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  “All poets are Jews” -- Paul Celan’s Readings of Marina Tsvetayeva
Christine Ivanovic

Much has been written and said about Paul Celan’s Jewishness, about the import of his Jewish fate -- his parents were murdered in the holocaust -- for his poetry, and about the “Jewish” crisis of 1960-1962, which Celan experienced in the context of the Goll Affair and which led to his being hospitalized for the first time in 1963.{1} Much consideration has also been given to the fact that personal encounters, letters, and conversations with such persons as Theodor Adorno, Martin Buber, Erich von Kahler, Nelly Sachs, and even his imaginary meeting with the Russian Jewish poet Osip Mandelstam played an essential part in the formation of Celan’s jewish identity.{2} Also, a large-scale effort has been made to reconstruct Celan’s studies of Jewish and Hassidic religious history and to find traces of this long-lasting spiritual investigation of, for example, the writings of Franz Rosenzweig, Gershom Sholem or Walter Benjamin in Celan’s own essays and poetry. In addition, literary critics have discovered many allusions to Jewish themes in his poems. Therefore, there is no question that an awareness of Celan’s Jewish background and an awareness of the spiritual origins of Judaism, which he dealt with intensively throughout the fifties and sixties, is indispensable for an understanding of Celan’s poetry. Yet no differentiated awareness of what it means to identify Celan as a Jewish poet has developed. Celan himself warned against “forcing his poems into the confines of Judaism or the fate of the Jews."{3} When, in a review of the book Sprachgitter in October, 1959, Günter Blöcker called him a “Jewish author,"{4} Celan construed the term as anti-semitic and, in several indignant letters, wrote about the resurgent anti-semitism to Nelly Sachs and various other correspondents close to him.

The term “Jewish author” seems appropriate only when, in addition to its origins, it indicates a specific kind of biography -- a biography which has created a historically conditioned identity, the two poles of which are “guilt of survivors” and “living in exile”. The term is not appropriate, however, when it is used to denounce an author. Celan has been denounced as a Jewish poet again and again, even in recent publications. For instance, an anonymous review of the new Tübingen edition of Die Niemandsrose and Sprachgitter in the German news magazine Der Spiegel spoke of the “stigma of his Jewishness,” called Celan the last “caretaker of Jewish collective suffering” and “the poetic star witness of the unthinkable, who has served ever since as the champion of the literary mourners.”{5} During his lifetime, Celan resisted such denunciatory labeling; he could hardly have lived up to it.

In the very depths of his personal crisis in the early sixties, Celan wrote a series of poems in which he not only took an explicit stand on the Goll Affair,{6} which had been haunting him since March of 1960, but in which he increasingly attempted to focus on his own fate in the sense of a paradigmatic poet’s fate encompassing places and times. Vilification, dispossession and exile are the recurring themes of the, by Celan’s standards, unusually long and discursive, closing poems of Die Niemandsrose, a collection of poetry published in 1963 in which Celan considers Jewish motifs and refers to the works of great poets, ranging from Dante Alighieri to William Shakespeare and Friedrich Hölderlin in a never to be revived intensity. The volume is dedicated “to the memory of Ossip Mandelstamm.” With this dedication, it takes upon itself the task of remembering -- of remembering a great poet, a human being, and a Jew. Not the last but one of the closing poems of Die Niemandsrose appears under the epigraph (all poets are Jews). In the poem "Hüttenfenster," the last of the Die Niemandsrose-texts to be written, the word “Jew” appeared again for the first time in one of Celan’s poems since he used it in Todesfuge. In that instance, he speaks of “people-and Jews”.{7} People, Jews and poets are placed in a very specific relation to one another in the context of these poems written mostly in the course of 1962 -- a relation which, in the face of Celan’s personal crisis of the previous years, turns into his credo poètique. The epigraph (all poets are Jews) -- stated not in German, but concealed in Russian words and letters -- is the verdict at which Celan had arrived at that moment. It is the summation of his experiences and readings -- among them Celan’s Russian readings, which he pursued with particular intensity during this time. It is the verdict of his poetry, but not a judgment in the sense of that denunciatory use of the term “Jew” which had so deeply wounded Celan.

