In the Gospel of John, which was read in many churches last week, the High Priest Caiaphas pronounces the infamous words, “You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” Caiaphas seems to imply that even if Jesus were innocent, he still ought to be killed in order to save the nation.

In other words, Caiaphas is happy to turn Jesus into a scapegoat.

In the Derek Chauvin trial— the police officer who is accused of killing George Floyd— the jury will likely face a similar dilemma. If Chauvin is found not guilty, a new wave of riots will most likely follow. If a juror in good conscience believes that the prosecution has not proven its case beyond a reasonable doubt, he or she will still have to consider Caiaphas’ dilemma: even if Chauvin is not guilty, must he be acquitted?

There is immense pressure for the jury to reason as Caiaphas did. The media has sent subtle— and not so subtle— messages, warning audiences that anything short of a full conviction will lead to fatalities and  massive destruction of property. So, basically, it is the jury’s duty to prevent riots from happening, and to do that, they must convict Chauvin. In so doing, Chauvin will become the sacrificial lamb whose imprisonment will save the nation.

Now, it might be easily objected that whereas Jesus preached love, Chauvin killed a man with his knee. Unlike Jesus, Chauvin is not a scapegoat, because whereas the former was innocent, the latter is really guilty.

This would be true, were Chauvin charged only with manslaughter. Indeed, that was the sole initial charge brought against him, and that would have been an easy case for the prosecution. But since a manslaughter sentence would only carry a maximum of 57 months in prison, prosecutors added charges of third-degree murder — if found guilty, the sentence would be 25 years.

It will be much harder for the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Chauvin is guilty of third-degree murder. According to Minnesota guidelines, third-degree murder happens as “the unintentional killing of another [human being] through an eminently dangerous act committed with a depraved mind and without regard for human life.” It is hard to see how Chauvin’s action fits into this definition.

There are serious doubts about whether Chauvin’s action was actually the sole cause of Floyd’s death (he was intoxicated with phenethyl and methamphetamine at the time), and there are even greater doubts that this was a result of a dangerous act committed with a depraved mind; after all, it appears that the Minnesota Police does teach the technique of restraining subjects by putting a knee on the head­— even if, admittedly, Chauvin did not follow the guidelines thoroughly.

Yet, even if Chauvin were guilty of the charges brought against him, he would still be a scapegoat.

Renowned French cultural critic René Girard made an academic living by studying scapegoating processes. He came to realize that whenever societies are threatened by crises and inner violence, certain people are selected as scapegoats. They are accused of some deed, duly punished (frequently executed), and in so doing, the collectivity channels its own destructive violence towards the scapegoat, and peace returns.

According to Girard, in most cases, scapegoats are innocent of the charges brought against them. But sometimes, scapegoating can also target guilty parties. In this book The Scapegoat, Girard considers the case of a black male who actually rapes a white female, and is lynched for it. Would that black male be a scapegoat, even if he is guilty of rape? According to Girard, yes, he would. Indeed, during the terrible era of lynching in the United States, some black men might have raped some white women. But that in no way made lynching less of a crime. These victims of lynching were targeted because of their skin colour. White rapists were never lynched, and that proves that it was because of race, and not a particular crime, that they were brutally hanged by mobs.

Chauvin may or may not be guilty of third-degree murder. But he is still a scapegoat.

The way media is fuming the flames makes it clear that he will likely be convicted, not because of the weight of the evidence, but simply, because the mob needs to be appeased. Chauvin is being judged, not as the officer who put the knee on a man under arrest, but as the representative of the most feared evil in the handbook of woke ideology: racism.

After an embarrassing history of slavery and racial segregation, a large section of the American people wants to cleanse its collective guilt. Just as the ancient Israelites cleansed their guilt by transferring their sins to Azazel— the goat of Leviticus 6— many Americans now want to cleanse their historical guilt by transferring it to Chauvin.

One can only hope that the jury refuses to play this scapegoating game, and decides Chauvin’s fate solely on the basis of evidence.

Voir par ailleurs:

The Cold War’s Strangest Bedfellows How Romania Sold Its Jews to Israel, and What It Got in Return

Gal Beckerman


February 11, 2005

The Ransom of the Jews: The Story of The Extraordinary Secret Bargain Between Romania and Israel

Radu Ioanid

Ivan R. Dee, 254 pages, $26.

* * *|

Surely the Cold War never produced stranger bedfellows than Shaike Dan and General Gheorghe Marcu. Dan, a Jew from Bessarabia, parachuted into Romania at the close of World War II to help smuggle Jews into Palestine, eventually becoming an adviser to Israeli prime ministers and a critical Secret Service operative in Eastern Europe. Marcu was a life-long Romanian Communist and a high-ranking member in the Securitate, Romania’s much-feared secret service. Throughout the 1970s, these two men met monthly at Romanian embassies in Austria and Switzerland — not dressed in trench coats on foggy evenings, but situated in offices, chatting with the familiar banter of old business partners. Dan always carried a suitcase (Samsonite was the preferred brand) filled with tens of thousands of dollars. Marcu came with a list of names.

