Who Owns Bruno Schulz?
Poland stumbles over its Jewish past.
December 1, 2004
Dec 1, 2004
25 Min read time
Poland stumbles over its Jewish past.
On November 19, 1942, the great Polish author Bruno Schulz left his home in the Jewish ghetto of Drohobycz—according to the generally accepted version of the story, he had gone to fetch a ration of bread—and was shot to death by a German SS officer. The author of two critically acclaimed short-story collections and a graphic artist of growing renown, Schulz had survived the Nazi occupation as long as he did under the protection of Felix Landau, a vicious Gestapo officer who fancied himself a patron of the arts. Landau was fond of Schulz’s drawings, which frequently depict dreamlike scenes of sexual humiliation, and he had ordered Schulz to decorate his son’s playroom with images from fairy tales. During the last year of his life, Schulz received special permission to leave the ghetto to paint Landau’s frescoes. It has been said that, shortly before his death, Schulz was planning to leave Drohobycz, a provincial Polish town now located in western Ukraine, once and for all—so-called Aryan papers had already been prepared for him. But on this day in November, which would become known locally as Black Thursday, the SS shot more than 250 Jews at random in the street, Schulz among them. Some accounts specify that Schulz’s murderer was Karl Günther, Felix Landau’s rival in the local Gestapo, who wanted to get back at Landau for killing his Jewish dentist. “You killed my Jew,” Günther is reported to have told Landau later. “Now I’ve killed yours.”
This modest chapter of history, a commentary on the fragility of life and art in the face of unequivocal evil, has become inextricable from Schulz’s increasingly global standing as a late-Modernist master. Yet in his native Poland, Schulz’s Jewishness and the manner of his death are side notes to an extraordinary reputation based on the accomplishments of his life. Schulz’s stories, phantasmagoric portraits of small-town life during the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian empire, are told in a lush, lyrical prose that is widely credited with reinvigorating the Polish literary language of the 1930s. His two slim volumes, Cinnamon Shops (translated into English as The Street of Crocodiles) and Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass, are modern classics, widely read and taught in schools. Schulz criticism is a veritable industry within Polish academia, and new discoveries in the ongoing search for lost Schulz artifacts are widely publicized and discussed in the Polish press.
In a country where major literary figures are treated as national heroes, efforts to understand Schulz have inevitably led to uncomfortable conversations about how he died and even more unsettling discussions about what it means to be a Jewish Pole or a Polish Jew. Indeed, no single figure in Poland’s cultural history has demonstrated a greater potential—or a more troubled legacy—for confronting Poles with their pre-war Jewish heritage.
It is a heritage that, as the European Union celebrates its long-awaited expansion into what had been the Eastern Bloc and, at the same time, witnesses a steady rise in anti-Semitism, Poles are keener than ever to rediscover—after a fashion. Apart from the Jewish American tourists, who can explore set locations used in Schindler’s List before boarding a bus to the State Museum at Auschwitz, and the performers who arrive here every July for the Festival of Jewish Culture (now in its 15th year), most Poles have little or no contact with actual Jews. Jewish life is something for cultural displays and historical exhibits, which helps explain why visitors to the innumerable souvenir shops can purchase wooden figurines of black-cloaked, bearded Jews, usually displayed somewhere between the witch puppet and the doll of the fairy princess. InKraków, the country’s cultural capital, the Polish experience of Jewishness is roughly comparable to what American tourists can glean of Norwegian or Moroccan culture by visiting the World Showcase at Epcot Center. On summer nights at the Singer Bar, in the center of Kraków’s historic Jewish quarter, Polish hipsters crowd around tables weighed down by the antique sewing machines once used by local tailors. A similar scene is repeated throughout this neighborhood, originally the medieval Jewish town of Kazimierz, where trendy pubs and restaurants attract a flourishing nightlife with loud music, dim lighting, and artifacts—a black suit hanging on the wall, a ceramic Star of David on an old stove—of a culture that, before the Nazi occupation of Poland, constituted roughly 25 percent of the local population. The best estimates put the current number of practicing Jews in Kraków at around 100, and while the city’s seven synagogues have been converted to museums or lecture halls, its formerly Jewish-owned storefronts and cafes are booming. Bruno Schulz occupies a central position in this Jewish chic. While he has been enchanting Polish readers for generations, discussions in the cultural mainstream of how Schulz’s life and death reflect a specifically Jewish experience in Central Europe are more recent. Increasingly, Schulz is regarded as a kind of cultural bridge: Poles see him as entirely Polish and entirely Jewish at the same time, making him both mysteriously alien and wholly native, an enticingly exotic member of their own family.