In the following, I intend to elucidate the significance and scope of this epigraph as it appears in its Russian context in the poems at the end of Die Niemandsrose.{8} The assertion printed in Russian and in the cyrillic alphabet seems to be a Russian sentence, but in fact, it was never spoken in Russian in this way. Prefacing the poem "Und mit dem Buch aus Tarussa," there is no simple way for a German reader to understand it, since the Russian language was by no means widespread in the West Germany of the early sixties. On the contrary, it seems that this indecipherable epigraph was put there to create a meaning of its own, a meaning which relates to all those themes alluded to in the poem itself. As we see, it refers, among other things, to Paul Celan’s numerous translations from Russian:

Kyrilisches, Freunde, auch das
ritt ich über die Seine,
ritts übern Rhein.
Cyrillic, friends, that too
I rode over the Seine,
rode it over the Rhine.

Of Celan’s poems, "Und mit dem Buch aus Tarussa" is without doubt the one which is most intensively preoccupied with things Russian. It marks the high point of a long-standing interest in Russian language and literature, reaching far back into Celan’s youth and continuing into the last years of his life. By the time Celan wrote the poem "Und mit dem Buch aus Tarussa" in 1962, he had already translated a number of poems by various authors from Russian into German, including texts by Aleksandr Blok, Sergei Esenin, Ossip Mandelstam, Velimir Khlebnikov, Vladimir Maiakovski and Boris Pasternak. In 1962, Celan finished the last poems for his own collection Die Niemandsrose which was published three months later, in early 1963.

However the epigraph, “All poets are Jews” is more indicative of another of Russia’s poets, one who -- quite similarly to Emily Dickinson -- saw herself as a “nobody” in Russian literature: Marina Tsvetayeva. Celan did not translate any of the works of this master of Russian language and lyrics, and I have never found any signs of an attempt at such a translation among his unpublished papers. As he himself admitted in a letter to the literary scholar and publisher of Mandelstam’s works, Gleb Struve, Celan thought her poems too difficult to be translated.{11} At the same time, he greatly admired Tsvetayeva’s poetry. As several of his contemporaries unanimously attest, he accorded her a status among Russian authors second only to Mandelstam.

Why then did Celan preface his poem, one of the last long poems from the conclusion of Die Niemandsrose, with this epigraph in the Russian language and alphabet? And how is this epigraph to be understood, as obviously incorrect as it is when taken out of context? Tsvetayeva’s life circumstances and several of her poems reflecting them provide answers.

With the aid of Celan’s personal library, which was deposited in the German Literary Archive in Marbach in 1990 and made available there for research, I was able to at least partially trace which of Tsvetayeva's texts Celan had devoted the greatest attention to. I noticed that there was one poem which had captured Celan’s particular interest: the "Poem of the End" (Po ma konca).{12} In all the copies of Tsvetayeva's works, there were notes and jottings in the margin next to her poem, many of which referred to one specific section. It is this passage which the epigraph is taken from. A comparison of the volumes reveals that Celan became acquainted with this poem by Marina Tsvetayeva one year before writing "Und mit dem Buch aus Tarussa." He seems to have read it particularly intensively in an extremely rare anthology, published in Russian in Prague in 1926, which contained representative works of the emigrants living there at that time (Marina Tsvetayeva had been on the panel of editors, but was already in Paris by the time it was published). Celan acquired the volume on June 1st, 1960.{13}

However, the title of Celan’s poem points in another direction, namely to Tarussa, a small town outside Moscow on the Oka River, which at the time was a well-known artists‘ colony. It so happens that Tsvetayeva spent part of her childhood in Tarussa, described as an idyllic place where everything was still the way it ought to be. Half jokingly, half seriously, Tsvetayeva later (1934) came up with an inscription for her tombstone, which her daughter has passed on to us. If she could not be buried in Tarussa, then she wished a stone to be placed upon a hill overlooking the town with the epitaph carved on it: “Here Marina Tsvetayeva would like to lie.”

On September 10th, 1962, Celan received, together with other books, the almanac Tarusskie stranicy (Pages from Tarussa),{14} sent by his friend Erich Einhorn who in the early forties had been moved from Czernowitz to Russia and who was now living in Moscow. It is one of the most important records of the gradual rehabilitation of Tsvetayeva, who was until then censured in the Soviet Union. Forty-two of her poems appeared in the book, in fine print on altogether ten pages (of a total of 318). Ten days after the book arrived, Celan wrote the poem “Und mit dem Buch aus Tarussa,” a reflection on a book which had come to him from Tarussa, and, at the same time, a reflection on a book which testifies to its intellectual origin in the title. And so, in this rare instance, the origins of the poem are clearly to be found in the context of Celan’s readings in Russian literature.

