A European from Drohobycz: New Discoveries in the Life of Bruno Schulz

Historians today consistently accept that Polish literary modernism had its first and richest harvest during the 1930s with Witkacy, Witold Gombrowicz, and Bruno Schulz. This, however, was never an aligned group. Gombrowicz and Witkacy disliked each other when Schulz introduced them in Warsaw, but with their mutual friend they shared one common strategy: recognition in the new international vanguard of cultural experimentation.


This was in keeping with Goethe’s dictum a century earlier, that there is no such thing as nationalism concerning art or the artist. Schulz, after all, was of the same generation (1890-96) as the leaders of Surrealism, Tzara, Éluard and Man Ray also being of Jewish descent. We might suggest that Witkacy, a true Renaissance man in his own age yet a forerunner of Existentialism decades before Sartre, appeared too early for the Polish but not European clock. Gombrowicz was in a different geographical time-zone that he was able to readjust at the end of his life, but Schulz was tragically not allowed to wait so world interest could only follow afterwards. Decades later Gombrowicz, a close friend at one brief time, believed Bruno Schulz was the most European of Poland’s interwar literati, the most justified to be placed in the European current, but was consigned to an outsider of this spectrum by geography not art. Schulz’s mind embraced a wide universal model rooted in a particular milieu that impacted with historical Polish Romanticism, geographical confusion, a cultural-linguistic melting-pot, and also European modernism that became one escape tunnel being dug under the pavements and dust-tracks of his experienced locality.


This troika is the usual portal for non-Polish readers via translation. One or two contemporaries were noticed abroad, for example Aleksander Wat and Leśmian in the 1960s, Stefan Grabiński and Stanisław Przybyszewski more recently, but national classics such as Julian Tuwim and the Nobel laureates Henryk Sienkiewicz and W.S.Reymont elude wider interest outside what Joseph Conrad’s once-famous father called the “fluctuating borderland between Russia and western Europe”. Witkacy and Gombrowicz first established a reputation in France—in the 1920s and 1960s respectively—while Schulz entered the European pantheon due to a flurry of translations in the 1960s followed by Asia, South America, and Israel, where his art is now displayed as being Jewish rather than Polish. Some American writers have exploited his work—culminating in the biophagic cut-and-paste of Foer who calls Schulz ‘Austrian’ in interviews—but others as diverse as Bohumil Hrabal, Danilo Kiŝ, V.S. Pritchett, and John Updike registered homage to the shy, hyper-sensitive teacher. Schulz’s personal attempts at foreign recognition can, so far, be dated from late 1914 in Vienna to 1940 in Moscow, a non-stop process thwarted by events in the inter-war period.


First an artist, he then concentrated on the more private domain of short stories—or more accurately, prose poems. It’s notable that his own literary lights all wrote in German, which he learned fluently in the Austrian Habsburg Empire that the Viennese contemporary Karl Kraus described as “solitary confinement with permission to scream”. Rainer Marie Rilke, Franz Kafka, and Thomas Mann spanned the years 1875-1955, although the first two died in the mid-1920s around the time Schulz turned to writing. Rilke and Kafka questioned the religions of their upbringing (but not God), as did the Drohobyczian publicly in the failed hope of marrying a convert, Józefina Szelińska. (Her family still refuses any assistance to scholars, yet one visitor tells me that their home displays his art including oils.) Thomas Mann, a Protestant, wrote in his diary in 1933 about the moral superiority of the Jews compared to his countrymen. Schulz’s inner world was a complex amalgam of Mann’s Magic Mountain and Joseph legend, Kafka’s Trial and Metamorphosis (Transformation would be a closer translation), and Rilke’s poems and Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge based on Inwardness, the writer’s creativity returning the things of the world back to the world.


This is not to say that the deeply-Polish author didn’t read and respect the literature of his first language. Recent memoirs confirm that he met (and in some cases memorised the work of) Wat, Wittlin, Jastrun, and Zegadłowicz; the latter’s family still retain two of Schulz’s drawings that they showed me. The important novelist Zofia Nałkowska’s Diary strongly points to a much closer, intimate relationship of several months, but this was not investigated by Schulz’s first biographer Jerzy Ficowski and avoided in interviews with me. Overlaid on this canvas were Schulz’s art studies, explored in sporadic travels across the border. We now know that these excursions were far more often than his biographer allowed, and indeed he ignored the personal confirmation of this factor by Schulz’s grand-nephew and last direct relative. (The next edition of my Muse & Messiah studies this in more detail, alongside some startling new revelations about the background of Schulz’s family and the designates of his stories.)