For this reason, Schulz has lately been leaving a bitter taste in the mouths of some of his Polish admirers, who are now being forced to question whether he was theirs in the first place. In February 2001, a young German documentary filmmaker named Benjamin Geissler traveled to Drohobycz with his father, Christian, to document the latter’s longtime preoccupation with Bruno Schulz and the mystery of the murals Schulz painted for Felix Landau in 1942. For almost 60 years, no one had been able to locate Schulz’s last artworks, and they were presumed lost for good. But to the astonishment of scholars and Schulz enthusiasts around the world, Geissler and his small crew ended up finding the frescoes, which emerged as shadows from behind layers of whitewash in the pantry of what is still a private residence. The discovery made international headlines, and specialists arrived from Poland to examine the find—polychromes depicting colorful, fanciful figures, some with faces bearing a striking resemblance to Felix Landau and his mistress.
Then, almost as quickly as the images had appeared, they were gone. In May 2001,representatives from Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority, in Jerusalem, arrived in Drohobycz and hastily removed those portions of Schulz’s murals that had already been uncovered by the Polish art conservationists. Yad Vashemleft behind what had yet to be uncovered, destroying the integrity of the composition. Within just a few weeks, the frescoes had twice made international headlines. They are likely to do so again in March 2005, when the portions of Schulz’s frescoes that disappeared will finally receive their first public showing in Yad Vashem’s new museum complex in Jerusalem.
The circumstances of Yad Vashem’s operation remain in dispute. The organization has repeatedly asserted that it acted openly and in cooperation with the Drohobycz authorities, and that its first interest was the preservation and safe conduct of Schulz’s work. However, no one involved in the murals’ discovery and initial restoration, including the Polish art conservationists and Benjamin Geissler, who first informed Yad Vashemof the murals’ existence, had been told of Yad Vashem’s plans before the Schulz fragments left the country. In the aftermath, the Ukrainian government threw together a crude criminal investigation into corruption among the local Drohobycz authorities, culminating this summer in a peculiar epilogue: according to Polish news reports, the government of Ukraine has formally announced that the Schulzfrescoes already in Israel are a goodwill “gift” to Yad Vashem. In return, Yad Vashem is reportedly helping to finance the official establishment of a Schulz museum in Drohobycz.
Since the partition of Bruno Schulz’s murals, public opinion in both Poland and Ukraine has raged against what is generally perceived as the theft of national treasures. But for Poles in particular, Yad Vashem’s actions carry a weighty significance. They suggest that dying because one is a Jew negates the relevance of having lived largely as a Pole—and, harsher still, that Jewishness and Polishness have been deemed fundamentally irreconcilable. In response to mounting international outrage, Yad Vashem posted a public statement on its Web site—one of very few official comments on the incident—asserting a “moral right” to Schulz’s work. The confrontational final sentence addresses Poland directly: “Yad Vashem is of the opinion that if Poland feels that they have an interest in assets that they see as their own, a discussion can be initiated regarding assets—cultural and other—which are part of the Jewish legacy in general and the Holocaust-era in particular, and are spread throughout Poland.”
This closing resonates less with “moral right” than with an unsettling attitude of you-took-ours, we-take-yours, and no one in Poland really knows what to make of it. Among the Polish intelligentsia, there is clear skepticism of Ukraine’s announcement that Schulz’s murals are a gift-after-the-fact, and there is open resentment of the implication—not very well masked by Yad Vashem’s position on Schulz—that Poles were complicit in the deaths of their Jewish neighbors and have forfeited their right to the Jewish aspect of their national heritage.
In Poland, they love Bruno Schulz. They want him back.
