“I will never cease to be a Jew, of course,” the narrator of Mihail Sebastian’s For Two Thousand Years declares. “That is not a position I can resign from. You are or you’re not. It’s not a matter either of pride or shame.” The speaker of these words is unnamed, but is so closely modeled on the author that the novel itself is nearly autobiographical. In some ways it feels more like a historical document: it was published in Romania in 1934, and has only now been translated into English by Philip O Ceallaigh, a famous Irish writer and translator. For Two Thousand Years begins in December 1923, when a new constitution making Jews Romanian citizens takes effect and recounts, from the narrator’s perspective, the experience of being a Jew in Romania between the two world wars. The narrator, a law student, is trying to focus on his intellectual endeavors while suffering regular anti-Semitic attacks and beatings, which have increased in reaction to the new law: “I received two punches during today’s lectures and I took eight pages of notes. Good value, for two punches.” He chronicles that year in a notebook that he eventually loses but refers back to throughout the novel. This notebook is the novel’s heart, and through it we witness how he suffers this violence with discretion and dignity, how he tries to make sense of his being a Jew, and how he remains mostly a silent witness to debates among his friends and acquaintances on Communism and Zionism, all while he tries to forge his own space of freedom to think.
This diary is also where we meet many of the characters modeled on Mihail Sebastian’s own circle of friends. The comparisons are easy to draw: Sebastian himself was born Iosef Hechter in 1907 to a Jewish family on the Danube, and studied law in Bucharest and Paris in the same timeframe of the late 1920s and early 1930s. He then worked as a lawyer and published articles, novels, and plays, and was part of the intellectual elite of Bucharest, counting among his circle Mircea Eliade, Eugen Ionescu (who would become Eugene Ionesco) and Emil Cioran. Sebastian’s mentor at the time was a philosopher named Nae Ionescu, whom he asked to write the preface to For Two Thousand Years. Ionescu did, but instead of writing a supportive or positive piece for his friend, he wrote an anti-Semitic diatribe that Sebastian decided to still include with the book’s publication in 1934, causing a major uproar when it came out.
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In the novel, Ionescu is the model for Blidaru, a professor of political economy who simultaneously loves Europe and its culture while decrying it at every turn and constantly reiterating his own Romanian peasant roots. He exercises great influence on our narrator’s thinking and on his very livelihood—when he tells the narrator he should switch from law to architecture, he does, thus ending up working on an oil refinery funded by an American and designed by an architect named Vieru, whom he refers to as “the master.” This change in the narrator’s career trajectory means he will engage directly with the land.
From the beginning there is no question that “the land,” Romania, is not for Jews. Early on, the character based on Cioran, Stefan D. Parlea, tells him, “The pair of us can’t be friends. Not now or ever. Don’t you get the smell of the land off me?” The narrator, noticing “something terrible in his eyes,” thinks to himself: “Don’t you get the smell of the land off me? Yes, indeed I get it. And I envy you for it.” Parlea is of the land, he is a Romanian, and the narrator is a Jew, he will never be Romanian. The only other land he is told is for him is Palestine, but while he never dismisses it, he never fully believes in the Zionist mission; he thinks to himself that “it’s really a tragic stab at salvation rather than a natural return to the land.”
Later on he recalls of his early school years that “Country, fatherland, nation, hero [were] a whole forbidden vocabulary . . . A shadow of terror hangs over all my memories of school and childhood.” With every utterance of the phrase “we Romanians” there would be a classmate determined to remind him that he was not part of that “we.” And even after 1923, when the Jews born and educated in Romania had been made Romanian by law, it remained an identity withheld on all fronts. When he recalls how he was called up on guard duty and learned there was a special regiment for Jews, he writes:
A “special” regime annulled in that moment the life I had lived on this soil, the lives of my parents, the lives of my grandparents and great-grandparents, a “special” regime with a serial number erased nearly two centuries of history in a country which of course, was not “my fatherland,” since I might betray it in the course of a night on guard duty.
Being Romanian is something the narrator decides he must claim for himself. He knows he was born on the Danube, and the land is in his blood and his family’s, and ultimately this is all he has—this self-knowledge. “The state may declare me what it will, but I won’t stop being a Jew, a Romanian and a Danubian.” He knows that he will not be able to claim these attributes easily, and especially not all at the same time, but for him, “It seems more urgent and effective to me to achieve a harmony in my own life between the Romanian and Jewish parts of my character than to obtain or lose certain civil rights. I would like to know, for instance, what anti-Semitic law could erase from my being the irrevocable fact of having been born by the Danube and loving that place.”
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Being a Jew burdens Sebastian’s narrator not only with the trauma of anti-Semitism in all aspects of his life, but also with the inescapable, sheer weight of Jewish history, which becomes its own force to be reckoned with. When he returns home in 1923 at the height of beatings at the university, he hears a man named Moritz Bercovici utter the despairing words, “‘For two thousand years ’ . . .trying to explain to me the cause of our persecution.”
The utterance of those “two thousand years” recurs repeatedly in the novel, most piercingly towards the end:
Two thousand years can’t be overcome by leaving for somewhere. They would have to be forgotten, the wound cauterized, their melancholy cut to the ground with a scythe. But the truth is that there are too many years for us to be able to forget them. We live always in the troubled memory of them. The memory reaches far back and hangs like a haze over the horizon of our future. Only rarely, through this history of warfare, victories and kingdoms, does any light pierce the mist. Is it possible to build a new history from such material?
