The fate of the frescoes

The fate of the frescoes

I was amazed to see the name of my small, humble town, Drohobycz, in the May 18 Jewish Standard. There was an article about the controversy over frescoes painted by the Jewish artist Bruno Schulz. I recall the day when Bruno Schulz was shot on the street of Drohobycz. It was in November of 194′. I remember this event because the next day my parents, sister, and I were caught, delivered to the Gestapo, and then, miraculously, released.

"Spotkanie" ("Encounter") by Bruno Schulz, 19’0. At left, the artist on the steps of his house in Drohobycz, circa 1936. painting from Museum of Literature in warsaw. Photo, collection of Jerzy Ficowski.

Bruno Schulz lived in our neighborhood. He led a sad life. He was poor, yet had to support his sister and their widowed mother. He taught drawing in our school. I remember that my sister came home one day with a drawing. Her art teacher had captured her exactly — a beautiful, slender girl with long braids. Needless to say, that drawing vanished, along with our entire household, during the war. Bruno Schulz also was a writer. His style resembled Kafka’s. He was ahead of his time and did not fit into our small town of 35,000. (Of the 7,000 Jews who lived there before World War II, only a few hundred survived the war.)

During the war, Bruno Schulz painted frescoes on the walls of a Jewish house inhabited by the Gestapo criminal Felix Landau, a carpenter from Austria who pretended to have artistic aspirations. In his spare time — when not killing Jews officially — Landau taught his mistress how to use a gun. Together, they killed several Jewish girls who worked in a nearby garden. One day, Landau had an argument with another Nazi officer. That other officer later gunned down Bruno Schulz in the street, simply to get back at Landau. After the war, Landau was captured, tried, and executed for murder. The frescoes survived and eventually were discovered under layers of ordinary house paint. They were moved and today reside, appropriately, at Yad Vashem in Israel.

About 15 years ago, survivors from my hometown made a pilgrimage to Drohobycz. They came from different parts of the world. Each had some family member buried on the outskirts of the town, where the Germans executed and buried many local Jews. My aunt, my cousin who was my namesake, and many of my childhood friends are buried there. Recently, I met and spoke with the renowned author and editor Leon Wieseltier, whose grandparents lived in Drohobycz and were killed there. I learned that they also are buried on the outskirts of the town.

These pilgrims erected a monument to the dead. I was not there, but I understand that the mayor of Drohobycz attended and gave a beautiful speech.

Six years ago, I fulfilled a lifelong dream and returned to my hometown for a visit. Naturally, I went to the sacred place of the common grave, erected nine years earlier. The monument had been torn down and the area was surrounded by garbage.

Now the Ukrainians are fighting to recover the frescoes painted by Bruno Schulz. They argue that he was a local artist, that his works belong in Drohobycz. I ask you: Do these Ukrainians, who did nothing to protect Bruno Schulz and his Jewish neighbors while the Jews were being killed, and also did nothing to preserve their memory since the war, need the Jewish frescoes today?

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