“Mihail Sebastian’s Journal: The Fascist Years (1935-1944)” – Radu IOANID

On 29 May 1945, as he rushed to cross a street in downtown Bucharest, thirty-eight-year-old Mihail Sebastian, a press officer at the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was hit and killed by a truck. As it happened, Sebastian was late to an appointment at Dalles Hall where he was to teach a class about Honoré de Balzac.

The deceased had been born Iosif Hechter, in 1907, in Brăila on the Danube. At the time of his death he was well known in Bucharest literary and political circles as a writer of fiction and of literary criticism, and as the author of several successful plays. His sudden demise left his mother and brothers in a state of shock, while members of Bucharest high society shook their heads in disbelief. As time passed, a few former girlfriends thought fondly of him every now and then; here and there a literary critic mentioned his name; a theatre director occasionally staged one of his plays.

Eventually Sebastian’s name came to be associated chiefly with his plays, less so with his novels. A far lesser-known contribution to Sebastian’s legacy, however, was the diary he had written during the period 1935–1944, and which remained among his possessions when he died. In 1961, as Sebastian’s brother Benu emigrated from Romania to Israel, he shipped the diary out of the country via the diplomatic pouch of the Israeli embassy. Benu was right to be cautious; many manuscripts before (and since) had been confiscated by the Securitate, the Romanian secret police, only to disappear for many years if not forever.

Sebastian’s extraordinary diary was published for the first time in full in 1996 in Romanian, followed by a French edition in 1998. The diary was nothing short of a time bomb, its publication generating an explosive debate about the nature of Romanian anti-Semitism in general and about Romania’s role in the Holocaust in particular. Vasile Popovici, a literary critic, wrote upon reading the diary, “You cannot possibly remain the same. The Jewish problem becomes your problem. A huge sense of shame spreads over a whole period of national culture and history, and its shadow covers you, too.”

Sebastian’s diary spans a period that saw the rise of three successive anti-Semitic dictatorships in Romania, each more devastating for the country’s 759,000 Jews than its predecessor. This triad began with the regime of King Carol II (February 1938-September 1940), which was followed by the rule of Ion Antonescu in alliance with the fascist Iron Guard (September 1940-January 1941), and ended with Ion Antonescu as Conducător (Leader), ruling alone after having violently suppressed his erstwhile Iron Guard allies (1941–1944).

Sebastian’s diary is not the sole or even the first literary account of the Nazification of European society to emerge from the postwar years. Victor Klemperer’s diary, published under the title I Will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years, 1933–1945, also recounts the brutal and merciless way in which he was rejected by his native society simply because he was born Jewish. Also like Sebastian, Klemperer recorded and noted the systematic shrinking of the physical and intellectual freedom allowed to him as a consequence of Nazism. Still, while Klemperer wrote as a Jew in the heart of the Nazi Reich in Berlin, he was protected by his wife’s “Aryan” status and his own conversion. Sebastian wrote under Romanian fascism (which was characteristically different from German Nazism) and enjoyed no protection from the onslaught, having no “Aryan” relatives and refusing to convert. It is worth noting that this seems to have been a matter of principle for Sebastian. Although he felt few religious ties to Judaism, he scorned the reaction of his fellow Jews who saw baptism as the only possible solution to escape deportation: “Go over to Catholicism! Convert as quickly as you can! The Pope will defend you! He’s the only one who can still save you. . Even if it were not so grotesque, even if it were not so stupid and pointless, I would still need no arguments. 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. Nor do I think I want to be.” At the height of the anti-Jewish persecution in September 1941, Sebastian went to the synagogue because he wanted to be with his fellow Jews: “Rosh Hashanah. I spent the morning at the Temple. I heard Şafran [chief rabbi of Romania] who was nearing the end of his address. Stupid, pretentious, essayistic, journalistic, shallow and unserious. But people were crying — and I myself had tears in my eyes.”

