Two Jewish writers captured the spirit of interwar Romania. What can they teach us about the rise of fascism?

Two Jewish writers captured the spirit of interwar Romania. What can they teach us about the rise of fascism?
Ludovic Bruckstein

In their literature, Mihail Sebastian and Ludovic Bruckstein portray two different facets of the Jewish experience in the lead-up to the Second World War.

20 May 2021

To mark the latest translations, With an Unopened Umbrella, by Ludovic Bruckstein, and The Star Without a Name, by Mihail Sebastian, The Calvert Journal looked at how two very different lives intertwined to build a picture of repression and resistance in interwar Romania

After the fall of communism in 1989, a large part of the Romanian intelligentsia began to see the interwar period as something of a golden age for the country’s arts and culture. To a large extent, this aura was created thanks to the international (read: Western) recognition achieved by some Romanian artists living abroad. They include the Paris-based Constantin Brâncuși, considered the founder of modern sculpture, Eugene Ionesco, one of the pioneers of the theatre of the absurd, philosopher Emil Cioran, who became one of the French language’s foremost stylists, and Mircea Eliade, who made key contributions to the history of religions while teaching at the University of Chicago, and went on diplomatic missions across Europe. These were cultural figures, formerly condemned by Romania’s socialist regime that the post-communist cultural elite felt compelled to recover and reappropriate.

Then, in 1996, one book threw a dark shadow on not only the interwar period, but many of its luminaries: the posthumously-published Diary of Mihail Sebastian: 1935-1944. Born in Brăila, by the river Danube, in 1907, the Jewish Romanian author grew up to join the bohemian circles of Bucharest as a writer and journalist for the newspaper Cuvântul, edited by his mentor, philosopher and publicist Nae Ionescu. Written between 1935 and 1944, Sebastian’s diary entries follow the descent of his friends — figures like Nae Ionescu and Eliade, as well as novelist Camil Petrescu — into fascism and anti-semitism.

Modern Romania was founded in 1918, when the regions of Transylvania, Wallachia, and Moldova united following the First World War. The new country was forced to find its way on the geographical map, but soon ran into difficulties. Outraged by the corruption of the political elite, a political party began to rise in the 1930s: the Iron Guard, led by Corneliu Zelea Codreanu. With a fascist ideology that developed its own take on Orthodox Christianity, anti-capitalism and anti-communism, the group portrayed the country’s Jewish, Roma, and Hungarian minorities as enemies of the Romanian nation. The Iron Guard soon swayed both the public and the political elite to the far-right — not least through a campaign of terror spread through their assassinations of public officials.

Mihail Sebastian

The cultural elite, too, started embracing fascist ideas. Sebastian traces this change of heart and mind in real time, from his own first-hand experience: his friends begin to avoid him, his plays get withdrawn from theatre programmes, and the newspaper he once wrote for becomes increasingly far-right. “Is a friendship with people with such alien ideas and feelings possible, so alien, that it would be enough for me to enter the door, and they will immediately go quiet, ashamed and embarrassed?”, the writer asks in his diary.

Neither is Sebastian spared by the Jewish community itself, which views him, as an author who chose to write under a Romanian rather than his Jewish name, Iosif Hechter, as a traitor. After publishing the novel Two Thousand Years in 1934, Sebastian came under the fire from the whole political spectrum, including Zionist communities and Jewish communist circles. Largely, he was accused of publishing the book with an incredibly antisemitic preface from his mentor, Nae Ionesco — a dilemma he mulled over in his 1935 essay How I Became a Hooligan. “You see, what is alarming is not that such a preface is published but that such a preface can be written,” Sebastian notes. “I had only one revenge for this preface, which was also an obligation: to publish it.”

In contrast to Sebastian’s urban universe, Ludovic Bruckstein uses his short stories, novellas, and plays — published in English by Istros Books — to reflect on rural and provincial Jewish life in interwar Romania. Partly, this is due to his background: he grew up in the small Transylvanian town of Sighet and later became a teacher and art school director there, after a brief period spent in the capital, where he became disillusioned with the communist regime. His characters are clock makers, farmers, and rabbis; young Jewish people either going along with their families’ wishes, or defying them.

