Hard to Stomach: Romania, Anti-Semitism, and the Lessons of Fascism
Mihail Sebastian's depiction of the many faces of anti-Semitism in For Two Thousand Years, from workplace jokes to street violence, is breath-taking in its horror.
For Two Thousand YearsPublisher: Other
Author: Mihail Sebastian
Length: 256 pages
Translated: Philip O Ceallaigh
Publication date: 2017-09
Its author, Mihail Sebastian, was a Romanian of Jewish ancestry who made a name for himself as a playwright, journalist, and novelist. Black-listed and isolated as the fascists came to power, Sebastian, in fact, survived the Second World War and Holocaust, only to die at the age of 38 in a tragic car accident on his way to teach his first post-war university lecture.
The book’s translator is Philip O Ceallaigh, an Irishman who’s based himself in Romania since the year 2000. An essayist and award-winning writer of short stories, O Ceallaigh is a remarkable character in his own right. He originally moved to Romania because the cost of living was opportune for an aspiring writer, but his passion for presenting the Eastern European experience has become a focal point both for his fiction as well as his literary and historical essays. He’s received the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, and most recently has been working on a study of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe.
For Two Thousand Years’s publication in English was the product of chance, coupled with the perseverance of its translator. Over a decade ago, before he’d even heard of Sebastian, a friend of his handed him a dull-looking Romanian paperback published by a small Jewish press years earlier.
“I was instantly hooked because it seemed more immediate, alive, and expressive of Romania than any contemporary fiction I'd read,” recalls O Ceallaigh. “That was partly down to the voice of the author, something very solitary and pure and intimate about it.”
O Ceallaigh translated the book to English as a personal project that took him about three years. “Nobody asked me to do it… it was a desire to be closer to someone I admired, mostly: the author. The thought of sharing it, that came later.”
He eventually tried to interest publishers in several English-speaking countries to publish the book, but no one was interested. The manuscript sat in a drawer for several years, and O Ceallaigh was on the verge of posting it online for free when an editor from Penguin got in touch.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
A Troubled and Silent History
The history of fascism in Romania is not widely known, even in Romania, where much of it was officially denied until the collapse of the Soviet Union and opening up of Eastern Europe. Reading Sebastian’s book, then, was a journey of discovery for its translator.
“[It] forced me to learn about what had happened in the ‘40s. This was all taboo at the time. That period, the Holocaust, wasn't recognized here -- its Romanian dimension -- until 2004, and people didn't talk about it. It wasn't that it was denied, it was just that you couldn't read about it, it wasn't in the schoolbooks, people didn't know. So I had the strange experience of discovering something real through fiction, and that had a powerful effect on me.”
Sebastian’s diaries for the period 1935-1944 were first published in 1996, and this helped contribute to an awakening awareness among Romanians of this period of their country’s history. Under the rise of fascism and before the end of the war, Sebastian was blacklisted out of employment and abandoned by his friends, and he describes this process in his diaries.
“Sebastian's diaries caused an uproar here when they were published in 1996 because they blew the lid on the fascist period and the pre-communist intellectual class,” says O Ceallaigh. “Many people found it hard to stomach. Just as the country was picking itself up after communism, it was asked to deal with the fact of a fascist period that had never been acknowledged, and the reaction was a nationalist one, against the Jew who was spoiling the party.
"Romanian communism was nationalistic; the extreme chauvinistic nationalist line is pretty much uninterrupted from the '30s until the ‘90s. Still, it started a conversation, and there is generational change in Romania. Things are not now as they were 20 years ago.”
When Eastern Europe opened up after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early '90s, these countries were forced to start coming to terms with a double trauma: the legacy of both Soviet communism and fascism; the consequences of genocide, population expulsions, and other brutalities. The long period of historical silencing preceding this period, says O Ceallaigh, is reflected in the length of time it’s taken books like For Two Thousand Years to emerge.
“It's nothing less than the overcoming of a bout of amnesia on a global-historical scale, a kind of awakening. We are only now getting to grips with the 20th century, with the breakdown that occurred, awakening to what happened.”