The Tarusskie stranicy almanac does not, however, contain the poem from which the epigraph under discussion was taken. Neither does it show one single notation -- rare for important books in his Russian-language collection. However, in the first edition, aside from the “Poem of the End” which Celan had encountered in December, 1961, the poem “Germanii” (To Germany), from the important cycle "Mart" (March), has been marked in several places. This gives rise to a new context which must at first be considered independently of the Tarusskie stranicy.

Along with many other Russian intellectuals, Tsvetayeva had left the Soviet Union in 1922. Via Berlin, she arrived in Prague where she spent three of her years in exile before moving on to Paris in 1925. In 1939, alone and abandoned by her family, the developments in world events forced her to return to the Soviet Union, where she committed suicide in summer 1941. Tsvetayeva’s experience of exile was characterized not only by her personal suffering -- the loss of her homeland and native language, the physical hardships and privation -- it also became at the same time the chronicle of a catastrophic historical process which, in the end, she was unable to escape. In 1938, Bohemia and Moravia were annexed to the German Reich; at that time the Prague ghetto already had been established. While in Prague, Tsvetayeva wrote several longer poems reflecting the course of historical events as well as her own personal experiences. Many of her readers regard these poems as some of her very best works. When Paul Celan read the “Poem of the End” in the Prague anthology, he must have been well aware of these circumstances which, after all, had had no small effect on his own life. Underlined sections in the adjacent poems clearly point to the historical perspective, as for example in this passage from the poem “Germanii” (To Germany):

O, deva vsech rumjanee
Sredi zelenych gor --

Polkarty prikarmanila,
Astral'naja duöa!
Vstar' -- skazkami tumanila,
Dnes' -- tankamini posla.

O most blushing maid
- Amidst green hills--

Engulfed half the map of the world
Astral soul!
Once lulled us with tales,
Now comes at us with tanks.

Tsvetayeva brought together both the political and private aspects in the “Poem of the End.” The experience of the ghetto and the generally apocalyptic mood in Prague form the backdrop for a description of the end of a passionate relationship Tsvetayeva had had there with a former White Army officer, a friend of her husband‘s. Making use of the stream-of consciousness device so characteristic of modern novels, the poem relates the couple‘s last evening and last walk together through the town, and finally, past the Prague Ghetto, the detailed account alternating between a reproduction of their conversation and her perception of her own feelings. This makes the poem a psychologically very incisive work. At the same time, the dimensions of the spatial description, of the poetically developed imagery, as well as of the digressions into historical and ideological domains, all impart an epic feel to the text. The epigraph used by Celan was taken from just such a digression. But in Tsvetayeva‘s text, it reads:

Getto izbranni estv! Val i rov.
Po-scady ne zdi!
V som christianejsem iz mirov
Poety - zidy!
Ghetto of the chosen-ones! Wall and ditch.
Expect no mercy!
In this most christian of all worlds,
The poets are Yids!

Here, with great bitterness, Tsvetayeva cites the condition of being outcast as symptomatic of the state of being chosen. Where there can no longer be any faith in the mercy of god, only one hope remains: the hope placed in the poets, who, like the Jews when cursed as yids, find themselves outcast “in this most Christian of worlds” and driven into exile, and who have no other choice but to see in this a sign of their position as chosen ones. The particular severity of Tsvetayeva‘s tone at this point does not lend the passage a mood of resignation but of rallying which calls upon the chosen outcasts to join as brothers -- which puts its faith in this, and not in divine redemption. At the same time, it‘s an affirmation of language, and of speaking as an affirmation which characterizes not only this poem, but the whole of Tsvetayeva‘s works.

