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

  • By Benjamin Balint
  • W.W. Norton & Company
  • 320 pp.

A gut-churning account of a visionary lost to the Holocaust.

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

Reader, beware: Bruno Schulz: An Artist, a Murder, and the Hijacking of History is a tale of Nazi atrocities told in graphic detail. The brutality of the Nazi regime has been well documented elsewhere, but author Benjamin Balint tills new ground in focusing on a unique and controversial artist and author whose work was almost lost to the world.

The story of the masochistic Schulz set amid the horrors of the Holocaust does not make for cheerful reading. The artist created erotically suggestive sketches and paintings that belied his shy, disconsolate appearance. His paintings portray submissive men, often himself, slavishly caressing the feet of beautiful, partially clad women. 

Schulz never strayed far from home — at least physically — but his imagination took him well beyond the confines of what was considered proper in his hometown of Drohobych, now in Ukraine. He was born and lived his life as a Polish Jew in a region that was, depending on the vagaries of history, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Poland, or Russia. The provocative subject matter of his work confirmed the Nazis’ views about the depravity of the Jews while simultaneously appealing to their own prurient interests.

During the German occupation, Schulz’s art came to the attention of the murderous Felix Landau, a Gestapo officer who was noted for his exceptional — even by Nazi standards — viciousness. Landau’s contempt for Jewish lives is recounted here in all its gory violence, but he saw Schulz as a “necessary Jew,” a status that exchanged the artist’s services for Landau’s uncertain protection.

While under Landau’s control, Schulz was directed to paint murals on the bedroom walls for the enjoyment of Landau’s children. The fairytale murals were painted over and lost for many years until they were rediscovered in 2001 and removed, possibly by the Israeli intelligence service, Mossad. The artwork was taken to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Israel, sparking a controversy over cultural appropriation. 

Ultimately, Schulz’s protected status failed him, and he was gunned down in the streets of his hometown, not unlike many of his compatriots. Justice after the war was largely denied — or hijacked, according to the book’s subtitle. Landau was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to life in prison in 1962; his sentence was commuted in 1973, and he was released. Other Nazi perpetrators experienced convenient memory lapses or provided excuses for their culpability that allowed them to escape punishment altogether.

The most interesting part of the story is the enigma of Schulz. Was he depraved or a genius? Did he cooperate out of necessity or cowardice? He struggled with depression. His relationships with women were troubled. He was too weak to resist the Nazis and too frightened to flee after being supplied with forged papers. Yet he was also so desperate for his work to be published that he did once travel outside Drohobych to meet with a possible publisher.

Schulz was an author as well as a painter. In stories like “The Street of the Crocodiles” and “Cinnamon Shops,” he blended details of ordinary life with magical elements. If measured by the famous authors who admired him, he was a master of his craft. His work has been praised by the likes of Philip Roth, and Cynthia Ozick wrote a novel as an homage to Schulz based on one of his works. Jonathan Safran Foer even used one of Schulz’ short stories as a template for his own work, punching out words from the original text and creating a new novel from what was left.

Whether or not Schulz was a man to be admired, his work was original and provocative. His tales retain a charming, otherworldly quality, but his paintings, while titillating in their time, seem less so now. The sexual innuendo and dark mood of his drawings capture the pre-WWII atmosphere in Eastern Europe, an ethos that stands in stark contrast to the period of Soviet Realism that followed the war.

Balint is a library fellow at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem, and his works center on Jewish figures and history. While this book is successful in inviting the reader to seek out Schulz’s paintings and dip into his stories, the narrative is marred in places by unnecessary detail and section breaks that interrupt the flow. Yet the author is persuasive in his estimation that the world too soon lost a great artist. Bringing Bruno Schulz to the fore of all the deaths of the Holocaust leaves one wondering about what other talents were lost to posterity and how the world is poorer for it.

C.B. Santore is a freelance writer and editor in East Hampton, CT.

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