It is not only in terms of their “Jewishness” that Klemperer and Sebastian are distinct (and thus too the perspective they brought to their diaries). Perhaps more important was their differing surroundings and the very nature of the fascist movements they endured. If Klemperer survived because of the legalistic technicalities of Nazi definitions of “Jewry,” Sebastian survived due to the particularly opportunistic nature of the Romanian fascist regime. For like almost half of Romanian Jewry, Sebastian remained alive until 1944 only because in the eleventh hour the Romanian authorities changed their tactics, and even their position, on the so-called “Jewish problem.” When Marshal Antonescu, and others whose voices counted at the time, realized that Romania, which was allied with Nazi Germany, might not be on the winning side in the war, he and his minions ceased deporting and killing Romanian Jews. Thus Romanian Jewry, which had been targeted for extermination between the years 1941 and 1942, abruptly became a bargaining chip, a means by which the Romanian authorities could hope to buy the goodwill of the Allies and soften the postwar repercussions of defeat. Sebastian’s diary is, among its many other attributes, a compelling chronicle of the years during which the collective fate of Romanian Jews hung by a thread.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Bucharest, where Sebastian lived and died, was affectionately referred to as “little Paris.” Filled with charm and personality, Bucharest was also a modern city, electric lighting having been introduced in 1899, one year after the French architect Albert Galleron built the impressive Ateneu Roman concert hall. Beautiful boulevards such as the Calea Victoriei were lined with private palaces and sumptuous hotels, among them the famous Athenée Palace. On the same street a New York-style skyscraper owned by ITT faced the popular restaurant Capşa. Electric streetcars provided public transportation throughout the city, and elegant automobiles carried their owners to meetings for business or pleasure. Bucharest was cosmopolitan, and its upper classes traveled to Paris and Vienna, dressing in the fashions of the West. An aristocracy in decline and a rising bourgeoisie competed with each other for wealth and prestige, and the symbols of their fortunes and status were very much on display. Modern villas dotted the northern part of the city, near the beautiful Herăstrău Park. Bucharest had many other wonderful green spaces too, among them Cişmigiu Park, copied from New York’s Central Park, and Parcul Libertapi, designed by the French architect Eduard Redont. Winters were quite cold and summers too hot in Bucharest, but resorts in the Carpathian Mountains and on the Black Sea were only a few hours’ ride by train or car. Like any other capital city, Bucharest had its share of museums, art galleries, universities, newspapers, public and private schools, and, of course, intellectuals.

Ever a city of contrasts, however, Bucharest’s high society mingled in the streets with their less fortunate neighbors from the middle class, with barefoot peasants from Oltenia who delivered milk and cheese, and with Bulgarian gardeners who sold fresh vegetables. Quite unlike the city precincts of elegant villas and hotels, Bucharest’s suburbs contained ugly industrial enterprises and neighborhoods where the lower middle class and poor lived in cheap houses, often situated on unpaved streets. Here and there Eastern markets and a certain way of dealing reminded foreign visitors that “little Paris” was in fact closer to the Levant than many Romanians wished to acknowledge.

An image of this colorful and now vanished world is captured in the pages of Sebastian’s diary. It is not simply a Holocaust memoir but the journal of a life in transit. He wrote about his daily life in Bucharest, his love affairs, his vacations, and the musical performances — especially symphonies — that he adored. Sebastian was so much in love with music, especially with Beethoven and Bach, that it sometimes became more important to him than his admittedly active romantic life. He was twenty-eight years old when he began the diary, already famous following the publication of his book De două mii de ani (For Two Thousand Years) and for the viciously anti-Semitic foreword to the book that had been written by his mentor, Nae Ionescu. Sebastian was an assimilated Romanian Jewish intellectual who struggled to write seriously and to find an existential sense to his life. His accounts of his relationships with his mother and two brothers are personal and intimate, as are his descriptions of his intense and not always happy love life. An avid reader, he especially loved Proust, Gide, Balzac, and Shakespeare.

