NOVEMBER 19, 2018
The Street of Crocodiles
ONCE, IN THE 1930s, when asked why he was sketching the Hasidic Jews on the steps of the synagogue in his hometown of Drohobycz, Bruno Schulz replied that he was recording a world that was about to disappear. Drohobycz was a predominantly Jewish town on the fringe of the Habsburg Empire. It had the largest synagogue in the region of Galicia, and by 1914 it also had one of Europe’s largest oil refineries. Industrialization transformed the world of Schulz’s boyhood, and the arrival of the railways brought Vienna closer. Polish, Yiddish, and Ukrainian were all spoken in the streets of Drohobycz, but Viennese German predominated in the clubs and boardrooms. Grand municipal buildings and private villas were constructed. The latest Hollywood releases flickered across the screens in the movie theaters. After the disintegration of the Austrian Empire, Galicia became part of Poland, and, hence, of the modern world of nation-states.
Schulz, who wrote in Polish, was the author of fantastical stories that can be read as meditations on the fads and phantasms of modernity, as in “The Street of Crocodiles.” The “street” was the heart of a commercial quarter inhabited by “creatures without character, without background, moral dregs, that inferior species of human beings which is born in such ephemeral communities.” The trams in this second-rate version of reality turn out to be made of papier-mâché, and one’s wandering there “proved as sterile and pointless as the excitement produced by a close study of pornographic albums.” The quarter is, in fact, “no more than a fermentation of desires, prematurely aroused and therefore impotent and empty.”
Schulz depicts the glitter of modernity as a cheap trick, the peddling of a state of anticipation. And indeed, the greatest fiction in the interwar years was a political version of just that — the oratorical stimulation of a mass fantasy that something extraordinary, something unprecedented, was about to be realized on the stage of history.
On July 1, 1941, Drohobycz fell under Nazi German control. Most of the town’s Jews were killed at the nearby Belzec extermination camp.
Schulz was shot dead in the street in November 1942.
The Shadow of the Word
“The essence of reality is Meaning or Sense,” Schulz stated in a brief essay called “The Mythologizing of Reality.” “We usually regard the word as the shadow of reality, its symbol,” he went on. “The reverse of this statement would be more correct: reality is the shadow of the word.”
Schulz’s assertion that we have things backward, that reality is constructed with words, is disorientating. The world trembles, ever insubstantial, between disappearing and becoming, as in his prose-poem “The Age of Genius,” where truths are “too big and too magnificent to be contained in mere facts. They are merely trying to occur, they are checking whether the ground of material can carry them.” In Schulz’s “Age” the most foolish fashion might also be a ritual to welcome an imminent Messiah. A “glimmer of revelation” might be felt in a tatty theater before a painted canvas sky “with the atmosphere of that fictitious floodlit world created on the echoing scaffolding of the stage.”
Ludwig Wittgenstein begins his Philosophical Investigations (written in the 1930s and ’40s) just as Schulz begins “The Mythologizing of Reality,” by observing that we tend to see words as deriving from things. Wittgenstein cites Saint Augustine’s description of how we learn language as children, by pointing at objects and making a corresponding sound — for each thing, a word — as an example of this fallacy. Language, Wittgenstein goes on to show, is too complex and too contextual for such a static model to get us very far. To really understand language, we have to see how it conjures reality. We have to see what kind of game is being played.
The Austrian Wittgenstein and the Galician Schulz were born as co-citizens of the Habsburg Empire, in 1889 and 1892 respectively.
Adolf Hitler was only a few days older than Wittgenstein, and from 1903 to 1906 the two boys attended the same high school in Linz. Germany annexed Austria in March 1938, and Wittgenstein (in Ireland at the time) found himself a citizen of Hitler’s Reich. Wittgenstein had been baptized at birth, but three of his grandparents had been born Jews and so he was now a Jew under the 1935 Nuremberg racial laws.
