Auschwitz-Birkenau, 1989

Edward Serotta

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Paying Tribute to Paul Celan in Chernivtsi

Our correspondent concludes a literary journey through wartime Ukraine

Edward Serotta
April 19, 2024
Auschwitz-Birkenau, 1989

Edward Serotta

No one bears witness for the witness.
“Ashglory,” Paul Celan. Translation by Pierre Joris

The first time I heard of Paul Celan was on the press bus as we were leaving Auschwitz-Birkenau on Sunday, Nov. 12, 1989.

The motorcade was cutting its way across southern Poland toward the Krakow airport. Inside the bus were 40 West German photographers and reporters who had just accompanied Chancellor Helmut Kohl on his visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Except for the whine of tires on the asphalt, there was total silence in that bus. Minutes before, Heinz Galinski, the 77-year-old chairman of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, had faced the German chancellor and recounted how 46 years before, he, his first wife, Gisela, and his mother, Renata, had been brought to this place.

This was the very last time he saw them alive. Galinski was sent off to work as a slave laborer. His wife and mother were sent immediately to the gas.

Galinski told his story in flat, cold cadences and with every sentence Kohl’s fleshy face seemed to crumple. Then, Menachem Joskowicz, Poland’s sole rabbi, stood next to Galinski and recited El Malei Rachamim, then Kaddish. As he prayed, he closed his eyes and his hands grabbed at the air before him. When he finished, no one moved, nothing stirred. Then everyone quickly headed toward the waiting cars and buses.

It was clear how much the experience had shaken the photographers. They cleaned lenses, rewound film, and looked anywhere but at each other. I was the only non-German, and I presume, the only Jew on that bus. Back at Birkenau, I had been the only one who had covered his head with a yarmulke.

Suddenly, a young photographer turned to me. “That’s the first time I’ve ever been to such a place!” he said, nearly blurting out the words in English. “I never learned anything about the Holocaust in school and my teachers refused to discuss it. What I learned I learned from TV.”

When he saw the surprised look on my face, he added hastily, “I saw you wearing that little cap at Birkenau when the rabbi prayed. You are Israeli?”

Taken aback, I shook my head. I stammered that I was an American. “And Jewish,” I added.

Another photographer leaned forward. “When we asked our teacher about the Holocaust, she said all we have to know is that everything the Nazis did was horrible, and we should do the opposite.” He added softly, “Then she started crying so we didn’t push it any more.”

Another put his camera down and moved closer. “Crying has always been a good way to stop the children from asking about the war,” he said, “especially at home.”

Heads nodded in agreement. “Oh yeah,” one said. “That always worked.”

It seemed everyone wanted to say something, but the words, in English or German, weren’t coming. Then one young man began slowly. “Well our teacher made us learn—by memory—“Todesfuge,” by Paul Celan. “Death Fugue” in English. Do you know it?”

I said I didn’t. Had never heard of it.

“Well I still do. And repeating from memory, he recited the last stanza, which I recount here in the English translation by Michael Hamburger, although I will later provide another version, by John Felstiner.

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at noon death is a master from Germany
we drink you at sundown and in the morning we drink and we drink you
death is a master from Germany his eyes are blue
he strikes you with leaden bullets his aim is true
a man lives in the house your golden hair Margarete
he sets his pack on to us he grants us a grave in the air
he plays with the serpents and daydreams death is a master from Germany

your golden hair Margarete
your ashen hair Shulamit

The press bus rolled on. No one said a word. Finally, this sandy-haired young man, whose name I never learned, looked up. Staring directly at me, he said, “So I’m German.” He paused, and as if to explain something, he added, “and 24 years old. Bloody, bloody Germany. Bloody, bloody me.”

To visit Paul Celan’s hometown of Chernivtsi, I was taking the evening train from Lviv. The 702 is a modern, five-car train with second-class seating and makes only four stops. It leaves the ornate, Austrian-era station at 5:25 p.m. and comes to a halt at 9:55 p.m. in the equally ornate Austrian-era station in Chernivtsi. I had nabbed the last seat on the train, and these days, entire trains are sold out for days, if not weeks, in advance. In the first year of the full-scale invasion, I almost never used my Ukrainian Railways app more than a day ahead. Can’t do that now.

Maks Levin

The brutal September heat wave that had followed me for the past 16 days as I traveled around Ukraine had finally broken, and I exited the Chernivtsi station in a soft rain.

