In Bruno Schulz: An Artist, A Murder, and the Highjacking of History, Benjamin Balint revisits issues he explored in Kafka’s Last Trial, which was awarded the 2020 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. In both books, Balint’s subject is “the political implications of who controls cultural heritage.” This text in particular looks to the story of Polish Jewish author and artist Bruno Schulz (1892−1942) in an attempt to investigate the fate of art created by Jews in Eastern Europe during the Holocaust. In asking “Who Owns Bruno Schulz?,” Balint charts the arguments and reactions — raw and still unresolved — concerning the meaning and, above all, the location of Holocaust memory in our own time.
Schulz was spiritually and geographically bound to his native Drohobycz, a multicultural city in Eastern Galicia that was saturated with Yiddish-speaking Jews (Balint counts twenty synagogues in the 1930s). Schulz himself, however, came from an acculturated Polish Jewish family and spoke and wrote only in Polish.
The disturbing core of Balint’s Bruno Schulz recounts, in granular detail, Schulz’s murder, an act of cold-blooded revenge. He was killed on the streets of Drohobycz — by then a Jewish ghetto — on November 19, 1942, a day of planned mass killing remembered as “Black Thursday.”
Because of his reputation as an artist, Schulz had been designated a “necessary Jew” by Felix Landau, the head of the gestapo overseeing Drohobycz. But Landau, Balint notes, was also “a sadist beyond Schulz’s imaginings.” He forced Schulz to create pictures on the walls of his children’s nursery in exchange for his protection. Schulz’s art was, we might say, executed under duress. He knew he could be put to death at any moment.
As the story is told, Landau, who in his diary boasted about shooting Jews for sport from the balcony of his villa, killed a local Jewish dentist named Adolf Löw on a whim. Löw had also been designated a “necessary Jew” by Karl Günther, Landau’s fellow Nazi. In response, Günther murdered Schulz. “You killed my Jew,” Günther is reported to have announced to Landau, “I killed yours.” Here, Balint grimly reflects, “Neither Schulz’s artistic achievements nor his formal renunciation … of his belonging to the Jewish community carried any weight for his murderer … The end of Schulz’s life was determined by people who behaved like predatory beasts.”
In a final section, called “Afterimages,” Balint turns to the debate over Schulz that was ignited in the winter and spring of 2001, during the filming of Bernard Geissler’s documentary, Finding Pictures (2002). The film follows the search for Schulz’s murals sixty years after his death. In an astonishing, unanticipated sequence, it captures a moment of revelation: layers and decades of paint are carefully scraped away from the walls of the pantry in the present-day villa Landau, as Schulz’s murals, based on Grimm’s fairy tales, begin to emerge. At this charged moment, we bear witness to Holocaust memory rupturing into the present.
In May 2001, after representatives of Yad Vashem secretly negotiated with the owner of the villa and perhaps bribed Ukrainian officials (after the war Schulz’s Drohobycz became part of the Ukrainian region of the Soviet Union; in 1991, with Ukrainian independence, it officially became part of Ukraine), Schulz’s murals were hurriedly removed and dispatched to Israel to be displayed at Yad Vashem, Israel’s state museum dedicated to Holocaust history and memory. The “highjacking of history” of Balint’s title refers to the controversy between Ukrainian officials, cultural figures, and municipal leaders in Drohobycz who wanted the murals to remain in situ.
In a moving epilogue, Balint reflects on the meaning of the controversy over who owns Schulz’s murals — a debate about the location of Jewish memory and the question of its legitimate homeland. “How does Schulz’s orphaned art,” he asks, “figure in the politics of erasure?” It is a poignant, cosmic question with no easy answers.
In the end, Balint does not appear to accept the logic of Yad Vashem — that it has the “moral right to [Schulz’s] remnants” — nor the argument that “even the most acculturated European Jew belongs to Israel.” At the same time, Balint doesn’t trust that Schulz’s murals could survive the physical neglect, latent antisemitism, or the repression of Holocaust memory that marks present-day Drohobycz. His work, after all, looms as a rebuke, recalling Landau’s casual murder sprees, the Nazi genocide in Drohobycz, and the horrific fate of Polish and Ukrainian Jewry in general.
Was the case of Schulz’s murals a rescue or a theft? A highjacking or a necessary moral “aliyah”? Balint concludes that, ultimately, Schulz “eludes his exegetes.” His case appears irresolvable. He will continue to gnaw at Jewish memory as a haunted, and haunting, figure.
Donald Weber writes about Jewish American literature and popular culture. He divides his time between Brooklyn and Mohegan Lake, NY.