Always a confrontational critic of antisemitism, Zissu found himself marginalized by fascist regimes in the late 1930s and for most of World War II. During the Holocaust era, he risked his personal freedom to defend the interests of his community, and was especially vocal as a critic of the collaborationist Central Jewish Office. He eventually reached a compromise with the Ion Antonescu regime when the latter curbed its deportations of Jews to Transnistria, and, after 1943, helped initiate the Aliyah Bet exodus of Romanian and Hungarian Jews to Mandatory Palestine. His contribution is at the center of an enduring controversy, focusing on his alleged favoritism of Zionist Jews and his cantankerousness.
In his final years, Zissu's Zionism merged with explicit anti-communism, clashing directly with the Romanian Communist Party's anti-cosmopolitan agenda. His renewed effort to ensure the mass emigration of Romanian Jews, and his contacts with Israel, made him a target for the communist regime: in 1951, he was arrested, and, in 1954, sentenced to life imprisonment for the crime of high treason. He was amnestied after some two years in prison, where he had been tortured and brutalized. Himself an emigrant, he died shortly after resettling in Israel.
Born into a Hasidic Jewish family in Piatra Neamț, his parents were Pincu Zissu, a bank accountant, and his wife Hinda-Lea; he had nine siblings. Several sources describe Abraham as the brother-in-law of poet-journalist Tudor Arghezi and uncle of photographer Eleazar "Eli" Teodorescu, through his sister Constanța Zissu. However, more detailed accounts note that Constanța was born in Pitești to an unrelated Zissu family.
Zissu received a semi-formal Talmudic education, excelling in the study of both Hebrew and Yiddish sources. At age twenty, he obtained a rabbi's diploma; although this was recognized by Casa Școalelor agency, he never practiced. At Piatra Neamț, the Zissu siblings had for a friend the younger Eugen Relgis, later a noted anarchist ideologue and writer of Jewish topics. Visiting Iași, Zissu also met and befriended the Jewish intellectuals Elias and Moses Schwarzfeld, being introduced to their literary circle. Zissu himself began writing for the Iași-based Egalitatea magazine in 1904, aged sixteen, and did so until 1910. That year, he entered into conflict with the city's students, who were under the influence of antisemitic professor A. C. Cuza. Also in 1910, he was hired at Iași's Moldova Bank, where he led a workers' strike in 1914. He was also involved with the Jewish cultural movement in Iași, working alongside Lazăr Șaraga, Iacob Ashel Groper, and Jacob Itzhak Niemirower.
Together with Petre Constantinescu-Iași, Zissu published the weekly literary magazine Floare Albastră ("Blue Flower"), which ran for six editions at Iași in 1912 and had the young poet Benjamin Fondane (of the Schwarzfeld family) among its noted contributors. The publication was mostly traditionalist and neo-romantic, opposed to both the Symbolist movement and the left-wing Viața Romînească. Zissu and most of the contributors, including Fondane and Sandu Teleajen, were pseudonymous; signed contributions included pieces by Ludovic Dauș, Enric Furtună, Constantin Motaș and Grigore T. Popa. In parallel, also in 1912, Zissu and Menahem Mendel Braunstein put out the Hebrew-language Ha-Mekits ("The Awakener"). He debuted as an author in 1914, with the play David Brandeis, and also began writing for the Yiddish revival journal Likht ("Light"). Zissu married the daughter of Carol Zimmer, a dealer in oils, based in Bucharest. Their son Theodor (later Theodore) Zissu, himself a noted Zionist, was born in 1916.
In 1918, together with the Orthodox priest Gala Galaction (with whom he had a long-lasting friendship) and Léon Algazi, Zissu published Spicul magazine, which closed after two numbers. In 1919, he founded the Zionist daily newspaper Mântuirea in Bucharest; he served as director and constant contributor from 1919 to 1921, inviting Fondane and Isac Ludo to join him as co-editors. In tandem, Zissu joined Fondane and Armand Pascal's modernist theater company, Insula. Mântuirea closed by government order in December 1922, following Zissu's open letter to the antisemitic National-Christian Defense League, which resulted in the editorial offices being stormed by angered far-right students. As noted by historian Camelia Crăciun, the publication may be seen as Zissu's "masterpiece", "one of the most important Jewish political publications during the interwar period and also as the major Zionist journal in Romania".
