Who Was Maria Chazen?

by Scotia Gilroy, writer, accordionistPoland, Canada, 2012

The empirical details of Bruno Schulz’s life remain sketchy and incomplete. In the words of Jerzy Ficowski, “the map of his life [is] strewn with blank spots and lacunae.” But this frustrating lack of concrete relics does not stop those who have fallen under the spell of Cinnamon Shops, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass and The Book of Idolatry from continuing to stubbornly reach into the past in search of any pieces that can be fit together in the on-going quest (first initiated by Ficowski, and kept alive by further generations of devoted readers) to discover who exactly this incredible man was, who vanished from the world too soon.


One of the aspects of Schulz’s biography that often intrigues readers the most is his unusual, complicated relations with a myriad of female acquaintances, with many of whom Schulz maintained passionate, engaged, often romantic epistolary friendships. Some of these women we are able to visualize more clearly than others. This is due to letters and photographs that survived World War II and Communism, both of which proved to be a black hole for artistic and cultural heritage.


Maria Chasin (also: Chazen) was one of these women, referred to by Jerzy Ficowski as Schulz’s “muses,” with whom he maintained an epistolary relationship. But unlike other women such as Debora Vogel or Zofia Nałkowska, whose identities we are able to reconstruct with more than a mere shade of confidence due to extant photos, letters, diaries and other documents which serve as concrete clues to their intellects and the roles they played in Schulz’s life, Maria Chasin cuts a far more ambiguous figure, due to the fact that very few letters, or other testimony to her identity, survive. All of the letters that Schulz wrote to her (which, one wishes to presume, were as fanciful, profound, and abundant in literary reveries as the letters to his other female “muses”) were carefully buried by her in the yard of her house in Łódź just before her escape to the USA at the beginning of the war. All attempts to discover the spot where they were buried have been unsuccessful.


Jerzy Ficowski emphasizes the tragedy of the loss of these letters by conjecturing that they were of high literary quality, since “they were an opportunity for discourse with a distinguished woman whose rank and virtues, real and supposed, were greatly admired by Schulz.” Furthermore, in her Wartime Diaries, Zofia Nałkowska, a primary figure in the gallery of women in Schulz’s life, stated that Schulz’s letters to her were of exceptional power and beauty, and that she ranked them as works of art. This assessment does not seem inflated in light of the profound beauty and complexity of thought that we find within the surviving letters by Schulz, such as those he wrote to Debora Vogel or his friend Władysław Riff. Vast numbers of Schulz’s letters and original manuscripts perished during the war, along with many of his correspondents. The disappearance of the letters between Schulz and Chasin gives us yet another loss to lament in the kaleidoscope of losses that create the mystery and tragedy of Bruno Schulz and his art, which includes the disappearance of his unpublished novella The Messiah, and, of course, the tragic and violent way in which Bruno himself was taken from the world.


Perhaps this multitude of lacunae and mysteries plays a role in driving Bruno Schulz enthusiasts in their obsession to know more about him and to pursue his elusive ghost. Perhaps this is why I find myself chasing Maria Chasin – one of the most elusive figures in Schulz’s life due to the highly limited clues we have about her. From acquaintances’ testimony we know that she was a close friend of Schulz’s and exchanged many letters with him. We know a few empirical details about her life – she was an eminent pianist living in Łódź, and had many connections abroad, of which she attempted to make use in order to help Bruno publish his work outside of Poland. We know that it was because of her that Bruno took one of his very few trips abroad – to Paris, to visit her brother Georges Rosenberg, with whom he immediately struck up a kindred friendship.


We know from a letter to another female friend, Romana Halpern, that Maria Chasin attempted to help Cinnamon Shops become published in Italy as a bilingual Italian-Polish edition, via acquaintances that she had there – a scheme which seemingly never materialized. Schulz refers to Maria in this letter as “a pianist I met in Zakopane who has fantastic connections abroad.” In another letter to Romana, he states, “I’ve had a letter from Maria Chasin, the pianist, from which it appears that she too will be in Paris in June; this could be very important to me since she knows many French writers and intellectuals, among them very eminent people.”


