‘You have to hang on’

Eugen Weber

In June 1934, a young Romanian Jew published a book about being a Jew in Romania. Mihail Sebastian’s De Doua mii de ani (‘For 2000 Years’) was not an autobiography or a novel or a diary, although a bit of each. The hero, who is never named, lives the tragicomedy of assimilation in a land and a culture that both invite and repel. A rich country full of ragged people, Romania uneasily combined a 19th-century rural and suburban servitude with the sophistication of 20th-century Paris fashions and very mod mod cons. Politics was about patronage: Parliament was a den of time-servers and leeches, democracy a word but not an option, the monarchy a plaster on a wobbly leg. Home-bred troubles are better blamed on others, and the blame for arrogance and intellectual brilliance amid the wretchedness was assigned to Jews.

Even the well-intentioned saw Jews as a problem, and even the Jews, hardened to animosity, found the animadversions hard to bear. Sebastian himself shared the sentiments of a Magyar friend who by most criteria would have been better off away from Hungarian anti-semitism and the numerus clausus: ‘I feel that I would stifle if I didn’t live there, in that atmosphere, with those people. You have to understand: they are my memories, my language, my culture . . . It is not pleasant, sometimes it’s humiliating. But when you really love something, you love what is good and what is bad in a place. This too shall pass one day.’ It doesn’t pass, however. Like the maimed king Amfortas waiting to be touched by the Holy Spear, Sebastian’s hero lives with his open wound: ‘the consciousness of the sin of being a Jew’.

The error of the Jews, he reflects, is that they observe too much and think that they, too, are being observed, whereas the world is indifferent to them. So ‘try not to suffer. Do not give in to the relish of suffering. There’s great voluptuousness in persecution, and feeling wronged is probably the vainest of intimate pleasures. Be careful not to indulge in it.’

Other ‘Jewish’ novels had been published in Romania, but they had all met with public indifference. Sebastian’s novel might have shared their fate had it not been for its introduction, written by a well-known contemporary anti-semite, Nae Ionescu. Ionescu’s venomous preface, made more sensational by its context, wasn’t commissioned by the book’s publisher, as a footnote declares, but by its author, a longtime protégé of Ionescu’s. In 1931, returning from a spell of study in Paris determined to write a Jewish novel, Sebastian had asked his ‘director of conscience’ to write a preface to it. Cuvântul, the daily newspaper which Ionescu edited, was no more hostile to Jews than other publications. It mostly attacked the banks, the venal oligarchy and the no less venal police force that ruled the country. Ionescu himself had written appreciatively of Jews who ‘enriched the spiritual patrimony of mankind’, and had denied any nation’s right to oppress its minorities. But that was in the 1920s, and circumstances alter cases.

Ionescu was a professor of philosophy whose writings were crammed with references to Western literature and philosophy, who bought his clothes in London, his toiletries in Paris, his linen in Vienna and his Mercedes in Germany. He had started out as a Maurrasian monarchist and nationalist. Anti-rationalist, anti-capitalist, anti-Communist, he had long rejected anti-semitism as too negative, and adopted it only as an adjunct to a new-found românism and its Orthodox Christian spirit. He laid the country’s corruption and decay at the door of alien Western models ill-suited to Moldo-Wallachians, and fulminated against those persistent vectors of alienation: Jews. Jews could be good citizens, obey the law, pay taxes, serve in the Army, fight in wars. That made them ‘good Romanians’: it did not make them Romanians – organically connected to the soil and spirit of the race.

