A Jewish Poet’s Post-Holocaust German https://mosaicmagazine.com/picks/arts-culture/2020/11/a-jewish-poets-post-holocaust-german/

November 24, 2020 | Mark Glanville
About the author: Mark Glanville, a bass baritone, has performed with England’s Opera North, Scottish Opera, Lisbon Opera, New Israeli Opera, and on the recital stage, and is the author of The Goldberg Variations, a memoir.

Born in 1920 in the Romanian city of Czernowitz, the poet Paul Celan (né Antschel) spent most of World War II in that city’s ghetto—where he translated Shakespeare’s sonnets into German—and then in a forced-labor camp. His less fortunate parents were among those Jews sent to the internment camps in Romanian-occupied Ukraine, where they both perished. After the war, he continued to write poetry and also to produce numerous literary translations. The Holocaust remained a major subject of his work, including his best-known poem, “Todesfuge (Death Fugue). Reviewing several recent books on or of Celan’s poetry, Mark Glanville examines the poet’s refusal to abandon German:

For Celan, post-Holocaust German had become a language “gagged with the ashes of burned-out meaning,” yet it was his mother’s tongue, and “to speak like one’s mother, means to dwell, even there where there are no tents.” Czernowitz (now the Ukrainian city Chernivtsi) had been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and in 1920 had only recently become Romanian. . . . His mother had been a passionate advocate for German language and culture. Jews in the Austro-Hungarian Empire had thrived under the benign rule of Emperor Franz Joseph I. Celan [wrote] “I believe that I remain in the domain of my mother-tongue, thus in the domain of the German language, which I have been speaking forever.” “This is my fate,” he wrote in a letter to the Swiss writer, Max Rychner, “to have to write German poems.”

Celan’s answer was to forge a German that would serve his own poetic purpose: full of archaisms, obscurity, and the neologisms that the German language facilitates with its penchant for portmanteau words, conveyed in a stark, pared-down syntax. Poetry should no longer be a matter of “verklären” (transfiguring). . . . Celan believed that the language of German poetry had to become “more sober, more factual, . . . grayer” and that it is a language “which wants to locate even its ‘musicality’ in such a way that it has nothing in common with the ‘euphony’ which more or less blithely continued to sound alongside the greatest horrors. . . . It does not transfigure or render ‘poetical;’ it names, it posits.”

Read more on Times Literary Supplement: https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/paul-celan-100-years-on-essay-mark-glanville/