Bruno Schulz: An Introduction

 Elsewhere on, you can read Schulz’s story “The Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hour Glass” and an interview with translator John Curran Davis about Schulz.

Born in 1892, Bruno Schulz grew up in his parents’ mercantile shop, a Baroque and labyrinthine building on the market square of the provincial Galician town of Drohobycz. His early years appear to have been idyllic. The family business was, at least to begin with, successful, his family at the centre of the bustling activity of servants and shop workers. But his was a world pervaded by decline and decay, his father’s progressively worsening health, the decline of the business, somehow connected to cultural decline, a fine old world epitomised by the “cinnamon shops”, the old-town shops of old Jewish traders, giving way to an era of industrial expansion and population explosion, a result of the recent oil boom in the area.

He showed early promise as an artist. After graduating from high school, he briefly studied architecture in Lvóv. But his own illness forced a cessation of these studies, and as a result of his father’s illness, the family business was finally liquidated; the whole family was forced to move in with his married sister. With the onset of World War I and the death of his father, all continuity between the world of the now young adult Bruno Schulz and that earlier world, to which he would constantly return in his stories, was broken. Excused from military service due to his ill health, Schulz briefly studied fine art in Vienna, an obvious magnet for the artistically inclined Schulz, but at the same time the centre of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as it rapidly approached its last days. At the end of the war, Schulz became a citizen of the reconstituted nation of Poland. From 1918, Schulz was involved in Kalleia, a group of young intellectuals, artists and musicians in Drohobycz. He gained his first significant artistic success (and notoriety) in 1922, when his The Book of Idolatry, a collection of stylish, Expressionist and conspicuously erotic cliché-verre pictures, was presented at exhibitions in Warsaw and Lvóv. In 1924, Schulz commenced a teaching career (drawing and practical skills) at the local secondary school, which would provide his financial security throughout the years, and over which he would endlessly agonise as a hated distraction from his writing.

Bruno Schulz’s brief literary career began in 1934, following his discovery by the psychological-realist prose writer, Zofia Nałkowska, who recognized his talent in his letters to her. At her encouragement, the story collection The Cinnamon Shops was prepared and published, a dreamlike, mythologised account of events from his childhood, which established him as one of the leading proponents of the Polish avant-garde. He began to engage in correspondence with like-minded writers, Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, Julian Tuwim, Witold Gombrowicz and Zofia Nalkowska; but for the most part, save for some time in spent in Warsaw and an anticlimactic visit to Paris, Schulz remained in his hometown, kept up his teaching job, and lived somewhat isolated from the fashionable literary circles. A second story collection, The Sanatorium at the Sign of the Hourglass, was published in 1937. The following year, Schulz was awarded the Golden Laurel of the Polish Academy of Literature (which belies somewhat the popular misconception that his work went unrecognised during his lifetime). But this career was brought to an abrupt end by the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939.

In the initial stages of World War II, Drohobycz was occupied by the Red Army. Schulz continued to work as a schoolteacher, but his artistic talents were co-opted by the authorities for propaganda purposes, portraits of Stalin and the like; he attempted to continue his literary career, but his style was no longer in favour. In 1941, Drohobycz fell into Nazi occupation. All schools were closed, and Schulz lost his job. The family was moved to the Drohobycz ghetto. Schulz’s artistic talents were now appropriated by Felix Landau, a Gestapo officer who commissioned him to paint murals for his children and for various buildings of the German administration, affording him a pass in and out of the ghetto and a measure of protection as a “necessary Jew”. It so happened that another German officer, Karl Günther, was giving similar protection to a Jewish dentist in the town. During an anti-Jewish action, a day of general slaughter that has come to be known as “Black Thursday”, this dentist was killed by Landau. Günther, spotting Schulz in the “Aryan Quarter”, where he had gone to buy a loaf of bread, shot him dead in the street. Reportedly, he then went to Landau to tell him, “You shot my Jew, so I have shot yours.” Bruno Schulz’s body lay in the street until night-time, when he was buried secretly; the location of his grave is unknown. In his later years, Schulz was working on a novel entitled The Messiah, believed to be his mature masterpiece. The manuscript is believed still to exist somewhere in the KGB archives.

3 replies to “Bruno Schulz: An Introduction

  1. That is a really sad end to a guy who struggled throughout his life.
    Humanity sucks!

  2. Steve, I know just what you mean. But I think it is important to remember that our Bruno is also a representative of humanity! It has been said that to know the circumstances of his death somehow spoils, distorts one’s reading of his stories (“projects a teleology backward” on his work). I don’t believe it. His writing is not that fragile. To anyone that opens and begins reading his book, he is a victim no longer!

  3. Thanks for the bio. Been wanting to read Schulz’s work for awhile. Will now seek it at the library.