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Translating the Untranslatable

The Wounded Readings of Paul Celan

October 15, 2000|JOHN FELSTINER | John Felstiner is the author of "Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew." He is also the editor and translator of "Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan," to be published in November by W.W. Norton

Would we, if somehow this were possible, trade Anne Frank's diary for her life, give up those salvaged pages to let her survive unscathed, in her 70s now? And would we forgo Charlotte Salomon's "Life or Theater?", her 1941 autobiography in 760 watercolors, if in exchange she were not to perish in Auschwitz? Would we, in effect, do without such indispensable human documents, relinquish them so as to secure the undeflected lives their creators might have lived?

Why yes! It goes without saying. But the question involves something more. We cherish these creators specifically because of the diary or the paintings that an atrocious history impelled them to create. Undo that history, rewind the reel, and Anne Frank and Charlotte Salomon would not be quite the persons we wish to redeem.

The same question holds for Paul Celan, although he did survive, in his way, the European Jewish catastrophe. Would that he had been spared affliction--the brutal loss of parents and homeland, the recrudescent neo-Nazism and anti-Semitism in postwar Germany where his poetry was destined, and a vicious plagiarism charge adding insult to injury. Yet Celan's most compelling, inspiriting poems presuppose duress and distress. His body of writing belongs inseparably to its ground, its terrible cost. "For a poem is not timeless," he said in 1958. "Certainly, it lays claim to infinity, it seeks to reach through time--through it [durch sie hindurch], not above and beyond it."

Celan's time saw him benignly situated at first, then vulnerable, wounded, unhealing. Born in 1920 to German-speaking Jewish parents in Czernowitz, the chief city of Bukovina and the eastern outpost of the Austrian empire, Celan (born Paul Antschel) grew up like so many other Jews, steeped in the songs and folk tales and classics of German culture. But Goethe and Schiller and Bach and Schubert and his German mother tongue formed no safeguard against what was to come. In 1933, not long before his bar mitzvah at age 13, the Nazis took power and Hitler's harangues came over the radio to Czernowitz, which along with northern Bukovina had passed to Romania after the Great War.

Nonetheless Celan led his life. A comely, clever boy, an only child fervently attached to his mother, he moved from German to Hebrew to Romanian schools; and later, from a Zionist youth group to an anti-Fascist one whose magazine, "Red Student," published Marxist texts. In 1936 he rallied to the Spanish republican cause, and always poetry possessed him: Rilke, Verlaine, Shakespeare, his own early Symbolist lyrics and efforts at translating from French, English, Romanian.

After the Hitler-Stalin pact, Soviet troops in 1940 occupied Czernowitz. Besides ridding Celan of any Communist certainties, their presence prompted him to begin learning Russian. Then on July 5, 1941, Einsatzkommando 10B entered his homeland. Avidly abetted by Romanian forces, the Germans set about destroying a centuries-old Jewish culture by plunder, burning, murder, the yellow star, ghetto, forced labor, deportation. In late June 1942, his parents were picked up in an overnight raid and sent over the Dniester and Bug rivers into Western Ukraine. Celan, away for the night, came home to find the door sealed--although friends of his underwent deportation and exile alongside their parents. He never recovered from that abrupt loss, however much his words, his voice, might probe it: "Taken off into / the terrain / with the unmistakable trace: / Grass, written asunder . . . / Read no more--look! / Look no more--go!"

From July 1942 through February 1944, Celan endured forced labor in Romanian camps. He kept a 3-inch by 4-inch leather notebook for poems, sending copies to a woman he loved back home and aiming distantly, desperately, for a book. Bit by bit he learned his parents' fate: His father had perished from typhus, his mother was shot, some time in fall and winter 1942-'43.

Returning in the wake of the Red Army to his Soviet-occupied homeland in 1944, Celan took up life again, a raw orphan with literally nothing left but his mother tongue. Friends got him a job in a psychiatric hospital tending to Soviet airmen. In a little-known letter of July 1, 1944, he wrote to his Czernowitz boyhood friend Erich Einhorn (the word "Einhorn" appears in a later poem, "Shibboleth"), who'd fled to Russia in 1941 and not come back:

"Dear Erich,

"I've come to Kiev for two days (on official business) and I'm glad of the chance to write you a letter that will reach you quickly.

"Your parents are well, Erich, I talked with them before I came here. That's saying a lot, Erich, you can't imagine how much.

"My parents were shot by the Germans. In Krasnopolka on the Bug River.

"Erich, oh Erich.

"There's much to tell. You've seen so much. I've experienced only humiliations and emptiness, endless emptiness. Maybe you can come home."

More nakedly than Celan would later do, this letter expresses the unimaginable loss that grounds all his writing.

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