Franz Kafka and Bruno Schulz – masters of the borderlands

k_s_12010.10.05 – 2011.03.13

Galicia is an enclave bordering on Poland, Russia, Hungary and the Ukraine and is a superb example of a place with a truly multinational population. The region has been the home of many different peoples, among them Ukrainians, Poles, Russians, Jews, Germans, Ruthenes, and Armenians. Like many parts of Europe, Galicia is a borderland that links together various different geographical regions and that has been a meeting place of different peoples and religions.

Our exhibition at the Jewish Museum in Stockholm takes Galicia as its starting point; a country that is today divided between Poland and the Ukraine. The Jews of Galicia were once a large section of the populace and they made a powerful impression on society there. There were innumerable Jewish libraries, schools, cafés and synagogues and Jews of every sort, from the poorest of the poor to wealthy families, from intellectuals to simple craftspeople, from pious orthodox to assimilated. There was a richly pluralistic Jewish presence which, sadly, was to be entirely eradicated during the Holocaust.

It was in this multicultural landscape that Bruno Schulz was born in 1892. He became a very celebrated author and artist, taking his inspiration from the people in his native city of Drohobych where, in the middle of the 19th century, the Jews made up almost 60 percent of the population.

Franz Kafka was born in Prague in 1883. Just like Drohobych and Galicia, Prague was strongly influenced by its rich Jewish presence and history, dating back to the 10th century. For a long period the Jews of Prague were obliged to live in the ghetto in the Josefov district of the city. In 1843 they acquired citizenship rights in Prague and could then live where they wished. This was the start of the Jewish emancipation. The world opened up to them and they were able to attend the university and to undertake business activities. The Jewish population of Prague became German-speaking when Bohemia and Moravia became part of the Habsburg empire of Austria-Hungary; a kingdom that was dissolved after the Great War of 1914-18.

Kafka became one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. He inspired the young Schulz who entertained literary ambitions. There is much that unites these two authors, though there are important differences too. Where did they find their inspiration and what was it that motivated them?

Both men grew up in assimilated Jewish families and they wrote in their native languages, German and Polish respectively. They moved in intellectual circles and were well grounded in their home environments. They were true Europeans who felt at home on all sides of the borderland. Despite this they were, to a degree, marginalized since they were Jews and grew up during the new era of anti-Semitism.

Our exhibition Franz Kafka and Bruno Schulz – masters of the borderlands illustrates what life was like at that precise spot, in the borderland between old and new where a new European identity was formed. Questions about a European identity are current today too and Kafka and Schulz undoubtedly have something important to say about this.

Concerns about heritage and who owns the rights to it are considered in the exhibition since Schulz’s frescoes, discovered after being hidden for sixty years, were moved from the Ukraine to Israel in 2001. There are also questions about Kafka’s letters; are they private property or ought they to be in a public archive so that everyone can have access to them?

Franz Kafka and Bruno Schulz – masters of the borderlands considers the lives and works of two of the greatest writers of the 20th century. It takes us back to a world that has largely disappeared but that, in many respects, has left its imprint on today’s Europe.

In their “secret” rooms both Kafka and Schulz created their masterpieces. The exhibition shows unique photographs, documentation and striking works of art that have never previously been shown in Sweden.

The Jewish Museum in Stockholm is delighted to be able to show this unique exhibition that sheds light on an epoch in European history that became the starting point for a modern European identity. Sweden is part of Europe and has thus been influenced by the cultural soil that existed in Europe prior to the Holocaust, not least through the survivors who were brought to Sweden. I should like to express my warmest thanks to all who have made the exhibition possible – most particularly to Katarzyna Tubylewicz, director of the Polish Institute in Stockholm and Lucie Svobodova, director of the Czech Centre in Stockholm who, in collaboration with the Jewish Museum, developed the idea of the exhibition and brought it to fruition. Without their commitment and their contacts it would not have been possible to mount the exhibition. Special thanks are also due to author and dramatist Agneta Pleijel who has written the texts for the exhibition and contributed to the catalogue and to Gabriel Herdevall and Lina Sporrong who have designed the exhibition and created a magical atmosphere.

Franz Kafka is an icon and well-known to a Swedish public while Bruno Schulz is a less familiar figure. We hope that the exhibition will illuminate both their contributions and the borderland in which they lived and worked.