“Fiction, or maybe I should say literature, or just good true stuff written down, is also crucial [in this process] because there is the lived experience, in very accessible form. Because that experience was itself buried, censored, under communism… For Two Thousand Years didn't appear under communism -- this was a regime that denied the Holocaust, as did the Soviets for different reasons.”
The Many Faces of Anti-Semitism
The first half of the book engages with the narrator’s struggles as a student, as clashes with the fascists grow more intense and the university becomes a site of struggle. Other Jewish students pride themselves on bruises and beatings from battles they’ve engaged in; Sebastian’s narrator, however, simply wishes he could ignore it all and get on with his life as a student. As his Jewish friends argue over Zionism, and whether they ought to make a stand in Romania or join other colonists heading back to fight for a homeland in Palestine, he wishes he could disown all of the cultural baggage that he is defined by, forget it all, and just be a student alone with his books.
“The whole thing bores me to death,” the narrator laments. “I’d like a big, clear, severe book with ideas that challenge all I believe in, a book I could devour with the same intense passion with which I first read Descartes. Every chapter would be a personal struggle. But no: I’m involved in a ‘matter of principle.’ Ridiculous.”
Yet he recognizes even this frustration as a product of his Jewish identity, inculcated by the anti-Semitism all around him.
“I can well understand why a renegade Jew is more ferocious than any other kind of renegade,” the narrator writes. “The harder he tries to shake his shadow, the tighter it sticks. Even in disowning his race, the very fact of his apostasy is a Judaic act, as we all, inwardly, renounce ourselves a thousand times, yet always go back home, with the willfulness of one who desires to be God himself.”
O Ceallaigh points out that Sebastian’s narrator wasn’t so much upset by his Jewishness as by the expectations that others placed upon him because of it.
“I think he resented more that he was compelled to be defined by it. After all, he was Romanian in the age of nationalism. So his initial reaction, as an assimilated Jew -- Jews had been around that area as long as anything called a Romanian had -- was why wasn't he allowed to get along with being a Romanian like everybody else? Of course, retrospectively, the Jewish identity becomes all defining in the context of the Holocaust, but as a young man interested in literature and his personal life, maybe it was reasonable that he had other things on his mind than being a Jew. It is, of course, the arc of the novel that he realizes that he lives in a context where his Jewish identity is going to be the whole show.”
“The book starts in 1923, the year when Jews were granted citizenship for the first time in Romania. The book doesn't mention this because his readership then knew, because it was so widely resented and because it occurred under foreign pressure. So you can imagine how this would feel for a young Romanian man, his very Romanian-ness being denied in the age of nationalism.”
One of the key strengths of Sebastian’s book lies in his masterful portrayal of the ebb and flow of anti-Semitism and fascism, and of the ease with which people who are friends and colleagues one day can be co-opted by fascist and racist ideas the next. One of the narrator’s work colleagues becomes a close friend. One day as they’re reminiscing about their college days, the friend admits that he took part in riots against Jews, and chuckles at how terrified Jewish students used to be of him. He knows his friend is Jewish; he writes it off to youthful foolishness and expects that enough time has passed to make it innocent history. The narrator, with a little less ease, writes it off too.
But then fascism and anti-Semitism start to rise again. One day an innocent joke in the workplace incurs a frustrated outburst from the same colleague: “’Don’t act the Jew. I’m from Oltenia. Don’t speak that Jew-talk with me.’ I went pale [says the narrator]. There was nothing I could do; everything between the two of us -- memories, friendship, our professional relationship -- turned to nothing. I had a powerful sense that the man standing before me had become a total stranger. He had become so distant, so foreign and inaccessible, that responding to him would have seemed as mad to me as conversing with a block of stone.”
And then later in the book comes an even worse experience with another colleague and friend, whose dialogue reeks eerily of the ‘I’m not racist, but…’ trope.
“Let’s be clear. I’m not anti-Semitic,” says the colleague. “Yet there is a Jewish problem, and it needs to be solved… the problem of the Jewish people doesn’t interest me. Their own affair, as you put it so well. What interests me is simply the solution to the Jewish problem in Romania… from a political, social and economic point of view… you reply by talking about pogroms in 1300. Well, that’s running from the argument.”
