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Our Friend Eugene Schulman

The Eugene Schulman Reading Room at the National and University Library of Bosnia-Herzegovina in Sarajevo.

Our friend Gene Schulman died today. He was in his ninetieth year. Mercifully, he was only critically ill for less than twenty-four hours. Yesterday he had an aneurysm; last night he refused heroic, life-saving surgery on his heart; and today he is dead. He would rather still be with us, I am sure, but at least he made his own choice.

To use a Gettysburg expression about other grief, it is “altogether fitting and proper” to post the news of Gene’s death at CounterPunch, as late in his life it was the community that he found most sustaining.

CounterPunch is what Gene read first thing in the morning, and I am sure it was the last thing he saw in the evening, although in recent months his eyesight had been failing and reading small type had become a chore. (He would use a bulky magnifying glass but then retreat to Noam Chomsky videos on YouTube.)

Gene admired CP’s editor, Jeffrey St. Clair, and was forever talking up or circulating to friends the latest Roaming Charges. Gene also found kinship with a number of CP contributors—notably Richard Falk, Evan Jones, Diana Johnstone, and Gilad Atzmon, but others too—and he often dispatched emails of praise for pieces on the site.

I got to know Gene a few years after I moved to Geneva, Switzerland, in 1991. We had a mutual friend in Andy Sundberg, an Annapolis graduate who had settled in Geneva, where he helped to found Democrats Abroad and ran for president in 1988 to promote the citizenship interests of expatriate Americans, who pay taxes without representation.

Gene and I met inauspiciously. While we were having a first drink with Andy on a hotel terrace, Gene’s man-purse was stolen from his chair. We formed an immediate bond because I set off immediately on my bicycle in search of the bag and the thief. I found neither, which I guess explains why Detective Lieutenant Theo Kojak never biked.

One of four brothers, Gene was born and grew up in Detroit, Michigan, and lived there until about age eleven. In the 1890s, the Schulmans had emigrated from the Russian Pale of Settlement (near Minsk) and to Detroit.

Gene’s fondest memories of childhood came later, when his father moved the extended family from Detroit to Los Angeles, then in its formative, boom years. His father worked in real estate and built housing for the post-war generation.

Many of Gene’s lifelong friends (Bob Powsner and Marshall Pearlman among them) came from his high school days in Los Angeles, but while many of them headed to college at Stanford, Gene decided to study architecture at the University of Southern California.

Only later in his adult life would he develop his passion for books and reading. In college, he liked to say, he was happy living the fraternity life around Los Angeles.

Marshall wrote in an email: “I knew all of his family well, his parents, his brothers and his wife. They were likable and outgoing but in no way exceptional. Gene rose like a zephyr out of this middle class Jewish environment to become a force of his very own. The quality and stature of his friends is a testament to that.”

On graduation in the early 1950s and at the height of the Korean War, Gene was swept into the Air Force, which, based on his off-the-charts IQ testing (he was a card-carrying Mensa, after all, who would “ace” multiple-choice exams), sent him off to study Russian language at Syracuse University.

From Syracuse Gene was posted to a squadron at Tempelhof in Berlin, where he tracked flights in the Russian sector and worked on routine encryption. But the year in Berlin allowed him to glimpse European living.

I was once with him in Berlin, to meet the scholar Susan Neiman, and as we walked the grounds of his old quarters at Tempelhof (part Nazi stage set, part city park), he talked about the veterans of the airlift with whom he had served.

After his hitch in the Air Force, Gene went back to Los Angeles, where, as his friends liked to tease him, he was a “Beverly Hills stockbroker.” At any rate he was a stockbroker; whether his office was actually in Beverly Hills I cannot say. In our friendship we never let the facts get in the way of a humorous story.

During Gene’s charmed Los Angeles life—as we often kidded with him—he played golf with (heavyweight champion) Joe Lewis and (the original Tarzan) Johnny Weissmuller, shook hands with Jack and Bobby Kennedy, shared a shoe-shine parlor with candidate Richard Nixon, saw Marilyn Monroe light up a room, and went to the same dry cleaner as Eva Marie Saint. He even raced Aston Martins on a track in official races with one of his brothers.

In LA in the 1950s Gene was married to Barbara and they had a son, and he stayed in Los Angeles until 1970, when his first marriage ended and he was offered a financial job in Switzerland with Investors Overseas Service, an early hedge fund that, it turned out, had more hedges than funds.

No sooner had Gene moved to Geneva than he was looking for another job, which in time he found when he opened the city’s first English-language bookstore, Encounter (he liked the magazine of the same name). And he found new love with his wife of the last fifty years, Vera Schulman, who grew up near Berne and was with him at the end.

Owning and running a bookstore was Gene’s dream job. He loved to spend his days in the presence of books, magazines, and newspapers, and for companionship he liked to befriend writers, professors, or anyone who could spark ideas, almost more than he liked valuing inventory or budgeting.

He took pride in his friendship with biographer (Solzhenitsyn, Koestler) Michael Scammell and in having had a dinner in New York with Lewis Lapham, the founding editor of Lapham’s Quarterly.