Welcome to meet them at the Jewish Museum in Stockholm!

Yvonne Jacobsson


Our sincere thanks are due to our two partners in producing this exhibition – the Polish Institute in Stockholm and the Czech Centre in Stockholm.
We should also like to thank the following for their invaluable contributions:
Dramatist and author Agneta Pleijel who has written texts for the exhibition and an essay for the catalogue.
Karl Gabor, Gabriel Herdevall and Lina Sporrong who have designed the exhibition.

Thanks are also due to the following organizations and private persons whose contributions have enriched the exhibition:
Adam Mickiewicz Museum of Literature in Warsaw
Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute – Warsaw
Czech Literature Museum (Památník národního písemnictví)
Franz Kafka Society – Prague (Spolecnost Franze Kafky)
Marek W Podstolski
Jewish Library in Stockholm
Cultural Committee of the Jewish Congregation in Stockholm
Benjamin Geissler
William Jewson
K-Å Westerlunds Byggnads AB

Thanks also to the Swedish Academy and the Education Committee of the Municipality of Stockholm for financial support and to Eva Bonnier and Åke Bonnier


Agneta Pleijel’s introduction from the catalouge of the exhibition

Franz Kafka and Bruno Schulz – masters of the borderlands

Franz Kafka 1883 – 1924
Bruno Schulz 1892 – 1942

Both Franz Kafka and Bruno Schulz were original and pioneering authors. Both came from Jewish families. They were both born in the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary: Kafka in Prague and Schulz in the little city of Drohobych in Galicia.

Both of the men’s fathers came from the countryside with its traditions and settled in the cities, in modernity. Both ran clothing businesses. This was a background that they shared with Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis (1856-1938). His father settled in Vienna and set up a clothing business.

Many Jewish families, like these ones, assimilated during the 19th century without formally leaving the Jewish community. Their children lost their religious heritage as well as the Yiddish language. Freud, Kafka and Schulz all retained strong, though hidden, links with Judaism. Kafka and Schulz were aware of Freud’s theory about the subconscious which makes itself felt in their stories.

In the Austro-Hungarian empire there were numerous different peoples: Germans, Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Ruthenians and Jews. Society was hierarchical and bureaucratic. Rivalry between the various ethnic groups and their nationalistic ambitions gave rise to tensions in society. The Jews often found themselves caught in between these ambitions.

After the Great War of 1914-18, the Austro-Hungarian Empire ceased to exist and Kafka and Schulz each lived in a different nation state: Czechoslovakia and Poland respectively. There are parallels between their literary careers as well as great differences.

Kafka wrote in German but also spoke Czech. Schulz wrote in Polish but spoke German fluently. Both of them hardly moved from the places in which they were born. Both of them greatly admired Thomas Mann’s Joseph and his Brothers. Both used the name Joseph for their alter egos.

Agneta Pleijel
Author and dramatist


k_s_s3The Polish Institute’s director on Kafka and Schulz

First became acquainted with Bruno Schulz and Franz Kafka at senior high school. Cinnamon Shops and The Trial were obligatory texts; students in Polish schools have to read a couple of dozen works from the literary canon each year. And the canon naturally includes such literary giants as Schulz and Kafka.

When one reads a book in order to be able to fulfil a written assignment and to answer questions on the content – just one of many such tests during a school term – the literary experience may not be the prime focus. Students readily become indifferent to what they are reading. But I remember that both Schulz and Kafka struck me with extraordinary force, smashing my acquired indifference.

The world of The Trial was frightening, dark and dismal while Cinnamon Shops was like a cosmic cornucopia. The rich and potent metaphors that both authors employ dazzled me and opened new doors into the world. They appeared to me like prophets who caused me to stop and consider myself and the world anew and with much greater attention.

“Literary giants” I termed them above, though author and artist Bruno Schulz is not nearly as universally famous and admired as Franz Kafka, at least not outside Poland. Kafka’s star shines incomparably much more brightly, like a veritable icon of modern literature despite the fact that both authors have equal literary merit as well as having great similarities. This collaboration on the exhibition Franz Kafka and Bruno Schulz – masters of the borderlands with the Jewish Museum in Stockholm is one of the most important and finest projects that we have been involved in during the whole time that I have been director of the Polish Institute in Stockholm. The exhibition is a reminder of Kafka’s literary genius; but I hope and believe that it will also help many more people to discover the greatness of Bruno Schulz both as a writer and an engraver.

