Paul Celan’s Paris

I originally planned to write this blog post last year. 2020 was an important year for anyone who is interested in the German poet Paul Celan. It was the centenary of his birth and the fiftieth anniversary of his untimely death in 1970. I have been fascinated by Paul Celan and his poetry since my school days.

Sadly I could not travel to Paris in 2020 because of Covid-19, therefore the post comes with a one year delay. It is a tribute to him to mark the centenary plus one of his birth on 23 November.

Paul Celan lived for almost half of his life in Paris. He died and is buried there. I visited places which have a connection with him and I want to share in this post photos of these places and information about his life and his poetry.

1. Paul Celan – a German poet

Paul Celan is without doubt a German poet. His mother tongue was German and he wrote his poems and also a few prose texts almost exclusively in German. He is probably the most important poet in post-war German literature.

However, he lived only for a very short time in a country in which German was spoken as the main language. His origin and his story is closely connected with the history of Eastern Europe and a lost world.

Paul Celan was born as “Paul Antschel” on 23 November 1920 in Czernowitz, Bukovina. Czernowitz was once called the “Vienna of the East” or “Jerusalem upon the Prut”. Until 1775 the Bukovina belonged to the territory of Moldavia which was part of the Ottoman Empire. Then it was annexed by the Habsburg Empire and Czernowitz became the capital of the region. In 1849 the status of the region was raised and it became as the Duchy of Bukovina, a crownland of the Austrian Empire. With the emancipation of the Jews in 1867 the “Golden Age of Czernowitz” began.

In many ways Czernowitz was a typical city of the Austrian (or since 1867 Austro-Hungarian) Empire, because it was a multicultural city. The majority of the population was Jewish, but also Romanians, Ukrainians, Poles and Germans were important minorities. German was the lingua franca in Czernowitz and the cultural focus point was Vienna.

When Paul Celan was born, Czernowitz was already a Romanian city (Cernăuți), because the Austro-Hungarian Empire fell apart at the end of the World War I, but until 1940 not much changed in the city and German continued to be the dominant language.

With the end of the World War II Czernowitz become part of the Soviet Union and since 1991 the city, which is now called “Chernivtsi”, has been a part of an independent Ukraine.

2. Paul Celan’s Early Life.

a) Czernowitz (1920 – 1938)

Paul Celan was born into a traditional Jewish family. His father was Leo Antschel-Teitler. His family came originally from Galicia. Leo Antschel qualified in structural engineering. During the World War I he was conscripted. Afterwards he could not find any occupation fitting his qualification. He worked therefore as a broker in the wood trade. He was a Zionist and a traditional Jewish education and the Hebrew language were important for him. His mother was Frederike Antschel (née Schrager). Her family was from Sadagora, a village near Czernowitz and her parents were shop owners. Also Frederike Antschel kept the Jewish traditions, but had at the same time a great love for the German language and German literature.

Paul Celan’s father was very strict and the father-son relationship was difficult and riddled by conflict, not least because the young Paul did not share his father’s Zionism and did not want to learn Hebrew. He was however very close to his mother and shared early on her passion for the German language and German literature.

I have already mentioned that Czernowitz was a multicultural city. Paul Celan had a great affinity and love for languages. From his early childhood on there were four language spoken around him: German, Romanian, Yiddish and Hebrew. He went his first years to the Meisler Institute (kindergarten and primary school). The language of instruction was German. However, the parents could not afford the school fees after one year and Paul had to change to a Hebrew primary school. Instructions were in Hebrew and his family was released from paying school fees by the Zionist organisation which was responsible for the school. He went afterwards first to the Romanian state grammar school (language of instruction: Romanian). This school was not very popular with Jewish families, but it was a very reputable school and his parents thought it would help him in his future life. He also started learning French and Latin in this school and did one year Italian. For the last three years he changed to the Ukrainian state grammar school. In this school the majority of the students were Jewish. German played an important role in the education. He continued to learn French and Latin and started Greek and English. During the occupation of Czernowitz by the Russians he learned Russian and was shortly afterwards (in Bukarest) able to work as a translator from Russian into Romanian.