Hitler’s attitude to language was that of the orator, and he would not have cared for his former schoolmate’s investigations. He would have agreed with Marx: the philosophers of the past had merely interpreted the world, while the point was to change it.
There were 18,000 Jews in Drohobycz in 1939. In 1945, there were four hundred.
The End of the Line
Eastern Galicia was annexed by the Soviet Union after World War II and its Polish population was shunted west, across the new frontier with Poland. Drohobycz became mostly Ukrainian-speaking. Few remained who could have recalled Schulz or who could have read him; he was not translated into Ukrainian until after the fall of the Soviet Union.
In November 2015, in a cafe in Ivano-Frankivsk, 160 kilometers from Drohobycz, I meet Schulz’s Ukrainian translator, the well-known writer Yuri Andrukhovych. I picture the polyglot Andrukhovich, a handsome, well-dressed man in his mid-50s, as an heir to the world of the Austrian Empire. He tells me that one of his ancestors came to Stanislawów — as Frankivsk was then called — to work on the railway, which reached the city in 1892.
We begin by discussing translation and literature, but end up talking about trains. Having lived in Russia in the 1990s, I remember epic rail journeys — from Moscow to Irkutsk, or to the Caucasus — and the particular rituals and courtesies of four-bed sleeping compartments, where strangers would open up to each other over long days when you had nothing else to do but eat, sleep, read, and watch a continent roll past your window.
The Habsburg Empire isn’t the last to have collapsed around here. One consequence of the disintegration of the Soviet Union is the slow-burning war in Eastern Ukraine; direct trains no longer run between Ukraine and Russia.
The bill comes, but neither of the old-timers has brought his reading glasses. We have to ask the young waitress for help.
The next day I was traveling on a rattling old bus with filthy windows through a hilly landscape covered by an early snowfall. We stopped at every potholed, muddy provincial station along the way, and it took five hours. Drohobycz — once bursting with oil money and the glitz of modernity — felt like the very end of the world, the last stop before the line gave out entirely.
In Schulz’s boyhood, Galicia had been Austrian for over two centuries. In “Spring,” he describes the domain of Emperor Franz Josef I:
On every stamp, on every coin, and on every postmark his likeness confirmed its stability and the dogma of its oneness. This was the world, and there were no other worlds besides, the effigies of the imperial and royal old man proclaimed. Everything else was make-believe, wild pretence, and usurpation. Franz Josef I rested on top of everything and checked the world in its growth.
[…] One could do nothing but […] manage as well as one could in the only possible world — that is, a world without illusions and romanticism — and forget.
The adolescent narrator gazes at horoscopes moving across the night sky with the narcotic promise of the coming season, and they are indecipherable. His prison is “barred and sealed [to] the last chink” by the earthly emperor until he encounters a friend’s stamp collection. This collection becomes the gospel of the boy’s new creed. He is now a heretic against “Franz Josef and his estate of prose.” The new God is the Lord of poetry, of multiplicity: “God walked through it, page after page, pulling behind Him a train woven from all the zones and climates. Canada, Honduras, Nicaragua, Abracadabra.”
Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia … Countries were conjured into existence in the wake of World War I, and their tongues were liberated. The now-Polish author was 26 when the Habsburg Empire was dissolved.
Schulz is often compared to Kafka, whom he translated. Both Schulz and Kafka were Franz Josef’s orphans, in a manner of speaking. But Kafka writes in the father’s tongue, and he goes in fear of the father. Schulz speaks a heretical tongue, and the thrill of freedom is greater than the fear of transgression. The father in Schulz’s stories is a shrinking, receding figure, the vestiges of his authority increasingly absurd, his behavior ever more eccentric. Schulz metamorphoses Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”: in more than one of his stories the father is turned into a cockroach.
