|Schulz in 1935: He rarely left his home town, |
but his works contain an entire universe.
The Age of Genius
The legend of Bruno Schulz
By David Grossman
June 8, 2009
An afternoon in spring, Easter Sunday, 1933. Behind the reception desk of a small hotel in Warsaw stands Magdalena Gross. Gross is a sculptor, and her modest family hotel serves as a meeting place for writers and intellectuals. In the hotel lobby sits a Jewish girl of about twelve, a native of Lodz. Her parents have sent her to Warsaw for a school holiday. A small man, thin and pale, enters the hotel, carrying a suitcase. He is a bit stooped, and to the girl—her name is Jakarda Goldblum—he seems frightened. Gross asks him who he is. “Schulz,” he says, adding, “I am a teacher, I wrote a book and I—”
She interrupts him. “Where did you come from?”
“And how did you get here?”
“By train, by way of Gdanski Bridge.”
The woman teases him. “Tanz? You are a dancer?”
“What? No, not at all.” He flinches, worries the hem of his jacket. She laughs merrily, spouting wisecracks, winking past him at the girl.
“And what exactly are you doing here?” she asks finally, and he whispers, “I am a high-school teacher. I wrote a book. Some stories. I have come to Warsaw for one night, to give it to Madame Nalkowska.” Magdalena Gross snickers, looks him up and down. Zofia Nalkowska is a renowned Polish author and playwright. She is also affiliated with the prestigious publishing house Rój. With a little smile, Gross asks, “And how will your book get to Madame Nalkowska?”
The man stammers, averts his eyes, yet he speaks insistently:
Someone has told him that Madame Gross knows Madame Nalkowska. If she would be so kind—
And when he says this Magdalena Gross stops teasing him. Perhaps—the girl guesses—this is because he looks so scared. Or perhaps it’s his almost desperate stubbornness. Gross goes to the telephone. She speaks with Zofia Nalkowska and tells her about the man. “If I have to read the manuscript of every oddball who comes to Warsaw with a book,” Nalkowska says, “I’ll have no time for my own writing.”
Magdalena Gross asks that she take one quick look at the book. She whispers into the phone, “Do me a favor. Just look at the first page. If you don’t like it, tell him and erase the doubt from his heart.”
Zofia Nalkowska agrees reluctantly. Magdalena Gross hangs up the phone. “Take a taxi. In half an hour, Madame Nalkowska will see you, for ten minutes.”
Schulz hurries out. An hour later, he returns. Without the manuscript. “What did she say?” Magdalena Gross asks.
He says, “Madame Nalkowska asked me to read the first page to her out loud. She listened. Suddenly she stopped me. She asked that I leave her alone with the pages, and that I return here, to the hotel. She said she would be in touch soon.”
Magdalena Gross brings him tea, but he can’t drink it. They wait in silence. The air in the room grows serious and stifling. The man paces the lobby nervously, back and forth. The girl follows him with her eyes. Years later, after she has grown up, she will leave Poland, go to live in Argentina, and take the name Alicia. She will become a painter there and marry a sculptor, Silvio Giangrande. She will tell this story to a newspaper reporter during a visit to Jerusalem, nearly sixty years after the fact.
The three wait. Every ring of the telephone startles them. Finally, as evening draws near, Zofia Nalkowska calls. She has read only thirty pages, there are things that she is certain she has not understood, but it seems to be a discovery—perhaps the most important discovery in Polish literature in recent years. She herself wishes to have the honor of taking this manuscript to the publisher. The girl looks at the man: he seems about to faint. A chair is brought to him. He sits down and holds his face in his hands.
Of the many stories, legends, and anecdotes about Bruno Schulz that I have heard over the years, this one especially moves me. Perhaps because of the humble setting of this dazzling début, or perhaps because it was recounted from the innocent vantage of a young girl, sitting in the corner of the lobby, watching a man who seemed to her as fragile as a child.
