Today is the birthday of Paul Celan, born November 23, 1920.
Born into a Jewish family in Eastern Europe, Celan bore witness to the atrocities of World War II while in his 20's, the most cataclysmic being the deportation and murder of his parents. Celan escaped from a forced labor camp, living in Bucharest and Vienna before settling in Paris. Though familiar with at least six languages, and fluent in Russian, French, and Romanian, he continued to write poetry in his native German.
During and immediately following World War II, Celan’s poetry contained some of literature's strongest verse capable of reflecting the war and the Holocaust. His later poems often contain brief, fractured lines and stanzas, with compressed and unpredictable imagery, with the forms of the poems echoing the difficulty of finding language for the experiences he witnessed. About confronting the horrors he witnessed during the war he wrote:
Only one thing remained reachable, close and secure amid all losses: language. Yes, language. In spite of everything, it remained secure against loss. But it had to go through its own lack of answers, through terrifying silence, through the thousand darknesses of murderous speech. It went through. It gave me no words for that was happening, but went through it. Went through and could resurface, ‘enriched’ by it all.
Celan lived in Paris until his suicide by drowning in April 1970.
In Kohln, a town of monks and bones,
And pavements fang'd with murderous stones
And rags, and hags, and hideous wenches;
I counted two and seventy stenches,
All well defined, and several stinks!
Ye Nymphs that reign o'er sewers and sinks,
The river Rhine, it is well known,
Doth wash your city of Cologne;
But tell me, Nymphs, what power divine
Shall henceforth wash the river Rhine?