Paul Celan

A Poet in Exile


A poem, Paul Celan (1920-1970) once said “can be a message in a bottle, sent out in the–not always hopeful–belief that, somewhere and sometime, it could wash up on land.” Widely regarded as one of the greatest poets of the 20th century, Celan gave voice to the poet’s desire to communicate while recognizing the limitations of poetic expression and of language itself.

Holocaust Poetry in German

paul celanBorn Paul Antschel in 1920, in Czernowitz, Romania, Celan was the only child of German-speaking Jews. While his father gave young Paul a Jewish education, his mother exposed him to the works of the great German poets such as Rilke and Schiller, inspiring in him a deep love for German language and literature.

Both of Celan’s parents died during the Holocaust. Their deaths, particularly his mother’s, would haunt him for the rest of his life. Celan himself spent the latter years of the war as a forced laborer in a Transnistria internment camp.

For Celan, who spoke several languages, German was the language of his mother, as well as that of his mother’s murderers. He reflected on this in a poem written shortly after receiving news of his parents’ death:

“And can you bear, Mother, as once on a time,
the gentle,
the German,
the pain-laden rhyme?”

Despite, or perhaps because of this, Celan chose to address the Holocaust–or, as he once referred to it, “that which happened”–in German.

Celan had already published several poems in German and Romanian by the time Hitler arrived in Romania. However, his work did not garner serious attention until the aftermath of the war, most famously through his ode to concentration camp victims, “Todesfugue.” Literally translated as “Death Fugue,” it begins

Black milk of morning we drink you at dusktime
we drink you at noontime and dawntime we drink you at night
we drink and drink.

The poem would shake the German literary scene in the post-war years. Its visceral imagery spoke to the horrors of the Holocaust and to the sadistic torture of the concentration camps:

he shouts scrape your strings darker you’ll rise up as smoke to the sky

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Shoshana Olidort is a freelance writer based in New York. Her work has appeared in the Forward, Ha'aretz, Pleiades and The American Book Review, among other publications.

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