Contributions of Jewish writers to Romanian literature

“In the Romanian culture, the Jews were the element of innovation, of European opening.”

The Mirrors’ Hall of the Union of the Writers recently hosted the launch of “The Contribution of the Jewish Writers in Romania to the Romanian Culture”, a book published in the series of the Cultural Notebooks of the “Romanian Life”. We noticed the presence of the FJCR leaders, Academy member Nicolae Cajal, counsel Iulian Sorin, and of its leaders of opinion: Parliamentary deputy Dorel Dorian, Zigu Ornea, Dumitru Hancu. “In the Romanian culture”, said Nicolae Breban, “the Jews were the element of innovation, of European opening”, while, under the totalitarianism, they were “the first dissidents, astonished by the brutality and the cynicism of this dogma”. “I took the responsibility of the Romanian aristocracy and, on its behalf, I apologized to our Jews for what they went through between 1941 and 1944″, recalled Academy member Constantin Balaceanu Stolnici. “Personally, I was raised in respect for Judaism”; “a great deal of our theological thought has its roots in Judaism”; “the Jewish people is an example of coagulation of a nation spread all over the world, who suffered greatly and who remained united through its spirituality.” This book is another expression of our ethnical affiliation as “a part of the mankind’s whole of spirituality”, an attempt to shatter prejudices, claimed dr. Ion Ianosi. This volume is a new step in “dissipating the fog” still covering the contribution of the Jews to the development of the Romanian culture. (As it follows, we will show a few excerpts from the volume.)

The 2nd issue of “The Romanian Life” Notebooks comprises articles signed by:

  • Academy member NICOLAE CAJAL
  • Academy member C. BALACEANU STOLNICI
  • Academy member FLORIN CONSTANTINIU
  • Interview with poet ANDREI CODRESCU (US)
  • Academy member ALEXANDRU BOBOC
  • Academy member ALEXANDRU BALACI


  • Academy member NICOLAE CAJAL



  • [...] I think this volume is, through its internal logics, unmistakably repairing. The Jews deserved this gift; but the Romanians themselves deserved it even more perhaps, given our contribution to the construction of the modern Romania, to the enhancement of the national spirituality [...].


  • I will never get tired of repeating: I find this step valuable and therapeutic. It appears to be extremely necessary today. It should become a permanent work agenda for real-Semitism. History’s experience proved that the Jew’s identity is closely tied to the real love for the country where the fourth European community (after the ones in Russia, Poland and Germany) lived [...].
    I do not know if this book is fully complete. I, for one, think it offers us an emblematic image of the Romanian Jews, an image built upon the foundation of a past that is alive within us, but, especially, while keeping our eyes directed to the posterity. Together, they get filled with the right meanings.



    About the thorough inventory of happiness of poet FLORIAN MUGUR


[...] He turned 57 two days ago; when Florian Mugur, an outstanding poet of the Romanian language, slowly goes to see for himself why the lightning hastily sketches the silhouette of a thread of grass, his suffering ticket is already fully paid; it’s winter outside; the year 5751, since the Creation of the World.

1. How many lives does everyone of us live? I don’t know. Some. / It is getting quiet in all my lives.

2. I only fear chaos. / Not kings. Not their ghosts either. / I only fear chaos.

3. Leaned over the other’s half / like a carpenter over floors that are missing, / scared like crazy I might fall, / I build myself, forgotten up there. [...] Both stubborn and estranged, / and cut in half / I sit and let them fall – / my old and failed existences / and for the last one of my lives / I slowly ripe, in honesty.

4. Too much delicacy makes one crazy. [...]

14. He wrote the Bible in fear, he wrote it / prince after prince, law after law, / lamb after lamb. / He kicks the book with his foot. It doesn’t move, its blackness / stands threatening besides him. [...]

16. Words / are lighter than air, they are filled / with a bright and frail space. There is / an emptiness in the center of the words / as clear as a dried up river bed.

18. I bear with you, hatred.

20. Cold: someone signs on my heart with an icicle.

21. The shiver of her body lazily detaching itself from the body / one body, another one, old movie images adrift / a thousand bodies, pulses, lengthy tensions / heading for open sea, lights on, a thousand lives – / oh, the world one can build as soon as one begins to understand / shyly the art of the old shiver, what a world!