In addition to its personal side, Sebastian’s diary also chronicles the social and political life of the Romanian capital between 1935 and 1944. Sebastian socialized with rich and famous liberal aristocrats, with genuine democrats and reptilian opportunists, with Zionist Jews and Communist Jews, and with actors, novelists, and literary critics. He wrote his novels and plays in Bucharest but also in the not far distant Bucegi Mountains. He took vacations on the Black Sea and sometimes traveled abroad, especially to France.

Sebastian had a strange destiny. He belonged to a group of gifted young intellectuals close to the newspaper Cuvântul, who started out as nonconformist and relatively liberal. When Cuvântul was transformed into the official newspaper of the Iron Guard, many of Sebastian’s friends drifted with their common mentor, Nae Ionescu, toward Romanian fascism. While many of Sebastian’s references to his friends and colleagues from this group seem benign at first, the diary ends up capturing Romanian democracy — and many of Sebastian’s former friends — in a free fall toward fascism. As Sebastian noted during the early war years, his life was becoming increasingly narrow. Many of his “friends” deserted him, and escalating anti-Semitic legislation made him a pariah.

Romanian politics between the two world wars were slightly more democratic than those of Bulgaria, Hungary, or Poland. The government was an outright model of democracy compared to the fascist and Communist dictatorships that were to follow it. Still, policy between the wars generally was controlled by the will of the monarch. When the king grew displeased with his prime minister, the crown nominated a replacement from the ranks of the opposition. That more malleable nominee, now beholden to the king, was given the task of organizing elections, an arrangement that not surprisingly almost always resulted in the nominee’s political party gaining a comfortable majority in parliament. In practical terms, Romania after World War I was a fledgling democracy, inevitably at risk of being tempted by Europe’s rising totalitarianism.

Anti-Semitism, which always had been a predominant characteristic of modern Romania, further affected this shaky democracy. Throughout the nineteenth century, Romanian politicians and intelligentsia were heavily anti-Semitic; even the considerable constitutional and political changes brought about by World War I (i.e., the adoption of a modern constitution and of nominal suffrage) did not alter this basic feature. Despite decades of pressure from the Western powers, Romania refused to grant legal equality to its Jews until 1923, and then grudgingly. After 1929, against the backdrop of recurrent economic crises, the so-called “Jewish question” took on an increasingly mass character, such that anti-Semitic activities were not solely the work of radical organizations. Both mainstream and fascist parties exploited anti-Semitic agitation. Intellectuals too entered the debate; those oriented toward the fascist Iron Guard were naturally in the forefront of anti-Semitic campaigns against Romanian Jews. In addition to radical solutions to the “Jewish problem,” they advocated replacing democracy with a Nazi-like regime possessed of a distinctly Romanian flavor. For all the changes wrought throughout the course of modern Romania, anti-Semitism has been a consistent and dominant element, and remains widespread in intellectual circles to this day.

The tragedy of the Romanian intelligentsia in the period between the world wars was that rather than trying to improve an imperfect political system, they chose to throw it overboard, instead linking themselves with totalitarian personalities and systems. The political scientist George Voicu aptly described Romania’s late-1930s abandonment of the Western political model: “The dictatorships that followed (royal, Iron Guard-military, military, and Communist) were not significantly opposed [by the Romanian intellectuals] because sociologically the ground had been prepared: somehow a political culture permissive if not in sync with these solutions appeared.” It is exactly this civic desertion, this “Nazification” of Romanian society, that Sebastian witnessed and documented. Captured in this diary, it constitutes one of its most important aspects.

The mâitre à penser of the Iron Guard intellectual generation was Nae Ionescu (no relation to the playwright Eugen Ionescu). The “grey eminence” and one of the principal ideologists of the Iron Guard, Nae Ionescu taught philosophy at the University of Bucharest and later was paid for his pro-Nazi activities by I. G. Farben. He was described by his contemporaries as inconsistent, unscrupulous, opportunistic, and cynical. In the late 1920s, Nae Ionescu, who had already become an influential intellectual but was not yet an Iron Guard ideologist, “discovered” and published the works of Mihail Sebastian. Sebastian never forgot this support and for this reason repeatedly sought a rationale to excuse and explain his early mentor.