Romania was selling its Jews, and Israel was buying.

As Radu Ioanid describes it in his new book, “The Ransom of the Jews,” Dan and Marcu were at the fulcrum of a bizarre arrangement that lasted through most of the Cold War, wherein Israel propped up Romania’s loopy totalitarian regime with a steady stream of needed cash in exchange for exit visas (about $3,000 a head) to secure the emigration of its Jewish population. A highly secretive operation run entirely between the countries’ two intelligence agencies, it existed on a subterranean track beneath the normal diplomatic niceties of state visits and economic cooperation.

Slightly little more than 350,000 Jews lived in Romania at the close of World War II — the second-largest surviving Jewish population in Europe after the 3 million Jews inhabiting the Soviet Union. In the immediate postwar period, a few thousand escaped to Palestine on illegal boats arranged by Dan. But by the end of the 1940s, the Romanian Communists started seeing dollar signs when they thought about their Jews. These were valuable hostages now that a Jewish state might be willing to pay a price for their emigration. And, indeed, by the end of the 1940s, Israel was supplying the ailing Romanian oil industry with American drills and pipes in exchange for 100,000 exit visas.

This type of bartering was also the preferred method of Henry Jacober, a Jewish businessman based in London who, in the 1950s and early 1960s, acted as a middleman between Romanian Jews’ relatives — who had the money to pay for exit visas — and Marcu, who would take down their names and make sure they got out. Instead of using cash, the Romanians and Jacober preferred a proxy and settled on livestock. Cows and pigs. Soon Shaike Dan learned of these dealings and took over the operation (after getting a thumbs-up from Ben-Gurion). By 1965, the Jewish state, working through Jacober (who took his own cut), was funding many projects inside of Romania — chicken farms, turkey farms and pig farms, turning out tens of thousands of animals every year, and even a factory making Kellogg’s Corn Flakes — all in exchange for Jewish families. The export of these products — including, I should add, bacon and pork — produced $8 to $10 million annually for Romania, much needed money for its cash-starved economy.

In the years after Nicolae Ceausescu came to power in 1965, he stopped the trade in deference to his defeated Arab allies and the post-Six Day War anti-Israel backlash (though, unlike the leaders of every other Warsaw pact country, he did not cut diplomatic ties with Israel or sign on to the United Nations resolution equaling Zionism with racism). By 1969, though, Ceausescu decided to restart the trade in Jews. He desired economic independence from a Moscow determined to turn Romania into a simple backwater supplier of raw material. For this he needed a steady flow of outside cash and a good relationship with the West, as an alternative trading partner. Israel was key on both these fronts. But he ordered the Romanian intelligence agency to, as Ioanid writes, “shift gears from the ‘ancient age of barter’ to ‘modern foreign trade.’ He wanted ‘cold dollars.’”

Dan and Marcu then drew up what amounted to an unsigned gentleman’s agreement that detailed the terms of the trade (which was renewed in 1972 and then every five years thereafter until Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, were executed by a firing squad on Christmas Day 1989). Bucharest would receive a certain amount of cash per head depending on the age, education, profession, employment and family status of each prospective émigré. Ceausescu didn’t want a mass exodus; the Jews were too valuable a commodity. So he would let them out at a trickle, about 1,500 every year. Between 1968 and 1989, according to Ioanid’s rough calculation, “Ceausescu sold 40,577 Jews to Israel for $112,498,800, at a price of $2,500 and later at $3,300 per head.” And the money wasn’t the only way the Jewish state helped Romania. Israel secured loans for Ceausescu and paid off the interest itself. Military equipment was procured for the Romanian army, including a Centurion tank. Ariel Sharon, while defense minister in 1982, made a secret visit to Romania with experts from the Israeli military and aircraft industries in order to offer technological cooperation.

Ioanid doesn’t shy away from telling us who Ceausescu really was — a ruthless dictator, in fact a “comrade,” by his own estimation, with the likes of Qaddafi and Arafat, a crusher of his own people, who maintained a strange neo-Stalinist cult-of-personality ideology he tried to implement under the nearly unpronounceable name Ceausism. There were deep moral consequences to this relationship. Not only was Israel shaking hands with this devil, but it also was giving him coal to keep his fires burning. Was the price of propping up a totalitarian regime really worth it? Ioanid doesn’t really tackle this question, but it is one that cuts to the heart of Israel’s awkward position during the Cold War.

For Americans, and especially the cold warriors among them, moral divisions during those years were fairly clear. Communist regimes banished poets to frozen wastelands, censored books and viewed their citizens as little more than raw material. One didn’t negotiate with these dictators or seriously engage their ideologies. A defender of human rights pointed out their hypocrisies, shamed them into change and championed their dissidents.

