International Survey of Jewish Monuments

Yad Vashem not displaying Bruno Schulz Holocaust art
(Haaretz 04/07/05)

The Holocaust murals of Bruno Schulz that were clandestinely brought to Israel by Yad Vashem four years ago, causing an international furor, are not being shown in the new history museum for "technical and curatorial reasons," despite Yad Vashem stating then that Schulz's work "will be preserved for generations, and may be viewed by the millions of tourists from all over the world who visit Yad Vashem each year."

In the clandestine operation in June 2001, the murals painted by Schulz, a Jewish-Polish writer and artist, were covertly brought to Israel from the village of Drohobycz shortly after their discovery.

The arrival of the paintings in Israel created an international stir, casting a shadow over Poland-Israel relations and provoking angry responses from artists and scholars around the world

Yad Vashem justified the act saying that the new museum of Holocaust history is the most appropriate place for the rare work. However, anyone hoping to view the famous murals in the museum is in for a disappointment: They are still in storage.

A member of the Polish delegation who came for the museum's opening told Haaretz he was surprised the work was not on display, "in light of what Yad Vashem was willing to do in order to obtain it."

Yad Vashem says the murals have not yet been exhibited for "technical and curatorial reasons," principally the limited space in the art museum.

Born in 1892, Bruno Schulz lived most of his life and died in Drohobycz, a town then in eastern Galicia about 60 kilometers south of Lvov, where 15,000 Jews lived before the Holocaust. He taught art and crafts in the local high school, and wrote and painted in his free time. His world renown came years after his death, when his stories began to appear in English. To many literary critics, Schulz is one of Poland's greatest short story writers, often referred to as "the Polish Kafka."

On July 1, 1941, the Germans entered Drohobycz. Gestapo chief Felix Landau was taken by Schulz's talent and ordered him to decorate his son's room with images of German folk tales. Despite Landau's vow to protect Schulz, he was shot on November 19, 1942, by another Gestapo officer. Most of his art work was lost.

After the war the Soviets housed peasant families in the villa where Landau had lived with his son. The nursery became a kitchen, and the murals were covered over with plaster. Drohobycz's Jewish past was forgotten, the synagogues were destroyed or became public latrines.

In 1991 Drohobycz became part of the independent Ukraine. Schulz's nursery murals were uncovered in February 2001 by Benjamin Geissler, a documentary film director. The discovery sent waves of excitement through Poland, and among Schulz's admirers around the world. Polish conservationists rushed to the site. While Geissler and the Poles were talking to the local municipality about establishing a museum in the village, they learned to their astonishment that the murals had disappeared.

On May 29 that year Yad Vashem announced that most of the paintings were in its possession. Haaretz reported, in the name of Yad Vashem officials, that a special Mossad team had convinced the house owners to give them the paintings for free, for the new museum. The couple, who used to charge money for a `peek' at the murals, said they received no more than 100 dollars from the Israelis "for expenses."

It would be naive to think that Yad Vashem took the paintings out of the Ukraine legally, said Bartosz Weglarczyk, an editor at Gazetta Wyborcza, which reported the affair extensively.

Yad Vashem was the center of an international scandal that ensued, reported in a front-page story in The New York Times, along with a petition signed by 30 distinguished Holocaust scholars in its prestigious literary supplement.

Yad Vashem issued a statement then saying it had "the moral right to the remnants of those fragments sketched by Bruno Schulz."

The Polish government sent an official protest to Israel, and even Polish-Jewish leaders criticized Yad Vashem for the unprecedented act. "We feel robbed," said Konstanti Gebert, editor of the Jewish Polish magazine Midrash. "A limb of our heritage was cut off, our pain is undescribable."

A counter-petition signed by authors Aharon Appelfeld and A.B. Yehoshua, and Holocaust scholars in Israel claimed that the Drohobycz municipality had recognized that Yad Vashem would know better how to preserve the memory of Drohobycz's Jews. Three years have gone by since the petition, and it seems that the burden of proof is still on Yad Vashem.

International Survey of Jewish Monuments
c/o Jewish Heritage Research Center
Box 210, 118 Julian Pl.
Syracuse, New York 13210-3419, USA

tel: (315) 474-2350
fax: (309) 403-1858

Last updated: April 8, 2005