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 A ”Horror” Documentary

Andrei Cornea



Andrei Oişteanu, Imaginea evreului īn cultura romānă, (The Image of the Jew in Romanian Culture), Humanitas, Bucharest 2001




With an unassuming yet serious title, ”The Image of the Jew in Romanian Culture”, Andrei Oişteanu’s latest book resembles, in fact, a ”horror” documentary series, the actual backdrop of which is mainly Central and Eastern Europe, but also Western Europe. Though the book supersedes a cultural representation, it also touches upon political as well as economical aspects. (A title more consistent with the contents would have been, I assume, ”The Relentless Stereotypes of Romanian and European Anti-Semitism”.)

This documentary is imaginatively pursued by the author, with skill, exactitude and gravity, with visibly etched frames, free from any ambiguity. The selected method is practiced calmly and without wavering: the writer depicts several aspects of the portrait of the main ”character”, ”the imaginary Jew”, such as the physical portrait, the professional portrait, the moral and intellectual portrait etc., in keeping with the manner in which this portrait can be re-enacted out of the numerous documents and perspectives, equally Romanian and European, along the time. Within each chapter, the stereotypes amassed in Romanian popular culture are compared to the stereotypes of the other popular cultures, of Ukraine, Poland, Hungary, or even Germany, prompting the general conclusion that, despite some nuanced aspects, these stereotypes are extremely analogous, and that their amalgamation corresponds to the creation of a similar ”imaginary Jew”. There follows, as a rule, the comparison of these popular stereotypes to intellectualized and politicized forms of anti-Semitism, mostly Romanian, starting with the 18th century and going on to the year 2000, which shows the manner in which the Romanian ruling class and intelligentsia have allowed themselves to be seduced, to a lesser or greater extent, by these stereotypes and how they managed to fashion a ”cultured” dimension of the ”imaginary Jew”. Numberless excerpts, each cautiously and discerningly scrutinized, are corroborative to the meticulousness of the documentary, spanning from children’s folklore and popular adage to the politically engaged columns of personalities such as Eminescu, Iorga, Cioran, or Vadim Tudor. Mention should also be made of the lofty illustrative material, reproduced from lithoprints, drawings, engravings, or turn-of-the-century paintings, all contributing to the staggering visual dimension of the documentary.

I expect much vent of Andrei Oişteanu’s book, a memorable and exceptional volume for Romanian culture. As far as I am concerned, I would solely like to make a few remarks on the ethical and philosophical perspectives launched by this book.

Firstly, subsequent to the publication of this book, I suppose one can no longer claim that anti-Semitism was not a mass phenomenon in Romania, well rooted in lay and religious cultural traditions. This is exactly what it was, no doubt about it! Yet there is nothing exceptional in this respect: Andrei Oişteanu’s book shows that the situation is similar all over Eastern and Central Europe. To assume, as some politicians do and as even some Jewish leaders have done along the time, that (European) peoples have not been anti-Semitic, but that a certain range of personalities were, thus instilling anti-Semitism to the masses, becomes, in the light of Andrei Oişteanu’s study, a unacceptable pious illusion. Dissimilar degrees of resistance to the stereotypes of anti-Semitism were certainly extant within the intelligentsia of diverse countries. Unfortunately, as Andrei Oişteanu and other authors show, they were not strong enough to change the direction of the trend that led directly to the Holocaust.

On the contrary, what appears unquestionably from Andrei Oişteanu’s book is the almost perfect continuity between popular and cultured anti-Semitism, the latter surfacing more often than not as a form of ”rationalization” or elsewhere ”justification” of the popular dimension. And what deters me is the magnitude of the intellectual arguments put at stake to demonstrate, for instance, that ”all the Jews stink”, or that ”the Jews poison the brandy”. If we were to adopt Julien Brenda’s coinage of a ”betrayal of the intellectuals”, we could seldom come across more conclusive and at the same time more shameful examples than those cautiously amassed by Andrei Oişteanu. Out of his well-furnished collection, I will quote but one, but one that fills you with fear: the author jots down a popular saying from the county of Maramureş: ”- Whom have you met on your way, Ioane? – A man and a Jew” (p.403). In other words, ”the Jew is not human”! Or, notes Oişteanu only a few lines later, in his famous Foreword to Mihail Sebastian’s novel ”After two thousand years”, Nae Ionescu wrote serenely in his turn: ”Are you Joseph Hechter, man from Brăila’s Danube flow? No. You are a Jew from Brăila’s Danube flow.” The inference, which is implicit within the study, yet needs not be overlooked, is that the path to the gassing chambers was paved by traditional European popular mentality, as well as by intellectual argumentations.

