The Strange Case of Bruno Schulz

Biographer Benjamin Balint pulls punches in his retelling of the Polish author’s strange life and tragic death–and the epic Israeli art heist that moved Schulz into the headlines

Benjamin Balint’s engrossing new book, “Bruno Schulz, An Artist, A Murder, and the Hijacking of History,” could have been an extraordinary one.  Bruno Schulz was a compelling figure who captured the imaginations of literary luminaries Cynthia Ozick, David Grossman, and Philip Roth who felt certain that beneath his intoxicating prose lay answers to the incomprehensibility of Jewish persecution and misery.  But acclaimed biographer Benjamin Balint, chooses repeatedly not to personally engage with the murky waters of oblivion that surrounded Schulz’s psyche, and remains centered on only what he could substantiate. The author’s evasiveness feels like an act of self-castration; strangely similar in a way to the timidity that engulfed the life of Bruno Schulz, reportedly excessively shy and timid with others.

Much of Bruno Schulz’s work remains lost, including the novel “The Messiah,’ which Schulz was working on during his later life. What he left for us is minimal; two collections of short fiction and a bunch of letters and journal entries all written in Polish, along with some of his drawings and paintings which often depicted masochistic themes that spoke to darker urges. Many drawings show hunched over men with tormented faces who were crouching near women who flaunted their long legs sheathed in black stockings.  Submission was a key element of his work.  One picture shows a nude woman stepping into a bath where a black man was pouring blood from a headless body.  Many of his illustrations revealed scenes of sexual humiliation.

Balint believes Schulz himself did not know where his inspiration came from, but notices some of his work shares an affinity with the work of Francisco Goya, Albrecht Durer, and Max Klinger. Schulz never spoke Yiddish or Hebrew in his childhood home, only Polish or German.  He was born to assimilated Jews, Jakub and Henrietta Schulz, who had already lost two of their four children to illnesses before he arrived.  Schulz’s mother would often read to him Goethe’s ballads when he was young.  His father ran a dry-goods shop and had drifted away from the orthodoxy of his parents.  His mother came from an overprotective family that traded in timber.

Bruno Schulz

Balint describes Schulz as an extremely sensitive child often immobilized by fear. He describes him as “afflicted by an inferiority complex, agoraphobia, and hypersensitivity to sounds.”  As the world map kept redrawing the geographical lines around Schulz’s beloved hometown of Drohobycz, he remained immobilized. Schulz made one failed attempt to leave home to study to become an architect but returned quickly to Drohobycz  and spent the next seventeen years teaching at a local high school; a job he never acclimated to.  Students remember him as withdrawn; but gifted with an uncanny ability to keep them spellbound by simply telling them stories.  He drew portraits of some of his students.

Schulz was shot dead at 42 while walking down the street after retrieving a loaf of bread.  His murderer was an SS officer angered by another SS officer, Felix Landau, who was protecting Schulz in exchange for the artist’s services painting frescoes in his son’s nursery with fairytale themes.  Landau was a brutal and sadistic man drawn to Schulz’s attraction to the masochistic and erotic.  Landau would often sit on the terrace of his villa shooting at random Jews who were walking below.

It’s hard to imagine how Schulz, with his disposition, was able to work for Landau, without collapsing in fear.  But Schulz’s life force was strong enough to keep fighting for extra time in the hope of some sort of rescue.  He had opportunities to leave his cherished Drohobycz before the Nazis took hold but couldn’t seem to move himself to do so.  Earlier on, some friends were trying to get him Aryan papers, but they didn’t arrive in time.

We readers become puzzled; not by Bruno Schulz’s inactiveness for this had always been so, but by author Balint’s silent and dispassionate reaction to him.  Balint steers clear of any sort of mourning or empathy for this ravaged man, but we sense perhaps he felt some disdain towards Schulz’s inwardness.  Balint explains to us how Schulz had relationships with women over the years, but they all eventually shriveled into nothingness. He never married or had children.  He seemed unable to step up to the plate, and in so many ways, represents the ideological opposite of the ‘new Jew’ Balint lives among today in Jerusalem, Jews who refuse to cower to the forces that threaten them.

Schulz reminds us of another wayward Jew, Franz Kafka, whom Balint also wrote about at length in his acclaimed work, “Kafka’s Last Trial.”  Balint doesn’t condemn Schulz or Kafka, but instead keeps himself steadily immersed in his extensive research and discoveries.  He neglects to consider his own emotional response to Schulz’s helplessness, or Kafka’s existential despair.  Balint’s silence seems like a more sophisticated form of passivity masquerading as professionalism.  But really, how can any Jew remain silent about the barbarities we have faced and continue to confront as antisemitism simmers all over the world?

