A telling diary

Published : Jan 19, 2002 00:00 IST

Journal 1935-1944: The Fascist Years by Mihail Sebastian; Ivan R. Dee Inc, 2000; pages 641, $36.

MIHAIL SEBASTIAN was a Romanian novelist, playwright and critic. He was an avid reader and a great lover of music. He was Jewish, and in the anti-Semitic culture prevalent in Romania, he suffered for his religion. Although he was not a practising Jew, he was constantly reminded of his religion by his friends, many of whom were intellectuals and artists. Sebastian kept a diary, which was safely removed to Tel Aviv by his brother after his death in an accident. The diary was translated into the French and published. An English translation appeared recently.

Sebastian spent all his adult life in the Romanian capital city of Bucharest, once known as little Paris. It was cosmopolitan with boulevards, theatres and so on. Industries were situated in the suburbs. In the inter-War period, democracy in Romania was fragile. The country was a monarchy which held elections in such a way that the King would get his favourite politician elected Prime Minister.

Sebastian's diary spans a period that saw three successive anti-Semitic dictatorships. King Karol ruled from February 1938 to September 1940. He was overthrown by Ion Antonescu, who ruled with the help of the Iron Guard party. However, later he suppressed the Iron Guards and ruled himself. Sebastian notes all these changes with a great deal of anxiety for his country and the Jewish people. He was experiencing increasing anti-Semitism.

The anti-Semitism in Romania was not imported from Germany; it was indigenous. Romania had more than 700,000 Jewish people, whose sufferings increased as the days and years passed. With the advent of Hitler and his Nazi Party, the Romanian anti-Semitic elements became bold and started harassing the Jewish population. It became difficult for them to conduct their business as their shops and other establishments were looted. Sebastian writes about this and supports the shutting down of shops by Jewish people for their protection and as a mark of protest. He even joined them in a prayer in a synagogue in order to express his solidarity with them.

Sebastian had his friends in the political, journalistic and academic circles, many of them holding anti-Semitic views. They used to advise him seriously to convert to Catholicism. They told him that only the Pope would be able to save him. Sebastian refused to follow their advice.

Nae Ionescu was an influential intellectual who discovered Sebastian's talents and published his first book. In the 1920s Ionescu had not yet become a Fascist ideologue, but he had no sympathies for the Jewish people. Hence, when Sebastian requested him to write a preface for his first book, Ionescu wrote an anti-Semitic piece. He said that whatever Sebastian or his fellow Jews did, they would not be treated by Romanians as their equals. They would never be assimilated. Sebastian then wrote a rejoinder to Ionescu's preface. Later, Ionescu was rewarded handsomely for his opportunism and anti-Semitism.

Mircea Eliade was another friend of Sebastian whose criticism of the Jewish people became more strident with the passage of time. He blamed the Jewish people for everything that went wrong in Romania and held them responsible for the country's economic and political ills. It became impossible for Sebastian to continue with this friendship. Eliade ended up getting diplomatic assignments.

Marietta Sadova, an actress, was actively involved in Fascist politics. She was one of the financial supporters of the Iron Guards. Sebastian knew her well, but was wary of her anti-Semitic attitude which was becoming more pronounced. Once she told Sebastian that the 'yids' were taking away the bread from the Romanians and were exploiting and smothering them. She said that they should be driven out of the country as they were the real enemies.

Sebastian's close friend Camil Petrescu was a novelist for whose intellect Sebastian had high regard. But Petrescu did not hide his hatred of the Jewish people. Later during the War, under his influence the government started blaming the Jewish people for the reverses. Petrescu used to say that it was because of the Jewish people that the War was being prolonged. He held the American Jewish lobby responsible for the stalemate.

It was no wonder that the Romanian government toed the line of Hitler's Germany. It dutifully circulated Nazi propaganda material in the country and Hitler's speeches were immediately published in the newspapers. Hitler's diatribe against the Jewish people was hailed. When the Polish people resisted German aggression, many Romanian intellectuals were furious. They thought that it was a Jewish plot and that since the ordinary Polish people did not have anything to do with the resistance, it was bound to fail.

However, it must be noted that all the Romanian friends of Sebastian who were intellectuals were not Fascists. There was E.M. Cioran who was a brilliant writer and a philosopher. After the War he was in partisan exile and regretted his "pact with the devil". Cioran had much to regret: when Fascism was gaining strength, he wrote that there were few people in Germany who had such admiration for it as he had.

In 1945, the playwright Eugene Ionescu wrote of the Iron Guard generation in Romania: "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." He blamed Nae Ionescu for creating a stupid, horrendous and reactionary Romania.

Romania had its own version of the Holocaust. The Jewish people in Bucharest were, comparatively speaking, treated in a better manner. But their co-religionists from Bessarabia and Bukovina had the same horrible experience as those in Germany and Poland. They were sent to Trannistria where they perished. Sebastian knew from his friends who had connections with the people in power that thousands of Jewish people died in the streets and their corpses were lying unattended. In June 1941, more than 100,000 Jewish people were murdered.

Romanian government forces joined the Nazis when the latter marched into Ukraine. Along with the Nazis they took part in the massacre of the Jewish people. But when Ion Antonescu realised that the tide of the War was turning against Hitler's army, which was suffering reverses, he slowed down the campaign against the Jewish people. Sebastian along with other Jewish people in the capital was not sent to the concentration camps. But with them his quota of ration was reduced to the minimum. He also had to do some manual work. In the winter he worked for 12 hours removing ice from the streets. (He did this for ten days in a month.)

Sebastian depended on his pen for survival. Hence, when his plays were not performed, he found it difficult to sustain himself. He starved, and once by Christmas time he was so broke that he feared his ouster from his lodging house because he had failed to pay the rent. But he was saved by one of his wealthy friends.

Sebastian had no love lost for the Communist Party or communism. However, he was all the while hoping that the Germans would be defeated by the Soviet Union. Hence, he was following the course of the War closely. The entries in his diary show how sensitive he was about the fate of the Allies' armies and especially of the Red Army. However, when the Soviet forces entered Romania, Sebastian was not pleased. In fact, he criticised the atrocities committed by the Red Army soldiers. But he also condoned them as he compared their acts to the atrocities committed by the Nazis.

On August 23, 1944, Antonescu's regime was overthrown by King Michael and an alliance of several political parties. Sebastian felt relieved as he thought that his life would not be in danger. But he was in two minds about the Communist takeover and refused to join the Communist newspaper. Sebastian did not survive for long. He was knocked down by a truck and killed.

Radu Ioanid, who has written an introduction to Sebastian's Journal, criticises the post-War Romanian intellectuals. He says that they do not regret the fact that they endorsed anti-Semitism. He also says that there is no inclination to probe the past. In fact, Sebastian wrote a few months before his death that Romania would regain its senses when the problem of responsibility was disposed of in earnest. Otherwise, it would all be too cheap. Yet, there is no inclination for retrospection.

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