“Still Dream of Vienna”
The German tongue migrated over many centuries, through trade and colonization and sometimes conquest, and by the 19th it was spoken in the cities of Bohemia and Galicia, in the Banat and Transylvania, and even on the Volga. It was the language of commerce and education, transcending a Babel of vernaculars. After the reforms of 1867 ended religious discrimination in the Habsburg realm, Jews tended to identify with the Emperor and Vienna alongside whatever local affiliation they felt. Urban Jews adopted the German tongue, whether in Prague or Lemberg or Czernowitz, assimilated to it.
Vienna was becoming a multiethnic capital in the decades preceding World War I, and its politics fed on anxiety that it was losing its German character. Jews too migrated there, to avail themselves of its opportunities, as well as for its relative safety. Major pogroms in the Russian Empire in 1883 and 1903 sent waves of Jewish immigration into Austro-Hungary. Karl Lueger, mayor from 1897 until his death in 1910, found it expedient to depict Vienna as invaded by Jews and advocated their expulsion. Hitler lived in Vienna between 1908 and 1913 and was an admirer of Lueger’s oratory.
In Mein Kampf, Hitler remarks how the Germans of Austria had conceded their cohesiveness and racial purity to immigrants while the Jews had retained theirs through millennia of wandering. The Jews had “the superiority of parasites”; they had burrowed into the capital and collapsed the empire from within.
After World War I, with the Austrians hemmed into an economically unviable Alpine statelet, the unquestionableness of German superiority assumed its toxic, 20th-century form. What had once been a matter of language and civilization was now a question of race. Hitler set out to reproduce the Austrian project — a German Empire in the east — on the basis of racial purity.
In 1941, when Drohobycz came under German control, the civil governor of Galicia was Otto Wächter, a Viennese. Galicia was incorporated into an entity called the General Governate, where the first extermination camps were established by SS commander Odilo Globočnik, an Austrian. An ex-police officer from Vienna, Franz Stangl, became commander of Treblinka, the largest killing facility. In Drohobycz itself, the 33 regular non-SS “German” police were all Viennese. The SS officer responsible for exploiting Jewish labor in the town, “Judengeneral” Felix Landau, was also from Vienna. On arrival in October 1941, he inspected a group of 50 prisoners. “Most of the Jews among them have been to Vienna, still dream of Vienna,” Landau wrote in his journal. The next day he had them shot.
Another of Landau’s one-time co-citizens was Bruno Schulz. Landau was an art lover, and made Schulz one of his personal slaves. He had Schulz execute paintings at the equestrian center he established in the town and at the Gestapo casino, and appraise artworks for the Gestapo.
“Madly Sensual Music”
After the war, Felix Landau lived in Stuttgart under an assumed name and ran an interior decorating company. He was arrested in 1959. His trial had already begun when an anonymous package with a Munich postmark arrived at the courthouse. It contained one of Landau’s journals from his time in Drohobycz. Landau admitted the authenticity of the document. The original diary was lost after the trial, but typed copies survived and an English translation was made in 1987 by the Institute of Documentation in Israel for the Investigation of Nazi War Crimes.
One October morning in 2015, at the Bavarian State Library, I was able to read Landau’s diary. It was a simply bound sheaf of photocopied A4 pages, complete with typographical errors and handwritten corrections. Each letter had the clunky particularity of a physical object, like exhumed archaeological artifacts that have surrendered something of their original form in their time buried in the dirt and the dark. I changed seats three times before I was able to settle down to read.
I was disappointed to discover that the diary only covered several months in the second half of 1941. There would be no mention of Schulz or of the period he worked for Landau. But the diary was stunning for reasons I didn’t expect. I was prepared for the descriptions of massacres (extracts have made it onto the net) but not for the 31-year-old Felix’s romantic life. Felix Landau is in love with Gertrud (Trude) Segel, whom he had met in his previous posting. He writes of the pain of separation, the difficulty in sending letters, and of his terror that his “little Trudchen” might cheat on him. Many entries conclude as though directly addressing the absent woman.
On July 3, 1941:
This morning I learnt that we can write letters and that there is a chance for the mail actually to be transported.