One of Sebastian’s fundamental choices was to consider himself a Romanian rather than a Jew, a natural decision for one whose spirit and intellectual production belonged to Romanian culture. He soon discovered with surprise and pain that this was an illusion: both his intellectual benefactor and his friends ultimately rejected him only because he was Jewish.

The first big disappointment came from Nae Ionescu. Asked in 1934 by Mihail Sebastian to write a preface to his book De două mil de ani, Ionescu wrote a savagely anti-Semitic piece. He explained to Sebastian and his readers that a Jew could not belong to any national community. As he put it, “Belonging to a particular community is not an individual choice. . 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 closer to it. Germany carried on the war due to the activity of two Jews, Haber and Rathenau. Through this, however, Haber and Rathenau did not become Germans. They served, but from outside, from outside the walls of the German spiritual community. Is this unfair? The question has no sense: it is a fact.” Nae Ionescu warned Sebastian not even to 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 are a Jew from Brăila on the Danube.” Sebastian nevertheless chose to publish Ionescu’s anti-Semitic preface, but he responded in a later book with anger and sadness.

Sebastian understood that Nae Ionescu was an opportunist even when it came to his Iron Guard credo, yet the Jewish writer continued to have mixed feelings for the fascist philosopher—“fondness, irritation, doubts, repugnance.” When in May 1938 Nae Ionescu was arrested and interned in a concentration camp precisely for his activities as a leader of the Iron Guard, Sebastian was distressed and worried. He continued to try to explain Ionescu’s political actions as a “miscalculation,” due to “half farce, half ambition.” In March 1940, when Nae Ionescu died, Sebastian sobbed uncontrollably, viewing his death as a defeat and an injustice.

Nae Ionescu and his followers hoped that the Iron Guard ideology, with its odd mixture of anti-capitalism, anti-Semitism, and anti-communism, would constitute the solution to Romania’s problems. Nae Ionescu, as the political scientist Marta Petreu put it, “prepared and influenced part of the young intellectuals towards the Christian-Orthodox legionary ideology. It is certain that Nae Ionescu’s influence had an impact on the most cultivated segment of the young pro-legionary intelligentsia. . In the articles of the young legionary intellectuals one finds all the ingredients of this doctrine: attacks against the democratic state and against liberalism, the assertion of heavy nationalism, the rejection of the Western world, the idea of the legionary dictatorship, the ongoing national revolution (following the model of the ongoing fascist revolution), the exaltation of the Orthodox Christianity, etc. The more obscure and mystical an idea of the legionary doctrine, the more successful it was with the pro-legionary young intelligentsia.” Sebastian’s diary provides a sort of x-ray of this barbarization of the Romanian intelligentsia during these dictatorships. By 1937 Sebastian no longer preserved many illusions about his friends who had become members of the Iron Guard. Still, he continued to socialize with them, acknowledging in his diary how painful the situation was becoming.

Anti-Semitism was a prevailing theme in the writings of these young intellectuals. They blamed the Jews for everything they perceived to be wrong in Romanian society: liberalism, poverty, syphilis, alcoholism, communism, prostitution, procurement, abortion, homosexuality, socialism, feminism. Before the appearance of the first Romanian anti-Semitic government, Sebastian witnessed the increase in anti-Semitism not only among the Romanian intelligentsia but on the streets of Bucharest itself. In June 1936 he vividly described this phenomenon, advocating Jewish self-defense as a response. When the anti-Semitic Goga-Cuza government was installed at the very end of 1937, Sebastian saw immediately where the country was heading, noting that official speeches as reported in the press for the first time contained the terms “yid” and “Judah’s domination.” He correctly anticipated the review of citizenship for Jews and rightly predicted that he would lose his job because he was a Jew.

