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PAUL CELAN Edit Profile

also known as Paul Antschel

writer

PAUL CELAN was a poet, noted for his contribution to German lyrical poetry. His verse reflects his tragic experience as àn eastern European Jew during the Holocaust.

Background

He was born Paul Antschel in Czernowitz, Romania, to orthodox parents.

Education

At age eighteen he spent a year in France studying medicine and in 1940 studied Romance philology in Romania.

Career

When Romania came under Nazi control in World War II, both of his parents were murdered, while he survived by working in forced-labor camps in Romania. His poetry expresses deep anguish over his personal loss and the loss of millions.

From 1945 to 1947 Celan worked in Bucharest as a translator and publisher’s reader. During this period he began to use the name Celan, which some believe he derived from the word celandine, an herb used forcuring weak sight.

He moved to Vienna in 1948 and there published seventeen of his poems in a literary journal. Later that year, he published his first collection of poems, "Der Sand aus den Urnen" (“The Sand from the Urns”). He was outraged over errors in his first volume and refused to have it reprinted. After six months in Vienna, he moved to Paris, where he remained for the rest of his life, eventually becoming a French citizen. He received a degree in German literature in 1950 and found work translating French, Italian, English, and Russian poetry and classics into German.

Celan’s poems are emotionally charged and difficult to interpret. Influenced by French surrealism and the tragedy of the Holocaust, he often wrote in a cryptic style in which words have double and triple meanings; a boat might mean a coffin, a thrown stone might mean a star, and rain could be a sign of God’s grace. He also used etymological dictionaries, the Bible, and other works of literature to develop his carefully constructed verses.

Views

Celan wrote his poetry in German and worked in the German language, although he had never lived in Germany. Some found this peculiar since it was the language of his former oppressors. Yet, though familiar with a number of languages, he considered German his mother tongue and claimed that “only in one's mother tongue can one express one’s own truth. In a foreign language the poet lies.” It was also the language spoken by his own mother, to whom he had been deeply attached and to whom he made frequent references in his poems. Nevertheless, use of the German language seemed to cause some conflict for Celan as expressed in “Black Flakes,” an early poem: “And can you still bear, mother, as formerly, alas, at home, the soft, the German, the painful rhyme?”

Personality

Despite his successes, however, he never achieved financial solvency and also seemed to have been a victim of mental illness. He was subject to attacks of paranoia during which he saw signs of anti-Semitism and Nazism all around him. He never spoke about his experiences during the war, but the imagery of his verse suggests that he was tortured by them. Judaism is also a frequent theme in his poetry and a friend relates that Celan “had a passionately affirmative relationship with Judaism until his death.” Another friend said, “His relation to Judaism was personal, individual and highly complex. He often said that although his father was orthodox he had to struggle for his own relation to Judaism.”