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Mihail Sebastian: How a Jewish writer lived, loved and survived in WW2-era Romania

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By Orlando Crowcroft
German troops en masse on the march in Bucharest, Romania on Dec. 27, 1940
German troops en masse on the march in Bucharest, Romania on Dec. 27, 1940   -   Copyright  AP/1940 AP
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Mihail Sebastian’s 1933 novel Women receives just two mentions in the voluminous diaries that he kept in the last decade of his life, a time when his native Romania was - like most of Europe - descending into fascism and ultimately the violence of the Second World War.

In an entry made on 17 December 1935, Sebastian references Femei, as it was titled in Romanian, in a retelling of an argument with his girlfriend, Maryse, who is angry that a romantic gesture she had considered making had been made by one of the characters in the book. She abandons her plan, she jealously chides Sebastian, as “you’d have thought I was copying your heroine.”

The other comes a year later, in October 1936, in a very different context. Sebastian is at an event in Bucharest when a friend tells him that his novel had just been quoted by a speaker to make an anti-semitic argument. Sebastian confronts the speaker, not for his anti-semitism but because he believes he never wrote the words. Later he realises he did and telegrams the speaker to apologise.

For Two Thousand Years

That the novel - one of only four Sebastian wrote in his short life - receives only two mentions in his diaries is perhaps not unusual. He was just 25 when Women was published, and a year later would find both fame and notoriety with For Two Thousand Years, a vivid, unsettling novel about antisemitism and the life of a young Jewish student in Romania.

Sebastian began keeping a diary the following year until his death in 1945. Smuggled out of Communist Romania in the 1960s, his diaries were not published until 1996 and were a bombshell in his native country, forcing a national reckoning with the crimes perpetrated against the Jewish population during the 1930s and 1940s, and the culpability of ordinary Romanians in them.

Orlando Crowcroft
Mihail Sebastian's grave in BucharestOrlando Crowcroft

But equally the two references are telling. As well as documenting his life as a Jew in Nazi-controlled Europe, Sebastian’s diaries are filled with accounts of his love affairs with women, fallings out, misunderstandings, passions, reconciliations, all told with an endearing innocence. He is a young person in love, like any young person in love, in any place, during the best and worst times of history.

His relationships, particularly with a young actress, Leni, serve as a counterpoint to that violent, poisonous descent that Romania suffered between 1935 and 1945, when the country was allied with and eventually occupied by Nazi forces. Tens of thousands of Romanian Jews were deported to the Nazi death camps, where almost all perished.

It is the second reference that hints at this darker side of the life Sebastian, born Iosif Mendel Hechter, led in the years between the wars in Romania. Like his protagonist in For Two Thousand Years, he lived with anti-semitism daily first as a student and later as a playwright and lawyer. It was an everyday part of his life: the rhetoric and, increasingly as the 1920s turned into the 1930s, violence.

Anti-semitism

“‘Cowardly Jew’ [...]. I grew up with that shout, spat at me from behind,” Sebastian writes at the beginning of the book. “I’ve been beaten. That’s all I know [...]. I saw his raised fist. He was a stranger: perhaps it was the first time he’d laid eyes on me.”

It is not only the abuse and violence of strangers that is documented in his diaries, but that of those he knew. One by one in his friends, colleagues and mentors turn from intellectual bourgeois liberals to virulent and unapologetic anti-semites. He loses his job, his plays cannot be performed in theatres, and he grows more and more isolated. By the end, he is alone.

It is not just the fact that an intellectual in polite company in 1930s Bucharest would make an anti-semitic argument that intrigues about Sebastian’s reference to Women, but how Sebastian himself deals with it. He accosts the speaker over his accuracy of the metaphor (which - in Women - he had originally used to describe a state of post-coital satisfaction) and then apologises for his mistake.

It is the way he lived with anti-semitism that in many ways defined Sebastian’s short life, long before the horrors of the Holocaust. In 1934, Sebastian asked the philosopher Nae Ionescu to write a forward to For Two Thousand Years. When Ionescu turned in a vicious anti-semitic tract that insulted the author personally and Romanian Jews generally, Sebastian instructed his publisher to publish it.

AP/1936 AP
Romanian fascists, wearing Nazi emblems are shown marching in Bucharest, Nov. 8, 1936. (AP Photo)AP/1936 AP

Even after that Sebastian continued to venerate Ionescu, expressing genuine concern when he was detained in a labour camp for his involvement with the Iron Guard in the late 1930s and grieving when he died there in 1940. “Nervous, uncontrollable sobbing as I entered Nae Ionescu’s home yesterday morning, two hours after his death,” he wrote. “He is so dear to me.”

His diaries make frequent reference to one of his closest friends, Camil Petrescu, a playwright and novelist, who makes no effort to disguise his growing antisemitism from his Jewish friend. On one occasion, at a time when Sebastian risks being evicted from his flat as Jewish houses are requisitioned and for non-Jews, Petrescu expresses his anger to Sebastian that he has not received a house himself.

Like the speaker at the Bucharest event, one gets the impression from reading Sebastian’s work that although he never ceased to suffer from anti-semitism - nor, ever, did he excuse it - it was such a day to day facet of his life that he learned to live with it. In that, his work is an illumination of how easily a poisonous narrative becomes entrenched and accepted. It passes, as we say in modern parlance, ‘the dinner party test’, in that it can be said and not objected to in polite company.

The warning, then, of Sebastian’s work is to be vigilant against such rhetoric, however common-place it may be. Because we know, now, the horrors that it leads to.

'Paris of the East'

Having survived the war, Sebastian was hit by an army truck as he crossed the road in 1945 and killed. He fell into obscurity after his death, as Romania swapped fascist occupation for Communist dictatorship. Until the publication of his diaries - which had been smuggled out of Romania in a diplomatic pouch during the 1960s - he was little known in Romania, let alone outside.

But in the years since, Sebastian’s work has been discovered internationally. For Two Thousand Years was published in English in 2016 - in a translation by Philip O Ceallaigh, who also translated Women - and won critical acclaim. His prose was compared to Anton Chekov by the late playwright and essayist Arthur Miller. With the publication of Women, all four of his novels are now available in English.

As a novel, Women will provoke no national reckonings, nor will it force us to examine our prejudice and our history as his other work has done and continues to do. The book encapsulates a different era of Sebastian’s life - and indeed, of Romania’s.

His main protagonist, Stefan Valeriu, is young, idealistic, fearless, wistful, spending his summers in Paris or on the coast. He is of a generation of young Romanians who looked to Europe, who considered Bucharest the ‘Paris of the East’ and who was relatively optimistic about what was coming for himself, and for his generation.

It is difficult to read Women when you know what came next, the ugliness that was about to shatter the reveries of youth: the years of persecution, of war, of survival, only to be mown down in the street at just 37. But it is also a rare pleasure to read Sebastian like this. When life was simple and at a time when the storm clouds were gathering but had yet to unleash their fury on him, his country and the world.

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