Bruno Schulz was a short man from the little Polish town of Drohobych (now in the Ukraine) who was sucked into the maelstrom of the Holocaust and who died a much-too-early death. He was painfully shy and in principle he never travelled anywhere. An anecdote related by Schulz-expert Jerzy Ficowski maintains that when Schulz was a child, rather than playing with the other children he would stay at home feeding the flies on the window panes with sugar.

Bruno Schulz only published two books. These were collections of short stories. This may seem a small legacy but Schulz’s works have the literary force to turn the world upside down. They show the way to a different reality, to new existential dimensions in which the demiurgic folly of superfluity rules.

JI should like to thank Yvonne Jacobsson, director of the Jewish Museum in Stockholm for making it possible to realize a dream of just such an exhibition. I am particularly grateful that, as a great admirer of Kafka, she also developed a real affection for Bruno Schulz and that she invited such a remarkable and distinctive group of people to create the exhibition. Taking part in the committee’s work has been a real delight and I shall not forget our meetings and discussions. The two “masters of the borderlands” that feature in the exhibition lived in the midst of a linguistic and cultural diversity that was a natural background to their creative work. And in producing the exhibition we were also engaged in a multicultural dialogue ourselves.

Katarzyna Tubylewicz
Polish Institute in Stockholm


The Czech Centre’s director on Kafka and Schulz

I met up with Bruno Schulz and Franz Kafka at Bennington College in the USA in the mid 1980s. The meeting resulted in a young student of literature being struck down by a feverish condition accompanied by a sense of melancholy, despair and transports of joy. I experience the same sense of weight and incomprehensibility, of having lost one’s way and yet of high spirits when I read their writings today. Twenty-five years later and with a lot more experience of life the text has a different content; and yet it is no different. Meeting up with a genius is a dazzling firework display, like falling upside down in a spiral. This is what happens when one is captivated and profoundly moved.

Fame and fortune were not on the two men’s agendas. They did not suck up to anyone; writing and drawing were a necessity, a fetter and an elixir. Their time and place was the turn of the century, the run-up to war and war itself. The Central Europe to which they belonged was a melting pot of religions, cultures, languages and influences. As Jews they were part of and influenced by this inner and outer borderland in Europe. All these levels and layers are the power and strength in their works, rooted in grand emotions and aspiring to being delivered.

Bruno Schulz only wrote two books, devoting most of his time to painting and drawing. He was brutally murdered by an SS-man on a street in his hometown. Franz Kafka wrote a great deal and produced little drawings as a sideline. He died of tuberculosis before the war in Europe started. The literary and artistic legacies of the two men have left traces that are difficult to interpret and understand. Perhaps precisely because they were emotionally so deeply rooted in the cities that they lived in – Drohobych and Prague – there is a universality to their texts; something dreamlike, absurd, surrealistic, metaphorical and realistic. Do you see the place? Take a deep breath, sit down on a bench and shut your eyes. Listen and hear the language, the melody, the timbre; smell the scents of the city and the energy that flows. Then can never be now, but surely something remains of what they experienced.

For people who have experienced persecution, exile and annihilation Kafka and Schulz appear almost as prophets, the bearers of news that is all too grand. Where the greatest challenge facing humanity is to seek out and follow one’s own path and to preserve one’s integrity – and never to cease loving one’s fellow beings, for better or worse.

It is to be hoped that the exhibition at the Jewish Museum in Stockholm will open new doors to an understanding of these two remarkable artists. The exhibition is the work of people who have a deep-seated respect for these two cultural giants. There have been many challenges and among the greatest of these has been the task of creating a new space for discoveries. This has been Yvonne Jacobsson’s own aim. She has kept control of all the strings and has succeeded in maintaining the commitment of her collaborators gathered round the table for more than a year.

The exhibition at the Jewish Museum in Stockholm has been produced jointly with the Polish Institute in Stockholm and the Czech Centre in Stockholm and with important contributions from many other organizations and individuals. I sincerely hope that the exhibition will receive the interest that it deserves and that it will prove an inspiration and a source of new insights. This would certainly have been the wish of Franz Kafka and of Bruno Schulz.

Lucie Svobodova
Czech Centre in Stockholm


Walking through the exhibition



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