Unregistered, illegal taxis still abound in Ukrainian cities but much to Ukraine’s credit, there are now local apps as well as Uber to use. But none were working at 10:00 p.m. as I walked out of the station. I chose the oldest, most beat-up taxi, where a tiny elderly man looking all the world like a munchkin from the Wizard of Oz hoisted himself out of the driver’s seat, shook my hand with the grace of an official greeter, and we lumbered off in his aging Korean car and over the shiny black cobbled lanes.

In the yellowish gauze of the street lamps set against the turn-of-the-last-century buildings, it was clear I was riding through yet another Austro-Hungarian city: an art nouveau apartment house here, a huge opera square there, and looming behind a brick wall, an enormous, Moorish-styled red brick university campus. Hello Habsburgs, I said to myself.

Where the Austrians had invested heavily in Lemberg/Lwow/Lviv as the capital of Galicia, they invested just as heavily in Czernowitz/Cernauti/Chernivtsi, the capital of their easternmost province of Bukovina, and which sat hard on the empire’s eastern border with Russia.

The population of Czernowitz at the end of the Austrian era was around 100,000 and the language of its administration, its law courts, and that impressive university was German. Nearly half of the city was Jewish, and Jews looked to Vienna as their beacon. German was spoken as much or more than Yiddish. After 1867, Jews obtained full civil rights and they became the empire’s most loyal citizens. A third of the students in what was then the Emperor Franz Joseph University were Jewish; three daily German-language newspapers were edited by Jews. A majority of doctors and attorneys were Jewish. And wealthy Jews supported the symphony, the Museum of Art and both the German-language and Yiddish theater companies.

But this was a multi-ethnic city, and Romanian, Russian, Polish and Ukrainian were also heard on the streets and taught in its schools.

When the First World War began in 1914, Romania’s King Ferdinand kept his country neutral. Then in 1916 he sent his army to fight the Central Powers in Transylvania. In a matter of weeks, much of Romania was overrun and occupied by German and Austro-Hungarian troops, but since the country had been on the winning side at war’s end, Romania was able to sit at the winners’ table at the treaties of Versailles in 1919 and Trianon in 1920. Even the most rabid Romanian nationalists could hardly believe their winnings.

Romania was given all of Hungarian Transylvania, the lands south of the Danube were taken from Bulgaria, and Russia lost Bessarabia. Czernowitz would now be known as Cernauti and the rest of Bukovina came along with it.

But Romania received something it desperately did not want: hundreds of thousands of Jews. In his landmark study from 1983, The Jews of East Central Europe Between the Two World Wars, Ezra Mendelssohn labeled Romania, along with Russia, as the most antisemitic country in Europe. Which was saying something.

For the most part, the Romanian authorities left Cernauti to its own devices. My institute interviewed a half dozen elderly Jews in Vienna who had been born there between the wars. They, as children, had little difficulty learning Romanian in schools; few of their parents ever did. And it was during the interwar years that Cernauti continued to produce a plethora of writers we know of today: the Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld is the best known among them, as well as the poet Rose Ausländer and Yiddish poet Joseph Burg. Perhaps most enjoyable of all was Gregor von Rezzori, who wrote fiction, several volumes of memoirs and spent a decade in the 1970s as a talk show host in Vienna. His irony-laced Memoirs of an Antisemite is well worth your time.

To briefly summarize Paul Celan’s life: He was born in 1920 and his family name was Antschel, which he would later change. His father, Leo, was a building engineer, worked as a broker in the lumber industry and was an ardent Zionist. His mother, Fritzi, had a passion for German culture and Paul grew up speaking German at home, Hebrew and then Romanian in school, and he became fluent in French.

Celan left to study medicine in the French city of Tours in 1938. He returned for summer holidays in 1939, but once Germany invaded Poland that September, he found himself trapped at home. With no possibility of studying medicine, he turned his attention to literature.

In June 1940, King Carol II was forced to relinquish much of the territory Romania gained after the First World War and Cernauti found itself under Soviet rule. A year later, the Romanians invaded, this time accompanied by Nazi Germany. Jews were forced from their homes, sent to labor brigades, herded into ghettos. And whereas Romania’s earlier governments were truly antisemitic, under strongman Marshal Ion Antonescu, they turned murderous.