26. Beauty, I lived this minute as if you existed.

32. I live so slowly / That I can’t even be seen [...] – Between one heartbeat / of my heart and the next lies a valley. / My minute has a thousand seconds. // Slowly. My back against the wall. / You can shoot if you want – / the bullet, old, / will only touch me when it’s full of red rust.


  • The man at the window (George Almosnino)


[...] If we were to formally label George Almosnino, we would say that his poetry still bears the traces of a mild, nostalgic surrealism, and that his series of images sometimes follow baroque patterns. Also, minimalism often seems to be the most appropriate step to reveal the poet’s essential solitude. But all these observations only appear to be relevant if connected to that indescribable thing that gives uniqueness to his voice and places him somewhere at the crossroads of the great lyrical veins of this century: Saba, Kavafis, Trakl [...]. George Almosnino is one of the greatest Romanian poets of all times; I am sure that his work will assert itself in a short while, proving my statement right. I rely on the fact that, three decades after his debut and six years after his death, most of his poems show an alarming freshness and topicality, while this does not apply to the poems of other poets already famous of his generation.


A book that will honor you at any time – “The library of the Jewish authors”

A few months ago, while this new book by Zalis displayed the first choices and attitudes (to be read “author’s involvement”), showing a structure of a particular spiritual difficulty, another large-scale project, “The European Days of the Judaic Culture” (Bucharest, September 3-4, 2000), was bringing together, in the foyer of the Radio Broadcasting Company’s Concert Hall, in a genuine collective achievement (and a good proof of the Jewish-Romanian interactions in the field of culture), three vast exhibitions: 150 years of journalism (from “The Romanian Israelite” to “The Jewish Reality”); an ample retrospective of the theater (from “Goldfaden” to “Baraseum” and the Jewish State Theater); and, finally, an impressive book exhibition (literature, art, science, religion), rightfully entitled “The library of the Jewish authors”, which was intended to be as complete as possible: from Gaster, Tiktin, Saineanu, Sanielevici to the 130 titles edited by “Hasefer” in the last decade, and another 270 works, signed by Jewish authors and published by other publishing houses [...].

In the Unconventional dictionary of Jewish writers in Romanian, Al. Mirodan managed by now to gather about 250 authors, from A to F (some of them were inevitably or regrettably forgotten in the Romanian cultural space). We repeat: 250 authors from A to F! We have no difficulty in estimating, mathematically speaking, a total of about one thousand names of Jewish authors by the time the next four or five volumes will be published [...].

In the various fields of the fundamental sciences, in architecture and in socio-pedagogy, for instance, and in the technical sciences as well, with a notable Jewish presence – in the same period of about 150 years that we are considering –, some 1,000-1,500 names of Jewish creators asserted themselves, with an estimated average of five works for each author. A complete exhibition – with significant connotations of value and history in the ensemble of the Romanian culture – would have put about 10,000 volumes in the showcases of the afore-mentioned “Library”…
P.S. According to an infinitely more precise calculation, made after this commentary was written, a complete exhibition should have counted 20,000-25,000 volumes.


BENJAMIN FUNDOIANU. Judaic coordinates

[...] In 1934, B. Fondane wrote “the students’ call”, which he published in “The Students’ Life” – “organ of the Romanian students abroad”. “Tomorrow, in the concentration camps”, wrote the poet, “it will be too late. First of all, the fascist offensive must be stopped…, its devastating role is well-known…, the age of the caves is not far. We can only hope for the Inquisition, the burning at the stake, slavery, arbitrariness: this is the political agenda of tomorrow’s fascism, riding international war.” It was the year 1934, when the vast majority of the Europeans (Jews included) refused to foresee the Inferno that was on the way. These were not his only premonitions. E. M. Cioran would recall being amazed, at the beginning of the war, by the poet, through his way of anticipating the course of the events: “After he enumerated Hitler’s deep flaws, he described the fall of Germany to me, using the images of a visionary and such details, that, at the moment, I thought I was witnessing a delirium. But it was only a description in anticipation.” [...]. “If Hitler knew I exist”, B. Fondane used to tell his wife, “he would have me annihilated.” The poet thus attempted to reduce the entire world conflagration to the clash between two protagonists. Adolf Hitler versus Benjamin Wechsler. Naturally, Hitler knew Wechsler existed. And he annihilated him. But the fact that, today, we are celebrating the latter, not the former, is a sign: actually, it is the poet who annihilated the dictator.


