(born Cernăuţi, Bukovina, Kingdom of Romania, current Chernivtsi, Ukraine - c. , Paris) was a poet and translator. He was born as Paul Antschel into a Jewish family in Romania, and changed his name to "Paul Celan" (where Celan in Romanian would be pronounced Chelan, and was derived from Ancel, pronounced Antshel), becoming one of the major German-language poets of the post-World War II era.
Celan was born in 1920 into a German-speaking Jewish family in Cernăuţi, Northern Bukovina, a region then part of Romania and earlier part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, among others (now part of Ukraine). His father, Leo Antschel, was a Zionist who advocated his son's education in Hebrew at Safah Ivriah, an institution previously convinced of the wisdom of assimilation into Austrian culture, and one which favourably received Chaim Weizmann of the World Zionist Organization in 1927. His mother, Fritzi, was an avid reader of German literature who insisted German be the language of the house. After his Bar Mitzvah in 1933, Celan abandoned Zionism (at least to some extent) and finished his formal Hebrew education, instead becoming active in Jewish Socialist organizations and fostering support for the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War. His earliest known poem, titled Mother's Day 1938 was an earnest, if sentimental, profession of love. Paul graduated from the gymnasium/high school called Liceul Marele Voivod Mihai (Great Voivode Mihai High School) in 1938.
In 1938, Celan travelled to Tours, France, to study medicine. The Anschluss precluded Vienna, and Romanian schools were harder to get in to due to the newly-imposed Jewish quota. But he returned to Cernăuţi in 1939 to study literature and Romance languages. His journey to France took him through Berlin as the events of Kristallnacht unfolded, and also introduced him to his uncle, Bruno Schrager, who later was among the French detainees who died at Birkenau.
Life during World War II
The Soviet occupation of Bukovina in June 1940 deprived Celan of any lingering illusions about Stalinism and Soviet Communism stemming from his earlier socialist engagements; the Soviets quickly imposed bureaucratic reforms on the university where he was studying Romance philology and deportations to Siberia started. Nazi Germany and Romania brought ghettos, internment, and forced labour a year later (see Romania during World War II).
On arrival in Cernăuţi July 1941 the German SS Einsatzkommando and their Romanian allies set the city's Great Synagogue on fire. In October, the Romanians deported a large number of Jews after forcing them into a ghetto, where Celan translated William Shakespeare's Sonnets and continued to write his own poetry, all the while being exposed to traditional Yiddish songs and culture. Before the ghetto was dissolved in the fall of that year, Celan was pressed into labor, first clearing the debris of a demolished post office, and then gathering and destroying Russian books.
The local mayor strove to mitigate the harsh circumstances until the governor of Bukovina had the Jews rounded up and deported, starting on a Saturday night in June 1942. Accounts of his whereabouts on that evening vary, but it is certain that Celan was not with his parents when they were taken from their home on June 21 and sent by train to an internment camp in Transnistria, where two-thirds of the deportees perished. Celan's parents were taken across the Southern Bug and handed over to the Germans, where his father likely perished of typhus and his mother was shot dead after being exhausted by forced labour. Later that year, after having himself been taken to the labour camps in the Old Kingdom, Celan would receive reports of his parents' deaths.
Celan remained in these labour camps until February 1944, when the Red Army's advance forced the Romanians to abandon them, whereupon he returned to Cernăuţi shortly before the Soviets returned to reassert their control. There, he worked briefly as a nurse in the mental hospital. Early versions of Todesfuge were circulated at this time, a poem that clearly relied on accounts coming from the now-liberated camps in Poland. Friends from this period recall Celan expressing immense guilt over his separation from his parents, whom he had tried to convince to go into hiding prior to the deportations, shortly before their death.
Life after the war
Considering emigration to Palestine and wary of widespread Soviet antisemitism, Celan left the USSR in 1945 for Bucharest, where he remained until 1947. He was active in the Jewish literary community as both a translator of Russian literature into Romanian, and as a poet, publishing his work under a variety of pseudonyms. The literary scene of the time was richly populated with surrealists — Gellu Naum, Ilarie Voronca, Gherasim Luca, Paul Păun, and Dolfi Trost —, and it was in this period that Celan developed pseudonyms both for himself and his friends, including the one he took as his pen name.
A version of Todesfuge appeared as Tangoul Morţii ("Death Tango") in a Romanian translation of May 1947. The surrealist ferment of the time was such that additional remarks had to be published explaining that the dancing and musical performances of the poem were realities of the extermination camp life. Night and Fog, the earliest documentary on Auschwitz (Alain Resnais, 1955), includes a description of the Auschwitz Orchestra, an institution organized by the SS to assemble and play selections of German dances and popular songs. (The SS man interviewed by Claude Lanzmann for his film Shoah, who rehearsed the songs prisoners were made to sing in the death camp, remarked that no Jews who had taught the songs survived.)
Exodus and Paris years
Due to the emerging of the communist regime in Romania, Celan fled Romania for Vienna, Austria. It was there that he befriended Ingeborg Bachmann, who had just completed a dissertation on Martin Heidegger. Facing a city divided between occupying powers and with little resemblance to the mythic city it once was, which had harboured the then-shattered Austro-Hungarian Jewish community, he moved to Paris in 1948. In that year his first poetry collection, Der Sand aus den Urnen ("Sand from the Urns"), was published in Vienna by A. Sexl. His first few years in Paris were marked by intense feelings of loneliness and isolation, as expressed in letters to his colleagues, including his longtime friend from Cernăuţi, Petre Solomon. It was also during this time that he exchanged many letters with Diet Kloos, a young Dutch singer and anti-Nazi resister who saw her husband of a few months tortured to death. She visited him twice in Paris between 1949 and 1951.
