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Chasing ‘The Messiah’ and Bruno Schulz’s Long-Lost Novel

Despite the limited number of literary works that survived his life, cut short by a Nazi’s bullet in wartime Poland, many today view Bruno Schulz as one of the 20th century’s most interesting and imaginative writers. First brought to public light in the United States in the 1970s by Philip Roth, he inspired such prominent authors as Isaac Bashevis Singer, John Updike and Cynthia Ozick, and has become in some circles an almost mythic figure, a creative genius whose artistic potential was never fully realized.

I discovered Schulz when I was in my 20s. I was living in Jerusalem and had just started my first year of rabbinical school. The Israel Museum was hosting a traveling exhibit on Schulz’s work from the collection of a literature museum in Warsaw, and I spent an afternoon studying his letters and drawings (Schulz was a high school art teacher). His sketches attracted me immediately. Many of them portrayed men, including Schulz himself, sprawled on all fours on the ground and panting like dogs at the feet of women. The women often wore high heels, and the male figures groveled submissively near their shoes.

I was intrigued by the sense of powerlessness embodied in these figures. They seemed to depict, literally and figuratively, the irresistible (and at times crippling) pull of human craving, the yearning for something that is, we fear, beyond our grasp. As a young man and a future rabbi, I could strongly relate. Ravenous for women and for God at the same time, I was running amok in the holy city. Yet no matter how many women I was with, and no matter how much spirituality Jerusalem’s sacred places offered me, I couldn’t satiate my desire.

I turned next to Schulz’s writing, which drew me into the artist’s universe even more deeply. While he did not leave behind a large body of written work, Schulz did publish two books during his lifetime, “Cinnamon Shops” (1934) and “Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass” (1937). In addition to these books, Schulz left letters, some critical writings and a Polish translation of Kafka’s “The Trial.” I was mesmerized by Schulz’s prose, his images of surreal creatures, mysterious shops and talking mannequins. His fantastic visions betrayed a longing to escape, a hunger for something transcendent. As a student of religious thought, I was also struck by the similarities between Schulz’s ideas about cosmic reality and those in the Jewish mystical tradition. Had he studied with a rabbi?

Bruno Schulz resonated with my soul in profound ways. But the drawings I’d seen and the books I had read were only preparation for something much more compelling. Before his tragic death a little more than 70 years ago, Schulz was working on what he considered his magnum opus, a project that would be the apex of his literary efforts. He called it “The Messiah.” Yet to this day, no one has ever found the manuscript or knows what might be contained in its pages. There is serious debate about whether or not the book even exists. Many scholars are dubious. One man, however, arguably the foremost Schulz expert in the world, went to his grave convinced that the manuscript was real, waiting to be discovered in an archive or an attic somewhere in Central or Eastern Europe. Or in parts as yet unknown.

I have been enthralled by the story of the missing Messiah ever since I first heard it. In fact, I began to research the topic more than 15 years ago, but then life got in the way: I founded a synagogue in Greenwich Village, wrote other books, got married, got divorced, then left New York City after two decades of living there. I’ve been in Chicago, my home town, for four years now, and my interest has returned with a vengeance.

The ideas of incompleteness, loss and mystery are at the heart of the story of Bruno Schulz. But these same ideas have engaged the popular imagination for millennia. Human beings have always been intrigued by lost people, places and things. Whether it is the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail, Atlantis or El Dorado, Amelia Earhart or the passengers on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, we struggle to this very day to find meaning in the disappeared. When we can no longer mount rescue or recovery missions, we begin investigations or embark on expeditions and quests. Even when the lines between fact and fiction are hazy, there is something irresistible, almost heroic, about our desire to triumph over the void.

In addition to his limited body of published work, Schulz makes a handful of vague references in his letters to the special literary project that he has been struggling with since 1934: “‘The Messiah’ grows, little by little; it will be the continuation of “Cinn. Shops” (October 10, 1935); “My baby progresses very slowly” (November 18, 1935); “You touch a painful wound, asking about ‘The Messiah.’ I am getting nowhere with it” (March 4, 1936; “I am not touching ‘The Messiah’” (April 11, 1936).

