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

National and religious labels held no appeal for Bruno Schulz, who was born an Austrian subject of the Hapsburg Empire, lived as a Pole, and died a Jewish victim of the Holocaust. This singular writer and artist preferred to think of himself as a citizen of what he called the “Republic of Dreams.”

Prescient indeed, as the region of Galicia in Eastern Europe, where Schulz was born and lived, ceased to exist in 1945, when it was broken up and parceled out. All that remains is the distant memory of a place where Poles, Ukrainians, Jews, and Germans once lived alongside each other in relative harmony.

In Bruno Schulz: An Artist, A Murder, and the Hijacking of History, Benjamin Balint spares a thought for his own grandparents, who also hailed from Galicia. And what a wonderfully empathetic biography Balint has written, so vividly does he bring Schulz back to life, both as a writer and an artist of prodigious, otherworldly talents.

Schulz in 1935. Isaac Bashevis Singer called him “one of the most remarkable writers who ever lived.”

“Like William Blake, Bruno Schulz thought as much in images as in words,” Balint writes. “Schulz’s stories are word paintings, and his drawings are stories.” Schulz’s literary reputation is largely based upon two slim short-story collections: Cinnamon Shops (1934, published in the U.S. as The Street of Crocodiles) and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (1937).

These stories were a huge influence on writers including Philip Roth, David Grossman, Olga Tokarczuk, and Cynthia Ozick. “If Schulz had been allowed to live out his life,” said the Polish-born Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer, “He might have given us untold treasures. But what he did in his short life was enough to make him one of the most remarkable writers who ever lived.”

Schulz was born in 1892, the son of a cloth merchant and a domineering mother. He mined the raw material of his childhood in the city of Drohobycz (now Drohobych, in Ukraine) for these fable-like stories, which dissolve the commonplace into the strange and unfamiliar. Balint describes the stories as “alternatively claustrophobic and boundless,” and likens them to “labyrinths, with time that circles and eddies.”

His drawings, which he rendered in a style of grotesque realism, were just as autobiographical in their themes. A lifelong fetishist with a masochistic streak, Schulz, who once proposed but never married, liked to depict himself and other men in his work as in awe of women’s sexual power, lying prostrate at their feet in a mixture of self-abasement and ecstatic fervor.

Spotkanie, a 1920 painting by Schulz.

In the dark days of the Holocaust, it was a mixed blessing for Schulz that his drawings should attract the attention of an art-loving SS officer, Felix Landau, who participated in numerous mass shootings of Galician Jews. In return for his protection, Landau ordered Schulz to paint portraits of himself and Gestapo officers’ girlfriends. Beginning in the spring of 1942, Landau had Schulz paint murals in several buildings in Drohobycz, including the villa that he had requisitioned for himself.

Balint contends that Landau, the stepson of a Galician Jew, was a “philistine of boorish bad taste.” He had personally “Aryanized” more than a hundred artworks from the collection of Fritz and Maria Altmann, including Gustav Klimt’s masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, also known as The Woman in Gold .

In Drohobycz, Landau took to calling himself the “General of the Jews” and strode around with a horsewhip instigating cruelty and summary executions. One witness cited in Balint’s book attests to having seen Landau asking a bunch of children who had been dragged out of hiding if they would each like a lollipop. He told them if they wanted one that they should open their mouths: “They did. One by one he shot them in their open mouths.”

The Infanta and Her Dwarfs, by Schulz.

Another time Landau killed the personal dentist of a fellow officer, Karl Günther. According to one of several contradictory accounts of Schulz’s murder, Günther shot Schulz in the head in revenge. Günther later reportedly told Landau: “You killed my Jew—I killed yours.” Schulz was 50 when he was murdered, in November 1942, and Balint shows how his tangled legacy was fought over for years to come.

The question of who owns an artist’s work after their death was also at the heart of Balint’s recent book, Kafka’s Last Trial: The Case of a Literary Legacy (2018). In Schulz’s case the disputed legacy remained concealed for many years. It was not until 2001 that a team of Polish and Ukrainian art experts crammed into the pantry of Landau’s former house in Drohobych to begin the arduous task of removing layers of paint to reveal the striking murals that lay beneath.

A fragment of a fairy-tale scene painted by Schulz, found in 2001 on the walls of the bedroom once occupied by the five-year-old son of Gestapo chief Felix Landau.

An international uproar ensued when it was discovered that Drohobych officials had colluded with Israeli agents to have portions of the murals spirited out of Ukraine to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. Eventually a deal was struck so that the disputed artworks would remain at Yad Vashem on loan from Ukraine for 20 years, after which the loan could be renewed every five years.

One wonders what Schulz would have made of this unseemly tug-of-war, which resulted in the murals being broken up into fragments. “In order to understand,” he once wrote, “man is obliged to reduce.... That is how pettiness gnaws its way through greatness.”

Tobias Grey is a Gloucestershire, U.K.–based writer and critic, focused on art, film, and books