* * *
From the beginning, the debate over the ownership of the Schulz frescoes—and the Schulz legacy—has been plagued by politically motivated oversimplifications that have prevented many of its participants from appreciating the complexity of Schulz’s identity. Although his Jewish roots certainly had a powerful impact on his literary and artistic imagination, Schulz was not an observant member of any religious community. He is reported to have loved ritual; leading his classroom in Catholic prayer, he was known to cross himself reverently, though he was not a Catholic. He wrote in Polish and German; he did not speak Yiddish. From 1935 to 1937 he was engaged to Józefina Szelińska, an enchanting Catholic schoolteacher, and went so far as to withdraw from the Jewish Community of Drohobycz to facilitate their wedding, though Schulz ultimately—and in great despair—broke the engagement because he found a creative life beyond Drohobycz unimaginable. The town itself was a fluid, indefinable zone on the border between rural and industrial, old world and new. Throughout his life, Schulz was inextricable from his hometown, where he made a meager living before the war as an art teacher at a local high school. To a large extent, Drohobycz was the source of his identity crisis: born a subject of the Austro-Hungarian empire and later a citizen of independent Poland, Schulz found himself living briefly under Soviet occupation at the beginning of the war and was murdered because he was a Jew in the Third Reich. His body now rests in an unmarked grave in Ukraine, just a few miles from the eastern edge of the European Union. Remarkably, this is the story of a man who spent most of his life in one place.
The unexpected removal of portions of the Schulz frescoes to Israel both compounds an already irresolvable identity and fits resonantly into a biography whose underlying theme is loss. Schulz’s richly lyrical stories obsess over the slow demise of the author’s father and the mysterious world of old Jewish merchants here presents. Beyond the two books Schulz managed to publish during his lifetime, he is believed to have completed a novel, The Messiah, and a long story in German, “Die Heimkehr” (The Homecoming). The novel’s manuscript, if it existed, would have been among various drawings and personal papers, including portions of his voluminous correspondence, that Schulz entrusted to friends when he was forced into Drohobycz’s ghetto in 1941; like the identity of its protector, the novel has been lost. In 1937, Schulz sent a copy of “Die Heimkehr” to Thomas Mann in the hope that the famous novelist could help secure him an audience in the German-speaking world. Mann never received the manuscript, and no copy remains. Schulz’s own body is lost: after his murder, a friend risked his life to sneak out into the night, collect Schulz’s corpse from the place where he was shot, and bury him in an unmarked grave. Since then, even the cemetery where Schulz was buried has been destroyed.
It is no wonder, then, that Schulz’s identity has proved so malleable. Full of aporias and ambiguities, Schulz’s biography has become a compelling example of how the gaps in real history become occasions for invention, speculation, and appropriation. Consider Philip Roth’s 1985 novella The Prague Orgy; the Israeli novelist David Grossman’s See Under: Love; Cynthia Ozick’s 1987 novel The Messiah of Stockholm; and the title story of the Polish writer Henryk Grynberg’s recent collection Drohobycz, Drohobycz (billed precariously in English as “True Tales from the Holocaust and Life After”). All these works—and this list is hardly exhaustive—feature some fictionalized version of Schulz, alive, dead, or in between. Such recastings of the real author as a character in someone else’s fiction have suited Schulz quite well as a literary afterlife. Intriguing, perplexing, moving, and elusive, Schulz could belong to everyone by belonging to no one. Until Benjamin Geissler discovered Schulz’s pictorial fairy tale, the notion of “owning” Schulz had been a matter of defining one’s own relationship to his life and work, and the extraordinary variety of ways in which Schulz has been reimagined by writers and artists around the world remains a testimony to this powerful mythos.
The murals break this spell. They are objects to be claimed and possessed, and interest in the frescoes exceeds any potential they may have to commemorate the life of their maker. In 1992, to mark the 100th anniversary of Bruno Schulz’s birth and the 50th anniversary of his death, a community of Drohobycz survivors living in Israel commissioned two busts of Bruno Schulz, one to be placed in Drohobycz, the other at Yad Vashem. Yad Vashem refused the offer, saying they had no space for such a monument. (Similarly, there have been no serious challenges to Poland’s possession of Schulz’s extant letters and drawings, virtually all of which are held in the Adam Mickiewicz Museum of Literature and the Museum of the Jewish Historical Institute, both in Warsaw.) But the Schulz murals have invited claims from many interested parties: they are a link to Ukraine’s tangled past, products of Nazi brutality and slave labor,and the last surviving work of a major European writer and artist.
Among the more interesting journalistic forums to emerge from the discussion of Schulz’s identity and the proper place for the preservation of his newly discovered frescoes was a three-part discussion printed in June 2001 in Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland’s leading daily newspaper. In one column, Uri Huppert, a Polish-Jewish columnist living in Israel, argues the case for Yad Vashem. In an adjacent editorial, Piotr Pacewicz, a Polish journalist, argues against the murals’ removal. The third section presents a brief interview with Marek Podstolski, Bruno Schulz’s great-nephew and the last surviving member of his family, who notes simply that Schulz was—and considered himself to be—a Polish writer with no inclination toward Zionism. The piece was appropriately entitled “Whose is Schulz?,” and it pointed to a number of the issues at stake in delineating Schulz’s legacy: To what extent did Schulz self-identify as a Pole or as a Jew? Was Drohobycz the source of his creative energies—and therefore inextricable from his art? Does the Holocaust and its memory belong to any one group, or is it something that can—and must—be shared?