Why was Schulz struggling so much with this project? If he finished only parts of it, where are they? There are similar questions in the history of music. In Franz Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, all that remain fully intact are the first two movements. What of the third and fourth? If they do not exist, then why did Schubert stop composing the work in the first place? We may never know. But enough material has survived so that Schubert’s (incomplete) Symphony No. 8 is universally viewed as a masterpiece. Not so with Schulz’s missing manuscript. Few people even know its story.

With the war closing in on him, Schulz acted in ways that were contrary to those of his fellow Jews. Unlike his friends and neighbors, who were willing to sacrifice everything in a desperate and largely futile attempt to save themselves and their families, Schulz (who, like me, was single and childless) devoted his energies to trying to save his art and writing. In 1942, as the Jews of Schulz’s home town of Drohobycz were forced into a ghetto, Schulz busied himself making bundles of what for him were his life and identity. He distributed these bundles — which contained his manuscripts, drawings and paintings — to trustworthy people he knew outside the ghetto, in the hope that they might stand a better chance of rescuing and preserving his work.

On November 19, 1942, the Nazis murdered 150 Jews in Drohobycz in retaliation for the shooting of a Gestapo agent. Schulz was shot, under unclear circumstances, a few days later. A Jewish friend buried him at night, in an unknown grave in a cemetery that no longer exists.

In 1987, Jerzy Ficowski, a prominent Polish poet, writer and Schulz biographer, met with an excited visitor at his home in Warsaw. The man was Alex Schulz, a cousin of Bruno’s and a former Drohobycz resident who was now living in the United States. Alex Schulz had received an offer to purchase a bundle containing some of his cousin’s texts and drawings from a person who had come to New York from Lvov, Ukraine. The man, who called Alex Schulz at his home in California, was vague about his identity, so Schulz thought he might be a former Soviet diplomat, or perhaps a KGB agent. The man was not able to describe exactly which manuscripts were included in the bundle, but he did mention that all of them were written in Polish, and that the drawings all had Bruno Schulz’s signature on them.

The man said that the bundle weighed about two kilograms and that he would sell it for $10,000. Alex Schulz was prepared to purchase it on the spot, but the man asked for more time and said that he would telephone him soon with further details about a meeting and the exchange. With the permission of the potential seller, Schulz wanted Ficowski to be present at the transaction in order to verify that his cousin had in fact written the manuscripts. The seller agreed.

After the meeting in Warsaw, some months passed. It was summer. The seller had originally suggested that the examination of the documents and the finalizing of the purchase should take place in Lvov, but because both Ficowski and Schulz resisted, they decided to meet again in Warsaw. For a long time they heard nothing from the man from Lvov. Ficowski gave up his summer vacation and waited for Schulz to contact him about the future meeting. The seller might have restricted time, and Ficowski felt he needed to be ready at a moment’s notice. He knew that the discovery of new Bruno Schulz manuscripts, and possibly even “The Messiah” itself, would be a once-in-a-lifetime event.

The summer passed. Then the seller called Alex Schulz in California again, apologizing for the delays and assuring him that he was in the middle of finalizing the arrangements with his partner in Ukraine. Ficowski’s anxiousness soon changed to despair. He was informed that Shulz had suffered a sudden stroke. He was paralyzed, unconscious, and unable to move or speak. Ficowski could do nothing as he watched his dream slip away. Schulz died shortly after his stroke. The means of contacting the potential seller as well as the person who had access to the bundle disappeared.

In May 1990, Ficowski was contacted yet again by someone who had a lead on Bruno Schulz’s missing manuscripts. This time it wasn’t a blood relative of Schulz’s, but Jean-Christophe Oberg, the Swedish ambassador in Warsaw. A meeting was set up among Ficowski, the ambassador and the embassy’s secretary. At the first meeting, and then during several subsequent ones, the ambassador — who had an avid interest in Polish culture and was a great admirer of Schulz’s work — told Ficowski that he had very credible information that there was a large packet of Schulz’s materials stored in the Soviet KGB archives.

