The Republic of Dreams

navigating Bruno Shulz's Drohobych

by by Alex Verdolini

illustration by by Rebecca Levinson

Drohobych, Galicia, 1942. The region had changed hands many times over the preceding half-century—at the turn of the century, Galicia belonged to the Austro-Hungarians. After the War, it became part of the new Polish state. In 1939, its eastern half, in which Drohobych lies, had fallen to the USSR, and now it was under Nazi occupation. On November 17, known to the Jews of Drohobych (nearly extinct by now) as Black Thursday, there was an Aktion. That is to say: the Nazis went through the streets, shooting Jews at random. Among the victims was Bruno Schulz, a fifty-year old art teacher and one of the great Polish-language writers of the twentieth century, famous for The Street of Crocodiles and Sanitorium under the Sign of the Hourglass, two slim volumes of stories in which his native Drohobych became an otherworldly place—to borrow a phrase of his, a ‘republic of dreams.’

Schulz had been under Nazi protection, to a degree. An S.S. officer named Landau had hired the writer, whose drawings he admired, to paint the walls of his son’s playroom. Schulz was preparing to escape Drohobych; he’d acquired Aryan papers. But something went wrong.

There have been several accounts of exactly what. The most prevalent is this: Landau had a rival, an officer named Günther—and he shot Günther’s Jewish dentist. Landau went to Günther and told him, “I have killed your Jew.” Günter said, “All right—now I will go and kill your Jew.” According to Jerzy Ficowski, Schulz’s Polish biographer, it played out somewhat differently: Günther met Landau after the pogrom and said “You have killed my Jew—I killed yours.”
Schulz’s story is impossible to pin down. Wherever the writer has gone, a phantasmagoric haze has followed him. Artifice and fable fascinated the man: he wrote lovingly of trashy advertisements and tailors’ mannequins. He wrote his friend, the painter Anna PÅ‚ockier:

“I am … under the spell of your charming metamorphoses … You may think that I’m allowing myself to be taken in, that I’m pinning a deep interpretation on the playfulness of ordinary coquetry. Let me assure you that coquetry is something very profound and mysterious, something incomprehensible even to you.”

He was a chronicler, in short, of things that weren’t as they seemed. So it is fitting that his afterlife has been so slippery, so full of misinformation and myth. In June, The New Yorker ran a piece regarding Schulz by David Grossman, the Israeli novelist: Grossman had found a new witness, a student of Schulz’s who saw him lying dead on the sidewalk. This man, one Ze’ev Fleischer, maintains that the popular account is impossible—that Schulz simply fell victim, like the others, to the anonymous bloodlust of the Nazi men.

Be that as it may, the first, more shocking story stuck. In Poland, Schulz is still known mostly for his sensual, seductive prose—but elsewhere, like a book reduced to its last line, his life has undergone a metamorphosis. It’s been irrevocably altered by the nature of his death. And eight years ago, six decades after the fact, this death has given rise to a new controversy.

In February 2001, a German filmmaker named Benjamin Geissler, investigating the villa—since subdivided—where Landau had lived, found the walls Schulz had painted. The frescoes, depicting colorful fairy-tale scenes, had accumulated so much dust and grime that they’d been forgotten altogether; the apartment’s inhabitants had ceased to notice them. Restoration workers came from Poland (Drohobych lies in Ukraine now) to begin work on the art. Within months, a group of experts from Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial and museum in Jerusalem, arrived in Drohobych. Without consulting the Poles or the Ukrainians, they negotiated with the owners of the apartment, removed five fragments of the mural, and returned with them to Israel.

A vitriolic argument ensued. Politicians and academics traded blows regarding the removal (the theft, the smuggling, or the rightful rescue?) of the art. There were—and are—many questions, but one overshadows the rest. Was Bruno Schulz most elementally a Galician or a Jew? Does he belong to Drohobych or Jerusalem?

Schulz’s relationship with Judaism, while undeniably important, is ambiguous. Schulz’s work shows a clear Judaic influence; the stories are full of biblical allusions. But it’s not clear how personally invested he was in that facet of his heritage. He spoke only Polish and German—no Yiddish, and he formally withdrew from the Jewish community for the sake of his Catholic fiancée. But thanks to his indisputably Jewish death, he has become—for the Israelis, and many others—a Jewish author, a Jewish martyr, a man apotheosized by his Jewish victimhood.