A delicate matter: why so many avant-garde writers?

During the “Marcel Iancu” international seminar, which I organized in 1996 in Bucharest, I got an interesting question from American professor Steven Mansbach. He asked me why such a great percentage of the Romanian avant-garde artists between the two world wars had been Jews, compared to other countries in the region. An expert on the beginnings of modernism in Eastern Europe, descending himself from a family of Jewish emigrants from this European region, Mansbach looked like he wanted to solve a mystery, to explore the local exegetic mentality and to confirm a personal hypothesis that he kept secret for the time being. Anyway, his question made me wonder. I realized that this matter, although it had sometimes crossed my mind, had never seemed relevant to me until then. Like so many Romanian people of culture formed before 1989, I had received the spectacular phenomenon of the Romanian avantgarde between the two world wars either with a sort of juvenile enthusiasm full of “patriotic pride”, during my student years, or with a kind of strictly esthetic assimilation of the programs and of the trajectories of its representatives, during my first youth, in the 1980’s. For me, names like Tristan Tzara, M. Blecher, Marcel Iancu, Artur Segal, M.H. Maxy, Victor Brauner, Benjamin Fondane, Jacques Herold, Ilarie Voronca or Isidore Isou (to quote only the most famous abroad), had meant first of all a triumph of the local modern creativity, capable – only a few decades after it had entered modernity – to offer the international arena some first-class names and some fundamental esthetic models for the modernism of the whole century: the radical nonconformism through Dadaism, the radical archaic essentialism, through Brancusi, but also the radical “integralism” through the synthesis of the various tendencies exercised in the Romanian avant-garde magazines in the 1920’s and the 1930’s [...].

Meanwhile, I also discovered, like every one of us, thanks to some excellent historic and politologic studies signed by Z. Ornea, Leon Volovici, Alexandra Laignel-Lavastine, Andrei Oisteanu and others, or thanks to some troubling diaries, like Mihail Sebastian’s, the terrible shadows that covered the idealized face of the Romanian modernity (be it socio-economical or cultural) between the two world wars – modernism that we are much too easily tempted to “clean” of the unpleasant, undesirable aspects, and to adopt it as a model for the present times. The question at the beginning of this text becomes pertinent and exciting, against the background that I have only briefly sketched. Indeed, why were there so many Jews among the relatively few Romanian avant-garde artists and what cultural relevance can this fact bear for us now?


A creative answer to a hostile environment: the Jews’ work of culture in the Romanian society

[...] Declared undesirable and pernicious, the Jewish philologists did not choose as an object of study their language, or a foreign language, but the Romanian language, the language of the people amidst which they were living. And they did it in unfriendly conditions. The example of Moses Gaster (1859-1939) speaks for itself. Philologist, literary historian and folklorist, he left two major works: “The Romanian ‘Chrestomatia’” (1891), a collection of texts from the 16th-18th centuries, based on which the old Romanian language can be known, and “Romanian Folk Literature” (1883), one of the foundation stones of the Romanian folklore studies. This scholar, deeply attached to his objects of study – the Romanian language and folklore –, was nevertheless expelled from Romania in 1885! Can this situation be considered normal? Some will object, showing that, in 1919, at Sextil Puscariu’s proposal, Gaster was elected honorific member of the Romanian Academy – a recognition that he fully deserved; but let us not forget that, after his expulsion, he settled in England and stayed there for good…

His case is not an isolated one. Another great philologist was Lazar Saineanu (1859-1934), author of the Universal Dictionary of the Romanian Language (1896, with many subsequent editions), and of a three-volume book that has not been equaled yet, “The Oriental Influence on the Romanian Language and Culture” (1900). He had to leave the country, after he was denied the Romanian citizenship. He settled in Paris, where he pursued a brilliant academic career [...].


GALACTION’s solitude

[...] “Will we, the Christians, be ever able to make up for all the tears the Jews have cried because of our persecution, brutality and insolence? Will we, the Christians, be ever able to make the Jews forget all the wrongdoings of our parents towards them? I believe there is no real Christian – and I mean a Christian of Jesus Christ – who does not feel secretly moved by the Jews, and full of thoughts of generous reparation towards them.”