During his free time, he spent much time with his friends. For a short time they belonged to a communist, anti-fascist youth group. He followed the news from Germany closely and in particular the information about increasing antisemitism. They were not only interested in politics, but he also shared his passion for literature with them. In particular Rainer Maria Rilke, but also French writers, like Paul Verlaine played an important role in their conversations. He probably wrote his first poems in 1933. In 1937 / 1938 he started reading his own poems to his friends.

b) Paris and Tours (1938 / 1939)

After the baccalaureate in June 1938 Paul Celan decided to study medicine in Tours, France. He travelled on 9 / 10 November 1938 from Czernowitz via Krakow and Berlin to Paris. You are probably aware of the significance of this date. It was the date of the November pogroms which were organised by the Nazi Party through Germany and Austria. During the week of the pogroms hundreds of Jews were killed, about 300 committed suicide shortly afterwards. Jewish homes, schools, hospitals, shops and synagogues were ransacked and destroyed. In addition about 30,000 Jewish man were arrested and incarcerated in concentration camps. Paul Celan reflected on these events in his poetry and his letters. His poem La Contrescarpe which is included in the collection Die Niemandsrose (“The No-One’s Rose”) mentions this train journey and speaks about “ein Rauch …, der war schon von morgen” (“a smoke which was already from tomorrow”). In a letter to his friend Edith Horowitz he also mentions the smoke which he saw over the tree tops and he adds that he was wondering whether there were synagogues in flame or maybe even human beings.

Paul Celan remained in Paris for a little bit less than three weeks. He stayed in an apartment at Rue des Écoles with Bruno Schrager, an uncle from his mother’s side. His Paris during these weeks was the Paris of a conventional visitor. He had specific ideas what he wanted to see and they visited in particular the Louvre, the Rodin Museum and a performance at the Comédie Française. In a letter to his friend Gustav Chomed he mentions that he had mixed feelings about Paris, because it was so expensive and that he was often sad and heavy-hearted. He told his friend that he then liked to sit in the quietness of a church, often in Notre Dame.

From Paris he travelled on to Tours where he studied at the university. It was a foundation course in physics, chemistry and biology. He returned in July 1939 for the holidays to Czernowitz and thought that he would continue his studies in Tours after the summer.

c) During the World War II (1939 – 1945)

With the beginning of World War II it was impossible for Paul Celan to return to France. He also could not study medicine in Romania. The university of Czernowitz did not have a medical department and in other universities there were heavy restrictions for Jewish students. He therefore decided to begin Romance studies at the university of Czernowitz.

Czernowitz was occupied several times within a short period of time. First on 28 June 1940 Russian troops occupied Czernowitz. Initially this occupation did not have too many negative consequences for the population, but on 13 June 1941 the Russians deported 3,800 people from the North Bukovina to Siberia – 70% of these were Jews. Romania under military dictator Antonescu changed alliance from France and Britain to Germany. On 5 July 1941 Romanian troops retook Czernowitz as a part of the attack of the Axis troops (Germany, Italy, etc.) on Russia. On the next day German troops entered Czernowitz. Within two months the regulations about Jews were implemented. Jews lost their citizen rights, could be called to do unpaid forced labour, had to wear the yellow star and were not allowed to leave their home after 6 pm. Antonescu ordered also the creation of a ghetto in Czernowitz. 45,000 Jews were forced into this ghetto. Many of them were immediately deported. 15,000 Jews received a temporary permission to stay. These were people who had occupations which were important for the functioning of the city. In June 1942 there was a second wave of deportations mainly to Transnistria, an area between the rivers Dnjestr and Bug. The majority of those who were deported to Transnistria died from starvation, exhaustion or were shot by German troops. In April 1944 Czernowitz was again occupied by Russian troops.

Paul Celan and his family were not deported in the first wave of deportations, but they knew that they were at a high risk to be deported in the second wave. Paul Celan tried to convince his parents to go into hiding to avoid deportation, but they were not willing do so. On 14 June 1942 his father and his mother were deported. When he came to their house to which they had returned after the ghetto was dissolved they were not there anymore. He was shortly afterwards sent to a forced labour camp in Tăbăreşti about 100km north of Bukarest. In August 1940 Paul Celan had met and fallen in love with Ruth Lackner. She was only a few years older than he and was an actress at the Yiddish theatre in Czernowitz. He wrote her frequently letters from Tăbăreşti and also included very often his poems in these letters.