But Israel couldn’t afford to have such principled thoughts. Many Jews still lived beyond the Iron Curtain. And Israel was constantly vacillating between the best tactics for getting them out. What was more effective, quiet diplomacy or encouraging a loud, vociferous public outcry? In 1972, when the Soviet Union tried to implement a diploma tax that, like the Romanian one, would demand an exorbitant price for the head of every departing Jew, Israel worked behind the scenes to get a legislative ball rolling in the American Congress that led to the Jackson-Vanik amendment — a powerful piece of moral legislation that demanded communist countries improve emigration conditions in order to attain Most Favored Nation trading status with the United States. This was a slap in the face to the Soviets, and quite a contrary strategy to the one the Israelis were engaged in clandestinely with the Romanians.

So what made Romania a country worth dealing with at this lower frequency, with suitcases bulging with dollars, and the Soviet Union approachable only with a hammer or a bat? The smaller size of Romania’s Jewish population, perhaps, made it easier to envision emigration. But more likely it had to do with the nature of the two regimes. Borderlands were few in the landscape of the Cold War (most were peopled with guerilla armies shooting guns at each other). But Romania was a unique case of a country within the orbit of the Soviet Union, run by a cruel Communist dictator, but not completely closed. Ioanid does a good job explaining this context. Ceausescu needed Israel much more than Israel needed him (the Romanian dictator, apparently, even had a role in leading the way to the Israel-Egypt peace talks). The money he was receiving was too precious. And the points he earned in the West by allowing Jews to leave were too important to him. He also seems to have been a less ideologically committed Communist than the Russians. The Soviets couldn’t bear the thought of Jews leaving, because it undermined the fiction of the Soviet Union as a workers’ paradise that no one in their right mind would abandon. Ceausescu was more concerned with achieving a racially pure Romania, and the slow disappearance of its Jewish population only helped him reach that goal.

Can quiet diplomacy be justified, even if it helped prolong this evil? Dan and Marcu’s relations, although morally dubious, did open up opportunities, allowing many Jews to leave a stultifying environment. Ioanid doesn’t want to make an objective judgment about whether or not the sum total of this arrangement was an ultimate good, but one senses from his narrative that, in this case, redemption was worth the price.

Gal Beckerman is a freelance writer currently composing a history of the movement to free Jews from the Soviet Union, to be published by Houghton Mifflin.

Voir aussi:

‘You have to hang on’ 

Eugen Weber

The London Review of books

Vol. 23 No. 22

15 November 2001

Journal 1935-44

by Mihail Sebastian, translated by Patrick Camiller.

Heinemann, 641 pp., £20, September 2001, 0 434 88577 0

In June 1934, a young Romanian Jew published a book about being a Jew in Romania. Mihail Sebastian’s De Doua mii de ani (‘For 2000 Years’) was not an autobiography or a novel or a diary, although a bit of each. The hero, who is never named, lives the tragicomedy of assimilation in a land and a culture that both invite and repel. A rich country full of ragged people, Romania uneasily combined a 19th-century rural and suburban servitude with the sophistication of 20th-century Paris fashions and very mod mod cons. Politics was about patronage: Parliament was a den of time-servers and leeches, democracy a word but not an option, the monarchy a plaster on a wobbly leg. Home-bred troubles are better blamed on others, and the blame for arrogance and intellectual brilliance amid the wretchedness was assigned to Jews.

Even the well-intentioned saw Jews as a problem, and even the Jews, hardened to animosity, found the animadversions hard to bear. Sebastian himself shared the sentiments of a Magyar friend who by most criteria would have been better off away from Hungarian anti-semitism and the numerus clausus: ‘I feel that I would stifle if I didn’t live there, in that atmosphere, with those people. You have to understand: they are my memories, my language, my culture … It is not pleasant, sometimes it’s humiliating. But when you really love something, you love what is good and what is bad in a place. This too shall pass one day.’ It doesn’t pass, however. Like the maimed king Amfortas waiting to be touched by the Holy Spear, Sebastian’s hero lives with his open wound: ‘the consciousness of the sin of being a Jew’.

The error of the Jews, he reflects, is that they observe too much and think that they, too, are being observed, whereas the world is indifferent to them. So ‘try not to suffer. Do not give in to the relish of suffering. There’s great voluptuousness in persecution, and feeling wronged is probably the vainest of intimate pleasures. Be careful not to indulge in it.’