According to Israel Chalfen’s book Paul Celan: A Biography of His Youth, in June 1942, his friend Ruth Lackner offered Celan refuge but his parents refused to join him. They were deported to camps in Transnistria by the Romanian army, then turned over to the Germans, who sent them to the camp in Mihailovka. There, Leo died of typhus. Fritzi, too weak to work, was killed, I have read, by a shot to the back of the neck.

Edward Serotta

Celan spent the next two years in Romanian forced labor, and John Felstiner, author of the indispensable Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew (1996), tells us he learned Yiddish from fellow prisoners.

Celan returned to Cernauti in February 1944 to work as a nurse in a mental hospital where he learned Russian. With the Soviets in control and the name of the city changed to Chernovtsy, he made his way to Bucharest. Around the time King Carol’s son Mihai was forced to abdicate in 1947 and the communists began their arrests, Celan fled—surely with great difficulty—to Vienna. At that time, there were few functioning trains and the borders were heavily guarded. I’m assuming Celan must have walked most of the way—a distance of nearly 700 miles.

The vaunted cultural world his mother had loved so much was hardly in evidence, while Austria’s denazification program was coming to an and. In 1948 Celan made his way to Paris. Felstiner said it best: “France would have to serve for now, since Bukovina was Soviet, Romania Communist, Austria hopeless, and Germany out of the question.”

Celan brought nothing with him other than his language: German, which was his muttersprache und mördersprache, as he said (mother tongue and murderer’s tongue). He was alone in the world, broke, depressed and stateless. He began earning his way by translating, giving German lessons, taking on any jobs he could. In September 1948 he began studying at the Sorbonne. He married a graphic designer, Gisèle Lestrange, in 1952 and they had two sons, one of whom died in childbirth. They divorced in 1967.

Celan taught German literature in the École Normale Supérieure. As a translator, he brought Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Valéry, and Apollinaire from French into German; Shakespeare, Robert Frost, Marianne Moore, and Dickinson from English, and Mandelstam and others from Russian.

All the while he wrote poetry: Felstiner tells us he wrote 800 poems that were collected, in German, in eight volumes.

Paul Celan threw himself into Seine either on the 19th or 20th of April 1970; his body was found downstream a few days later. He was buried in the municipal cemetery of Thiais on May 12 and his grave can be found one row outside the Jewish section. Just on the other side of the Jewish section lies the grave of Joseph Roth.

Paul Celan may have survived the Holocaust but he did not escape it. He felt overwhelming guilt and shame about the death of his parents, especially his mother. His first poems, written before the Second World War, are one thing. After 1943, the Holocaust would not let go of him.

Thousands of research papers have been written on Celan. German composers and artists have drawn from his work, and German academics have mined one incident after another in Celan’s life to dissect it. Just google “Der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland” and you’ll find books, films, theater pieces, panel discussions, and works of art—by the thousands. And Todesfuge” overshadows everything he would write later.

Countless school classes in Germany recite it each year. For instance: In February 1995 I sat in the audience of a high school auditorium in Berlin’s Köpenick, where nine girls sat on the stage and recited the poem to a packed hall of students and family members. A year later I was in a Waldorfschule in Bremen, where 30 high school seniors took to the stage and with a choir master in front of them, yelled the poem, in perfect precision, at the top of their lungs, to devastating effect.

Celan is such a powerful force in German literature and its relationship to the Holocaust that German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier hosted an evening commemorating the centenary of his birth in November 2020. Among his most telling remarks:

“Today it seems that no one who has ever read one of Celan’s poems and who knows about his origins and life story could ever be surprised that this poet had a broken relationship with Germany, the country of his mother tongue. Precisely because his mother loved German culture and German his mother tongue, and because both meant everything to him and had been the foundation for his career as a poet, the loss of his mother was a lifelong sorrow. He could never overcome the fact that she was killed at German hands by a shot to the back of the neck. His mother tongue had become the language of murderers; the language of “racial jurists,” “people of culture,” even that of the “philosophers” had become toxic, like Celan’s relationship with Germany: a mismatch.”

Maks Levin

While Celan certainly had a toxic relationship with Germany, it is where his work was lauded, discussed and published.

Celan found little acceptance of his poetry in France, though. I have been told that until the day he died he was never asked to give a public reading. Although the French love commemorating and memorializing their intellectuals, it was not until 2016 that the first monument for Celan went up in Paris.

