Paul Celan

A Poet in Exile

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Writer, Translator, Communicator

In addition to writing poetry, Celan translated the works of other poets, among them Emily Dickinson and Osip Mandelstam, into German. Celan felt a particular kinship with the Russian Mandelstam, who, like himself, was a Jewish poet writing within the framework of a decidedly non-Jewish literary tradition. Gershom Sholem, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and especially Franz Kafka were some of the Jewish thinkers and writers from whom Celan drew inspiration, and he counted Nobel laureate Nelly Sachs, the German-Jewish poet and dramatist, as a close friend.

While Celan often referred to Jewish themes in his poems, such as exile and redemption, he disliked being categorized as a specifically Jewish poet. And yet there was no escaping his Jewishness. Indeed, the scholar and translator John Felstiner discovered among the poet’s final writings what he described as “pained scrawlings” of the fundamental Jewish expression of faith, the Shema, in Hebrew. Felstiner titled his acclaimed biography of the poet Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew; all three, it appears, were defining aspects of Celan's poetry and person.

Particularly intriguing was Celan's ambiguous relationship with the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, a one-time member of the Nazi party. Celan had studied Heidegger’s work, which he greatly admired, and Heidegger had followed Celan’s poetry for some time. The two met for the first and only time in 1966, when Celan gave a reading at Freiburg University, which Heidegger attended. After the reading, Heidegger invited the poet to his home. The meeting inspired Celan’s poem "Todtnauberg" (literally "Death Mountain"), named for the location of Heidegger's residence:

The poem seems to indicate a desire, on the part of Celan, for some sort of explanation, an apology, a confession of guilt, perhaps, from the philosopher:

a hope, today,
for a thinker's
to come
in the heart.

It is not known what transpired during the meeting, but the poem suggests that Celan did not receive the hoped-for explanation.

Exile & Redemption

After the war, Celan went on to live as an expatriate in Paris--a Jew among gentiles, a German among the French. In Paris, he met and married the graphic artist Gisèle Lestrange, a non-Jew. The couple had one son, Eric.

Though he visited Israel later in life, and considered the possibility of immigrating to the Jewish state, Celan said he ultimately saw himself as "perhaps one of the last who must live out to the end the destiny of the Jewish spirit in Europe."

Celan may have seen in his work an opportunity to redeem the German language--which he so loved--from the depravations of Nazism. More likely, though, he simply could not imagine tearing himself away from his poetry. As he once pointed out: "There is nothing on earth that can prevent a poet from writing, not even the fact that he's Jewish and German is the language of his poems."

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Shoshana Olidort

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.