Picture from the cover Man walking in the street Street Bucharest in 1927 seen from above

For Two Thousand Years

A prescient interwar masterpiece by Mihail Sebastian. Available in English for the first time.

‘Absolutely, definitively alone’, a young Jewish student in Romania tries to make sense of a world that has decided he doesn’t belong.

Mihail Sebastian’s 1934 novel was written amid the anti-Semitism which would, by the end of the decade, force him out of his career and turn his friends and colleagues against him. For Two Thousand Years is a lucid, heart-wrenching chronicle of resilience and despair, broken layers of memory and the terrible forces of history.

‘I received two punches during todays lectures and I took eight pages of notes. Good value, for two punches.’
Photo of Mihail Sebastian

Mihail Sebastian is one of the most important Romanian writers of the twentieth century. During his lifetime, his most famous book was the novel For Two Thousand Years. Published in 1934, it sparked a furious debate in the newspapers for its ambiguous political stance. Critics on the left accused Sebastian of being anti-Semitic although he was Jewish, while those on the right attacked him for being a Zionist. At the core of the novel is the year 1923, when a new constitution gave citizenship to ethnic and religious minorities. Having survived the war and the Holocaust, he was killed by a truck whilst crossing the street in May 1945, as he was going to teach his first university lecture on Balzac. He was 38.

‘His prose is like something Chekhov might have written – the same modesty, candour, and subtleness of observation’

I believe I’ve only ever been afraid of signs and symbols, never of people or things. My childhood was poisoned by the third poplar in the yard of the Church of St Peter, a tall, mysterious tree, its shadow on summer nights falling through the window, over my bed – that black band slashing across my bedcovers – a terrifying presence I could not understand and did not try to.

Woman selling flowers in the street

And yet, I walked bareheaded through the deserted streets of the city when it was occupied by Germans: a white trail in the sky marking the passage of planes, bombs falling all about, even close by, the short dry thumps echoing across the open country.

And yet, with cold, childlike curiosity I calmly observed cartloads of frozen Turks passing by the gates in December, and not even before those pyramids of bodies stacked like logs in a woodpile did the presence of death make me tremble.

And yet, I crossed the Danube in a damaged boat, taking in water, to Lipovan villages, just rolling up my sleeves when it seemed the rotten bottom could no longer hold out. And God knows what a bad swimmer I am.

No, I don’t think I’ve ever been fearful, even though the Greeks from the big garden, who pelted us with stones when they caught us there, shouted ‘Cowardly Jew!’ at me daily from the moment they knew me. I grew up with that shout, spat at me from behind.

I know, though, what horror is. Horror, yes. Little nothings which nobody else noticed loomed before me menacingly and froze me with terror. Vainly would I approach the poplar across the road in the light of day, caressing its black bark and, with bloodied nails, breaking splinters from the wood exposed between the cracks. ‘It’s just a poplar,’ I told myself, leaning back against it, to feel it right against me so as not to forget. But by evening I had indeed forgotten, alone in my bedroom, bedded down as always at ten o’clock. You could still hear the steps of passers-by from the street, muffled voices, occasional shouts. Then that familiar silence, arriving with the usual pace, in the usual stages. If I made an effort, I could perhaps recall those three or four internal beats with which my night began, real steps which I descended physically in darkness and silence. Then the shadow of the poplar found me once again tensed, with fists clenched and eyes wide open, wanting to shout out but not knowing how or to whom.

Made a curious discovery yesterday at the second-hand bookshop. George Gissing. La rançon d’Eve. From around 1900, I think. Absolutely nothing about the author (probably English). Passed a good four hours.

When I’d finished it, I went into the street for an evening paper. More fighting, at the faculty of medicine in particular, and in our own faculty. I didn’t attend today. Why bother?

Man walking in the snow

Marcel Winder stopped me in the street to tell me they’d beaten him up again.

‘That’s number eight,’ he told me, not specifying whether it was his eighth fight or his eighth injury. He had a black bruise under his left eye. He was chatty, almost cheerful. Superior at any rate. I’ve certainly never aspired to that kind of thing. I’ve steered clear. It looks like the lads are getting ready for 10 December, but Winder didn’t want to tell me too much about it.

‘Not your sort of thing, pal. You’ve better things to worry about. And coincidentally, just coincidentally, they stop you getting into trouble with us. Just a coincidence.’

Winder is wasting his time. He’s flogging a dead horse: I don’t have that kind of vanity.

In a letter from Mama I received today:

. . . And, in particular, don’t go to the university. I’ve read in the paper that big fights have broken out again, and the milliner’s son, when he was home, told me it’s worst of all at your faculty. Leave the showing off to the others. Listen to your mother and stay home.

