Reclaiming Bruno Schulz

Reclaiming Bruno Schulz

My eighth-grader is reading Elie Wiesel.

Of course he is. He’s at Yavneh Academy, and in eighth grade, Yavneh kids study the Holocaust.

And since he is my third child, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to note which books schools assign to kids who are learning about the Shoah: “Number the Stars” by Lois Lowry. “The Diary of Anne Frank.” “Night” by Elie Wiesel.

To appreciate the extent of the world we lost, it is essential to know about the life that flourished before the Nazis came. For this, people read Sholem Aleichem, Isaac Bashevis Singer, stories of the fools of Chelm.

But that’s because they’ve never heard of Bruno Schulz.

Bruno Schulz (1892-1942) was Poland’s greatest 20th century writer, and the granddaddy of magical realism. Gunter Grass, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Cynthia Ozick, David Grossman, Meir Shalev, Jonathan Safran Foer, Nicole Krauss – each of these writers was influenced by his work.

In his book of short stories, “The Street of Crocodiles,” the writing is philosophical, delirious, hypnotic, dreamlike. You don’t read Schulz for the plot; you read for the prose, the intensely sensual visuals, the way words unfurl like the leaves of a magical vine. Inanimate objects struggle to come to life. Secret rooms grow strange, trapped gardens. A boy becomes so light that he blows away with a gust of wind. The narrator’s father fears cockroaches so much that he becomes one.

With precision and poetry, Schulz lovingly describes the shops of his home town, scents, streets, schoolboys, storms, town squares, the relationships between members of a quirky extended family. He invents characters like Father, a dreamy, experimental luftmensch; a provocative housekeeper named Adela; an aunt who dries up and turns to ash from a fit of excessive anger; a mob of villagers who stone a flock of exotic birds from the sky. He conjures up a terrifying gale that barrels through town, a comet that is on a collision course with earth until it falls out of fashion. He describes simmering summer days, tailor’s dummies that may or may not constitute living matter, an uncle who hangs on a wall until he disappears. Schulz turns ordinary sights into a world of magic and wonder.

How tragic that the world that he describes with such vivid imagery is about to be utterly obliterated.

Some random quotes:

“There are things than cannot ever occur with any precision. They are too big and too magnificent to be contained in mere facts. They are merely trying to occur, they are checking whether the ground of reality can carry them. And they quickly withdraw, fearing to loose their integrity in the frailty of realization.”

“From all the crevices in the floor, from all the moldings, from every recess, there grew slim shoots filling the gray air with a scintillating filigree lace of leaves: a hothouse jungle, full of whispers and flickering lights – a false and blissful spring. Around the bed, under the lamp, along the wardrobes, grew clumps of delicate trees which, high above, spread their luminous crowns and fountains of lacy leaves, spraying chlorophyll, and thrusting up to the painted heaven of the ceiling.”

“The dark second-floor apartment of the house in Market Square was shot through each day by the naked heat of summer: the silence of the shimmering streaks of air, the squares of brightness dreaming their intense dreams on the floor; the sound of a barrel organ rising from the deepest golden vein of day; two or three bars of a chorus, played on a distant piano over and over again, melting in the sun on the white pavement, lost in the fire of high noon.”

Bruno Schulz was a shy, frail, brilliant Jewish artist and writer who lived in the far eastern Polish town of Drohobych, now in Ukraine. At university, he studied to be an architect. When his father died, he took on the only job he could get; he became a high school art teacher in order to support his mother, sister, and nephew.

All that remains of Schulz’s work are the stories that make up “The Street of Crocodiles,” and a second collection of linked stories called “The Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass.” The unfinished novel he was working on, “The Messiah,” was left with non-Jewish friends for safekeeping and has never resurfaced. (The disappearance of “The Messiah” manuscript is one of the great literary mysteries of the 20th century; it actually may be somewhere in Russia.)

Schulz’s lush, effusively worded stories give no warning of the conflagration that is to come. Drohobych was a particularly deadly place to be in the cauldron of World War II. Nearly the entire Jewish population was killed on the streets, herded into the nearby Bronica forest and massacred, or transported to concentration camps. For a year, Schulz found a protector and patron in the person of Felix Landau, an art-loving SS officer who commissioned him to paint murals of fairy tales on the walls of his son’s playroom. Landau respected Schulz, even inviting him to dine with his family.

In an epoch of murder on a massive and impersonal scale, Bruno Schulz’s death stands out. On November 18, 1942, there was an Aktzia in Drohobych. As Schulz walked down the street, an SS man named Karl Gunther came up behind him and shot him. Schulz’s execution was almost certainly an act of revenge; during a previous killing spree, Landau shot Gunther’s dental technician. The next time he saw Landau, Gunther told him, “You killed my Jew. Now I killed yours.”

In Poland and in Ukraine, Bruno Schulz is a national hero, celebrated as one of their greatest writers. There is even a yearly Bruno Schulz Festival in Drohobych, with readings and stage productions of his work. But here in America, among the Jewish community, few even know who he is.

I propose we reclaim Bruno Schulz, whose words have been a firestorm of inspiration to some of our most gifted writers. Read a story, any story, from “The Street of Crocodiles.” High school teachers – assign one to your students. Students of social history – read it if you want to know more about what we lost in the war. Lovers of literature – read it if you want to be consumed by fiction that burns like poetry.

Whatever you do, read this book.