And another story I heard: Once, when Schulz was a boy, on a melancholy evening his mother, Henrietta, walked into his room and found him feeding grains of sugar to the last houseflies to have survived the cold autumn.
“Bruno,” she asked, “why are you doing that?”
“So they will have strength for the winter.”
Bruno Schulz, a Polish Jewish writer, was born in 1892 in the town of Drohobycz, in Galicia, which was then within the Austro-Hungarian Empire and today is in Ukraine. His oeuvre is small: only two collections of stories survive, and a few dozen essays, articles, and reviews, along with paintings and drawings. But these pieces contain an entire world. His two books—“Cinnamon Shops” (1934; the English translation is titled “The Street of Crocodiles”) and “The Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass” (1937)—create a fantastic universe, a private mythology of one family, and are written in a language that brims with life, a language that is itself the main character of the stories and is the only dimension in which they could possibly exist. Schulz also worked on a novel called “The Messiah,” which was lost during the war. No one knows what was in it. I once met a man to whom Schulz had shown the opening lines. What he read was a description of morning rising over a city. Light growing stronger. Towers and steeples. More than that, he did not see.
On the publication of his first book, Schulz was immediately recognized as a rare talent by the Polish literary establishment. Over the years, he has become a figure of great interest to readers and writers worldwide. Authors such as Philip Roth, Danilo Kis, Cynthia Ozick, and Nicole Krauss have written about him, made him a character in their books, or reinvented his life story. An aura of wonder and mystery hovers ceaselessly over his works and his biography. “He was one of those men on whose head God lays His hand while they are asleep so that they get to know what they don’t know, so that they are filled with intuitions and conjectures, while the reflections of distant worlds pass across their closed eyelids”: so wrote Schulz about Alexander the Great, in his story “Spring” (as translated by Celina Wieniewska). But one could easily say the same of Schulz. And perhaps also of us, his readers, as his stories work their way into our mind.
One day, I received a telephone call from a man named Daniel Schilit, a Polish Jew who had come to live in Israel. He had read my book, and he said, “You obviously are greatly influenced by Bruno Schulz.”
I was young and polite and didn’t argue with him. The truth is that, up to that moment, I had not read a single story by Schulz. But, after the phone call, I thought I should try to find one of his books. And that very evening, at the home of friends, I happened to come across a Hebrew edition of his collected stories. I borrowed it and read it. I read the whole book in several hours. Even today it is hard for me to describe the jolt that ran through me.
When I got to the end of the book, I read the epilogue, by one of Schulz’s Hebrew translators, Yoram Bronowski. And there, for the first time, I came upon the story of how Schulz had died: “In the Drohobycz ghetto Schulz had a protector, an S.S. officer who had exploited Schulz to paint murals on the walls of his house. The rival of this S.S. officer shot Schulz in the street in order to provoke the officer. According to rumor, when they met thereafter, one told the other, ‘I have killed your Jew,’ and received the reply: ‘All right, now I will go and kill your Jew.’ ”
I closed the book. I felt as if I had been bludgeoned. As if I were falling into an abyss where such things were possible.
Not always can a writer pinpoint the moment at which a book sprouted inside him. After all, feelings and thoughts accumulate over a period of years, until they ripen and burst out in the act of writing. And yet, although for many years I had wanted to write about the Shoah, it was those two sentences, this devastating sample of Nazi syntax and world view—“I have killed your Jew,” “All right, now I will go and kill your Jew”—which were the final push, the electric shock that ignited the writing of my novel “See Under: Love.”
