Messiah may not have been found, but those murals definitely refocussed attention on Bruno Schulz, and there were consequences. Questions that had been cocooned in polite academic discourse were suddenly sharp-edged and dangerous. Nationalism showed its teeth.

CONSERVATION OF THE wall paintings was commenced by Polish and Ukrainian specialists, but a few months later representatives of Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust memorial, covertly removed three murals (a large one was cut into three sections) and took them to Jerusalem. Of course, the pièce de résistance, the self-portrait, was one of the items that went south. Yad Vashem claims the works are Holocaust artefacts acquired “with the agreement of the family, in whose home they were found, and the approval and blessing of the Mayor of Drohobycz [sic].”

The appropriate national authorities in Kiev, however, had not been asked. Those guardians of culture, presumably “with the agreement of the family”, subsequently removed a further five paintings. Many ordinary Ukrainians and Poles were outraged by the grubby fiasco and the inevitable damage the works suffered. Their legal status was eventually settled as a temporary deposit from Ukraine in the Yad Vashem exhibition. But Jerzy Ficowski thought the Israeli appropriation “exacerbated national antagonisms” and regretted that the loss reduced the chances of establishing a Schulz Museum in Drohobych.

It seems likely the house owners and the Mayor had also thought of that outcome. Nobody’s hands were clean.

As is the way with these things, a missing literary work…and a sensational art theft only enhanced the already mystic fascination and reputation of their creator.

As is the way with these things, a missing literary work (especially one called The Messiah) and a sensational art theft only enhanced the already mystic fascination and reputation of their creator. A secular, assimilated Jew who spoke and wrote in Polish rather than Yiddish, Schulz’s influence on the wider literary world may be roughly gauged by the fact that he has been translated into at least forty languages.

In most places, in normal times, international recognition of a town’s former son would see civic pride puffing apace. In Drohobych things are not so straightforward.

To be fair, not many of the citizens of Drohobych would have heard of Schulz before the days of perestroika and glasnost; and even then, they probably did not have the chance to read him. Whereas the first post-war edition of Cinnamon Shops appeared in Poland in 1957, with French, German and English (Street of Crocodiles) editions following by 1963, the first Ukrainian translations did not appear until the late 1980s, a generation later. And those first offerings were in literary magazines of limited distribution. It was not until 1995 that Schulz’s collected works were available to Ukrainian readers as a book. Drohobych’s first civic acknowledgement and memorialisation of Schulz also occurred at the end of the Soviet era. In 1989 a plaque was placed on the interwar Schulz family home and a small street elsewhere in the old town was named after him.

Outside Drohobych, it was different. To commemorate the centenary of his birth and the fiftieth anniversary of his death, UNESCO proclaimed 1992 the Year of Bruno Schulz. International interest and academic careers flourished. Poland held an international conference, an art exhibition and issued a postage stamp. But with the turmoil of Independence in 1991, Ukraine had other things on its mind. There, particularly in the west of that country, the momentum of commemorating Schulz faltered as other memories stirred.

DESPITE THE UNPLEASANTNESS over Schulz’s nursery murals, Drohobych does pay him respect, hosting many international visitors, especially during the biennial Schulz festivals. The most significant physical memorial installed since Ukrainian Independence is a copper plaque to mark the site where Schulz was murdered. Laid on 19 November 2006, during the second Schulz festival, it was inscribed in Ukrainian and Polish: “In this place on November 19, 1942, the Great Artist of Drohobych, Bruno Schulz, was killed by a Gestapo agent”. The relatively small plaque was stolen in 2008. Replaced, it continues to mark the scene of the crime.

There are, of course, other places in the world faced with the troublesome business of articulating local ideas of historical significance while accommodating the contrary opinions of interested outsiders. But demarcation is difficult in the small compass of Drohobych’s old town; there, commemorations must cohabit and intersect while somehow avoiding the creation of contested ground, of exposing cultural fault lines.

And the compass in Drohobych is very tight — it is stone’s throw, spitting distance territory. On the other side of the Square from the Bandera Hero banner is where Bruno’s father’s shop stood a century ago.

The town’s synagogue, said to be once the largest in Europe, still stands. During the Soviet era it was used as a furniture warehouse, which probably saved it. It was restored to the remnant Jewish community after Independence in 1991, but a mysterious fire in 1998 destroyed part of the roof and caused extensive damage. The roof has been repaired, the windows glazed and the three-storey facade recently painted, but as late as 2012 rather large plants grew on the building’s pediments. Around the corner, over the back fence, the Peter and Paul Monastery (with its martyrs mosaic) is in immaculate condition.

Howard Willis is an essayist, critic and editor, who lives in Perth, Western Australia. His best known publication is Bad Blood (1981), an account of the Stanley Graham affair of 1941. He has published a dozen short stories in various literary journals; and contributed to the Australian “History Wars” debate. His interest in the subjects of the present essay was strengthened during a visit to south-eastern Poland in 2013. 

The Drohobych Diptych.

Introduction | Stepan Bandera

More: An archive of artwork by Bruno Schulz is housed at the Central Jewish Library.

More: In 1987, the Quay Brothers, experimental filmmakers, created a loose adaptation of Street of Crocodiles:


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