Life and Deaths
ALAN ADELSON: In Regions of the Great Heresy, Jerzy Ficowski gives us this eloquent description of Bruno Schulz’s last days:
The foreboding that had haunted Schulz his entire life was transformed into a state of actually being hunted down. Decades of preoccupation with solitude gave way to the unremitting terror of torture and death. News came daily of the deaths of his loved ones. One after another, they perished: All the professors of the Blat gymnasium were murdered, and then in turn others died—thousands, tens of thousands of Drohobyczans. Schulz was one.
The Holocaust—which he survived in hiding and under the protection of a Polish gentile family—is the focus of Henryk Grynberg’s extensive body of writing. Tonight Mr. Grynberg will read from Drohobycz, Drohobycz and Other Stories: True Tales from the Holocaust and Life After. This true tale is based on an account by Dr. Leopold Lustig.
HENRYK GRYNBERG: In the first year of gymnasium, Schulz taught us cabinetry. He walked between the tables, measured, and showed how to slide the plane—lightly, with feeling. He had a perfect hand. In the second year he taught glasswork. He wore gray suits, light gray in spring and summer, dark gray in fall and winter. He walked sloping toward the walls, obliquely, almost sidelong, with his head lowered, making way for everybody. Sometimes he took part in Sunday afternoon readings at the private Jewish gymnasium named after Leon Sternbach. He didn’t read, he improvised. Nobody read his Cinnamon Shops or Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, because they were too difficult, but everybody listened to him carefully. . . .
After the Soviets arrived Schulz taught mathematics and drafting. We went in two shifts to the overcrowded school—lower grades in the morning, higher in the afternoon. The overloaded power station would cut off electricity and we would often have classes by candlelight. And when we ran out of candles, we’d yell, “Professor Schulz, Professor Schulz, tell us a story.” He told us Gulliver’s Travels, verbatim, or made up stories about gnomes and other eerie creatures that lived in dark corners and crevices, in a different reality hidden from our eyes. We couldn’t repeat those stories because only he could tell them like that, and we didn’t quite understand them, but we listened spellbound. We’d put a kopeck under a fuse so that the light would go out. “Tell us a story, Professor, tell us a story.” He was never angry, never raised his voice, a silken man, too silken. . . .
Schulz was seen for weeks on end on the scaffolding in the hall of the Arbeitsamt lying on his back under the ceiling like Michelangelo and painting at Felix Landau’s command. He also painted in the Reithalle. He painted horses because Landau loved horses. It was Landau who made Jews build the Reithalle, which he himself had designed. Who drafted the plans? Most likely Schulz. Jews from the countryside attended to Landau’s horses. The Germans called him “Der Judengeneral.” . . . Landau took part in Nazi brawls early on. Stocky, strong as a horse, he beat people with relish. When twenty Jews didn’t show up for work out of fear, Landau ordered twenty to be shot, pointing at them himself with his finger, “Du, du und du!” . . .
Jews trembled at the sight of Landau, but he was kindly disposed toward Schulz, toward his talent. He had him make his portraits and talked to him during the sessions. About aesthetics, of course. Unfortunately, he later had to burn all those interesting portraits. And Karl Günther’s Jew was Hauptman, an artist-cabinetmaker, who created phenomenal marquetries, mosaics, panoramas of Drohobycz from various types of wood. Günther had a broad face, pock-marked from adolescent acne, and rough workman’s hands. Landau and Günther were the same age and competed in everything. When Landau noticed that Günther was sending the marquetries to the Reich, he called Günther’s Jew aside and shot him in the nape of the neck. And for that Günther shot Schulz. Ignaz Kriegel saw Schulz lying on the sidewalk near the Judenrat. Ignaz’s father worked in the Judenrat, so Ignaz ran there to hide. Schulz lay on his back, in a dark gray suit, his face splattered with blood. I saw him already at the cemetery, without shoes, without a jacket, in dark gray pin-striped pants and a white striped shirt. His skull was opened on one side, and there was blood in his mouth. Hauptman lay next to him, also without shoes or jacket. His skull wasn’t as badly smashed. He had red hair. They were lying by the wall to the right of the entrance, and we buried them there in one grave.
ADELSON: Can you give us any further details regarding Schulz’s burial place?
GRYNBERG: Many visit Drohobycz wanting to know where Schulz is buried. Conflicting accounts confuse the answer:
The Jewish cemetery in Drohobycz had been overcrowded and closed before the Second World War, and a new one was opened several kilometers outside the town. The Germans, who arrived in the summer of 1941, destroyed the old cemetery, but used the new one for burying the victims of their sporadic killings, using inmates of a labor camp at nearby Hyrawka (one kilometer from the new cemetery) as grave diggers. One of them was Leopold Lustig, a tall and strong young man then eighteen or nineteen years old, a former student of Schulz’s, who is the narrator of the lead story in my collection Drohobycz, Drohobycz.
Lustig says that after the November 1942 massacre, he and another digger were ordered to bury two men who had been brought to the new cemetery and lay there on the ground near the entrance, just to the right of the gate. They were Schulz and a craftsman-cabinetmaker, Hauptman, who both had been shot in the head. Lustig says that he and the other man buried them in one grave right there where they had found them.
Lustig ended his odyssey of concentration camps in Germany, emigrated to America, and never returned to the old country. In the meantime, his landsman from Drohobycz, Izydor (Izio) Friedman, who was liberated in Poland, claimed that he was the one who buried Schulz. Friedman claims that at night he picked up Schulz’s body from the spot where he had been killed (near the Judenrat building), carried it to the cemetery (presumably the old one), and buried Schulz there all by himself. Friedman was murdered, soon after his liberation, in Lublin in 1944, and his version—although accepted by Schulz’s biographer, Jerzy Ficowski—could not be verified.
I consider the Friedman version doubtful: an undernourished ghetto inhabitant carries a dead body at curfew hours when he can be shot on the spot and digs a grave, which also takes quite some time, all by himself? Whereas I see no reason to doubt the version of my narrator, Lustig. Which, by the way, can—and should—be verified by digging near the entrance to the then-new cemetery, to the right of the gate. Schulz deserves a grave.