On about April 20, 1970, around Passover, Paul Celan went from the bridge into the Seine and, though a strong swimmer, drowned unobserved. He was missed at the Ecole Normale. On May 1, a fisherman discovered his body seven miles downstream (John Felstiner, Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew, [Yale University Press, 1995], p. 287). His funeral took place on May 12.
“Maybe he felt too alone: ‘No one/witnesses for the/witness.’ Or maybe he sensed an attack coming on, another clinical confinement, more suffering from his medicines, and had to free himself from that” (Felstiner, 287).
Celan’s death deeply pained all his friends in Israel and Europe, and in Montreal I too was deeply shaken.
After the war, in 1945, when he was 25, Celan came from Cernovitz to Bucharest, where he spent two years before leaving for Paris via Vienna. I remember him saying goodbye to his friends at the Bucharest North railway station on a late autumn evening in 1947.
Celan’s poetry testifies to an undeniable Jewishness, with clear sources in the Hebrew Bible and Jewish mysticism, and to close ties to Heinrich Heine, Rainer Maria Rilke, Walter Benjamin and other writers and poets of Heine’s language. In many of his poems, we meet Hebrew words; Kumi Ori—“arise, my light (of salvation),” and many others.
Paul Celan’s Romanian Jewish parents were murdered in the Transnistria killing fields. “Death is a master from Germany,” Celan’s disturbing lines, encompass not merely the ovens of Auschwitz but also the “burning ice” of Transnistria. His life, his work and his death symbolize—for me—the epic tragedy of the German-Jewish symbiosis and of East-European Jewry in general.
In this year’s Yom Hashoah commemoration—as in almost all commemorations—his poems were recited by Jewish students. This year, in a beautiful French, Dorin Rosen, a survivor from France whose parents were born in Romania read Celan’s “Death Fugue.” This reading is my annual “kaddish” in memory of Celan.
Celan’s verse incarnates the moral and esthetic dilemma which faced not only Jewish but all of postwar European writing. “Perhaps I am one of the last who must live out to the end the destiny of Jewish spirit in Europe,” said Celan.
Black milk of day break we drink it
We drink it at midday
Death is a master aus Deutschland
We drink you at evening and morning we drink
And we drink
This death is ein meister aus
Deutschland. (ibid, p. 31)
(Baruch Cohen is the Research Chairman of the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research)