Other ‘Jewish’ novels had been published in Romania, but they had all met with public indifference. Sebastian’s novel might have shared their fate had it not been for its introduction, written by a well-known contemporary anti-semite, Nae Ionescu. Ionescu’s venomous preface, made more sensational by its context, wasn’t commissioned by the book’s publisher, as a footnote declares, but by its author, a longtime protégé of Ionescu’s. In 1931, returning from a spell of study in Paris determined to write a Jewish novel, Sebastian had asked his ‘director of conscience’ to write a preface to it. Cuvântul, the daily newspaper which Ionescu edited, was no more hostile to Jews than other publications. It mostly attacked the banks, the venal oligarchy and the no less venal police force that ruled the country. Ionescu himself had written appreciatively of Jews who ‘enriched the spiritual patrimony of mankind’, and had denied any nation’s right to oppress its minorities. But that was in the 1920s, and circumstances alter cases.

Ionescu was a professor of philosophy whose writings were crammed with references to Western literature and philosophy, who bought his clothes in London, his toiletries in Paris, his linen in Vienna and his Mercedes in Germany. He had started out as a Maurrasian monarchist and nationalist. Anti-rationalist, anti-capitalist, anti-Communist, he had long rejected anti-semitism as too negative, and adopted it only as an adjunct to a new-found românism and its Orthodox Christian spirit. He laid the country’s corruption and decay at the door of alien Western models ill-suited to Moldo-Wallachians, and fulminated against those persistent vectors of alienation: Jews. Jews could be good citizens, obey the law, pay taxes, serve in the Army, fight in wars. That made them ‘good Romanians’: it did not make them Romanians – organically connected to the soil and spirit of the race.

By 1933, Ionescu was dismissing assimilation as a sinister farce, a view he repeated in the rather convoluted introduction he handed Sebastian just in time for the book’s publication. Its gist was what Ionescu had been arguing for the past three years: a Jew could be, could feel, as Romanian as he liked; he would always be fundamentally a Jew. However sincere his supposed assimilation, however troubling anti-semitism might be to people who believed themselves to be truly Romanian, the ancient acrimony was a reminder that Jews had a different history, which included their rejection of Christ. From this predicament there could be no way out: ‘A problem implies a solution. Is there a solution to the Jewish problem?’ No there wasn’t. ‘The Jews suffer because they are Jews; they would stop being Jews when their suffering stops; they can’t escape suffering except by ceasing to be Jewish.’ But they can’t cease, said Ionescu, and Sebastian won’t: only the cold and the darkness awaited him.

In the introduction Ionescu addressed Sebastian by his real name: Joseph Hechter. Born in 1907 in Braila, on the Danube, Hechter had been a reader from the first: Maeterlinck at seven, Daudet, Dostoevsky, Maupassant, Sienkiewicz at nine, Munchhausen at ten, Barbusse, Conan Doyle. He was in love with literature, with the theatre and with poetry. Once he started writing, he collected rejection slips but got his first article into print before graduating from high school, and signed it Mihail Sebastian. Impressed by the boy’s style and cultivation, Ionescu, also a native of Braila, invited him to join the newspaper he edited in Bucharest.

Cuvântul (‘Word’) was one of a slew of political and literary dailies published in the years when paper and printing costs were low; its stable was full of bright young men, including Mircea Eliade (also born in 1907). Hechter jumped at the chance to leave his provincial backwater. He studied law, wrote frenetically, made friends, gossiped, travelled a lot on a free rail pass, learned to ski, slalomed through flirtations as he did through books (‘always a new Odette, a new Rachel’), and became a regular editor on the paper. Then, with Ionescu’s help, he got a Government grant to pursue his law studies in Paris.

By the time he returned, in 1931, Romanian politics had become more contentious. Previously, it had mostly been about gaining access to the public trough, but now a postwar generation, puerile, violent, romantic, shifted the skirmishing into the streets. Founded by the charismatic Corneliu Codreanu in the 1920s, the Legion of the Archangel Michael (also known as the Iron Guard) was a fellowship of poor students, patriots, brutes and dreamers close to the peasant roots that most Romanians shared, and heavily invested in the symbolism of Orthodox Christianity. The misery and discontent of the Depression turned the Legion into a mass movement. Codreanu and his followers had no platform (‘the country dies for lack of men, not programmes’) apart from demanding fraternity, dedication and sacrifice. And anti-semitism.

Romania’s problem was not just a lack of men who were sufficiently virile and self-sacrificing: the country was being suffocated by a surfeit of Jews, with their predatory activities compounding their parasitic presence. Accounting for 800,000 out of a total population of around 19 million, Jews were particularly visible in the regions of Moldavia, Bukovina and Bessarabia, and in towns where the large numbers working in universities, the professions and white-collar jobs aroused resentment. Native, endemic and matter-of-fact, anti-Jewish prejudice now became frenzied, and the student outbursts were brutal. In the spring of 1932, rioting closed down the university in Bucharest, and precipitated the dissolution of the Iron Guard, which now had Ionescu’s sympathy. In December 1933, an electoral campaign marked by Codreanu’s growing popularity and the murder or imprisonment of his followers provoked not so veiled calls for retaliation from Ionescu. When, on 29 December, an Iron Guard hit squad gunned down the new Prime Minister, Ion Duca, Ionescu, considered to be morally responsible, was thrown in jail, and Cuvântul suppressed. The promised preface to Sebastian’s book was written after his release in May 1934, and by now he was more vehement than ever. For Sebastian the preface was ‘a tragedy … a death sentence’. Yet he felt bound to print it, and the book appeared in June to a barrage of criticism from all sides.