Balint describes Schulz’s writing as sometimes entering the realm of the euphoric.  He admires his “steady and seamless sentences” and clever metaphors.  He likes Schulz’s description of how summer falls upon us in “Cinnamon Shops,” as being “dazed by the light, we browsed the great book of vacation, whose every page was on fired from the radiance and which contained in its depth the languorous sweet flesh of golden pears.”  “Cinnamon Shops” is a short story which first appeared in the original Polish in 1934.  It has a boy-narrator that seems to be Schulz’s alter-ego who is terrified of his father’s turbulence and rapid aging, thinking his father already “lost, sold and surrendered to the other sphere.”

One day the family goes to the theatre and the young boy returns home to retrieve his father’s walle. On the way,he suddenly finds himself lost amidst alleys filled with stores filled with enchanting things.  Schulz writes “You could find Bengal lights there, magic boxes, stamps of long-vanished countries, Chinese decals, indigo, colophony from Malabar, the eggs of exotic insects, toucans, live salamanders and basilisks, mandrake root, windup toys from Nuremberg, homunculi in flowerpots, microscopes and telescopes, and, above all, rare and unusual books.”

Balint explains that sixty years after Schulz’s death, residents found the frescoes he painted for his sadistic Nazi master Felix Landau behind a pantry in the apartment where Landau had lived. An Israeli team appeared, and the frescoes disappeared and wound up in Yad Vashem. The Israelis claimed they had local clearance to do this, but the fracas that erupted afterwards indicates otherwise. This apartment building sat near Schulz’s beloved Drohobycz, which the Austro-Hungarian empire had once ruled. After the first World War, it was in Poland’s sovereignty. It eventually endured a brief Soviet occupation, and was in German control for a time, before finally winding up within Ukraine’s borders where it is located now.

Ukrainian officials insisted the Israelis return the frescoes, and eventually struck a deal with them, saying  that they were on temporary loan to Yad Vashem. Yet Yad Vashem remained unapologetic and issued a stern statement that was definitive in demanding their eternal rights to these frescoes:

 “As Bruno Schulz was a Jewish artist-forced to illustrate the walls of the home of a German SS officer with his sketches as a Jewish prisoner during the Holocaust, and killed by an SS officer purely because he was a Jew-the correct and most suitable place to house the drawings he sketched is Yad Vashem, the Holocaust martyr’s and hero’s remembrance authority in Jerusalem.  Unfortunately, it is a fact that from around 3.5 million Jews who lived in Poland before the Shoah, there are only a few thousand inhabitants…Therefore Yad Vashem had the moral right to the remnants of those fragments sketched by Bruno Schulz.”  Ukraine had placed a small plaque at the sight of Schulz’s murder, but right-wing thugs removed it in 2008 and sold it as scrap metal.  The thieves felt the memorial was an offense to Ukrainian dignity.

Although the incredible details of this Israeli heist and its aftermath make up a good portion of the book and Balint tells it to us insober and engaging prose, we can’t lose sight of the voice that is missing throughout these pages, Schulz’s himself.  Balint allows us to imagine who Schulz may have been and the forces that shaped his thwarted nature, but we can’t understand Balint’s peculiar silence on other matters.  I thought long and hard before wondering if I, as a fellow Jew, had the right to ask more of Benjamin Balint?  After all, as a biographer, he writes scrupulously, providing a gripping narrative.  Balint is an experienced writer, researcher, and scholar, but is that sufficient when discussing the tragedy of Schulz’s aborted life and the lives of his fellow Jews?

Does Benjamin Balint have an obligation to allow us to mourn alongside him; to open his heart to us about how he has processed all we have endured as a people.   Balint writes “When I stood before those murals at Yad Vashem, I couldn’t imagine the artist sapped of his vitality, compelled to flatter the fancies of his master, forced to flounder somewhere between lebensraum and todesraum (living space and death space), hourly reminded of his status as a disconsolate prisoner of an enemy who wished to dehumanize him.  I wondered whether he painted his desire to seize the reins of his own narrative, to reclaim dignity…”  Balint starts, but quickly falters and seems unable to finish.

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Elaine Margolin

Elaine is a book critic for The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Times Literary Supplement, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Jerusalem Post, Denver Post, and several literary journals. She has been reviewing books for over 20 years with a sense of continual wonder and joy. She tends to focus on non-fiction and biographies.

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