By 1933, Ionescu was dismissing assimilation as a sinister farce, a view he repeated in the rather convoluted introduction he handed Sebastian just in time for the book’s publication. Its gist was what Ionescu had been arguing for the past three years: a Jew could be, could feel, as Romanian as he liked; he would always be fundamentally a Jew. However sincere his supposed assimilation, however troubling anti-semitism might be to people who believed themselves to be truly Romanian, the ancient acrimony was a reminder that Jews had a different history, which included their rejection of Christ. From this predicament there could be no way out: ‘A problem implies a solution. Is there a solution to the Jewish problem?’ No there wasn’t. ‘The Jews suffer because they are Jews; they would stop being Jews when their suffering stops; they can’t escape suffering except by ceasing to be Jewish.’ But they can’t cease, said Ionescu, and Sebastian won’t: only the cold and the darkness awaited him.

In the introduction Ionescu addressed Sebastian by his real name: Joseph Hechter. Born in 1907 in Braila, on the Danube, Hechter had been a reader from the first: Maeterlinck at seven, Daudet, Dostoevsky, Maupassant, Sienkiewicz at nine, Munchhausen at ten, Barbusse, Conan Doyle. He was in love with literature, with the theatre and with poetry. Once he started writing, he collected rejection slips but got his first article into print before graduating from high school, and signed it Mihail Sebastian. Impressed by the boy’s style and cultivation, Ionescu, also a native of Braila, invited him to join the newspaper he edited in Bucharest.

Cuvântul (‘Word’) was one of a slew of political and literary dailies published in the years when paper and printing costs were low; its stable was full of bright young men, including Mircea Eliade (also born in 1907). Hechter jumped at the chance to leave his provincial backwater. He studied law, wrote frenetically, made friends, gossiped, travelled a lot on a free rail pass, learned to ski, slalomed through flirtations as he did through books (‘always a new Odette, a new Rachel’), and became a regular editor on the paper. Then, with Ionescu’s help, he got a Government grant to pursue his law studies in Paris.

By the time he returned, in 1931, Romanian politics had become more contentious. Previously, it had mostly been about gaining access to the public trough, but now a postwar generation, puerile, violent, romantic, shifted the skirmishing into the streets. Founded by the charismatic Corneliu Codreanu in the 1920s, the Legion of the Archangel Michael (also known as the Iron Guard) was a fellowship of poor students, patriots, brutes and dreamers close to the peasant roots that most Romanians shared, and heavily invested in the symbolism of Orthodox Christianity. The misery and discontent of the Depression turned the Legion into a mass movement. Codreanu and his followers had no platform (‘the country dies for lack of men, not programmes’) apart from demanding fraternity, dedication and sacrifice. And anti-semitism.

Romania’s problem was not just a lack of men who were sufficiently virile and self-sacrificing: the country was being suffocated by a surfeit of Jews, with their predatory activities compounding their parasitic presence. Accounting for 800,000 out of a total population of around 19 million, Jews were particularly visible in the regions of Moldavia, Bukovina and Bessarabia, and in towns where the large numbers working in universities, the professions and white-collar jobs aroused resentment. Native, endemic and matter-of-fact, anti-Jewish prejudice now became frenzied, and the student outbursts were brutal. In the spring of 1932, rioting closed down the university in Bucharest, and precipitated the dissolution of the Iron Guard, which now had Ionescu’s sympathy. In December 1933, an electoral campaign marked by Codreanu’s growing popularity and the murder or imprisonment of his followers provoked not so veiled calls for retaliation from Ionescu. When, on 29 December, an Iron Guard hit squad gunned down the new Prime Minister, Ion Duca, Ionescu, considered to be morally responsible, was thrown in jail, and Cuvântul suppressed. The promised preface to Sebastian’s book was written after his release in May 1934, and by now he was more vehement than ever. For Sebastian the preface was ‘a tragedy . . . a death sentence’. Yet he felt bound to print it, and the book appeared in June to a barrage of criticism from all sides.