Master and erstwhile disciple remained friends, however, just as Sebastian remained friends with other bigots who moderated their anti-semitism in his presence, or indulged it only in a kidding, casual way. He was now a barrister but seems to have lost most of his cases. He wrote freelance pieces for a theatrical weekly, Rampa (‘Footlights’), but also passionate articles against Fascism and its coloured shirts (how can you let your laundry do your thinking for you?). He experienced anti-semitic uproar in courtrooms and witnessed assaults on Jews. He talked with friends whose writings he admired, and heard them blaming the Jews for the country’s troubles: what was Communism but a Jewish imperialism? A friend denounced foreign films and said they should be banned. ‘We’re in Romania, they should speak Romanian.’ He heard Eliade, ‘passionate about the Iron Guard’, demand that the Foreign Minister, Titulescu, be machine-gunned, and strung up by the tongue, for colluding with the Russians. ‘Is friendship possible,’ he wondered, ‘with people who have in common a whole series of alien ideas and feelings?’ He blamed himself for being too supple and accommodating. He wrote his first play, The Holiday Game, and was given an editorial job at the Royal Foundations Review, which paid a decent wage – until he was fired following the anti-Jewish legislation of 1940.

In 1938, King Carol II, worried about the growing popularity of the Iron Guard, disbanded all political parties, arrested Codreanu and, in his wake, Ionescu and Eliade, and proclaimed a dictatorship. A tinpot despotism succeeded a tinpot monarchy as the international situation kept going downhill.

In May 1939, Sebastian was called up for military service outside Bucharest, and sought the hospitality of new friends: the Bibescus. A Frenchified descendant of an old princely family, Antoine Bibescu had married Herbert Asquith’s daughter, Elisabeth. Asquith, it seems, had taken the alliance badly. ‘For him,’ Bibescu remarked, ‘it was as if she had married a Chinaman.’ The prince, Sebastian adds, felt the same about Romanian society. Eccentric, a bit batty, raising hospitality to the level of an art, the Bibescus looked on Romania as a kind of barbarian province, a ‘weird and wonderful colony’ peopled by natives living curious lives.

Stationed near the castle belonging to the prince’s mother, Martha, Sebastian asked for a room where he could take refuge when the military day was over. Princess Martha was sorry but never having received an officer in her castle, she couldn’t invite a private soldier. Soothed by a cordial explanatory letter, Sebastian found other ways to complete his fifth novel, The Accident, while still in uniform. It was to be published at the beginning of 1940, but much happened in the intervening months.

On 2 September 1939, the day after the Germans invaded Poland, Sebastian has a ‘lugubrious’ lunch at Capsa, a fashionable café-restaurant, with a bunch of friends who joke and worry. He then spends the evening alone at home, reading Gide’s Journal. Dazed and disoriented, he tries to write but can’t. On 21 September, awaiting his turn to plead in court, he hears a woman whisper: ‘They’ve shot Armand Calinescu’ (the Prime Minister). The murderers were summarily executed at the scene of the ambush, a bridge across the Dâmbovita River, and their corpses displayed for the edification of the gaping crowds. Thousands came, pushing, shoving and joking, even paying to get a better view from one of the stepladders lugged up by people who lived nearby. ‘Don’t do it,’ a disgruntled voyeur warns Sebastian: ‘All you can see are their feet.’ The problem now was how to hibernate through the cold and darkness to come.

1 January 1940: ‘Mozart from Zürich. Let’s take it as a good sign for the coming year.’ Called up once more, Sebastian dreads the lice lurking in the seams of Army uniforms. He cajoles the colonel with gifts of books from the Royal Foundation, sleeps at home, reports to barracks at 9 (no roll call), goes off for lunch and doesn’t return until the following morning, or takes days off to go skiing. In February he is demobbed, the colonel threatening: ‘I won’t let you go until you’ve built a library for me.’ A few days later, he runs into Ionescu at a Walter Gieseking concert. Glad to see each other, the two men agree to visit soon. 15 March: Nae has died, aged 49 – ‘Nervous, uncontrollable sobbing.’ 1 April: Eliade is appointed cultural attaché in London. 10 April: Eliade leaves; the Germans occupy Denmark, land in Norway. 17 June: ‘France is laying down arms! … It’s as if someone close has died. You don’t understand, you don’t believe it’s happened … I should like to be able to cry.’

In September 1940, the disastrous Carol II abdicated, to be replaced by the new leader of a National Legionary state, General Ion Antonescu. The romanisation decrees that followed deprived Sebastian of his Foundation job and of his free rail pass and excluded him from the Bar, assigning him to forced agricultural labour. The entries for the next years are a litany of borrowing, scrounging and sponging.

