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A Poet from the Ashes

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“There is 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.”

One can only imagine the great burden Paul Celan (born Paul Antschel) must have felt when he, a Jewish survivor of a German labor camp, chose to compose his poetry in Germany.

Although Celan was born in Romania on November 23, 1920, the primary language spoken in his childhood home was German. In truth, Celan was a polyglot. He knew Hebrew from the Zionist primary school that his father insisted that he attend, in addition to knowing Romanian, Russian, Yiddish and French. Like his mother, however, Celan’s passion was the German language.

The German invasion of Europe began while Celan was in university, studying literature and Romance languages. The Germans arrived in his hometown of Ceranti in July 1941 (immediately burning down the city’s 600 year old synagogue) and, shortly thereafter, relocated many of the city’s Jews to a ghetto. On June 21, 1942, most of the Jews in the ghetto were deported. Celan, who was visiting a family friend that night, never saw his parents again. By the end of 1942, Celan had been sent to a labor camp, where he remained until the Red Army’s advance in February 1944.

In the years after the war, Celan went to Budapest, where he translated the works of others while composing his own. He next went to Vienna and then on to Paris, where he published his first collection Der Sand aus den Urnen (Sand from the Urns) in German.

In the early 1950s, Celan’s poetry began to gain popularity. His main audience, German speakers, were only beginning to come to terms with the horrors that Celan had witnessed and experienced. His best known and most critically regarded work is Todesfuge (Fugue of Death).

Celan accepted a position as Reader in German Language and Literature at L’École Normal Superieure of the University of Paris. He held that position until his death (by suicide) in 1970.

Copyright © 2012 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

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