Early in 1935, the Romanian writer Mihail Sebastian—journalist, playwright, novelist, literary critic—decided to start a diary. He was twenty-eight. The first entry, dated February 12, hints at the events that preoccupied him.

10 PM. The radio is tuned to Prague. I have been listening to a concerto by J.S. Bach in G for trumpet, oboe, harpsichord, and orchestra. After the intermission, there will be a concerto of his in G minor for piano and orchestra.

I am immersed in Bach. Yesterday evening, while writing a long letter to Poldy [his brother Pierre, a doctor living in France], I listened to the Fourth Brandenburg Concerto from Lyons—for the first time with extremely clear reception—and then to a Mozart concerto for piano and orchestra.

I went to see an eye specialist. He recommended glasses and I have started to wear them. It changes me quite a lot and makes me look ugly.

It was funny when I told him my name. He said that his family has much discussed my [novel] For Two Thousand Years, which he has not read himself. He has heard a lot of people cursing me. I realize that [my attempt to defend my work] has really been lost. [My article] How I Became a Hooligan is not reaching the circles where I am cursed even by “hearsay.”

On Sunday at Tîrgovisåüte, where I had gone for a lecture, Samy Hersåücovici told me a story that indicates how the “affair” is seen by the public.

The bookseller who was selling tickets for the lecture offered one to a professor at the teachers’ training college: “Sebastian? Aha! That yid who got himself baptized.”

Here Sebastian mentions most of his principal concerns: music; his novel; the recent attack on it, and on him, for being Jewish, and his defense of it in his pamphlet How I Became a Hooligan. He continued making entries on this “affair” and other subjects in his journal until the end of 1944, half a year before he died in May 1945.

“Mihail Sebastian” was the adopted name of Iosif Hechter, who was born in 1907 in the port town of Braila to an assimilated Jewish family and without denying his Jewish origins considered himself fully Romanian. He had been involved in the Bucharest artistic and literary world since his youth. Though not particularly pious, he occasionally attended synagogue services, which seemed to him aesthetic failures.1

His novel For Two Thousand Years, published in 1934, was a roman à clef whose Jewish narrator explores the various choices—assimilation, Zionism, communism, and traditionalism—open to Romanian Jews faced with the country’s pervasive anti-Semitism.2Among the recognizable characters in the novel was Nae Ionescu, Sebastian’s teacher, a charismatic professor of philosophy at the University of Bucharest. Ionescu’s enormous influence, which spread far beyond academic circles, depended not on his published work—he wrote little—but on his lectures, in which he preached a mystical nationalism and a vision of Romanian regeneration. Ionescu had encouraged Sebastian to become a writer, and when he asked him to contribute a preface to For Two Thousand Years, Ionescu agreed to do so. Unfortunately Ionescu had recently decided to endorse the fascist ideology of the Romanian Iron Guard; without giving Sebastian any advance warning, he took the opportunity to write a ferocious harangue against Romanian Jews.

Sebastian, deeply wounded, chose to publish this introduction and then reply to it separately. For Sebastian to think himself a Romanian, Ionescu wrote, was “an assimilationist illusion…. Remember that you are Jewish!” In How I Became a Hooligan, Sebastian soon after tried to respond not only to Ionescu but to other critics as well, and to defend both his Romanian identity and his Jewishness. Evidently, according to Sebastian’s diary, that pamphlet was not as widely read as he hoped it would be.

What matters here, though, is that despite Ionescu’s assault on his very identity as a Romanian and his increasingly intense pro-fascist politics, Sebastian did not turn against his friend. When he learned of Ionescu’s death in March 1940, he confessed to his diary the day after: “Nervous, uncontrollable sobbing as I entered Nae Ionescu’s house yesterday morning, two hours after his death. He takes with him a whole period of my life.” In short, some of Sebastian’s best friends were anti-Semites. But, paradoxically, his willingness to tolerate, though with increasing impatience, their anti-Jewish sentiments, coupled with his firm refusal to leave the country during the war even though his life was in danger, were to do his potential readers a great favor. They kept him in Romania to bear witness to life under fascism.3


Romania’s history is essential to understanding Sebastian’s world, since anti-Semitism was a birth defect from which the country still has not recovered. In 1878, Britain, France, Prussia, and the other powers met in Berlin to carve out new states from the dying Ottoman Empire. In creating Romania, they insisted that it grant citizenship to Jews, many of whom had immigrated from Russian Poland and were scattered in both the cities and the countryside, notably in the eastern province of Moldavia. In addition to the traditional charge of being the offspring of Christ’s killers, these Jews had to bear the burden of being considered invaders imposed on Romania by Western allies; they were seen as exploiters and parasites. The Romanian state selectively enforced its constitution by expelling Jews from villages, imposing quotas on them in universities, and closing professions to them.