One of Sebastian’s closest friends, Mircea Eliade, became rabidly anti-Semitic under the influence of the Iron Guard. A well-known journalist and novelist in Romania between the wars, after World War II Eliade made an exceptional career for himself at the University of Chicago as a historian of religions. Unlike other famous representatives of his generation, however, Eliade never acknowledged his past as an Iron Guard ideologist and is not known ever to have expressed regret for his involvement with this fascist organization.

In the Romanian press Eliade published stridently anti-Semitic attacks. “Is it possible,” he asked, “that the Romanian nation will end in the most miserable disintegration in history, eaten by poverty and syphilis, invaded by Jews and torn by aliens, demoralized, betrayed and sold for a few million lei?” This outburst from December 1937 was characteristic. About two months earlier, Eliade had plunged into a long xenophobic exhortation, reproaching the authorities for their tolerance toward the Jews, writing, “We didn’t lift a finger while we watched the Jewish element strengthening in the Transylvanian towns. . Since the war the Jews have invaded the villages of Maramures and Bukovina and have obtained an absolute majority in all Bessarabian cities. . I very well know that the Jews will shout that I am an anti-Semite and the democrats that I am a hooligan or a fascist. I am not a bit annoyed when I hear the Jews shouting: ‘anti-Semitism,’ ‘fascism,’ ‘Hitlerism.’”

In typical Iron Guard fashion, Mircea Eliade called for violence against the adversaries of his movement. In 1936 he erupted during a conversation with Sebastian, advocating the execution of the pro-Western Romanian foreign minister Nicolae Titulescu: “He should be riddled with bullets. Strung up by the tongue.”

If in 1936 Sebastian was still trying to “do everything possible to keep” Eliade as a friend, by March 1937 he seemed to acknowledge that such a friendship was becoming impossible: “We don’t see each other for days at a time — and when we do, we no longer have anything to say.” During the same years Sebastian described himself as “horrified” that Eliade had participated in the Iron Guard electoral campaign. At the same time, when in August 1938 Eliade was arrested for his Iron Guard activities, Sebastian worried and explained Eliade’s behavior as “childish nonsense.” Friends in high positions soon appointed Eliade to positions abroad, where he remained out of harm’s way.

When Eliade was appointed to diplomatic posts (first in London and then in Lisbon), Sebastian wrote bitterly about his friend who, as he saw it, had betrayed him and who never visited him during the war. Successes, even when resulting from moral infamy, remain successes,” Sebastian wrote. Eliade’s opportunism is perhaps best revealed by the fact that he served in three conflicting governments, one right after another, beginning with the dictatorship of King Carol II, who executed C. Z. Codreanu (the leader of the Iron Guard and Eliade’s idol) and whose regime eventually put Eliade into a camp. Eliade also served General Antonescu’s governments, with and without the Iron Guard.

Another strong supporter of the Iron Guard among Sebastian’s friends was E. M. Cioran, a brilliant writer and philosopher who in his Parisian exile after the war would openly regret his “pact with the devil.” Earlier, with fascism ascending, he had written, “There are few people, even in Germany, who have a greater admiration for Hitler than I do.” Despite this, Sebastian described him in January 1941 as “interesting, remarkably intelligent, unprejudiced, and with cynicism and idleness combined in an amusing manner.”

Dinu (Constantin) Noica, a thinker who after the war created a non-Communist school of thought that was tolerated by the Ceausescu regime, joined the Iron Guard in December 1938; he too was a friend of Sebastian. In autumn 1940 he found himself in power with his fellow Legionaries. Noica then admonished Romania to discover anti-Semitism before it was too late, and he spread the ultra-nationalistic hate doctrine of a murderous regime that he claimed he would never disavow.

Like Sebastian’s other friends, the theatre director Haig Acterian became an active member of the Iron Guard, participating in the January 1941 anti-Antonescu rebellion that, in its anti-Semitic excesses, could be said to be Romania’s equivalent of Germany’s Kristallnacht. In 1936 Sebastian was amazed by Acterian’s adoration of Corneliu Codreanu, the Iron Guard leader, reminding himself that “in 1932, Haig was a Communist.” As Sebastian’s diary unfolds, the reader senses his vanishing hope that what was happening to his friends was nothing more than an accident, that they would again become “normal” people.

