Celan, Paul (1920–1970) By Roelans, Jan
Paul Celan (a pseudonym of Paul Antschel) is one the most distinctive German-language poets of the second half of the twentieth century. Born in 1920 in Czernowitz in the Bukovina (today Ukraine), into a German-speaking Jewish family, he grew up in a multicultural society where German, Rumanian, Ukrainian and Yiddish were spoken. In 1941 Czernowitz was occupied by the fascist Rumanian ‘National Legionnaire’ government, which started deportations. Celan’s parents died in 1942 in a Nazi labor camp. After the war Celan moved via Vienna to France, where he married the graphic artist Gisèle de Lestrange and worked as a lecturer in German. His reputation as a poet was established by the poem ‘Todesfuge’ (‘Death Fugue’), which recounts the experience of the death camps. His poems would, however, rapidly evolve into a darker, almost reticent style struggling with the possibility of representing the Shoah. Most of his poems are fairly short and are forced to revisit and reshape the German language after its moral destruction by the Nazis. Celan was awarded the most important German literary prize, the Georg Büchner Prize, but never felt comfortable in the German literary scene and was unnerved by neo-fascist activism. He translated a vast amount of poetry and prose from different languages into German and saw this achievement as equal to writing poetry. Seven volumes were published at the time of his death by suicide in Paris in 1970.