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Sebastian, Mihail

(Iosef Hechter; 1907–1945), writer, playwright, and essayist. Son of Mendel and Clara (née Weintraub) Hechter, Mihail Sebastian was born in Brăila, where he also attended high school. He studied law in Bucharest from 1927 to 1929 and in Paris from 1930 to 1931, then worked occasionally as a lawyer while mainly focusing on literary and journalistic work.

By the age of 20, Sebastian had become a frequent contributor to the newspaper Cuvântul (The Word), on invitation from Nae Ionescu, the professor of philosophy and journalist who later was his mentor. From 1936, Sebastian wrote for the prestigious Revista Fundațiilor Regale (Review of the Royal Foundations) until his dismissal in 1940 because of racial laws. Though he was a prolific journalist who wrote essays on literary as well as social, cultural, and political topics, Sebastian also became a succesful prose writer. He revealed a particular gift for representing female characters in his novels Femei (Women; 1933), Oraşul cu salcâmi (The Town with Acacias; 1935), and Accidentul (The Accident; 1940), as well as introspective writing influenced by the prose of André Gide and Marcel Proust (whose correspondence he analyzed in a substantial essay published in 1939). Sebastian also enjoyed success as a playwright, particularly for Jocul de-a vacanța (Holiday Game; 1938), Steaua fără nume (A Nameless Star; 1944), and Ultima oră (The Last Hour; staged posthumously in 1946), all bitter comedies, full of lyricism, depicting solitary, dreamy, and somewhat mysterious characters with rich inner lives who experienced spiritual crises ending in resignation and melancholy.

Sebastian’s most decisive and dramatic achievement was the publication of his novel De două mii de ani (For Two Thousand Years; 1934), with a foreword by Nae Ionescu. The book is centered on a young Jewish intellectual who faces the traumatizing and humiliating experience of antisemitism, especially in the first years after World War I. The protagonist strives to find an answer to the dilemmas and suffering caused by his status as an outcast, as well as by his inability to choose among ideological solutions under discussion in the Jewish community, including assimilation, Zionism, Marxism, and isolation in the “ghetto of tradition.” Written in the first person in the form of a journal, the novel offers stimulating discussions between the main character and his elite intellectual friends on Romanian antisemitism and on “Jewish suffering” in general.

Ionescu’s foreword, which Sebastian had requested in 1931, two years before the professor’s conversion to the antisemitic ideology of the Iron Guard, was a main source of a scandal that ensued, as the foreword was a clear theological justification of antisemitism. Feeling morally obliged to publish the terrible text written by his former spiritual guide, Sebastian was henceforth subject to countless attacks both from the extremist antisemitic press and from the democratic and national Jewish press, led by Isac Ludo. Caught in the crossfire, Sebastian replied to his critics in a forthright essay, Cum am devenit huligan (How I Became a Hooligan; 1935), in which he calmly analyzed the troubled manner in which his book had been received. He confronted the dilemmas of double identity, and also retold the story of his relationship with Nae Ionescu. Confronted with brutal antisemitic attacks and seeing his right to be a Romanian writer challenged, Sebastian remained attached to this “double” choice, remaining confident that he could merge his Judaic core with the values of the culture into which he had integrated and made his mark.

The indifference of those around Sebastian, even of his friends, in facing antisemitic aggression, as depicted in the novel, became a dominant theme in the journal he kept from 1935 to 1944; this text was published posthumously in 1996. Recording his impressions with resignation and irony, Sebastian is particularly sensitive to the increasingly grotesque forms of persecution. After Paris was occupied by German troops and General Ion Antonescu came into power, Sebastian’s notes frequently reveal moments of panic and consternation, for instance during the pogrom of Bucharest in January 1941 or after he learned of the massacre of Jews in Iaşi or the slaughters in Bessarabia and Bucovina. Forced by new legislation into humiliating confinement in an exclusively Jewish cultural environment, Sebastian collaborated with the Baraşeum Theater and taught literature in the Jewish high school that had been set up after Jews were excluded from Romanian schools.

The journal stops at the end of 1944 and records the presence of Soviet troops in Bucharest. Apart from the joy at the end of the war and the thought of survival, Sebastian nervously anticipates the signs indicating the establishment of a new form of repression—Stalinism. The publication of the French (1998), English (2000), and German (2005) versions of his journal, frequently seen as an exceptional testimony of a Jewish writer and intellectual during the Holocaust, gave an international dimension to the unusual interest raised by the journal in Romanian intellectual circles.

Suggested Reading

Paul Bailey, “The Dear Old Leprosy,” Times Literary Supplement (2 March 2001): 13–14; Iordan Chimet, Dosar Mihail Sebastian (Bucharest, 2001); Peter Gay, “Witness to Fascism,” The New York Review of Books (4 October 2001): 44–47; Dorina Grăsoiu, Mihail Sebastian sau ironia unui destin (Bucharest, 1986); Norman Manea, “The Incompatibilities: Romania, the Holocaust, and a Rediscovered Writer,” The New Republic (20 April 1998): 32–37; Leon Volovici, “Mihai Sebastian: A Jewish Writer and His (Antisemitic) Master,” in Insiders and Outsiders: Dilemmas of East European Jewry, ed. Richard I. Cohen, Jonathan Frankel, and Stefani Hoffman (Oxford, 2010); A. B. Yoffe, Be-Sadot zarim: Sofrim yehudim be-Romanyah, 1880–1940 (Tel Aviv, 1996), pp. 341–374, abstract and table of contents also in English.



Translated from Romanian by Anca Mircea