Mihail Sebastian published this book in German in 1934, and it has only now been translated into English. It is a salutary read. You have to remind yourself that he could not have known what was going to happen. He may have had a premonition, he may have feared it, as many of the characters in this book live in fear, but he could not have known that the Holocaust would happen. This is a book about Jewish life in Romania in the 1920s. It certainly gives the lie to the idea that there was no co-operation with the Holocaust by the inhabitants of countries invaded by the Nazis. The antisemitism is visceral, It is violent and brutal. People are assaulted on the streets because they are Jewish. People are denied education because they are Jewish. People are injured and killed because they are Jewish. There is no question about it. Jewish people were not safe in Romania in the 1920s.
The question posed by this book is simple: what to do? Some people fight back. There are riots, especially at the University. But that is not the solution. Some people, within the community, argue for the Zionist position. Some of them argue that the Jews must return to Eretz Israel because it is only in a homeland for the Jews that they can be safe. Some people set out on heroic journeys to get there. Interestingly, very little is made of the argument that this is the land granted by God to “Abraham and his seed for ever”. The argument is much more practical – this is a place in which Jews can be safe.
The flaw in the argument is exposed by the Marxist Jewish characters in the book. Although the Jewish settlers call themselves Palestinians that is the on thing that they are not. There is already a settled Palestinian population and they have to be dispossessed. The other terms used in the book by the Zionist characters, the Marxist characters argue, are far more accurate – “settlers” and “colonists”.
These arguments are put forcibly in the book, without any conclusion. There is nothing to say who is right or wrong. Of course, these arguments are very relevant today. 70 years after the founding of the State of Israel, we have not found a solution to them, a compromise with which people can live peacefully. This is essential to the survival of the State of Israel and to meeting the aspirations of the Palestinian people. People involved in the Peace Process should read this book. This lack of a conclusion is part of what makes this book a fascinating record of its time.
The other thing that is fascinating is that the antisemites are not necessarily shown as villains. In the course of the book, one of them becomes a friend of the narrator and cannot see that there is anything wrong, or anything to ashamed about, in boasting that he led some of the rioters who made particularly vicious attacks upon individual Jews. The narrator, of course, is shocked but does not end the friendship. Although they are thugs, the anti-semites are not dismissed out of hand. Some of them are depicted as intelligent people – even leading academics.
There is also an interesting description of the development of the Romanian oil industry in which the narrator and his antisemitic friend play a not insignificant role. The destruction of the ancient plum orchards symbolises the ending of a way of life. This is not to be irrelevant for the central question of the book, which is this: How are the Jews going to survive.
We, of course, know the answer. Those who went to Israel survived, but stored up trouble for the future and brought about a conflict which has not yet been resolved. Those who remained, for the most part, did not survive. The author did survive only to be killed in a motoring accident at the end of the war. Mihail Sebastian has left us a searing account of European antisemitism, giving us a lesson that we must not forget.