June 6, 2016
The Year 10 Historians are, to use a suitably historical term, a horde of History mad youths full of questions and usually come up with the correct answers! Their interest in the subject rather wonderfully goes beyond their curriculum, which is Cambridge Modern World History, but with quite a sharp Western European focus. Therefore, the historically thinly-populated and pastoral country known as Romania, and it’s rather over-sized geopolitical significance is neglected on the course, and Romania is reduced to a mere paragraph in the otherwise outstanding CIE course textbook.
This is not lost on our young historians, many of whom have been giving me a year-long refrain on the lines of ‘why don’t they talk more about Romania?’, for example when we did a brief segment on the Treaty of Trianon, the key post world war one peace treaty that led to full international recognition of Romanian Unification in 1920. Or during Stalin’s Takeover of Eastern Europe in the aftermath of the second world war, Romania is given a brief paragraph concerning the underhand and unscrupulous means the Communist Party maneuvered itself into the position of power.
My own knowledge of Romanian history is embarrassingly poor. Therefore, when I recently read a wonderful book I am sure a number of IBSB parents and teachers have either read or are aware of, For Two Thousand Years, by the author Mihail Sebastian, newly released in English by the famous Penguin Classics publication, and translated to great international acclaim from the London Guardian to the New York Review of Books, by the internationally award winning Irish and Bucharest-based author, Philip O’Ceallaigh, who is in the line of great Irish expat authors such as Samuel Beckett and James Joyce, I saw an opportunity!
I jumped at the chance to get in touch with him, especially as the book is a crucial account of interwar Romania and the experience of Bucharest’s minority of Jews and the growing anti-antisemitism of both the intellectual and state spheres, something linked to the Year 10 Depth Study on Nazi Germany. He very generously came to the school at short notice, having just come back from a lecture tour in London, to give his time and wealth of knowledge from his 15 years research and writing about Romania to the Year 10 class last Tuesday, period 6.
Moreover, Philip not only shared his knowledge and passion for contemporary Romanian history and the writers who made up Romania’s considerable intellectual circles, but his skill at story-telling really came through too. The students were rapt at how he explained the rise of the fascism in Romania through the prism of Mihai Sebastian’s almost tragi-comic life (his closest friends became the Vanguard of intellectual fascist Guardism). Moreover, as part of a trio of evil sisters plaguing Interwar Europe, with Romania and its Iron Guardism, Philip succinctly showed how the rise of Mussolini in Italy and the Nazis in Germany had overshadowed the importance of fascism in Romania to the overall European political context, as shown by its neglect as a topic on the CIE course that the students follow. Philip also passionately deconstructed some of the students’ popular misconceptions around the Holocaust in Romania, leaving some students with much food for further thought.
Student feedback was overwhelmingly positive and made me realise the importance of outside expert speakers. An afterword must be said about my colleague, Dr Silviu Nastase, resident Chemist, teacher and Photographer…in short a Polymath. Dr Silviu, himself from Braila, presented Philip with a painting from the author’s hometown of Braila. The painting showed a building that is presented as the first image of the protagonist in the novel, as a present for Philip’s work in publicizing the work internationally of Braila’s famous son. Philip said he was ‘overwhelmed’, at the gesture. So was IBSB at his great gesture in coming in to contextualize and consolidate the Cambridge CIE course with a local, native insight, a key aspect for furthering commitment and knowledge as UK educationalists have recently acknowledged.
Any student interested in reading For Two Thousand Years, I have donated a signed copy to the School library. Alternatively, it is available to buy from Carturesti and Anthony Frost bookshops.