Paul Celan’s father died in autumn 1942. It is unclear whether he died from typhus and exhaustion or whether he was shot. It seems that Paul Celan heard about this from a letter from his mother around this time. At the end of 1943 he heard from one of his relatives that also his mother was dead, she was killed by a German soldier through a shot in her neck.

The death of his parents, in particular his beloved mothers, and the Shoah as such influenced his poetry and his life until his death. His Muttersprache (which can be understood in two ways in German as “mother tongue”, but also as his “mother’s language”) became the Mördersprache (the “language of (his mother’s) murderers”). As so many who had survived the Shoah he felt guilty – guilty because he had survived and guilty because he was not able to save his parents. It must have been particularly painful if he compared himself with his school friends, in particular Erich Einhorn whose parents could avoid deportation and Immanuel Weißglas who was deported with his parents, but was able to help them through different camps and could return to Czernowitz with his mother.

After the Russian troops marched into Czernowitz in April 1944, Paul Celan worked for a months as an assistant in a mental hospital (to avoid being subscripted as soldier) and took up his studies at the university in September 1944. This time he focussed on English language studies. He also worked as a translator to earn some money and translated Ukrainian texts into Romanian for a Romanian newspaper. He also made two compilations of his poems, in 1944 and in 1945. When it was clear that Czernowitz would stay with the Soviet Union, he decided to leave and went first to the Romanian capital Bukarest.

d) Bukarest

Paul Celan arrived in Bukarest in June 1945. He brought his two compilations of poetry with him. These included the poem which should become his most famous one Todesfuge (“Death fugue”).

He met in Bukarest many writers and artists, including Romanian surrealists like Ghersim Luca and Paul Păun. The writer Petre Solomon became a close friend. They worked i.a. together on the translation of the Todesfuge into Romanian. On 2 May 1947 the poem was published in the Romanian translation under the title Tangoul morții (“Death tango”) in the magazine “Contemporanul”. Another important friend and mentor became the writer Alfred Margul-Sperber who was born in 1898 and also came from the Bukovina. Margul-Sperber was impressed by Celan’s poetry and gave him a number of letters of recommendation also for literary contacts in particular in Austria and Switzerland.

During his time in Bukarest Paul Celan also changed his name from “Antschel” via “Ancel” to “Celan”. He worked during his time there as a translator and lector for the publishing house “Carte Rusă” which aimed to make old and new Russian literature available to the Romanian public. Paul Celan had to translate a lot of propaganda pieces, but he also made translations from Russian to Romanian of Michail Lermontov’s “Hero of Our Times” and of several novels by Chekhov. For these translations of works which he appreciated he used the name “Ancel” (a Romanian form of Antschel). Alfred Margul-Sperber’s wife Jessica then suggested the anagram “Celan” for the publication of his own poetry.

e) Vienna

Paul Celan was certain that he wanted to write in German and therefore decided that he should try to get to a German speaking country. He thought Austria and in particular Vienna would be right place. He probably left Bukarest in October 1947. To get to Vienna from Bukarest was a difficult and dangerous endeavour. Since May 1947 the border between Austria and Hungary was closed and also the Romanian border was closely guarded. He had to walk much of the way and there was always the risk that he would have been arrested or even shot when trying to cross the borders. He does not give any detail about his journey, but he describes it in a letter to Ruth Lackner as sehr schwere Reise (“very difficult journey”). He arrived in Vienna on 17 December 1947. He first stayed for a few days in a refugees’ camp for “Displaced Persons” and then in different flats and sometimes with friends.

He was able to make a couple of friends in Vienna. One of the most important friendships was the one with the Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann. They met presumably in January 1948 and fell in love with each other. Even so they realised about a year later that they could not live together, the relationship stayed important from a personal but also a literary perspective. In addition he became involved in the surrealist circle in Vienna and participated at a reading in the context of the “First Surrealist Exhibition in Vienna” on 3 April 1948. He read texts by Aragon, Breton, Éluard, but also some of his own poems. A few weeks later was a second event in which he participated. He was also finally able to get some of his poems published in German. Thanks to recommendations by Margul-Sperber Otto Basil included 17 of Celan’s poems in the Viennese magazine Plan and Max Rycher in Zurich included seven of his poems in the magazine Tat (“Deed”). He was sadly not successful with a publication of his poems in book form. The first publisher Erwin Müller embezzled the money which was meant to cover the printing costs. The second publishing house A. Sexl published his book Der Sand aus Urnen (“The Sand from the Urns”). Paul Celan could not read the proofs himself, because he was already on his way to France. He asked friends to do so, but he was so disappointed with the result that he asked the publishing house to destroy all copies, because there were so many printing errors which changed the sense of his poems. In addition he did not like the two lithographs by Edgar Jené which were added.

