Bruno Schulz was a Polish-Jewish writer, painter, illustrator, best known for his short stories that revive the magical reality of Poland’s pre-war shtetl’s. He was born in 1892 in Drohobych, a town of modest size located in western Ukraine, not far from the city of Lvov. He spent nearly his entire life there and was generally unwilling to travel. He viewed Drohobych to be the center of the world and was a acute observer of life there, proving himself an excellent “chronicler.” His writings and his art are both saturated with the realities of Drohobych. His stories are replete with descriptions of the town’s main streets and landmarks, as well as with portraits of its inhabitants. His first collection, The Cinnamon Shops was published in 1934; in English-speaking countries, it is most often referred to as The Street of Crocodiles, a title derived from one of the chapters. This novel-memoir was followed three years later by Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass. The original publications were fully illustrated by Schulz himself; in later editions of his works, however, these illustrations are often left out or are poorly reproduced. He also helped his fiancée translate Franz Kafka’s The Trial into Polish, in 1936. In 1938, he was awarded the Polish Academy of Literature’s prestigious Golden Laurel award. The outbreak of World War II in 1939 caught Schulz living in Drohobycz, which was occupied by the Soviet Union. There are reports that he worked on a novel called The Messiah, but no trace of this manuscript survived his death. Following the German invasion of the Soviet Union, as a Jew he was forced to live in the ghetto of Drohobycz, but he was temporarily protected by Felix Landau, a Gestapo officer who admired his drawings. In 1942, During the last weeks of his life, Schulz painted a mural in Landau’s home in Drohobycz, in the style with which he is identified. Shortly after completing the work, Schulz was bringing home a loaf of bread when he was shot and killed by a German officer. Over the years his mural was covered with paint and forgotten. In 2001 the murals considered destroyed fifty years earlier were discovered. Unfortunately, the discovery was partly destroyed when representatives of the Yad Vashem Institute in Israel secretly removed significant fragments of the murals and transported them outside of Ukraine. The pieces that remained were transferred to the Drohobychina Museum in Drohobych and were presented for the first time in Poland in 2003 as part of an exhibition titled Republic of Dreams. In 2008, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs admitted that parts of the mural were indeed taken from the town deceptively and signed an agreement with the Ukrainian government whereby they would be loaned to Israel for 20 years. Since 2009 they have been exhibited at Yad Vashem.
*Image: Bruno Schulz, self portrait 1920-1922.