The high walls of the Filantropia Jewish cemetery in Bucharest face a boulevard of the kind typical of Ceausescu’s rebuilding of the city during the 1980s; the narrow road was broadened and straightened and lined with standard ten-floor socialist apartment blocks on either side. I passed by those solid cemetery gates several thousand times during the years when I lived nearby, between 2004 and 2009.
I never went through those gates in those years, but my apartment was at the rear of my building, away from the boulevard, and it overlooked the cemetery. A swathe of greenery and trees in the warmer months, it stretched back hundreds of metres between old streets of detached and semi-detached houses.
In 2017, years after I had moved from that neighbourhood, I paid a visit.
In the synagogue inside the gates, an administrator began to tell me something of the history of the Jewish community. Noticing I knew something about the subject, he inquired if I was Jewish. It’s a question I get asked from time to time, because I write about Jewish subjects, and Jewish writers in particular. As it happened, I was wearing the kippa I had bought at the main synagogue in Kiev some years previously while researching something I was writing on Isaac Babel. But it had all started with another writer – Mihail Sebastian.
In 2005, a friend gave me a book in Romanian called For Two Thousand Years, by Mihail Sebastian. This was when I lived in the apartment beside the cemetery. It was small and bare and I slept on a mattress on the ground, and being at the back of the block I was at one remove from the roar of the traffic on the boulevard, and it was a good place to read and to write, and facing southwest it was full of light for most of the day. I had never heard of Sebastian. The book was an unattractive paperback published in the 1990s by an obscure Jewish press. The story was structurally loose, un-novelistic, framed as a rambling diary.
I was surprised to be so excited by the book because I’d never much enjoyed reading fiction in Romanian. I half-blamed myself for my lack of proficiency as a reader in the language I spoke in my daily life. But I half-blamed the contemporary wave of Romanian writers, too. Post-communist Bucharest was an extreme location, and that Romania was a brutalized society was evident visually, from the degradation of the architecture and the effect of the demolitions on the urban fabric. But Romanian writers in the immediate decade and a half after the demise of censorship seemed incapable of registering what was before their eyes. Romanian storytelling was crippled by the idea that immediate reality was unworthy of direct treatment, that it had to be aestheticized, transformed through some kind of literary alchemy into something unrecognizable. To navigate such grotesque stylistic effects in a second language is excruciating.
To come across a book from the 1930s that spoke of real things in a direct and clear way was a revelation. If anything, I should have been alienated by the literary language of seventy years before, but it was not so. It was my first discovery of the written Romanian language as a means of transmitting lived experience. And as it happened the book was the drama of a young Romanian man during the rise of nationalism who is rejected as a member of Romanian society because he also happens to be Jewish. The intensity of the personal drama described in For Two Thousand Years opened up another story for me, one which had been ignored by official Romania – the county’s alliance with Nazi Germany. The subject of the complicity of fascist Romania in the Holocaust – one episode in a long history of antisemitism – had been taboo under communism and had received perfunctory acknowledgement by the Romanian state only in 2004, as part of a display of normalization necessary for joining NATO and the EU. But the uncomfortable facts about Romanian fascism had not entered the public consciousness.
The depiction of the turmoil of the 1930s in For Two Thousand Years was for me a contemporary lesson too. Ideological passions, including that of nationalism, were shown at the individual level, as personal experiences, and they spoke eloquently of the disasters that had overtaken Romania in the twentieth century and had still not been confronted or understood. Finally I could see why contemporary Romania was in such mental turmoil, so inarticulate and confused; here was a country that did not see itself, that had not registered one of the most traumatic episodes in recent history, and that was committed to seeing itself as a victim of the perfidy of other nations.
I admired Sebastian’s solitary vocation to register the madness around him dispassionately, and his refusal to see himself, as a Jew, as a member of a class of victims. He understood that being a perpetrator was a consequence of seeing yourself as a victim, that it was this very sense of grievance that the fascists drew upon. I was even more moved when I read his wartime journals – where the premonitions of disaster in For Two Thousand Years came true.