Schulz’s many admirers know the story that I just told about the circumstances of his death. The Polish author and poet Jerzy Ficowski, one of the greatest scholars of Schulz’s life and work, recounts in his book “Regions of the Great Heresy” how, a short time before the Black Thursday massacre in Drohobycz, in 1942, the Gestapo officer Felix Landau shot a Jewish dentist named Löw, who had been under the “protection” of another Gestapo officer, Karl Günther. There had been a grudge between Landau and Günther for some time, and the murder incited Günther to take revenge. Proclaiming his intentions, he went looking for Schulz, a Jew who had been under Landau’s protection. Taking advantage of the Black Thursday Aktion, he shot Schulz at the corner of Czacki and Mickiewicz Streets. “According to accounts of several Drohobycz residents,” Ficowski writes, “when meeting Landau, Günther announced triumphantly: ‘You killed my Jew—I killed yours.’ ”
This is the canonical version of the story. But there are some who believe that although Schulz was indeed killed in the Drohobycz ghetto, that horrible exchange was fabricated, a legend. The debate about Schulz’s death has endured for decades. Apparently, there is no way to settle the issue—nor do I expect that other evidence, such as the testimony that I am about to report, will lay the matter to rest.
From the time I knew that I was going to be a writer, I also knew that I would write about the Shoah. And, as I grew older, I became even more convinced that I would not truly be able to understand my life in Israel, as a person, as a father, a writer, an Israeli, a Jew, until I understood the life that Ihadn’t lived—in the time of the Shoah, in the space of the Shoah. I wanted to find out what there was in me that I could have used to oppose the Nazis’ attempt at erasure. How would I have preserved my human spark within a reality that was wholly devised to extinguish it?
Today, I can say that Schulz’s writing showed me a way to write about the Shoah, and, in a sense, also a way to live after the Shoah.
Sometimes there are such moments of grace: you open a book by an author you don’t know, and suddenly you feel yourself passing through a magnetic field that sends you in a new direction, setting off eddies that you’d barely sensed before and could not name. I read Schulz’s stories and felt 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. I felt the stories’ ability to revive me, to carry me beyond the paralysis and despair that inevitably gripped me whenever I thought about the Holocaust or came into contact with the aspects of human nature which had ultimately allowed it to happen.
In his story “Tailors’ Dummies,” Schulz wrote about his father, a cloth merchant:
It is worth noting how, in contact with that strange man, all things reverted, as it were, to the roots of their existence, rebuilt their outward appearance anew from their metaphysical core, returned to the primary idea, in order to betray it at some point and to turn into the doubtful, risky and equivocal regions which we shall call for short the Regions of the Great Heresy.
There is no more precise description of Schulz’s writing itself, of his incessant search for the “metaphysical core” of things, but also of his brave capacity to change his point of view in an instant, and to turn, at the very last second, in the most ironic and ambiguous way, to the Regions of the Great Heresy.
This is the strength of this writer, who has no illusions about the arbitrary, chaotic, and random nature of life yet is nonetheless determined to force life—existence both indefinite and indifferent—to surrender, to open itself wide and expose the kernel of meaning hidden in its depths. I would even add: the kernel of humanity.
But although Schulz is a big believer in some significance or meaning or law that generates and regulates everything in the world—people, animals, plants, even inanimate objects, to which he often also grants, with a certain smile, souls and desires—he is still able to uproot himself suddenly from this faith and deny it absolutely, with a sort of bottomless, demonic despair, which only intensifies our sense of his profound loneliness and our intuition that, for this man, there was no consolation in the world.
In an old-age home in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba, in the early summer of 2008, I met Ze’ev Fleischer. A short man, slight and bald, with huge eyeglasses, he was, at eighty-three, sharp-minded, ironic, and disillusioned, and his humor was seasoned with bitterness. Most of all, he was self-effacing, never missing an opportunity to diminish or make fun of himself. He liked to write “satirical songs and fleeting aphorisms,” and had collected his works in a book, entitled “Above My Sailboats.” In his youth, for two years, from 1939 to 1941, Fleischer had been a pupil of Bruno Schulz’s at the Sternbach Gymnasium, a private high school for Jews, in Drohobycz. It was situated on Szaszkiewicz Street, not far from the city center.