A deeply devout individual (he wrote in 1947 that: "my childhood and adolescence were consumed by the incandescent flame of a religious frenzy"), Zissu is described by historian Hildrun Glass as "the best-known propagandist of the Jewish national movement in the Romanian Old Kingdom." In effect, he adopted Religious Zionism, favoring a return to "authentic Judaism", but also an "integral" Jewish nationalism that resembled the Revisionist variety. University of Haifa scholar Bela Vago describes him as the "authoritarian" and "rightist" exponent of Romanian Zionism, while historian Yehuda Bauer indicates that, though he never joined the Revisionists, Zissu's political views "gradually veered" into that territory.
Fundamentally, Zissu opposed Jewish assimilation, favoring self-segregated cohabitation ("the right of legal self-administration in all the matters connected to national life"), while voicing his suspicion toward the mainstream Union of Romanian Jews and its leader, Wilhelm Filderman. His own influence was exercised through the Zionist splinter group and newspaper Renașterea Noastră ("Our Revival"), founded in 1922, and, from ca. 1931, through the Jewish Party. Zissu served as honorary president of the latter organization. As noted by historian Idith Zertal, he mounted "an aggressive campaign [...] against Filderman's 'assimilationist' tendencies. Only his party, [Zissu] claimed, represented the ethnic political interests of the Jewish population in Romania; all the other bodies were capitulationist and collaborationist and detrimental to Jewish interests." Scholars Jean Ancel and Camelia Crăciun also see Zissu as an unjust critic of Filderman, noting that the latter was not ever adverse to Zionism.
Yet, Filderman "insisted in continuing to fight for civic and political rights in Diaspora, here conflicting with the Zionists." The Zissu–Filderman dispute can be traced to ca. 1922, the year of complete Jewish emancipation: Filderman proposed that Jews be granted Romanian citizenship on the basis of individual pledges, while Zissu insisted that recognition of their native status needed to be seconded by local Jewish bodies. This became a philosophical dissensus, with Zissu accusing Filderman of having forsaken the legal tenets of the Halakha. For his part, Filderman expressed fears that Zissu's "integral" concept of Judaism and his party's self-segregationist stance "would cast an abyss between the Romanian people and the Jewish population."
These cultural and political activities blended with Zissu's activity in the realm of business. In 1920, he administered a sugar factory in Ripiceni, Botoșani County. He also worked in an iron forge and for several forestry firms Neamț County, and later owned both the Ripiceni factory and the Omega Oil Press in Bucharest. Reportedly, Zissu's wealth allowed him to act as a lender or benefactor for Romanian and Jewish intellectuals, including journalist-philosopher Nae Ionescu (before Ionescu's turn to antisemitism). From 1924, he sponsored the Jewish modernist Vilna Troupe, which he relocated to Bucharest. In 1929, with revenues from the sugar industry, he commissioned Michael Rachlis, the Russian architect, to build him a luxurious Art Deco home in Berlin-Grunewald, currently known as Villa Zissu.
1930s novels and related polemics
Zissu was also active in numerous interwar publications of a leftist or avant-garde bent: Egalitatea, Curierul Israelit, Opinia, Steagul, Cuvântul, Hatikvah (Galați), Viața Românească, Lumea Evree, Integral, Bilete de Papagal, Puntea de Fildeș, Adam and Hasmonaea. David Brandeis was followed by two volumes of short stories: Spovedania unui candelabru ("Confession of a Chandelier"), 1926; and Ereticul de la Mânăstirea Neamțu ("The Heretic at Neamț Monastery"), 1930. He followed up with polemics and essays: "Noi" – breviar iudaic ("'Us' – A Primer for Judaism"), 1932; Logos, Israel, Biserica ("Logos, Israel, The Church"), 1937. With his comedic fragments in Integral, Zissu took on avant-garde trappings, and, critic Paul Cernat notes, provided a "timid" Romanian version of international Futurism. His other texts were poems and stories of life in the shtetl, which broke with Integral's modernist agenda, and were possibly only published there on Fondane's request; Fondane also translated and published some of them upon his relocation to France. They include Spovedania unui candelabru, as La confession d'un candélabre (1928). Praised by reviewer Jean Martory as "one of mankind's most admirable works", this story gives voice to a menorah whose metal was mixed with tears. In Ereticul..., a Jewish convert turned Romanian Orthodox monk returns to his original faith; included in the same collection, the story Uziel follows a Jewish man on his doomed path to become Baal Shem. According to critic Leon Feraru, both works show a "startling craft".