Paul Celan stayed only seven months in Vienna. He said later “I did not stay long. I did not find what I had hoped to find”. This likely refers to the limited possibilities to get his poetry published, no proper opportunities to earn money and the general atmosphere of Post-war Vienna which was so different from the ideal he had longed for. He certainly also struggled with the half-hearted attempts of Austria of a “denazification” and the still prevailing antisemitism.

3. Paul Celan’s Paris

a) Why Paris?

Why did Paul Celan go to Paris? Probably the fact that he knew the city from a previous stay played a role in this decision. Also he liked French and spoke it fluently. Towards the end of his life, he showed the American student Esther Cameron the house in which Rainer Maria Rilke wrote his book Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (“The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge”) and told her that mainly because of this book he decided to come to Paris.

With this in mind, I decided to visit a few places which are connected with Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) and this novel. Rainer Maria Rilke was an Austrian poet and writer who came from Prague. He had a special relationship with Paris and visited the city between 1902 and 1925 frequently. He wrote Malte Laurids Brigge between 1908 and 1910. During this time he also worked as a private secretary for Auguste Rodin and introduced Rodin to the Hotel Biron, the house which Rodin later bought and which houses now the Rodin Museum in Paris.

b) First years in Paris (1948-1953)

Paul Celan arrived in Paris on 13 July 1948. He did not have any money and was stateless. He also did not know many people, but there were a few friends. One of them was Gabrielle Cordier. She lived in 26 Avenue Dode de la Brunerie (16e). Paul Celan gave her address as an address for correspondence until he had found a place to stay (e.g. in a letter to Ruth Lackner from Innsbruck on 6 July 1948). Once he had arrived, he quickly looked for a room in Rue des Écoles, the same street in which he had stayed with his uncle Bruno Schrager in 1938. He found a cheap room in Hotel d’Orleans, 31 Rue des Écoles (5e). Today there is still a hotel at this address, but it is not any longer Hotel d’Orleans. When I was there the name of the hotel was Hotel Atmosphere and it seemed to be closed (maybe because of Covid-19).

In September 1948 he started studying at the Faculté des Lettre of the Sorbonne University. He did German language studies and linguistics. As a student he received a small scholarship from a Jewish organisation, but money was always tight. He therefore did translations from French into German, including two Maigret stories by Simenon which he did not find particular inspiring. He also worked as a language teacher for German and French. Because of his profound knowledge of German literature he achieved already in 1950 the “licence ès lettres”, but stayed enrolled as a student until 1953 to preserve his residence permit for France.

Paul Celan met his future wife Gisèle de Lestrange in November 1951. It is not entirely clear where they met. Theo Buck mentions in a new biography that they met in St. Germain Quarter. Bertrand Badiou / Barbara Wiedemann mention in their comments to the letters between Paul Celan and Gisèle Celan-Lestrange that they met around 9 November 1951 through Isac Chiva who worked as an ethnologist at Musée des Arts et Traditions Populaires (Place de Trocadero). He was a friend of Paul Celan and Gisèle de Lestrange worked temporarily at the office of the museum. They were in a sense an unlikely couple. Gisèle was not Jewish and she did not speak German. She came from Roman Catholic conservative family which belonged to the French aristocracy. She was a painter and graphic artist. Her family was not very enthusiastic about their relationship but she knew what she wanted and they were both in love with each other. On 23 December 1952 they married at the town hall of the 5th Arrondissement in Paris (just opposite the Pantheon). Only two of her friends were present as witnesses.