Master and erstwhile disciple remained friends, however, just as Sebastian remained friends with other bigots who moderated their anti-semitism in his presence, or indulged it only in a kidding, casual way. He was now a barrister but seems to have lost most of his cases. He wrote freelance pieces for a theatrical weekly, Rampa (‘Footlights’), but also passionate articles against Fascism and its coloured shirts (how can you let your laundry do your thinking for you?). He experienced anti-semitic uproar in courtrooms and witnessed assaults on Jews. He talked with friends whose writings he admired, and heard them blaming the Jews for the country’s troubles: what was Communism but a Jewish imperialism? A friend denounced foreign films and said they should be banned. ‘We’re in Romania, they should speak Romanian.’ He heard Eliade, ‘passionate about the Iron Guard’, demand that the Foreign Minister, Titulescu, be machine-gunned, and strung up by the tongue, for colluding with the Russians. ‘Is friendship possible,’ he wondered, ‘with people who have in common a whole series of alien ideas and feelings?’ He blamed himself for being too supple and accommodating. He wrote his first play, The Holiday Game, and was given an editorial job at the Royal Foundations Review, which paid a decent wage – until he was fired following the anti-Jewish legislation of 1940.

In 1938, King Carol II, worried about the growing popularity of the Iron Guard, disbanded all political parties, arrested Codreanu and, in his wake, Ionescu and Eliade, and proclaimed a dictatorship. A tinpot despotism succeeded a tinpot monarchy as the international situation kept going downhill.

In May 1939, Sebastian was called up for military service outside Bucharest, and sought the hospitality of new friends: the Bibescus. A Frenchified descendant of an old princely family, Antoine Bibescu had married Herbert Asquith’s daughter, Elisabeth. Asquith, it seems, had taken the alliance badly. ‘For him,’ Bibescu remarked, ‘it was as if she had married a Chinaman.’ The prince, Sebastian adds, felt the same about Romanian society. Eccentric, a bit batty, raising hospitality to the level of an art, the Bibescus looked on Romania as a kind of barbarian province, a ‘weird and wonderful colony’ peopled by natives living curious lives.

Stationed near the castle belonging to the prince’s mother, Martha, Sebastian asked for a room where he could take refuge when the military day was over. Princess Martha was sorry but never having received an officer in her castle, she couldn’t invite a private soldier. Soothed by a cordial explanatory letter, Sebastian found other ways to complete his fifth novel, The Accident, while still in uniform. It was to be published at the beginning of 1940, but much happened in the intervening months.

On 2 September 1939, the day after the Germans invaded Poland, Sebastian has a ‘lugubrious’ lunch at Capsa, a fashionable café-restaurant, with a bunch of friends who joke and worry. He then spends the evening alone at home, reading Gide’s Journal. Dazed and disoriented, he tries to write but can’t. On 21 September, awaiting his turn to plead in court, he hears a woman whisper: ‘They’ve shot Armand Calinescu’ (the Prime Minister). The murderers were summarily executed at the scene of the ambush, a bridge across the Dâmbovita River, and their corpses displayed for the edification of the gaping crowds. Thousands came, pushing, shoving and joking, even paying to get a better view from one of the stepladders lugged up by people who lived nearby. ‘Don’t do it,’ a disgruntled voyeur warns Sebastian: ‘All you can see are their feet.’ The problem now was how to hibernate through the cold and darkness to come.

1 January 1940: ‘Mozart from Zürich. Let’s take it as a good sign for the coming year.’ Called up once more, Sebastian dreads the lice lurking in the seams of Army uniforms. He cajoles the colonel with gifts of books from the Royal Foundation, sleeps at home, reports to barracks at 9 (no roll call), goes off for lunch and doesn’t return until the following morning, or takes days off to go skiing. In February he is demobbed, the colonel threatening: ‘I won’t let you go until you’ve built a library for me.’ A few days later, he runs into Ionescu at a Walter Gieseking concert. Glad to see each other, the two men agree to visit soon. 15 March: Nae has died, aged 49 – ‘Nervous, uncontrollable sobbing.’ 1 April: Eliade is appointed cultural attaché in London. 10 April: Eliade leaves; the Germans occupy Denmark, land in Norway. 17 June: ‘France is laying down arms! . . . It’s as if someone close has died. You don’t understand, you don’t believe it’s happened . . . I should like to be able to cry.’

