On April 13, 1970, Paul Celan began to compose a poem about his generation of poetry—the poetry of suffering—titled Du Liest (“You Read” in German).
Du liest can also mean “you glance” or “you gather.” The poem was Celan’s last. A week later, possibly suffering another stage of depression caused by his awful medical treatment for incurable wounds as a Holocaust survivor, Celan disappeared into the Seine River late at night and drowned himself. His poem’s last words are “Shabbat rest and refreshment, anticipating redemption!” I, therefore, assume Celan’s final line, am Shabbat, can take a slight turn in translation, a rousing of that stone behind his mind and his heart:
“It knows you,
For Celan, Shabbat is the time for his eternal rest!
May, 1970. This month marks the anniversaries of the funerals of Nelly Sachs and Paul Celan—two great poets and Holocaust survivors.
In the words of critic George Steiner, Celan created some of the most profound lyrical poetry in European literature. Celan received the prestigious George Behner Prize in 1960 and Nelly Sachs was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1966. During a 16-year correspondence, they referred to each other as “Sister Nelly” and “Brother Paul”. In the New York Times Book Review (Sept. 30, 1984), Steiner expressed astonishment that Celan had not received the Nobel Prize for his work.
Celan was born Paul Antschel in 1920 in the northern Romanian city of Cernovitz. He was raised in a rich cultural and intellectual milieu, which explains his considerable knowledge of languages: German (his mother tongue and the language of his poetry), Romanian, French, Spanish, Hebrew, and Russian. He asserted that “only in the mother tongue can one speak his own truth. In a foreign tongue, the poet lies.”
Celan’s powerful poetry was inspired by a lifelong series of tragic events. His parents’ deportation by the Romanian army during the Second World War was an image that never ceased to haunt him. He also suffered humiliation, hunger, and torture in a forced labor camp. After the war, he learned that both his parents had been killed in Transnistria.
In autumn 1945, Celan moved to Bucharest, where he stayed for two years. During that time, he changed his name to Celan, an anagram of Antschel. I remember him saying goodbye to his friends at the Bucharest Northway railroad station on a late autumn evening in 1947. On a short trip to Vienna in 1948, he discovered a newfound connection to German roots and culture. His arrival in Vienna meant encountering his mother tongue. His mother, who had exposed him to German poetry, was the subject of Celan’s most tragic and most powerful poems, and such poems were also addressed to her explicitly or implicitly. For Celan, writing in German meant writing to his mother.
His famous poem “Todesfuge” became an anthology piece documenting the Holocaust in poetic form:
"Black milk of day break,
We drink it at evening,
We drink it at midday and morning
We drink it at night
We drink and we drink.”
Celan’s poetry speaks to me in a very personal and direct way, as I too am a witness of the Nazi regime in Romania, the “Bucharest Kristalnacht” of January 21 to 23, 1941. I feel the pain conveyed by Celan’s words:
Six months before his untimely death, Celan visited Israel. In a letter to a relative in the Jewish State, he wrote: “I might be among the few of the remnants who have been destined to live until my end to illuminate the greatness of Jewish spirituality in Europe.”
May his memory be forever blessed.
Quotations from: John Felstiner: Selected Poems and Prose. W.W. Norton & Company, New York (2001).