Also from a literary perspective 1952 brought changes. Paul Celan got his first poetry collection published in Germany: Mohn und Gedächtnis (“Poppy and Memory”), Deutsche Verlagsanstalt Stuttgart. He made contact with the publishing house on his first visit in Germany since 1938 in May 1952. He was invited to a meeting of the Gruppe 47 (a meeting of German writers invited by Hans Werner Richter which took place between 1947 and 1967) in Niendorf. From a professional point of view this was a successful visit, apart from the contact with the Deutsche Verlagsanstalt Stuttgart, he also made contact with someone from the Hamburg broadcasting house who invited him to a reading of his poems at Radio Hamburg. However, from a personal perspective the meeting was for him deeply disappointing and hurtful. He read during the meeting some of his poems, including Todesfuge. The writers did not really understand his poetry and the poems did not fit to their Realist concept of literature. They laughed about his recitation. Richter commented that the way he read reminded him of Joseph Göbbels, chief propagandist for the Nazi Party. This comment was incredibly insensitive and was highly offending for Paul Celan. He never again went to another Gruppe 47 meeting.

c) Family life and literary successes (1953 – 1960)

After the wedding Gisèle moved initially to him into his room at Hotel d’Orleans, 31 Rue des Écoles. In July they could move into a small apartment at 5 Rue de Lota (16e). This apartment belonged to Gisèle’s family. She was at that time pregnant and gave birth to their son François on 7 October 1953. It was a difficult birth and the physicians probably decided too late that a caesarean was necessary. She survived but their son died after only 30 hours. They were devastated about the death of their son and went on a journey through Italy to get some distraction.

Gisèle’s mother decided in 1955 to withdraw from public life and joined a convent. She sold the house in 5 Rue de Lota and gave all her possession the convent and her daughters. Paul Celan, his wife and their son Claude François Eric, who was born on 6 June 1955, could move into her former home at 29bis Rue de Montevideo (16e). Another positive development was that Paul Celan was finally naturalised as a French citizen on 17 July 1955.

Thanks to an inheritance Gisèle made, the family could move again in November 1957 into a larger apartment at 78 Rue de Longchamp (16e). This apartment stayed their family home for the next ten years.

The late 50s were a busy time for him. His second collection of poetry Von Schwelle zu Schwelle (“From Threshold to Threshold”) was published in 1955 again with Deutsche Verlagsanstalt Stuttgart. It contains 47 poems which he had written after he had met Gisèle. The collection was also dedicated to her. Paul Celan worked from January to May 1956 as a translator in Geneva and also made a number of literary translations, in particular Alexander Block, Arthur Rimbaud and Ossip Mandelstamm.

The reviews of his books were mixed, but he received a number of prestigious literary awards: in 1956 the award of the Kulturkreises des Bundesverband der Deutschen Industrie (“Association of Arts and Culture of the German Economy at the Federation of German Industries”) and on 29 January 1958 the Literary Award of the city Bremen. His third collection of poetry followed in the next year. Sprachgitter (“Speech Grille”) was published in March 1959 with S. Fischer, Frankfurt. It contains 33 poems which had been written between 1955 and 1959.

In autumn 1959 Paul Celan started working twice a week (Tuesday and Wednesday) as Lecteur d’Allemand at the École Normale Supérieure (ENS) at Rue d’Ulm. He enjoyed this work a lot.

d) Goll Affair and mental health problems (1960-1967)

These three photos are photos of the grave of Yvan Goll and Claire Goll. The grave is at the cemetery Père Lachaise just opposite the grave of Frédéric Chopin. The grave in particular of Claire Goll is not one I visited to honour her but rather to document the disgraceful and infamous role she played in Paul Celan’s life.

Paul Celan got to know Yvan and Claire Goll in November 1949. His mentor Margul-Sperber had given him a letter of recommendation. Yvan Goll was a writer and poet who described himself as “a Jew by fate, born in France by coincidence and a German national by a stamped paper”. He wrote his poems mainly in French, but there is also one collection Traumkraut (“Dream herb”) with German poems which he put together at the time when they met. Initially they had a very warm and friendly relationship. Yvan Goll was suffering from leukaemia and Celan brought his poems and even donated blood for Yvan Goll. Yvan and Claire Goll were impressed by Celan’s poems and asked him repeatedly to translate Yvan Goll’s poems from French into German. Yvan Goll died on 27 February 1950. Intially Claire Goll liked Celan’s translations, but then took absolute control over the publishing of her husbands poems. She claimed suddenly that his translations were useless because they sounded too much like Celan’s own poems. Nevertheless, she used his translations extensively without giving credit to Celan. Paul Celan was annoyed by that, but initially did not take things further.