Romania was from the first an insecure and troubled country; it was economically backward, and plagued by endemic, and seemingly incurable conflicts between rich landowners and peasants, many of whose families had formerly been serfs and were still living under largely feudal conditions. In these circumstances hatred of Jews was as widespread as it was inaccessible to rational argument. In 1907 peasants in Moldavia launched a rebellion that spread until it amounted to a virtual revolution against landowners; the revolt soon became a pogrom against local Jews as well. That the peasants’ longstanding arrangements with the landowners were not more favorable was said to be the fault of Jewish tenants.4 As is often the case, the rebels found it easy to identify the enemy as the aliens among them.

When a larger Romania emerged after World War I, xenophobia only tightened its grip on educated Romanians. Thanks to the victorious allies, the country doubled in territory and in population; this meant acquiring new minorities, particularly Hungarians, who could be despised and held responsible for the country’s economic failures. Parties emerged and disappeared along with their leaders, and most elections were rigged. In this volatile and often corrupt atmosphere, the Legion of the Archangel Michael emerged in 1927, committed to imposing authoritarian order on the country; hence the nickname “Legionnaires,” a word we often find in Sebastian’s journal. Three years later the Legion evolved into the notorious Iron Guard. Its ideology was a bastard mixture of Italian fascism and Nazi racist slogans, coupled with indigenous nationalism, religious anti-Semitism, contempt for democracy, a generous supply of nativist populism, the whole sprinkled with Orthodox mysticism and a commitment to violence as a political technique.

While the Iron Guard attracted thugs, for some of its intellectual supporters its emotional attraction lay in its claim to bring about a Romanian Renaissance. Sebastian writes that Nae Ionescu advocated “the natural, organic evolution of the Romanian people,” a doctrine sufficiently vague to mean almost anything; in Ionescu’s version it featured xenophobia, philosophical irrationalism, and the cult of a glorious death. When two Legionnaires died in Spain fighting for Franco, the members of the Iron Guard had the martyrs they had always wanted.

From the 1920s on, most of the turgid political debate over the “new Romania” was carried on in university lectures, newspapers, and novels. The lectures of a self-important and confused political thinker like Nae Ionescu were treated as the bible of a new movement. After he died, the playwright Eugen Ionescu, no relation to the intellectual leader of the Iron Guard either biologically or politically, said of the “odious defunct” Nae Ionescu, “Because of him all became fascists.” That Nae Ionescu had such strong appeal tells us much about the political intelligence of Romania’s leading intellectuals at the time.

The Iron Guard introduced assassination into Romanian politics—its killings were carefully planned, and carried out in cold blood. The ignominious deaths of the dictator Nicolae Ceausåüescu and his wife, Elena, who were secretly tried and executed on Christmas Day 1989, were part of a long tradition. In 1924, the right-wing leader Corneliu Codreanu made a name for himself by shooting the police chief of the town of Iasi, who had tried to stop the anti-Semitic riots Codreanu had instigated. He was acquitted. In 1933, with Codreanu’s authorization, Iron Guardists murdered the Liberal prime minister Ion Duca for attempting to bring their movement under control. In 1938, King Carol, now openly acting as a dictator, had Codreanu arrested for libel against the ex-premier Nicolae Iorgia. Codreanu was convicted, and then shot “while trying to escape.” In September 1939 the Iron Guard was responsible for killing Prime Minister Armand Ca*linescu, who had tried to arrest some of the extremists.

