Paul Celan was the most frequently used pseudonym of Paul Antschel, one of the major poets of the post-World War II era. Celan is widely considered one of the finest European lyric poets of his time and one of the most profound, innovative and original poets of the 20th century.
Celan was born in 1920 into a German-speaking Jewish family in Cernăuţi, Bukovina, then part of Romania. 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 favorably 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 terminated 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 a sentimental, if earnest, profession of love.
In 1938, Celan travelled to Tours, France to study medicine (the newly-imposed Jewish quota in Romanian universities and the Anschluss precluded Bucharest and Vienna), but 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. The Soviet occupation 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 the Red Army brought deportations to Siberia, just as Nazi Germany and Romania brought ghettos, internment, and forced labor a year later.
On arrival in July 1941 the German SS Einsatzkommando and their Romanian allies burned down the city's six-hundred-year-old Great Synagogue. 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 labor. After having been taken to a labor camp in the Old Kingdom, Celan received reports of his parents’ deaths.
Celan remained in the labor camp until February 1944, when the Red Army's advance forced the Romanians to abandon them. He then returned to Cernăuţi shortly before the Soviets returned to reassert their control. There, he worked briefly as a nurse in a mental hospital. Early versions of Celan’s poem, “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 expression of immense guilt over his separation from his parents, whom Celan had tried to convince to go into hiding prior to the deportations, shortly before their death.
Considering emigration to Palestine and wary of widespread Soviet anti-Semitism, Celan left Soviet-occupied territory 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, another poem from that era, 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 been taught the song survived.)
As Romanian autonomy became increasingly tenuous in the course of that year, 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 harbored the then-shattered Austro-Hungarian Jewish community, he moved to Paris in 1948, where he found a publisher for his first poetry collection, Der Sand aus den Urnen ("Sand from the Urns"). 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 Dutch chanteuse. She visited him twice in Paris between 1949 and 1951. In a published edition of these letters, near the end of the exchange, Celan seems to be entertaining an amorous interest in her.
In 1952 Celan received an invitation to the semiannual meetings of Group 47. At a 1953 meeting he read his poem Todesfuge ("Death Fugue"), a depiction of concentration camp life. His reading style, which was based on Hungarian folk poems, was off-putting to the German audience. His poetry was sharply criticized. 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 was not invited again.
In November 1951, he met the graphic artist Gisèle Lestrange, in Paris. 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 Siegfried Lenz and his wife, Hanna. He made his living as a translator and lecturer in German at the École Normale Supérieure.
Celan became a French citizen in 1955 and lived in Paris until his suicide by drowning in the Seine River in late April 1970.
The death of his parents and the experience of the 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. Despite his declaration that language remains, it is indeed only remnants that are left him; even within the word "enriched" – "angereichert" (the quotations are Celan's) lies buried the word Reich, just as its thousand years echo in the thousand darknesses of murderous speech – language, perhaps, has been "through" too much.”
Celan’s 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 and has been associated with Martin Heidegger by some authors. This excruciating and fertile ambiguity is aptly mirrored in both Celan's and Heidegger's intense engagement with Trakl and Hölderli. Todesfuge impressively negates Theodor Adorno's famous caveat, "After Auschwitz, to write a poem is barbaric." Celan, always sensitive to criticism, took the dictum personally; his later poem, Engführung (Stretto or "The Straitening") was his own re-writing of "Deathfugue" into ever-more desperate language.
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. 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, Portuguese, Russian, Hebrew and English into German.
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 one of the most famous and (arguably) the most important philosophers of the 20th century: 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 Hanna 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.
In his Poetry as Experience, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe advances the argument that, although Celan's poetry was deeply informed by Heidegger's philosophy, Celan was long aware of Heidegger's association with the Nazi party. In other words, Celan remained fundamentally circumspect toward the man even while acknowledging the transformative power of his work. In his turn, Heidegger was a professed admirer of Celan's writing, although he did not attend to it as he did Hölderlin or even Trakl. Nor would Heidegger attend to Celan as a Jewish poet working within that German tradition.
That being said, Celan's poem "Todtnauberg" seems to hold out for the unrealized possibility of a profound rapprochement between their work, albeit on the condition that Heidegger break a silence that virtually blanketed his work to the end (i.e., Lacoue-Labarthe has commented on the insufficiency of Heidegger's one known remark about the gas chambers, made in 1949). In this respect Heidegger's work, in its transformative function, was echo to a redeemed humanity even if that possibility could not be reconciled or transacted between two men. For Celan, this irreconcilable complication (involving a dissolution of the sacred in the profane and vice versa) resided irrevocably and irreparably in a breach.
One implication here is that Celan is simply demanding an apology of Heidegger. However, there are reasonable grounds to argue that it was crucial for Celan that both of them be held accountable. Failing that "accounting"(whether in witness or testimony) must not one invoke a further questioning, and (at the very least) specify how the Nazi period is das Unheil (disaster, calamity)? Because to call it that as such, to use that precise terminology (das Unheil) signals toward something other than an official body count, does it not? What would that call toward something "other" be? At the very least would not that which compelled Heidegger to write about poetry, technology, and truth have (by the same token) compelled him to write with commensurate rigor about the German disaster?
Lacoue-Labarthe and Jacques Derrida, perhaps following Celan to a degree, believed Heidegger capable of a profound criticism of Nazism and the horrors it brought forth. Therefore, they consider Heidegger's greatest failure not to be his involvement in the National Socialist movement but his "silence on the extermination" (Lacoue-Labarthe) and his refusal to engage in a thorough deconstruction of Nazism beyond laying out certain of his considerable objections to party orthodoxies that could appropriate passages from Nietzsche, Hölderlin, and Richard Wagner and subsume their "authority" or "intellectual property" behind the mask of fascism.