While active in the interwar press, Zissu engaged himself in renewed polemics with both the radical left and the radical right. In March 1932, Ion Vinea hosted in Facla Zissu's critique of Stalinism (and positive assessment of Trotskyism), with a caveat that noted its noncompliance with the editorial line. In May, the same newspaper hosted a rebuttal of Zissu's stance. In November 1933, Zissu debated with the increasingly radical Nae Ionescu about the "Jewish Question" in Romania. Responding in Cuvântul, Ionescu noted that he shared Zissu's anti-assimilationist goals, and that he only wanted to see "Romanians of the Mosaic faith" returning to the status of "Jews with Romanian citizenship" (a position that Ionescu would soon discard in favor of racial exclusion). The debate was mocked by the left-wing writers at Șantier, who suggested that Zissu and Ionescu favored equally authoritarian stances.
In 1934, Zissu prefaced Theodor Loewenstein-Lavi's primer for the Zionist youth, expressing his confidence that the movement had reached "maturity" and overcome "sterility". His Zionist-themed novels, also published at the time, made a particular impression. They include: Marcu sin Marcu (1934), Calea Calvarului ("The Path of Calvary", 1935), Samson și noul Dragon ("Samson and the New Dragon", 1939). In a sympathetic review for Cuvântul in 1932, fellow Jewish novelist Mihail Sebastian described Zissu as a "surprising" author, but identified sad undertones in his Zionist enthusiasm: "Mr. Zissu believes that he has found a spiritual island on which the nation of Israel may settle calmly and constructively. I fear that this belief of his comprises more desperation than tranquility." While Fondane described Zissu as a writer who went beyond the cliches of modern Jewish literature, scholar Leon Volovici argued: "Zissu's passion for ideological debate [...] led him to produce fiction that is highly rhetorical and excessively discursive." Crăciun also notes "the unevenness of his works", with Zissu being more of a "great thinker" than a writer of "artistic value".
Zissu and his family lived in Berlin before and after the Nazi seizure of power, until eventually they relocated to Bucharest in 1936. They took up residence on Lascăr Catargiu Boulevard, Dorobanți. Later, his home was in west-central Bucharest, on Aurel Vlaicu Street. From 1937 to 1944, under a series of increasingly authoritarian regimes which reintroduced antisemitic laws, Zissu had no literary occupation, being banned from journalism and writing. The Siguranța secret police followed his contacts with both Nae Ionescu and the Renașterea Noastră group, and monitored his correspondence with Stephan Roll, Integral's communist poet. Zissu also had relations among the more moderate politicians and, in 1938, was appointed manager of the Sugar Trust by the National Renaissance Front.
Theodore Zissu, an alumnus of Trinity College, Cambridge, remained in Britain, and actively involved himself with the Jewish movement in Mandatory Palestine. He testified before the Woodhead Commission and campaigned for the inclusion of Negev in the Jewish colonization zone. Following the outbreak of World War II, he became a Lieutenant in the Royal Armoured Corps, and was killed in action during the Second Battle of El Alamein.
Surviving the pogrom of January 1941, Zissu remained a prominent but controversial figure in his persecuted community, sponsoring his increasingly hostile friend Sebastian. Sebastian described Zissu as "honest but uninteresting", and his wife as a "perfect example of a Jewish parvenue." He also found Zissu's Zionism unpalatable: "[he is] a theorist of full-blown Jewish nationalism who goes out every evening to a cinema or restaurant, two months after a pogrom." As argued by Glass, Sebastian's characterization is partial, and fails to cover the basics of Zissu's wartime activity.