In Celan’s poem “Und mit dem Buch aus Tarussa,” no references are to be found to the biographical context of Tsvetayeva‘s poem (i.e. the end of a love affair). Instead, Celan turns resolutely to the subjects of dispossession and exile. The establishment of the ghetto, however, -- the immediate occasion of the thoughts expressed in Tsvetayeva‘s poem -- goes unmentioned. The manuscripts left in Celan’s library revealed that he had already prefaced his poem “Hinausgekrönt” (Crowned out) with the epigraph from Tsvetayeva in July 1962 -- before he had even received the “Book of Tarussa.”{15} The defiant tone of the “Poem of the End” -- particularly of the section quoted by Celan -- appears to have been carried over most emphatically into this poem. The title, “Hinausgekrönt,” contains an allusion to Tsvetayeva's formulation, with which this part of her poem begins:

Za gorodom! Ponimaes? Za!

(Outside of the city, meaning into the ghetto.)

“The Christians have their life; the Jews have their faith” is the sarcastic conclusion of the existence of the ghetto. Tsvetayeva counters with the only thing she has to offer: although not being Jewish, as a poet she transforms suffering and isolation into a sign of her being chosen. For Celan, and seen from a post-historical perspective, it means:

Mit Namen, getränkt
von jedem Exil.
Mit Namen und Samen,
mit Namen, getaucht
in alle
Kelche, die vollstehn mit deinem
Königsblut, Mensch, - in alle
Kelche der großen
Ghetto-Rose, aus der
du uns ansiehst, unsterblich von soviel
auf Morgenwegen gestorbenen Toden.

The poem “Hinausgekrönt” picks up on themes and motifs from earlier poems in the Niemandsrose: “name”, “calyx”, “king”, and “rose”. But at the same time, it very clearly refers to Tsvetayeva‘s text -- much more clearly than does the poem “Und mit dem Buch aus Tarussa.” Since the epigraph was previously unknown in this context, this is a parallel which has up to now been fully ignored. The perception of the Jewish status of being chosen as a curse, as isolation and exile, the ghetto, and finally, the “morning errands,” in my opinion all point clearly to the expository frame of reference of Tsvetayeva‘s poem. How strongly the passage quoted from the “Poem of the End” influenced Celan can be further verified through other, closely related poems.{18}

Instead, I would like to return to the object of this examination, the epigraph at the beginning of the poem “Und mit dem Buch aus Tarussa,” where the words by Tsvetayeva, which had already been echoed by Celan in his own poetry, take their place in a new constellation. The context created here moves away from the Jewish themes of ghetto and pogrom which he had dealt with in poems written only a few weeks and months before. Now he extends the context into a complex realm of memory and experience with a widely diverse imagery. Cosmic locations (constellations, star maps) are contrasted with terrestrial locations (Tarussa, Paris, Germany, Kolchis), and their historical dimensions (f.e. Kolchis as an ancient region) and biographical data connected with them (Tsvetayeva‘s biography as well as the fates of other authors, such as Konstantin Paustovsky or Mandelstam‘s widow) are placed in relation to Celan’s own experiences (translations and readings, departure, perseverance, anticipation). In the poem itself, connections are established in particular to the newly presented and new presentation of texts by Tsvetayeva in the “Book of Tarussa”, for example, to the poems “Stol’” (Table) or Pis’mo (Letter). But the message of Tsvetayeva’s words, now recast as the epigraph “All poets are Jews,” not only becomes a theme in its own right, but receives the status of a direction for reading, or even living (as in “Poema konca”). On the one hand, it proved to be prophetic:

Wahr- und Voraus- und Vorüber-zu-dir-,
das dort bereitliegt, einem
der eigenen Herzsteine gleich, die man ausspie;

on the other, it becomes, just like “Kolchis,” a “catch phrase that an oarsman growls through his teeth,” as the poem puts it at its end. It‘s something to be received and it is already received, for

Cyrillic, friends, that too
I rode over the Seine,
rode it over the Rhine.

I would like to recall once again the cyrillic form of the printed epigraph. All of this points to the written form of the pronouncement, it indicates the otherness through its format, through the form in which it appears. Since it cannot easily make a claim to comprehensibility, it corresponds to that principle of revealing and concealing, of exposing and hiding, which has generally been recognized as constitutive for the poems of Die Niemandsrose. And finally, it conveys one more last message. What is actually stated, in reference to what Tsvetayeva stated in Russian, can only have any claim to truth when stated in the Russian language. A translation -- especially a translation into German -- would in no way do it justice.

