Beneath The Street of Crocodiles
By JONATHAN SAFRAN FOER
Bruno Schulz was born in 1892 in Drohobycz, a
small town in the Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia. Beneath the
surface of his professional life—he taught drawing and handicrafts in a local
school—was an explosive creative energy, which expressed itself through
fiction, correspondence, drawing, and painting. When the Germans seized
Drohobycz in 1941, Schulz, a Jew, distributed his artwork and papers—which are
said to have included the manuscript of his masterpiece, The Messiah—to gentile friends for safekeeping. These comprised the
great bulk of his artistic output, and not a single item among them has been
Felix Landau, a Gestapo office in charge of the Jewish labor force in
Drohobycz, became aware of Schulz’s talents as a draftsman. He directed Schulz
to paint murals on the walls of his child’s playroom. This relationship brought
Schulz certain privileges, most importantly protection. In November 1942,
Landau killed a Jew favored by another Gestapo officer, Karl Günther. Soon
after, Günther came upon Schulz, on the corner of Czacki and Mickiewicz
Streets, and shot him in the head. “You killed my Jew,” he later boasted to
Landau, “I killed yours.”
Why was Schulz in the street that afternoon, instead of working on the murals?
Perhaps he was putting off the completion of the murals, knowing, like
Scheherazade, that it was only his creations that kept him alive. Or had he
refused to paint another stroke? More likely, he was finishing preparations for
the escape from the ghetto he was planning to attempt that night.
Sixty years later, a documentary filmmaker, Benjamin Geissler, went back to
Drohobycz (now Drohobych, Ukraine) in search of the murals. With the help of
locals—and despite the hindrances of Ukrainian officialdom—he was able to find
Landau’s house. It had been converted into apartments, but the structure was
otherwise little changed. It was February. White snow blanketed everything.
Geissler opened the front door. The hallway’s walls were dark. He went from
room to room, watching the house unfold through his camera. All of the walls
were overpainted with layers of light green.
Geissler was able to find someone who had been in the house decades before and
remembered the murals. This person led Geissler to what was once Landau’s
child’s room and had since become a small pantry. The walls were white, but
from a few inches away, one could see faint outlines, like shapes deep under
ice. Geissler rubbed at one of the walls with the butt of his palm, and colors
surfaced. He rubbed more, and forms were released. He rubbed more, like doing
the rubbing of a grave, and could make out figures: fairies and nymphs,
mushrooms, animals and royalty...
While officials in Drohobych, Ukraine, Poland, Germany, and Israel debated what
to do with the murals—“owning” the murals also meant owning some responsibility
for Schulz’s fate—Yad Vashem, Israel’s holocaust museum, came to the apartment
and, depending on how one sees things, either stole or rescued them.
The whole story could have been told like this: in Jerusalem there is a wall,
under whose surface is an unfinished fairytale, painted sixty years before and
a continent away by the Jewish writer Bruno Schulz, for the pleasure of his
In his story “The Book,” which some scholars suspect was also part of The Messiah, the narrator recalls a
volume—a lost volume—whose pages, when rubbed, reveal plumes of color.
We live on the surface of our planet. Human life happens on a shell as thin, relative
to the size of the earth, as an egg’s, or as thin as the paint on a wall. We
have lifestyles on the surfaces of our lives: habits and culture, clothes,
modes of transit, calendars, papers in wallets, ways of killing time, answers
to the question “What do you do?” We come home from long days of doing what we
do and tuck ourselves under the thin sheets. We read stories printed on even
thinner paper. Why, at the end of the day, do we read stories?
There are things, Schulz wrote, “that cannot ever occur with any precision.
They 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 reality can
carry them. And they quickly withdraw, fearing to lose their integrity in the
frailty of realization.” Our lives, the big and magnificent lives we can just
barely make out beneath the mere facts of our lifestyles, are always trying to occur. But save for a few rare
occasions—falling in love, the birth of a child, the death of a parent, a
revelatory moment in nature—they don’t occur;
the big magnificence is withdrawn. Stories rub at the facts of our lives. They
give us access—if only for a few hours, if only in bed at the end of the day—to
But rub is too gentle a word for
Schulz’s writing. And what it uncovers is nothing like a fairy tale. I remember
the first time I read The Street of
Crocodiles. I loved the book but didn’t like it. The language was too
heightened, the images too magical and precarious, the yearnings too dire, the
sense of loss too palpable—everything was comedy or tragedy. The experience was
too intense to be pleasant, in large part because it reminded me of how
mundane—how unintense— my life was. The fingers of his words rubbed (or scraped
or clawed, shoveled, or ripped) and revealed not enough. I took his stories as
challenges: do not say the next best thing, do not live in the moment if it is
not the right moment, do not withdraw into the frailty of realization. His
books still have that effect on me. Good writers are pleasing, very good
writers make you feel and think, great writers make you change.
“A book must be an ice-axe to break the seas frozen inside of us,” Kafka
famously wrote. Schulz’s two slim books are the sharpest axes I’ve ever come
across. I encourage you to split the chopping block using them.
Copyright (c) 2008 by Jonathan Safran
Foer from the Penguin Classics edition of THE STREETS OF CROCODILES by Bruno
Schulz. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Classics, a division of Penguin Group