Nina Cassian dies at 89; Romanian poet granted asylum in U.S.

Nina Cassian is shown reading her poetry in 2003.
(Jennifer S. Altman)

Romanian poet and translator Nina Cassian, who obtained political asylum in the United States after the Communist-era secret police found her critical poems scribbled in a friend’s diary, has died. She was 89.

Cassian died of a heart attack Monday at her home in New York City, said her husband, Maurice Edwards.

The Securitate found her poems in 1985 in the diary of Gheorghe Ursu, a friend of hers who was questioned and later died after being beaten by a fellow prisoner. Cassian, then lecturing at New York University, was granted asylum in the United States.

Romanian authorities confiscated her apartment in Bucharest and her assets after she was granted asylum, and her books were removed from bookshops.


While living in New York, she married Edwards, an author who was the Brooklyn Philharmonic orchestra’s artistic director. He survives her.

Born into a Jewish family in the Danube port of Galati on Nov. 27, 1924, Cassian joined the Communist Youth Wing when it was outlawed by the pro-Nazi government. She said she was attracted by the ideas of equality and lack of racial prejudice.

In 1947 she published her first work, “La Scara 1/1" (On a Scale of One to One), which was badly received by critics because it ran against the Socialist grain of the time. She then wrote a series of books that were flattering to the regime, as did many Romanian writers, arguing it was the only way they could survive artistically.

Romanian President Traian Basescu sent his condolences to her family, hailing her as a poet, writer, translator and songwriter appreciated in Romania and the U.S.

“Nina Cassian, who lived, loved, wrote, smoked, drank and played more than any of us has gone — simply, swiftly, at home, the way she had hoped to go,” said documentary filmmaker Mona Nicoara, a friend.

“She had always been fragile, one way or another — yet it was hard to think of her as anything short of immortal.”

Cassian wrote 50 books, including a volume of poems in English in 1998 called “Take My Word for It,” and “Continuum” in 2008.

She also wrote children’s books and translated Shakespeare, Moliere and Bertolt Brecht, and her work was published in the New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly and other publications.


Her last book in Italian “C'è modo e modo di sparire,” published in 2013, featured poetry written between 1945 and 2007.