In September 1940, the disastrous Carol II abdicated, to be replaced by the new leader of a National Legionary state, General Ion Antonescu. The romanisation decrees that followed deprived Sebastian of his Foundation job and of his free rail pass and excluded him from the Bar, assigning him to forced agricultural labour. The entries for the next years are a litany of borrowing, scrounging and sponging.

Antonescu’s romanisation destroyed the country’s economy, but distributed prizes to the deserving. 2 January, 1941: ‘This morning I met Cioran in the street. He was glowing. “They’ve appointed me [cultural attaché in Paris]”.’ Corrupt but gentlemanly old-style politicians stole with whatever style they could muster; the Iron Guard robbed the country blind. The General blamed the Bolsheviks who had wormed their way into the Legion and, when the radical populist Legionnaires finally clashed with the Army in the rising of January 1941, he attributed it to ‘marginal and irresponsible elements’.

21 January, 1941: ‘Revolution? Coup d’état?’ Iron Guards march in the streets and young desperados, their hair sticking up, riot, loot and burn the Jewish quarters. ‘This evening I finished La Fontaine’s fables.’ The weather is incredibly fine. Far away, Tobruk had fallen. Nearer to home there is shooting, the telephone is cut off, the radio station keeps changing hands. The Jewish quarters look as if they have endured a major earthquake (Bucharest had suffered a bad one only two months before). Hundreds, or thousands, of Jews are dead (a footnote puts the number at 121); soldiers and Legionnaires have also died. ‘The Legion,’ Cioran tells a mutual friend, ‘wipes its arse with this country.’

The regime’s priorities were less sanitary; and Jews, as so often happens, were the first to pay the bill. 26 March 1941: Eugen Ionescu (the playwright Ionesco), ‘desperate, hunted, obsessed’, can’t bear the thought that he may be barred from teaching: ‘not even the name Ionescu, nor an indisputably Romanian father, nor the fact that he was born a Christian . . . can hide the curse of Jewish blood in his veins.’ That same month, Jewish houses and other possessions are expropriated, then in April radio sets are confiscated: no more music, no more news. 24 April: ‘The familiar voices from London were like friends’ voices, and it’s hard now that I have lost them.’

Teaching for a pittance in a Jewish college, Sebastian moves in with his parents. He had learned English so as to read Shakespeare in the original, and now he teaches a course on Shakespeare. Life is terrible, but he speculates about his next play, ‘a light comedy of politics and love’. Friends invite him out, but he finds the experience depressing. 15 June: ‘I feel my poverty, failure and disgrace as a physical humiliation.’ Jews, ‘even well-dressed Jews’, are being arrested in the streets. 1 June: ‘So long as Britain doesn’t surrender, there is room for hope.’ 2 June: ‘War, war, war; people talk of nothing else.’ Ionesco, ‘eaten up with panic’, can’t believe that Sebastian doubts it. Ionesco was right.

When Romania joins in the German invasion of Russia, the police put up posters depicting Jews holding a hammer and sickle, concealing Soviet soldiers: ‘Who are the masters of Bolshevism?’ 22 June: ‘The General announces holy war to liberate Bessarabia and Bukovina, and eradicate Bolshevism.’ A friend assures him that the Russians will be crushed in a couple of weeks. Bucharest is blacked out, the phones no longer work, buses no longer run, nor are there any taxis or private cars, except with a special permit. It’s ‘Yids to the labour camps!’ but ‘I go on reading Thucydides.’ There are rumours of a pogrom in Iasi, where half the 100,000 population is Jewish. A communiqué speaks of 500 Judeo-Freemasons being executed for aiding Soviet parachutists. Radu Ioanid, the author of a study of Jews in Antonescu’s Romania, estimates that 13,000 were killed. Sebastian lives a ‘dark, sombre, insane nightmare’, while reading War and Peace.

