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November 23: Paul Celan, Temporary Survivor

November 23, 2014

10890_0_1Paul Celan (Antschel), a German-language poet and translator who survived Nazi labor camps but lost his parents to the Nazi reconquest of Romania, was born in Czernowitz on this date in 1920. Celan became involved in Jewish socialist groups and causes, and in the writing of poetry, as a teen. He went to France to study medicine in 1938, passed through Germany during Kristallnacht, and was ghettoized with other Czernowitz Jews in 1941, during which time he translated Shakespeare’s sonnets into German and intensified his own poetic output. Celan’s parents, whom he had tried to convince to flee the country, were confined to a concentration camp in 1942 and were worked to death within months; Celan survived in a slave labor camp until the Red Army’s advance frightened Romanian fascists into abandoning the camps. In the post-war years, he lived in Vienna, where his first poetry collection, Sand from the Urns, was published in 1948, and then in Paris, where his reputation as a poet grew and he met his wife, artist Gisèle de Lestrange, with whom he would exchange some 700 letters over the course of 18 years. He was also a close friend with Nelly Sachs, the Nobelist poet who, like Celan, became best known for her writings about the Holocaust. Celan primarily made his living as a polyglot translator, able to translate literature from Romanian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Russian, Hebrew, and English into German. He was awarded the Bremen Literature Prize in 1958 and the Georg Büchner Prize in 1960. Ten years later, he drowned in the Seine River in an apparent suicide.

“Only one thing remained reachable, close and secure amid all losses: language. Yes, language. In spite of everything, it remained secure against loss. But it had to go through its own lack of answers, through terrifying silence, through the thousand darknesses of murderous speech. It went through. It gave me no words for what was happening, but went through it. Went through and could resurface, ‘enriched’ by it all. —Paul Celan