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Bruno Schulz’s Wall Paintings

To the Editors:

The letter published in the November 29, 2001, edition of The New York Review by twenty-four learned and well-intentioned American scholars raises important issues such as the cultivation of cultural pluralism and diversity and the preservation of culture and the monopolization of memory. These and the other issues addressed in that letter are worthy subjects indeed, but the Bruno Schulz wall paintings from the Drohobych ghetto are the wrong object for this discussion.

The scholars in their letter have taken the subject of art and culture as a universal value and applied it to the case of these wall paintings. Central Europe has a history of religious and ethnic pluralism, imply the authors, and “an effort by any single group to monopolize his [Schulz’s] memory erases this history of pluralism.” As anyone who has studied the Holocaust knows, one of the keys to understanding this terrible period in history is to recognize not only its universal, but its specific and particular characteristics. The contexts in which to understand Bruno Schulz’s works are the Holocaust and the state of commemoration in Drohobych over the last fifty-seven years.

The wall paintings were not produced freely and spontaneously from the genius of the artist’s creativity, but rather as art created under duress, by a Jewish slave laborer during the Holocaust. These works, or what remains of them, do not reflect cultural pluralism, but rather the power of radical evil in a totalitarian society to crush pluralism and diversity, and to harness genius for its own purposes. As such, these wall paintings do have universal significance. Yet these pieces would not have their current enormous significance were it not for their Holocaust context. Rather, they are meaningful precisely because of this context. Bruno Schulz was persecuted, enslaved, and ultimately murdered because he was a Jew, not because he was a cultural pluralist or a symbol of universal artistic genius. Thus Schulz’s wall paintings are valuable Holocaust artifacts because they vividly and poignantly convey the exploitation of Jewish talent by the Nazis.

And what has happened to the Drohobych community and commemoration of the Holocaust, and of Bruno Schulz, there? The pre-war Jewish community of about 15,000, who constituted a large proportion of the city’s population, was reduced to 400 by the end of the war. Most of these Jews later emigrated and what remains today is a tiny community that is not even a vague shadow of what had once been Drohobych Jewry. The synagogue is in total disrepair and reeks of human waste, Schulz was hardly remembered in Drohobych, and his ghetto art was left to decay and be hammered with nails in a private residence, unknown to most of the world. There is little memory of the Jews or of the Holocaust in Drohobych, and little that the municipality could do to correct the situation. This may be why the mayor of the city and his colleagues were willing to help Yad Vashem acquire this ghetto art. They recognized that the art should be preserved as part of the memory of the Holocaust in general, and of the memory of Bruno Schulz in particular. Perhaps through Yad Vashem, to which visitors from all faiths and nationalities come and will continue to come, the memory of Drohobych and its Jews will not perish.

Aharon Apelfeld, Author
Shlomo Avineri, Hebrew University
Zvi Bachrach, Professor Emeritus, Bar-Ilan University
Yehuda Bacon, Artist
David Bankier, Hebrew University
Omer Bartov, Brown University
Ch. M. Basok, Adv., Art Collector
Yehuda Bauer, Hebrew University
Yehuda Bronicki, former resident of Drohobych
Israel Gutman, Hebrew University
Sharon Gutman Lightner, Vice President, Philadelphia Center on the Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights
Benno Kalev, Art Collector
Steven Katz, Boston University
Liliane Klapisch, Artist
Michael Levin, Chairman, Israel Public Art Committee, Israel Art Council
Franklin H. Littell, Richard Stockton College of New Jersey
Michael Marrus, University of Toronto
Dan Michman, Bar- Ilan University
Deirdre Mullan, RSM, Sisters of Mercy
Mordechai Omer, Director, Tel Aviv Art Museum
Dina Porat, Tel Aviv University
Carol Rittner, RSM, Richard Stockton College of New Jersey
Eloise Rosenblatt, Lincoln Law School of San Jose
John Roth, Claremont McKenna College
Marcia Sachs Littell, Richard Stockton College of New Jersey
Martin Weyl, Director Emeritus, Israel Museum
Hanna Ya-blonka, Ben-Gurion University
A.B. Yehoshua, Author
Harry Zeimer, former student of Bruno Schulz in Drohobych

Padraic Kenney and four others reply

It is disappointing that the distinguished authors of this thoughtful letter repeat some of the same misconceptions which led our colleagues and us to write our original letter. On behalf of our colleagues, and with thanks for their suggestions, let us offer a brief response:

We did not assert that the frescoes themselves reflect the cultural pluralism of Central Europe. Rather, we wrote, “The work of Bruno Schulz, after all, reminds us that this region was long one of unique cultural richness and diversity; an effort by any single group to monopolize his memory erases this history of pluralism.” Let us recall who worked to erase that pluralism: the Nazis, of course, and also the Communists. Both regimes have been vanquished, at least in Central Europe, and one cannot recreate what was lost. But one can do better than to enter after those two regimes have thoroughly looted the memory closet, in order to scoop up any overlooked remainders.

Placed in Yad Vashem, the frescoes will of course speak to us of radical evil, just as many objects of art around the world could be exhibited within a specific moral context. Placed properly in Drohobych, they would speak much more powerfully: not only of, again, the lost, dimly remembered world of a rich and diverse culture, but also of a noble effort to bridge the chasms separating us from that past, and from societies left behind in the cold war’s wake. Those interested in Schulz’s work should remember that Schulz was above all a writer—perhaps the greatest short-story writer in Polish. Nearly all his work is set in Drohobych; is it not the best homage to him to salvage some part of the world he loved, in situ? We repeat our suggestion that Yad Vashem could do much better by building partnerships in Central Europe. In this case, Yad Vashem might have helped to improve the physical condition and maintenance of the frescoes; and since some of them remain in Drohobych, it could still do so.

Apelfeld et al. make no mention of communism, so let’s be clear: that Schulz was forgotten for over fifty years was thanks to a regime that appropriated cultural symbols as it saw fit, and suppressed those traditions that were inconvenient; indeed, there was no translation of Schulz’s work in Ukraine until 1995. We can agree about the deplorable state of Drohobych, and perhaps the whole of Ukraine, therefore. But surely the time has long past when yet another load of Elgin marbles could be carted off to civilization. All over the world, museums are reevaluating their collecting practices, and are sometimes returning works of art long ago looted from private collections or entire communities. This is not the time to embark on a new wave of predatory collecting.

Finally, the suggestion that Drohobych’s mayor made a wise move, recognizing that his city could do little else, is irrelevant. Surely the authors are aware that to remove priceless artifacts from a country one needs rather more than the OK of the mayor; for a start, Yad Vashem might have obtained permission from Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture. Nor was Drohobych helpless. Many towns and cities in Central Europe have done far better in recovering and reassessing their pasts. Drohobych could do so too, were it not for this effort to wrest Schulz and his work out of any context but one.

Padraic Kenney, University of Colorado, Boulder
John Connelly ,University of California,Berkeley
Hugo Lane, Polytechnic University
Brian Porter, University of Michigan
Gale Stokes,Rice University

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