On the cross-roads of three cultures

On the cross-roads of three cultures

The life and works of Bruno Schulz


Much has been written about Bruno Schulz.

Thanks to translations into many languages, he is by now well known in many countries. The writer of this article has devoted two books to Schulz’s life and works — the latter belong to the truly outstanding achievements of Polish literature of the 20th century. Literary personalities of many lands have paid close attention to his oeuvre. Least attention, however, has been given to Schulz as a Jew — as the writer who matured at the cross-roads of three cultures: Jewish, Polish and German, which co-existed in the provincial climate of former Galicia.

While it cannot be disputed that this master of the Polish tongue and creator of superlative works in the language is, indeed, a Polish writer, (a fact which only antisemites and xenophobes tried to deny), it is also beyond question that he enriched this literature from sources and roots which were those of the writer himself. This genealogy is apparent not so much in the fairy-tale texture of his stories as in the characteristic symbiosis of the mythical and the mundane, the sacred and the profane, the workaday pre-occupations and the vision of his ‘Bible of our times.’ It is moreover determined by the author’s childhood, the peculiar climate of the ‘shtetl’ where his parent’s shop was so closely linked to the Jewish spiritual life that in Schulz’s visionary work it acquired a quasi-sacred aura, transformed into a temple of a singular cult: a cult devoted to an all-embracing mythology, an all-pervading poetry.

Schulz knew little of Jewish literature and read no Yiddish. A friend, whom he once asked to read to him Sholem Aleichem, relates that, having listened to long passages, Schulz was disappointed; he was looking for something else and found Sholem Aleichem touching only the surface of events without penetrating into the depths of reality or reaching the essence of what mattered. Schulz’s own path led him in a different direction. As he put it — he disregarded the purely eventful, attempting to plumb the depths. As a result, Schulz’s ‘ritualism’ is far removed, both in essence and in its expression — not to mention his use of language — from any ethnic restraints and his exoticism has nothing to do with the exoticism of the ghetto: it is universal.

Schulz devoted every moment free from teaching to writing and to art which he practiced since early youth. One could say that he removed himself from the ritual of the Synagogue to the temple of the arts. Nevertheless, he always remained fascinated by the magic of Jewish ritual and was peculiarly sensitive to it. On High Holidays, and especially on Yom Kippur, he used to go to the Synagogue in Drohobycz. There, as one of a congregation immersed in prayer, he would be moved not only by being at one with the mystery of his ancestry, but also experienced that which was one of the main- springs of his own creativity: the moulding of a day-like-any-other into something sacred and mythical. Similarly, as an art teacher, he would go with his pupils to a Catholic church and find himself moved by the power of the liturgy. He participated, but as an outsider. His friends and acquaintances — apart from the last stage when he reached Parnassus — came from the Jewish intelligentsia of Drohobycz and Lwow and its environs. His personality and his interests were formed among those people and with them he discoursed on the arts, and in groups which they formed together, discovered the delights of literature, music and song.

His parents, before the First World War, owned a draper’s shop in the Drohobycz market square. Their lives revolved more around the business than the Synagogue. While already far removed from strict traditionalism, they were nonetheless only partially and specifically assimilated. Bruno was born on July 12th 1892.

In the thirties he left the Jewish community. He did not sever his ties in a demonstrative way. The gesture was made because he wanted to marry his Catholic fiancée and civil marriages were only possible in the former German part of Poland. It never came to marriage but, until the end of his life, Schulz considered himself as ‘non-denominational.’ Yet, when a wunder rebbe visited Drohobycz and, at Bruno’s insistence, foretold the family’s fortunes, he implicitly believed in the prophecy.

It seems that superstition lay at the very roots of his imagination and this, in turn, gave rise to the main motifs of his literary creativity: ‘return to childhood’ and ‘mythification of reality.’ His magnum opus was to be a work entitled ‘Messiah’ — it probably remained unfinished and the manuscript disappeared. The Messiah’s coming was to symbolise — in keeping with Jewish tradition — the return to glorious perfection, as In the Beginning. In Schulz’s terms this meant simply the realisation of his ideal — the return to childhood, a state expressed in art in the fulfilment of that other Promise.

The yearning for lost childhood is as old as art itself. But none before Schulz had made it into the very essence of his creativity or used it to such literary perfection. Schulz found the key to the enchanted gates; other writers could do no more than spy through the keyhold. Hence Schulz’s place in literature is exceptional and unique and his ‘key’ inimitable. He does not conjure up memories — he fulfils his yearning; he writes no obituaries to the past — he recreates it; his is not a distant view of childhood — it is an immersion in it.

In one of his letters he wrote: “The art closest to my heart is a regression, the return to childhood. If we could develop backwards, reach our childhood by some round-about path and sense again its fullness and its infinity — this would indeed bring about the messianic era, promised and vouchsafed to us in all mythologies. My ideal is to ‘mature’ into childhood. Here you have true maturity.”

Schulz strives to realise this ideal and he tries to do this with the aid of myth — be it the myth of the Fallen Angels or that of the Coming Messiah.

