A valuable witness to tyranny

 

On Tuesday, October 21st 1941, the Romanian government under Marshal Ion Antonescu enacted a new law to add to a broad raft of anti-Semitic legislation already in place. As reported in the evening papers, the directive required the Jewish population to deliver items of personal clothing and bed linen to the state. There were seven categories of donor, based on income, ranging from those earning nothing to those with an annual income of 500,000 lei. This is Mihail Sebastian's account of how the system was to work:

A Jewish person who earns 10,000 lei a month is obliged to donate: four shirts, ten pairs of underpants, four pairs of socks, four handkerchiefs, four towels, four flannels, three suits, two pairs of ankle boots, two hats, two overcoats, two linen blankets, two undersheets, two pillow covers, two pillowcases, two sheets. The amounts demanded of the highest income bracket are beyond belief: thirty-six shirts, twelve suits, twelve overcoats, and so on. It is so grotesque that I'm not sure it isn't a sick joke.

It was not a joke. Antonescu's regime had already demanded that the Jewish community should pay a levy of three billion lei to the government, or face further harsh repression.

In the annals of anti-Semitism, Romania holds a particularly egregious position. For example, in the autumn of 1941, at the time when that clothing law was enacted, Romanian troops fighting alongside German forces committed the worst single atrocity of the second World War by slaughtering nearly 60,000 Jews in the city of Odessa. In a pogrom in 1941, Jews were "herded into an abbatoir and hanged by the neck on meat hooks normally used for beef carcasses. A sheet of paper was stuck to each corpse: 'Kosher Meat'."

Of course, Romania was not unique. In the early years of Nazi conquest in Eastern Europe the enthusiasm for pogroms among the indigenous populations of countries such as Poland, Lithuania and Estonia startled even the SS. However, the detestation of Jews among all levels of Romanian society, particularly intellectuals, was remarkable. Here, from September 1939, is a typical outburst:

"The Poles' resistance in Warsaw is a Jewish resistance. Only yids are capable of the blackmail of putting women and children in the front line, to take advantage of the Germans' sense of scruple. . . . What is happening on the [Romanian] frontier with Bukovina is a scandal, because new waves of Jews are flooding into the country. Rather than a Romania again invaded by kikes, it would be better to have a German protectorate."

Who might the speaker be - some wild-eyed partisan, perhaps, or street-corner orator? No; it is Mircea Eliade, one of Romania's leading scholars and writers, who after the war emigrated to America and there became a highly respected and influential thinker and historian of religions. Similarly, though perhaps not as despicably, E.M. Cioran, philosopher and aphorist, threw in his lot with the Iron Guard, the Romanian fascist movement. The Antonescu regime made him cultural attachΘ in Paris, where he sat out the war years in well-paid comfort and safety, and stayed on after the war to become one of the leading lights of Parisian emigrΘ life. Cioran at least expressed regret for having entered a "pact with the devil"; Eliade made an illustrious career for himself at the University of Chicago and never said a word about his past.

Mihail Sebastian was born in Braila on the Danube, in eastern Romania, in 1907. He became a novelist and playwright, and was well-known as a critic in Bucharest literary society; he was also a linguist, and during the war managed to earn a little much-needed money by working as a translator. From the beginning of 1935 until the last day of 1944 he kept a detailed diary of his own life and of life in general in Romania. In 1961, Sebastian's brother Benu emigrated to Israel, and managed to get the diary out of the country, under the noses of the notorious Securitate, by smuggling it in the Israeli diplomatic bag.

It was not until 1996 that Sebastian's Journal was published in Romania, followed by a French edition in 1998, and now this English-language version, published in association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. On its appearance in Sebastian's native country, the Journal provoked a sensation, revealing as it did the depth and strength of Romanian anti-Semitism as well as Romania's part in the Holocaust. One reviewer wrote: "A huge sense of shame spreads over a whole period of national culture and history. . ."

What is surprising, and horrifying, about Romanian anti-Semitism as revealed in Sebastian's testament is not so much its pervasiveness as the almost casual way in which it was indulged in by so many people. A mob is a mob, but surely the people in the sophisticated milieu in which Sebastian moved - Bucharest before the war was known as "little Paris" - the writers, thinkers, journalists, theatre directors, actors, might have been expected to resist this most primitive form of prejudice?

Sebastian's friend, the charismatic philosopher and teacher Nae Ionescu, who enthusiastically supported the Iron Guard, agreed to write a preface to one of Sebastian's novels, but when he did, it turned out to be vigorously anti-Semitic.

