Bruno Schulz Biography

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(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

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When Bruno Schulz was born, in 1892, Drohobycz was a small Polish town in Galicia, then a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Poland had lost its independence and was partitioned; it became independent in 1918, when Schulz was twenty-six years old. Drohobycz had a population of about thirty thousand, largely Jewish and Polish.

Schulz’s family was Jewish and spoke Polish. His father, Jakub, was the owner and bookkeeper of the textile fabrics shop described in his son’s stories. Bruno was the youngest of three children; he was educated at home and in a school named for Emperor Franz Joseph. The merchant profession to which his parents belonged separated them from the Hasidim, and Schulz never learned Yiddish; although he knew German he wrote in Polish, the language of his immediate family. After completing high school, he studied architecture in Lwów for three years, until the outbreak of World War I. He taught himself to draw and produced graphics, hoping to make art his career. Instead, he obtained the post of teacher of drawing and handicrafts at the state high school, or gimnazjum, named for King Wadysaw Jagieo, in Drohobycz. He was to teach in the school for seventeen years, until his death in 1942.

In the 1920’s it was only drawing and painting that Schulz practiced openly, in full view of his friends; he kept his literary works to himself, sharing them with few people in Drohobycz. It was through correspondence with friends in distant cities that Schulz began his literary career. Cinnamon Shops began in the letters he sent to Deborah Vogel, a poet and doctor of philosophy who lived in Lwów. Fragment by fragment, episode by episode, the book progressed, embedded in Schulz’s letters; she urged him to continue, until the book took its final form. Schulz gained the support of the eminent novelist Zofia Nakowska, who helped him in the publication of the book. Stanisaw Witkiewicz in Kraków became an early enthusiast of Schulz’s work, and a correspondent; other admirers and correspondents came to include the novelist Witold Gombrowicz, the poet Julian Tuwim, and the German writer Thomas Mann.

After his literary success, Schulz continued to live in Drohobycz. Because of his prize from the Polish Academy of Letters, a “golden laurel,” his school gave him the title of “professor” but no raise in salary. His brother died in an accident in 1936, and Schulz’s financial responsibilities grew; he became the sole supporter of his widowed sister, her son, and an aged cousin. Schulz became engaged, but his fiancé was Catholic, there were religious complications, and their relationship eventually ended. With the help of friends in Poland and France, Schulz managed to travel to Paris in the summer of 1938, and he stayed there for three weeks—it was his first trip abroad.

War broke out in Poland in September, 1939. According to the Molotov-Ribbentrop secret pact, Germany attacked western Poland on September 1, and its ally, the Soviet Union, had agreed to attack eastern Poland simultaneously. Drohobycz was in eastern Poland, and the Red Army with the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs invaded it on September 17. For the next twenty months, they occupied the town. Schulz continued to teach drawing in his high school; he had stopped writing. In the summer of 1941, the Germans attacked their Soviet allies, occupying Drohobycz in turn. Together with other Jews, Schulz was confined to the ghetto. One day in November, 1942, he ventured with a special pass to the “Aryan” quarter; he was bringing home a loaf of bread when he was recognized by a Gestapo officer, who shot him dead on the street. That night, a friend recovered his body and buried it in the nearby Jewish cemetery.

That cemetery no longer exists. In addition, the manuscripts of Schulz’s unpublished works, given to a friend for safekeeping, have been lost—they disappeared along with their custodian. Schulz’s major work was to have been the novel...

(The entire section is 1,722 words.)