From these clues, some confusing elements begin to colour our image of the beautiful, mysterious, “eminent” pianist from Łódź. Was Maria, as Ficowski suggests, one of Schulz’s intellectual goddesses to whom he wrote passionately and admired from afar? Or was she merely, as these brief mentions of her in letters to other people suggest, someone whom Schulz appreciated on a purely pragmatic level due to her “connections abroad,” whom Schulz hoped to take advantage of in order to further his literary career? The former supposition is enhanced by the fact that Maria buried all of Schulz’s letters to her in her yard before fleeing the country, an action which shows that she was aware of the literary value of the letters – which certainly suggests that what he wrote to her was something far beyond mere requests for help in making connections abroad. But the latter supposition is supported by Schulz’s own manner of referring to her to other people – as a business-like contact whom he hoped to make use of, without a single trace suggesting that his relationship with her was anything more substantial or poetic. The tone of such references to Maria Chasin casts his relationship with her in an uncomfortable light, and it becomes unclear whether his connection with her was romantic and artistic, or business-motivated. This uncertainty is compounded by the fact that our trail of hints and clues, at least those that are in existence to date, ends abruptly here, before anything can be resolved.


The uncomfortable feeling becomes magnified as this puzzling relationship reveals a side of Bruno Schulz that we have not glimpsed before, and which is at odds with the idealized vision of Bruno Schulz the Writer that we have all begun to venerate obsessively: the extraordinarily gifted recluse who spent his entire life lost in vast realms of his own imagining, and who became a literary star due to fate smiling on him, rather than through any kind of self-motivated ambition for fame. As the mythologized version presents it, he was shy, retiring and incompetent in worldly affairs. These references made by Bruno to Maria Chasin and her numerous “contacts” throw a wrench in the works for Schulz-worshippers, for they prefer to believe in the pre-destined, almost mystical, literary existence of Schulz. Ambitious and entrepreneurially competent self-promotion is at odds with this vision of Schulz which still strongly predominates amongst his readers and admirers.


We think of Schulz’s literature as being born of solitary experiences and reflections, which were at first expressed in letters until his art became bold enough to speak to a greater public (it was his correspondence with Debora Vogel which gave rise to Cinnamon Shops). His letters were the genesis of his writing, and it was his friendship and correspondence with the people to whom he wrote which inspired his creativity. Despite his intensely solitary nature, his need for a trusted interlocutor was overpowering – he sought spiritual partners, people upon whom he could bestow confidence and intellectual trust. When putting the pieces of Schulz’s life together, these “correspondent-confidantes” grow to nearly mythic proportions, gaining a dimension of magical significance in inspiring Schulz in his art. In his drawings, women became monumental temptresses and fantastic creatures. For his literature, the real women he knew in his life transformed into powerful muses. Schulz became a “creator of mundane Olympians.” In Schulz admirers’ tendency to mythologize Schulz and his gallery of muses (a trend first instigated by his main biographer, Jerzy Ficowski), one can see parallels to Schulz’s own belief in the mythologizing of reality, his belief in “fallen angels” and the sacred present in the mundane. We have begun to consider Schulz’s epistolary relationships according to Schulz’s own personal cosmogony of the divine within the terrestrial.


And thus we are left with an irrational desire to scrub Maria Chasin’s name out from history, to relegate her to a small box where anomalies are filed away, so as to preserve and strengthen our mythical and beloved creature, Bruno Schulz. We want to continue to view him as someone animated by a divine spark – not fully of this world, not even cognizant of the pre-destined literary and artistic path he was following. How to reconcile this with the pragmatic impulses motivating his contact with Maria Chasin? Ficowski states: “The realm of fantasy and imagination is the region of Schulz’s true biography; his connections with the real world were slight and increasingly tenuous. Fearing this disproportion, Schulz longed – helplessly – to strengthen his links with the world.” Perhaps Maria Chasin fulfilled this role for him – as one of Schulz’s “links with the world,” which he sought desperately to strengthen so as not to lose himself utterly within his artistic universe.