These are absolutely anthological words, unequaled in the Romanian culture of the time. And if we take into consideration the fact that they were written long before the great martyrdom suffered by the Jews at the middle of the century, Gala Galaction’s sensitivity can only amaze us. It is perfectly compatible with the Vatican’s contemporary measures to take responsibility for the errors committed more or less recently against “our elder brothers”, like Pope John Paul II named the Jews [...].

The great lesson that Zionism teaches us, the ones today, is – I believe this can be said now, at the end of this inventory of its ideas – the lesson of democracy. The discourse of the theologian and of the Orthodox priest can be perfectly compatible with the discourse of the individual rights and liberties. This is not a small thing. Unfortunately, our Orthodox thought remained completely unfamiliar with such a political vision.


100 years since the publishing of the play “Manasse”

[...] Mihail Dragomirescu, one of the most important critics of the Romanian literature, president of “The Writers’ Society”, pointed out in “Epoca” not only the value of the play, but also “its lack of race tendency”. He thought that the cancellation of the representations of the play (“the best drama in the Romanian literature”) was an anti-cultural act, and “the hooligans could never prove with arguments that ‘Manasse’ would endanger the Romanian people…”. E. Lovinescu insistently demanded the re-inclusion of the play in the National Theater’s repertoire, showing that it would have been impossible for its success on stage not to awake the resistance of the nationalist ideology of the time” [...].
“I still believe… that Ronetti-Roman’s drama is the best drama written in Romanian” (Mihail Sadoveanu)


Writer. Period.

[...] Wonder whether the Jewish writers are important for the Romanian literature? I think such a question is tautological. They do not form an enclave: they are Romanian writers. No matter how much they render their own ethnic group in writing (sometimes preponderantly), no matter how “exotic” they may seem to some, they belong to the Romanian language. Because language is the factor that ensures the gene by means of which we transmit the deepest things within us. The Jewish writers in Romanian are perfectly assimilated to the Romanian literature to which they dedicated themselves [...]. As far as I am concerned – in a moment of lucidity, I like to think – I state that they have their place just like those who belong to the majority ethnic group. What is, in literature, the point of such labels: “Armenian” Garabet Ibraileanu, “German” Oskar Walter Cizek, “Gypsy” Miron Radu Paraschivescu, “Jew” Mihail Sebastian, “Hungarian” Franyó Zoltán, “Greek” Ion Luca Caragiale? Is any of them less of a Romanian? And, by being so, is any of them less of a writer? They are Romanian literary critics, prose writers, poets and playwrights. Let us return to the steady and peaceful times and say, like our parents would have said: all that matters is that they are writers. Period.


ILARIE VORONCA and PAUL CELAN – two tragic destinies

[...] Ilarie Voronca, the bilingual poet, was not a stranger to his people. A peremptory argument is not only his affiliation to the avantgarde (which had absorbed many Jewish literates in Romania), but also his instinctual reaction to nonconformism, the kind of protest against the tendencies manifested at several levels. We could add the fact that many of his volumes were illustrated by Jewish painters, not without mentioning that “Plants and Animals” enjoyed the artistic contribution of Brancusi. Thus, “Ulysses” contained a portrait by Chagall, “Peter Schlemihl” had illustrations by Victor Brauner and Perahim, “The Nights’ Bracelet” – a drawing by V. Brauner, and the cover of “Zodiac” was done by M. H. Maxy (who also placed a drawing inside). Which says enough about Ilarie Voronca, uprooted from his native country, where the eurhythmy of his lips whispered the first Romanian words (G. Calinescu said that Voronca spoke Romanian poetically and without mistakes), but who never denied his people, with whom he felt connected through every fiber of his being, although he never stressed his Judaic affiliation.