Antonescu’s romanisation destroyed the country’s economy, but distributed prizes to the deserving. 2 January, 1941: ‘This morning I met Cioran in the street. He was glowing. “They’ve appointed me [cultural attaché in Paris]”.’ Corrupt but gentlemanly old-style politicians stole with whatever style they could muster; the Iron Guard robbed the country blind. The General blamed the Bolsheviks who had wormed their way into the Legion and, when the radical populist Legionnaires finally clashed with the Army in the rising of January 1941, he attributed it to ‘marginal and irresponsible elements’.

21 January, 1941: ‘Revolution? Coup d’état?’ Iron Guards march in the streets and young desperados, their hair sticking up, riot, loot and burn the Jewish quarters. ‘This evening I finished La Fontaine’s fables.’ The weather is incredibly fine. Far away, Tobruk had fallen. Nearer to home there is shooting, the telephone is cut off, the radio station keeps changing hands. The Jewish quarters look as if they have endured a major earthquake (Bucharest had suffered a bad one only two months before). Hundreds, or thousands, of Jews are dead (a footnote puts the number at 121); soldiers and Legionnaires have also died. ‘The Legion,’ Cioran tells a mutual friend, ‘wipes its arse with this country.’

The regime’s priorities were less sanitary; and Jews, as so often happens, were the first to pay the bill. 26 March 1941: Eugen Ionescu (the playwright Ionesco), ‘desperate, hunted, obsessed’, can’t bear the thought that he may be barred from teaching: ‘not even the name Ionescu, nor an indisputably Romanian father, nor the fact that he was born a Christian … can hide the curse of Jewish blood in his veins.’ That same month, Jewish houses and other possessions are expropriated, then in April radio sets are confiscated: no more music, no more news. 24 April: ‘The familiar voices from London were like friends’ voices, and it’s hard now that I have lost them.’

Teaching for a pittance in a Jewish college, Sebastian moves in with his parents. He had learned English so as to read Shakespeare in the original, and now he teaches a course on Shakespeare. Life is terrible, but he speculates about his next play, ‘a light comedy of politics and love’. Friends invite him out, but he finds the experience depressing. 15 June: ‘I feel my poverty, failure and disgrace as a physical humiliation.’ Jews, ‘even well-dressed Jews’, are being arrested in the streets. 1 June: ‘So long as Britain doesn’t surrender, there is room for hope.’ 2 June: ‘War, war, war; people talk of nothing else.’ Ionesco, ‘eaten up with panic’, can’t believe that Sebastian doubts it. Ionesco was right.

When Romania joins in the German invasion of Russia, the police put up posters depicting Jews holding a hammer and sickle, concealing Soviet soldiers: ‘Who are the masters of Bolshevism?’ 22 June: ‘The General announces holy war to liberate Bessarabia and Bukovina, and eradicate Bolshevism.’ A friend assures him that the Russians will be crushed in a couple of weeks. Bucharest is blacked out, the phones no longer work, buses no longer run, nor are there any taxis or private cars, except with a special permit. It’s ‘Yids to the labour camps!’ but ‘I go on reading Thucydides.’ There are rumours of a pogrom in Iasi, where half the 100,000 population is Jewish. A communiqué speaks of 500 Judeo-Freemasons being executed for aiding Soviet parachutists. Radu Ioanid, the author of a study of Jews in Antonescu’s Romania, estimates that 13,000 were killed. Sebastian lives a ‘dark, sombre, insane nightmare’, while reading War and Peace.

And it gets worse. 22 July: ‘They are going into Jewish homes – more or less at random – and carrying off sheets, pillows, shirts, pyjamas, blankets. Without explanation, without warning.’ By the autumn, Jews are required to contribute beds, bedding and items of personal clothing by the hundredweight. ‘No one is surprised any more at anything’; but ‘each day you wonder what they will think up next.’ Police round-ups are a constant threat. 3 September: ‘I jumped off the tram just in the nick of time.’ Orders can be followed by counter-orders: report to police headquarters, registration postponed; Jews to wear yellow star, countermanded. Deliberate or simply à la roumaine, the muddle is complete. ‘Exasperated, impotent, weary’, Sebastian escapes into Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

7 September: ‘You have to hang on.’ Jews may only shop between 10 and 12; they’re ordered to dismiss all their servants. The maid cries like a child. The family will have to sweep the floors, wash dishes, shop for themselves. 7 October: ‘Who will do the laundry?’ Jews are mobilised to clear the snow. Skis are confiscated, then bicycles. Jews draw smaller rations than Romanians and pay twice as much for what they get. All books by Jewish authors are removed from bookshops.