Zissu found himself at odds with the Ion Antonescu dictatorship, which announced plans to deport Romania's Jews into Transnistria. Sebastian noted that Zissu and his family initially considered emigrating to Palestine via Turkey, and spent "hundreds of thousands of lei" on obtaining visas. Eventually, however, Zissu chose to a collective effort to protect the Jewish community at large. According to Sebastian, he claimed to have voluntarily divested from Romanian oil, and thus to have "ruined himself", because the industry was catering to Nazi Germany—Sebastian dismissed the claim as "cheap theater". At around that time, Zissu became close friends with Franz Babinger, the Bavarian historian and Wehrmacht Colonel. He described Babinger as "a fanatic anti-Nazi and a friend of the English."
By 1942, Zissu had come into conflict with the Central Jewish Office (CE), a sort of Romanian Judenrat created by Antonescu. He was one of the most vocal Jewish critics of the CE, rejecting all collaboration—a stance also embraced by novelists Ion Călugăru and Ury Benador. With his assimilationist rival Filderman and rabbi Alexandru Șafran (who mediated between them), he set up Sfatul Evreiesc (the "Jewish Council"), which coordinated anti-CE efforts. Zissu quelled his animosity and began corresponding with Filderman, acknowledging his "remarkable skills" and "impressive energy", but still reproaching him his "doctrinal and conceptual sins". He presented himself as the Jews' "spiritual guide" and "seismograph", suggesting that Filderman could remain their "political representative". Filderman eventually put a stop to the exchange of letters, after Zissu asked him to resign and recognize him as the sole representative of their community.
In September 1941, Zissu publicly declared the CE leader, Henric Streitman, who had allegedly asked him to contribute money for Antonescu, to be a renegade of the Jewish people. Consequently, he was imprisoned for several months at Târgu Jiu camp for political opponents, where Sebastian visited him. In 1943, the Rescue Committee of the Jewish Agency appointed Zissu as its Romanian liaison and leader of the local Palestine Office, which sparked controversy throughout the community, who supported another Zionist, Mișu Benvenisti. As noted by Glass, Zissu "was universally respected, but had the reputation of an extremist who could jeopardize the Zionist movement and the Jewish populace."
In January 1944, with Benvenisti under arrest, Zissu took control of the Jewish emigration and self-help movement, establishing the Zionist Executive. During those months, as the Axis alliance slowly disintegrated, he reached a stalemate with the CE's Nandor Gingold and the Romanian bureaucrat Radu Lecca. Lecca awarded him recognition and allowed him to carry on with the emigration project in exchange for bribes. The Antonescu regime even proposed that he replace Gingold as CE manager, but Zissu stated his refusal, calling the institution a "bureau of the Gestapo", and accusing Gingold of "high treason". In 1943, the regime was persuaded by Renașterea to give Jewish orphans stranded in Transnistria a free pass to leave for Palestine. Allegedly, Zissu had played an important part in the deal, persuading the regime's Mihai Antonescu.
Noting the officials' interest in negotiating a separate peace with the Allies, and their interest in finding "a partial alibi for their crimes against the Jews", Zissu pushed them to accept mass emigration, and effectively made emigration Romania's own solution to the "Jewish Question". His agenda pitted him against other relief organizers. Filderman and Zissu had quarreled again before March 1944. They each preserved their own channels of communication with the Romanians and Allies who talked peace in Cairo. Zissu also had a long-standing conflict with the Greek freighter Yannos Pandelis, who organized sea transports to Palestine. Like Filderman, he accused Pandelis of extorting Romanian Jews, and obtained official approval for his ouster. In the process, he exposed shady dealings between Lecca and Pandelis: the former reserved special seats on the departing ships, possibly intended for his CE accomplices. He appeared before an Antonescu government panel which acknowledged the seriousness of the scandal and recognized the Rescue Committee as the prime authority, effectively legalizing emigration.
According to historian Dalia Ofer, Zissu became friends with Mihai Antonescu, "the chief Rumanian proponent of disengagement from Germany, whose position steadily improved as the notion of an Axis victory faded." After ousting Pandelis "out of fundamentally positive motives", Zissu took over as head of the Romanian Red Cross emigration committee, in direct contact with the Rescue Committee's Mossad LeAliyah Bet and Shaul Meirov. Mossad agents found him to be a belligerent egoist and an obstacle to the success of Zionism. However, Zissu was held in high esteem by those who reached Palestine, and this impressed the Rescue Committee.