“Officially, Schulz was a teacher of arts and crafts,” Fleischer told me. “He was very shy and bottled up. His stock was very low, in the eyes of others, of strangers. Why? Because a man, after all, has to earn money! And someone like Schulz, who wrote ‘nonsense,’ counted for nothing. At most they regarded him as human sawdust. . . . His friends, mostly literary people, arranged a job for him at the Gymnasium. They, the friends, saw his talent and his genius—this was after the publication of his books. They saw that he had no chance of surviving in a climate that valued only money, and they decided to help him.
“He was supposed to teach us drawing and handicrafts, but he understood very quickly that as an art teacher he would get no respect from the students. In general, he was one of those people who kind of apologize for their very existence, so you can only imagine what went on during his lessons. In Schulz’s class, there were mainly kids who were disciplinary problems, and he knew he would be fresh meat for them and their ridicule, and I think he realized very fast that he could save himself only if he did something different. So he had this brilliant idea—he would tell us stories. Extemporaneous stories, on the spot, and that’s what he did, and it was like he was painting with words. He told stories, and we listened—even the wildest animals listened.”
Fleischer laughed. “He did nearly nothing else. I don’t think he drew one line on the blackboard the whole year. . . . But he told stories. He would come into the classroom, sit down, then suddenly stand up and start walking around, talking, with hand gestures, with that voice of his, and the wildest kids sat there enchanted.”
I asked what kind of voice Schulz had.
“When he spoke softly, he would dominate. There were no imperatives in his voice. And there was always this feeling that he himself was hearing—how do I put it?—that this was a kind of music for him. He spoke in a monotone, but colorfully. He didn’t care about commas or question marks. But he was very impressive. His quiet was very impressive. His music was in the quiet. And we, the students, adjusted ourselves to this quiet. Apparently, he didn’t know how to talk loud.
“And he was afraid of us,” Fleischer added. “He was always in a sort of defensive position. . . . Because most of the students, they saw him as a lemech, a nebbish, but, when he told stories, that shut them up. They didn’t understand much, but they felt him. I don’t know if he ever wrote any of those stories down. I can’t recall them specifically. But I remember that they were stories not from this world—they were mystical. After the war, I called up a friend who had studied with me there in the Gymnasium, and he didn’t remember Schulz at all. But on me Schulz made an impression—I guess because of certain feelings of inferiority, which I still have to this day, and he, Schulz, also had, and this was a connection between us.
“I also knew Schulz because he lived across from my aunt on Bednarska Street,” Fleischer went on. “He was my father’s age. Older than me by thirty-three years. When he was our teacher, I couldn’t control myself, and I would run after him at the end of the lesson: ‘Professor!’—that’s what we called all our teachers—and I would ask him what he had meant in a story he’d told us, and he would stop and talk to me, talk to me like we were equals. Even though they were already calling him one of the giants of Polish literature. His lack of self-confidence was so obvious. He would walk into class: ‘Sorry I came,’ ‘Sorry I’m breathing,’ a character like that, walking bent over, there was always that stooped element in him.
“His sense of humor was laughing at himself. . . . When he would start to tell a story, there would be a moment when he wasn’t sure of himself, always at the beginning, but as soon as he started to spin out the story, and saw that the class was quieting down, suddenly there would be this smile on his face, half ironic. Now they’re listening, they’re sitting down, nobody is moving. And then this smile of his, it was . . . like he was celebrating his temporary victory, but at the same time he was also kind of laughing at himself.”
In my book “See Under: Love,” Bruno Schulz appears both as himself and as a fictional character. In his fictional guise, I smuggled him out of wartime Drohobycz, under the noses of the literary scholars and the historians, to the pier in Danzig, where he jumped into the water and joined a school of salmon.
Perhaps because salmon have always seemed to me the living incarnation of a journey. They are born in freshwater rivers or lakes. They swim there for a while, and then head for salt water. In the sea, they travel in huge schools for thousands of miles, until they sense some inner signal, and the school reverses direction and begins to return home, to the place where its members were hatched. Again the salmon swim thousands of miles. Along the way, they are preyed upon by other fish, by eagles and bears. In dwindling numbers, they scoot upriver and leap against the current, through waterfalls twenty or thirty feet long, until the few that remain reach the exact spot where they were spawned, and lay their eggs. When the babies hatch, they swim over the dead bodies of their parents. Only a few adult salmon survive to perform the journey a second time.
