Paul Celan was born in Czernovitz, in Romania, in 1920. Until 1918, this region of Romania had formed part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, a polyglot amalgam of nations stretching from Austria in the west to the Balkans in the south-east. Though each region spoke its own language, and many Jewish communities spoke Yiddish, German acted as the common language for the empire as a whole. The speaking of a good German marked an individual as both bourgeois and cultured, one who particpated in the cosmopolitan world of politics, art, literature and music.
Celan grew up speaking German at home and Romanian at school. He also understood Yiddish. His father's interest in Zionism (the movement dedicated to the refounding of a Jewish homeland in Palestine) led to three year's education in a Hebrew school. Later he became fluent in French, Russian and Ukranian. A schoolfriend of Paul Celan wrote, 'We had no natural language. To speak good German was something you had to achieve. You could do it, but it didn't come of itself.' (John Felstiner, Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew (New Haven 1995), p. 6) However, German began as, and remained, his dominant language, in part through the insistence of his mother and her influence on his education. The first poet Celan remembered reading was Schiller and he wrote his first known poems, as a teenager, in German.
German was both his mother's gift to him, which had made him a poet, and the weapon that killed her. The Germans deported his parents to labor camps in the Ukraine (ironically the region from which much of Romania's 20th century Jewish population had fled in the nineteenth century to escape brutal pogroms) in the summer of 1942. Neither survived more than a few months. Celan's father died of typhus: the Germans shot his mother that winter as unfit for work. Celan himself worked in several Jewish labor battalions before the Russians liberated Romania in 1944. Unwilling to live under Russian domination, or the communism towards which Romania moved in the 1940s, Celan moved first to Vienna, the one-time capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and then to Paris.
Yet, though he could not live in a German-speaking culture, Celan could write in no other language. In 1948, just after he arrived in Paris, he wrote, "There's nothing in the world for which a poet will give up writing, not even when he is a Jew and the language of his poems is German.' (Felstiner, Paul Celan, p. 56) Dennis Schmidt calls German 'the language of his [Paul Celan's] deferred death.' Schmidt goes on to say that Celan's language is forced to "nourish itself...on words that have turned to 'black milk,' 'ash,' and the taste of cyanide on the tongue, 'bitter almonds,' by having been made serviceable for death." (Dennis Schmidt, Black Milk and Blue in Aris Fioretis, ed. Word Traces (Baltimore 1994), p. 114.
German thus represented both death and Celan's only hope of communicating the horror through which European Jewry had lived. In the nearly thirty years that he wrote as a mature poet, Celan developed a German all his own, creating many more, and many less immediately comprehensible, metaphoric compounds like Deathfugue. The vocabulary of the German implicated in the Holocaust was inadequate, for Celan, to the task of expressing the agony of extermination. The creativity of his language and its metaphorical density became acts of defiance against the German that had executed his parents and the many millions like them. In his hands, language broke apart on the wheel of history and reformed in poetry.
Back to Death Fugue