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Fundoianu, Beniamin

(1898–1944), poet and philosopher. Born in Iaşi, Romania, Beniamin Fundoianu was the son of Isac Wechsler, a small tradesman from Herța (in Bucovina), and of Adela, sister of Jewish scholars Elias, Wilhelm, and Moses Schwarzfeld. The name of the Fundoaia estate, near Herța, inspired Beniamin to choose his literary pseudonym Fundoianu, which he eventually turned into Fondane in France.

During the early years of his career in Iaşi, Fundoianu led a sort of double literary and journalistic life: on the one hand as a Romanian writer who made his mark very quickly, and, on the other hand, as a Jewish journalist and frequent contributor to the Jewish press in Romanian (Hatikvah, Lumea Evree, Bar-Kochba, Hasmonaea) with poems and translations from Yiddish poetry, and ultimately with a set of biblical sonnets. His symbolist drama Tăgăduința lui Petru (Peter’s Denial; 1918) is built on a Christian biblical theme.

Fundoianu was especially close to the Yiddish poet Iacob Groper, the poet and journalist A. Steuerman-Rodion, and the Zionist ideologist and writer A. L. Zissu. When Zissu left for Bucharest and set up the “national Zionist” newspaper Mântuirea (The Redemption), in 1919, Fundoianu immediately followed him and became a permanent contributor to the newspaper. In this environment, he approached Jewish and Zionist topics in a more structured manner, usually from a cultural perspective. The highlight of his journalistic work for Mântuirea consisted of a set of 11 essays collected under the title Iudaism şi elenism (Judaism and Hellenism; 1919), his first comprehensive philosophical study. Taking Martin Buber’s Vom Geist des Judentums as a starting point, he proposed an audacious interpretation of Hellenism and Judaism by analyzing their perceptions of divinity, philosophy, morals, and especially art. In the history of Judaism, he was mainly drawn to prophetic and mystical literature, which he saw as an alternative to rational knowledge. 

From 1920, Fundoianu made his mark as a mature poet of a striking originality—his poems were collected a decade later in the volume Privelişti (Landscapes; 1930)—and he became an outstanding personality in the literary avant-garde. He was also a subtle essayist and passionate critic of French literature, as evident in his Imagini şi cărți din Franța (Pictures and Books from France; 1921). During the three years before he moved to France in 1923, he focused on avant-garde theatrical experiments, essays on literature, philosophy, and aesthetics, and, on the very eve of his departure, discovering the work of the Russian Jewish philosopher Lev Shestov.

As an émigré in Paris, Fundoianu met Shestov (reflected in his Rencontres avec Léon Chestov [Conversations with Lev Shestov]; 1982), and this encounter was crucial for his evolution as an intellectual. Benjamin Fondane—the name he used in France—dedicated himself to exploring the meaning of life and artistic creation from the perspective of Shestovian existentialism, and he published substantial philosophical essays including Rimbaud le voyou (1933), La conscience malheureuse (1936), and Faux traité d’esthétique (1938). Jewish thought is evoked at times as a means of interpreting the work of several thinkers and as a possible answer to existential philosophical questions. In his poems written in French, Fundoianu’s tragic existentialism was expressed in the image of the damned, of the poet’s very fate. The poems included in the books Ulysse (Ulysses; 1933) and Titanic (1937), followed by poems with prophetic tones, full of biblical motifs (published posthumously in the volume Le Mal des fantômes; 1980), were dominated by the spectrum of the eternal emigrant, a “Jewish Odysseus” tormented by inner conflicts and threatened by a hostile and chaotic universe.

Fundoianu was mobilized in the French army against Nazi Germany, was taken prisoner (1940), but eventually remained in Paris under the occupation. He was arrested by the French police in March 1944, imprisoned at Drancy, and then deported to Auschwitz together with his sister, the actress Lina Pascal. Fondane was killed in a gas chamber in Birkenau in October 1944. A few days before he was arrested, he had given the philosopher Jean Grenier his “testament” essay, Le Lundi existentiel et le dimanche de l’histoire (The Existential Monday and the Sunday of History; published posthumously, 1945). His widow, Geneviève Tissier, supervised the publication of another book that had remained in the manuscript stage: Baudelaire et l’expérience du gouffre (Baudelaire and the Experience of Abyss; 1947). From the 1980s, several of his books were released both in France and in Romania, and he was acknowledged as an outstanding Romanian poet, as a French poet, and as a philosopher of unmistakable originality.

Suggested Reading

Bruce Baugh, French Hegel—From Surrealism to Postmodernism (London and New York, 2003); Arta Lucescu Boutcher, Rediscovering Benjamin Fondane (New York, 2003); Ramona Fotiade, Conceptions of the Absurd: From Surrealism to the Existential Thought of Chestov and Fondane (Oxford, 2001); Monique Jutrin, Benjamin Fondane, ou, Le périple d’Ulysse (Paris, 1989); Monique Jutrin, ed., Rencontres autour de Benjamin Fondane, poète et philosophe (Paris, 2002); Monique Jutrin, ed., Benjamin Fondane à la recherche du judaïsme: entre Jérusalem et Athènes (Paris, 2009); William Kluback, Benjamin Fondane: A Poet in Exile (New York, 1996); Mémorial de la Shoah, Benjamin Fondane: Roumanie, Paris, Auschwitz (Paris, 2009), exhibition catalog; Mircea Martin, Introducere în opera lui B. Fundoianu (Bucharest, 1984); Olivier Salazar-Ferrer, Benjamin Fondane (Paris, 2004); Michael Weingrad, “The Exodus of Benjamin Fondane,” Judaism 48.192 (Fall 1999): 470–480. The following is a chronological listing of publications with special issues dedicated to Benjamin Fondane: Non lieu 2–3 (1978); Cardozo Studies in Law and Literature 6 (1994); Europe (Paris) 827 (March 1998); Euresis (1999–2009), chiefly in French with some English or German; Acanthe (2002); Seine et Danube 2 (March 2004); Cahiers Benjamin Fondane (1997– ), published annually.



Translated from Romanian by Anca Mircea