[...] The real name of Paul Celan was Paul Antschel. Orthographically simplified to Ancel, it was then turned into Celan by anagram. The pseudonym – en vogue – was used by other Romanian literates of Jewish origin, like Eugen Sigler in Piatra Neamt, who became Eugen Relgis. The question why a number of Jewish writers gave themselves local pseudonyms is a delicate one, especially when referring to the 1920’s and the 1930’s, and it requires an enlarged framework of discussion. It suffice to quote Camil Baltazar, B. Fundoianu, Sasa Pana, B. Nemteanu, O. Lemnaru or Ion Calugaru, but the list is very long. Maybe it was the fear of rejection, or the use of that “numerus clausus”, or the will to be assimilated, or other unorthodox causes (not in a religious sense!) that made them change their names. After all, a Herzog became André Maurois in France, and got the Nobel Prize. While, in England, a Disraeli kept his Semite name, but converted [...]. And Paul Celan, the great poet in German, frustrated as a Jew, would only attain immortality after death. Repeating the eternal trip of the wandering Jew, generated by the multi-millenary adversities encountered by the people that gave him birth. He escaped the violence of the fascist fury, he exiled himself in a freely chosen exodus, he was declared anathema, he was misunderstood, and he did not find the solution to survive. This is Paul Celan, in his tragedy as a Jew and his grandeur as an exponent of the universal spirituality.


The national particularities in H. SANIELEVICI’s thought

Henric Sanielevici’s commentators are unanimous in underlining the great peculiarities and fluctuations of the author, but no one has challenged his culture, his intelligence, his spiritual vivacity and his gift to propose exciting hypotheses. One of the critic’s topics of meditation, a very popular one in the debates of the time, was the national peculiarities. Sanielevici’s points of view, like in many other fields he approached, are not strictly consistent, but form a capricious flowchart, in accordance with the general movement of his work.


The future of a bond created under the mark of eternity

I see two enormous difficulties in genuinely perceiving the bond between Judaism and “Romanianism”: the two of them come both from the two cultures, and from the connection that was created as soon as they came into contact [...].

Academy member ALEXANDRU BOBOC

A feeling of gratitude for Gulian, Constantin-Ionescu

[...] In fact, what defines the work style and the methodology used by the author is the constant preoccupation with interlacing the analysis of the significant data derived from some special research (ethnology, folklore, psychology and social psychology, anthropology, economics and the history of economics, art, technical science etc.) with substantiated theoretical and methodological developments, in a meaningful survey of the great experience of the human history, thought and action. The emphasis is always laid on valuing, as the discussion of the different points of view is subordinated to the investigation of the facts (he often underlines that we always need “facts”, that we must start with the “facts”) and to the syntheses resulted from the application of the comparative-historical method. After all, the orientation towards values (pursued by the great contemporary axiologists, as well as in the author’s own writings) has the merit of “requiring the rehabilitation of the full rights of philosophy”, making a “junction” with the history of philosophy.


The sadness of AUREL BARANGA

[...] The greatest contemporary comedy writer died in sadness and the theaters, who once fought against each other over one of his plays, forgot him almost entirely. Maybe the public is the only one who still misses him. And myself. Aurel Baranga taught me a thing I will never forget: humor is the highest form of sadness.


Eyes open

[...] We are currently discovering a category of Romanian intellectuals, steady models of internal coherence, who are interested in constructively approaching the Jewish matter, as one of the stirring creations in our literature and culture. It is the representation of the Jew – active participant, inclined through his identity to be himself, relatively individualized in the visible mutation of the emphasis towards the enrichment of the national whole and, being one of its ramifications, connected to the aspirations of the national civilization. I do not have the intention, nor the qualification to make up lists, but here are some names that cross my mind, names that fully honor the meaning given to this multicultural volume: Adrian Marino, Alecu Paleologu, Neagu Djuvara, Stefan Aug. Doinas, Caius Traian Dragomir, Nicolae Breban, Gabriel Dimisianu, Florin Constantiniu, Nicolae Manolescu, Mihai Zamfir, D. R. Popescu, Augustin Buzura, Marta Petreu, Andrei Plesu. Filled with an unsuspected richness, their gestures and thoughts make us happy to look at them into the light. We owe them, among other things, commentaries that abandoned the unilateral vision, the dichotomy that bred unwanted interpretations. And, although we are in a period of transition, delicate-painful, we no longer see in the Jew the cause of all the misfortunes of the moment. On the contrary, these intellectuals (and others, somehow kindred to them), must take up the task of portraying the Jews as factors of progress, and, in artistic terms, to project their thick substance in the imaginary universe of this people, about to design strategies infinitely more attractive than the ones he faced over the last 60 years. And, especially in the years when, fatally, there were many talks about the inferiority of the Judaic minority group member, forcibly assimilated to the enemy of the majority, their labor counted (and still counts) on turning our face to humanity, to the moral essences studied and exploded in respect for the truth [...].