‘Leave the showing off to the others.’ If Mama could know how that sounds.

People boating

Can that be it? This morning I went to the class on Roman law. No one said a word to me. I took notes feverishly, in order not to have to lift my eyes from my desk. Halfway through the lecture, a ball of paper falls on the bench, beside me. I don’t look at it, don’t open it. Someone shouts my name loudly from behind. I don’t turn my head. My neighbour to the left watches me carefully, without a word. I can’t endure his gaze and I look up.


He barks the command. He stands up, making space for me to get by, and waits. I feel a tense silence around me. Nobody breathes. Any gesture from me and this silence will explode.

No. I slide out of the desk and slip towards the door between two rows of onlookers. It all happens decorously, ritually. Someone by the door lashes out with his fist, but it is a glancing blow. A late punch, my friend.

I’m out in the street. I see a beautiful woman. I see an empty carriage passing by. Everything is as it ought to be. A cold December morning.

Winder sought me out to congratulate me on yesterday’s events. I don’t know who told him about it. And he gave me a ticket to go to the student dormitories the day after tomorrow. A group is being organized for every faculty. The boys are determined to attend lectures on 10 December. A matter of principle, Winder says.

The whole thing bores me to death. I’d like a big, clear, severe book with ideas that challenge all I believe in, a book I could devour with the same intense passion with which I first read Descartes. Every chapter would be a personal struggle.

But no: I’m involved in a ‘matter of principle’. Ridiculous.

Street at night

10 December. Walking straight ahead, head uncovered, in the rain, blindly, looking neither right nor left nor behind, without crying out, to avoid crying out, above all, and allowing the noise of the street, the people who are watching, and this hour of confusion, to wash over me. There. If I close my eyes, nothing remains but drizzling rain: I can feel the fine droplets on my cheek, trickling from my eyebrow towards my nostrils and from there falling suddenly to my lips. Why can’t I be profoundly, imperturbably calm, like a horse drawing an empty cart through mud, through a storm?

I’ve been beaten. That’s all I know. I’m not in pain and, apart from a punch to the thigh, none of them were severe blows. He had a strange expression, under his cap. I hadn’t believed he was going to strike me until I saw his raised fist. He was a stranger: perhaps it was the first time he’d laid eyes on me.

I’ve been beaten and the world doesn’t stand still for such things. Italian-Romanian Bank, paid-up capital, 50,000,000. Where Minimax guards, fire doesn’t spread. The capital of Iceland is . . . Liebovici Isodor, what happened to you? If he found the door to the secretariat, he escaped. If not . . . But what the hell is the capital of Iceland? Not Christiana, for God’s sake, and not Oslo either, because they’re the same place . . .

If I cry, I’m lost. I’m still self-possessed enough to know that much. If I cry, I’m lost. Clench your fists, you fool, if necessary, believe yourself a hero, pray to God, tell yourself you’re the son of a race of martyrs, yes, yes, tell yourself that, knock your head against the wall, but if you want to be able to look at yourself in the mirror and not die of shame, don’t cry. That’s all I ask of you: don’t cry.

Bucharest in 1927 seen from above

If I thought it would do any good, I’d rip out that page I wrote the other day. One more pathetic outburst like that and I’ll give up keeping a diary. What matters is whether I can understand calmly, critically, what is happening now to myself and others. Otherwise . . .

People say that this afternoon they’ll decide to close the university indefinitely.

Yesterday, on the platform, as I was getting off the train, Mama looked thinner and older than ever under the weak station lights. It was probably only her usual nerves, in our first hour of being together again.

Her nerves . . . ‘Have you got all your parcels? You didn’t leave anything on the train? Button up your collar properly. Now, to find a carriage . . .’ She talks a lot, hurriedly, about so many little things, and doesn’t wipe the tear from her lashes, afraid I’d notice it.

A man cleaning shoes

First walk in town. Triumphal procession down Main Street, between two rows of Jewish shopkeepers who salute me loudly, each from his own shop, with discreet knowing nods.

‘It’s nothing, lads, keep your chins up, God is good, it’ll pass.’

‘For two thousand years . . .’ says Moritz Bercovici (manufacturing and footwear), trying to explain to me the cause of our persecution.

At the barber’s, the owner himself takes the honour of cutting my hair and asks during the operation if I have any bruises, scars . . . if you know what I mean, sir.

‘No, I’ve no idea.’

‘Well, the fighting.’

‘What fighting?’

‘The fighting at the university. Didn’t you get beaten up?’ ‘No.’

‘Not at all?’

‘Not at all.’

The man is perplexed. He cuts my hair grudgingly, unenthusiastically.

Book cover