What is this Schulzian myth-making which aims at perfection and calls itself ‘childhood’? It can only be seen as the most creative period in groping to comprehend reality, when every sensation sparks off a creative act and each step leads into the world of myths. This is the Genesis of each one of us, when reality is sensed for the very first time, untouched by order or habit, gradually becoming subordinated to new sensations and forms and to the energising power of sight. It is in these mythical regions that we should look for the source and fulfilment of Schulz’s work.

Precedents and prototypes for a vision of such penetrating power cannot be found in literature but rather in folk beliefs, eternal myths and legends. Just as ancient mythologies drew on humanity’s own childhood, so Schultz draws on his and calls it his ‘fabulous epoch’ where no barriers exist between his psyche and the world around, between dreaming and waking, fancy and reality, instinct and intellect — thus he is back in the womb of poetry — the very core of art.

This unprecedented and unique work went on in silence and loneliness — almost in secrecy. For a long time he betrayed it to no one and consequently, no one knew. Only his activity as painter and graphic artist was known to his friends from whom he did not attempt to hide it in spite of the strong masochistic nature of much of this work. His first literary works remained locked away in his desk and only saw the light of day when published 10 years later — at a time when the success of his first book Cinnamon Shops emboldened him to face the world as a writer. Since he had neither the courage nor the opportunity to address himself to his readers, he wrote to and for one reader — a reader of his letters. In about 1930 he found a soul companion in Deborah Vogel, a clever and intelligent Schéngeist and a poetess in her own right. His letters, which were gems of their kind even before their friendship, now blossomed into superlative prose, The delighted addressee spurred him on to sustained writing. In this way, letter by letter, story by story, his efforts grew into Cinnamon Shops, an anthology of letters furtively dropped into letter boxes. There could have hardly been another great literary work created in such an odd, yet natural, way.

In the luminous world of Bruno’s Drohobycz, many of the places and people are easily recognisable: the demented Tluja, Adela the maid, Mr. Karol, Uncle Hieronim, the half-witted Dodo, and Edzio the cripple. All of them, under different names have lived there, but in the Cinnamon Shops and the Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass their personae expanded, acquired a deeper meaning and, without losing anything of their ‘shtetl’ authenticity, grew to universal dimensions, as the elfs and demons of Schulz’s new mythology. These creatures, part real, part imagined, were the companions of his inner life and of his loneliness. In spite of his small circle of friends or his school activities, Schulz was a lonely man.

His loneliness was a complex phenomenon — it was not simply the result of his intellectual choosiness or of his dislike of noise and crowds. Partly it was due to his provincial existence which effectively cut him off from the mainstream of life; as a writer in Polish, his very Jewishness, was an isolating factor. The separateness was made more complete by his evident brilliance and the masochistic streak in which many saw a pathological extravagance so that even neighbours tended to shy away. Also, his being a Jew posed a problem. To non-Jews, even those that were not prejudiced, this very fact created a symbolic ghetto around him (this notion would have certainly existed in his own mind) — even though Schulz did not feel himself as fully belonging to it. The vacuum in which he found himself became intolerable in the late Thirties when extreme nationalism and antisemitism gained formidably in strength. This paralysed Schulz; he lost hope; his depressions became more lasting. Yet, he did not quite give up. There were still friends to help keep up his spirit but, in order to write, he receded still further into his isolating shell.

The last year of his life, a year of horror and suffering was now under way. A friend who miraculously survived several mass executions, shielded by the corpses of others, told Schulz of his experiences. Weak with hunger and extreme weariness, he wrote down every word, compiling material about the annihilation of his people he the worshipper of the ‘return to childhood’, the bard of a world of iridescent colour and overpowering scent.

On November 19th 1942, the local Gestapo and SS unleashed yet another of their ‘actions’ in the Drohobycz ghetto — a mere incident in the horror of their murderous genocide. Those who survived remembered this day as ‘black Thursday’ when more than one hundred persons were killed in the streets. By nightfall, they found Bruno Schulz dead on the pavement among other bodies: two bullets to his head put an end to his life. Later that night, a friend buried his body in the nearby Jewish cemetery.

Polish writers tried, with the aid of the Polish underground, to smuggle to him forged papers and money and get him to safety. The help came too late.

No trace remains of the cemetery or of his last resting place; the unpublished manuscripts which he gave for safekeeping to someone he thought he could trust, vanished. Thus perished, together with much of his literary work, one of the greatest Polish writers of our century who, like the other great Polish–Jewish writer, Julian Tuwim, gave Polish writing its finest lustre. He published barely two books: Cinnamon Shops (in American editions: Street of the Crocodiles) (1934) and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (1937). These works were at once acclaimed in Polish literary circles as artistic revelation and Schulz was honoured in 1938 with the award of the Golden Laurel of the Polish Academy of Literature. Many years later he was rediscovered by Europe and his works have now been translated into 15 languages. In Polish literature (and in literature in general) Schulz’s work stands unique. It was created far from literary caucuses, artistic rivalries or fashionable promotions — in the distant, becalmed climate of a provincial township; a writer’s soliloquy addressed to himself and to a few eavesdropping friends.