In the mid-1930s, Bruno Schulz was asked by a student at the primary school where he taught, “why [do you] paint things differently from the way they really are?” Schulz, not yet a famous author renowned for his surreal prose answered: “We can turn day into night and night into day. We may cover snow-capped mountains with luxuriant foliage. That is our, the artist’s, freedom, and such is artistic truth, which we can demonstrate through our works.”
Schulz’s 1937 book,
Sanitorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass
This artistic freedom is what, ultimately, would grant Schulz’s writing a modest degree of fame during his lifetime and, after his death, would influence a number of famous Jewish (and non-Jewish) authors, among them David Grossman, Cynthia Ozick, Philip Roth, and Nicole Krauss.
Born on July 12th, 1892 to Jewish shopkeepers in Drohobycz, Poland (now Drohobycz, Ukraine), Schulz was the youngest child in his family, and the frailest. Though he spent much of his childhood sick and isolated, Schulz was recognized as a brilliant student. He wrote and drew throughout his adolescence, but it was his academic performance that set him apart.
As a result, when Schulz studied architecture at college in Lvov he was expected to thrive, but because of financial problems, he was forced to drop out in 1914. He spent the next decade shuffling from job to job. He finally found steady work in 1924 as a drawing teacher in Drohobycz, at the school where he himself had been educated. There he became known for calming unruly classes with elaborate fairy tales. In his spare time, he drew, and wrote stories. Those who knew him well knew about his writing, but it was not until the 1934 publication of Schulz’s first book, Cinnamon Shops, that he achieved some measure of literary success.
Cinnamon Shops was a collection of short stories that Schulz originally wrote in the postscripts of letters to his friend, Deborah Vogel. The book was published to great acclaim, and soon after was nominated for Poland’s Literary News Prize. Decades later, in 1963, Cinnamon Shops was published in English under the name The Street of Crocodiles.
In 1937, Schulz’s second book of short stories, Sanitorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, was also published with immediate critical success. Both books, though officially fiction, functioned as memoir for Schulz, who drew heavily upon his childhood and family life to create the mythical worlds of his literature.
The stories in both of Schulz’s works reflect his obsessions: his childhood and parents, the unconscious mind and dreams and intuitions. In many of them, the figures of his father, and the family maidservant, Adela, loom large; Schulz was preoccupied with his father’s eccentricities, with Adela’s sexuality, and with her strange power over the Schulz family especially over the his father.
The Streets of Crocodiles
In an especially famous episode in The Street of Crocodiles, the character representing Schulz’s father moves to the top floor of their home, and begins to raise a colony of birds there. Eventually, he retreats almost entirely to this glorified bird cage, and refuses to leave it or clean it. Adela, disgusted by the smell, appears in “Father’s bird kingdom” (Street, p. 50), and throws open the windows, releasing all the captive birds: “A fiendish cloud of feathers and wings arose screaming, and Adela, like a furious maenad protected by the whirlwind of her thyrsus, danced the dance of destruction. My father, waving his arms in panic, tried to lift himself into the air with the feathered flock. Slowly, the winged cloud thinned until at last Adela remained on the battlefield, exhausted and out of breath, along with my father, who now, adopting a worried hangdog expression, was ready to accept complete defeat. A moment later, my father came downstairs–a broken man, an exiled king who had lost his throne and his kingdom.”
Critics have alternately described this writing, so typical of Schulz, as “fantastic realism” or surreal. The stories veer from the mythological and grotesque to the fanciful and sensual; as can be seen in the birds episode, they are often all of these.
In another story, father insists that dummies at the tailor be treated like real people, and endows them with human suffering and desires. Adela is the only one who can silence him. It is unclear whether these fictional episodes reflect real events of Schulz’s childhood. But for the reader, the answer is insignificant–it is the blend of the mythical and real that makes Schulz’s writing so eerie, so arresting, and so very powerful.
As for Schulz’s Judaism, there is evidence in his writing that he may have been somewhat preoccupied with Jewish texts. Critic Jan Blonski has argued that a mythical book referred to repeatedly in Sanitorium is, in fact, the Hebrew Bible, and that Schulz’s frequent mentioning of the creation story is a sign of his familiarity with it. Beyond this, the extent of his Jewishness is questionable–he was certainly not observant (and was, at one point, engaged to a non-Jewish woman for whom he was willing to repudiate his Judaism). And yet Schulz has been claimed by many contemporary Jewish authors as their own, likely owing to the fact that though he did not live much of his life as an identified Jew, he died as one.
Israeli author David Grossman has described reading Schulz and feeling “The gush of life: On every page, life was raging, exploding with vitality, suddenly worthy of its name; it was taking place on all layers of consciousness and subconsciousness, in dreams, in illusions, and in nightmares.” Grossman wrote a novel, See Under: Love, in which his main character, an author, becomes obsessed with the now-deceased Schulz and begins to believe that he is, in fact, channeling Schulz’s writing. Grossman’s protagonist also reimagines Schulz’s disappearance from Drohobycz–and envisions him jumping into the local river and joining a school of salmon.
The truth about Schulz’s death is much more tragic. In June of 1941 Drohobycz was occupied by the Nazis and Schulz’s artistic talent was discovered by a Gestapo officer named Felix Landau. Landau commissioned a number of paintings from Schulz which helped to sustain Schulz and his extended family for about a year. But in September of 1941, the Schulz family was forced to leave their home and move into the Drohobycz ghetto. Aware that Polish Jewry was facing destruction, Schulz immediately gave all of his writing and art to people he identified to a friend as “Catholics outside the ghetto.” Unfortunately, the identity of the caretakers remains unknown and the works themselves were never recovered.
In November 1942, Schulz, by then emaciated, weak, and starving, was in the ghetto attempting to find food when a Gestapo shooting spree broke out around him. A few weeks before, Schulz’s Gestapo “protector,” Landau, had shot a Jewish prisoner “protected” by another Gestapo officer, Karl Gunther. In an act of revenge, Gunther sought out Schulz and shot him dead. Schulz was one of 100 Jews killed that day in Drohobycz. Though he left behind only two small collections of stories, and perhaps a dozen essays, letters, and reviews, he remains among the greatest Polish writers of his generation.