His relationship with Drohobych, though, is certain. He spent his whole life in the provincial town. His stories are grounded in the place, and an image of Drohobych arises from them, shimmering, a dreamy, ethereal space. The town isn’t merely a backdrop for the writer’s reveries: it palpably provides their texture, their inner logic and their law.
It is for this reason that, this summer, I set off for Galicia. I wanted to see Schulz’s mythical town in its modern reality, and to have a look at the frescoes that remain. I don’t know if there’s an answer to the question of his heritage—but I hoped to find out if the Drohobych that gave rise to him still bears any relation to his work. Isn’t this travelers and pilgrims always do? They try to measure the place against the hazy image they’d had of it. In comparing these distant cousins, searching their faces for a family resemblance, I hoped to find a common denominator, some intuition of their mutual source.

But Galicia no longer exists; it has vanished perfectly. You could say that it’s been broken into two pieces—in eastern Poland and western Ukraine—but that would be understating it. A charged mélange of cultures had defined the place: in Bruno Schulz’s time, Polish, German, Yiddish, and Ukrainian mixed freely. The Yiddish is gone now, and the two remaining languages—which once coexisted in a cloudy suspension—have retreated from each other, under the influence of their respective nation-states. The place, once of a manifold nature, has been reduced to simple elements. The fragments that remain of it lack the charged polyvalence of the whole.

It is simple enough to travel to Drohobych—but to go to Galicia, to the Galician, Schulzian Drohobych, is a very complicated thing.

The way in
The bus from Prague to L’viv takes about 18 hours—nearly a full day of dubbed Russian sitcoms and sweaty, Slavic boredom. Time becomes amorphous, purgatorial; but it does have a center, an all-important pivotal point—the crossing between Poland and Ukraine. Everything depends on the border inspections, and everybody waits for them nervously, in low-level, simmering fear.

The Polish-Ukrainian border is important in several ways. For one, it neatly splits what used to be Galicia—and renders the province an incoherent entity. You can cross over it and reach L’viv in the physical sense, but it presents an insurmountable obstacle between Schulz’s time and ours. More tangibly, it marks the edge of the European Union, and as such is the scene of a brisk black market, in prostitutes and cigarettes, among other things. The border guards are vicious.

We arrived at the border station in Krakovets just before dawn, and I was especially scared. A few small occurrences from the afternoon before had, over the course of the night, taken on a new and somewhat unnerving aspect.

When I’d gotten on the bus at Prague, the seat beside me had been empty. A woman with bleach-blonde hair and a junkie’s face asked to move to the window-seat beside me—the better to wave goodbye to a man outside, who looked a little too well-off to be her boyfriend. Fair enough: but after ten 10 hours had passed and she hadn’t switched back, I started to wonder if he’d really been the reason. Then, just before we reached Krakovets, she did switch, taking almost all of her luggage with her, but making sure to leave one piece with me: a long metal pole, the whole of which was Saran-wrapped, and looked to be stuffed with something. Brilliant, I thought: leave your drugs with the hapless American.

As it turned out, the crossing went fine for me; nobody noticed the pole. One woman got kicked off the bus on the Polish side: she’d overstayed her visa by a day and didn’t have quite enough cash to pay the fine. On the Ukrainian side, my passport aroused tremendous suspicion—somebody was sent to ask me in Czech if I had a zdravotní kartu, a health card (maybe they’d read about our healthcare crisis somewhere). I didn’t have one, and my fate seemed to be in suspension for a moment, but some bureaucrat in the bowels of the place made a decision in my favor, and I made it through safely to the other side.

The rolling grasslands of eastern Poland gave way, in Ukraine, to thick, unending pines. The alphabet changed, the houses looked cheaper, the road was littered with a stupendous number of broken-down cars. As the sun came up, people began to appear along the roadside, alone or in pairs, in the early morning haze. The first really striking image that the country offered up to me was this: a break in the pines, in the middle of nowhere. A man and a woman, well-dressed, standing aimlessly—both of them inexplicably clutching big, black Hugo Boss shopping bags.

L’viv, or descending
Instinct tells the traveler to seek out elevated ground: to survey the city from its highest point before descending into the din of it. So when I finally arrived in L’viv, I walked up Zamkova Hora, Castle Hill, to look out over the city—but at the top, no epiphany came. The hill really faced away from the city, toward a disinterested jumble of smokestacks and highrises to the north. There were a few glimpses to be had of L’viv; fragments of its architecture seen between the shifting leaves, but no coherent, panoramic view. I did not realize until later that it was a matter, here, of a hidden epiphany: the revelation did not come dazzlingly at the top of the hill, à la two tablets, but after the fact, post-climactically, in the haphazard, hesitant descent.

It came in a succession of atmospheres: the dark green aura of the hilltop giving in slowly to L’viv’s half-rural fringe, with its dry dirt character, which crumbled further into the fine urban dust. On the way down, I put away the map and wandered down through overgrown gardens, swathes of apparent no-man’s-land between what looked like half-abandoned houses. It was a place of illogical movements: from time to time, the ground gave way suddenly; plump green fruit fell from the trees at random intervals; stray cats darted in and out of visibility.