When I first heard about the life cycle of salmon, I felt that there was something very Jewish about it: that inner signal which suddenly resonates in the consciousness of the fish, bidding them to return to the place where they were born, the place where they were formed as a group. (There may also be something very Jewish in the urge to leave that homeland and wander all over the world—that eternal journey.)
But there was something else as well that drove me to choose salmon, something deeply connected with the writings of Bruno Schulz. Reading his works made me realize that, in our day-to-day routines, we feel our lives most when they are running out: as we age, as we lose our physical abilities, our health, and, of course, family members and friends who are important to us. Then we pause for a moment, sink into ourselves, and feel: here was something, and now it is gone. It will not return. And it may be that we understand it, truly and deeply, only when it is lost. But when we read Schulz, page by page, we sense the words returning to their source, to the strongest and most authentic pulse of the life within them. Suddenly we want more. Suddenly we know that it is possible to want more, that life is greater than what grows dim with us and steadily fades away.
When I wrote the “Bruno” chapter of my book, and described an imaginary scenario in which Bruno flees the failure of civilization, the perfidious language of humans, and joins a school of salmon, I felt that I was very close to touching the root of life itself, the primal, naked impulse of life, which salmon seem to sketch in their long journey, and which the real Bruno Schulz wrote about in his books, and for which he yearned in every one of his stories: the longed-for realm that he called the Age of Genius. The Age of Genius was for Schulz an age driven by the faith that life could be created over and over again through the power of imagination and passion and love, the faith that despair had not yet overruled any of these forces, that we had not yet been eaten away by our own cynicism and nihilism. The Age of Genius was for Schulz a period of perfect childhood, feral and filled with light, which even if it lasted for only a brief moment in a person’s life would be missed for the rest of his years.
“Did the Age of Genius ever occur?” Schulz asks, and we, his readers, ask along with him. Was there ever really an age of sublime inspiration, when man could return to his childhood?
When mankind could return to its childhood? An age when a primeval river of life, of vitality, of creativity, gloriously raged? An age when essences had not frozen into forms, when everything was still possible and plentiful and nascent?
Did the Age of Genius ever occur? Schulz wonders. And, if it did, would we recognize it, answer its secret call? Would we dare to relinquish the elaborate defense mechanisms that we have constructed against the antediluvian wildness and volcanic abundance of such an age, defenses that have, bit by bit, become our prison?
A few years after Schulz wrote that line came an age that was the utter opposite. An age of slaughter. Of massive, faceless destruction. And yet to that terrifying call many responded, so many, with depressing eagerness.
In “See Under: Love,” I struggled to bring to life, if only for a few pages, the Age of Genius, as Schulz had suggested it in his writings. I wrote about an age in which every person is a creator, an artist, and each human life is unique and treasured. An age in which we adults feel unbearable pain over our fossilized childhoods, and a sudden urge to dissolve the crust that has congealed around us. An age in which everyone understands that killing a person destroys a singular work of art, which can never be replicated. An age in which it is no longer possible to think in a way that will produce such sentences as “I have killed your Jew”; “Now I will go and kill your Jew.”
Stalin once said, “One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.” When I read the stories of Bruno Schulz, I can feel in them—and in myself—the ceaseless pounding of an impulse to defy that statement, an impulse to rescuethe life of the individual, his only, precious, tragic life, from that “statistic.”
And also, of course—need one say this at all?—the urge to rescue, to redeem, the life and death of Schulz himself.
