- Paperback: 670 pages
- Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers; Reprint edition (Nov. 7 2012)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1442220244
- ISBN-13: 978-1442220249
- Product Dimensions: 14.6 x 4.3 x 22.2 cm
- Shipping Weight: 839 g
- Average Customer Review: 5 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #1,429,523 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Journal 1935–1944: The Fascist Years Paperback – Nov 7 2012
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This extraordinary personal diary, describing, day by day, the ‘huge anti-Semitic factory’ that was Romania in the late 1930s and early 1940s, deserves to be on the same shelf as Anne Frank’s Diary and to find as huge a readership. Sebastian is no child, however―his is a sophisticated literary mind observing in horror, and then portraying with a fluid, lucent pungency, the cruelty, cowardice, and stupidity of his worldly Gentile friends in Bucharest’s urban cultural elite as they voluntarily transform themselves into intellectual criminals and, allied with the Nazis, participate with fanatical conviction in ‘an anti-Semitic delirium that nothing can stop.’ (Philip Roth)
This book is alive, a human soul lives in it, along with the unfolding ghastliness of the last century, which passed an inch away from Sebastian's nose. Here is a life whose spell will last a long time. (Arthur Miller)
An extraordinary testimonial. . . . The sickening coziness of artistic and political worlds in fascist Romania is caught in the very process of ‘rhinocerization,’ to use Eugène Ionesco’s famous coinage. . . . Sebastian’s Journal is an uncomfortable and convincing reminder that the Romanian, indeed European, intellectual milieu still had something morally rotten at its core. This book rises from the debris of pre-war verbiage like a man from a pile of corpses. (Andrei Codrescu)
This journal stands as one of the most important human and literary documents of the pre-Holocaust climate in Romania and Eastern Europe. . . . Remarkable. (Norman Manea, author of "The Hooligan’s Return")
Like all great works, Journal generates its own actuality. Discovering and reading it today, more than half a century after it was written, is a shattering and overwhelming experience. What is particularly admirable in this diary is Mihail Sebastian himself: he cannot help remembering that these fascists have been his former friends during their common youth, and he is able to feel sorrow when one of them dies. Even when he is himself marked and hunted, even when his own life is at stake, even when the horror culminates in the massacre at Jassy, even when he is beyond disgust and revulsion, he never loses his sense of justice, nor his humanity. He remains through and through a Just. (Claude Lanzmann)
Unforgettable . . . compelling. . . . Mihail Sebastian is an unparalleled diarist . . . a profoundly intelligent literary voice in the midst of political disempowerment, corruption and carnage. (Alice Kaplan The New York Times Book Review)
Rightly compared to Viktor Klemperer's great diary of life under the Nazis, I Will Bear Witness. . . . Critics have commented that Sebastian, being more literary . . . was the more elegant writer. Both diaries are indispensable. . . . From now on, the history of Fascist Romania and Nazi Germany cannot be written without them. (Peter Gay The New York Review Of Books)
Sebastian’s Journal proves to be one of the most important testimonies of the Jewish tragedy during that period, comparable to Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz or the diary of Anne Frank. Unlike Levi and Frank, who write from inside Hell, portraying life in the concentration camps or in hiding, Sebastian writes with honesty and analytic acuity from the purgatory of his own room in Bucharest, where he lives with the impending danger of deportation and death, questioning the moments of ease that his provisional freedom allows him: the enjoyment of music, of love affairs, of reading books, writing, or learning English. (The New Yorker)
Nuanced, gracefully written, spellbinding, gripping, and eloquent. (National Public Radio)
Searing . . . haunting. (Parade Magazine)
About the Author
Mihail Sebastian was born in 1907 to a middle-class Jewish family in the Danube port of Braila; he died in an automobile accident in the spring of 1945. During the period between the wars, he was well known for his lyrical and ironic plays and for urbane psychological novels tinged with melancholy, as well as for his extraordinary literary essays.
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Sebastian parades a delightful set of characters. From the comical Prince Antoine Bibescu, who walks to theatre among the barbarians "en pantoufles," to the playwright Eugène Ionesco, Sebastian's pen never fails to capture the essence his friends' personalities. Ionesco is mentioned only in passing but his predicament is sobering, if not unique. He was not able to keep his job because of his mother's Jewish background. Ionesco, who never identified himself as Jewish, had not experienced life as a minority and had difficulties dealing with his new status. Apparently he had an emotional breakdown before he finally succeeded in returning to France. I do not think that Ionesco or his biographers ever expounded on that chapter of his life from this perspective. What he had experienced in Rumania at the time may explain the inspiration for his play, Rhinocéros (1958).