These are old, fundamental questions that one encounters time and again in the vastness of Schulz scholarship, the overwhelming majority of which has been done in Poland. It is only with the discovery of Schulz’s lost murals that the same questions create a painful intersection between literature and politics. For Huppert, as for many who have weighed in on the Schulz question, Schulz is defined by the manner of his death. Huppert writes: “Let’s imagine that during the occupation Bruno Schulz found himself in Warsaw, got out of the ghetto, and perished in the Warsaw Uprising like a lot of Poles, including those of Jewish background: that would have been a Polish death.” But in his rebuttal, Pacewicz suggests that while Schulz’s having died as a Jew is indisputable, using this fact to support Yad Vashem’s actions is deeply problematic: “The problem of the Holocaust—for Jews and for us—is the matter of admitting others to one’s own pain. It is a question of the ownership of suffering: is it possible to consider Jewish and non-Jewish grief over the Holocaust as having equal value?”
The faults with both arguments are extremely telling. On the one hand, Huppert’s remarks render the life of the artist, including his own self-concept as revealed in a considerable body of work, irrelevant to the question of his identity. On the other hand, Pacewicz trips over a persistent stumbling block in the Polish treatment of interethnic relations. Living in an almost completely homogenous society, Polish intellectuals talk about race relations without any real appreciation of the constant striving toward mutual understanding that life in a multicultural society entails. “Admitting others to one’s own pain” remains a purely theoretical exercise when there are no others around.
Inspite of this naiveté, the attitude expressed by Pacewicz is undeniably the more idealistic and, ultimately, the more meritorious because it is indicative of a greater sense, palpable in many Polishurban centers, that Poles are more than ready to come to terms withtheir Jewish heritage. Whether or not it is possible for Poles to embrace their Jewish past in a way that would be acceptable to Jews in Israel and the diaspora, and whether they should even be allowed to try, is at the heart of the question “Whose is Schulz?” And on this particular issue the administrators of Yad Vashem have clearly made up their minds.
• • •
The controversy surrounding the Schulz frescoes stems from Yad Vashem’s unilateralism and the sense among Schulz experts—almost all of whom are Polish or specialists in Polish literature—that the frescoes’ removal was both an affront to the artist’s memory and a major setback in efforts to reconcile Central Europe with its Jewish history. Benjamin Geissler’s documentary account of the frescoes’ discovery, Finding Pictures, has only fueled the debate. It is a remarkable, if controversial, film, beginning as the story of a quixotic personal quest, inviting the audience to watch as the film crew unexpectedly uncovers the Schulz polychromes, and then mourning the frescoes’ second disappearance.
For his part, Geissler makes no secret of his displeasure with Yad Vashem’s actions. Since the film’s completion, Geissler—now at work on a sequel, entitled Lost Pictures—has actively campaigned for the repatriation of Schulz’s murals and the establishment in Drohobycz of an international Bruno Schulz center. Signatories to Geissler’s open letter include the German Nobel laureate Günter Grass and the Polish poet Jerzy Ficowski, Schulz’s biographer and most ardent promoter.
Since 1942—the year he first read Schulz, and the year Schulz was killed—Jerzy Ficowski has dedicated his life to retracing Bruno Schulz’s. When Regions of the Great Heresy, his authoritative biography of Schulz, finally appeared in English in 2003, Ficowski appended a special chapter addressing Yad Vashem’s actions in Drohobycz, stating that when he heard what they had done, he took the reports for “empty gossip, most likely invented to shake the moral renown of Yad Vashem.” Ficowski, like many of those most intimately involved in the interpretation and promotion of Schulz’s oeuvre, has decried the removal of Schulz’s frescoes.
Yet public outcry over Yad Vashem’s actions has been far from unanimous, and from the very beginning the issue has reached beyond the confines of Schulz scholarship. Polemical essays and open letters have abounded, presenting strident arguments that often veer away from Schulz’s life and art to questions of Jewish identity in Europe, the possibility of reconciliation between the victims and perpetrators of genocide, and who has the “moral right” to the products of Jewish slave labor under the Nazis.