So what does it mean when Paul Celan asserts in this manner that “All poets are Jews” in a foreign language which the reader of his poems will most likely be unable to understand or even decipher? This assertion is quite obviously meant in a way radically different from the denunciatory use of the term “Jewish poet” which he opposed so bitterly.

On one hand, Celan’s situation in 1960 led him to a more refined awareness of the historic dimension of his own existence as a Jew, much as he had hoped to define it in his contacts with people close to him in the late fifties (I point once again to the conversations with Adorno and Nelly Sachs). This dimension reached far beyond his experience of the holocaust during his youth and encompassed greater, historical frames, such as had, on the other hand, originally come to be established as the basis of his linguistic and spiritual existence. In another sense, in view of the plagiarism affair of 1960, it led to a heightening of Celan’s awareness of himself as a Jew, though not of his religious faith nor his profession of that faith.{20} Rather, he saw in the specific character of the vilification and ostracism a kind of ever-recurring destiny which the Jewish people have been made to suffer paradigmatically through history, and to which poets have also been subjected in a similarly dramatic manner, extending even to the insanity to which Celan -- the “Hölderlin of our time,” as Nelly Sachs has once described “brother” Paul Celan -- himself succumbed in the end. The plagiarism affair, whose slanderous intention was directed at excommunicating him from society, was perceived by Celan in direct analogy to anti-semitism as a destructive, ostracizing force: it served only as a pretext for ostracism and destruction. In this context, one notices the frequency of such formulations on the part of Celan as “totschweigen” (pass over in silence), “I do not exist,” and “I am nobody.” This perception also explains his distrust of the Büchner Prize award as a frame-up for his all the more treacherous destruction, or his suspicion that he had only been chosen as the token Jew of the Gruppe 47. When Celan’s dignity as a poet was publicly questioned -- as it was in connection with the discussion over the accusation of plagiarism --, he felt that his very existence as a person was put in doubt. The denunciation of the poet and the Jew are analogous, and this deliberately sets the physical existence of the victim at risk. Conversely, it allows the correlation of poets and Jews that Celan intends through the interpolation of the quote by Tsvetayeva. But it is fundamentally different from the meaning in Tsvetayeva‘s poem, where it has much less to do with the actual identification with a religious faith or a people. It‘s more an expression of solidarity with the dishonored and despised, with the persecuted and the damned, embodied above all by the Jewish people as they perished in the ghettoes and concentration camps.

I mentioned before, that on June 1st, 1962, Celan received the Prague anthology, and that in this historically significant context, he read the “Poem of the End.” On the two following days, Celan translated a long poem from Russian which, more than any other text he translated, focused on the extermination of the Jewish people in connection with the intentional forgetting and suppression of this extermination. It was not a poem by Marina Tsvetayeva. It was the poem “Babii Yar” by Yevgeny Yevtushenko:

Babii Yar

No monument stands over Babii Yar.
A drop sheer as a crude gravestone.
I am afraid.
Today I am as old in years
as all the Jewish people.
Now I seem to be
a Jew.
Here I plod through ancient Egypt.
Here I perish crucified, on the cross,
and to this day I bear the scars of nails.
I seem to be
The Philistine
is both informer and judge.
I am behind bars.
Beset on every side.
Spat on,
Squealing, dainty ladies in flounced Brussels lace
stick their parasols into my face.
I seem to be then
a young boy in Byelostok.
Blood runs, spilling over the floors.
The bar-room rabble-rousers
give off a stench of vodka and onion.
A boot kicks me aside, helpless. In vain I plead with these pogrom bullies.
While they jeer and shout,
"Beat the Yids. Save Russia!"
Some grain-marketeer beats up my mother.
O my Russian people!
I know
are international to the core.
But those with unclean hands
have often made a jingle of your purest name.
I know the goodness of my land.
How vile these antisemites ñ
without a qualm
they pompously called themselves
“The Union of the Russian People!”
I seem to be
Anne Frank
as a branch in April.
And I love.
And have no need of phrases.
My need
is what we gaze into each other.
How little we can see
or smell!
We are denied the leaves
we are denied the sky.
Yet we can do so much --
embrace each other in a dark room.
They're coming here?
Be not afraid. Those are the booming
sounds of spring:
spring is coming here.
Come then to me.
Quick, give me your lips.
Are they smashing down the door?
No, it's the ice-breaking ...
The wild grasses rustle over Babii Yar.
The trees look ominous,
like judges.
Here all things scream silently,
and, baring my head,
slowly I feel myself
turning gray.
And I myself
am one massive, soundless scream
above the thousand thousand buried here.
I am
each old man
here shot dead.
I am
every child
here shot dead.
Nothing in me
shall ever forget!
The “Internationale,” let it
when the last antisemite on earth
is buried forever.
In my blood there is no Jewish blood.
In their callous rage, all antisemites
must hate me now as a Jew.
For that reason
I am a true Russian!