His reception in Germany, however, was the opposite, although the first encounter could not have been more painful.

Celan could not find a German publisher and in 1952 he was invited to present his work to Gruppe 47, a regular gathering of young German writers who met in various cities. Among its members were Günther Grass, Heinrich Böll, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, and Ingeborg Bachmann, an Austrian poet who had been a friend and lover of Celan. Hans Werner Richter, whose own novels are now forgotten, led the group for some two decades. Gruppe 47 would invite a writer to present and the assembled would critique the work then and there.

Celan presented at their meeting in the Baltic port of Niendorf. It was Celan’s first visit to Germany and that evening Celan read three of his poems, one of which was “Todesfuge.

It did not go down well. Others reported that Richter said Celan’s reading reminded him of Goebbels. Another observer is said to have remarked that his reading of Todesfuge” sounded like singing in a synagogue—not that anyone there had any idea of what went on in synagogues (the one Jewish member of the group, Marcel Reich-Ranicki, did not join until 1958).

Painful as the evening was, Celan soon had what he prized most: a publishing contract. His first collection of poetry, Mohn und Gedächtnis (Poppy and Memory) was published by Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt in Stuttgart in 1952. It is surely his most accessible to readers, and it is here we find “Todesfuge,” which he actually wrote in Romania in 1947, then published for the first time in German in 1948.

And while that evening in Niendorf must have shaken him badly, much worse was to come.

A few years earlier, Celan met the Alsatian poet Yvon Goll along with his wife, Claire. Goll, who lay dying in a hospital in Neuilly, asked Celan to translate some of his poetry from French into German, which Celan did. After Goll died in 1950, Claire Goll (who, like her husband, had been born Jewish) began saying that Celan had stolen from her husband. She accused him of plagiarism and the German-speaking world, where antisemites gleefully attacked any Jewish target they could light upon, often sided with Goll.

It was later established that Celan’s poetry had been published before he had even met the Golls, but he was devastated by the fact that people he counted on as friends only offered what he considered a weak defense on his behalf. Worse, Celan’s exculpation only made Claire Goll angrier and she pursued the poet to such a degree that he suffered one breakdown after another. His paranoia and depression worsened and Celan was institutionalized for a while in 1965. In 1967, he stabbed himself. Celan’s wife, fearing for her own life, then took their son Eric and moved away. Although Celan would kill himself three years later, Claire Goll continued her attacks on Celan right up until her own death in 1977.

It took the German literary historian Barbara Wiedemann to pursue the story to a granular level, and in 2000, she published a highly regarded 928-page investigation of the “Goll affair,” which comes out firmly on the side of Celan.

Celan has had several translators in English over the years, and three of the most respected are Michael Hamburger, who had been born in Berlin and fled to England; American academic John Felstiner; and French-born Pierre Joris. All three offer invaluable insights.

Simply put, while Celan’s early work is accessible to most of us, as the years passed, he stripped away all sense of the rhythm that made “Todesfuge” and other earlier poems so compelling, even musical, and began using pared down words and phrases that few of us can understand—unless we were reading the books that he had been reading, traveling to he places he went, and understood his relationship with Judaism.

One well known example is that after a public reading in Freiburg in July 1967, Celan visited the philosopher Martin Heidegger in his cabin in the Black Forest. Heidegger never recanted his support for the Nazis, but Celan and he had been in touch earlier by post. Celan entitled the poem about that visit “Todtnauberg,” which is where Heidegger lived. The poem begins with the words “Arnica” and “Eyebright” (in German: Arnica, Augentrost), which are two herbs used for treating wounds. Of which Celan had more than a few. Besides, the translation of “Todtnauberg” itself is the mountain of death. That is by far one of the less obtuse references.

Harvard German scholar Peter Gordon wisely compares Celan to James Joyce’s novel Ulysses. “But where Joyce makes each sentence into joyful abundance, with Celan the density of reference only plunges his lines further into darkness, and no explanations can undo the enigma of his language.” Still, there is no doubt that “Todesfuge is one of the most powerful poems of the second half of the 20th century. In German, nothing approaches it.

One of the most insightful remarks I have read came from Pierre Joris and his first exposure to the poem, when a lecturer came to read it in his high school class in Luxembourg. This is how he described that first hearing to David Brazil in The Los Angeles Review of Books in 2021.

