Mihail Sebastian, circa 1930–1945

Costică Acsinte Archive, Romania

Mihail Sebastian, circa 1930–1945

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. 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of it is that the Journal (not published in Romania till 1996 and in English till 2000) is not only an invaluable historical document, fully as significant as the diaries of Victor Klemperer and Anne Frank, but also a beautifully shaped and subtly executed work of literary art.1 Never has the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. In the Journal he records how at a time when the private houses of Jews were being confiscated by the Romanian government and distributed to Gentile families, he chanced to meet his friend the novelist Camil Petrescu, who complained to him that he probably would not be given one of the 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?”

Sebastian chose as an epigraph for his novel the famous passage in Montaigne that opens with the declaration: “I not only dare to talk about myself but to talk of nothing but myself,” which is surely a conscious signal to the reader that the novel will be closely autobiographical. The book is divided into six parts, but really it has two: the first is a powerfully affecting opening section, ninety-odd pages long, recounting the horrors of the nameless protagonist’s time at university, where he and his fellow Jews are at the mercy of a relentlessly anti-Semitic student body: “I received two punches during today’s lectures and I took eight pages of notes. Good value, for two punches.” He recognizes the absolute necessity of holding on to his dignity:


If I cry, I’m lost. I’m still self-possessed enough to know that much. If I cry, I’m lost. Clench your fists, you fool, if necessary, believe yourself a hero, pray to God, tell yourself you’re the son of a race of martyrs, yes, yes, tell yourself that, knock your head against the wall, but if you want to be able to look at yourself in the mirror and not die of shame, don’t cry. That’s all I ask of you: don’t cry.

Like his creator, the protagonist (for convenience let us call him Iosef) is fully aware that the world he knows, the world he loves—“I’m out in the street. I see a beautiful woman. I see an empty carriage passing by. Everything is as it ought to be”—is coming to a disastrous end. He is not alone in this conviction. He attends, by accident—he is in hiding from a gang of students intent on beating him up yet again—a lecture on political economy by Ghiţă Blidaru, a lightly fictionalized portrait of Nae Ionescu, and takes notes on the philosopher’s electrifyingly exciting dicta on the collapse of contemporary society: “It’s not only the gold standard that has been lost,” Blidaru declares, “but any fixed relationship between our symbols and ourselves. There’s a gulf between man and his context.”

How is this gulf to be bridged? Most of Iosef’s Gentile friends glory in the prospect of a general collapse into chaos. Here is Ştefan Pârlea, a character closely based on Sebastian’s friend Emil Cioran:

Smashing windows is fine. Any act of violence is good. “Down with the Yids” is idiotic, agreed! But what does it matter? The point is to shake the country up a bit. Begin with the Jews—if there’s no other way. But finish higher up, with a general conflagration, with an all-consuming earthquake.

Iosef, and Sebastian too, as we know from the Journal, have ambiguous feelings about anti-Semitism. At one point, thinking back over his early accounts of what he experienced at the university, he says: “I reduced everything to the drama of being a Jew…. I was, I believe, two steps away from fanaticism.” He understands, and acknowledges, the springs of extremism in every heart, Gentile or Jewish, and wonders to what extent the Jews themselves invite the Gentile world’s resentment. “There is an eternal amity between us [Jews] and the fact of suffering,” he writes, and goes on to confess that “in my most lamentable moments, I have been surprised to recognize the mark of pride in this suffering, the indulging of a vague vanity.” He recognizes the cruelty and stupidity of anti-Semitism, but above all he despises it “for its lack of imagination,” for its reiteration of the same old accusations—“freemasonry, usury, ritual killing.” How paltry! he exclaims, and then offers an insight worthy of Kafka himself:

The most basic Jewish conscience, the most commonplace Jewish intelligence, will find within itself much graver sins, an immeasurably deeper darkness, incomparably more shattering catastrophes.

Reading sentences such as this, and there are others like it, in intent if not in intensity, one understands the accusations of anti-Semitism hurled at Sebastian by some of his Jewish readers. Yet such accusations themselves lack imagination. As his translator, Philip Ó Ceallaigh, has remarked, Sebastian “fears that he finds the psychology of victimhood far too attractive,” but while he has neither a wish to deny nor to be defined by his Jewishness, “he lives in a society determined to define him by this alone.” For Two Thousand Years was written in the early 1930s, and while its underlying tone is one of prophetic dread, its author could not have imagined the immensity of the tragedy that at the end of the decade was to befall Europe and the Jewish people.

In the annals of anti-Semitism, Romania holds a particularly egregious position. For example, it is estimated that 130,000 local Jews were slaughtered in Romanian-occupied Ukraine, and that Romanian forces massacred 150,000 Jews in the area of Odessa and Golta. In a pogrom in 1941, as Sebastian records in his Journal, Jews were herded into an abattoir and hanged by the neck on meat hooks. “A sheet of paper was stuck to each corpse: ‘Kosher Meat.’”