The encumbrance does not reside only in the centuries long continuity and perenniality of the anti-Semitic stereotypes, but also in their overt absurdity and stupidity. The ”imaginary Jew” is a knot of contradictions and aberrations that any careful observation of the real Jew, and any sound logic, no matter how promptly put to good account, could have obliterated. An extremely significant example is the stereotype of the ”Jewish merchant” – that is, of a non-productive individual who exploits by chicanery honest labor. Let alone the economical drivel of despising commerce, which is characteristic, as Oişteanu makes obvious, of almost all rural communities, I simply wish to remark the inaccuracy of the stereotype. Oişteanu qotes a 1820 statistic from the time of Moldavian Prince Mihai Şuţu, which reveals that the percentage of Jewish merchants out of the total of indigenous Jewry in Iaşi was but 9.3%, while in Bucharest, in the period 1834-1844, the percentage of merchants and money-mongers out of the total of the town’s Ashkenazi population was 9.4%. Accounts of 19th century foreign trekkers, as well as many other statistics, indicate the same thing: the considerable majority of ”real” Jews were but petty craftsmen, while merchants stayed behind as a minority among them. The effective reality did not prevent the stereotype from being extremely persistent and dangerous: the identification of the Jew with the merchant and of the merchant with a scrounger that must be eliminated has essentially contributed to the hardships suffered by the Jews in our country as well as in Europe.

In this context, what more could you say when you read the following lines, written by the very hand of the great historian Nicolae Iorga, a man whose profession, vocation, culture, or intelligence should have prompted him to best observe field reality? ”The Jews of Romania, particularly those of Moldavia, make a living from commerce, exchange, chicanery to the damage of the others, and shield themselves from honest labor… They are spiteful and cruel, as long as the long arm of the law does not impinge on them” (p.133). Furthermore, although Oişteanu also provides positive, luminous examples of intellectuals who strove to wrestle anti-Semitic stereotypes –those mentioned above or the others – the final countdown keeps on being weighty: not only that their vast majority did not bother to combat folkloric, popular anti-Semitism, but a great number of these intellectuals, of Romania as well as of the rest of Europe, did their best so as to substantiate the prejudices of the people and to grant them legitimacy from a political, economical, or scientific standpoint as well.

Yet what overwhelms me, maybe more than anything else, when reading this book, is the deep-rooted and generalized scorn for the truth of the most people, be they historians, journalists, scholars, politicians, peasants, workers, or anything else, be they cultured or uneducated, poor or rich, from one country or another, bigots or atheists. To choose a convenient untruth, comfortable or profitable from certain points of view, yet not less of an untruth, does not represent for mankind the rare exception, but the principle that exceptions, however prominent or stunning, confirm all the more.

Of course, this is not only the case of anti-Semitism or xenophobia. The present book provides, however, a few anthological examples of resistance to truth, such as the allegation of ”ritual homicide”, perpetually brought on the Jews from the 11th and on to the 20th century, which instigated numberless pogroms, persecutions and court cases, despite the recurrent acquittal due to insufficient evidence for the allegations and also due to the frequent and authoritarian disavowals of the leaders of Catholic Church. Nonetheless, it seems that popular mentality, periodically inflamed by a few anti-Semitic journalists, could not relinquish the idea that Jews sacrifice Christian children in order to mix their blood into the unleavened bread. This entirely unconfirmed stereotype, writes Oişteanu, seems to be almost immortal, so that, in the aftermath of numerous pogroms, court cases and various indictments, the stereotype can be still found in 1995, in the ”Baricada” newspaper, and under a symbolical form, that of accusing the Jews of all the iniquity of the century, in ”Romānia Mare”, ”Politica” or ”Atac la persoană”. Let us recall, in this context, the recent scandal around ”Naţionalistul”, a collection of common places of the most repulsive anti-Semitism, released under the aegis of an Institute of the Romanian Academy of Sciences.

Anthropologists, psychologists, and so many others may have the task to explain to the best of their skills this eternal human propensity towards lie, towards immovable resistance to the truth, towards willing prevarication of truth even; and all this despite the pressure unrelentingly exerted by culture, common sense or reason.

As far as I am concerned, however, even if only for reading Andrei Oişteanu’s book, I was persuaded, once again, of how erroneous are the pre-requisites of the fine and reliant assertion of Aristotle, on commencing his ”Metaphysics”: ”all men have an innate urge to know.”



English version by Octavian Liviu Logigan


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