Mark Collins – What’s an Intellectual Romanian Jew to do Before WW II?

The start of an article in the NY Review of Books:

Surrounded by Jew-Haters
John Banville
May 26, 2016 Issue

For Two Thousand Years [see here]

by Mihail Sebastian, translated from the Romanian by Philip Ó Ceallaigh

In his Journal 1935–44, Mihail Sebastian, lawyer, journalist, novelist, playwright, left a profound and moving record of some of the most terrible years in the history of Europe [more here and here]. His native Romania may have been on the geographical periphery, but it was, no less than Spain, one of the cockpits in the struggle between totalitarianism and democracy that was to lay waste to entire countries, and cause uncountable millions of deaths and the near annihilation of European Jewry. The wonder of it is that the Journal (not published in Romania till 1996 and in English till 2000) is not only an invaluable historical document, fully as significant as the diaries of Victor Klemperer [a German Jew–wonderful books, more here] and Anne Frank, but also a beautifully shaped and subtly executed work of literary art.1 Never has the savagery of which human beings are capable been recorded with such insight, style, gracefulness, and, amazingly, humor. Now, in For Two Thousand Years, we have a fictional precursor of the Journal that in its way is equally fascinating, and equally shocking.

Mihail Sebastian was the pen name of Iosif Mendel Hechter. He was born to a Jewish family in Brăila, a port on the Danube, in 1907. He studied law in the Romanian capital, Bucharest, which at the time liked to think of itself as a second Paris, and then in Paris itself, before returning to Bucharest and becoming a typical figure of the times, an intellectual flaneur, a habitué of literary cafés, a chaser after girls. He worked intermittently as a lawyer while also writing essays, novels, poems, and plays, and moving in a milieu that included writers and thinkers such as Mircea Eliade, Emil Cioran, Eugène Ionesco, and Camil Petrescu.

In that fevered year of 1934, with Hitler established as German chancellor and Spain stumbling toward civil war, Sebastian published For Two Thousand Years. The novel caused an immediate scandal in Romania. The Zionist left accused him of being anti-Semitic, while the fascist right saw him as a wild-eyed Zionist. He had asked his friend and hero, Nae Ionescu, charismatic teacher, philosopher, mathematician, and, eventually, fascist activist, to write a preface to the book. Ionescu obliged, but what he wrote turned out to be not the sympathetic and approving puff Sebastian had hoped for but a disgraceful indictment concentrating on the fact of Sebastian’s Jewishness. Assimilation was a foolish fantasy, Ionescu wrote: no Jew could ever belong to a national community. “Someone can be in the service of a community, can serve it in an eminent way, can even give his life for this collectivity; but this does not bring him any closer to it.” He told Sebastian bluntly that he should not even think of himself as Romanian:

It is an assimilationist illusion, it is the illusion of so many Jews who sincerely believe that they are Romanian…. Remember that you are Jewish!… Are you Iosif Hechter, a human being from Brăila on the Danube? No, you a Jew from Brăila on the Danube.

It seems inconceivable yet Sebastian, despite sadness and disappointment, went ahead and published this appalling diatribe as a preface to his novel. Later he was to write that including the piece was his only possible revenge on Ionescu. This is completely typical of Sebastian’s stoical and endearingly wistful attitude toward the unashamed, indeed loudly proclaimed, anti-Semitism of so many of his most intimate companions. When Nae Ionescu died in 1940, at the age of forty-nine, Sebastian wept bitter tears for his lost friend.

Indeed, Sebastian’s capacity to accept and even forgive the excesses of his friends is truly remarkable…

Consider also the famous pre-World War II Austrian Jewish author Stefan Zweig.

Mark Collins, a prolific Ottawa blogger, is a Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute; he tweets @Mark3Ds


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