Beneath The Street of Crocodiles


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 seen since.

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 captor’s child.

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 what’s beneath.

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 (USA) Inc.