Bruno Schulz, exactly ten years after his earliest surviving artwork, studied at Vienna’s Academy in 1917-1918, staying with relatives who, less successful abroad than Kafka’s family, have eluded research. He was not conscripted, unlike his brother, because his school-year was not called-up. Without a grant from his local Jewish community, pointing to an outsider status unlike the artist Maurycy Gottlieb, the family’s oral tradition says he was unhappy in the capital where Polish intellectuals formed their own Ognisko Club. Biographies say this was his only visit, but Paolo Caneppele’s superb research discovered that the student-artist was there several times. This was always known by Schulz’s heirs, but oddly didn’t find its way into Polish discourse. At least four earlier periods are recorded in Austrian visa documents, from November 1914 preceding the academic year, travelling south of Drohobycz via Hungary according to the stated border transit town. Caneppele thinks it plausible that Schulz was in Vienna for most or even all the war because dates overlap.


In this new light, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that he passed Franz Kafka on a boulevard or station platform where the Prague writer’s friends Milena Jesenska and Ernst Pollak were discussing him in Vienna’s famous art-cafés. Rilke also did his war service there. Such possibilities are significant because it was the zenith of place and moment for Expressionism that shows partial reflection in Schulz’s art, at a time when the bohemian world there was rocked by the funerals of Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele (it’s known that their art was being collected by oil-rich Jewish families in Drohobycz) and the controversial writer Frank Wedekind, a competitor of Przybyszewski in most of the capitals of Europe.


A personal, never-discussed possibility arises: the unemployed student could have been away from home when his father died in 1915, which (if true) has a crucial impact on his later prose. His mother was also there several times beginning six months after her husband’s death, and his brother, Izydor, in 1915 and 1917-19 when an Austrian army officer, accompanied by his wife (who appears in the stories). One of their two children was born in Vienna in 1915. Izydor, oddly absent from his brother’s stories like their mother, was an entrepreneur and engineer, the only one in the Drohobycz family to have a job. This fortunately saved them from penury after they closed their textile shop on the market square, which had a German sign according to a local newspaper.


Jerzy Ficowski tells us that the shop was burned down in the war, without explanation. My research found a now-declassified British Government report, dated April 1915, by an Englishman working in the local oil industry. This eye-witness wrote that the Austrian army retreated, taking the bank contents with them, when confronted by 12,000 Russians and a Cossack advance guard. A three-week blockade resulted in black-market food and looting, then some Jewish inhabitants who hadn’t fled—for example to Prague when met by Kafka and Brod—were accused of ‘treachery’ and spying by the Russians. Retaliation involved the burning of selected Jewish-owned buildings which almost certainly included the shop, as there was no serious bombardment. Stefan Zweig visited at the time and discusses Jewish trade but no war damage in his autobiography The World of Yesterday.

Bruno Schulz revisited Vienna at least twice more in the 1920s, probably seeking employment as the 28 year-old’s earliest surviving letter of May 1921 confirms regarding Warsaw. Another new find, by a scholar in Israel, is a letter by Charlotte Richman the daughter of Bruno’s cousin from his mother’s side. It is undated but says that the artist visited Berlin in 1920 or 1921 with his Booke of Idolatry, which partly reflects the decadence of Weimar Berlin and late Habsburg Vienna. They lived off Wilmersdorfer Strasse in the Charlottenburg district, newly incorporated into the city’s boundaries in the autumn of 1920. When added to his visits to Stockholm and Paris in the 1930s, a clearer image of his orientation is manifested.

In the new edition of Muse and Messiah I discuss the culture and events he was exposed to then prior to becoming a teacher where he had also been a pupil. Named after the Polish (but not Roman) Catholic name-day of Saint Bruno of Querfurt, a martyred missionary, Schulz clearly took influences from various religions, mythologies and cultures but none exclusively or doctrinally—he was motivated by art alone. Such elements are crucial for locating the identity of one who—like his country in its difficult geo-linguistic position—always looked west not east for inspiration, unlike Kafka and Brod. There is not a single mention in his letters or work—even when elliptically discussing the 1911 election to Vienna that included Zionists hailed by some locals as ‘messiahs’. There is a dichotomy between interpretation and fact in some 21st century interpretations, a focus that affects attempts at understanding: Schulz’s work has limited, undeveloped references to Judaism. They are scattered and isolated, of less consequence than his major motifs. A minority of others see these as modernist, rather than religious, tropes. Nor can his life be said to be motivated, either in its daily social aspect or future hopes (e.g. conversion for marriage), by Judaism. According to its own tenets, he chose the path of a meshumad, an apostate, in his life. I fear that the controversy with the wall-murals highlights this position—literally the removal of his work and therefore his identity—to a site, a ‘placeness’, at variance with his life and thought and choices, a trend which actually was absent for as long as 50 years after his death. There are no Jewish referents in this last work.