If Eliade, Cioran, Noica, and Acterian had the minimal decency to refrain from openly displaying their anti-Semitism in front of Sebastian, the same cannot be said of Acterian’s wife, Marietta Sadova, who was described by Sebastian in 1936 as a future “Leni Riefenstahl in a state run by Zelea Codreanu.” “Choking with anti-Semitism,” she shouted in Sebastian’s presence, “The yids are to blame. . they take the bread from our mouths; they exploit and smother us. They should get out of here. This is our country, not theirs. Romania for the Romanians!”

Sebastian was exasperated and puzzled by the fascist fanaticism of his friends, but he persisted in his efforts to offer a rational explanation for their “barbarous mistake.” In 1937 he still believed there was “more blindness than humbug in their camp, and perhaps more good faith than imposture.” In 1939, when King Carol II violently suppressed the Iron Guard following the assassination of his prime minister, Armand Calinescu, executing hundreds of members of the Iron Guard in reprisal, Sebastian was pained by this repression and continued to feel sorry for his ex-friends.

In 1945 the famous playwright Eugen Ionescu, who was a close and unwavering friend of Sebastian’s, wrote of the Iron Guard generation, “We were morally rotten and miserable. . In terms of me, I cannot reproach myself for being a fascist. But the others can be reproached for this. Mihail Sebastian kept a lucid mind and an authentic humanity. Cioran is here in exile. He admits that he was wrong during his youth. It is difficult for me to pardon him. Mircea Eliade arrives these days: in his eyes everything is lost since ‘communism won.’ He is truly guilty. And he and Cioran and Vulcanescu, and this imbecile Noica and many others are the victims of the odious defunct Nae Ionescu. Because of him all became fascists. . He created a stupid and horrendous reactionary Romania.”

Sebastian’s close friend the well-known novelist Camil Petrescu was not a member of the Iron Guard, but he reflected perhaps better than anyone else the Nazification and opportunism displayed by much of the Romanian intelligentsia. Sebastian was fond of Petrescu and called him “one of the finest minds in Romania. . one of the most sensitive creatures in Romania.” Like Marietta Sadova, Petrescu did not bother to hide his anti-Semitism from Sebastian. Unlike Sadova, however, he was not filled with hate; he was a smiling and casual anti-Semite. Petrescu told Sebastian that because of the Jews’ nationalism and communism (which Petruscu considered “Jewish imperialism”), they were the real source of anti-Semitism. Later, during the war, Petrescu bought into the Antonescu regime’s official anti-Semitic propaganda clichés, holding the Jews responsible for Romania’s military misfortunes and therefore blaming them for their own tragic fate. According to Petrescu, the Jews, especially the Americans, were also guilty for the continuation of the war because they were making compromise impossible.

Of course not all of Sebastian’s friends were sensitive or insensitive anti-Semites. Antoine Bibescu helped Sebastian during his military service and refused to allow anyone to utter anti-Semitic allusions in Sebastian’s presence. During the summer of 1941, when massive anti-Semitic measures were being implemented in Romania, Madeleine Andronescu, another friend of Sebastian’s, told him how ashamed she was for the humiliation being forced on the Jews. A good friend of Sebastian, the diplomat and politician Constantin Vişoianu (later one of the leaders of Romanian post-World War II emigration to the United States), whom Sebastian did not think of as a sentimentalist, said something similar to Sebastian after witnessing a group of Jews in the street: “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 of this.’” Alexandra Rosetti, Sebastian’s benefactor, advised, indeed almost ordered Sebastian to leave Romania for Palestine via Bulgaria and Turkey in 1941, during the height of the deportations of Jews from Bessarabia and Bukovina to Transnistria. Titu Devechi, another good friend, warned him about the massive dimensions of the carnage against the Jews in Bessarabia and Bukovina. In January 1942, in Rosetti’s home, Sebastian heard another prominent Romanian intellectual, Andrei Otetea, speak with “emotion, stupefaction and occasional fury” about the Iasi pogrom in which twelve thousand Jews were killed and which Otetea called “the most bestial day in human history.”

