Poetry, language and history

Thirty-nine years ago this month saw the death of the great poet Paul Celan. Celan, born in 1920 as Paul Antschel, was a Romanian Jew who grew up in a German-speaking family. He began to write poetry in the late 1930s, but he also trained as a doctor, was a political activist and studied literature. During the Second World War he was detained by the fascist Romanian authorities, and he lost his parents when they were transferred to a German concentration camp where they both died. Celan survived the war, eventually settling in Paris, where he died.

Paul Celan was an undoubtedly great poet. But the remarkable thing was that, despite what he had experienced, he continued to write in German, expressing the view from time to time that only in German could he adequately communicate the horrors of the Holocaust.

His most celebrated poem is Todesfuge, or ‘Death Fugue’, which uses extraordinarily powerful language, imagery and metaphors to describe the casual cruelty of the concentration camps. When this poem was first read to us at school in Germany, many in the class were reduced to tears. Here is the original German, and here a passable translation.

Even today I cannot read the poem without a feeling of horror at what it describes; and yet I also marvel at the fact that this is described in the language of the tormentors, my own language of birth; and somehow there is hope in that. In some way, oppressors are bound forever to their victims. The cruel inhumanity of the Holocaust can never become just another footnote of history or find some sort of redemption; but poetry and culture can help to ensure that it is history rather than destiny.

Explore posts in the same categories: culture, history

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