Of course, Romania was not unique in this regard. In the early years of Nazi conquests in Eastern Europe the ravening enthusiasm for pogroms among the indigenous populations of countries such as Poland, Lithuania, and Estonia startled even the SS. However, the detestation of Jews among all levels of Romanian society, particularly intellectuals, was unrelenting. Here is a typical outburst, recorded in the Journal in September 1939:


The Poles’ resistance in Warsaw is a Jewish resistance. Only yids are capable of the blackmail of putting women and children in the front line, to take advantage of the Germans’ sense of scruple…. What is happening on the frontier with Bukovina is a scandal, because new waves of Jews are flooding into the country. Rather than a Romania again invaded by kikes, it would be better to have a German protectorate.

Who might the speaker be? Some embittered partisan, perhaps, or a street-corner orator? No: the speaker is Mircea Eliade, one of Romania’s leading scholars and writers of the time, who after the war slipped away to America and there became a highly respected and influential thinker and historian of religions. In 1937 Eliade says of a left-wing student flogged by Iron Guardists that personally he would have put his eyes out as well. Sebastian writes, “Perhaps one day things will have calmed down enough for me to read this page to Mircea and to see him blush with shame.”

Similarly, although perhaps not as despicably, E.M. Cioran, the “Ştefan Pârlea” of Sebastian’s novel, threw in his lot with the Iron Guard, the Romanian fascist movement. Cioran was another expert at survival. When Marshal Ion Antonescu took power in 1940 and crushed the Iron Guard movement, his government appointed Cioran cultural attaché in Paris, where he sat out the war years in well-paid comfort and safety, and stayed on after the war to become a leading intellectual light of émigré life, “one of post-war Paris’s favorite nihilists,” as Ó Ceallaigh has pointedly observed. In the Journal, Sebastian describes meeting Cioran in January 1941, on the day of his appointment to Paris. “He was glowing,” Sebastian writes: the new attaché had just received his call-up papers, and now he will not have to fight. “So like this, everything has been solved. Do you see what I mean?” Yes, Sebastian thinks sadly, I see what you mean.

Cioran at least expressed regret later for having entered a “pact with the devil”; Eliade made an illustrious career for himself at the University of Chicago and never wrote a word of apology about his past as an Iron Guard ideologist, and in his autobiography even sought to justify his support for that appalling gang of thugs.

The one shining light among Sebastian’s circle is the playwright Eugène, originally Eugen, Ionesco—author of Rhinoceros, The Chairs—who abhorred and condemned anti-Semitism. Here is a Journal entry for October 1941:

Hitler spoke this afternoon. I was with Eugen [Ionesco]…around six o’clock, just when the speech was being broadcast. We went to the Buturugă (where there is a radio) and sat down at a table. I wanted to listen—but after a few seconds Eugen turned pale and stood up.

“I can’t take it! I can’t!”

He said this with a kind of physical desperation. Then he ran off, and of course we went after him. I felt I could have hugged him.

In its way, For Two Thousand Years is as much a condemnation of Romania, and especially Romanian intellectuals, in appalling times as is the Journal; indeed, one might say it is a novel written as a journal, while the Journal is a journal written as a novel.2

In the second section of the novel, beginning at what Sebastian designates Part Three, the tone changes radically, and the change is not always for the best. Five years have passed, and Iosef is working as an architect in the provinces, on an ambitious project under the direction of Mircea Vieru, “the master,” and financed by an American businessman, Ralph T. Rice, who has an oil-drilling contract from the Romanian government. Since the village of Uioara stands on the site of the oil field, Vieru has decided that the village “will be moved from its present location to one several kilometers to the right.” Reading the opening pages of this section, one finds oneself floundering somewhat, like a swimmer out of his depth and searching about for a rock to put his foot on. At times, it is as if Sebastian has set himself to write a tale in the manner of Somerset Maugham, with a light Proustian glaze and a dash of Scott Fitzgerald bitters.

We meet an English couple, the Duntons, Marjorie and Phillip. They do not love each other, Iosef observes, but they get on well enough, in what seems a very English sort of way. Marjorie—“She’s incredibly blonde—the white-blonde of corn straw”—has a gramophone and regularly receives batches of the latest records from home. The dialogue here is pure drawing-room comedy:

“If you’ll have me, I’ll come this evening.”

“Can’t this evening. We’re going to the Nicholsons’. Phill has promised a game of bridge. Come along yourself.”