By this time, political assassinations had become so commonplace that they had turned into popular spectacles. The eleven assassins of Ca*linescu were captured, executed on the spot, and left to lie in the street where they had fallen, covered by a placard saying, “Traitors to the country!” Sebastian, who was then serving in the military, went to the scene, and reported his impressions in his journal:


Thousands of people came by streetcar, by car, by bus, or on foot. It was like a big fair. They were laughing and joking. A company from my regiment only just managed to keep the crowd at a distance from the killers’ dead bodies…. Those who were unable to squeeze through to the front saw nothing. A lady beside me said: “They should keep order, put us in two rows so that everyone can see.”

People from nearby had brought some wooden stepladders, and those who wanted a better view paid two lei to climb up and look over the rest.

“Don’t do it!” said one guy who had paid his two lei but had been disappointed. “Don’t do it! All you can see are their feet.”

Sebastian’s comment: “It all seemed appalling, humiliating, shameful.” He notes that there were similar reprisals in the provinces, where King Carol had some two hundred and fifty Legionnaires shot. “I am at my wit’s end,” Sebastian wrote. “There is nothing to think, nothing to foresee. Let us wait and, if possible, not lose our heads too much.”


Nae Ionescu’s move to the right would not be Sebastian’s only deep disappointment in his friends; but Ionescu had been his teacher, and, more important still, had continued to support Sebastian’s literary career. Sebastian was also close to Mircea Eliade, a writer and scholar precisely his age, and, like Nae Ionescu, a passionate Iron Guardist (though one would not know this from Eliade’s untrustworthy Autobiography, written after Eliade became a well-known authority on Oriental religions). In the mid-1930s, Eliade was Ionescu’s assistant. For years, he and Sebastian saw each other almost daily as colleagues on Cuvântul, a literary and political journal that had started out as a fairly liberal paper but gradually drifted into the orbit of the Iron Guard.5 Eliade was writing novels, traveling abroad, and—Eliade claims—keeping up Sebastian’s morale whenever it needed a boost.6 If this is true, their friendship must have been closer before 1935, for the diary Sebastian started that year documents a growing estrangement between the two men. As early as November 27, 1935, Sebastian noted a

short, sharp [political] discussion I had with Mircea after the theatre on Monday evening, at the Continental. It was not the first. And I have noticed that he is sliding ever more clearly to the right. When we are alone together we understand each other reasonably well. In public, however, his right-wing position becomes extreme and categorical. He said one simply shocking thing to me, with a kind of direct aggressiveness: “All great creators are on the right.” Just like that.

But I shan’t allow such discussions to cast the slightest shadow over my affection for him. In the future I shall try to avoid “political arguments” with him.

That was one way of dealing with such anti-Semites as Eliade—silence and staying away from precisely the topics that most engaged them both. “But is that possible?” Sebastian asked himself on September 25, 1936. “Street life impinges on us whether we like it or not, and in the most trivial reflection I can feel the breach widening between us.” These thoughts were prompted by Eliade’s sudden violent outburst against Nicholae Titulescu, the country’s pro-Western foreign minister for much of the period between 1927 and the end of 1936: “He should be executed,” Eliade told Sebastian. “Put in front of a machine-gun firing squad. Riddled with bullets. Strung up by the tongue.” Astonished, Sebastian asked why. “Because he has committed treason, high treason. He’s concluded a secret treaty with the Russians.” For this statement, Sebastian noted, Eliade had only a single dubious source, a general he had talked to. Sebastian concluded about his friend: “He’s a man of the right, with everything that implies. In Abyssinia he was on the side of Italy. In Spain on the side of Franco. Here is he for Codreanu.”

Sebastian’s friends would report to him new and increasingly nasty anti-Semitic remarks, but he did not have to rely on secondhand accounts. On December 17, 1937, he copied into his journal, without comment, some sentences from Eliade’s article “Why I Believe in the Victory of the Legionary Movement”:

“Can the Romanian people end its days…wasted by poverty and syphilis, invaded by Jews and torn apart by foreigners…?

“…the Legionary revolution has the people’s salvation as its supreme goal…as the Captain [Codreanu] has said.”

Not a word of such views is to be found in Eliade’s autobiography; he discusses the Iron Guard in two pages, and as for Jews, he recalls an argument with Nae Ionescu in which he defended Sebastian’s right to consider himself a Romanian. The following April, after Sebastian had dinner with the Eliades, his diary expressed his ambivalent feelings toward him: “It’s hard not to be fond of him,” and yet, “our friendship is at an end.” But it never was, quite.

