Paul Celan was born in 1920 as Paul Antschel, to German-speaking Jewish parents in Czernowitz, the capital of the Bukovina: 'a posthumously born Kakanier,' he once said of himself (the city and province of his birth had been ceded to Romania in 1918, when the Habsburg Empire was broken up). His upbringing reflected the family's Jewish traditions, but also the deep love of German literature and culture that was often found, especially in Jewish populations, in the Eastern marches of Austria-Hungary (think of the Galician, Joseph Roth). In Celan's case, this came to him from his mother: German was, in every sense, his mother-tongue. Already as a boy, he loved poetry, first Goethe and Schiller, then Hölderlin, Heine, Trakl, Kafka and in particular Rilke. He spoke German, Hebrew, Romanian and some Yiddish and was obviously an exceptional linguist, later translating poetry from Russian, English, French and Italian. And yet, when he came to write, he had no real alternative to German: 'Poetry - that is the fateful uniqueness of language,' he wrote. Only slightly younger Jewish writers like Yehuda Amichai and Dan Pagis - a fellow Bukovinan - emigrated to Israel and wrote their poetry in Hebrew: Celan couldn't. It is what gives his poetry its desperate distinction. 'There is nothing in the world,' Celan said, 'for which a poet will give up writing, not even when he is a Jew, and the language of his poems is German.'
LRB 23 May 1996 | PDF Download