Sebastian, Mikhail. “For Two Thousand Years”, Other Press, 2017.
Mikhail Sebastian’s “For Two Thousand Years” is plotless autobiographical fiction that takes us into Romanian life between the world wars when the Iron Guard and Romanian anti-Semitism were on the rise. While Jewish by birth, Sebastian was a non-believer who managed to survive WW2 in Romania. Somehow, he was able to have friendships/relationships with anti-Semitic intellectuals and these are what probably insured his staying alive. His journal covers the years 1935-1944. What I found interesting here is that now, years later than those covered here, we still have the same problems of ecology, politics, anti-Semitism and economy.
Sebastian asked Nae Ionescu, his mentor, to write a preface for his novel, before he even began to write it. Philosopher Nae Ionescu, at the time still friendly with Sebastian, agreed to write the preface, and generated an uproar by inserting anti-Semitic paragraphs into that preface. The book was well received by the Romanian public and the country’s cultural establishment which was Christian Orthodox and concerned about the spread of Bolshevism.
Sebastian worked as a writer and lawyer until anti-Semitic legislation forced him to abandon his career. He wrote this in 1934 and it was first translated into English by Irish short-story writer Philip Ó Ceallaigh. It is, without doubt, one of the most important chronicles of the rise of Nazism in Europe. The 2000 years of the title are the 2000 years of Jewish persecution. Then Romanian Jews were granted equality with their Gentile compatriots, but they were also targeted for their Jewish heritage even before the rise of the Nazi regime.
We are with Sebastian from his university days to a career as an architect, during when he often heard cries of ‘Death to the Yids.’ Sebastian shares his thoughts with us about the place of the Jewish people and their culture in the world. He prophesized that the Jews would be in great need of their own country if they were going to survive the brutal Nazi hatred.
Sebastian tried very hard to eschew his “Jewishness.” In the novel, he is an unnamed university student, who tries to avoid beatings on his way to political economy lectures and mocks fellow Jewish students who show off their bruises. He is dismissive of their newfound political fervor that came with Zionism. He was a Marxist who spent his days drinking and gambling and meeting revolutionaries. He admitted to wanting to be “like a stone” and he envied “the supreme insensibility of objects, their extreme indifference.” He has daydreams about living like the rural, peasant side of his family, from the Danube River instead of accepting his father’s intellectual side from the Romanian ghetto but he also realized that the increasingly heated anti-Semitic rhetoric of political figures had taken over his closest colleagues and friends.
The novel is divided into six parts and each part captures his growth and the pain he felt as a person with a questioning mind as Europe moved closer and closer to Holocaust and the murder of 6,000,000 Jews (for the sake of insuring a pure race). He constantly questioned his identity as a Jew and as a Romanian.
Sebastian was born in Romania in 1907 as Iosef Hechter and worked as a lawyer and writer. He was a member an influential literary circle that included Romanian notables such as historian Mircea Eliade, playwright Eugene Ionesco and philosopher Emil Cioran. Anti-Semitic legislation forced him to abandon his public career. After having survived the war and the Holocaust, he was killed in a road accident early in 1945 as he was crossing the street.
“For Two Thousand Years” gives us the sense of prewar Romania in all its sophistication and a look at a true man of courage. Sebastian explores “alienation and self-loathing, the need for belonging, and the cultural assimilation in the nation state.” He refused to compromise himself as a civilized human being in the darkest period of human history.