I made it to a paved street, to put it rather generously. The roadway was cobblestoned for the most part; on the right and the left, where sidewalks should have been, were two twin strips of sand. These were full of architectural fragments, window ledges and cornices that had broken off from the elegant old buildings and fallen into the street. It became clear that the nature of this place was a slow, steady crumbling. If there were laws that could explain Galicia, then the tablets they were written on were certainly broken, scattered among the other broken things.

The Broken Word
Bruno Schulz’s vision of language started in the singular. In the beginning was the Word—he took that line seriously. There was one word, an ur-word. The words we use today are severed shards of it, “new forms, adapted to practical needs.” But, he wrote in “The Mythologizing of Reality,” a 1936 essay, the fragments want to reunite, “like the cut-up snake in the legend, whose pieces search for each other in the dark.” It is the poet’s task to coax words out of their comatose condition, to reactivate their polyvalent “conductivity”—so that sparks light up in the darkness, and the words move toward a reconstitution of their original state.

So words, for Schulz, were broken things. “As we manipulate everyday words,” he wrote, “we forget that they are fragments of lost but eternal stories, that we are building our houses with broken pieces of sculptures and ruined statues of gods.” He wrote about a return to the primordial word. But he didn’t mean to reconstruct the original edifices, so much as to remember, to see the fragments clearly and cherish them. I imagine that he would have liked that crumbled street in L’viv.

Where did this philosophy come from? It’s an important question—the provenance of all his stories hangs on it. There may be a Kabbalistic influence. The sixteenth century Talmudist Yitzchak Luria, for example, tells of "vessels" into which God poured his light: some of them shattered out of weakness, but “a residue of divine light adhered to the shattered vessels, much as oil adheres to a vessel even after it is poured out.” Luria says that the work of the faithful is to “liberate and elevate these sparks,” and in this way to accomplish tikkun olam, repair of the world.
A similar thought occurs, though, in the work of Schulz’s literary idol: Rainer Maria Rilke, the (mostly) German-language poet and mystical Christian. In his Book of Hours, addressing Christ about the Crucifixion, he laments: “A cry rose up / and scattered the voices / that had gathered before / to utter you, / to carry you, / bridge over the abyss— / and what they have stammered since / are fragments /of your old name.”

Or maybe it came from the Galician streets. Schulz’s Drohobych wasn’t crumbling in the way that the East Galician cities are today, but he grew up amid a verbal bricolage. Sitting at his window, he must have heard a strange mélange of syllables: fragments of four languages floating in the air. He lived in a world suspended between languages. He wrote in Polish, but his most important readings were in German. In a 1935 essay he wrote: “I absorbed Goethe’s ballad [Der Erlkönig], with all its metaphysics, at age eight. Through the half-understood German I caught, or divined, the meaning, and cried, shaken to the bottom of my soul, when my mother read to me.” Later he moved on to Rilke and Mann; among the many Schulzian documents lost to the chaos of world history is a story called “Die Heimkehr”—“The Homecoming”—his planned entrance into the German-language literary scene.

Down to Drohobych
It was in going down to Drohobych that I really realized how much Galicia has changed. I had heard that, to make the 40-mile trip from L’viv, you had to take a marshrutka—a sort of privately owned bus—from the train station, and so I went there and tried to find the right one. Some of the buses were numbered, some not—none of them seemed to be mine. I started asking passersby for help—in Czech, the closest thing I know to Ukrainian.

When I addressed one old man, I saw a spark of distant recognition in his eye, the look of someone who has dredged a thought up from the most neglected corner of his memory. He asked me in Ukrainian, “You’re from Poland?” “No,” I said in Czech. “From New York.” He was only the first of several, in both Drohobych and L’viv, to peg me as Polish. (Later that day, a pair of waitresses in a Drohobych café, confronted with the spectacle of a foreigner, conferred in hushed curiosity—about my nationality, as far as I could tell—until a knowing man of maybe twenty-five came in and pronounced: Polskí). Now, Czech and Polish are somewhat similar languages—you would forgive, say, a Brit for confusing them. But less than a century ago, L’viv was a Polish city. The Polish border lies only fifty miles to the west of it. For a Ukrainian there to hear an American speak bad Czech and take him for a Pole—that says something. But I found my bus eventually, and set off south toward a town that had forgotten its great poet’s mother tongue.

In Drohobych, more confusion. The marshrutka I’d got on, the 122, was apparently on the rural route. It went down by dirt roads and terminated not in the town center, but at a sort of impromptu market in the outskirts: stalls selling used engine parts, toys, clothing—and, hanging here and there among cheap T-shirts and fake designer belts, and countless more of those Hugo Boss shopping bags. I found my way downtown and made it to Rynok Square—where, in the apartment above his father’s shop, Schulz grew up.