The frescoes at the center of this controversy are slight and unassuming. Seen for the first time in Benjamin Geissler’s film, they are faintly visible on the wall, peeking out from behind old jars and cans in an apartment whose current residents, an aging couple with poor eyesight, never noticed the faint shadows of Schulz’s handiwork. Alfred Schreyer, one of Schulz’s last surviving students and a dedicated participant in efforts to preserve his memory in Drohobycz, is so overjoyed that it appears he might disintegrate in one of the paroxysms Schulz describes so fondly in his stories.
But the manner in which the film presents the Schulz frescoes, as well as their peculiar fate, is unambiguously political. A special Polish-Ukrainian commission led by Wojciech Chmurzyński, a noted expert in Schulz’s visual art, immediately arrives and begins the painstaking work of removing layers of household paint to reveal the images underneath. What appears at first to be a miserable task—the tiny space in which Schulz had been forced to paint his murals is in terrible disrepair—becomes exhilarating as a horse and a coachman emerge from behind decades of grime. “My faith is restored,” Chmurzyński remarks. The figures that appear bear telltale marks of their maker: the coachman’s face resembles the artist himself—Schulz’s last self-portrait. Schulz frequently populated his drawings with the likenesses of Drohobycz townspeople, which understandably got him into hot water: no one wanted to see his wife or daughter naked, holding a whip, in a drawing by the local art teacher. In Geissler’s film, an unsettling montage demonstrates the clear resemblance between the polychrome of an aloof queen and Trudi, Felix Landau’s mistress and cohabitant in the house where the murals were found.
The film’s final 25 minutes consist mostly of reactions by older Jewish survivors of Drohobycz to Yad Vashem’s actions. Alfred Schreyer , the congenial man who was so overjoyed by the murals’ discovery, is now speechless with grief. Perhaps most affecting of all is Dora Kacnelson, an elderly woman from Drohobycz’s reform Jewish congregation who looks as though she has physically absorbed her community’s hardships. She glares into Geissler’s camera and accuses Yad Vashem of ignoring the Jews who chose to remain in Eastern Europe. “They can’t comprehend why we stay here,” she says. “Those people don’t have the great wisdom of the Jews. Jewish wisdom sees the world as one whole picture.”
One whole picture, ironically, is no longer within the realm of possibility. As a single composition, Schulz’s Drohobycz murals have been destroyed, partly taken to Jerusalem, the rest removed from the walls, restored, and framed, forming the centerpiece of a fledgling Schulz museum in the building where the writer–artist used to teach (now part of Ivan Franko Pedagogical University). In 2003, the portions of the Schulz murals left behind by Yad Vashem were shown in several Polish cities as a traveling exhibition entitled “The Republic of Dreams”; the images from the exhibition’s catalogue have circulated primarily in the Polish news media. More recently, in July 2004, Drohobycz celebrated a weeklong Bruno Schulz festival, complete with exhibits and research meetings designed to emphasize both Schulz’s major role in interwar Polish letters and his importance to the cultural heritage of Galicia, the region that spans southern Poland and western Ukraine. Meanwhile, the fragments of Schulz’s work removed by Yad Vashem have not yet been shown publicly.
As with any controversy drawing on such sensitive issues as national identity and historical trauma, only a small minority of those publicizing their opinions have demonstrated any familiarity with Schulz, his work, or the region where he lived. In comparison to the equanimity with which this controversy has been treated in the Polish and Israeli press, the response in the United States has been sustained and often vitriolic, which is hardly shocking given our polarized political climate. Opinions in editorials and open letters cover the range between condemning Yad Vashem’s actions as outright theft and declaring anyone who even questions Yad Vashem an anti-Semite. Among the more civil conversations was a trio of open letters that ping-ponged across the pages of The New York Review of Books in 2001 and 2002. In these letters, scholars of Central European art and culture patiently argued the merits and drawbacks to the manner in which Schulz’s frescoes were removed. The initial letter denounces Yad Vashem’s assertion of cultural or moral superiority over Ukraine and suggests that “the proper role of wealthier artistic and philanthropic institutions is to nurture the respect for the artistic heritage they believe Central Europe lacks.” The rebuttal diminishes the artistic value of Schulz’s work and argues that “these pieces would not have their current enormous significance were it not for their Holocaust context”—a position that makes Schulz’s many admirers around the world wince. The final volley reasserts the first, emphasizing that regardless of identity politics, Yad Vashem’s Drohobycz operation represents poor museum practice: “This is not the time to embark on a new wave of predatory collecting.”
