Detailed map of Drohobycz and its surrounding. Edition of the Warsaw military cartographic institute, 1934. Click for a larger view
Noon is over by when we enter the Ukrainian border, and we go ahead in haste towards Drohobycz, as daylight is getting shorter, and it would be good to be in Lwów before darkness falls. The gently waving hills of eastern Galicia, still green at the end of August, are even more softened by the afternoon light. This light and this air are the protagonists of the very first pages of the first book by Bruno Schulz, The Cinnamon Shops (Sklepy cynamonowe, 1933) which he considered something of an autobiographical novel: “an autobiography”, he writes, “or rather a spiritual genealogy, the κατ' ἐξοχήν genealogy, which leads back spiritual genealogy to the depth where it enters mythology, and where it is lost in the mythological delirium.” (Bruno Schulz, Księga listów (The book of letters), 1975)
“A tangled thicket of grasses, weeds, and thistles crackled in the fire of the afternoon. The sleeping garden was resonant with flies. The golden field of stubble shouted in the sun like a tawny cloud of locusts: in the thick rain of fire the crickets screamed; seed pods exploded softly like grasshoppers. And over by the fence the sheepskin of grass lifted in a hump, as if the garden had turned over in its sleep, its broad, peasant back rising and falling as it breathed on the stillness of the earth. There the untidy, feminine ripeness of August had expanded into enormous, impenetrable clumps of burdocks spreading their sheets of leafy tin, their luxuriant tongues of fleshy greenery. There, those protuberant bur clumps spread themselves, like resting peasant women, half-enveloped in their own swirling skirts.” (The Cinnamon Shops, “August”, translated by Celina Wieniewska)
Schulz’s verbal exuberance and plastic imagination profusely shares nouns, adjectives and sensual phrases, and tries in a never ending process to reconstruct childhood, mixing the objects of memory in a synaesthesia with whose web he wants to catch the forever vanished world of primitive perceptions.
“With the exception of brief stays in Warsaw, Krakow and Vienna, and a period lived in Paris (1938), Bruno Schulz spent his entire life in Drohobycz. This small town, mainly because of the oil discovered in the neighborhood, was a crossroads of business and peoples who kept it in touch with the cities of modern world, primarily with the capital, Vienna. The high school named of King Wladyslaw Jagiello sent its best students to the universities of Vienna and Lemberg, and here opened one of the first cinemas of Galicia, the Urania, directed by Bruno Schulz’s elder brother, the engineer Izrael “Izidor” Schulz (1881-1935). The famous Ulica Krokodyli, the Street of Crocodiles, whose name gives title to one of the most sarcastic stories of Schulz, and which in reality was probably the Ulica Stryjska” – the road arriving from the direction of Stryj, nowadays almost impassable because of the potholes, through which we also reach the town – “was a faithful mirror of the little town’s new face, filled of shops, wares and life, to the point of earning the nickname “The California of Galicia”. And Schulz’s work, while revealing a world almost out of time, which is also the world of childhood become myth, is also the representation of an urban world and society changing at a very rapid pace.” (Francesco M. Cataluccio, Madurar hacia la infancia. Introducción a Bruno Schulz, Madrid: Siruela, 2008)
“Schulz never got rid of Drohobycz or leave the city, which was for him the only place of safety and an inexhaustible source of myths. We also have another description of Drohobycz from the same years, by the pen of Alfred Döblin (1878-1957), author of Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929), who wrote a series of reports from Poland in 1924. If Döblin describes Eastern Galicia as the land of poverty, an image shared by all his fellow countrymen traveling there at the time, then Drohobycz is for him the misery incarnate. […] In 1910 Schulz went on to study architecture in Lemberg, but ill health, poverty and nostalgia called him back after three years to his native town.” (Cataluccio)
Döblin’s negative impressions from Eastern Europe are shared by many other German writers of Jewish origin (cf. C. Sonnino, Esilio, diaspora, terra promessa. Ebrei tedeschi verso Est, Milan: Mondadori, 1998), for example by Joseph Roth, whose descriptions give a symbolic weight to the silence, the absence of God and the exile of the Shekhinah in his native Galicia: “The inhospitable swamps relentlessly covered the entire surface of the region, invading the margins of the roads with their frogs, miasma and malignant herbs […] Many fell in them, but nobody heard their cries for help […] In spring and summer the air was filled by the incessant and monotonous croaking of frogs, while the sky echoed the equally monotonous trill of larks” (Radetzkymarsch, quoted by Claudio Magris, Lontano da dove. Joseph Roth e la tradizione ebraico-orientale, Torino: Einaudi 1977).