I began to translate For Two Thousand Years. I was unsuited to the job. I’m not bilingual and I worked far too slowly. And it might never be published, because it was an odd sort of work, neither novel nor diary, about an obscure time, by an obscure writer. But I wanted to get closer to the text itself, the same as you would wish to befriend someone rare whom you admired and pass time in their company, so the success of the project in the world of publishing was of secondary importance.
And still, I did want the book to get out there, for the academics or specialists at least. Sebastian’s diaries had been published in English in 2000, and though it had sold poorly it had made an impact among a small circle of historians, writers, and academics. But after a couple of years I exhausted every lead I had and I put it in the proverbial drawer, where it sat for seven years.
Then an editor in London contacted me; she had read an essay I had written on Sebastian and wanted to see my translation. It was published in 2016 in the Penguin Classics series and went on to be prominently reviewed and so has sold in the tens of thousands. It appeared along with Brexit and Trump, when interest in the 1930s was surging, as was an appreciation of the idea that democracy was intrinsically fragile. More of Sebastian’s novels began to appear in English in the following years and his success caused a reappraisal of Sebastian in Romania itself; For Two Thousand Years was republished in Romanian (with the Penguin cover) and in other languages also.
The essay on Sebastian – the one that caught the eye of the Penguin editor – became one in a series I wrote in the following years. It was my personal journey of exploration into Romania’s history, and the Jewish history of eastern Europe generally. I visited Odessa on the trail of Isaac Babel, and the towns he passed through in 1920 during the Polish-Soviet War. I visited the old Ukrainian Jewish capital of Berdichev, learning about Vasily Grossman and his first attempts to document the Holocaust on Soviet soil. I researched the Iaşi pogrom, the first large scale massacre of Jewish civilians in the war, in the company of a historian who had excavated mass graves from the period, and in a small village interviewed an elderly eye-witness to the killing. I visited Drohobycz, learning about Bruno Schulz, and in a library in Munich read a transcript of the war-diaries of Felix Landau, the administrator of the town’s Jewish ghetto, who had used Schulz as his personal slave. When I moved to the centre of Bucharest in 2009, I found myself in the epicentre of the zone Ceausescu had demolished to make room for his Pharaonic rebuilding of the city, and which also turned out to be part of the old Jewish neighbourhood. Researching this act of epic vandalism, I came to see how the recent past could be obliterated both materially and by the eradication of the community that had once lived there. I researched the Romanian obsession with the idea of its Latinity, and how this idea became a toxic ingredient in the nation’s twentieth-century racial crusade against ‘Judeo-Bolshevism’, in alliance with the Nazis. I read everything that Saul Bellow wrote, learned of how he had rediscovered himself, mid-career, as a Jewish writer with European roots, and how he befriended, in Chicago, the historian of religion, Mircea Eliade. And how Bellow slowly began to learn of Eliade’s wartime involvement in the Iron Guard. Eliade had been a friend of Mihail Sebastian too, until Eliade’s politics caused an estrangement.
The essays became a book which, in stops and starts and through various personal crises, took a decade to write. Being neither an academic work nor the chatty personal-essay kind of thing that might actually sell, the serious publishers tell me they have no need of it, for now. It is now enjoying its own seven-year rest in the drawer of sleeping manuscripts. This has happened to me before though, with other books. I don’t let it bother me.
I was back on a visit to Ireland in 2017, when I overheard my mother mention something in passing to my father about his “Granny Abrams”.
“Abrams?” I interjected. “Isn’t that a Jewish name?”
My father pretended he hadn’t heard. Or else he just wasn’t interested. After my decade of wanderings abroad, researching the Jews of Europe through some of their most important writers, I was very interested. I repeated the observation.
“I don’t want anything to do with the Jews,” said my father, finally.
My father wants nothing to do with the Christians either. Raised a Catholic in a theocratic state, in his later years he believes religion is the source of most evil.
The official story in the family had always been that Annie Abrams, my father’s grandmother, was a Quaker who had converted to Catholicism before her marriage, early in the twentieth century. But when I searched an Irish Quaker genealogical site for the name Abrams, nothing came up. I searched Britain and the United States, but the only match I got was a Jewish writer and peace activist who had converted to Quakerism. Abrams is not a Quaker name – anywhere.