Such a question is especially haunting knowing what is to come. The Holocaust hangs over this entire novel. His communist and Zionist friends are all trying to build new histories, but the troubled memory of too many years remains stubbornly inescapable; even to build a new history, it would only be new because it would be in opposition to this past. The absolute horror of what is to come is also clarified by the fact that no one can fathom it. The anti-Semitism that the narrator knows is one that comes in waves—times are worse, times get better. He tries to comfort a friend anxious about his Hungarian-Romanian-Jewish identity by saying, “Think how ridiculous we would be if we were alarmed at every shower of rain that soaked us.” This advice comes back to the reader when later on, Parlea, in response to the narrator asking him if he doesn’t care about the cost of the revolution he wants, says, “I don’t know how the rain will fall. I just want it to come.” The narrator thinks to himself, “I could reply. I could tell him that a metaphor is inadequate in the face of a bloodbath . . . I could reply. But what good would it do? I have a simple, resigned, inexplicable sensation that everything that is happening is in the normal order of things and that I am awaiting a season that will come and pass—because it has come and passed before.”
Not only can he not know what is to come, but he also cannot know that as he examines the different lives available to Jews, he is describing a world about to be wiped from the earth. He meets an old Jewish bookseller with whom he gets into an argument regarding assimilating into European society versus staying in the ghetto and speaking Yiddish. Of the latter, the booksellers cries:
Millions of Jews speak it, millions live through it. For these millions are printed these books you see, for these millions Yiddish is written, translations are made into Yiddish, and Jewish theatre is performed. It’s a complete world, a complete people, with its own elite, without diplomas or universities.
I read this and a chill went down my spine. Six million.
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Within these larger debates are the narrator’s own struggles within himself. He interrogates himself, and is unsparingly honest about trying to work through and understand his own sense of his Jewish identity, of his family, and of the divides within Romanian society and where he and his friends fall therein. At the same time, he cannot help but feel some gratitude for working as an architect and in so doing find an escape from the thinking life—there are few moments where he is truly at peace, and of those few many of them are when he is working, building something concrete.
Like any real-life diary that only aims to record life at regular intervals, the novel can be uneven in tone at moments and a few characters underdeveloped, but these are minor criticisms. For Two Thousand Years is deeply honest and real. Even in those moments when readers might be unsure of where the narrator stands, or frustrated because he is not taking a stand, Sebastian’s narrator is never unreliable. What this book illustrates is how he lived in this moment where there is no space free from anti-Semitism, but where he must go on living his life how he can. And while it may be confusing that he continues, in varying degrees, to hold relationships with vocal anti-Semites, he is also able to do so because he knows them better then they know themselves. The final section is an argument he has with “the master,” his boss Vieru, whom he expected to be sympathetic to his depression that on every corner someone is shouting “Death to Yids,” but he is startled to hear Vieru say, “You’re right. Yet there is a Jewish problem, and it needs to be solved. One million eight hundred thousand Jews is intolerable. If it was up to me, I’d try to eliminate several hundred thousand.” When he notices his employee’s distress, he tries to clarify: “Let’s be clear. I’m not anti-Semitic. I’ve told you that before and I abide by that. But I’m Romanian. And, all that is opposed to me as a Romanian I regard as dangerous. There is a corrosive Jewish spirit.” He goes on in this vein, but the narrator does not let him get away with this. He tells his boss very clearly that while he isn’t surprised, Vieru’s response is depressing: “You see, I know two kinds of anti-Semites. Ordinary anti-Semites—and anti-Semites with arguments. I manage to get along with the first kind, because everything between us is clear-cut. But with the other kind it’s hard . . . Because it’s futile to argue back. You see, dear master, your mistake begins where your arguments begin. To be anti-Semitic is a fact.”
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Sebastian did respond to his critics who questioned why he included Ionescu’s anti-Semitic preface in an essay titled “How I Became a Hooligan” in 1935, not defending the content of the preface but standing by his decision to include it: “I published the preface, first of all, because I asked for it . . . Secondly, [I published it] because I do not recognize in any way the right to censure.” Sebastian went on to publish less political novels and plays, but was gradually censured himself as the 1930s wore on. He wrote a journal that was not published in Romania until 1996 and in English until 2000 as Journal 1935–1944: The Fascist Years, that is an intimate account of his own transformation from intellectual dandy to horrified critic of the regime, and of his friendships with the intellectuals who one by one become vocal fascist supporters. He survived the war, but did not live to continue these relationships after—he was killed by a truck in 1945.
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In For Two Thousand Years, Sebastian gives a vibrant inner life of a man reconciling himself with his historical moment. His account may be fictionalized, but it grows all the darker, all the more portentous as the story passes into the 1930s, on the edge of what today’s readers know is to come for Jews in Romania and across Europe. Sebastian’s words serve as unshakable evidence for Hannah Arendt’s indictment, in Eichmann in Jerusalem, that Romania was “the most anti-Semitic country in pre-war Europe.” And the questions of identity Sebastian raised have persisted long after the war. As a student in post-war Bucharest, my own father’s identity papers stated that his nationality was Jewish first, and Romanian second. Today, with white supremacy on the rise again, the freedom Sebastian’s narrator is so desperate for appears to remain elusive, if not outright denied. One wonders if the history of these two thousand years will ever be truly past.
Lauren Goldenberg is Deputy Director at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. A former book scout and bookseller, she's a lifelong New Yorker with stints in Chicago and Paris.