Sebastian described with fascinating accuracy the Romanian Holocaust as it unfolded around him. In Bucharest he experienced serious discrimination but he was never deported to a concentration camp. Unlike the Jews from Bessarabia, Bukovina, and Transnistria, who were deported and massacred in great numbers, Sebastian’s torture took the form of forced labor, confiscations of property, restrictions on his ability to work and earn a living, heavy fines, and tiny food rations. Still, since he was not ghettoized, Sebastian remained in a position to witness the persecution of his less fortunate fellow Jews from Romania’s periphery, and to see how Romanian society reacted to the Holocaust.

He filled his diary with rich details (later confirmed by archival documents) of the conditions under which the deportations of Jews from Bessarabia and Bukovina to Transnistria took place during the summer and fall of 1941. At the peak of the deportations, Sebastian knew full well how the Jews were being sent over the Dniester: “The roads in Bessarabia and Bukovina are filled with corpses of Jews driven from their homes towards Ukraine. Old and sick people, children, women — all quite indiscriminately pushed onto the roads and driven toward Mogilev. Already the number of Jews murdered since June is in excess of 100,000.” The diary describes in like detail how the Jews from Gura Humorului and Dorohoi were deported in just a few hours.

Sebastian lived through all these events in a “dazed stupor,” with “no room for feelings, gestures or words.” Like a photographer, he recorded the “nervous animation,” “the pale faces,” the “mute despair that has become a kind of Jewish greeting,” the “small groups of pale, famished, ragged Jews, carrying wretched bundles or sacks.” Well informed through his high-ranking Romanian friends, Sebastian even knew how American authorities saw Romania’s role in the war against the Soviet Union, as they did Romanian responsibility in the Holocaust.

Sebastian quickly grasped the essence of the state anti-Semitism of the Antonescu regime. In August 1941 he observed, “Everyone is a cog in the huge anti-Semitic factory that is the Romanian state.” In October that year: “Organized anti-Semitism is going through one of its darkest phases. Everything is too calculated for effect, too obviously stage-managed, not to have a political significance.” Earlier he had described the chaotic way in which these “organized” Romanian anti-Semitic acts were carried out.

On 23 August 1944, Antonescu’s regime was overthrown by King Michael and an alliance of several political parties. Sebastian now felt a huge sense of relief, knowing that his life was no longer in danger. But, like many Jews, he was torn between the joy of seeing the liberating Red Army and the plunder that the same army brought with it. One week after the liberation, Sebastian wrote about his elation but also about his “bewilderment, fear, doubt” concerning the liberators who raped, robbed, and looted. At the same time he was already disgusted with the opportunism of the “new ally” (Romania) of the anti-Axis coalition. “In the end,” he wrote, “the Russians are within their rights. The locals are disgusting— Jews and Romanians alike.” One week after liberation, Sebastian strongly criticized the newly ascendant Communist ideology and refused to work for the Communist newspaper Romania Liberă and its “editorial committee terrorized by conformity.”

The considerable debate generated by Sebastian’s diary after its first Romanian edition in 1996, brilliantly edited by Leon Volovici, showed once again that anti-Semitism remains a fundamental element of Romanian culture — called by George Voicu a “culture of idols and taboos.” The idols are essentially the same extreme right intellectuals with whom Sebastian socialized. The taboos prohibit any serious critical examination of these idols. A few days before his death in 1997, Petru Cretia, a distinguished Romanian intellectual, wrote, “I have seen irrefutable [evidence of the] fury aroused by Sebastian’s Journal and of the feeling that lofty national values are besmirched by such calm, sad, and forgiving revelations on the part of a fair-minded (often angelic) witness.” Under these circumstances, it remains difficult if not impossible to engage in a serious discussion about any challenge to Romania’s self-image and selfdefinition as a nation of eternal victims, never perpetrators.