His preferred cultural centres were Lwów and Warsaw, but not the Kraków of the post-Romantic Young Poland movement that embraced Jungendstil/ Art Nouveau. Visits were often made to Zakopane where Witkacy lived, the southern mountain resort made famous by Henryk Sienkiewicz in the 1890s and Joseph Conrad. In the late ’30s he visited Paris and Stockholm in a quest to make contacts, as well as sending letters to an Italian editor and translators abroad. Yet Drohobycz and the neighbouring spa-resort of Truskawiec formed the chromosomes of his blood, an internal republic that could never be relinquished like Adam Mickiewicz’s borderlands of Lithuania-Poland. It was needed like a drug, an infusion, as creativity there was the one potent antidote against despair after temporary, dearly-won travels. His mantra-like prose is comparable to an induced trance-like state, and it confesses an odyssey. Through the motifs of night, dusk, dawn, seasons, storm, sleep, dreams, transformation of people and nature in a territory of isolation, a domain of introversion, the short-term effect fed the art of this cosmopolitan of culture.


Bruno Schulz’s method was mytho-poesis, a poetic interpretation of life and its events via symbol, metaphor, allegory and emblem. Mythology is formed on an assumption that an event literally happened, in some reality (however obscure it may seem later), but we cannot perceive the world’s meaning so need to create it. He worked as a heresiarch or demiurge to counter this fracture between myth—a basis of life’s interpretation—and presented reality within a space-time province called a Republic of Dreams, geographically north of the Carpathians in an age of innocence. Like Kleist’s notion of the ‘backdoor of Paradise’, i.e. another space in which a potential essence is tantalisingly just out of reach, a route was sought behind reality which is always somehow just around the corner, over the fence, beyond the toll-gates that marked then the borderlines of place. For this lover of mathematics it was a vector of overlapping spheres, not based on the restrictive nostalgia of the Romantics but hidden enchantment kept alive as a flame awaiting ‘maturity into childhood’, like Proust’s times’ past concept or W.B.Yeats’ Isle of the Blessed. Schulz’s personal mythology and adaptation of myths was embedded in western writers like these from at least the time of Heine.

Cultural geography called nationhood may be a sub-text of course. Germans prefer Vaterland like the first Slavs of Bulgaria, the French ‘la mère patrie’, Dostoevsky’s Mother Russia (rodina), the Vlast/otčina of the Czechs, the Jews’ ‘place where one can lodge’. The ancient Persians used both fatherland and motherland. Schulz, who wrote a now-lost “Die Heimkehr” (The Home-Coming) in German, seems to see his region like a land of ancestors. His separate story “Fatherland” (rather than the Polish Macierz, motherland) does not equate with the term’s normal meaning but the feelings of a traveller returning to his home-town, thereby giving a new sense to that emotive word: the life he had once known was in the land of the father. The patriarch (sharing the same Latin root as homeland and patriot), with life before and after his devastating death, is a major key to his tales, especially in Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (1937). Its ‘other life’ reflects Drohobycz before and after the father’s demise. Is the imbalance in his stories of father among his family—the mother only fleetingly appears, ghost-like—due to the author’s guilt at absence from his last days? Schulz was rooted there, both in the sense of ancestry but also the current family’s survival.


Bruno Schulz’s senseless murder by a Nazi, who was never caught, took place only 200 metres from the building where he was born, across one plot to his childhood’s courtyard. His world encompassed only a very small area of the town, behind the shop he was born above. From there to the school he later worked in as a teacher, to where he painted frescoes to stay alive under Nazi occupation literally on the same side of the road as his last home, could all be walked in fifteen minutes. Only the famous ‘street of crocodiles’, the main shopping street next to the town’s bazaar, was on the other side of the square, near the unmentioned neo-Renaissance Great Synagogue. Today the latter’s ruined frescoes resonate with Schulz’s scenes once decorating the bedroom of a Nazi’s children that became a post-war Ukrainian kitchen. With twenty nine stories, a few reviews outnumbering essays, a much-curtailed correspondence, one oil painting, and about 300 drawings, this is the entire oeuvre so far passed down from those terrible times.