Ionescu warned the younger man against imagining that he could become assimilated into the gentile community, asking of him "Are you . . . a human being from Braila on the Danube? No, you are a Jew from Braila on the Danube." Sebastian, in typical fashion, continued to look upon his friend and mentor with fondness, regarding him indulgently merely as a rogue and an opportunist whose heart nevertheless was in the right place; when Ionescu died prematurely in 1940, Sebastian wept in sorrow.

He even found excuses for his friend the novelist, and fascist, Camil Petrescu. When the private houses of Jews were confiscated by order of the government, Petrescu complained to Sebastian that he would probably not be given one; Sebastian said that surely, under the circumstances, his friend would not accept a house even if it were offered to him, at which Petrescu stared at him in surprise and asked: "Why not?"

Sebastian felt somewhat more harshly toward Eliade, whose triumphant progress through public life he follows with melancholy envy: "Successes, even when resulting from moral infamy, remain successes." In 1937 he records Eliade saying of a left-wing student flogged by Iron Guardists that personally he would have put his eyes out as well. "One day", Sebastian writes, "I may reread these lines and feel unable to believe that they summarize [Eliade's words]. So it is well if I say again that I have done no more than record his very words - so that they aren't somehow forgotten. Perhaps one day things will have calmed down enough for me to read this page to Mircea and see him blush with shame." Years later, however, in 1944, when he hears of the death of Eliade's wife, he recalls with sorrow his former colleague and "our years of fraternal friendship. . .It's all dead, all vanished, all lost forever."

Perhaps the most remarkable, certainly the most appealing, aspect of the Journal is the portrait it gives of Sebastian's personality. In disposition he was far from gloomy, nor was he particularly introspective. He loved literature, and was widely read in three or four languages, yet his touch is always light. Nor was he a great burner of midnight oil: he is forever bemoaning his lack of application to his literary work. He adores the sun, likes to lie on a beach doing nothing, or to go off to the mountains to ski; his love-life has all the complexity of a Feydeau farce. Yet as the years darken, and catastrophe engulfs Europe, he comes more and more to acknowledge his ancestry and all that it entails. Expressing his contempt for those who urge him to convert to Catholicism as a way of escaping persecution, he writes: "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."

Like Victor Klemperer in I Will Bear Witness, a diary of the Nazi years in Germany, Sebastian records with astonishing stoicism the steady dehumanising of the Jewish population by the Antonescu authorities. On September 10th 1942, in one of many such entries, Sebastian writes: "Jews will have no bread every fifth day. Their sugar ration has been cut from two hundred grams to one hundred, while for Christians it remains at six hundred grams." His wireless set is confiscated, depriving him of the music broadcasts that were one of his few remaining consolations. Then Jews are ordered to give up their skis. He glimpses a blaring headline on a news-stand -"The Jews hand in their bicycles!" - and bursts out laughing.

It is easy to exclaim over the perfidy of other peoples, in other times. "How could it have happened?" we ask - or used to ask, before Bosnia, before Rwanda, before Darkly and Greysteel, before that summer afternoon a few years ago when we all knew what was happening in Srebrenica and could do nothing about it. Sebastian's Journal is not only a fascinating record of a terrible historical moment, but a salutary reminder of the ease with which tyranny takes hold. In the Ireland of a faltering peace process and growing racial tensions, this voice out of the past has much to say to us. Two quotations must here suffice.

A possible title for an essay: "On the Physical reality of Lying." It would be shown that lying, however arbitrary, acquires definite contours and points of support; and that once a certain level is reached, it substitutes itself for facts, becomes a fact itself, and begins to exert inescapable pressure, not only on the world of others but also on the one who originated the lie.

When the Antonescu rΘgime moves against Iron Guard insurrectionists, there is violence in the streets. Sebastian comes upon a small crowd listening to "that poor madman who once used to wander with a switch and whistle from one streetcar to the next, giving imaginary signals for it to stop or start", who is telling how "a yid woman fired with a revolver last night, from the roof of that building over there - and a trooper was hit."

"A yid woman, you say?" asked an elderly gentleman, quite well dressed, quite unruffled.

"Yeah, one o' them yid bitches!"

"And didn't they do anything to her?"

"You bet they did. They arrested her, took her away."

I looked closely at the people listening. Not one of them did not believe what was being said; not one had the least doubt about the truth of this absurd story.

Eventually, Antonescu was overthrown in a left-wing coup, the Russians arrived in Bucharest, and Sebastian realised that at last he and his people were safe, or relatively so - Russian troops were ungentle souls.

On Saturday, September 16th, 1944, he wrote: "Germany has collapsed - and I am alive. What more can I ask?" On December 31st that year he made his final journal entry. The book closes with the following editorial note:

"On 29 May 1945, Mihail Sebastian was hit and killed by a truck in downtown Bucharest."

John Banville is Chief Literary Critic and Associate Literary Editor of The Irish Times