Oberg confirmed what Ficowski and other scholars had already suspected: that in 1947 the Soviet authorities took over the captured Gestapo files and transferred them to the KGB, and that a substantial number of Schulz’s writings were in those archives. According to Ficowski, the ambassador was very careful in choosing his words and in giving specific details about how he had come to acquire this information and how they could access the manuscripts. Oberg revealed only bits and pieces to Ficowski, but he shared that the information had been verified by several different independent sources. One of those sources was a functionary in the Soviet Embassy in Stockholm. This man, Oberg said, had personally seen the Schulz portfolio and knew its actual contents. The man had relayed to the ambassador that, in addition to some private documents and letters, the packet also contained copies of several literary manuscripts. One was called “The Messiah.”

Oberg didn’t give Ficowski the name of the individual who was to help them gain access to the archives as well as direct them to the exact location of the Schulz packet. He did tell him that he needed his expertise in order to verify whether or not the materials were truly written by Bruno Schulz. In 1990, the Soviet Union still existed, and although the archives that they were concerned with were located in the Ukraine (Kiev), Oberg and Ficowski needed to go through Moscow if they were to get approval to do research there. Oberg applied for a diplomatic visa at the Soviet Embassy in Warsaw. It was passed on to the authorities in Moscow and then denied. He tried a second time, but that application was also turned down. The two men were stunned and frustrated. Yet before they could make further attempts to break through the Soviet bureaucracy, in November of that year Oberg was recalled to Sweden. The hunt for “The Messiah” was put on hold, even though Oberg and Ficowski continued to discuss their future strategy during brief meetings when the former ambassador visited Warsaw on other business.

In 1991 the Soviet Union dissolved. With Ukraine now an independent state, it was no longer Moscow but Kiev that held the fate of their mission in its hands. Ficowski felt that a window of opportunity had opened, that the new political openness that had replaced the Soviet totalitarian system meant that long-hidden documents might now be discovered and made public. But in May 1992, Oberg died in a Stockholm hospital after a brief but debilitating illness. The trail was broken. As had happened previously after the death of Alex Schulz, Ficowski was left with no solid leads to follow — no names, no locations, no reliable means to access the mysterious file.

Over the next decade, Jerzy Ficowski lived in Warsaw and focused his efforts on other literary projects, including writing his own poetry. He died in 2006. Up to that point, Ficowski firmly believed that “The Messiah” still existed, hidden from view, somewhere. No one since then has carried on the search for the lost book. Many people associated with Schulz’s work have died, and some have disappeared.

I have attempted to contribute to the search in my own small way. I first contacted Dorota Glowacka in 2000, about 15 years ago. She was, and still is, a professor of comparative literature at University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Glowacka, a Polish native, had traveled to Warsaw in 1993 to interview Ficowski about Bruno Schulz and and the recovery of his lost documents. In our exchange, Glowacka expressed skepticism about the existence of “The Messiah,” but she gave me the names and contact information of several Schulz scholars and of Ficowski himself. She warned me that he could be “grouchy and a little unpredictable” but that he was worth a try.

When I was leading a synagogue in Greenwich Village, I was also working as a chaplain to the federal law enforcement community. I got advice from a friend who was a supervisory special agent in the FBI about the search for lost documents. I also spoke with an agent from the State Department Bureau of Diplomatic Security.

The challenges seemed overwhelming to me. I didn’t see how I could progress with my research without flying to Russia, Poland and Ukraine, something I wasn’t able to do because of my other obligations and financial constraints. I put the project on hold.

I contacted Glowocka again, in the summer of 2014. I’d been working at a couple of Chicago-area synagogues and teaching at a local university; I’d even done a stint as a writer at a large public relations firm. Nothing, though, had truly inspired me in a very long time. Midlife had hit me hard, and as I struggled with the challenges of divorce, relocation and underemployment, I thought about my own yearning for meaning, for redemption, for my own Messiah.