Paramilitary Romanian schoolteachers giving the “Roman salute”

Unlike Sebastian, who portrays complex (and often non-Jewish) individual characters in his writing, Bruckstein populates his books with Jewish families and communities. Partly, this is due to the two writers’ different experiences and relationships: beyond his nuclear family, Sebastian seemed far less attached to his Jewish acquaintances than to his non-Jewish friends in the literary, journalistic, and bohemian circles he frequented. In fact, he doesn’t seem much of a fan of either other Jewish Romanian writers, or of the Jewish traders he considers borrowing money from when he is struck by poverty. Bruckstein, meanwhile, was more integrated in the Jewish community, writing plays for the Jewish Theatre in Bucharest, and then, after emigrating in the 1970s, for Romanian Jews in Israel. In his books, he is interested in the tighter, religious communities of the older generations, and their ties with the young, who nurture new ideas, or rebel against their elders.

Like Sebastian, Bruckstein traced the rise of antisemitism in its quotidian manifestations. In his 1973 novella set in the 1930s, The Rag Doll, the young but daring Hanna rebels against her parents, running away with a philosophy graduate to lead a simple farmers’ life. In their new village in Transylvania, the couple hide their Jewish identity to avoid prejudice, helping them to integrate into “respectable” rural circles. At one party, Hanna hears a notary flippantly comment that, “Whoever it was who said it had a point when he said that [Jews] are like salt in food. Wherever you go, like it or not, you trip over them…” The line gains weight as one learns about Bruckstein’s biography.

Both Bruckstein and Sebastian themselves were victims of antisemitism. Jews in Bucharest were spared from the Holocaust but had to deal with a host of other antisemitic policies during the Second World War — having their telephone lines cut, being made to clean the snow on the streets during the winter, being compelled to give their mattresses and blankets to the state, and eventually having their Romanian citizenship withdrawn — all measures that Sebastian narrates in real time in his diary. Sebastian is shocked one day in 1942, when he finds his name under the “Jewish writers” label at the bookshops across town — “as a delinquent, as a criminal” — defeating his efforts to stay away from the capital’s social life for the two years prior, “all alone, all forgotten.”

The Bruckstein family in 1925. Image: Family Archive

Ironically, the antisemitic policies intensified only two years after Sebastian was enrolled in the Romanian army himself in 1939, for a few months, to his despair. “I am not myself any longer,” he wrote in his diary, as a soldier. “I am nothing, nothing, nothing. Something that can be killed in the crowd, without any importance, something that can be dragged in mud, thrown into stables, forgotten on the field, something without name, without identity, without a gaze, without a voice, without life — a Romanian soldier.” Yet, in only a couple of years, the rise of antisemitism meant that Sebastian’s war effort did not matter: he wasn’t a Romanian, the new policies implied; he was Jewish.

As a Transylvanian Jew, Bruckstein, meanwhile, was taken to Auschwitz in his early 20s, together with his whole family. While he managed to survive, following a quick transfer to a labour camp, his parents did not. His novella, The Trap, which tells the story of a young student who follows the deportation of his Jewish community from his hideaway in the mountains, only to be arrested when the Soviets arrive, is loosely based on Bruckstein’s Second World War experience, and reflects his ideological rejection of both fascism and communism as it existed in post-war Romania.

Indeed, both Sebastian and Bruckstein maintained their scepticism of the dominant ideologies of their times. This open mindedness is reflected in their writing styles, representing different facets of the Romanian literary communities. While Sebastian’s crystal-clear prose is embedded in an Andre Gide-inspired search for authenticity, Bruckstein’s unpretentious yet vivid writing exults a love for weaving narratives, which goes hand in hand with oral traditions of storytelling. Indeed, as Bruckstein’s son admitted in an interview for The Calvert Journal, his father was always the kind of person who started chats with people he did not know in restaurants, trains, or anywhere he went.

The two worlds, and styles, of Sebastian and Bruckstein thus give complementary, diverse, heterogeneous, and precious insights into interwar Romania, as experienced by Jewish Romanians.

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