Tensions emerged during May, when Bulgaria intercepted and arrested several of the Mossad's vessels, which threatened the Zionist project in its entirety. Zissu's radicalism in this time of crisis led the Yishuv sponsors to parachute in Shaike Dan Trachtenberg, whose mission was to instill discipline among Romanian Zionists and non-Zionists. Filderman was brought in by Meirov to supervise Zissu's initiatives, the Mossad being largely unaware of their irreconcilable differences. Filderman fought against his rival's decision to prioritize the ships for Zionist families while Jews of other convictions were pushed back. In late July, the Mossad concluded that Zissu's contacts with the Antonescu government had little strategic value, and Haim Barlas informed him that the Rescue Committee no longer considered him its representative. Having secured Trachtenberg's support, Zissu fought against this decision, and threatened that the entire Zionist Executive would leave with him.
By early August, Zissu and the Mossad were again collaborating on the rescue of Hungarian Jews escaping the Holocaust. His work was tolerated by Antonescu, on condition that no refugees would be allowed to linger in Romania-proper. In all, Zissu claimed to have personally rescued some 14,000 of his coreligionists by obtaining them safe passage to Turkey. He is also credited with having sent over seven individual transports, of which the Mefküre was torpedoed by the Germans.
According to Zionist Moritz Moscovici, Zissu was contacted by the regime on August 22, 1944, that is two say two days after the beginning of a Soviet invasion in eastern Romania. Ion Antonescu, who faced the prospect of a full Soviet occupation upon his surrender, asked Zissu to contact the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and, through it, the Western Allies, urging for some Anglo–American guarantees; Zissu agreed and sent the Joint his letter early on August 23. Just hours later, Antonescu was deposed in a palace coup, and Romania capitulated to the Allies. During the democratic episode that followed, Zissu re-founded the Jewish Party, and became its president. Mântuirea reappeared in September of that year, as the weekly organ of Romania's Zionist federation, bringing in new talents such as Isidore Isou, while Zissu also reactivated the national chapter of the World Jewish Congress.
Although the Zionist movement experienced a resurgence, Zissu's Hasidic discourse and disdain for secularism soon drove away younger activists, including Isou. At the time, Zissu also prefaced F. Brunea-Fox's first-hand account of the 1941 pogrom, as Orașul măcelului ("City of Slaughter"), and involved himself in the public denunciation of Gingold and other CE men. He also intervened with General Nicolae Rădescu to obtain a dispensation for Jews from conscription into the Romanian Army, until such time as the last antisemitic laws were formally overturned.
As noted by historian Lucian Nastasă, Zissu "hoped for a truly democratic change in Romania, as the one chance for Jews to obtain citizenship rights." Adamantly anti-communist while the country experienced gradual communization, he mapped out a two-stage plan for his community: obtaining recognition for the Jews as a distinct ethnic minority; in the long run, mass emigration to Palestine. This policy was rejected outright by the governing Communist Party and Gheorghe Vlădescu-Răcoasa, the Minister for Minorities, who refused to award ethnic recognition to the Jews. Zissu and Benvenisti spoke out against the communist-controlled Jewish Democratic Committee (CDE), arguing that it was neither democratic nor Jewish.
Meanwhile, Zissu's own refusal to cooperate with the Romanian Red Cross in organizing transports to Palestine infuriated the Mossad and the Yishuv, who demanded that he step down from the Zionist Executive. Disappointed with these setbacks and with Benvenisti's overtures to communism, Zissu resigned from all his official functions in mid or late 1946, although he continued to put out Mântuirea to 1947, when he was pushed out by internal opposition. The communized Siguranța began keeping new taps on him, noting his closeness to Betar, his alleged corruption, and his covert support for Zionist political violence while under formal British protection. Upon the start of civil war in Palestine, Zissu refused to receive British awards, and his Mântuirea articles became so harshly anti-British that they had to be censored.