While listening to madly sensual music, I wrote my first letter to my Trude. Whilst writing, the order is given to get ready. Commando Operation with steel helmet and rifle, ammunition 30 bullets. We have just returned. 500 Jews on parade for execution by shooting.
Felix’s duties as an SS officer form the background to his love story: On July 30: “I sent Trudchen a letter and a small miniature/love scene from the Baroque epoch.” On August 2: “Since I have had 20 men shot for refusal to work, everything runs like clockwork.” At one point he writes of Trude, “I could kill her with kisses.” (A writer of fiction could not get away with such a line).
Landau performs his duties with detachment, believing in the political necessity of eliminating large numbers of Jewish civilians, whom he presumes support the enemy.
On July 28, 1941, Ukrainian villagers report finding the remains of compatriots murdered by the retreating Russians. Landau investigates, and is met by a priest who declares that the worst of the matter is that fake Jewish passports have been planted on the corpses. Landau realizes that he is at the scene of one of his own operations: “This is too much. Those allegedly murdered Ukrainians were our legitimately shot Jews, 23 and I think 2 Ukrainians […] The corpses’ papers already stank bestially. I had them soaked in petrol, burnt and buried in the pit.”
Two days later, on July 30: “What would break in me if she, who means so much to me, were to disappoint me. I believe I would lose faith in mankind for the rest of my days.”
The diary concludes before Landau divorced his first wife to marry Segel. He had his children from his first marriage, aged two and four, brought to Drohobycz. His household ran on Jewish labor — Jewish gardeners, a Jewish nanny for the children, a Jew to paint the children’s nursery.
On a cold, bright November day, a month after reading Landau’s diary, I was standing in front of the Landau villa. Tarnavskoho Street is a 10-minute stroll from the center of Drohobycz, but already it feels like the outskirts of town. The house is taller than the others on the street. It faces south, to where the land slopes away toward the rolling countryside beyond the town, and the view from the top-floor balcony must be very pleasant. From that balcony, Landau had shot his gardener, a veteran officer under Franz Jozef named Fliegner, in a fit of rage, while Trude looked on. Landau was not convicted for the killings he carried out in the course of his official duties; the prosecutors concentrated on those, such as the killing of Fliegner, which he committed on his own initiative. He was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1962, pardoned in 1973, and died in 1983.
Landau and Segel had divorced shortly after the birth of their only child together, Teja-Udo. Teja-Udo Landau, living in Stuttgart, was interviewed by German filmmaker Benjamin Geissler for his documentary Finding Pictures. Asked if he has any heirlooms from his father, he produces a small wooden box, such as might be used for keeping jewellery, with inlay work showing a woman riding a horse, a ribbon streaming from her hat. The style indicates strongly that the artist was Bruno Schulz.
Geissler was motivated to visit Drohobycz in 2001 by the story that, in 1942, Schulz had painted fairy-tale scenes on the walls of the nursery of Felix Landau’s two small children.
Operating the camera, Geissler accompanies Alfred Schreyer, an elderly ex-pupil of Schulz’s, to the Landau villa. Nadezhda Kaluzhni, a woman in her 60s, reluctantly admits the visitors, telling them that Polish researchers had already failed to find the pictures. “They asked questions, scraped paint off walls, but found nothing,” Kaluzhni insists, at one point opening the door to a small untidy room that appears to be a larder and general storage space. A previous occupant, a man named Potasov, had indicated to Geissler that the paintings were there. “Nothing,” says Kaluzhni, turning and blocking the doorway. “They can’t be here. How can they be in this closet?” Geissler asks if the Poles had searched the room. “Yes they did,” Mrs. Kaluzhni, stepping back into the hallway and shutting the door to the storage area behind her.