And it gets worse. 22 July: ‘They are going into Jewish homes – more or less at random – and carrying off sheets, pillows, shirts, pyjamas, blankets. Without explanation, without warning.’ By the autumn, Jews are required to contribute beds, bedding and items of personal clothing by the hundredweight. ‘No one is surprised any more at anything’; but ‘each day you wonder what they will think up next.’ Police round-ups are a constant threat. 3 September: ‘I jumped off the tram just in the nick of time.’ Orders can be followed by counter-orders: report to police headquarters, registration postponed; Jews to wear yellow star, countermanded. Deliberate or simply à la roumaine, the muddle is complete. ‘Exasperated, impotent, weary’, Sebastian escapes into Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

7 September: ‘You have to hang on.’ Jews may only shop between 10 and 12; they’re ordered to dismiss all their servants. The maid cries like a child. The family will have to sweep the floors, wash dishes, shop for themselves. 7 October: ‘Who will do the laundry?’ Jews are mobilised to clear the snow. Skis are confiscated, then bicycles. Jews draw smaller rations than Romanians and pay twice as much for what they get. All books by Jewish authors are removed from bookshops.

Even nightmares turn monotonous and even the darkness admits rays of light: a friend allows Mihail to come and listen to her records; a friendly theatre director suggests he should write a play to be staged under a false name; with some cash won playing poker he buys a Mozart quartet and Bach’s Third Brandenburg Concerto. Antoine Bibescu invites him to his estate at Corcova: ‘Bring your fountain pen.’ July 1942: The Germans advance on Rostov. ‘I opened Montaigne, couldn’t put it down. What delights!’

Even when the course of the war turns for the better, there are still good reasons to worry. February 1943: ‘The Russian offensive becomes catastrophic . . . Jews are once more threatened with extermination.’ 8 May: Bizerta and Tunis fall to the British, but a new antisemitic campaign looms. Sebastian’s mood swings from one day to another. He works flat out, translating, writing, rewriting, to rake in a bit of cash. Some days, ‘I don’t live, I drag along.’ Others, with the Bibescus, are blissful. When the time comes to rejoice over the fall of Fascism in Italy, there is cause to worry about the safety of an elder brother in France.

In December 1943 the anonymous play is accepted with enthusiasm, put into rehearsal and premiered in March 1944. Bucharest is bombed, and all who can flee the city. 8 April 1944: ‘no one is left but us.’ On the same day, ‘Mary, the young manicurist who used to come every Friday, was killed.’ The raids continued. 7 May: ‘the city smells of lilies and smoke’; he thinks of writing a book on Balzac. In August the Americans are at Rambouillet, the Russians at Iasi, his play hangs on, his brother is all right. Then, 29 August: ‘How shall I begin? Where shall I begin? The Russians are in Bucharest. Paris is free. Our house . . . has been destroyed by [German] bombs.’ 1 September: Russians rape, loot, rob (‘watches are the toys they like most’), but it isn’t tragic. ‘It’s not right that Romania should get off too lightly . . . In the end, the Russians are within their rights. The locals are disgusting – Jews and Romanians alike. The press is nauseating.’

Sebastian became a journalist again and the Royal Foundations Review invited him to resume his job; but he refused. In February 1945, he was appointed press secretary to the Foreign Office; in May he was appointed to teach a university course on Balzac. On 29 May, on the way to his first lecture, he was hit by a speeding truck and killed. He was 38.

Jules Renard was one of Sebastian’s favourite writers. Reading Renard’s diary, the then 28-year-old Sebastian had reflected on the talent and the absurd death of the author of Poil de Carotte. The lines he wrote at the time could serve as his own epitaph: ‘That is the only kind of eternity that matters: to be more alive than a living person, and for the memory of you to be just as real as a physical presence.’