In The New Yorker the other week, David Grossman reported on his discovery in Beersheba of an old man named Ze'ev Fleischer, who on November 19, 1942, came to the corner of Czacki Street and Mickiewicz Street, at the entrance to the ghetto in the town of Drohobycz, in Poland, right after Bruno Schulz was murdered there. He found a piece of bread in the bloodied writer's pocket: a last gift of sustenance from the mysterious man who was his teacher in high school. Fleischer arrived at the scene too late to corroborate the account of Schulz's death that we have from Jerzy Ficowski, the Polish writer and scholar who consecrated himself to Schulz's posterity, according to which Schulz was shot by a Gestapo officer named Karl Gunther in revenge for the killing of a dentist named Low, who had been murdered by a Gestapo officer named Felix Landau. Low had been under Gunther's protection, Schulz had been under Landau's protection. "You killed my Jew," Gunther told Landau, "I killed yours." Ficowski had this account from an eyewitness named Izydor Friedman, a young lawyer who was surviving with Schulz by cataloguing a Jesuit library for the Nazis, and saving what they could of it. I was startled to meet Friedman alongside the Lincoln Financial Group advertorial. I know a bit about him. He survived the war by hiding for many months in a small chamber under a pigsty in a barn near an oil well in a hamlet called Schodnica. There were four other people with him in that wretched heaven-sent hole. One of them was my mother.
I wish to add a footnote to my friend's affecting piece. To the best of my knowledge, and I make no scholarly claims in the matter, the tale of Schulz's death may have first been told in English in 1961 in a shattering book called Out of the Ashes, by Leon Thorne. Below its subtitle, The Story of a Survivor, its jacket showed a crudely drawn phoenix rising from the flames with the Decalogue in its beak. Thorne began to compose his memoir of extinction and endurance in the hole under the barn--"six feet long and about four feet wide and about five feet high. We cannot stand upright, although we can lie down at full length.... I am writing while lying on my cot, leaning on the bucket of water which is covered by a thick piece of cardboard. This is my desk ... It is difficult here, but we are satisfied because up above, in the light and in the sun, where one can stand upright and breathe fresh air, brutal death awaits us. " Shortly after its publication, Thorne's book was reviewed with ferocious admiration by Isaac Bashevis Singer in the Forward, where he compared its embittering impact favorably to Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Proust--the hyperbole was a measure of how desperately Singer, like Thorne, wanted the unbelievable to be believed--and noted that it could be obtained through the Brooklyn Jewish Center on Eastern Parkway. Thorne was my cousin. He presided over our "family circle," a regular gathering of incompletely crushed people and their children, on Eastern Parkway. He was a forceful man with a booming voice and a probing mind, who had studied at the magnificent seminary in Breslau, whose historical and philosophical enlightenment would have outraged some of our pious kinfolk. When he, and his brother, and my mother, and Dr. Friedman, and Mrs. Mahler, climbed out of the hole on the morning of August 8, 1944, he became a captain and a chaplain in the Polish Free Army. He wrote about the years immediately after hell in a second volume of memoirs that has not yet been published--from which I realized, to my horror, if I have horror left, that the pogrom in Rzeszow on June 12, 1945, which originated in an allegation of ritual murder, and which Jan Gross valiantly documented in Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz, may have begun in the very building, the very apartment, in which my parents, and the Thornes, and another cousin, had been clandestinely married in a proper Jewish ceremony a few weeks earlier, and that the assault on the Jews included (according to contemporary testimony) a hunt for "the previous occupant of the apartment, Rabbi Leib Thorn." This was their liberation. Between 1946 and 1948, Thorne served as the rabbi of the Jewish community--I can hardly picture this pastoral challenge--in Frankfurt-am-Main in Germany. He died in 1978.
It was from Out of the Ashes that I learned, as a teenager, about the death of "the noted Polish-Jewish writer, Professor Bruno Schulz. The pride of the Jews of Drohobycz and of all Galicia," and about his life. I see now that Friedman must have told the story to Leib in the hole. Life in that pit of the living seems to have been an ordeal of terror and civilization: Leib writing, Friedman recalling a slaughtered genius, my mother reading Graetz's History of the Jews. (I cherish that work for many reasons, but for none so much as this.) Later I asked some of my relatives about Schulz. They remembered, in a somewhat scandalized tone, that members of our family had studied art with him at the gymnasium. They said that he was a pornographer (which is true, and an element of his glory) and a Marxist. The latter slander was no doubt owed to the Stalinist art that Schulz produced for the Russian occupiers, so as to live. I know a bit about Felix Landau, too. He was a hideous sadist. (It was in his house in Drohobycz that Schulz painted the children's frescoes that were smuggled to Jerusalem by secret agents of Yad Vashem--what other people's institutions of memory have secret agents?--in 2001.) My mother worked in Landau's villa for a time. She saw unspeakable things, and about most of them she has not spoken. Her girlfriend was shot by Landau in his garden for sport. When I visited the place a few years ago, helplessly I spat.
I offer all this not as historical knowledge, but as family knowledge. All this did not become history for me until later; and the distancings of historiography I welcomed not least as a sanctuary from the immediacy of the events, from the darkening effects of my particularity. I do not mean to overdo what I know. My grasp of this evil is an external grasp, even if I am my mother's son. I try to imagine, and fail to imagine, even her. On Eastern Parkway I learned epistemological humility. With all the love and all the solidarity in the world, there are frontiers of difference that cannot be crossed. Other existences are not so easily penetrated. Even when we do not dissimulate, we are opaque. It is useful, in America now, to be reminded of the temerity of empathy.
Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.
By Leon Wieseltier