Jean-Marie Lustiger, a Jew converted to Catholicism, cardinal and bishop of Paris, said about him: “His huge culture and faith, his fight for the truth and his love for justice make him a great figure of Romanian history in this century (20th Century).” A quarter of century recently passed since the death of this remarkable Romanian, but this anniversary went almost unnoticed. And still, in early 1990s, ‘Jurnalul Fericirii’ was a best-seller that posthumously propelled its author as the Romanian contemporary culture’s important moral and intellectual guiding mark.
He was related to Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis. At first he was a careless Jew, spoiled in a bourgeois family, spending his holidays in Swiss mountain resorts and tasting the “la dolce vita” in a world whose charm had not yet been stolen by communism. He obtained his PhD in constitutional law, he wrote in the magazines of that period, he even tried to frequent the synagogue.
A graduate of a renowned high school, his colleagues were future names of resonance for Romanian culture; he established lifetime friendships with some and ironized the intellectual pretenses of others. As many Jews during the war, he went through the offending measures imposed by the military regime (such as physical community labour), measures that he will later consider minor compared to the much more tragic destiny that Jews had in other European states. The instauration of communism following the Soviet occupation will socially marginalize him, with him surviving solely through several semi-clandestine intellectual contacts and through growing interest for Orthodox Christianity. Almost 50 years old, he ends up involved in a resounding political trial against some intellectuals, some of whom had been sympathizers of the Legion of Archangel Michael, such as the main defendant the philosopher Constantin Noica, his high school colleague. At first he was called as a witness for the prosecution, but since he refused, he himself ended up being tortured and then convicted. The 5 years in jail (he left jail as a result of a general amnesty) will be very tough, but also full of experiences, friendships and spiritual transformations in particular.
Shortly after he was jailed he underwent a clandestine baptizing with the help of a monk, but he promised to militate all his life for the cause of ecumenism (two Greek-Catholic priests took part in the baptizing too). It’s the period of exalted happiness but also of moral strengthening. Being physically weak, rather sickly, having an anxious temper, he makes the effort of behaving based on the exigencies of aristocratic morals, against the backdrop of a hellish jail, morals based on courage, dignity, good will, benevolence. Christ himself becomes for him a kind of Don Quijote, capable of seeing a castle where apparently there is nothing but a common pub.
But prison also meant something else for him, it confirmed to him the redeeming virtue of culture, since in order to survive the political prisoners instituted a kind of prison university where anything was being taught, from foreign languages to literary masterpieces, from military history to agricultural sciences, in order to transform hell into a paradise of the living spirit. After he left jail, dedicating himself to feverish writing, he was tempted by the thought of becoming a monk. After several years of surveys, he chose Rohia, an isolated monastery located in the northern part of the country, in Maramures. The Jew that once frequented the synagogue was now an Orthodox monk fascinated by nighttime candlelight religious services. Nevertheless he remained a lively intellectual, a brilliant writer (he generally wrote on literary issues but with the depth of a philosopher), an avid reader. However, he continued to have problems with the Securitate. First of all because he conceived a “jail journal,” a recounting of his experience in jail and of his conversion to Christianity in a wider biographical and historical perspective. Although only a few friends knew about the manuscript, one of them betrayed him. The Securitate confiscated the manuscript (returning it to him after several years) and investigated him. He was forced to rewrite the journal, several copies being hidden until the fall of the regime (he died just months before that). The second reason for his collision with the Securitate was his correspondence with Virgil Ierunca, to whom he was sending materials (which were then commented on Radio Free Europe) published in the country and who was sending him Western books in return.
‘Jurnalul Fericirii’ was published in 1991 and had an unusual success. Nicolae Steinhardt thus became a cult author. He is quoted, debated, commented, invoked. His public comes from across the board, ranging from Orthodox apologetics to those that have a passion for literary essays, from those that see him as a Romanian Solzhenitsyn to those who appreciate his ecumenical tolerance. So why then has this cult passed away as a fad? Because meanwhile things have settled down a bit after the effervescence of the years immediately after release from Communist oppression. The “Orthodox” have become even more “Orthodox,” forgetting the lesson in enlightened Christianity, an alternative to the contractions of some confessional identities. The Jews attacked him, reproaching him with tolerance for Romanian anti-Semitism, as well as with his religious conversion. The literary critics questioned his “Christian” interpretations of writings that seem of an entirely different nature. But his qualities are visible precisely in this undermining of some intellectual cliches, capable of unusually associating apparently irreconcilable aspects, of discovering unsuspected and challenging connections. And his fundamental theme has remained the ethical one, the decisive importance of behavioral options. That is why he is appreciated by all those who (irrespective of their political, ideological or religious side) have made honorable and sacrificial deeds worthy of respect above anything else. That is the same reason he even appreciated the Legionnaires (to which he felt attached also out of his desire of being sympathetic with the destiny of the Romanian people) even though he knew them to be stained with Jewish blood. His theological thinking (dotted throughout his writings – literary, art or film essays, the ‘Journal,’ his sermons at the Rohia monastery) is still to be discovered, and his cultural opinions can be fertile ground for future intellectual research.
Nicolae Steinhardt is an author only temporarily in the penumbra. He will certainly be rediscovered, as happened with many other intellectuals and artists forgotten for a while only to shine even brighter later on.