“For sure they knew the murals were there,” said Geissler, speaking to me at his home in Hamburg in 2015. “But they didn’t want their peace disturbed for the sake of a few pictures by some Jew they’d never heard of. They were not very interested in what was there, and had perhaps been the ones to paint over it at some stage. I said, ‘Okay, but I wanted to look for myself.’”
Geissler enters the small room. There, high on the walls, under a more recent coat of paint, the vague outlines of several murals can be seen. Kaluzhni at first claims to be unable to see them, then decides she can. “Thank God you found them! God bless you!” she exclaims, then allows herself to weep — for the bad health of her son and husband, and the family’s unfortunate financial situation.
The discovery was made on February 9, 2001. On February 17, a joint commission of Polish and Ukrainian specialists uncovered the first fragments of the murals and confirmed them to be Schulz’s work. Finding Pictures shows the moment the water-soluble top coat of paint is gently wiped away and the first picture revealed.
Geissler returned to Germany several weeks later. Now an actor in his own documentary, he argued that the Landau villa should be purchased and converted into a museum to Schulz. He received a letter dated May 17 from Nadezhda Kaluzhni’s husband, Nikolai, declaring that he had refused an offer of $3,000 for the paintings from an Israeli concern. It is unclear what ensued, but between May 19 and 21, representatives of Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Museum, removed five of the paintings and took them to Israel.
The municipal authorities in Drohobycz denied they had approved the removal of the paintings; the export of pre-1945 artwork from Ukraine requires a permit from the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture. The theft was a scandal in Poland too, where Schulz is venerated. With no legal grounds for their action, Yad Vashem countered that Israel had a moral right to Europe’s Jewish patrimony, as neither Ukraine nor Poland could boast of their record of protecting the remnants of Jewish culture on their land. Here they were on firmer ground; the synagogue in Drohobycz was practically a ruin. By June 20, the controversy had reached the front page of The New York Times.
Geissler returned to Drohobycz to complete Finding Pictures and he gives the local Jews the last word: Schreyer and the others interviewed express indignation at the murals having been ripped from their context, when they could have remained in place as testament to what Schulz and his town had endured.
“Tonight We Are Going to Celebrate”
The Holocaust arose from the failure of plans that were so vague and impractical that they have a surreal quality. In July 1940, the Bureau of Jewish Affairs drew up by a scheme to resettle all Jews under German rule on the island of Madagascar, where they would, in the words of the head of the Bureau, “guarantee the future good behavior of their racial associates in America.” The idea was actively discussed at the top level of the Nazi Party and with Germany’s allies, and communicated to the heads of the Jewish Councils.
In 1941, the Madagascar Plan was superseded by the idea of shunting the Jews into the soon-to-be conquered territories of the Soviet Union. Hitler’s colonial fantasy foresaw the reorganization of the Eurasian landmass, dominated by a German Lebensraum. The new Plan was seen as a military necessity, as the May 23, 1941, guidelines made clear:
Many tens of millions of people in this territory will become superfluous and will die or must emigrate to Siberia. Attempts to rescue the population there from death through starvation by obtaining surpluses from the black earth zone can only come at the expense of the provisioning of Europe. They prevent the possibility of Germany holding out till the end of the war, they prevent Germany and Europe from resisting the blockade.
Few doubted the speed at which the dream would be realized. On July 6, 1941, the day before his arrival in Drohobycz, Felix Landau wrote: “This morning a special message brought word of the capitulation of 52,000 Russians. In scarcely another 14 days, I expect revolution in Russia. Moscow will surely have fallen by then. Tonight we are going to celebrate with comrades from Cracow.”
Most of the captured soldiers Landau refers to, and millions more, would starve to death. As the war continued into the winter, the Wehrmacht could not divert resources to prisoners or civilians in the conquered territory. The plan to deport Jews east stalled; they were held in urban ghettoes and subjected to forced labor and slow starvation.
As one of the Judengeneral’s most useful Jews, able to appraise artwork and to beautify Landau’s projects, Bruno Schulz was able to avoid starvation. He was carrying a loaf of bread when he was shot.