This changed in the following years. From 1954 onwards Claire Goll alleged that Paul Celan had plagiarised her husband’s work, in particular the German poems in Traumkraut. These allegations culminated in 1960. Claire Goll published an article Unbekanntes über Paul Celan (“Unknown points about Paul Celan”) in the magazine Baubudenpoet. She renewed in this article not only her plagiarism allegations, but also casted doubts on his personal story. She wrote

Seine traurige Legende, die er so tragisch zu erzählen wusste, hatte uns erschüttert: die Eltern von den Nazis getötet, heimatlos, …

(„His sad legend which he knew to tell so tragically, had shattered us: his parents killed by the Nazis, homeless…”).

This article alone in a very minor magazine would probably not have received much public attention. However, the literary pages of many newspapers willingly took up the allegations and published several detailed articles – each time without proper research. Otherwise they would have noticed that many of the poems which were allegedly plagarised were in fact older than Yvan Goll’s poems and they would have also noticed that Claire Goll manipulated her husbands poems to make them sound more like Paul Celan’s poems. These hostile allegations seem to be welcome to some critics, in particular those who did not want to acknowledge the historic background of Paul Celan’s poems and questions of guilt or responsibility which came with it. Even before Goll’s allegations they liked to misunderstand his poems. They either praised them as “pure poetry” and tried to distance them from the historical truth or spoke about “arbitrary metaphors” in his poems so that they did not have to confront the Shoah, the mass murderer of the Jews, which is so present in many of his poems.

For Paul Celan these allegations became more and more unbearable and it made him question the loyalty of many of his friends who did not defended him as passionately as he had hoped for. For him these allegations were an attack on his work and his person which ultimately tried to annihilate his existence (as poet) and his poetry. He felt that they continued an endeavour which the Nazis during the Third Reich did not manage to do. He certainly sensed the still prevailing antisemitism of many of the allegations to which the stereotype of the Jew who can only copy but cannot be creative fitted too well.

Even high honours like the prestigious and important Büchner award which he received on 22 October 1960 could not give him much comfort.

The poems in his next book Niemandsrose (The “No-One’s Rose”), published by S. Fischer, Frankfurt in autumn 1963 can be read against the background of the Goll allegations. The book contain 53 poems which he had written between 1959 and 1963.

By the end of 1962 Paul Celan got seriously ill. He spent two weeks from 31 December 1962 until 17 January 1963 in a mental hospital in Èpinay-sur-Seine (near Paris). This was just the first of several stays over the next years. All in all he spent about two years in different mental hospitals until his death and struggled not only with his mental health, but also with the medication and the often drastic treatments he had to endure.

I have written already more about this topic than I should. However, if you are interested in the so-called “Goll affair” (and if you speak German), then I can recommend the excellent book Paul Celan – Die Goll-Affäre by Barbara Wiedemann which includes the newspaper articles, letters and poems and very instructive explanations.

e) Final years and suicide (1967-1970)

Gisèle Celan-Lestrange did all she could to support her husband in these terrible and difficult times. In February 1967 he tried to commit suicide and she also feared for her security and the security of her son, because in one episode of his mental illness he had threatened her and him. After another stay in a mental hospital he did not return to the family apartment in 78 Rue de Longchamp (16e), but moved in November 1967 into a small apartment in 24 Rue Tournefort (5e) which is just a few steps away from ENS where he continued to work. It was also close to the Place de la Contrescarpe and the restaurant La Chope which he liked to visit.

It is remarkable that Paul Celan continued to write poetry. In autumn 1967 his poetry collection Atemwende (“Breathturn”) was published and in October 1968 Fadensonnen (“Threadsuns”). He also put together manuscripts for other collections like Lichtzwang (“Lightduress”), Schneepart (“Snowpart”), Zeitgehöft (“Timestead”) and Eingedunkelt (“Benighted”) which were all published after his death. He also continued to travel, including a trip to Israel in 1969, and read his poetry in public.