Then I searched an Irish-Jewish genealogical site for the Abrams and there was a long stack of them, and variants of the name.
My grandfather, the son of Anna Abrams, was a child during Ireland’s War of Independence, and grew up in a newly independent Catholic-nationalist state. The country had been partitioned on an ethnic-religious basis in 1921, ending any possibility that being Irish could be a pluralist identity. There were many differences between Romania in the 1930s and Ireland in that period, but they were both young, insecure countries where the national identity was bolstered by the religious identity. I was forced to apply the story of For Two Thousand Years – the struggle and eventual failure of a young Jewish man to be allowed to be part of the society he was born in, in the inter-war era – to Ireland and my own family.
In Ireland, intermarriage in the early twentieth century was uncommon even between Catholics and Protestants, and required special permission from the Catholic Church and the commitment to raise any children within the faith. How much more problematic then for a Catholic to marry a Jew. All my father could tell me about my grandmother’s conversion was that it was said she had alienated her own people and lost a lot of money through it.
My grandfather, the son of a mixed marriage, would presumably have learned discretion at an early age.
When I mentioned my investigations to my father the next time we met, he was still not much interested in the subject, but told me my grandfather had indeed grown up in the heart of Dublin’s Jewish community, then centred around the South Circular Road. The Jewish world was in no way foreign to him. I remembered then that my grandfather was the first person to tell me about the death camps, and that somebody he knew had a number tattooed on his arm. This detail has stuck with me, as has the name Belsen. My grandfather lived through this in neutral Ireland, but as a young married man was conscious of the events unfolding in Europe and that if he had been born in Germany would have been classified as Mischling – mixed race. The Catholic-Irish state of the time, recently partitioned on an ethnic basis, refused to be a refuge for Jewish refugees from the Continent. And it was not until 1965, in the wake of the Holocaust, that the Vatican Council instigated by Pope John XXIII explicitly absolved Jews of guilt for the murder of Christ.
But I know the story about Anna Abrams has changed, a little bit, the way I feel about the book sleeping in the drawer, and my peculiar old acquaintance with Mihail Sebastian, which has become part of my life. But a couple of generations is enough for history to be buried or invented and I am aware that in looking back I am doing some imagining. I could satisfy my curiosity by taking a genetic test, but what would it really change to know, one way or another? Too much has been made of the idea of racial and national identity, past and present, on the left and right. That I might be part-Jewish, or not, I think of as another layer of complexity, a reminder not to be simplistic, not to be certain, to tolerate ambiguity. And the fact that I sometimes think I was drawn to the history of the Jews because I have some of that blood in me is just an irrational thought. Life is full of strange coincidences and we impute them with magical poetic meaning where convenient.
On that occasion, in the synagogue in Filantropia cemetery, when the man asked me if I was Jewish, I replied as best I could:
“Not so much.”
“Ah! Your father’s side?”
“Well, yes …”
And before I could equivocate further, he had his hand on my shoulder and explained that that nonsense about the paternal line had infected Judaism in the Middle Ages, and to pay it no mind. I was not sure this was true, but took it as it was intended, as a friendly gesture of inclusion, and did not argue.
And so, I left the synagogue, stepped back out into the bright sunlight in the Filantropia cemetery.
Easy. I was one of the Chosen People.
Then my guide mentioned, as I departed, that the grave of the writer Mihail Sebastian was nearby. Had I heard of him?
It had not crossed my mind when I was translating Sebastian that he might be buried here.
A writer can engage your imagination so powerfully that you forget that the world he lived in was not another dimension. That he walked some of the same streets that you, the reader, walk through.
I strolled a little way back between the tombstones, deeper into the cemetery, quiet and green under the warm sun of early summer, and found Mihail Sebastian’s grave. I kneeled down and swept the old leaves and vegetation from it with my hands. Then I looked up, and barely three hundred metres away was the apartment where I lived when I had been translating For Two Thousand Years, and my old balcony, from which I had been looking down on the author’s final resting place, every day for years, unaware.