More Mud than Bread
In 2008, Israeli writer David Grossman interviewed 83-year-old Ze’ev Fleischer at a retirement home in Israel. Schulz had been Fleischer’s teacher at the Sternbach Gymnasium for Jews from 1939 to 1942. The pupil was fascinated both by Schulz’s personal meekness and by his power to quietly, hypnotically, invent a story that would silence a room of rowdy boys:
I felt a special connection with him; he was a spiritual relative in some respects. […] When they all laughed at him, I felt sorry for him. I completely identified with him. And I always admired him, for the way he would talk and we would see a picture. […] And suddenly I see him dead. I was 17 at the time, and I had already seen many dead, but suddenly — him.
Fleischer described a month-long Aktion in 1942 when Jews were hunted down and shot wherever they were found. On one occasion, he heard shooting and hid after seeing a group of Jews further down the street being killed. When the Germans had gone, he proceeded past the bodies. He saw a loaf of bread sticking out of the coat of one of the murdered men, and drew closer. He rolled the corpse over and saw the face of his teacher. Fleischer is unable to say what occurred next.
My instinct was to take the bread and run away. And it seems I didn’t do that. It seems I didn’t do it. Look, a person who doesn’t eat — and we, after all, didn’t eat, we ate inedible things, we ate soup that was mostly water with grass or something […] And here I see, in his coat — it looked like, like a serious piece of bread. And I went over to this dead man, and apparently I wanted to take the bread from him. I wanted to pull out the bread and go. I even thought, I’ll come to Imma with bread, how happy she will be, but I … you know, I can’t … I don’t know what I did with that bread. I think I left it. Yes. I left because I saw his face, with blood here and here.
Fleischer indicated his forehead and eyes.
Interviewed on a second occasion by Grossman, Fleischer again spoke of the bread:
It was a loaf of bread. Like a brick … more mud than bread. Half of it was sawdust. It was like a piece of mud they used to bake then. If I stuck in a finger, it would go in like it was modelling clay … What happened? … I took it. Maybe I took a bite of it. No. No. … Anyway, I can’t tell you clearly what happened with that bread. […] I think I ate. Very little. Two or three bites. Not more. Then it broke in half in my hand.
In July 1941, the head of the Sicherheitsdienst (SD) in Poznan doubted all the Jews in the city’s ghetto could be fed through the coming winter: “It is to be seriously considered whether the most humane solution might not be to finish off those Jews not capable of working by some sort of fast-working preparation. This would in any event be more pleasant than letting them starve.”
A secretive “euthanasia” program had evolved over the previous two years in the Reich. In July 1939, Hitler had authorized the killing of a seriously handicapped five-month-old baby on the basis of a petition from the child’s parents, and he approved the same procedure being followed in future, where the parents and “experts” were in agreement. Some 5,000 children would die. In October 1939, Hitler extended the program to “grant those who are as far as anyone can humanly judge incurably sick a merciful death (Gnadentod) after critical investigation of their state of health.”
War had broken out, and non-productive citizens were a drag on the economy. It was agreed that over 70,000 psychiatric patients should be killed. The program would in the end extend to the deaf, dumb, epileptics, and people with learning disabilities.
A system was perfected over several months. The victims were kept ignorant of their fate until they were shown into a gas chamber disguised as a shower room. Death from carbon dioxide poisoning usually took several minutes. Any gold teeth were extracted, and the corpses incinerated.
By the end of 1941, Jews were being killed using carbon monoxide produced by the engines of the vans into which they were packed. The next stage was the construction of permanent extermination camps. Treblinka, the largest, was administered by Franz Stangl, a veteran of the “euthanasia” program.
“One More Disappointment”
Schulz’s killer in all probability belonged to the SS. The Schutzstaffel (Protection Squadron) had begun as a Nazi Party militia, and had been integrated with the state to provide its ideological backbone when the National Socialists took power.