The function of this little English colony is not made clear—Phillip Dunton is a technician employed by Ralph Rice, so presumably the other husbands also work in the oil business. Marjorie is loved, in vain and at a distance, by a shadowy, handsome young man named Pierre Dogany—“His strange head has both Semitic and Mongolian features”—and it seems too that at some point Iosef himself entertained a mild notion of her, but nothing came of it, and in the end she leaves her husband and marries, to everyone’s surprise and Iosef’s subdued chagrin, his colleague on the Uioara project, the rough-hewn womanizer Marin Dronţu.

All this seems entirely inconsequential, but all the same one has the niggling suspicion that Sebastian had deep though unachieved ambitions for his meandering tale of nostalgia, languid flirtation, and management squabbles—Vieru the architect and Ralph T. Rice are constantly at odds, and their exchanges will provoke in the reader at least a wan smile—and that he meant us to read it as a stylishly jaded study of contemporary manners.

In the end, however, the main themes reemerge. Iosef discovers, to his consternation and deep disappointment, that Vieru, his revered “master,” is yet another anti-Semite, just as virulent as all the others, though softer-spoken. The two men have a confrontation after Vieru remarks that he never sees Iosef in town, and Iosef answers that he cannot bear the poisoned atmosphere: “At every street corner, an apostle. And in every apostle, an exterminator of Jews.” He expects sympathetic indignation from the older man, but receives a violent shock when Vieru calmly responds by saying that “there is a Jewish problem, and it needs to be solved.”

Let’s be clear. I’m not anti-Semitic…. But I’m a Romanian. And, all that is opposed to me as a Romanian I regard as dangerous. There is a corrosive Jewish spirit. I must defend myself against it…. If the body of our state were strong, it would hardly bother me. But it’s not strong. It’s sinful, corruptible and weak. And this is why I must fight against the agents of corruption.

This is the beginning of a long and intricate exchange, and in places the reader can lose track of which of the participants is speaking. If this blurring effect is intentional on Sebastian’s part, then it is a brilliant ploy, for it lets us see yet again the extreme ambiguity in relations between Jews and non-Jews in Romania—and not only in Romania—in the interwar years. Iosef, like his creator in the Journal, understands anti-Semitism and even, to a startling degree, empathizes with it. Thus when we read a remark such as “The Jew has a metaphysical obligation to be detested. That’s his role in the world,” we assume it is Vieru speaking, untl we realize, to our shock, that in fact it is Iosef himself.

Yet in the end, Vieru’s calm logic and complacent, unshakable certainty make him a far more frightening figure even than Ghaiţă Blidaru or Ştefan Pârlea, with their overblown, sub-Nietzschean rantings. Vieru, we suddenly recall, is an architect: What will he be building when the trains with their fully laden cattle cars start trundling eastward? Yet even here, Iosef’s response is one of sadness more than anger, and at the end of this quietly terrifying conversation they part without a harsh word:

We both lit our cigarettes. We tried to talk, but it didn’t work—and it was late when we separated, a little embarrassed, with a truly warm handshake.

A little embarrassed…the beautiful restraint here is heartbreaking.

Yes, restraint is the defining mark of both the novel and the subsequent Journal, as it is of Sebastian’s personality, as it comes across to us in both books. In a truly atrocious time he refused to compromise on his duties as a civilized human being, while so many of those around him were throwing wood onto the pyre and dancing around it in manic and murderous delight. Even on the darkest pages he finds room for a graceful turn of phrase, a flash of wit, a gesture of understanding and forgiveness. He loved literature, and was widely read in three or four languages, yet his touch is always light.

Nor was he a dedicated burner of the midnight oil; he is forever bemoaning his lack of application to his literary work. He adores the sun, likes to lie on a beach doing nothing, or to go off to the mountains to ski. His love-life has all the intricacy of a Feydeau farce. In affairs of the heart he could be both waspish and witty: glimpsing a former girlfriend on a train with her husband, Iosef observes: “She’s still beautiful, which makes me happy about the past—but looks set to put on weight, which makes me happy about the future.”

As the years darken and catastrophe engulfs Europe, he comes more and more strongly to acknowledge his ancestry and all that it means. Expressing his contempt for those who urge him to convert to Catholicism as a way of escaping persecution, he writes in the Journal:

Somewhere on an island with sun and shade, in the midst of peace, security, and happiness, I would in the end be indifferent to whether I was or was not Jewish. But here and now, I cannot be anything else.

Sebastian survived the war largely because from early on the Romanian regime shrewdly saw that Germany would be defeated and switched its policy toward the Jews in hopes of placating the victorious Allies. His survival was cut short, however, in a way that is both tragic and banal. The final note in the Journal reads:

On 29 May 1945, Mihail Sebastian was hit and killed by a truck in downtown Bucharest.