Glowacka, who was still teaching in Halifax, updated me on the current state of Schulz scholarship. She pointed me to a younger Schulz scholar, Karen Underhill, who, as it turned out, also happened to be living in Chicago. Underhill had recently completed her dissertation on Schulz and messianism. We had breakfast at a diner in Lakeview, on the north side of the city.

Underhill talked to me about her dissertation and the time she spent studying and living in Poland and Ukraine. While she agreed that the story of the Messiah deserved to reach a much wider audience, she doubted that an actual manuscript exists today — or that it ever has existed. In this regard, she shared the view of several of the other scholars. Some believe that parts of “The Messiah” do exist, but that Schulz wove them into another one of his books that was published during his lifetime (“Sanatorium”). Other scholars believe that there could be some handwritten notes about the manuscript, but that it never existed as a completed or nearly completed book.

My meeting with Underhill left me feeling despondent. The only person who believed in the actual existence of “The Messiah” (Ficowski) was dead. Where could I turn? But then, a week or two later, I read something that gave me hope. In an essay in The New Yorker from 2009, the Israeli novelist David Grossman describes the inspirational role that Bruno Schulz played in his own life as a writer. He discusses the debate and disagreement about the circumstances of how Schulz died. And in a brief, passing reference to “The Messiah,” he notes:

“I once met a man to whom Schulz had shown the opening lines [of “The Messiah”]. What he read was a description of morning rising over a city. Light growing stronger. Towers and steeples. More than that, he did not see.”

Here, finally, was evidence suggesting that Schulz’s lost book really did exist. Grossman’s encounter — beyond Ficowski’s two failed attempts to recover the missing manuscript — served as a forceful challenge to the prevailing theories about “The Messiah.” Not only did the man Grossman met claim that Schulz had showed him the opening lines of an actual book, but the images and scenes he describes are not at all similar to those that appear in “Sanatorium.”

There is a part of me that believes that “The Messiah” will never be found. Too much time has passed, too many people have died, too much doubt remains. But the sheer possibility that it may exist, and the challenge and mystery of the search for it, continues to gnaw at me. The task feels almost hopeless — and yet somehow, the unfinished and fragmented masterwork of Bruno Schulz continues to animate and inspire. Ficowski died convinced of its existence, and resolute in his determination to find it. But was it the manuscript itself, or the symbolism of its subject, that drove him? Is “The Messiah” the title of a book, or the object of our most heartfelt and passionate yearning?

The hopeless, helpless craving to possess that which may ultimately be ungraspable reminds me of the doglike figures in Schulz’s sketches. Those figures pant and grovel before the unattainable objects of their desire; they hunger for a fulfillment that is beyond them; they long for the surpassing and sublime, the unknowable and undiscoverable other. Yet, are they striving for something that is out of reach or something that is just a fantasy? As I aspire to find “The Messiah,” I am perplexed about what to do with the passions and yearnings that the search gives rise to in my soul — curiosity, excitement, anxiety. Should I try to tame these feelings or to surrender to them?

Does Schulz’s lost book actually exist? Like “Torah” in its broadest understanding, the text of “The Messiah” may refer not to a physical manuscript but to something larger and more abstract — the landscape of Schulz’s (lost) world, a terrain of mystery, longing and transcendence. Maybe the search is the book. Maybe our desire to touch the transcendent, to interface with the ineffable, is what “The Messiah” is all about. Whether it turns out to be a material object or just a metaphor, “The Messiah” represents, for me, the lure of unrealized possibility, the promise of a redemption that has not yet been attained. And one that might not ever be.

I confess that I have succumbed to the seduction of the search. I’ve joined the quest for the missing text. And I pray that it helps all of us triumph over the void.

Niles Elliot Goldstein is a rabbi and the director of development for the Center for Interfaith Engagement. He most recently authored “The Challenge of the Soul: A Guide for the Spiritual Warrior.”

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