The reader asks: What did Sebastian see in these people? From his diary, it does not seem that he was servile or anxious to be seen as a well-known and influential writer. About his relations with Nae Ionescu he observed:

How childish he is, how he wants to shock people! And how much I enjoy helping him, with my air of forbidden admiration, constant amazement, and curious expectations. This childishness of his is one of the last things for which I am still fond of him.

Sebastian wrote this after seeing Ionescu talking to two officers on a train and telling them about how he had met Hitler—a lie, as Sebastian knew. Sebastian took some satisfaction in patronizing his patron, and this may have helped him to deal with Ionescu’s anti-Semitism, which Sebastian could, more or less, excuse as an unfortunate byproduct of Ionescu’s new-found Christian mysticism. He was ready to excuse much else. Sebastian was shocked to learn that his guru was extremely unoriginal. “I am reading Oswald Spengler’s Années décisives,” he wrote in May 1936:

A surprise to find whole sentences, formulations, ideas, and paradoxes from Nae’s course [of lectures]. The whole of last year’s course (domestic and foreign policy, peace, war, the definition of the nation), all his “bold strokes” (Singapore, France in its death throes, Russia as an Asiatic power, Britain in liquidation): it is all there in Spengler, with an astounding similarity of vocabulary.

But Sebastian took this disillusioning discovery in stride. As for Eliade, Sebastian was again and again impressed by the range of his knowledge and the enormous energy with which he turned out one book after another. What is more, Eliade professed to admire Sebastian’s literary work.

But there was more to Sebastian’s patience than private pleasure and private gratitude. Though Ionescu was a plagiarist and a windbag, he and Eliade and other admirers of the Iron Guard claimed to be working toward a noble goal: a New Romania that could contemptuously rise above the rancorous partisan disputes and rigged elections of their time, a Romania that would be second to none, rivaling foreign cultural centers such as France, which Romanians had looked up to for too long. What was embarrassing to the advocates of a Romanian Renaissance was the absurdity of the Iron Guards’ ideology and their violence in practice. Sebastian himself never came close to embracing the Iron Guard’s fanaticism, but he wanted at all costs to be a Romanian and deluded himself into hoping that his friends, more and more openly bigoted and given to megalomania, would come to see how wrong they were.

Sometimes he tried to talk them out of their bigotry. In February 1938, he ran into the novelist Camil Petrescu, who told him: “You ought to see how the Jews have overrun the Corso. The whole café is full of them. They’ve really ‘taken possession.'” Sebastian’s bizarre, placating response was to offer to count Jews with Petrescu: “What an anti-Semite you are, Camil! Come with me and I’ll show you how wrong you are, or how much you like getting things wrong.” The two friends toured the café, found only fifteen Jews, and Camil took back his remark with a smile. When, a year later, Petrescu was appointed director of the National Theatre, the two had dinner together and, though Sebastian worried over the policies Petrescu might follow, he sincerely wished him well. “I’d like him to succeed; it’s one of the few chances he’s been offered.” He was generous to people who were not prepared to be as generous to him.

Fortunately for Sebastian, and for his readers, the anti-Semitic politics of the scholars he most admired were not the sole topic of his journal. He has much to say about music, skiing, and women. Modern Bucharest was a cosmopolitan capital, and its musical life attracted some of the world’s most celebrated soloists. Sebastian attended the recitals of Artur Rubinstein, Wilhelm Kempff, and Pablo Casals, whose performance, he wrote, made him cry: “I cannot even bring myself to applaud. I am ashamed to show my ‘approval.’ What a magnificent lesson in art, and perhaps in life too! No fuss at all, no dazzle, no verve: everything simple, austere, uncommunicative, as in a great solitude.” Music provided an escape from his personal troubles. Turning the dial of his radio at night, he could tune into most European stations; he discovers compositions new to him, and criticizes himself for being too exclusively attached to the classics, mainly Mozart and Bach, and tries to broaden his tastes. He is pleased that he can enjoy a “modern” like César Franck; he is enthusiastic about Schubert, about whom he had known nothing, not even the century in which he lived; after hearing some of his compositions, he looks him up in an encyclopedia of music. There is something touching about his amateurish enthusiasm.