In the background, behind the green and gray roof emerges the pediment of the abandoned old synagogue of Drohobycz
“The town of Drohobycz was first occupied by the Germans on 12 September 1939, and surrendered to the Soviets on the 24th of the month in terms of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. In 1941 it fell in German hands again who immediately began the persecution and annihilation of the Jews. Schulz, who by then had been already forced to bow to the terror instituted by the Soviets, to take part in the charade of voting for the annexation of Western Ukraine, had joined the trade union and had been accustomed to teach under the portraits of Stalin and Marx, had to move to the Jewish ghetto. Thanks to his knowledge of German, he was “employed” by a German official, the fanatic Austrian carpenter Felix Landau. All attempts of his friends to escape him to Warsaw were unsuccessful, partly because of his indecision to leave Drohobycz. When he finally changed his mind and through the Polish resistance he obtained false documents and money, on 19 November during a “savage operation” of the Gestapo in the ghetto he was killed on the open street by the Gestapo official Karl Günther who later boasted of the fact that he took revenge on the “patron” of Schulz for having earlier killed “his” Jew, the local dentist.” (Cataluccio)
We do not know exactly where the body of Bruno Schulz is laying. His friend Izydor Friedman buried him in a recently opened mass grave in the Jewish cemetery, on which later the Soviet leadership of the town built a housing estate. The place where he was shot down is commemorated by an almost imperceptible small copper plate on the sidewalk. The town’s dubious hero is Stepan Bandera, raised to the rank of Hero of the Ukraine in last April by the Ukrainian parliament, whose Ukrainian army, established in 1941 in alliance with the Germans, killed several hundreds of thousands of Poles and Jews in Western Ukraine. His portraits decorate the houses, and his statue is standing in the middle of the park established on the place of the destroyed Jewish quarter.
Adam Zagajewski remembers in a short essay the relationship between Schulz and his town. These few pages are our guide as we are searching the traces of Schulz in the main street of Drohobycz from where the crocodiles had died out, and on the main square from where the smell of the cinnamon shops have long since gone.
“His dilemmas and conflicts were an emblem of the peripheral, of everything that was borderline and provincial – and Schulz needed to be bound to the provinces in the way he needed air to breathe. […] Today we look at Bruno Schulz’s destiny from the perspective of his absurd death in the ghetto of Drohobycz; the shadow of this death falls across his entire life. Yet there were many normal and ordinary things in his biography. The most extraordinary was undoubtedly his talent: the wondrous ability to transmute the commonplace into the bewitching. And it is exactly here – as in the case of many writers – that Schulz’s anxiety is located, in the fear that he would lack the time and the inspiration, that the agony of daily teaching would devour him. […] In his prose, provincial Drohobycz was transformed into some sort of eastern Baghdad, into an exotic city out of A Thousand and One Night. His life, touched by the same magical wand, also eludes classification. If he had not written and not drawn, he would have been only a melancholy, Jewish, middle-class crafts teacher, the hapless scion of a merchant family, a dreamer writing long letters to other dreamers. […] Schulz’s case, however, is distinct: In his work the metaphysical, imaginative tendency finds a real counterweight in the form of a specific geographic and familial reality, which the author of Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass draws from abundantly, as if recalling that literature is made of body and soul and that the neoromantic longing for the final, absolute elements of the world must be confronted with a hard, merciless, provincial, and idiomatic being.”
“This hard partner in Schulz’s mysticism is Drohobycz (a small town in the vicinity of Lwów), which Schulz did not choose, just as one does not choose one’s body, freckles, or genes. Schulz was born in Drohobycz, a town as modest as his own person. His imagination lived in Drohobycz, and the imagination is unbelievably sly. It is capable of praising a real, corporeal object in a manner that is highly ambivalent. It is capable of praising, augmenting, glorifying, embellishing; yet, at the same time, the embellishment and praise are the most sophisticated escape, the most elegant trick in the world, allowing us to leave our adored city! In transforming the cramped and dirty Drohobycz, in which probably only the half-wild gardens, orchards, cherry trees, sunflowers, and moldering fences were really beautiful, into an extraordinary, divine place, Schulz could say goodbye to it, he could leave it.”
“He could escape into the world of the imagination without offending the little town and, in fact, elevated it to rare heights. Now even New York knows a bit about Drohobycz, about Schulz’s Drohobycz, which no longer exists; all because of the mad subterfuges of the imagination of a little arts-and-crafts teacher. And only the Drohobycz created by Schulz has survived; the old, historic town, full of Jewish shops and twisting lanes, has vanished from the face of the earth. Now only Soviet Drohobycz exists, in all likelihood a masterpiece of socialist realism.” (Adam Zagajewski, “Drohobycz and the world”, in: Two cities, Warsaw 1991).
Before leaving Drohobycz we go to see the abandoned and slowly decaying synagogue which in its day was allegedly the largest in Europe.
“The old houses, worn smooth by the winds of innumerable days, played tricks with the reflections of the atmosphere, with echoes and memories of colors scattered in the depth of the cloudless sky. It seemed as if whole generations of summer days, like patient stonemasons cleaning the mildewed plaster from old façades, had removed the deceptive varnish, revealing more and more clearly the true face of the houses, the features that fate had given them and life had shaped for them from the inside.” (The Cinnamon Shops, “August”)
Dusk is slowly falling as we leave behind the silhouette of Drohobycz on our way to Lwów.