On 6 November 1969 he moved a last time in an apartment in 6 Avenue Émile Zola (15e). From this house it is only a few steps to the Seine and to Pont Mirabeau – the bridge about which Guillaume Apollinaire had written a famous poem. Paul Celan committed suicide most likely in the night of 19 to 20 April 1970. It is assumed that he went into the Seine from Pont Mirabeau. He did not leave a note, but a biography about Hölderlin was open on his desk with the following sentence from a letter by Clemens Brentano about Hölderlin underlined:

Manchmal wird dieser Genius dunkel und versinkt in den bitteren Brunnen seines Herzens.

(“Sometimes this genius gets dark and sinks in the bitter wells of his heart”)

Paul Celan’s body was found on 1 May at Courbevoie 10km downstream from Paris.

f) Paul Celan’s grave at Thiais Cemetery

On 12 May 1970 Paul Celan was buried at Thiais Cemetery. It was a burial without any religious ceremony. His wife chose this cemetery, because also their son François had been buried here in October 1953. Gisèle Celan-Lestrange who died in 1991 is now also buried here.

Thiais Cemetery is the newest of the three Parisian cemeteries extra muros and it is the second largest cemetery of Paris. It is located in a banlieue southwest of the city of Paris. Apart from Paul Celan also the Austrian-Jewish writer Joseph Roth who died 1939 in exile in Paris is buried here.

g) Monument for Paul Celan in Anne Frank Garden

Even so Paul Celan lived for more than 20 years in Paris, there was for a long time no monument for him, no street or place named after him and not even a plaque on one of the houses in which he lived. Since 2016 there is finally a monument for him by the German sculptor Alexander Polzin. It is called “Hommage à Paul Celan” and it is in the Anne Frank Garden near Centre Pompidou. The monument shows two figures: a pregnant women and a man who is arching backwards. There is a sign with Paul Celan’s poem Nachmittag mit Zirkus and Zitadelle (“Afternoon with circus and citadel”) which Paul Celan wrote in 1961 and which was published as part of Niemandsrose (“The No-One’s Rose”). You can find more information about the sculpture in this article.

I am delighted that there is now such a monument, but I had to notice that it is a little bit hidden away, it is a little bit overgrown and the dates on the brass plaque are incorrect (it gives 1921 as birth year instead of 1920).

h) Résidence Concordia, 41 Rue Tournefort (5e)

Since October 2020 there is another place which honours and remembers Paul Celan. It is a fresco on the ceiling of the common room at Résidence Concordia, 41 Rue Tournefort (5e), a student accommodation. It was realised by Mathilde Torteau, Marianna Faleri, Raphaël Roche, Éloi Regnier, Sami Haj-Chehade in collaboration with Giulia Puzzo et Giulia Gregori. The fresco uses Paul Celan’s poem Aus dem Moorboden (“From the marsh soil”) which he wrote on 19 July 1968 in his apartment Rue Tournefort and which is included in the collection Schneepart and the French translation of this poem by Jean-Pierre Lefebvre. You can find more information about the project in this French article.

4. Conclusion

I remember when I first read a poem by Paul Celan. It was in my final year at school and it was his famous Todesfuge (Death Fugue). I remember that I was so fascinated by the poem and the person that I wanted to know more about him. In 1990 / 1991 I could not find a comprehensive biography about him. There was Israel Chalfen’s Paul Celan. Eine Biographie seiner Jugend („Paul Celan. A biography of his youth”) which focusses on his time in Czernowitz. There were also a couple of collections of correspondence available. The first comprehensive biography I bought and read was John Felstiner’s book “Paul Celan. Poet, Survivor, Jew” which was published in 1995 in USA. I bought it in the same year when I was as visiting scholar in Berkeley and discovered it by chance. Felstiner included many poems by Celan and I remember that I read the biography and had the German poems next to me so that I could read the German poem and Felstiner’s English translations.