Every writer chooses a commonwealth of fellow creators who tally with or reflect their self-image. For readers, posthumous reputation is shaped by biographers, but the true first witnesses are those who met the subject. These three inter-locked factors—influences, personal contacts, biographers—have become fused into a confused, unquestioned sequence by commentators (a laudable exception was his acquaintance Artur Sandauer). This surprising, regrettable, and almost unique situation today has extended the first biographies, which are a crucial groundwork of course with their own knowledge and wisdom, into the status of hagiography, unquestioned by the faithful, an almost theological process that Tadeusz Boy-Źeleński called ‘gilding’. An icon evokes its own myths. Walter Benjamin noted that Kafkaology suffers “the false profundity of uncritical commentary”, and alas this is sometimes the rule rather than exception in this subject. Schulz does honour his background, but to posthumously focus on it exclusively is to denude his achievement, which after all crosses sociological, geographical and ethnic borders not ‘because of’ but ‘in spite of’. The balance between biographical facts and the actual self of the author—hidden, encoded, secret except when it escaped the social self via art—is what worried a dissatisfied André Gide regarding Kafka and his posthumous commentators when the Frenchman adapted his work during the war.


In this age of popular reductionism, sticky labels can be too easily applied. Was Marx a Marxist or actually a bourgeois anti-Russian who had problems with his servants and a son with one of them; he said I am not a Marxist, in the same way Christ was not a Christian. The great teenage poet Arthur Rimbaud was a decadent who rejected literature—and all discussion of it—at 19 for a life of gun-running with Arabs in a desperate search to be rich. Polish people alone think of Mickiewicz as their national poet-patriot, but Lithuanians disagree and Europeans in Paris saw him as an internationalist of European culture generally. The French prefer to think of Chopin, Curie and Rousseau as French, Rilke is called a German (whom he detested), and Przybyszewski a Prussian. I use famous names here also for simplification. But do we think of Bruno Schulz as Bruno Schulz—i.e. as a writer and artist of great imagination who was unable to avoid the terror of daily life—or as a Jew, a Pole, a masochist…We cannot say his name got out of Drohobycz, Galicia, then Poland into the wider world based on his ethnicity, it would be absurd, it was because of his genius, his art and achievement, all of which contain their own forms of spirituality.


The author’s copyright ends this year, fortunately, because the English version is one of the worst possible, with illegal deletions, additions and changes including the first book’s title from Cinnamon Shops to The Street of Crocodiles. It will be most interesting to see how, seventy years later, this new period unfolds in the light of fresh attempts to convey his original work, as it has done worldwide with the pantheon of his preferred writers. Will it be synchronised with the vision, hopes, and wishes of the subject? The removal of Bruno Schulz’s last art from the walls of a suburb of Drohobycz to Jerusalem, still debated internationally, further raises the question of self-identity during his life-time.


Present time only has validity if it retains, and does not cut off, the past. Memory is the core of experience, a natural mine-shaft for writers. Schulz’s past included of course his family and the borderland he inhabited. From the farthest eastern frontier of Poland and Europe, the far western frontier of Russia, the readers of the world are invited into the world of a Polish-Jewish-Galician-European witnessing the end of a way of life. Yet, this vivid experience and attempt to comprehend it, by the first artistic son in his genealogy who augmented art with writing at a crucial moment, is of universal interest, not least because of the choices he had to make in his own reality which includes travels, orientation, ‘inner migration’, tastes, contacts, and also rejections for example of politics and religion as an exclusive path. It transcends nationality, upbringing, creed and, ultimately, borders that were arbitrarily imposed without the agreement of those who were there. Like all true art, the results are timeless yet very much part of their period, and thus an inspiration for fellow-explorers today.


© Brian R. Banks, June 2012

One thought on “A European from Drohobycz: New Discoveries in the Life of Bruno Schulz

  1. Wanda says: 14 May 2013 at 16:00

    Hi, I am a student interested in Polish-Jewish writers here in the UK. I just want to say that I really appreciate what you are doing. Hopefully, we can get in touch some time in the future. I would be more than happy to. All the best, Wanda J.

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