On November 19, 1942, the artist and writer Bruno Schulz was gunned down, in the Jewish ghetto of Drohobycz, in Nazi-occupied Poland. Schulz was 50 years old, and according to what has become the standard account of his death, he was killed by a German officer who wanted to avenge a wrong done him by a fellow officer, who was Schulz’s sponsor and protector.
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Though less well-known than Franz Kafka, Schulz has acquired a similar sort of legendary status in recent decades, as larger audiences worldwide have discovered his work and as more details of his sheltered life and retiring personality have become known. There has even been an ugly legal showdown between Israeli and Polish institutions over who owns the Schulz legacy.
Bruno Schulz was born on July 12, 1892, in Drohobycz, in Galicia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire and now in Ukraine. His father, Jakob Schulz, owned a cloth shop in the town. His mother, the former Hendel-Henrietta Kuhmerker, came from a family that owned a sawmill and an oil refinery in the town. Bruno was the youngest of their three children.
Though the family were identifying members of the town’s Jewish community, the Schulzes weren’t especially observant and Bruno enjoyed participating in Catholic rituals, even as an adult teacher in a local school. He did not speak Yiddish.
Bruno entered the gymnasium in Drohobycz in 1902, where he both excelled in his studies and acquired a reputation as a dreamer and storyteller. Next he began architecture studies in Lwow.
But, frail to begin with, in 1911 he developed pneumonia and a heart condition, and returned to Drohobycz, convalescing over the next two years. Whenever he left Drohobycz, he always returned.
In 1924, after giving up his architecture studies and several years of unemployment, Schulz reluctantly took a job as an art teacher in the same gymnasium where he had been a student.
Even the wild animals listened
In the 1960s, when Jerzy Ficowski wrote his biography, former students of Schulz’s recalled how often he did nothing but tell them stories. When in 2008, David Grossman interviewed Ze’ev Fleischer, a former pupil who was then living in an old-age home in Be’er Sheva, for The New Yorker, he also heard how Schulz had tamed his often-difficult students by making up tales.
“It was like he was painting with words,” recalled Fleischer. “He told stories, and we listened—even the wildest animals listened.”
Schulz also began writing– impressionistic, dreamlike tales that combined elements of his own life with surreal fantasies. Grossman tells how the painfully shy Schulz came to Warsaw in 1933, in hope of arranging an audience with the well-known writer Zofia Nowkolska. Much in demand, Nowkolska reluctantly agreed to read one page of Schulz’s manuscript, but once she began reading, she immediately understood that she had made an important literary discovery.
An SS officer is captivated
Two volumes of short stories were forthcoming, “The Cinnamon Shops,” in 1934 (called “The Street of Crocodiles” in English) and “The Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass” (1937). An unfinished novel called “The Messiah” went missing during the war, and has never been found.
Schulz illustrated his publications with his own drawings, which were often erotic images depicting men being dominated by women. After the Germans arrived, Schulz’s artwork caught the eye of an SS officer, Felix Landau, who commissioned him to execute a mural in his son’s playroom. In return, Schulz was spared from hard labor and worse.
November 19, 1942, came during a three-day paroxysm of violence in the Drohobycz ghetto, when more than 100 Jews were murdered randomly in the streets. This is when Schulz was reportedly spotted by Gestapo officer Karl Guenther.
Guenther was intent on taking revenge on Landau, whom he held responsible for murdering a favored Jewish dentist. When Guenther spotted Schulz scurrying through the Aryan part of Drohobycz with a loaf of bread, he shot him dead. Later, when he met Felix Landau, according to testimony heard by Jerzy Ficowski, Guenther told him, “You killed my Jew – I killed yours.”
Grossman doubts the absolute authenticity of the story, but agrees that it captures the harsh and random cruelty of life under the Nazis.