Even nightmares turn monotonous and even the darkness admits rays of light: a friend allows Mihail to come and listen to her records; a friendly theatre director suggests he should write a play to be staged under a false name; with some cash won playing poker he buys a Mozart quartet and Bach’s Third Brandenburg Concerto. Antoine Bibescu invites him to his estate at Corcova: ‘Bring your fountain pen.’ July 1942: The Germans advance on Rostov. ‘I opened Montaigne, couldn’t put it down. What delights!’

Even when the course of the war turns for the better, there are still good reasons to worry. February 1943: ‘The Russian offensive becomes catastrophic … Jews are once more threatened with extermination.’ 8 May: Bizerta and Tunis fall to the British, but a new antisemitic campaign looms. Sebastian’s mood swings from one day to another. He works flat out, translating, writing, rewriting, to rake in a bit of cash. Some days, ‘I don’t live, I drag along.’ Others, with the Bibescus, are blissful. When the time comes to rejoice over the fall of Fascism in Italy, there is cause to worry about the safety of an elder brother in France.

In December 1943 the anonymous play is accepted with enthusiasm, put into rehearsal and premiered in March 1944. Bucharest is bombed, and all who can flee the city. 8 April 1944: ‘no one is left but us.’ On the same day, ‘Mary, the young manicurist who used to come every Friday, was killed.’ The raids continued. 7 May: ‘the city smells of lilies and smoke’; he thinks of writing a book on Balzac. In August the Americans are at Rambouillet, the Russians at Iasi, his play hangs on, his brother is all right. Then, 29 August: ‘How shall I begin? Where shall I begin? The Russians are in Bucharest. Paris is free. Our house … has been destroyed by [German] bombs.’ 1 September: Russians rape, loot, rob (‘watches are the toys they like most’), but it isn’t tragic. ‘It’s not right that Romania should get off too lightly … In the end, the Russians are within their rights. The locals are disgusting – Jews and Romanians alike. The press is nauseating.’

Sebastian became a journalist again and the Royal Foundations Review invited him to resume his job; but he refused. In February 1945, he was appointed press secretary to the Foreign Office; in May he was appointed to teach a university course on Balzac. On 29 May, on the way to his first lecture, he was hit by a speeding truck [driven by a drunk Russian soldier] and killed. He was 38.

Jules Renard was one of Sebastian’s favourite writers. Reading Renard’s diary, the then 28-year-old Sebastian had reflected on the talent and the absurd death of the author of Poil de Carotte. The lines he wrote at the time could serve as his own epitaph: ‘That is the only kind of eternity that matters: to be more alive than a living person, and for the memory of you to be just as real as a physical presence.’

Voir également:

The Remarkable Ben Hecht

Mark Horowitz


April 17, 2019


Fighting Words, Moving Pictures

By Adina Hoffman


Iconoclastic Writer and Militant Zionist

By Julien Gorbach

For understandable reasons, biographies about Ben Hecht have focused almost exclusively on his screenwriting career in Hollywood. And why wouldn’t they? Consider a few of his credits: “Underworld,” directed by Josef von Sternberg, for which Hecht won the first Academy Award. (Not his first Academy Award, the first Academy Award ever given for best story. The year was 1927.) “Scarface,” “The Front Page,” “Twentieth Century,” “Design for Living,” “Wuthering Heights,” “His Girl Friday,” “Spellbound,” “Notorious.” And that’s just films with his name on them. Uncredited, he script-doctored countless others, including “Stagecoach,” “Gone With the Wind,” “A Star Is Born” (1937) and “Roman Holiday.”

Across four decades, Hecht worked on about 200 movies. He helped establish the ground rules for entire genres, including the gangster film, the newspaper picture, the screwball comedy and postwar film noir. Jean-Luc Godard said “he invented 80 percent of what is used in Hollywood movies today.”

However, what gets repeatedly overlooked, when historians and film buffs consider Hecht’s life, are his politics. That’s understandable too, given that he hated politics. Thanks to his early days as a Chicago newspaperman, he came to believe that all politicians were hopelessly corrupt. He was deeply cynical about the human condition, and didn’t take do-gooders seriously. He dismissed the fashionable leftism among Hollywood’s screenwriting elite as group therapy for intellectuals.

But unexpectedly, in middle age, Hecht dropped everything to become a propagandist and political organizer, in a nationwide campaign to pressure the Roosevelt administration to rescue the endangered Jews of Europe. His dramatic transformation surprised his friends and colleagues, and may reveal more about the man than any of his Hollywood successes.

Two new books finally give this chapter of his life the emphasis it deserves. “Ben Hecht: Fighting Words, Moving Pictures,” by Adina Hoffman, an accomplished literary biographer, and “The Notorious Ben Hecht: Iconoclastic Writer and Militant Zionist,” by the first-time author Julien Gorbach, a crime reporter turned journalism professor, both play down Hecht’s screenwriting in order to dig more deeply into his relatively unexplored Jewish side.