“We owe the sole eyewitness account of Schulz’s murder in the ghetto of Drohobycz on November 19, 1942, to a fellow-townsman, Izydor Friedman, who survived this particular butchery,” Jerzy Ficowski writes, in his book “Letters and Drawings of Bruno Schulz,” which appeared in English in 1988. Ficowski quotes Friedman, who escaped the Nazi horrors thanks to forged documents: “I was a friend of his before the war and remained in close contact with him to the day of his death in the Drohobycz ghetto. As a Jew, I was assigned by the Drohobycz Judenrat to work in a library under Gestapo authority, and so was Schulz. This was a depository made up of all public and the major private libraries. . . . Its core collection was that of the Jesuits of Chyrow. It comprised circa 100,000 volumes, which were to be catalogued or committed to destruction by Schulz and myself. This assignment lasted several months, was congenial and full of interest to us, and was paradise by comparison with the assignments drawn by other Jews.”
Friedman’s meaning is perfectly clear, of course, but it is hard for me to believe that Schulz was indifferent to the significance of the job that had been imposed on him, to the cruel irony that he was the man sentenced to decide which books would be saved and which would be destroyed.
Friedman continues, “We spent long hours in conversation. Schulz informed me at the time that he had deposited all his papers, notes, and correspondence files with a Catholic outside the ghetto. Unfortunately he did not give me the person’s name, or possibly I forgot it. We also discussed the possibility of Schulz’s escaping to Warsaw. Friends . . . had sent him a [false] identity card from Warsaw. I provided him with currency and dollars, but he kept putting off the departure day. He could not summon up the courage and meant to wait until I received ‘Aryan’ papers.
“On a date I don’t recall, in 1942, known as Black Thursday in Drohobycz, the Gestapo carried out a massacre in the ghetto. We happened to be in the ghetto to buy food. . . . When we heard shooting and saw Jews run for their lives, we too took to flight. Schulz, physically the weaker, was caught by a Gestapo agent called Günther, who stopped him, put a revolver to his head, and fired twice.
“During the night, I found his body, searched his pockets, and gave his documents and some notes I found there to his nephew Hoffman—who lost his life a month later. Toward morning, I buried him in the Jewish cemetery. I was unable to identify his grave site after the liberation of Drohobycz in 1944.” (In his book “Drohobycz, Drohobycz,” the Polish Jewish writer Henryk Grynberg points out that it would have been difficult for Friedman to single-handedly bury Schulz’s body.)
According to Ficowski, Friedman’s is the only eyewitness testimony of the murder of Schulz available. I thought so, too, until, in the middle of the conversation at the old-age home in Beersheba, Ze’ev Fleischer told me the following:
“In ’42 there was an Aktion that lasted a full month. Generally, an Aktion would go on for a day or two. The Germans would catch their quota of Jews, and it was over. But that time, four weeks. At night it was quiet, and in the daytime they went hunting. I was working then at forced labor, in the oil refineries. At 5a.m. everyone had to show up in front of his house, and from there we went to work until seven at night. At that time we had agreed with my mother that she would go into hiding at a place where my uncle worked as a pharmacist.
“And so from the day the Aktion started I didn’t see her. I lost contact with her, and I went to look for her. I was very tied to her, and I decided, against all logic, somehow to get to the place where I thought I would find her. And on the way I saw how groups of Germans would see here and there a Jew, or some Jews, and shoot them. This wasn’t an Aktion where they rounded up Jews to be sent away. This was murder on the spot. They simply looked for any Jew, anywhere, and shot him. Look—today, they call us heroes. Some heroes! We were mice, most of us. We hid in our holes.
“Drohobycz is a small town, and between the houses, also inside the houses, the hunting went on, and on the way I saw groups of Germans, and with every group there was also one Jew, who worked in the Ordnungsdienst, which was sort of an auxiliary force to preserve order, and their people were armed with clubs, not guns.
“And suddenly I heard shots. I stood by a wall and waited for it to be over. And then I saw a group of Jews, two or three Jews, walking past a house, this was on Czacki Street, and some Germans and Ukrainians with guns were also there, and they shot at the Jews, and the Jews fell down.
