A fight over the work and legacy of Bruno Schulz

From the new issue of The Boston Review, the discovery of long lost frescoes by the late author and artist Bruno Schulz and their subsequent relocation to Yad Vashem has ignited much soul searching and debate on Polishness and Poland’s relationship to Jewry.

“Since the partition of Bruno Schulz’s murals, public opinion in both Poland and Ukraine has raged against what is generally perceived as the theft of national treasures. But for Poles in particular, Yad Vashem’s actions carry a weighty significance. They suggest that dying because one is a Jew negates the relevance of having lived largely as a Pole—and, harsher still, that Jewishness and Polishness have been deemed fundamentally irreconcilable. In response to mounting international outrage, Yad Vashem posted a public statement on its Web site—one of very few official comments on the incident—asserting a ‘moral right’ to Schulz’s work. The confrontational final sentence addresses Poland directly: ‘Yad Vashem is of the opinion that if Poland feels that they have an interest in assets that they see as their own, a discussion can be initiated regarding assets—cultural and other—which are part of the Jewish legacy in general and the Holocaust-era in particular, and are spread throughout Poland.’

This closing resonates less with ‘moral right’ than with an unsettling attitude of you-took-ours, we-take-yours, and no one in Poland really knows what to make of it. Among the Polish intelligentsia, there is clear skepticism of Ukraine’s announcement that Schulz’s murals are a gift-after-the-fact, and there is open resentment of the implication—not very well masked by Yad Vashem’s position on Schulz—that Poles were complicit in the deaths of their Jewish neighbors and have forfeited their right to the Jewish aspect of their national heritage.

In Poland, they love Bruno Schulz. They want him back.”

(Here’s the statement from Yad Vashem on the dispute, and here a letter from a number of prominent scholars on the matter.)