Skiing, too, is a form of escape. On his first day out, afraid at first, he learns through a kind of “hit and miss”:

Feeling sure that I’d fall after a few meters, I stormily (yes, I like to say stormily) covered the beautiful slope of the Stîna Regala*—and, funnily enough, I did so without falling down. Then I performed a lot of other bewildering “exploits.”…Wendy, who was my instructor, said: “Bravo. You’ve got talent.” And I wasn’t ashamed to feel flattered by this good mark, handed down with objectivity from the teacher’s desk.

In December of that year, 1937, he notes: “I said today, after I had done my first successful ‘slalom’ exercise, that literature will never give me the same joy. And I wasn’t lying.”

Women were more important to him, but the pleasure they gave him was less pure. Sebastian was evidently very attractive to women; he writes matter-of-factly about how many of them offer to go to bed with him. At a party he runs into a young painter, Zoe, whom he had met just once before. He has some drinks, and Leni, a gifted and promiscuous young actress, his current mistress, fades from his memory. “I spent all evening close to Zoe Ricci—at first by chance, later because I found it pleasant.” The two move to a balcony, and there they

sat chatting for a long time, Zoe in a chaise lounge, I at her feet. She seems very young. Her body, in particular, is extremely youthful. She has slanting eyes, slightly overdefined cheekbones, a child’s mouth. She kisses timidly, but also with a kind of desperation. Later, at her place—for we left the others without too much embarrassment and went to her third-floor studio flat on Piatåüa Rosetti—she cried in my arms: “How nice it is not to be alone.”

That was in May 1938. The affair, just started, continues, at the same time that Sebastian keeps up his entanglement with Leni. In November, after he has moved to a new apartment, Zoe comes to see him. “I undressed her and lay [sic] her on the bed, let her purr beneath the blanket like a cat in the warmth, and went down to buy some cakes at Nestor. How good it is to know that a young woman is waiting for you upstairs in your room!” Then he wrote: “But, of course, none of that has any meaning.”

This attitude—one step forward, one step back—was typical. In 1935, he writes that he is “seriously in love” with Leni and then adds: “How will I get out of that?” Such questions recur throughout the journal, and suggest the reason why he could remain friends with such people as Ionescu and Eliade: he was curiously passive, unwilling to bring matters to a head.


Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, and Romania gave in to Soviet demands to take over parts of the country. The Iron Guard rebelled, deposed King Carol, and was itself forced into an alliance with the army, which installed General Ion Antonescu as dictator. Romania, while claiming to be neutral, became a partner of the Axis powers in September 1940 and joined Germany in its attack on the USSR a year later. Sebastian’s journal then becomes an indispensable record of the war years. Each day he meticulously records the fighting on the different fronts: the Near East, the western front, the assault on Russia. His diary shows how the repression of the Jews in Romania was more complicated than that in the Nazi Thousand-Year Reich. Whereas by 1941, the Germans had a simple program—to murder as many Jews as they could lay their hands on—the Romanians were less consistent and less well organized in their anti-Semitic campaign.

At times, the violence resembles that of the Nazis. On February 4, 1941, Sebastian writes: “It is now consid-ered absolutely certain that the Jews butchered at Stra*ulesåüti abattoir were hanged by the neck on hooks normally used for beef carcasses. A sheet of paper was stuck to each corpse: ‘Kosher Meat.'” A month later he writes: “I don’t know why, but ‘legal’ anti-Semitic measures seem to me more depressing, more humiliating, than beatings and window-breaking.” The government had just issued one of the first decrees aimed at all Jews: raising their rent to prohibitive levels. Nine days later, the regime expropriates Jewish real estate. Sebastian’s friend Camil Petrescu shamelessly complains that he probably won’t be allotted one of the Jewish-owned houses:

“They never give me anything,” he said, disheartened. “Well, this time,” I replied, “even if they gave you something, I’m sure you wouldn’t take it!” “Not take it? Why shouldn’t I?”