Zissu's departure enshrined a left-wing domination of the Zionist movement, which was now split between the CDE and the local chapter of Ihud. At the time, CDE leader M. H. Maxy publicly accused Zissu of being a reactionary element and a Siguranța informant. Other communist sources alleged that he had been a Gestapo man, citing as proof his Grunewald villa and his friendship with Babinger, and that he was a sponsor of the "fascist" Betar. Filderman offered to take Zissu out of the country with a transport set up by the Joint Distribution Committee. Zissu allegedly rejected that offer because the Joint had "turned Jews into a heap of cadgers". Filderman himself defected, his Union of Romanian Jews taken over by the pro-communist Moise Zelter-Sărățeanu. The latter joined hands with the CDE, and, Nastasă notes, launched a "furious attack" against Zissu.
Zissu's final polemical essay, titled Nu există cult mozaic ("No Such Thing as a Mosaic Religion"), also came out in 1947. It was his definitive answer to Vlădescu-Răcoasa, and repeated the beliefs he first stated in the 1920s, that Judaism "may be considered a race, a nation, an idea, a vision of existence, a tragedy, a permanent universal digression, but it is definitely not a religious denomination."
By 1949, Zissu had entered the clandestine opposition movement against Romania's communist regime, attempting to reestablish the old emigration network. He received only minimal support from Israeli officials, who found his project too risky, and was closely monitored by Securitate intelligence. Zissu also requested a meeting with the communist General Secretary, Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, asking him to approve of his emigration project. He followed up with displays of radical defiance: he made a public mockery of the Stockholm Peace Appeal, which was being circulated in the Romanian intellectual community, refusing to sign it because he "wanted war". Writer Nicolae Steinhardt, who recounts the incident, admired Zissu as an "insane man breaking his own windows".
In July 1950, the regime openly embarked on anti-Zionist and anti-cosmopolitan campaigns, arresting waves of Jewish nationalists and nonconformists. Zissu joined Zalman Rabinsohn, brother of the Communist Party politico Ana Pauker and a returnee from Israel, trying to find sympathetic ears in the party leadership. They received a blunt reply and a warning from Iosif Chișinevschi, who allegedly told Rabinsohn that antisemitism had been liquidated from the country, and that Romania sided with the Arab League. On May 10, 1951, the Securitate arrested Zissu and some 200 of his fellow activists.
Zissu was interrogated for some three years, and tortured at the hands of Securitate Lieutenant-Major Teodor Micle. He refused to sign any preordained confession, and made sure to write down and sign all his statements. Initially prosecuted for espionage, he was eventually found guilty of high treason ("conspiracy against the social order") and sentenced to life imprisonment on March 31, 1954. During the proceedings, Zissu lashed out at his co-defendant Benvenisti, who had caved in during the interrogation. As reported by Steinhardt, Zissu said: "This court I shall not recognize, it has no authority over us. But when we'll be together in our own land, there I shall call you out and make sure you get the punishment worthy of such cowardice."
This was a group trial of "thirteen leaders of the Romanian Zionist movement"; life sentences were also handed to Benvenisti and Jean Cohen. By February 1953, the inquiry had come to implicate Rabinsohn, arrested for his contacts with Zissu, and then Pauker herself, who was deposed by Gheorghiu-Dej and other rivals. Zissu's wife was not imprisoned, but she was forced out of their apartment, and lived in the hallway.
Zissu's case was presented for review in October 1954, but reprieve was ruled out. It is known that, by 1955, he was kept at Pitești prison, in exceptionally harsh conditions. He was granted an amnesty upon interventions made by Israeli diplomats, and released in late 1955 or early 1956. He moved into his old Bucharest home, and was allowed to resume work as manager of his former sugar factory. His health compromised by mistreatment in prison, Zissu emigrated to Israel later in 1956, dying of a heart attack in Tel Aviv several months after. His funeral was attended by some of Israel's highest-ranking figures, among them Golda Meir, Yosef Sprinzak, and Nahum Goldmann.
Zissu's manuscripts include essays about Romanian Jews, a novel on the same topic, and Yiddish translations of his work. His memoirs and diaries were collected and revised by Jean Ancel, and published in 2004 by Yad Vashem and Tel Aviv University.