“I had maybe the only epiphany of my life—my hair stood up on the back of my neck, my breath stopped. It was that absolute an experience. Thinking on it, I realized that what I had experienced was another way of using language—not how we use it everyday at home or on the street. But it was not ‘literature’ either. This was something else. This was a level of involvement where language could get you to that was totally unique—only poetry was able to reach it.”

But as the poem’s fame grew and Celan was asked to recite it at one event after another, he began to refuse permission to reprint it. Yet he continued to visit Germany for public readings, where as many as a thousand people would crowd in to listen to him read this and other poems.

Edward Serotta

And one cannot have a conversation about “Todesfuge or the rest of Celan’s work without bringing up German Jewish philosopher Theodor Adorno’s quote from 1949, “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Of course, Adorno never said that philosophy was barbaric after he spent the war years in the ritzy Los Angeles suburb of Brentwood while Celan was digging ditches in a forced labor camp surrounded by men who were sick and dying, all while trying to cope with the news about his mother being shot to death.

One thing we can all agree on: Celan is still not terribly well known in the English-speaking world. To better understand the matter, I turn to Michael Hofmann, the critic and translator of Joseph Roth, Hans Fallada, Thomas Bernhard, Franz Kafka, Alexander Döblin, and other German writers.

In his review for The London Review of Books in 1996, Hofmann tells us that “Felstiner’s book is unique because he tackles for us the impossible task of translating what is, for the most part, untranslatable …”

That is why when Felstiner presents us his translation of “Todesfuge,” we read:

a man lives in the house your goldenes Haar Margarete
he looses his hounds on us grants us a grave in the air
he plays with his vipers and daydreams der Tod
ist ein Meister aus Deutschland
dein goldenes Haar Margarete
dein achenes Haar Sulamith

Hofmann then goes on to say what makes a great deal of sense: “I’m not sure how important Celan is to poetry in English … But I don’t understand how people with a basically uncomplicated relationship to their own blameless language can think they are learning from Celan.”

Which brings us back to that day in Auschwitz more than three decades ago and the blameless young German photographer.

I recounted that story about Auschwitz over a beer with another photographer. We were in Kyiv in September 2021, sitting in the bar of the Hyatt Hotel and were there for the 75th anniversary of the massacre at Babyn Yar. The photographer’s name was Maks Levin and he had been shooting at seminars and in schools for my institute since 2016.

Maks had recently bought a drone and used it to shoot a short documentary on Jewish Chernivtsi for my institute. I had also asked Maks to use a steadycam and walk along the main avenue of tombstones in the Jewish cemetery and send me a four-minute tracking shot. I told Maks it would be set to someone reading the poem I had first heard about in Auschwitz and I repeated a few lines of “Todesfuge.”

A few weeks later Maks sent the video footage, and I was just starting to look for Ukrainian, German, and English actors to read the poem. But by then the Russians had invaded Ukraine and Levin charged off to the front. He and I stayed in touch; my institute made two bank transfers to him as he rushed to provide images to Reuters, Der Spiegel and others.

On March 12, his drone went down near the Hostemel military airport and on the 13th Maks went to recover it. That was the last time I heard from him.

On April 1, as Ukrainian troops retook the area, they found Maks’ body and that of a friend. They had been caught by Russian soldiers on March 13, tortured, and shot at close range.

I still have Maks’ footage and I know the poem I need to set it to. But I can’t.

On my last day in Chernivtsi, I found the apartment house where Celan was born and grew up. He, his father, Leo, and mother, Fritzi, would have entered and left through that front door hundreds upon hundreds of times. There’s a plaque in Ukrainian and German next to the entrance.

I could only think of his poem “The Aspen Tree,” which was one of his early poems. To read it on my phone in front of his house meant the world to me.

Aspen tree, your leaves gaze white into the dark.
My mother’s hair ne’er turned white.

Dandelion, so green is the Ukraine.

My fair-haired mother did not come home.

Rain cloud, do you dally by the well?

My quiet mother weeps for all.

Round star, you coil the golden loop.

My mother’s heart was seared by lead.

Oaken door, who ripped you off your hinges?

My gentle mother cannot return.

Edward Serotta is a journalist, photographer and filmmaker specializing in Jewish life in Central and Eastern Europe. He is the head of the Vienna-based institute Centropa.