Sebastian has masterfully captured the range of arguments used to express and justify anti-Semitism and illustrates both their circular logic as well as the tenacious self-righteousness that define them. To the modern educated reader they sound ridiculous, yet at the same time eerily resonant of contemporary forms of bigotry, and the arguments that drive them.
Sebastian himself experienced the quick turning of colleagues against him. When he initially published For Two Thousand Years in 1934, he asked his colleague and mentor Nae Ionescu, a noted philosopher, to write a foreword. Ionescu responded with an anti-Semitic tirade. In a controversial and clever twist -- what he purportedly called “the only intelligent revenge” -- Sebastian went ahead and published Ionescu’s comments in his book anyway, sparking massive public debate (he was attacked by Jews and anti-Semites alike) and laying bare the face of Romania’s anti-Semitism at the same time.
Lessons for the Present
Despite the fact it was published over 70 years ago, there are a lot of lessons in the book for our present era. Its depiction of the many faces of anti-Semitism, from workplace jokes between colleagues to street violence, is breath-taking in its horror yet also masterfully eloquent. Yet there are much broader lessons in the book, O Ceallaigh reminds us.
“The first lesson is not one he set out to teach, but is very important. It's that history repeats. Democracy, tolerance, the rule of law -- all these things that allow us to have our nice private lives -- are not in themselves durable. They only survive if we have a consciousness of what goes down when they fail. There are reasons to recover the experience of the '30s, because without it we forget that democracies are unstable -- they fail. They do not last. It is only our belief that keeps them going.”
“What I get from Sebastian, his terrible sense -- at the end of the book -- that things will fall apart, is a sense that the intellectual and the reasonable are not actually a match for the unreasonable in man. The will to believe yourself a victim, to side with your ‘race’, to believe it is being assailed, by immigrants, conspiracies, elites, Jews, Muslims, Mexicans, and that this deep unreason is perhaps what we should reckon with most deeply when we engage in reasoned debate.”
There's even fascism wound up in seemingly unrelated dimensions of the book (and daily society), notes O Ceallaigh. A portion of the book involves the narrator -- now graduated from university and employed as a professional architect -- working for an American oil developer on a project that has dislocated a peasant village. The peasants continue fighting a slow war of attrition against the developer, who can’t understand why they care more about their threatened plum trees than about the wealth and progress that the oil development will bring. It’s ostensibly a classic case of progress versus peasants, illustrating the violent and dislocating processes of industrialization.
But there’s more than that going on, O Ceallaigh notes.
“Sebastian is using the issue as a means to locate the characters around a polemic regarding modernization and its effect on national character. Blidaru [a professor of political economy in the book who supports the peasants and opposes the development] believes modernization is an abomination… He believes the Romanian national character is something essential, anything foreign will undermine it. This is what Hitler believed, and all the fascists -- the centrality of race.”
“And then there are those… who are modern liberals, they don't believe the national common denominator is the important thing. So, by the long way round, Sebastian is still talking about being a Jew…”
In a similar vein, Romanian nationalists in the early 20th century, O Ceallaigh notes, even opposed rural literacy programs, out of fear they would “rob the Romanian salt-of-the-earth of their Romanian-ness.”
Sebastian’s book illustrates important realities of the rise of fascism and anti-Semitism. The essential thing for us today, O Ceallaigh says, is to learn from this, and to remember that just because something happened seventy years ago, does not mean it won’t happen again.
“When I was at college I read Thucydides, and Plato, and studied Roman history -- the wars and politics of the ancient world -- and it was the most valuable thing I did then. Not that I recall much detail. The point is to see what repeats. What are the essential polemics, debates, mistakes, that keep coming round? Then when you read the newspaper you don’t get lost in the detail. This is the essence of human culture. Stuff has been written down! We're not obliged to learn it all from the start each generation.”
“To be plunged into the world of For Two Thousand Years was a more vital exercise, for me, than reading a retrospective discussion of what went wrong before European civilization imploded in the '30s. We need this exercise, because bad things keep happening!”
O Ceallaigh ends the interview on a grimly sarcastic note.
“Of course,” he observes, “Trump is doing PR for the book now.”
For two thousand years… and counting.