“I waited for the Germans to go away, and then I walked past the dead people. There were dead bodies everywhere. Dead people in the street was an everyday thing. If you saw the dead body of a cat in the street it would have made a bigger impression. I didn’t notice that anything special had happened, and I also didn’t know who they were. I almost walked right past that one dead man, but when I saw the bread I drew closer.
“I saw, from one of the bodies lying on the sidewalk, something like a piece of bread. It was sticking out there, from the pocket of his trenchcoat. I went over to this dead man, and I guess I wanted to take his bread. And the dead man turned over. I turned him over, and the way I turned him he was facing me, and I look and see that it’s Schulz. It was Schulz’s face.”
Fleischer stopped, folded his hands on his head, took a few deep breaths.
“And then what did you do?” I asked.
“I can’t tell you . . . it was something shocking, so much that I’m not sure that . . . what did I do? My instinct was to take the bread and run away. And it seems I didn’t do that. It seems I didn’t do it. Look, a person who doesn’t eat—and we, after all, didn’t eat, we ate inedible things, we ate soup that was mostly water with some grass or something. . . . And here I see, in his coat—it looked like, like a serious piece of bread. And I went over to this dead man, and apparently I wanted to take the bread from him. I wanted to pull out the bread and go. I even thought, I’ll come to Imma with bread, how happy she will be, but I . . . you know, I can’t . . . I don’t know what I did with that bread. I think I left it. Yes. I left because I saw his face, with blood here and here.” Fleischer pointed to his forehead, his eyes, covered his whole face with his hand. “I kept running, and by the end of the day I found my mother.”
“Did you recognize Schulz immediately, the moment you saw his face?”
“Sure. First of all, he had a very typical face. He had this nose . . . he looked a little like a mouse. But he had a high forehead, and this I always would notice because my parents would say that a person with a high forehead was very smart.”
“Do you remember what you felt when you saw that the dead man was Bruno Schulz?”
“I felt a chill and I felt afraid. . . . You understand by now that he was more than a teacher for me. I felt a special kind of connection with him; he was a spiritual relative in certain respects. I also felt that my personality was a little similar to his . . . hesitant, bashful, my lack of self-confidence. When they all laughed at him, I felt so sorry for him. I completely identified with him. And I always admired him, for the way he would talk and we would see a picture. We could smell the things he described. I remember how, for example, he described the smell of cinnamon, which was dominant in the commercial area of Drohobycz, and I, all my life, never could stand the smell of cinnamon, but only when he described it I loved it. . . . And suddenly I see him dead. I was about seventeen at the time, and I had already seen many dead, but suddenly—him.”
I asked Fleischer if he knew the story of Schulz’s murder.
“Of course. It was a big rivalry between two of them. Landau was his patron, and there’s a version that’s hard for me to accept—those who say Günther killed him. It’s hard for me to accept, you know why? Because Günther was an officer in the Gestapo. So I can’t quite imagine Günther running in the street to kill him. He could have killed him other ways. No, regarding this question I have no idea. I have no answer till this day. There’s a million stories I heard.”
In the days following my meeting with Fleischer, I found myself returning in my mind, again and again, to the picture of the boy leaning over the body of his beloved teacher on the street, and the bread peeking from the dead man’s jacket pocket. Something in the way Fleischer had spoken about the event wouldn’t leave me alone. I asked him if he would agree to tell me one more time the story of those moments. To my surprise, he readily repeated for me what he remembered.
“He, the dead man, lay on his side in a way that you couldn’t see his face. He lay bent over like this—” Fleischer demonstrated with his body, and I thought of Bruno Schulz lying stooped over, just as he was in life. “And I also noticed that he had these shoes, tenisowki, tennis shoes . . .”
Fleischer spoke again about the bread. “It was a loaf of bread. Like a brick . . . more mud than bread. Half of it was sawdust. It was like a piece of mud they used to bake then. If I stuck in a finger, it would go in like it was modelling clay.”
And what happened then? I asked.
“What happened? . . . I took it. Maybe I took a bite of it? No. No. . . . Anyway, I can’t tell you clearly what exactly happened with that bread.”
