, born Isaac Hechter
in a remote part of Romania at the turn of the century was a thoroughly assimilated
Romanian Jew. He spoke Romanian, not Yiddish
, had a degree in philosophy from the state University of Bucharest
, and went so far as to change his name in order to make it as a journalist
and general man of letters during the boom years of the 20's in Bucharest, when the city was known as Little Paris
and people such as Ionescu
, and Mircea Eliade
, all of whom would become famous later, after moving to Paris
, were all major parts of the social scene. His mentor at University was the incredibly charismatic, brilliant Christian Theology
professor Nae Ionescu
, and Sebastian considered himself SO Romanian that he went to work with Ionescu
as a journalist at the Universul
paper, one of the most nationalist newspapers in Romania at the end of the 20's and one of the few that was not Jewish
Like many young journalists, Mihail had written a novel. Called For 2000 years it intended to be a searching examination of the meaning of being Jewish in Romania, as Hasidism, Zionism, Communism, Traditional Orthodoxy, and Cultural Assimilationism were all competing for Jewish hearts and minds. Like many first literary efforts by young publicists, the novel was universally considered mediocre; not terrible, not outstanding, certainly good enough to get published and build a career on, but nothing to shake the foundation of the world. Sebastian, trying to make the book a little more attractive towards a publisher, gave a copy of it to Nae Ionsecu and asked him for a preface, which Ionescu promptly promised to write, and then both of them forgot about it and concentrated on political journalism.
Time passed. The Great Depression hit Romania, as it did so many other countries, and Hitler won the elections in Germany. In Romania, The Legion of the Archangel Michael, an Orthodox Christian sect that had long mixed facism with Christianity and nationalism began to slowly gain power. The Legion's members were all clean cut, religious Christians. The men were handsome and the women, lovely. They rode into towns on white horses and promised to clean the country of corruption, end Jewish domination of industry and commerce, and wipe out the entire corrupt political class. The entire intellectual class of Romania joined them enthusiastically - as, finally, did Sebastian's mentor, Ionescu. He became their head theologian, proving through sophistically constructed sylloligisms that Christianity and Fascism were complementary - even necessary to one another - and soon became the spiritual leader of a movement that was to end crushed by the army after its leaders shot some of the most important non-allied intellectuals and rampaged through the Jewish quarter of the city, cutting up Jews and dragging them to the slaughterhouse to later be displayed in shop windows with signs reading: Kosher Kebab
Long before this event, however, when the movement was still growing and Ionescu had become its spiritual head, he remembered the preface. He gave it to Sebastian three years after he recieved the novel: it was an anti-semitic polemic. It claimed that Jews will always be hostile to Christianity, that Judaism, as a religion, was anti-social and doomed, and that the Jews, as responsible for the death of Christ were doomed to be hated by the nations within which they lived until their final destruction. Finally, he refused to call Mihail Sebastian by his legal name throughout the preface, calling him by his birth name Isaac Hechtor, and ending the preface with a curse:
Time is running out for you, Isaac Hechtor, and I can do nothing for you. You or all your nation. Isaac Hechtor, can you hear the water overcoming you?
Mihail Sebastian promptly published his book, including the preface. The response was furious, from both the right, the left, the Christian establishment of the Jews. The leading Jewish satirist, Ludovic Halevy, wrote: "It seems that Sebastian - sorry, Hechtor - is quite happy being Ionescu's pet Jewish dog. Ionescu takes him to the park, let's him piddle his novel on a tree, and even cleans up after him with a preface." The anti-semitic daily Breaking the Rocks was even more vicious: "This dirty kike tried to sucker the holy Ionescu into his wicked kikeness by asking him to write a preface to his disgusting jew-sick work. But Ionescu proved to be a true Romanian, and presented him with a real answer to his impudent Jewish...etc." Sebastian was accused of including the preface for money, as an agent of the Zionists, as a crazy traitor to his people that would do anything to assimilate.
Sebastian, who at the end of the day was a much more intelligent, wise, and thoughtful person that any of his detractors gave him credit for, responded with an essay which brilliantly destroyed his critics and saved his reputation: How I Became a Hooligan. He begins by listing all of the worst articles on the right and left attacking him, and then takes apart, one by one, the anti-semitic movement, his own fellow Jews, in their various manifestations, and anyone who would seek to limit his identity:
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."
As for the preface, he gave the only answer which made sense:
"What hurt me was not the idea that the preface would be made public - what hurt me was the idea that it had been written. Had I known it would have been destroyed immediately afterwards, it still would have hurt me had it been written...So I weighed my options, and I decided to take the only intelligent revenge I could think of: I published it."
During the war, Sebastian miraculously survived. Hated by everyone, a target of the regime, he was slowly abandoned by all of his old friends as, one by one, they joined the anti-semitic movement sweeping the country and decided to cut of ties with him. Finally kicked out his apartment by anti-semitic laws, moved into a tenement slum, he continued to write books which are among the classics of Romanian literature, finally dying in a tram accident just weeks after the Soviet Army occupied the country.
Nae Ionescu spent the war in occupied Paris. At the end of the war he tried to rehabilitate his reputation but it was impossible: the publication of the pamphlet had destroyed any credibility he had ever had.