30 years later, there is a plethora of books about Paul Celan (certainly in German). I took many details from Theo Buck’s excellent biography Paul Celan which was published (in German) last year. In addition to the many German books which were published to mark the centenary of his birth, there are also a few in English which were published in the last years which I want to mention: two bilingual editions of Paul Celan’s poetry translated into English by Pierre Joris: “Memory Rose into Threshold Speech: The Collected Earlier Poetry: A Bilingual Edition” and “Breathturn into Timestead: The Collected Later Poetry: A Bilingual Edition”, Jean Dave’s book “Under the Dome: Walks with Paul Celan” (translated from French) and Petre Solomon’s “Paul Celan: The Romanian Dimension” (translated from Romanian, already published in November 2018).

I want to close this post with a link to a very special event. Last year the head of state of Germany, Bundespräsident Frank-Walter Steinmeier (or rather his office) organised an evening to honour Paul Celan. You can find the text of Steinmeier’s speech in German, but also in a English, French, Hebrew and Ukrainian translation here. Because of Covid-19 the event did not have a live audience, but the whole remarkable evening is available as a video clip and I recommend this video highly. It includes a speech by Paul Celan’s son Eric Celan, video and audio takes of Paul Celan reading his poetry and much more. I think it is a very worthy event to honour Paul Celan equally as “one of the greatest poets of German language” (Steinmeier) and “a poet of Europe” (Steinmeier).


2 thoughts on “Paul Celan’s Paris

  1. Thank you to everyone who looked at my blog post. I had an interesting conversation with @elisahategan on Twitter. She said “I take issue only with Paul being a German. His roots/family/DNA are East European, his tongue & torment was German”.

    I think this comment is based on a misunderstanding of my intentions. I did not intend to say that Paul Celan was “a German”. He was obviously not. However, I said he was a “German poet”. I thought about the first heading of the post for a long time and even considered using a question mark after “Paul Celan – a German poet”. I decided against it and I am happy to explain the reasons for it.
    There are two main reasons:

    1. If one speaks about literature, the primary focus is – in my opinion – the language in which this literature is written. I speak of him as a “German poet”, because he wrote in German. I think he is also a good example of the limitations of speaking about nationality. Paul Celan was Romanian, because the Bukovina belonged to Romania in 1920. Would he have been an Austrian poet, if had been born two or three years earlier and did he become a Russian poet, when Czernowitz became part of the Soviet Union and then a French poet after his naturalisation or is he after all a Jewish poet? The historical and cultural background of a writer is without doubt important, but I still think the language is the most important classification for literature. I recently read an interesting interview with the critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki from 1988 in which he uses the same line of argument. He is asked about “Jewish literature”. He says that he does not know what “Jewish literature” is supposed to mean. He mentions that there are many writers who wrote in German and wrote against their experience of being Jewish, but, for him, they still wrote “German literature” in “German language”. He adds that he would also not speak about Austrian and Swiss literature, but rather of German (language) literature to which Austrian and Swiss writers made important contributions.

    2. The second reason why I call Paul Celan “a German poet”, and did it so emphatically, is because his place in German literature is rightfully directly next to Lessing, Goethe, Schiller, Kleist, Büchner, Heine, Hölderlin and also Rilke and Kafka.
    The critic Günter Blöcker wrote 1959 a review about “Sprachgittter”. He says in this article that Paul Celan has more freedom towards the German language than many of his poetry writing colleagues (“der deutschen Sprache gegenüber größere Freiheit als die meisten seiner dichtenden Kollegen”). He continues and says that this can be explained with Paul Celan’s “origin”/ “background”. According to Blöcker, the need of language as a medium for communication hinders and inhibits Paul Celan less than others. That is something he criticised in him and says that he is acting in the void (“Das mag an seiner Herkunft liegen. Der Kommunikationscharakter der Sprache hemmt und belastet hin weniger als andere. Freilich wird er gerade dadurch oftmals verführt, im Leeren zu agieren”). By this review, Blöcker denied Paul Celan’s belonging to the German language area and questioned the reference of the poems to facts and to the truth. Paul Celan felt the antisemitism behind the statement and saw the review in the general context of Claire Goll’s allegation and his desperate attempts to defend himself against them (see i.a. his handwritten note which he presumably made in the train, 10 May 1960, included in Wiedemann: Paul Celan – Die Goll Affäre, page 410)
    If I call him a “German poet”, I want to emphasise that today there is no basis and no way to dispute his position in the context of and his belonging to “German literature”.


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