Cracked Fairy Tales and the Holocaust


Arts & Culture

From the Bruno Schulz documentary ‘Finding Pictures’ (© Benjamin Geissler)

I wake up early so I can get to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum, by eight o’clock, when it opens. I am in Jerusalem with my family, and I have only one hour because we are scheduled to go to the Kotel, where it will be so crowded that I will never get close enough to slip my prayer into the wall’s ancient cracks. It is Passover. Everyone is rushing the wall as if god were impatient, or actually there, and if there then not there for long. Squeezed between too many bodies, I give up, walk back, and wait for my husband and my sons to emerge from the men’s section with better luck. A week later, when I get home, I will leave my prayer inside a Hebrew copy of Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles, also a holy ruin, a temple. Like most prayers, my prayer is for health. My son Eli, who is four, tells me that since I didn’t get my prayer to the wall it will never come true and so I imagine a long, imminent plague: pleurisy, and lice, and fevers and damp bedsheets, and thick rashes. But for now it is eight o’clock and I have only one hour. I leave my children with my husband because my children are too young to go to a Holocaust museum. We are all too young. We are all too old. When I get to Yad Vashem I’m surprised I can just walk through the door without first swimming across a river of sour milk.

What I’ve come to the Holocaust museum to see are fairy tales. Specifically, the fairy tales that the Polish writer Bruno Schulz painted on the walls of a boy’s nursery. The boy was the son of a Gestapo officer, Felix Landau, who offered Bruno Schulz protection in exchange for his art. I wonder what it smelled like in that bedroom as he painted? Onions? Blood? Newspaper? Fresh laundry? Shortly after the mural was complete, Karl Günther, also a Nazi, shot and killed Bruno Schulz while he was walking home with a loaf of bread. This was 1942 in Drohobycz, then part of Poland. The paintings are of Cinderella and Snow White, several shadowy figures including two dwarves, and a horse-drawn carriage. After the Holocaust the figures receded like the dead, were painted over, and then were discovered again in 2001 by the documentary filmmaker Benjamin Geissler and his father. The discovery (in the apartment of a woman in thick glasses that seem to endlessly fog) begins as a hallelujah (as paint is carefully rubbed away to reveal faces) and ends in despair. As soon as the paintings are found, in a tiny pantry, behind onions and garlic and rose-colored paint, they are gone. Five fragments are removed by a crew from Yad Vashem, allegedly without permission. The question as to who owns Bruno Schulz—Israel or Poland—rises, as the dead might rise and wander wearily home except there is no more home. More remains in the apartment, according to Geissler. But now it seems no one can get to it. “The picture is destroyed,’’ Geissler says, “and nobody will know the whole picture.” But for me this is the least sad part of the story. What picture is ever whole, what good plot ever tells all its secrets? Panning back, I imagine the whole scene to be swarming with fairy tales: the mostly blind Polish lady unknowingly living with dwarves and princesses behind her garlic, the Rumpelstiltskin deal Bruno Schulz struck with a Nazi (to spin straw into gold in order to stay alive), the monster Felix disguised as a man, and the poverty and the shadows and the staircases and the cupboards and the misery.

When we say a story is like a fairy tale, what do we mean? Usually there is an evil stepmother, children on the verge of being eaten, spells, talking animals, forests, three wishes, three paths, three sons, magic eggs or beans or cakes. Usually there is hunger and a dead mother. Usually there is a witch. We turn to fairy tales not to escape but to go deeper into a terrain we’ve inherited: the vast and muddy terrain of the human psyche. Fairy tales, like glass coffins, like magic mirrors, give transparency to the reflection of the human gaze. Fairy tales are homemade stories turned inside out. You can see the threads, the stitching line, the seams. Sometimes a needle is still attached to a loose thread, hanging. My mother pricked me once on the pinkie with that needle. “It’s so you never tell a lie,” she said. “I hate liars.” “What about this story?” I asked. “About you pricking me with a needle on my pinkie so that I never lie? Isn’t that a lie?” “There is a big difference between deceit,” she explained, “and using what is unreal to get to something even realer.”

I stand very quietly beside the frescoes. It’s just me and a security guard in the gallery. It is 8:05 A.M. I want to kneel down, or whisper I love you, but a shyness comes over me. Bruno Schulz had painted his father’s face into one of the dwarves’, and the face of his beloved childhood maid into Snow White’s, and his own face into the face of the carriage driver, hiding himself and his loved ones deep inside a fairy tale. I stare at the pieces of wall and imagine Bruno Schulz painting fairy tales to save his life, and I imagine Felix Landau (the father of a boy with fairy tales on his walls) shooting Jews in the head and the heart after having them dig their own graves. I step back from the paintings. And then I take a few steps closer. I haven’t yet written my prayer down. These pieces of winking, wailing, sighing wall are in themselves cracks, but even if there were a small hole in which to leave my unwritten prayer I would never leave it here. I am confused. The paintings don’t bring me any hope. They weren’t meant to give me hope. They were meant to save Bruno Schulz’s life. Like the poems Guantánamo Bay prisoners carved into Styrofoam cups using their fingernails and pebbles, these fairy tales survived by the skin of their teeth. The longer I stand there the more the security guard begins to resemble Bruno Schulz. Legs delicately crossed. A secret smile buried deep in his face. I wonder what he’s thinking. Who is he? Where does he come from? I don’t have much time. I need to get to the other wall. On my way out the security guard high-fives me, and as our palms meet the smallest puff of cinnamon dust is released into the air. By the time I leave there is no telling Bruno Schulz apart from this man.

