Bruno Schulz: An Artist, a Mur­der, and the Hijack­ing of History

By – April 3, 2023

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 (18921942) 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.

Discussion Questions

In his grip­ping biog­ra­phy of the essen­tial writer and artist Bruno Schulz, author Ben­jamin Balint takes read­ers on a jour­ney through Schulz’s kalei­do­scop­ic life. As the world shift­ed around Schulz, his com­mit­ment to being a dream­er and insti­ga­tor nev­er fal­tered — on the con­trary, it moti­vat­ed him to cre­ate, inspire, and ulti­mate­ly ele­vate the sto­ries of his time. Balint does a mas­ter­ful job of plac­ing Schulz in the canon of Jew­ish authors while also craft­ing a nar­ra­tive that makes the recla­ma­tion of Schulz’s work both exhil­a­rat­ing and insightful.