Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)
The journal of the Romanian Jewish essayist, playwright and novelist Mihai Sebastian is still seeped in historical controversy in his native country. In fact, this journal, which the author kept for nearly ten years (from 1935 to 1944), was such a taboo subject that it wasn’t published until 1998 (in French) by Editions Stock. The Ivan R. Dee English edition appeared in 2000, increasing the diary’s international exposure–as well as the controversy that surrounded it. The Journal of Mihai Sebastian is particularly problematic for the Romanian community, both in the country and abroad. It depicts the regimes that allied themselves with the Nazis as well as some of Romania’s most notable writers and philosophers—Emil Cioran, Mircea Eliade and Camil Petrescu–whom the playwright Eugene Ionesco characterized, due to their Fascist political affinities, as part of the “Iron Guard generation”–in a rather negative light. Sebastian’s frank and lucid picture of the Fascist influence in Romania can offend on several levels.
Many Romanians with strong nationalist sentiments still view Ion Antonescu as a national hero that protected the country’s interests in an impossible political context. Furthermore, even Romanians without strong nationalist feelings take great pride in Romania’s leading 20th century intellectuals, particularly Emil Cioran, Mircea Eliade and Camil Petrescu. Some of them do not take kindly to a frank discussion of these authors’ pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic views in so far as bringing this subject up can cast doubt on their merit as writers and on their character.
I don’t think these are good reasons to shy away from reading this journal, however. The fact that Mihai Sebastian was himself a leading intellectual figure in the country and accepted as a friend by these authors gives us a more personal—and unique–glimpse into the cultural and political atmosphere of the times. This journal is interesting from both a historical and a philosophical perspective. It raises questions about Romania’s alliance with the Nazis and simultaneously explores the relation between morality and intellectuality (in the same way as discussions of Heidegger’s role in anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi discourse does). (See Philip Oltermann’s excellent article on this subject, published in The Guardian on March 12, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/mar/13/martin-heidegger-black-notebooks-reveal-nazi-ideology-antisemitism).
Mihai Sebastian was born Iosif Mendel Hechter in 1907 in a Jewish family in Braila. He managed to survive Fascism, the war years and the Holocaust, only to die, absurdly, in a car accident in 1945. Sebastian studied law in Bucharest and mingled with Romania’s leading intellectual figures. His journal discusses his relatively close relationships with Emil Cioran, Mircea Eliade, Camil Petrescu and Eugene Ionesco. Of these authors, only Eugene Ionesco was critical of Fascism. Years later, in 1959, he even published a political drama about totalitarianism, Rhinocéros, in which he described his friends’ strange transformations under the pressure—and lure–of history’s dark forces, Communism, Fascism and Nazism.
Being Jewish in an epoch when Judaism was equivalent to a crime punishable by imprisonment, deportation and even death, Sebastian had ambivalent relations with Cioran, Eliade and Petrescu, all of whom expressed anti-Semitic views and were seduced by a combination of Nazi and nationalist ideology. At one point, Sebastian expresses shock in reading an article by Mircea Eliade in support of the Legionary Movement: “Friday, 17 (December). In yesterday’s Buna Vestire (year I, no. 244, dated Friday, 17 December 1937): “Why I Believe in the Victory of the Legionary Movement,” by Mircea Eliade” 133). Numerous times, Sebastian hopes that personal bonds of friendship can shift his friends’ anti-Semitic views. He tries to persuade Camil Petrescu–to no avail–that his anti-Semitism is irrational:
“Thursday, 25 [June] 1936. When we left Capsa we went a few steps down the street and he repeated what he thought of the latest anti-Semitic attacks… He went on to say: ‘My dear man, the Jews provoke things: they have a dubious attitude and get mixed up in things that don’t concern them. They are too nationalistic.’ ‘You should make up your mind, Camil. Are they nationalists or are they Communists?’ ‘Wow, you’re really something, you know?… What else is communism but the imperialism of Jews?’ (60) Disappointed that Petrescu won’t listen to reason, Sebastian notes, perplexed: “That is Camil Petrescu speaking. Camil Petrescu is one of the finest minds in Romania. Camil Petrescu is one of the most sensitive creatures in Romania” (60).
Facing prejudice from one’s peers is one thing; facing the prospect of imprisonment or even death is quite another. Between 1935 and 1941, the political situation deteriorates significantly for Jews in Romania (and most of Europe as well) . In August of 1941, Sebastian finds himself in grave danger of being sent to labor camp for the simple fact of being Jewish. He’s aware of the probable link between deportation and extermination: “The alarm I felt at first is returning. Are we again facing a mass roundup of Jews? Internment camps? Extermination?” (389) Like most Jews from Old Kingdom Romania, however, Sebastian escapes due to a series of unpredictable shifts in government policies. (See my article on the subject of Ion Antonescu’s regime, http://literaturadeazi.ro/content/review-ion-antonescu).
Despite its trenchant critiques, however, Mihai Sebastian’s journal shouldn’t be judged only as an indictment of the political ideology of some of Romania’s leading intellectuals and of the country at large. Written in a lyrical and contemplative style reminiscent of an author Sebastian greatly admired–Marcel Proust–the journal also captures the author’s great appreciation of classical music, the cultural activities of the times, as well as his intriguing and often tumultuous love affairs, whom he compares to the vicissitudes of passion described by Proust in A la recherché du temps perdu.
As a memoir with political and ethical implications, Mihai Sebastian’s journal reminds us of the fact that political morality and intellectual merit aren’t necessarily linked. Great intellectuals can and do sometimes espouse immoral or chauvinist views. Does it follow that they they be judged only—or even mostly–in terms of those views? Absolutely not. Just like we shouldn’t judge Aristotle’s great contributions to philosophy only in terms of his “sexist” and incomplete views of women or Thomas Jefferson’s notable contributions to government, political theory and even architecture only in terms of having owned slaves and thus supported slavery, we shouldn’t judge Eliade, Cioran and Petrescu only (or mostly) in terms of their anti-Semitism or Fascist tendencies. Those of us who respect these writers need not fear that the truths expressed by Mihai Sebastian’s journal will diminish the intellectual worth of Romania’s leading authors. This book is important because it offers us a deeper understanding of Romania’s controversial, pro-Fascist years, from the perspective of a Jewish writer caught in the middle of cataclysmic events that he had the opportunity, lucidity and talent to describe exceptionally well.