Much of the Romanian intelligentsia keeps alive a mainstream cultural anti-Semitism that is perhaps more subtle but no less dangerous. Since the Holocaust it has become more difficult for some of these intellectuals to be at once openly pro-Western and anti-Semitic. And they often depend on recognition and funding provided by the West. Nevertheless their anti-Semitic message remains obvious. Thus while mainstream Romanian anti-Semitic intellectuals do not deny the Holocaust, they barely acknowledge it, and do so only in order to compare it with the crimes of communism. Many pay lip service to Jewish suffering caused by the Holocaust, only to charge immediately that these same Jewish victims were guilty of bringing communism to Eastern Europe and becoming the new perpetrators. Some also allege that a powerful Jewish lobby maintains a monopoly on suffering and thus denies the victims of the Gulag their right to memorials and commemorations. In a March 1998 article, Nicolae Manolescu suggested that Jews sought to monopolize the process of “unmasking the crime against humanity.” He also said that “indirect evidence supporting my suspicion is the trial in France against Garaudy, who did not say that there was no Holocaust, but only that a terrible lobby was organized around it. Well the loss of the monopoly over this specific issue seems to make some people nervous. It is not correct and it is immoral,” he wrote, “to cover the mouths of the millions of victims of communism fearing that not enough people will remain to mourn the victims of Nazism.”

The novelist Norman Manea, a survivor from Transnistria whose article in the New Republic in April 1998, “The Incompatibilities,” triggered the debate over Sebastian’s diary, and Michael Shafir, a political scientist who analyzed this debate, have elicited vitriolic attacks in Romania. Dumitru Tsepenag, a Romanian dissident under communism, has observed that the authors of these types of attacks are responsible for the likelihood that Romania will continue to carry the “infamous tag of an anti-Semitic country.” George Voicu has noted that many Romanian intellectuals refuse to acknowledge that “the cultural anti-Semitism of the Romanians is in fact an issue of the Romanian culture, not a ‘Jewish issue’; not at all a secondary issue but an essential one. Those whose duty is to research it, to assess it, to solve it, are primarily the Romanian intellectuals. As long as Romanian intellectuals see this issue as a secondary, irrelevant, embarrassing, entertainment-value topic, or even more disturbingly, as an anti-national or false issue that when tackled amounts to a sacrilege, as long as Romanian culture remains under the pressure of idolatrous complexes pulling it back to an obsolete era, Romania will be condemned to a peripheral, exotic status, pervious only in the tiniest degree to the values of European and universal culture.” As Sebastian himself put it in his diary in August 1944, a week after the overthrow of the Antonescu regime and a few months before his death, “Romania will regain its senses when the problem of responsibility is posed in earnest. Otherwise, it would all be too cheap.”

IOANID, Radu, Introduction. In SEBASTIAN, Mihail, Journal (1935-1944): The Fascist Years. Transl. by Patrick Camiller. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2000.


Hailed as one of the most important portrayals of the dark years of Nazism, this powerful chronicle by the Romanian Jewish writer Mihail Sebastian aroused a furious response in Eastern Europe when it was first published. A profound and powerful literary achievement, it offers a lucid and finely shaded analysis of erotic and social life, a Jew s diary, a reader s notebook, a music-lover s journal. Above all, it is an account of the rhinocerization of major Romanian intellectuals whom Sebastian counted among his friends, including Mircea Eliade and E.M. Cioran, writers and thinkers who were mesmerized by the Nazi-fascist delirium of Europe s reactionary revolution. In poignant, unforgettable sequences, Sebastian follows the grinding progression of the machinery of brutalization and traces the historical context in which it developed. Despite the pressure of hatred and horror in the huge anti-Semitic factory that was Romania in the years of World War II, his writing maintains the grace of its perceptive and luminous intelligence. The legacy of a journalist, novelist, and playwright, Sebastian s Journal stands as one of the most important human and literary documents of the climate that preceded the Holocaust in Eastern Europe. Published in association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum”

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