It appears to me that in his translation, Celan leans very heavily on the denunciation of his own person as manifested in what became known as the Goll Affair.{22} This poem appeared on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the massacre of Babii Yar, the name of a ravine north of Kiev where, in less than two days, German troops and SS commandos machine-gunned and buried 34,000 Jews. Over the next two years, the German army killed and buried another 100,000 people here, only to exhume and burn the corpses, or crush them using the gravestones from the nearby Jewish cemetery in an effort to wipe away every trace of the mass grave before they retreated from the Ukraine. After the end of the war, several individuals tried and failed to get a monument set up at Babii Yar. When plans for the construction of a sports stadium on the site became public, Yevgeny Yevtushenko wrote the poem “Babii Yar” in protest, and it was printed in the Literaturnaya Gazeta on September 19th, 1961.

The voice is of one directly affected. He articulates a fate which was not his, but at the same time is a part of him. It's a confession. The affect on him comes not from the past, but from the present of what is said:

Nad Babij Jarom pamjatnikov net.
Krutoj obryv, kak gruboe nadgrobíe.

Über Babij Jar, da steht kein Denkmal. .
Ein schroffer Hang -- der eine, unbehauene Grabstein.

A poem, in lieu of a monument, takes upon itself the neglected remembrance and the mourning left undone. It is an identificatory voice which assumes another identity not only spatially and temporally: it is an acknowledgment of the denounced and the aggrieved, the dishonored and the dispossessed, to the murdered, and to Jews. It is an identity which would seem to be alien to the voice of who is speaking: he is a Russian. But for him, the concept of what Russia actually means includes a solidarity with the victims, a call to take up opposition, not to forget, nor to suppress. Only in this -- unpopular -- acknowledgement does the true being of he who speaks attain fulfillment: a Russian for whom the “Internationale” is his political ideal and the ideal of a humanity in peril. And this peril has yet to be banished.

In Russian as well as in its German translation, Yevtushenko’s poem was purposely understood from a biased viewpoint. The political volubility of the text was unmistakable. Its direct comment on an anti-semitism, which was otherwise all too readily glossed over, provoked severe criticism from the Russian public. The specific emphasis on an essentially Russian humanism which also found expression in the text was deliberately overlooked. Yevtushenko reacted to the attacks, which only enhanced his reputation abroad, with a diversionary reworking of the text. Not long after this episode, he went on tour in the West. On January 17th, 1963, Walter Jens presented the poem in Paul Celan’s translation at a reading by Yevtushenko in Tübingen. In a reaction to this reading, an utterly distasteful article by Rudolf Walter Leonhard in the German newspaper Die Zeit illustrates how the Germans did not at all associate the anti-semitic aspect to any specifically German guilt in the massacre, but understood the text as yet another indictment of a barbaric and communist Russia and set out to hail Yevtushenko as its last victim. This incident -- to which Celan reacted with revulsion, as his correspondence with Gottfried Bermann-Fischer shows{23} -- once again bears witness if not to neo-Nazi tendencies, as Celan put it, then at least to the extreme difficulties the Germans had with facing up to and working through their own past.

In Celan’s translation the poem ends with the following verses:

Über Babij Jar, da redet der Wildwuchs, das Gras.
Streng, so sieht dich der Baum an,
mit Richter-Augen.
Das Schweigen rings schreit.
Ich nehme die Mütze vom Kopf, ich fühle,
ich werde
Und bin -- bin selbst
ein einziger Schrei ohne Stimme
über tausend und aber
tausend Begrabene hin.
Jeder hier erschossene Greis -:
Jedes hier erschossene Kind -:
Nichts, keine Faser in mir,
vergißt das je!
Die Internationale --
ertönen, erdröhnen soll sie,
wenn der letzte Antisemit, den sie trägt, diese Erde,
im Grab ist, für immer.
Ich habe kein jüdisches Blut in den Adern.
Aber verhaßt bin ich allen Antisemiten.
Mit wütigem, schwieligem Haß,
so hassen sie mich --
wie einen Juden.
Und deshalb bin ich
ein wirklicher Russe.
{24} {25}