Jerusalem on April mornings is the color of bones under the thinnest veil of pink, leaving me with the sensation that I might be walking around the inside of a dried-out body. Or the inside of a book left open in the bright sun, for days, for weeks, words growing paler and paler.

I live in Georgia now, so the dry air comes as a relief.


Bruno Schulz, Carriage Driver (Self-Portrait), Drohobycz, 1941/42 (Credit: Yad Vashem)


The fight over Bruno Schulz’s fairy tales suspends them in a Gehinnom, a spiritual purgatory. As a kid, I grew up in two homes. One was my mother’s. One was my father’s. What I remember most clearly is the space between them. Like the father in Bruno Schulz’s stories who “remained in permanent contact with the unseen world of mouseholes, dark corners, chimney vents, and dusty spaces under the floor,” who put his ear to cracks and listened intently, I too believe the horse barely visible behind whitewash keeps more poetry than the horse on display. I recently read The Little Prince to my sons, and when I got to this line—“‘What makes the desert beautiful,’ said the little prince, ‘is that somewhere it hides a well’”—I read it three times. Just in case it was a spell.

The first night I slept in my Blue House (in Georgia) I had the worst nightmares of my life. And when I woke up the only way I could describe the nightmares was that they were not human nightmares. I called my husband who was not yet my husband and said, “Last night I had the nightmares of horses.” “Probably Civil War horses,” he said. I walked around my house all day slowly unpacking, and thinking about what was buried beneath me.

Sometimes I feel like the dead are the ones who move us around the world, like board-game pieces.

“What does infillion look like?” asks my four-year-old. “Do you mean infinity?” “Yes, that’s what I said, infillion.” “I think it looks like all the things we cannot see.”

In Geissler’s documentary Finding Pictures, the Polish and Ukrainian experts who come to remove the paint from the walls to see what’s underneath admit their inability to see: “I can’t see anything,” one says. “I forgot my glasses,” says another. Anyone watching the documentary can see the clear outlines of Schulz’s fairy-tale ghosts. But the experts cannot see. Not yet, anyway. One refers to a horse’s head that is clearly a horse’s head as an alleged horse’s head. I hear a lot of writers give this as advice: TELL THE TRUTH. And then almost everyone cheers. I don’t cheer. I wonder, what truth? The truth of Schulz or of Landau or of his son? The truth of Yad Vashem or of the cloudy-eyed woman who unknowingly lives with fairy tales behind her dry goods and her produce? The truth of my mother, or the experts, or the horse? For a long time I wrote prose poems. Strange, sealed little boxes. Figures drifted around behind thin layers of whitewash. After I had my children, the boxes started to grow oversize, turned unwieldy, showed lumps, tore at the creases. They began to resemble stories. My first book is called The Babies. The babies in The Babies are not real babies. They are inklings. Which is not to say they are not powerful. They are. They testify. They sneak in. They even fight. They hold hands. But I think after the real babies were born, I needed more rooms. More cracks in the wall. I needed infillion.

My recently published collection of stories, Wild Milk, may or may not be what The Babies once drank. It’s impossible to know. What I do know is that my new stories begin with characters that are simple and archetypal, like the Stepchild or the Mother or the Mouse or the Maid or the Father or the Husband or the Daughters or the Sons. I found them all in fairy tales. But when I found them they were cracked, and painted over one thousand times. I write words on small pieces of paper (sometimes prayers, sometimes jokes) and leave them in their cracks, their broken places. In return, they occasionally give me a story. I don’t know whether I should admit this or not, but once I wiped away the paint on the Mother and saw my own mother’s face peering back me. Once I left a prayer inside a crack in the Maid’s hand, and the prayer was returned to me as a curse.

I have a recurring dream in which I find extra rooms in my house. One is filled with exotic animals, all sick, all waiting for me to nurse them back to health; one is overflowing with women in bikinis; one is bare but for a growing pile of dirty spoons in a corner; one has a perfectly made black bed, but when I sit on it, I fall. The bed scatters like static because the bed is not a bed but hundreds and hundreds of black ants in the shape of a bed. Even the bedsheets are ants, even the pillow. One room is long and narrow and lit by a row of open refrigerators filled with rotten food. Once, in a dream, a glass door opened into a garden filled with cobblestones and flowers and ponds crowded with old brown swans. I didn’t want to be in any of those rooms. But they were cracks in my mind I slipped through. One day, I imagine, I will have a dream I open a door to find the blind Polish woman standing there. Maybe in the dream her name is Bruno Schulz or Sabrina Orah Mark. Maybe in the dream her eyes uncloud and she can see. Maybe I’ll read her a fairy tale.


Sabrina Orah Mark is the author of the poetry collections The Babies and Tsim TsumWild Milk, her first book of fiction, is out this month from Dorothy, a publishing project.