In mid-June, Sebastian sees a number of well-dressed Jews being arrested in the street. “It is said they will be sent to a concentration camp,” he says laconically. In the provinces, meanwhile, the state orders large-scale roundups. “‘The Jews will be removed from villages in Moldavia,’ say today’s papers. The measure may be extended to other regions. The banner headline: ‘Yids to Labor Camps!'” Twelve days later he writes:

Today’s papers carry a decree of the Buza*u mayor’s office: Jews cannot move around between 8 PM and 7 AM, do not have a right to enter cafés, are forbidden to visit one another, even if they are friends or relatives, and cannot call a doctor except through the local sergeant.

The record of unrelenting persecution continues, all the more telling for the coolness of Sebastian’s account. Jews are forbidden to fly the Romanian tricolor or the German flag; they are ordered to donate their sheets, pillows, shirts, pajamas, and the like to the government, “without explanation, without warning.” In August the Jews living in some cities must wear the yellow star. In early September, the Jewish community leaders report that this requirement includes all Jews in the country, a demand that is suddenly lifted that evening—another example of the government’s “sloppiness.”

On August 4, 1941, Sebastian writes that the police are going from house to house to alert Jews from twenty to fifty that they must report at police headquarters. “Are we again facing a mass roundup of Jews? Internment camps? Extermination?” By evening, Jews from thirty-six to fifty are told “not to bother.” But a little later, Jews, even in Bucharest, must give up their telephones; Jewish children are expelled from schools.

Some of Sebastian’s friends assure him of their sympathy. “Madeleine Andronescu on the telephone,” he notes the next day:

“You make me ashamed, Mihail. I feel ashamed that you suffer and not I, that you are being humiliated and not I.” Visåüoianu (who is no sentimentalist) said something similar in the street the day before yesterday, when a group of Jews came out and passed alongside us. “Whenever I see a Jew, I feel an urge to go up and greet him and to say, ‘Please believe me, sir, I have nothing to do with all this.'”

Sebastian refuses to take any comfort from such remarks. He writes:

The tragedy is that no one has anything to do with it. Everyone disapproves and feels indignant—but at the same time everyone is a cog in the huge anti-Semitic factory that is the Romanian state.


Whether or not they are staggered or disgusted, they and tens of thousands like them sign, endorse, and acquiesce, not only tacitly or passively but through direct participation. As for the mass of people, they are jubilant. The bloodying and mocking of Jews have been public entertainment par excellence.

Sebastian was never interned, never sent to a concentration camp, and was even permitted to teach briefly in a school. Money was a constant worry, as was the danger of being picked up and deported to one of the deadly camps. Just why he was spared never becomes clear. Before the war was over, the Nazis and the Romanian regime killed some 350,000 of the country’s 700,000 Jews. Sebastian kept on writing plays, translated Jane Austen, and read the complete Pléiade edition of Balzac’s Comédie Humaine.

Then, as the war was plainly going badly for the Axis, the Antonescu dictatorship stopped its anti-Semitic atrocities, just in case it would soon become necessary to be servile to the Allies. War news now dominates Sebastian’s journal, and then, in August 1944, as the Red Army takes Bucharest, Anto-nescu is replaced by a coalition of Communists, National Peasants, Liberals, and forces close to King Michael. Sebastian becomes involved with a new journal. “All night,” Sebastian writes, “I wrote for the edition of România Libera* that was due out at dawn.” He then withdraws from the paper. “I realized that I would be joining an editorial committee terrorized by conformism.” He observes the new masters, the Soviets, in action. “Passers-by are jostled until they hand over their watch. The watch seems to be the Russian soldier’s idée fixe.”

He writes his last entry in his journal on December 31, 1944, musing about his brother, somewhere in France. “I think of Poldy and feel bad that he is so far away. I can’t wait to see him again. Everything else melts into regrets and hopes.” Half a year later, on May 29, 1945, Sebastian was killed by a truck as he was rushing to give a lecture on Balzac at the university.

His friend Mircea Eliade spent most of the war out of harm’s way working for the Antonescu regime at the Romanian embassy in London and then in Lisbon. After the war, he lectured widely in Europe on the history of religions. In 1956, he landed at the University of Chicago, where he spent the last thirty years of his life as a highly respected scholar, writing constantly, as usual, and, in his Autobiography, fashioning a new past for himself, free of any taint of anti-Semitism or involvement with the Iron Guard. The university rewarded him by endowing a Mircea Eliade Chair in the History of Religion. At least, it was not a chair in ethics.7

This Issue

October 4, 2001