At this point, the voice of Baby Yar is just as much Celan’s as it is Yevtushenko’s. In the German translation, the poem that articulates a Russian‘s solidarity with the afflicted Jew is transformed into an acknowledgment of the afflicted Jew -- into a humanitarian ideal as proclaimed in the name of Russia. In this response to hatred and violence, the persecuted, the denounced, those having barely escaped being murdered find a confident spokesperson. The poete maudit -- the accursed poet -- experiences a vast extension temporally and spatially, socially and religiously. He bases his identity on a stubborn faith in a Russia which is prepared to define itself as opposing denunciation and anti-semitism. In his consideration of Russian literature in the time around 1960, the afflicted poet Celan saw himself reflected in this Russia, and in this concept of opposition as a Jew and as a human-being -- as a poet whose parents had been German, but who could never return to Germany as a homeland -- as a poet who felt, at least for a time, “at home” in several languages, including Russian, as a man, whose parents had been murdered by the Germans in the Ukraine. He, who had always resisted being labelled a Jewish poet was, during this time, able to call himself a russkiy poet and conceive of the term as a self-declaration, even as he had repeated it in Yevtushenko‘s poem. -- all poets are yids, in this respect, these words spoken in Russian have a definitive meaning.

In early 1962, Celan twice signed letters to close confidants with a strange, multi-lingual phrase: “Russkiy poet in partibus nemetskich infidelium” -- a Russian poet beyond the zone of the mute peoples. We find the same signature added by hand to one of the typescripts of Gauner- und Ganovenweise (A rogues’ and swindlers’ ditty..), produced between 1961 and 1962. Leonard Olschner was the first who guided the attention to this signature,{26} which represents the closest possible approach to an intellectual realm of which Celan felt a part of and to which he ascribed a significant aspect of his calling as a poet -- that for historical reasons.

“History is the collision between tradition and the political system,” remarked Walter Benjamin at the end of the thirties.{27} To Celan, and similarly to Mandelstam and many other “wasted poets,” as Roman Jakobson called this Russian “lost generation,” history was a factor which had wrecked their lives. History robbed Celan of his home, family, and friends, and cast him out into another, unfamiliar world. Celan’s path became a desperate attempt at a homecoming. If Celans refers to himself in Russian as a “russkiy poet,” a Russian poet, if he asserts in Russian that “All poets are Jews”, then this is nothing less than the assertion of speaking in the name of the victims, of speaking as commemoration, and of speaking for a kind of humanism defined as one of the tasks of history. “Russianess” has just as much a part in it as does Jewishness, but at this point, the German language is left as the language of the nemci -- the mute ones. The immediacy of the past turns into the historically founded destiny and calling of the poet whose verses must not fall silent even long after he himself has fallen silent.


{1}See the comprehensive essay by John Felstiner, Paul Celan. Poet, Survivor, Jew. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995. See also James K. Lyon, "Judentum, Antisemitismus, Verfolgungswahn. Celans "Krise" 1960-1962." Celan-Jahrbuch 3 (1989), pp. 175-204.

{2}Of particular significance here is his correspondence with Nelly Sachs. Cf. Paul Celan -- Nelly Sachs: Briefwechsel. Ed. by Barbara Wiedemann. Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1993.

{3}Reported by Dietlind Meinecke, Wort und Name bei Paul Celan. Zur Widerruflichkeit des Gedichts. Bad Homburg: Gehlen, 1970.

{4}Günter Blöcker, "Gedichte als graphische Gebilde." Tagesspiegel Nr. 4283, Oct. 11, 1959, p. 39. See also Celan’s letter to Nelly Sachs of 10/26/1959 (note 2), p. 24.

{5}In the original text: “Prägte den als Paul Antschel 1920 in Czernowitz Geborenen nicht vielmehr das Stigma seines Judentums? [...] Als poetischer Kronzeuge des Unfaßlichen ist er seither Leitfigur der literarischen Trauerarbeiter geblieben.” Moreover, he is labeled the “Statthalter jüdischen Weltleids”. Anonymous, in Der Spiegel 13 (1996), March 25th, 1996, pp.222-224.

