Harvard Death Fugue:
On The Exploitation of Bruno Schulz

James R. Russell
Mashtots Professor of Armenian Studies,
Harvard University.

In November 2003, a controversial documentary about the rediscovered frescoes by Bruno Schulz was shown at Harvard. Schulz was a Jewish writer and graphic artist whose dreamlike work echoes Franz Kafka and foreshadows Gabrial Garcia Marquez. Schulz wrote in Polish, and the characters and scenes in his stories are drawn from the life of his Jewish family and the community of the Galician town of Drohobycz. He was murdered by the Nazis in 1942 and the frescoes he had painted were lost until a German researcher found them; the researcher's son then made a film about their search and rediscovery. There had been many anti-Semitic attacks in the western Ukraine, and a team from Yad Vashem removed most of what is left of the frescoes to Jerusalem for restoration and display in conditions of reverence, of historical context, and of comparative safety. Yet the film presents Yad Vashem's act as one of vandalism, pillage, and betrayal of the legacy of Schulz himself. The discussion that followed the Harvard screening generally approved this view, which became a platform for attacks on Israel generally.

That evening provided the impetus to this essay, which begins by addressing the question of proprietary claims to cultural relics in general and to Judaica in particular. I move to the case of Bruno Schulz, the film and its director, and the discussion at Harvard, in which I perceive the manipulation of the legacy of a Jewish artist murdered in the Holocaust to advance the twin agendas of the New antisemitism - European and Arab. I call the duet of these Jew-haters a Todesfüge, after the poem of Paul Celan.

1.     Who owns the Jewish heritage?

Anyone who has followed the arguments surrounding the bas-reliefs from the Parthenon at Athens, which were removed to the British Museum by Lord Elgin two centuries ago from Ottoman-ruled Greece, and whose return is now demanded by the government of the Hellenic republic, is aware of how difficult it is to decide who should own important cultural artifacts of antiquity. Borders, conditions of war and peace, and facts of jurisdiction and even of sovereignty itself are in constant flux. The Parthenon is unquestionably a part of the cultural patrimony of the Greeks alive today, and the present record of preservation of antiquities by the Greek government assures one that the Elgin Marbles will be as safe in Athens, and as accessible to scholars and tourists, as they have been in the British Museum.

Judaica poses considerably greater problems. Whereas the link between ancient Greek artifacts and the modern Greek nation is indisputable, until only a few generations ago the cultural production of the Jewish nation existed largely in the Diaspora. The Land of Israel had many Jewish inhabitants, but was long under the sovereignty of the Ottoman Sultan: only in the last half century has the "repatriation" of Judaica become possible. One might conclude it best to leave Jewish artifacts in the lands where they originated. Yet the place of Judaica in the patrimony of those countries is contentious at best. Even nations that don't efface the presence of Jews in their history may have no interest in adequately or respectfully preserving their Jewish patrimony. The Soviet Union, for example, nationalized vast Judaica collections, and although it took good care of them, for largely ideological reasons it made access to Judaica - both objects and sacred books and manuscripts - extremely difficult. Worse, Jordan vandalized and demolished entire Jewish neighborhoods and cemeteries during its occupation of Jerusalem and the West Bank. More recently, the Palestinian Authority in Judea and Samaria has presided over the neglect of ancient sites such as the ancient synagogue at Jericho.

Syria, which has custody over the celebrated third-century Dura Synagogue, severely restricts access to the hall containing the synagogue's unique frescoes, while improperly preserving the frescoes and leaving them in a dangerous state of disrepair. A traveler to Syria, my friend Mrs. Shushan Teager, of Belmont, MA, brought me an accordion-set of good quality color postcards of the synagogue frescoes from the Damascus Museum, however the captions on the cards interpret the art in such a way as to belittle Jewish culture and prophecy the destruction of Israel by Palestinian arms, primarily by indentifying ancient Philistine with modern Palestine and trumpeting the former's military victories over Israel. It is obviously unfortunate and unsatisfactory that Judaica be under Syrian control.

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Image: Fresco by Bruno Schulz
(from Ukranian newsmagazine Postup)

January 2004

Harvard Death Fugue
On the Exploitation of Bruno Schulz
James Russell

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From previous issues:

The Sacred and the Profane
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The Art of Enlightenment
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Strasbourg Cathedral
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