He found great pleasure in the periodic visits to Geneva of Richard Falk, who was for some time United Nations Special Rapporteur on “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967,” and with him Gene could vent his passions on the subject of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

Gene’s politics were iconoclastic and contrarian, and he was impatient with cant and pomposity. He could be short with those who crossed his values, even in his imagination. He wrote well and distinctly. What he liked most to write were book critiques for his friends.

Gene often said that it was his brother Don (a Harvard-educated high school teacher in California), who in the anti-war 1960s introduced him to opposition politics and good books by taking him to the progressive second-hand bookstores around Berkeley.

Gene read widely and well in science, art, philosophy, history, fiction, and current affairs. He liked books about book stores, libraries, and collections. And he was forever buying books.

Gene would read reviews online or in magazines and place his orders, often bringing home three new books each week, which he would devour in several long gulps, adding in marginalia. (The word “bullshit” was a favorite.)

After a while his home office grew to look like one of those used bookstores in Berkeley. He had more than 6,000 books, on shelves and in great piles, and it became a long-standing topic at our weekly lunches: To whom or to what institution could Gene donate his books?

Gene cast his net wide looking for a home for his library. European and American libraries and colleges didn’t want or need 6,000 more books. He approached a university in Tunisia and another in East Timor, not to mention a Rotary Club in south Brisbane, and while they were interested in the collection, they had no means to collect it.

Finally, on one of my trips across the Balkans, I met Mrs. Bedita Islamović at the National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo. She warmed to the story of Gene Schulman and his 6,000 books in search of a home. During the Bosnian wars, the National Library had burned, taking with it some two million books and periodicals.

It took time, not to mention many hours of work by Daniel Warner (another CP contributor) and our friend Michael Horner, but eventually all 6,000 books reached Sarajevo, where last year the National Library established the Eugene Schulman Reading Room, with all the books carefully arranged on new shelves.

Bedita was keen that Gene make the journey to Sarajevo to dedicate the collection, but he decided that Bosnian travel was beyond him. Instead, a group of his friends went in his stead, and the dedication ceremony took place on Gene’s 89th birthday, together with cake, candles, and balloons, not to mention local press and diplomats. It was the first English language collection to reach Bosnia in more than thirty years.

Sarajevo is the perfect place for Gene’s books—a city that straddles (much as he did in his outlook on the world) the fault lines of East and West, not to mention the concentric worlds of Judaism, Orthodoxy, and Islam. Gene loved nothing more than to imagine his books guiding and instructing future generations in Bosnia.

In the remarks that he wrote for the dedication ceremony (and which were read aloud to the gathering), he said:

So, with these thoughts and friends in mind, after having packed up my own modest library in Geneva, Switzerland, I unpack it again here in Sarajevo in this fine institution as it rises from its own ashes like the fabled Phoenix.

May my meager gift help contribute to the replacement of the two million volumes lost in the holocaust that was the Bosnian war. And may its contents help teach us to hate and avoid war, heal our planet, and help us to find meaning in life. May it be a seed in the renaissance of a new enlightenment.

The remarks delivered to the National Library, like the gift of the books themselves, was Gene at his most generous and gracious. Of course, like the rest of us, he had other sides, one reason his friends often referred to him as Grumpus (he liked it more when we called him Eugenius).

Most weeks in Geneva, Danny Warner, Mike Horner and I would meet Gene for lunch. For a while we ate in various restaurants, but after a time we settled into an ordinary sandwich shop, Edward’s, which learned to toast Gene’s bagels just as he liked them and which kept our private stash of Armenian and Georgian brandy in the back, awaiting our Wednesday arrival.

Gene didn’t love every subject that came up at these lunches. He professed boredom and disinterest when Danny and I reviewed the failings of the New York Giants and Jets. Nor did he take any pleasure in my political speculations, and he hated our gossip about the Clintons or Donald Trump. Elections, to Gene, were tilted wheels and loaded dice, and not worthy of reasoned argument.

At the same time for three hours every week he had an engaged circle of friends to discuss what he was reading, the books he was thinking of buying, the state of Israel (which never pleased him), or the places and people that had filled his life.

It was over these lunches that I heard about his forebears in Minsk, his passion for the books of Stefan Zweig and Arthur Koestler, his college football career (at USC he missed the chance to play with Frank Gifford), his early years in Detroit (then prosperous Motown), and the improbable story of how he came to own and donate the first English-language Koran (printed in 1734) to the Malek Library in Tehran.

Our last lunch was in early March. Then came the virus shutdown, and except on Zoom, I never saw him again—until today, when Danny Warner and I sat for several hours in an impromptu vigil, on folding chairs, beside his deathbed.

In a way, today was our last lunch. In Gene’s presence (although without beer or paprika chips on the ICU tables), Danny and I discussed politics (Trump’s quackery), travel (I talked up a map store in Minsk), Greenwich Connecticut’s Country Club Republicans (a frightening piece in the New Yorker on patriarchic self-delusion), and mutual friends (recalling recent emails that Gene had written to Evan Jones in Sydney).

It was the same conversation that we have had for years in Gene’s presence—but one that today, on this sad occasion, I would like to think of as eternal.

More about Gene at CounterPunch can be found here and here and here.

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Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails and, most recently, Appalachia Spring, about the coal counties of West Virginia and Kentucky. He lives in Switzerland.  

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