This amusing social tapestry is but a background and introduction to the real drama of this diary. The author portrays the gradual evolution of a very sinister external reality, and more significantly, his own reactions to it. It illustrates a difficult and conflictual internal process of disillusionment, of realigning one's internal alliances, or, perhaps, the creeping realization that your friends are turning into rhinoceroses. As the author discovers during the peak of the persecutions, this is a process many assimilated Jews went through in past centuries under similar circumstances.
Sebastian refers to his homeland as "a Balkan swamp," where people change political affiliations like they change their shirts (something at which Ionesco's father was particularly good). He makes some lucid observations about Rumanian Jews' easy optimism and, contrary to common belief, the Jews' short memory of past tragedies. This selective amnesia of prior calamities is an attitude prevalent among Rumanian Jews in Israel, who nurture a sympathetic viewpoint about the events described in this book.
Indeed, this book confronts basic notions many people hold about that era of Rumanian history; making it highly controversial. My parents are a perfect illustration of the strong but contradictory feelings it arouses. My mother, deported from Cernauti (Chernovitz) in Bucovina to a concentration camp with the rest of her family, had no problems accepting Sebastian's account. My father, on the other hand, who hails from Bucharest, responded with disbelief to my reports about my revelations from the text. He remembered many of the events reported, for example the confiscation of the radios and the forced labor, but he refused to put it in any special context. His recollection was suffused with what seemed to me like heavy denial of the meaning and purpose of the regime's behavior. He combined this with a peculiar version of the history of those times, and a disturbing set of rationalizations of events ("it was only the Iron Guard," or, "everybody I knew survived"). He agreed to read the book, but after he received it, changed his mind and refused. Needless to say, my family, like many others, has never reached an agreement about the basic facts of the period. Another way of understanding the kind of condoning spirit displayed by my father is that it is representative of ethnic minorities' traditionally docile attitude towards authority. This deference, accentuated by fear, may also explain how millions of Jews were gullible enough to allow the Nazis to gas them. The Israelis' intransigence represents a backlash against generations of this servile obeisance, not unlike the kind of militant political transformation experienced by American blacks in the 20th century.
To see the War through Sebastian's eyes in this diary is to finally understand it. The journal - together with Radu Ioanid's recently published history of the Romanian holocaust - certainly explodes the myth that Romania was a "good" place to be Jewish during WW2. In fact, the Antonescu's wartime government - reactive always to the country's popular ultra-fascist Iron Guard - annhilated half the country's Jews, some 150,000 people. The "cut" was purely geographic: Bessarabia and Bukovina, two cities bordering Odessa with large Jewish populations, were targeted for ethnic cleansing; whereas the Jews of Bucharest were merely subject to statutes barring their employment, use of amenities, etc. But what's most extraordinary about the Journals is the way that it gives this kind of victimage-by-chance a human face: curious and halting.
Over the course of two years, Sebastian is exiled from the inner circles of the Bucharest literati. His close friends and mentors, Nae Ionescu and Mircea Eliade, have become intelletual leaders of the Iron Guard. Sebastian waits in Bucharest, increasingly unemployable due to anti-Semitic statutes and restrictions, borrowing money to pay the rent while fully aware of the massacres and pogroms that were taking place in the northern regions of his country.
The apartments of Bucharest Jews were confiscated; and then their telephones; and then eventually their skis?! Each week brought new onslaughts of mad and crippling restrictions. Sebastian notes tbe "mute despair that has become a kind of Jewish greeting." He witnesses this, with no illusions, while trying to piece together a subsistence living for himself and his parents, at times writing plays which would be produced under the names of non-Jewish friends, which he was eventually best known for.
Sebastian never married; he had a number of simultaneous & consecutive affairs with married and independent women, as was the custom at that time and place. He had no children. He has a great sense of vocation as a writer and a thinker, and this Journal comes closer than any document I've read to conveying a sense of the "dazed stupor ... with no room for gestures, feeling, words" that comes from living alongside horror.
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