A Brief Life of Bruno Schulz

As a boy in a part of Poland that is now part of Ukraine, Bruno fed sug­ar gran­ules to house­flies so they’d have enough strength to sur­vive the win­ters. Lat­er, he want­ed to be an artist. He went to col­lege, but he was shy and thought lit­tle of him­self, so he had noth­ing. Some friends pitied him and found him a job as a school teacher. He didn’t like teach­ing, but his stu­dents remem­bered him as an awk­ward man who nev­er­the­less trans­fixed them with sto­ries every day from bell to bell.

He wrote sto­ries as well, but he didn’t think they were good enough to pub­lish. Nonethe­less, in 1933, at age 41, he trav­eled to War­saw with the hope that Madame Nalkows­ka would help him. As a favor to a friend, she agreed to give him ten min­utes of her time and let him read a few pages of his col­lec­tion to her. She kept the man­u­script for the day and phoned him that evening to say she would be hon­ored to help him pub­lish his col­lec­tion, The Cin­na­mon Shops. Five short years lat­er, he received the Gold­en Lau­rel Award from the Pol­ish Acad­e­my of Literature.

In 1941, the Ger­mans forced the Jews of Dro­hoby­cz into the Ghet­to. Schulz escaped the camps, how­ev­er, when an SS Offi­cer, Felix Lan­dau, admired his work and retained him to paint murals in his home. Lan­dau had a vio­lent rival­ry with anoth­er SS Offi­cer, Karl Gun­ther ; one day, Gun­ther walked up and shot Shulz dead, say­ing, “There, I’ve shot your per­son­al Jew.”

[This is a dis­til­la­tion of David Gross­man­’s fine “The Age of Genius” from the June 8 2009 issue of The New Yorker]