Last reviewed: June 2018
Romanian-born German poet
November 23, 1920
Czernowitz, Romania (now Chernivtsi, Ukraine)
May 1, 1970
Paul Celan (TSEHL-ahn) is considered among Europe’s most important post-World War II poets. He was born Paul Antschel (or Ancel) in 1920 in Czernowitz, the capital of Romania’s Bukovina region, to a German-Jewish family. A crossroads of languages and cultures, Bukovina had only recently belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In a letter to an aunt following his Bar Mitzvah, Celan remarked that “as for anti-Semitism” in the Romanian state school he was then attending, “I could write a 300-page opus about it.” Paul Celan.
Celan’s formative years were marked not only by anti-Semitism but also by ambivalence toward his Jewish heritage. His mother, Friederike Antschel, taught her only child German songs and poetry. Her influence probably contributed to Celan’s continuing to write in German after the Holocaust. References to Friederike recur in Celan’s poetry, and his earliest known poem is a sonnet to her. His father, Leo Antschel, however, is hardly ever mentioned in his son’s poetry. Celan had a difficult relationship with his father, a disciplinarian with strong Zionist convictions.
As a medical student in Tours, France (Romania’s medical schools enforced quotas against Jews), Celan was introduced to the French avant-garde by an uncle pursuing an acting career in Paris. When World War II broke out, Celan, on holiday in Czernowitz, was unable to return to France. By 1941 the city was overrun by German troops, who, joined by the Romanian army, forced the Jewish population into ghettos and then deported them to death camps. In June, 1942, Celan’s parents were among those deported; reports vary as to why he escaped. Whatever the facts, Celan experienced guilt throughout his life over his parents’ fate. His father died from typhus, and his mother was shot by camp guards.
Sent to a series of labor camps, Celan was back in Czernowitz when the Soviets captured the city in March 1944. Probably sometime that year, he wrote his best-known poem, “Todesfuge.” Celan’s early title, “Todestange,” recalls evidence of a term, “death tango,” for the music played as German troops led camp inmates away to be shot. “Todesfuge” elicited much controversy. Some read it as a reconciliation, while others rejected it based on Theodor Adorno’s pronouncement (later revised) that after the experience of the death camp Auschwitz, to write poetry is “barbaric.” Celan later downplayed the poem, stating that he intended it neither as a balm for German consciences nor as an aestheticizing of the camp experience.
In December 1947, Celan left Bucharest, Romania, where he had been living since April 1945, for Vienna. There, he began using the pseudonym Celan, an anagram reflecting his Jewish, Romanian, and German origins. As in Bucharest, he became friendly with a group of Surrealist writers and artists. In 1948, as Austria’s denazification efforts ended, Celan resettled in Paris. He began studies in German philology and literature, receiving his Licence des Lettres in 1950. In 1952 he married Gisèle de Lestrange, a graphic artist, with whom he had a son, Eric. From 1959 until his death, Celan taught German language and literature at L’École Normale Superieure. Translation also provided an income, while offering the “encounters” Celan sought in language. He felt a particular affinity with the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam.
With the publication of his second poetry collection, Mohn und Gedächtnis, in 1952, Celan attracted significant critical attention. Included in the collection were “Todesfuge” and other selections from his first volume, Der Sand aus den Urnen, which the meticulous Celan disavowed because of misprints. A plagiarism charge issued the following year was revived in 1960. Germany’s Academy of Language and Literature commissioned Celan’s defense and awarded him that year their Büchner Prize. Celan’s acceptance speech, “The Meridian,” constituted his manifesto on poetry. Poetry, according to Celan, is a “letter in a bottle thrown out to sea,” poised between potentiality and silence.
In 1965, writing his birthdate and a motto from Psalm 45, “Ride for the Truth,” above a list of poems for a new collection, Celan showed a determined spirit that belied hospitalizations for depression beginning in 1962. His probings into Jewish mysticism were evident in his poems, and from the collection Fadensonnen on, his work grew progressively enigmatic, reflecting his quest for a new poetic idiom to convey the devastations of the Holocaust.
Separated from his family since the late 1960s, Celan lived alone. On May 2, 1970, his body was pulled from the Seine River. On his desk lay a biography of the poet Friedrich Hölderlin, open to the underlined passage: “Sometimes this genius goes dark and sinks down into the bitter well of his heart.”