Murals from Nazi Poland see the light

San Francisco Chronicle 23 February 2009
By Aron Heller, Associated Press

A Gestapo officer forced Jewish author and artist Bruno Schulz to paint fairy tale characters on the walls of a nursery in an occupied Polish village in 1941. A Nazi sergeant shot and killed Schulz a year later, and his colorful murals were forgotten for decades.

Israel's Holocaust museum presented Schulz's paintings Friday, eight years after their discovery sparked a diplomatic row over their ownership.

The exhibition "Bruno Schulz: Wall Painting Under Coercion," includes fragments of three murals depicting dwarfs, princesses, horses and carriages, along with images evoking Schulz's struggles during the Holocaust.

Schulz was born in Drohobych, a village that was then part of Poland and is now in Ukraine. After the village was occupied by Nazi troops, Gestapo officer Felix Landau took in Schulz as a forced laborer.

Landau admired Schulz's work. He offered him protection and ordered him to illustrate the walls of his young son's nursery with images of Cinderella, Snow White and Hansel and Gretel.

On Nov. 19, 1942, Schulz was carrying a loaf of bread on the street when a Nazi rival of Landau's shot him down, allegedly in retaliation for Landau's killing of that man's "personal Jew." Schulz was among 230 Jews killed in Drohobych that day and one of the nearly 15,000 slain in the town during the Nazi occupation. Some 400 Jews survived, and only a few remain in Drohobych.

The murals were neglected until 2001, when a former Schulz pupil discovered them in Landau's old villa, and Ukrainian and Polish art experts declared them to be Schulz originals. With permission from the family that lived in the home, the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum took away fragments of the murals to save them from further decay.

Since their arrival in Israel eight years ago, they have undergone professional conservation and restoration.

Ukraine claimed that removing the works was a crime. Ukrainian legislation bars any pre-1945 cultural objects, artworks or antiquities from being taken abroad without a permit. Ukrainian prosecutors launched a criminal probe against cultural officials for allowing the murals to be removed.

The dispute was settled last year; Israel recognized the Schulz works as the property and cultural wealth of Ukraine, and the Drohobychyna Museum in Ukraine agreed to give them to Yad Vashem on long-term loan.

Ukrainian Deputy Minister of Culture and Tourism Vladislav Kornienko took part in Friday's inauguration of the new display at Yad Vashem.

"The paintings have artistic, cultural, national and historic significance both to the Jewish people and the Ukrainian people," he said. "For almost 60 years these paintings were considered legend. Today, they are revealed to this generation and to generations to come."

Schulz is best known for two collections of short stories. Yad Vashem Senior Art Curator Yehudit Shendar said his writings were underappreciated during his lifetime, but he is revered in literary circles as the "Polish Kafka."

She said that despite being forced to paint, Schulz managed to maintain his distinctive style, sneaking in images of his loved ones and his trademark self-portraits.

According to the testimony of a survivor from Drohobych, the bearded dwarf holding a shovel next to Snow White is an image of Schulz's father, Jakub. Hansel and Gretel are his nephew and niece, and the carriage driver is Schulz himself.

"In the world of Schulz, imagination is stronger than reality," Shendar said. "He has bequeathed to us one of the most moving examples of spiritual resistance."

Schulz's works also inspired generations of writers, including the award-winning Israeli novelist David Grossman.

Speaking Friday at Yad Vashem, Grossman said he was profoundly influenced by Schulz's work. In Grossman's novel "See Under: Love" he devotes an entire segment to a character named Bruno who escapes a ghetto before jumping into a river and joining a school of salmon.

"I always knew that I would write about the Holocaust and as I matured I realized that as an author, as a father, as an Israeli, as a Jew, I would never be able to understand what it was like to live through it," he said. "I wanted to understand what it was that allowed you to maintain a spark of humanity. Reading Bruno Schulz gave me the key to writing about the Holocaust."
© website copyright Central Registry 2024