Thursday, April 16, 2015

Who Is Mihail Sebastian?

Born as Iosef Meddel Hechter, Mihail Sebastian was a Romanian playwright, essayist, journalist, and novelist. Mr. Sebastian was born Jewish in 1907 in Brăila, Romania. Originally a law student, he quickly became involved with the Romanian literary set that included playwright Eugène Ionesco in its circle. As a Jew, Sebastian came to be regarded as an outsider within the group, even by his friends. In 1934 he published a novel, De două mii de ani... ("It's been two thousand years..."), about what it meant to be a Jew in Romania, and asked Nae Ionescu, a noted Romanian professor, mathematician, and philosopher, who at the time was Sebastian’s friend and mentor, to write the preface. Ionescu agreed, generating uproar by inserting paragraphs both anti-semitic and against the very nature of the book they introduced. Sebastian "decided to take the only intelligent revenge" and publish the preface, which only heightened the controversy. In response to the criticism, Sebastian wrote Cum am devenit huligan ("How I Became a Hooligan"), an anthology of essays and articles depicting the manner in which De două mii de ani... was received by the Romanian public and the country's cultural establishment. In the book, he answered his critics and addresses the rabid anti-semitism of the former in a clear and unaffected manner:

“I was born in Romania, and I am Jewish. That makes me a Jew, and a Romanian. For me to go around and join conferences demanding that my identity as a Jewish Romanian be taken seriously would be as crazy as the lime trees on the island where I was born to form a conference demanding their rights to be lime trees. As for anyone who tells me that I'm not a Romanian, the answer is the same: go talk to the trees, and tell them they're not trees.”

From 1935 - 1944 Sebastian kept a journal that was finally published in Bucharest in 1996 to “considerable debate” and in America under the title Journal, 1935-1944: The Fascist Years. It records the mounting persecution he endured and documents the disdain former friends began showing him in Romania's increasingly antisemitic sociopolitical landscape. In keeping with the cultural climate in what author Hannah Arendt called ''the most anti-Semitic country in prewar Europe,'' the majority of Mihail Sebastian's intellectual circle followed Nae Ionescu in supporting the Iron Guard, Romania's fascist party. A fundamental testimony of anti-Semitism in Europe prior to, and during, the years of World War II, the Journal has been compared to those of Victor Klemperer or Anne Frank. 

By August 1942, Romania had murdered between 300,000 and 400,000 Romanian Jews without German assistance. Most of the killing took place in provinces distant from Sebastian's Bucharest, one of the large reasons he was able to survive the war. Romania's Jews were not immediately deported to Nazi death camps, but the country's own anti-Semitic violence, its massacres and death marches, were so brutal, Arendt reported, that the SS ''often intervened to save Jews from sheer butchery, so that the killing could be done in what, according to them, was a civilized way.'' Just as the Germans were about to put a full-scale deportation plan into motion, the Romanian dictator, Gen. Ion Antonescu, sensed the winds shifting in favor of the Allies; he also discovered that international emigration groups would pay cash for the release of Jews abroad. In the end, opportunism was stronger than ideology. So by 1944, in a bizarre about-face, Romania was no longer the most dangerous spot in Europe for Jews; it was a pathway for Jewish emigration to Palestine. 

In the 2000s, Sebastian's Journal gained a new audience in Western countries due to its lyrical, evocative style and the brutal honesty of its accounts. In 2004, American playwright David Auburn wrote a one-man play based on Sebastian's diary titled The Journals of Mihail Sebastian. It debuted the same year in New York City and starred Stephen Kunken in the role of Mihail Sebastian.

Mihail Sebastian May 29, 1945 after being struck by a truck. 

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