Perhaps the most venomous response to the Schulz controversy appeared in Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture in January 2004. In an article entitled “Harvard Death Fugue: On the Exploitation of Bruno Schulz,” James Russell, a professor of Armenian literature at Harvard, responded to a screening of Benjamin Geissler’s film by attacking Geissler himself. “The whole point of the film,” Russell writes, “is . . . to shift the mantle of humanism from the shtetl Jews onto the new Germans and to transfer the stigma of violence from the Nazis to the Israelis.” He continues:
Usually the Israelis are cast as the new Nazis because of their supposed mistreatment of the Palestinians. But here is a new motif, more elegant, and more insidious: to present Israel as the crude vandal pillaging Schulz’s delicate paintings and thereby persecuting the Jews themselves! A German film director exposing the crime then can become the suffering Jew himself. It is a brilliant tactic, enabling Germany to become the accuser (the satan, the diabolos) onceagain, righteous and guilt-free.
It is difficult to understand how one could watch Geissler’s film and arrive at such a conclusion without having formulated it in advance, which helps explain why so many people who have not seen the film echo essentially the same misguided sentiment. For some, questions about Schulz’s identity—not to mention the interpretive possibilities of his writings and drawings—have become subsumed in us-versus-them polemics that Schulz himself would most likely have found wholly absurd.
On all sides of the Schulz controversy, no one questions the dignity and importance of Yad Vashem. The point of contention is whether it is possible for a venerable institution to err despite its best intentions, and whether it is reprehensible even to suggest that possibility. Even those who believe that Yad Vashem is as good a place as any to preserve and display Schulz’s work see its methods as unnecessarily damaging to international reconciliation efforts and to the artworks themselves. Omer Bartov, who runs Brown University’s project on Central European borderlands and who was a signatory to the letter supporting Yad Vashem in The New York Review of Books, recently told me that the deplorable state of Jewish buildings and artifacts in western Ukraine gives little hope that Schulz’s murals could have been preserved in situ, but that the question of conservation itself becomes moot once the artwork is broken into pieces. “Could the frescoes have been saved by Poles in Drohobycz?” he asks. “I don’t know, but somehow doubt it. At least, I wish I could have seen them there.”
* * *
A sense of lost opportunity has always troubled the legacy of Bruno Schulz, although now the focus has shifted from how to find his lost works to whom to blame for what happens to them once they are found. Yad Vashem did not deliberately victimize Bruno Schulz; the intention was certainly to honor him. But foregoing an opportunity to work as a partner—instead of an opponent—in local efforts to understand what was lost in the Holocaust seems a high price to pay for half an artwork. More damaging still is the perception in Poland that, as far as Yad Vashem is concerned, the Poles are not worthy stewards of their own Polish-Jewish heritage.
The most pervasive dilemma on the Polish side, however, is that few have wondered whether, in this regard, Yad Vashem could actually be right. It is still not unusual in Poland to find open displays of racism and anti-Semitism, even among the educated elites. Graffiti depicting a Star of David at the end of a gallows are common (as is a similar, anti-neo-Nazi graffito showing a swastika at the end of the hangman’s rope), and crowds of soccer fans taunt their opponents by calling them “Jews” from across the stadium. Recent polls suggest the possibility of a victory for a coalition of far-right nationalist parties in upcoming elections. (The situation in western Ukraine, which has enjoyed far less economic development and international contact in the post-Soviet years, is much bleaker.) Place all this against the backdrop of Poland’s Jewish festivals and buoyant interest in Jewish culture, and one is likely to arrive at the conclusion that Poles today love Jewishness, but they are no great fans of the Jews.
The work of interethnic relations consists in asking oneself, without needless self-flagellation, what can be done to understand the other group more deeply. Neither bald assertions of “moral right” nor annual displays of cultural appreciation hold much water in the absence of such inward-directed inquiry. In recent years, figures like Bruno Schulz have been the starting point for these discussions in Poland. As Polish writers and critics try to understand the interplay of Polishness and Jewishness in Schulz’s work, they have also been discussing the contributions of other cultures to Polish life and are, slowly, beginning to talk about cross-cultural dialogue in a way that illuminates not just the future, but the past. It is aconversation with Bruno Schulz at the center, and which the more cynical participants in the Schulz debate continue to distrust. And yet it remains a conversation about literature at the highest levels of immediate social relevance, and it is gaining momentum all the time.
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December 01, 2004
25 Min read time