But as these biographies clearly show, Hecht’s Jewish American identity runs like a soundtrack through his entire life. He once joked that he became a Jew only in 1939, yet in fact he was pickled in Yiddishkeit from the beginning. Born on the Lower East Side, raised in the Midwest, he wrote novels, short stories and newspaper columns about Jews throughout his life; Sholom Aleichem was an enduring inspiration.

Hoffman’s book is part of the Yale Jewish Lives series of brief — in this case too brief — biographies. She condenses his film and theater career into a mere 50 pages or so, eager to get to the metamorphosis Hecht underwent on the eve of World War II. And that’s where she starts to draw closer to the man than any previous attempt.

What follows is a brisk, readable tour through Hecht’s wartime alliance with the right wing of the Zionist movement — the Revisionists led by Ze’ev Jabotinsky — and his support for the Irgun, their clandestine paramilitary affiliate, led by Jabotinsky’s young lieutenant Menachem Begin. She describes Hecht’s awkward lunch at the “21” Club in New York with a young Irgunist, a Palestinian Jew named Peter Bergson, who persuaded Hecht to help him create a Jewish army to fight against Hitler. Later, galvanized by news of the mass exterminations taking place in Europe, the team mounted a bold campaign to pressure the United States government to make the rescue of European Jewry a wartime priority. Their efforts were fought not only by Roosevelt and the State Department, but also by establishment Jewish groups, fearful that Judaizing the war would trigger more anti-Semitism. Jewish-owned newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post agreed, burying news of Hitler’s Final Solution.

Hecht wrote furious columns for the short-lived liberal newspaper PM, excoriating the passivity of American Jews. (His friend Groucho Marx congratulated him after one particularly angry screed. “That’s what we need,” Groucho wrote, “a little more belligerency, professor, and not quite so much cringing.”) Hecht also wrote a long exposé in The American Mercury called “The Extermination of the Jews,” later excerpted in Reader’s Digest. These were, Gorbach says, “the only substantive coverage” of the Holocaust “to appear in mass-circulation magazines.”

In order to make an end-run around the political and media establishment and bring the story directly to the American people, the Bergson group bought full-page ads in major newspapers, usually written by Hecht himself. “Action — Not Pity Can Save Millions Now!” was a typical headline.

Hecht also coaxed his famous actor, producer and musician friends to join him in mounting “We Will Never Die,” a large-scale pageant — essentially a supersize Broadway musical, written by Hecht, with a cast of hundreds. The production sold out Madison Square Garden, the Hollywood Bowl and venues across the country. Tens of thousands saw it. Hecht also wrote a pro-Irgun Broadway play, “A Flag Is Born,” with an unknown Marlon Brando playing a Jewish refugee. The box office receipts helped pay for a ship, rechristened the S.S. Ben Hecht, meant to smuggle displaced Jews into Palestine.

Every step of the way, the brashness of Hecht and Bergson was met with spectacular resistance from the more timid leaders of established Jewish organizations: Rabbi Stephen Wise even compared Bergson to Hitler. It didn’t matter. Public opinion was on their side and the campaign attracted the support of senators, congressmen and Supreme Court justices.

Hoffman ably synthesizes an unwieldy amount of material. But she is hamstrung by her dislike of Bergson and Hecht’s affiliation with the Revisionist movement, which evolved, after Israel’s founding, into the right-wing Likud party of Begin and Netanyahu. She unfairly treats Hecht as a bit of a crank in this regard, ignoring the fact that at the crucial moment, Bergson and the Revisionists were the only ones persistently raising the alarm and demanding a more aggressive American response to the tragedy.

Gorbach may be the weaker stylist, at times insightful while at other times too reliant on academic jargon and theory, but his is the deeper dive, and he comes up with a surprising amount of fresh material on Hecht’s activism.

By focusing on his politics, both biographies create a richer portrait, yet still struggle to fully explain Hecht. Gorbach comes closest, sensing that the cynicism that saturated his screenplays also somehow fueled his wartime politics. It wasn’t idealism. “Morality was a farce,” Hecht wrote. The criminal underworld he encountered as a city reporter struck him as the truest representation of humanity. The Holocaust didn’t surprise him. He had already predicted it in a prewar novella.

Hecht didn’t become a Jew in 1939; he became a Zionist. The genocide in Europe, Gorbach points out, along with the world’s failure to prevent it, “made the logic of Zionism real to him.” The world couldn’t be counted on. Jews had to defend themselves. “Today there are only two Jewish parties left in the field,” Hecht said after the war, during the Irgun’s campaign to drive the British out of Palestine, “the Terrorists — and the Terrified.”

He was always spoiling for a fight. Gorbach calls him a romantic. Hoffman calls him a defiant Jewish American. I’d call him a lifelong rebel who finally found his cause. Menachem Begin said it best: “Ben Hecht wielded his pen like a drawn sword.”