I bought a map of Drohobych from a newsstand and went to look for the frescoes. The map said that the Drohobychna Museum had them—a stately teal mansion which figures in one Schulz story as ‘Bianca’s villa.’ I paid a few gryvni to get in: there was some old folk art, a couple bad contemporary paintings of the Crucifixion, and no Schulz whatsoever. I asked one of the museum workers where the frescoes were, and she spat a rapid paragraph of Ukrainian at me. I understood very little of it; it seemed that the frescoes were elsewhere, or in storage, or something of the sort, and it was clear that I wasn’t going to get a look at them. I walked out, a bit dejected, and ready to catch the next marshrutka back to L’viv—but, thinking better of it, I went back in. I found another worker and tried in mumbled Czech to make a bribe. This was unsuccesful, but after a few minutes of lamentations (student—žurnalista—z Ameriky!), she took pity on me and gave me directions to the Ivan Franko Technical University. There, she said, on the third floor of the library, there were some Polish academics. They knew about Bruno; they could help.

The Gymnasium
The Poles were there as promised, and one of them, a post-doc in philology, knew a fair amount of English. She offered to give me a tour of the town. She showed me where the ghetto had been and where Schulz had been shot, and then she took me to the old Gymnasium, or high school, where Schulz had taught art. The building, a big neoclassical edifice with a columned façade, now belongs to the University, but Room 33, where Schulz had taught—a computer lab, until recently—has been reappropriated by the Poles.

“They have a room—with books and things,” the Ukrainian woman at the Drohobychna Museum had said to me, and it was an accurate description. Inside, she showed me, among other things, copies of Schulz’s drawings and letters (the originals are in Warsaw), photos of various Schulz scholars, a rather bizarre recent bust of the author, and an odd allegorical installation, part of which, having fallen from the wall, was lying on the floor; (it had an intricate conceit, involving a nest and shattered eggshells). Finally she gestured toward a small photograph of a plaque: they had installed it at the site of Schulz’s death, she said; but, a few years before, it had mysteriously disappeared. Did they know what happened to it? “Yes,” she said. “Rom, Cygan”—a gypsy, that is. “He does not know that this is important memorial; he breaks this into seven pieces, to sell.” At that, she bent down and lifted up, so I could see, a well-worn Hugo Boss shopping bag containing the monument’s remains: a heap of bronze fragments, torqued in an attempt to disguise them as scrap metal, the Cyrillic scratched and dented manically.

It was a sad thing to see, but it was somehow fitting that, when they tried to memorialize the man, to sum him up upon a piece of bronze, it had all been foiled by a Roma—a member of that other wandering and persecuted race.

The way out
My post-doc walked me back to the marshrutka—the fast route, this time, which left from the edge of where the ghetto had been. I spent a few hours in L’viv, and then it was time to go; my bus back to the Czech Republic left at eleven.

The old, Soviet-built bus terminal lies just outside the city; at night it’s a like an island of light and poured concrete in the dusty, undeveloped dark. It seems to float in nothingness, and it makes you wonder if there really could be anywhere to go. When the bus itself materialized, the placard behind the windshield—it said Praha, Prague, in Cyrillic—looked like a duplicitous promise. The night felt entirely unending: how could there be a real, unimaginary city on the other side?


And so, approaching the border for a second time, I felt a different, more uncanny sort of fear. A row of lights glowed in the distance, illuminating the crossing—but a crossing from what into what?
The Ukrainian guard stepped onto the bus and called us to attention. She must have come from the east of the country; she spoke to us in Russian. She was svelte, superhumanly tall. Her hair was blonde almost to the point of whiteness, her eyes were of a terrifying wolfish blue. She proceeded along the aisle, inspecting passports; it all went fluidly until she got to me.

She eyed my passport suspiciously and suddenly barked: “Alexandr!” I nodded involuntarily and realized, a moment later, that I’d passed the test. She wanted to know if it was a pseudonym, to see if I’d respond within a Pavlovian eyeblink. Satisfied, she moved on.

The guard stepped off the bus, and we rolled slowly forward, onto the no-man’s-land between the Ukrainian and Polish checkpoints. This might be the last real part of Galicia, a five-hundred foot strip of asphalt belonging to neither nationality, fenced off from the rest of the world. Its ambiguity is sterile, bureaucratic—utterly unlike the lush, polyglot confusion of Schulz’s Drohobych—but at the same time, if the writer’s soul belongs anywhere, it might well be here: wandering across the roadway, picking up detritus, collecting the fragments in an old black plastic bag.

ALEX VERDOLINI B’11 wants to find a dreamy Republican.