I told him that what he’d faced at that moment seemed to me more terrible than any possible answer to the question of whether he took or didn’t take the bread; I also said I was sure that Schulz would have been happy to know that it was his student who had taken his bread.
Fleischer nodded, but couldn’t agree with me wholeheartedly. Then he said, “I think I ate. Very little. Two or three bites. Not more. Then it broke in half in my hand. I wanted to run away.” I asked if he had also taken some of the bread to his mother, and he said that he didn’t remember. “Apparently, yes. Maybe not. . . . But even if I had brought it to her I wouldn’t have told her from where. At that time we didn’t talk much.”
I said to Fleischer that I wanted with all my heart to believe that he had indeed eaten the bread of Bruno Schulz, that there had been such a moment between them. He shrugged and said, “I don’t know. I’m not sure. It was one of those things that are impossible to remember.” And he sighed. “It was horrible, the whole thing, from beginning to end, and in those days I thought mostly about my mother and my father and about myself. Only afterward it came back to me. After the war. I dreamed a series of dreams, for a year or two, about friends of mine walking in a line and not wanting to talk to me. Turning their backs on me because I stayed alive and didn’t help them. I felt that this was my sin. I still feel that way now.”
Fleischer met Jerzy Ficowski, the biographer of Bruno Schulz, in 2003, in Poland, when they were interviewed for a television documentary. He told Ficowski his story but asked that it not be published, lest the myth of Schulz’s death be spoiled. Ficowski replied that Fleischer could think it over, and then talk to him again. But they didn’t meet again, and Ficowski died in 2006. “My thinking about myths has changed since then,” Fleischer told me. “Again and again I discover myths that were broken and ideals that were shattered. The story must be told.”
The description of Schulz’s murder as reported by his friend Izydor Friedman is different, of course, from Fleischer’s description. I do not know which of the two is accurate, and it is possible that the definitive facts will never be confirmed. From where Fleischer stood during the shooting he likely wouldn’t have seen exactly what was happening, and he himself says that he was not paying special attention at the moment of the killing. There is no reason to doubt his word about what he went through when he found himself crouching over the dead body of his teacher.
Fleischer’s testimony provides us with the story of one more human contact with Bruno Schulz, after his death and before his body was buried. Contact that for a moment redeemed him from the anonymity of the murder, and also from that vile “statistic,” and gave him back his name, his face, and his uniqueness. This brief contact echoed everything that had been good and nourishing and generous in him toward his young student. This contact “allowed” Bruno Schulz to perform one more act of grace, even after his death.
In recent years, I’ve been going back, more or less once a year, to the stories of Bruno Schulz. For me it’s a sort of annual tune-up, a strengthening of the antibodies against the temptations of apathy and withdrawal. Every time I open his books, I am amazed anew to discover how this writer, a single human being who rarely left his home town, created for us an entire world, an alternate dimension of reality, and how he continues even now, so many years after his death, to feed us grains of sugar—and crumbs of bread—so that we may somehow make it through the cold, endless winter. ♦
(Translated, from the Hebrew, by Stuart Schoffman.)
Casa de citas / Bruno Shulz / Muchachas
Casa de citas / Bruno Shulz / Camas
DE OTROS MUNDOS
Bruno Schulz / Un ajuste de cuentas entre pistoleros
La pesadilla infantil de Bruno Schulz
Andrea Aguilar / El aura de los libros perdidos
Adam Zagajewski / Bruno Schulz, el otoño al acecho
Bruno Schulz / Um mundo que troca de pele
Bruno Schulz / Palavras que criam mundos
Bruno Schulz / Murals illuminate Holocaust legacy row
Obituaries / Jerzy Ficowski
Bruno Schulz / A brief survey of the short story
From Frankenstein to Pinocchio / Top 10 artificial humans in fiction
Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles
Tree of Codes by Jonathan Safran Foer / Review
The Age of Genius / The legend of Bruno Schulz
Bruno Shulz / August