THIS is a story from the past of relevance to the great issues of today – the fates of Ukraine and Israel and how, as Balint puts it: “Holocaust memory becomes an object of realpolitik.”

We begin in 1892 with the birth of Bruno Schulz in the city of Drohobych, then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

From November 1918 until 1991, Drohobych was, respectively, part of the West Ukrainian People’s Republic, then Poland, the Soviet Union, the Nazi-run General Government, back to the Soviet Union again, and is now to be found in modern Ukraine.

Drohobych was one of the epicentres of what Timothy Snyder calls the Bloodlands, the hub of the Holocaust.

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Schulz was a key figure in the pre-Second World War Polish avant-garde, a fabulist and a talented draughtsman. He described his childhood as a “genial epoch”. He was feted in Warsaw but never moved from his beloved Drohobych. The city was one third Polish, one third Ukrainian, one third Jewish.

As part of the Jewish community, Schulz knew Zionists who wanted to move to Jerusalem, Marxists who favoured Moscow-style Communism and assimilationists who saw themselves as Polish. Schulz was allied to this latter camp, but he was essentially apolitical, an artist’s artist.

In 1941, Operation Barbarossa begins. Enter Felix Landau, an SS Hauptscharführer from Vienna. Landau is a psychopathic killer, a nightmare figure. He admires Schulz’s art, makes him his “Liebjude”, his “personal Jew”, a role the meek and masochistic Schulz reluctantly accepts. What alternative did he have?

In between casual murders of Drohobych’s Jewish community, Landau has Schulz paint murals; he does one for Landau’s kids in their playroom. On 19/11/42, one of Landau’s rivals kills Schulz in the street and the writer/painter becomes one of the Six Million.

His literary reputation is revived in the late 1970s largely due to the efforts of Philip Roth.

Fast-forward to 2001 where we find two German researchers on the trail of that mural. They find it in a house then home to two elderly Russians.

The Germans inform the Ukrainian cultural authorities, their Polish equivalents (remembering that Schulz saw himself as Polish) and Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Museum.

Which is where the story takes a fascinating turn and the troubles with legacy begin.

Should the murals stay in-situ – be restored in Ukraine? Or should they be transferred to Warsaw, where much of Schulz’s art is kept?

The arguments start.

Who would go all the way to Drohobych to see an old mural in a house where a mass murderer lived? And those ultranationalists in Ukraine – were they not deeply complicit in the Holocaust?

Wasn’t there also a serious uptick in Polish antisemitism as recently as 1968?

ALL the while, Mossad was watching. Three Israeli agents gained access to the house and removed the mural with the help of a conservator. In contravention of international law – as regards art treasures – they packed and flew the fragments to Jerusalem. Yad Vashem now has bits of Schulz’s mural on display.

Was this the right outcome? The Poles were incensed: they said Schulz was Polish, wrote in Polish – the murals should belong to them.

Then the Ukrainians talked of Israel violating their “cultural heritage”.

How could Israel defend its appropriation?

Balint takes us carefully, diplomatically, through this ethical minefield.

The team at Yad Vashem argued forcefully that neither the Poles nor the Ukrainians had made much of an effort to save poor Schulz from his fate. That the murals were “executed under duress, as forced labour”. And as such can be viewed as testimony to the fate of Jews under the Nazis. The fragments as witnesses. Yad Vashem sees them not as art but as evidence of a crime.

So, can this act of reclamation be seen as a green light to claiming “moral rights” that ignore international law?

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Is this “post-Holocaust cultural colonisation” as some have alleged?

Does Israel have, as one historian here worries, a “God-given” right to all cultural goods produced by Jews?

As Schulz himself was part of the diaspora, shouldn’t the mural have remained in-situ, in exile, as a marker of what happened there?

Given current events in both Israel and Ukraine, this book gives you much to unpack, much to consider.