The distinctive SS insignia — two crude lightning bolts — was adapted from a stylized alternative alphabet popularized by the Viennese writer Guido von List in his book The Secret of the Runes (1908). In 1902, von List had become temporarily blind and claimed to have received these runes and symbols in a vision. Hitler was in Vienna when The Secret was published, and seems to have been deeply impressed by it, as he was by various currents of German racial mysticism that flourished in the latter years of the Habsburg Empire. Another symbol popularized by von List in his book was the swastika.
Von List believed the Aryans were originally from the North Pole, and had been driven south by an Ice Age, where they came into contact with inferior peoples, bringing culture to the entire human race. But the Aryans risked degrading themselves by mixing with inferiors. In Mein Kampf, Hitler would write: “Human culture and civilization on this continent are inseparably bound up with the presence of the Aryan. If he dies out or declines, the dark veils of an age without culture will again descend on this globe.”
According to von List, a prophesied Germanic savior would arise and rule as a demigod, above all earthly laws, infallible and guiding it toward “final victory.” Hitler believed that if the fuhrer was to be the savior, he had to talk like he believed it, and perhaps he did. He never admitted a mistake. He wrote that any leader who doubted his own mission should “renounce the public exercise of any further political activity. For since in matters of basic knowledge he has once succumbed to an error, there is a possibility that this will happen a second time.”
It is easy to overlook the fact that Hitler believed in the morality of his mission. He wrote in Mein Kampf:
If the Jew and his Marxist creed are victorious over the other peoples of the world, his crown will be the funeral wreath of humanity and this planet will move through the ether devoid of men, as it did thousands of years ago. Eternal Nature inexorably avenges the infringement of her commands. Hence today I believe I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.
This is a Messiah from the pages of Schulz; one with the conviction to overturn the world, and all his oratory exposed in the final second as a cosmic con job.
In Schulz’s parable “The Comet,” the end of the world, announced by the heavens, turns out to be “a trick cyclist’s, a prestidigitator’s, end of the world, splendidly hocus-pocus and bogus experimental — accompanied by all the plaudits of all of the spirits of Progress.” The comet that has sailed through the heavens simply sputters out, the “megalomaniac exaggeration” of expectation is spent, leaving the members of the gathered crowd holding their hats, “richer by one more disappointment.”
The great question about this genocidal interval, of which the General Governate was the epicenter, is why it is not particularly memorable. We look for the rationale, the motive cause, only to find that it never really meant anything, the same way a card trick means nothing — it grabs the attention but when examined collapses into the emptiness of effect. It is the articulation of nonsense, casting its shadow on the world.
Schulz was killed just as he was preparing to escape Drohobycz. He had acquired false documents for this purpose and had entrusted his archive of paintings, drawings, and correspondence to people outside the ghetto. The archive has been lost without trace. It included the manuscript of an unfinished novel he had titled The Messiah.
The footpath where Schulz fell is today marked by a brass plaque. When I visited, a few days after the anniversary of his death, there were candles and dried flowers on the spot; it has become, as Schulz himself has become, the focus of remembrance of a larger disaster. But this is perhaps to exaggerate. It’s just a slab of metal and easy enough to miss. It is also a copy. The original hand-cast plaque was stolen shortly after it was inaugurated for its scrap value. Now it lies, in fragments that were hammered and pried from the ground, in a small room down the street in the town’s Teacher Training College, which is the former Sternbach Gymnasium where Schulz taught. The room was shown to me by a young woman who works with the Polish Studies Institute. Mostly I just remember the original plaque, in about eight jagged pieces, on the floor. I was told that the thief, a local Gypsy, was let off with a warning by the judge. He was a minor and had several children.
Philip Ó Ceallaigh is short story writer as well as a translator. In 2006, he won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. His two short story collections, Notes from a Turkish Whorehouse and The Pleasant Light of Day, were short-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. He lives in Bucharest.