“His reputation later grew immensely”: Bruno Schulz’s legacy

There is an article in today’s New York Times on Bruno Schulz’s frescoes, which were created in 1942 on the orders of a Gestapo officer in the Drohobych ghetto and were “spirited away” in 2001, by Yad Vashem, the Jerusalem-based organization that has just opened their exhibition (as a permanent loan from the Ukrainian government). The frescoes (at least some which can be viewed on the NYT website—and which are remarkable not only for their outrageous history but because they give a sense of Schulz as a colorist and a deeper understanding of his irony) are undoubtedly better preserved by Yad Vashem than they would be had they been left in their original location, at least while it remained a private home. Their appropriation by the Israeli organization, however, whether viewed as underhanded or heroic, was illegal, and begs at least two rather difficult questions: whether Schulz’s ultimate identity is that of a Holocaust victim, and whether there isn’t still a place for East-Central European Jewish culture in East-Central Europe. “For officials at Yad Vashem,” according to the New York Times, the answer is clear: “Schulz was killed for being a Jew, and his work belong[s] [in Jerusalem].” But, as many people have pointed out time and again, Schulz lived and worked his entire life in Drohobych; and regardless of whether he considered himself more Jewish or Polish (a moot point inasmuch as Schulz, more than any other figure, is proof that the two predicates are not mutually exclusive), or the fact that his literary work is as much in dialogue with Polish modernism as with Talmudic tradition (David Goldfarb has an excellent essay on this), there is something to be said for the principle of archival authenticity. How much more powerful would be the experience of those frescoes were we to view them in the same space where Schulz once stood, meters away from the street where he and hundreds of his neighbors were killed by the Gestapo on the same day (and countless more over the course of the German occupation)? But maybe the “ongoing confrontation with the rupture engendered by the Holocaust” requires that more ruptures be engendered. I’m sure more people who have read and love Schulz will have a chance to see the frescoes in Jerusalem than they would in Drohobych. And who knows if a Schulz Museum will ever be established in Drohobych, or anywhere.

There has been considerable international debate about Schulz’s frescoes, in the U.S. most notably in the pages of the New York Review of Books (letters by Padraic Kenney et al. and Aharon Appelfeld et al.). Benjamin Paloff’s 2004 essay in The Boston Review provides a strong analysis of the cultural and political exigencies involved in both the frescoes’ fate and Schulz’s legacy. And in the appendix to the 2004 English-language edition of his critical biography of Schulz, REGIONS OF THE GREAT HERESY (translated by Theodosia Robertson for W.W. Norton), Jerzy Ficowski issues a powerful indictment of the frescoes’ removal.

Speaking of Ficowski, I was saddened to see his name left out of the New York Times article. Instead, all we get is the sentence “[Schulz’s] reputation later grew immensely,” which is a pretty shameless obfuscation given the word-count devoted to the Israeli novelist David Grossman (who is only one of many Schulz-inspired authors). Even Max Brod, whose own work is rarely read nowadays, gets a better shake, inasmuch as he is consistently mentioned when the question of Kafka’s posthumous reputation comes up. It is not an exaggeration to say that Ficowski singlehandedly established Schulz’s reputation after the war. He began researching Schulz as early as 1947; and the first of his numerous scholarly publications on him appeared in 1956, to be followed by the discovery and publication of previously unpublished texts and Schulz’s letters. Over forty years after its first publication, Ficowski’s REGIONS OF THE GREAT HERESY remains the most important book-length work on Schulz in any language. Unfortunately, Ficowski, who was a poet and short-story writer of the same generation as Hartwig and Herbert, died three years ago (see the Guardian.uk obituary).

Last year Penguin reissued Celina Wieniewska’s translation of Schulz’s two story collections as STREET OF CROCODILES AND OTHER STORIES, with an introduction by David Goldfarb and a foreword by Jonathan Safran Foer. David Grossman will be speaking about Schulz at the 92nd Streeet Y on May 4th. Details here.

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