She sentenced herself to non-existence. She had a long practice in doing that. In publications regarding Bruno Schulz, she was hidden behind a single letter: “J.”
Józefina Szelińska was the only woman whom he proposed marriage; he asked her parents for her hand in a letter. She was the only one to whom he wrote over two hundred letters – they are all missing. She was the only one who tried to kill herself because of him. She was the only one whom he officially dedicated his book – The Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass. Finally, she was the only one who, anonymously, from the distance of space and time, observed the post-mortem fame of her man.
She committed suicide once again, this time succeeding, when she was 86, in July 1991. She passed away almost fifty years after Schulz. She never allowed anybody to mention the fact that she used to be his fiancée.
She did not know how to be with him or maybe he did not know it. Their earthly and spiritual expectations did not interweave. Maybe the poet should not be shackled and a Muse should be admired from a safe distance? But for the rest of her life, she did not meet anybody who would be able to replace him, to take a similar place in her heart. She was lonely for years.
They met in Drohobych in the spring of 1933. He was observing a tall, strapping brunette in the street for a long time. After a few weeks, he asked a friend of his to introduce him to her. He wanted to paint her. He used this pretext before to get to know beautiful women. He was 41, which she found hard to believe – he looked much younger; she thought he was her peer (she was 27). Inconspicuous, slim, in grey clothes which seemed to be too big for him, he was carrying poetry and mystery in himself. She did not know much about him at that time.
More and more often, he would put the paints aside and talk to her; she never talked like this before. She called their talks séances, in the course of which Rilke’s poems recited by him were mixed with reflections about Thomas Mann, Goya, Kafka and Leśmian and they always reached “to the core of phenomena.” They walked a lot amidst a spring that was waking up. After many years, she was recollecting the “pre-taste of a miracle” and unique experiences of these months which “happen so rarely in life.”
She has never met anybody like him before.
He always tried to find animal traits in people. He said that Juna – as he used to call her – resembled an antelope. He perceived himself as a dog.
A daughter of a pre-war lawyer, educated at the Lviv University with a Ph.D. in literature; she was working as a teacher in a gymnasium – similarly to him, a drawer and a would-be painter of the Vienna Academy and soon a debutante in the field of literature. What did she love in him? His dark eyes, sometimes penetrating, sometimes distant, in regions as inaccessible as his soul? Maturation to childhood… what was he aiming for in his creative philosophy? His helplessness towards the world, defenselessness or his talent? Certainty of the power of his artistic voice or his shyness and complexes? And maybe she was attracted by the milieu that was open for him – Warsaw’s intellectuals and artists? Witkacy, Gombrowicz, Nałkowska and Tuwim… She was dreaming of getting away from the Drohobych province.
The world of a Jewish town was not her world, even though her family created it. She did not identify herself with them. Departure guaranteed, in her understanding, a promotion to better life, clean and Polish, not contaminated with the “tribal” nature. Her parents were baptized.
She left her family neighbourhood in 1934. Apart from short meetings, for the next two years she exchanged passionate letters with Bruno, indispensable for both of them; on her part, they were full of motherly care. At the beginning, she seemed to have had a feeling that she would be able cope with the challenge of being in a relationship with the Drohobych recluse who “meant everything for her.”
He confided in his friend, Romana Halpern:
My fiancée is my share in life; via her, I am a human being, and not only a lemur and a kobold. She loves me more than I love her, but I need her in my life more. She redeemed me with her love when I was almost completely lost for the sake of inhuman lands and waste Hades of fantasy. She brought me back to life and earthliness. She is the closest person to me on Earth.
And so they lasted, seeing each other during holidays in Zakopane, short visits in Lviv, in the neighbourhood or in Warsaw, where he would come more often after the publication of his first book, The Cinnamon Shops, which was well accepted. They started talking about marriage in 1935.
“We were very good friends,” she wrote after many years to Schulz’s biographer, Jerzy Ficowski, unwillingly “disinterring” that relationship. “He put his fate into my hands – these were his words – full of trust that I would not hurt him, with a feeling of security and care, as if I was the stronger party. To me, he offered a sense of life, a taste of being in a difficult atmosphere at the top with a man who was so completely different from everybody that I have ever met…”
For a moment, he was ready to share every-day life with her. Apparently, he was considering a move to Warsaw. She started to work as a clerk in an office there (the job was boring, as she said) to provide for them. He made an important step: he left the Jewish community to facilitate the wedding ceremony. But he did not accept Catholicism – he did not want it. Similarly, he was not able to change his address. He could not leave the family town. He felt best there, in the world of his own imagination, in the infinity of time, not threatened with interference from the outside.
He could not imagine creative fulfillment without Drohobych. This was his soil and the most important desire which he served.
“There was no hiatus in him between a man and an artist,” Szelińska recollected. “He was just a poet in the sphere of human affairs, truly foreign and lost in this world, even though his outlook on things was clear and sober. Other poets could reconcile all realities – their internal one and the external one, but he had to look for a way out in escape. He said that he had long legs, good for running away.”
He needed support and consolation equally strongly as solitude: closeness of a woman or “a partner for exploratory enterprises.” Structure and complete freedom, time not encumbered by any, even smallest, obligation in order to devote himself to only activity that made sense.
Jerzy Ficowski wrote in his book about the “unknown demonic nature of Schulz” experienced by everybody. Józefina Szelińska praised this trait as most true in the image of Bruno.
She wrote thirty years later:
“I would extend this notion of demonic nature onto the entire sphere of human experiences that were strange to him. He had something of an elf in him and I accused him – if this could be an accusation – that this hot, lusty pulp of human desires and experiences was unknown to him. The feeling of parenthood and its need were strange to him; envy for a woman and the feeling of exclusivity; he admitted to the thought of sharing a woman with other man, at the same time securing his own place; he did not have the need of having his own home, his own family. During our walks in the Drohobych forests and meadows, I felt a biological bond with nature and full joy; for him, nature was a subject for his vision, artistic material. He had to make it precise; he had to put it in words. This happened in Drohobych and later in Zakopane. His ideal was a phalanx of kindred spirits with absolute feeling of safety, without a threat that you speak of so precisely… It was not only a superstitious spell, but the quintessence of his dreams, as in primitive paintings of Nikifor.
He was completely and fully devoted to his work. This was the only sense of his life. In comparison to lives of other artists, would this be a pact with demons?”
She spent the occupation time in Warsaw. She was walking the streets in a black veil. Mourning him, mourning their life. Mourning her parents. Mourning her house? Her nation? She survived.
After the war, she left as far as she could, to the north of Poland, to the sea. She hid herself in the world of books, in a library tower. She did not say anything about her origin, how she survived the war and about everything that connected her with the perished world of Polish Jews. And with Bruno.