{6} Shortly before his death in 1950 the German-French poet Yvan Goll asked Celan to translate his poems written in French. Goll’s widow didn’t agree with Celan’s translations and refused them to be printed. Nevertheless she used them for her own German edition of the French poems of Yvan Goll published in Zurich only two years later. With the aid of some journalists and supported by a member of literary critics, she later launched a public campaign against Celan, accusing him of plagiarism. Although there was no doubt about Celan’s correct stance in the matter, the personal attacks of Claire Goll developed into an “affair” and caused a widespread discussion for years; at it’s end, it forced the German Academy of Language and Literature into an investigation of the charges. Among other factors, this public discussion about his alleged guilt which had been going on for years, wounded Celan deeply and led to his first major crisis in the early sixties.

{7}Paul Celan, Gesammelte Werke in fünf Bänden. Ed. By Beda Allemann and Stefan Reichert with the aid of Rolf Bücher. Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1983. T. I, p. 278.

{8}A commentary to the whole of this volume has been prepared by an international group of "Celanists" as the first of a couple of commentaries to Celan’s poetry which are to be done in the next years: Die Niemandsrose. Kommentar. Herausgegeben von Jürgen Lehman unter Mitarbeit von Christine Ivanovic . Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag C. Winter, 1996 (2nd edition 1997).

{9}I, 289.

{10}Translation by John Felstiner (footnote 1), p.197.

{11}In his letter from February 26th 1959, written in French to Gleb Struve, Celan puts it most emphatically: "[..] - mais combien est-il donc difficile de traduire Marina Tsvetayeva. See Victor Terras and Karl S. Weimar, "Mandelstamm and Celan: A Postscript." In: Germano-Slavica 2 (1978), p.363.

{12}Marina Tsvetaeva, Selected poems. Translated by David McDuff. Newcastel upon Tyne 1987.

{13}Kovcheg, Sbornik sojuza russkikh pisatelej v Chekhoslovakii. I. Pod redakciei Val. Bulgakova, S.V.Zavadskogo, Mariny Tsvetaevoi. Praga: Plamya, 1926.

{14}An English translation of this very rare book appeared already two years later: Pages from Tarusa: New Voices in Russian Writing. Edited by Andrew Field. Boston 1964.

{15}Reprinted in the Tübingen edition of Paul Celan’s works edited by Jürgen Wertheimer, Die Niemandsrose. Vorstufen - Textgenese - Endfassung. Revised by Heino Schmull, assisted by Michael Schwarzkopf. Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1996.

{16}I, 271f.

{17}Translation into English by Michael Hamburger. In: Poems of Paul Celan. London: Anvil Press Poetry, 1988, p.213.

{18}I would refer those interested to my dissertation, Das Gedicht im Geheimnis der Begegnung. Dichtung und Poetik Paul Celans im Kontext seiner russischen Lektüren. Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1996.

{19}The last word "ausspie" again refers to the above-mentioned poem "Hinausgekrönt" as Celan first wrote "Hinausgespien" (spat out) instead of "Hinausgekrönt" (crowned out).

{20}Cf. the discussion with Nelly Sachs in letters, conversations and poems (footnote 2).

{21}The poetry of Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Revised and enlarged edition. Edited, translated with an introduction by George Reavey. London 1969, pp. 145-149.

{22}Cf. Das Gedicht im Geheimnis der Begegnung (footnote 20), pp. 310 314.

{23}Cf. Gottfried Bermann Fischer, Brigitte Bermann Fischer: Briefwechsel mit Autoren. Edited by Rainer Stach with the editorial assistance of Karin Schlapp. With an introduction by Bernhard Zeller. Frankfurt a.M.: S. Fischer, 1990, p.633f.

{24}V, 285, 287.

{25}See footnote 23.

{26}Cf. Leonard Moore Olschner, Der feste Buchstab. Erläuterungen zu Paul Celans Gedichtübertragungen. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Rupprecht, 1985, p.208f.

{27}"Geschichte ist Choc zwischen Tradition und der politischen Organisation" (fr 72). Walter Benjamin: Gesammelte Schriften T. VI. Edited by Rolf Tiedemann and Hermann Schweppenhäuser, Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1991, p.98.

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