In 1952 Celan's writing began to gain recognition when he read his poetry on his first reading trip to Germany where he was invited to read at the semiannual meetings of Group 47. At their May meeting he read his poem Todesfuge ("Death Fugue"), a depiction of concentration camp life. His reading style, which was maybe based on the way a prayer is given in a synagogue and Hungarian folk poems, was off-putting to some of the German audience. His poetry received a mixed reaction. When Ingeborg Bachmann, with whom Celan had an affair, won the Group's prize for her collection Die gestundete Zeit (The Extended Hours), Celan (whose work had received only six votes) said "After the meeting, only six people remembered my name". He did not attend any other meeting of the Group.
In November 1951, he met the graphic artist Gisèle de Lestrange, in Paris. He would send her many wonderful love letters, influenced by Franz Kafka's correspondence with Milena Jesenska and Felice Bauer. They married on December 21, 1952, despite the opposition of her aristocratic family, and during the following 18 years they wrote over 700 letters, including a very active exchange with Hermann Lenz and his wife, Hanne. He made his living as a translator and lecturer in German at the École Normale Supérieure. He was also a close friend of Nelly Sachs, who later won the Nobel Prize for literature.
Celan became a French citizen in 1955 and lived in Paris. Celan's sense of persecution increased after the widow of a friend, the French-German poet Yvan Goll, accused him of having plagiarised her husband's work. Celan was awarded the Bremen Literature Prize in 1958 and the Georg Büchner Prize in 1960.
Celan committed suicide by drowning in the Seine river around April 20, 1970.
Celan: poetry and poetics
Poetry after Auschwitz
The death of his parents and the experience of the Shoah (or Holocaust) are defining forces in Celan's poetry and his use of language. In his Bremen Prize speech,
Celan said of language after Auschwitz that:
"Only one thing remained reachable, close and secure amid all losses: language. Yes, language. In spite of everything, it remained secure against loss. But it had to go through its own lack of answers, through terrifying silence, through the thousand darknesses of murderous speech. It went through. It gave me no words for what was happening, but went through it. Went through and could resurface, 'enriched' by it all."
It has been written, inaccurately perhaps, that German is the only language that allows (us?) to penetrate the horror of Auschwitz, to describe death from within.
His most famous poem, the early Todesfuge, commemorating the death camps, is a work of great complexity and extraordinary power, and may have drawn some key motives from the poem Er by Immanuel Weissglas, another Czernovitz poet. The dual character of Margarete-Sulamith, with her golden-ashen hair, appears as a reflection of Celan's Jewish-German culture, while the blue-eyed "Master from Germany" embodies German Nazism.
In later years his poetry became progressively more cryptic, fractured and monosyllabic, bearing comparison to the music of Anton Webern. He also increased his use of German neologisms, especially in his later works Fadensonnen ("Threadsuns") and Eingedunkelt ("Benighted"). In the eyes of some, Celan attempted in his poetry either to destroy or remake the German language. For others he retained a sense for the lyricism of the German language which was rare in writers of that time. As he writes in a letter to his wife Gisèle Lestrange on one of his trips to Germany:'The German I talk is not the same as the language the German people are talking here'. Writing in German was a way for him to think back and remember his parents, particularly his mother, from whom he had learned the language. This is underlined in 'Wolfsbohne,' a poem in which Paul Celan addresses his mother. The urgency and power of Celan's work stem from his attempt to find words "after", to bear (impossible) witness in a language that gives back no words "for that which happened".
In addition to writing poetry (in German and, earlier, in Romanian), he was an extremely active translator and polyglot, translating literature from Romanian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Russian, Hebrew and English into German.
Germany and German guilt
Recent commentaries on Celan's relationship to Germany (its "irreparable offense", its "guilt" and — for many others — "silence" on the exterminations after 1945, and after the war) often point to Celan's poem "Todtnauberg". This poem was engendered by Celan's meeting and single encounter with the philosopher Martin Heidegger. Celan had read Heidegger beginning in 1951, and exclamation marks in his margin notes testify to an awareness that Heidegger had allowed his remarks on the "greatness" of National Socialism in the 1953 edition of Introduction to Metaphysics to stand without further comment.
Celan visited West Germany periodically, including trips arranged by Hanne Lenz, who worked in a publishing house in Stuttgart. Celan and his wife Gisèle often visited Stuttgart and the area on stopovers during their many vacations to Austria. On one of his trips, Celan gave a lecture at the University of Freiburg (on July 24, 1967) which was attended by Heidegger, who gave Celan a copy of Was heißt Denken? and invited him to visit his work retreat "die Hütte" ("the hut") at Todtnauberg the following day and walk in the Schwarzwald. Although he may not have been willing to be photographed with Heidegger after the Freiburg lecture (or to contribute to Festschriften honoring Heidegger's work) Celan accepted the invitation and even signed Heidegger's guest book at the famous "hut".
The two walked in the woods. Celan impressed Heidegger with his knowledge of botany and Heidegger is thought to have spoken about elements of his press interview Only a God can save us now, which he had just given to Der Spiegel on condition of posthumous publication. That would seem to be the extent of the meeting. Todtnauberg was written shortly thereafter and sent to Heidegger as the first copy of a limited bibliophile edition. Heidegger responded with no more than a letter of perfunctory thanks.