Songs Beyond Mankind

Paul Celan, 1967
Heinz Köster/ullstein bild/Getty Images
Paul Celan, 1967

On July 25, 1967, postwar Germany’s greatest poet paid a call on its greatest philosopher. Such a meeting would be historically significant no matter what else was at stake; but the encounter of Paul Celan and Martin Heidegger was also haunted by the ghosts of Germany’s terrible recent history. Heidegger was a well-known early supporter of Nazism, who as rector of Freiburg University eagerly sought to align the academy with the new values of Hitlerism. Though he later retreated from this public position, he never came out with the open apology and explanation for his actions that many of his admirers sought. To this day, the entanglement of Heidegger’s thought with fascism and anti-Semitism is a major topic of philosophical debate and research.

Celan, on the other hand, was one of the millions of Jewish victims of fascism. He was born Paul Antschel in 1920 in Czernowitz, in the Bukovina, a formerly Habsburg region that after World War I became part of eastern Romania. (Since World War II it has been divided between Romania and Ukraine.) Like many Jewish families in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Antschels prided themselves on speaking good German. It was Paul’s mother tongue, even while he learned Romanian at school, as well as picking up some Yiddish and Hebrew.

From the beginning, then, language was for Celan the means of expressing political and national anxieties, in which his own position as a German-speaking Jewish Romanian was triply complicated. He had a natural sense of affinity with Franz Kafka, who was similarly situated, and who remarked on the “three impossibilities…: the impossibility of not writing, the impossibility of writing in German, and the impossibility of writing differently. And we could add a fourth impossibility: the impossibility of writing at all.” Celan was to work those impossibilities into the very texture of his language, in a way that makes him one of the most enigmatic writers of the last century.

Celan, a generation younger than Kafka, lived to experience the cataclysm that the older writer was spared. In 1940, following the Nazi–Soviet pact, the USSR annexed the northern part of the province of Bukovina from Romania. When Hitler broke that pact and invaded Russia a year later, the Romanian army, now allied with Germany, came storming back into Czernowitz bent on revenge, especially against Jews. With German tutelage of the Romanian forces, and with the support of a German Einsatzgruppe, the Romanians massacred the Jews of Bukovina, ghettoizing them and deporting them to work camps. One morning in June 1942, Celan returned home after a night away to find his parents missing. They had been arrested and sent to forced labor, where both would be killed—his father by typhus and his mother by shooting. Celan himself survived two years in a labor camp, returning to Czernowitz…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.