Are some things too unspeakable for words? The German philosopher Theodor Adorno famously thought so. “Cultural criticism finds itself faced with the final stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism,” he wrote shortly after World War II when the full horror of the Jewish catastrophe began to emerge. “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” The British critical polymath George Steiner agreed. “The world of Auschwitz lies outside speech, as it lies outside reason. To speak of the unspeakable is to risk the survival of language.”
This week, with the world commemorating the victims of the Holocaust, as happens each spring, it may be propitious to re-examine whether Adorno and Steiner were right.
One poet—and one poem—suggests they were wrong. The poet was Paul Celan, the poem Todesfuge.
Celan was almost certainly the greatest European poet of the post-war era, and after Rilke, the greatest German-language poet of the twentieth century. And Todesfuge (Death Fugue)—first published in a Bucharest newspaper in May, 1947, two years before Adorno issued his cultural diktat—is widely considered the Guernica of post-war European literature, and in the words of one of Celan’s biographers, “has drawn more passionate attention than any other poem from the war.”
Todesfuge was originally written in Romanian, and translated by its polyglot author into German, his preferred literary language. It is about life in a Nazi death camp written from an inmate’s perspective—and about a blue-eyed German “master” who rules it.
Der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland
Sein Auge ist Blau
Er trifft dich mit bleierner Kugel
Er trifft dich genau.
death is a master from Germany his eyes are blue
he strikes you with leaden bullets his aim is true
When heard, Todesfuge works on the ear much like music, possessing the repetitive architecture of a baroque fugue. And the poem's haunting central image is also essentially a musical one in which Jewish prisoners are forced to dig their own graves while others are ordered by the guards to “entertain” them by playing music. Celan's original title in Romanian was “Tango of Death.”
The poem is complex, allusive, compressed, and steeped in both German and Jewish themes. The “dance of death” rhythm suggests some half-remembered medieval rhyme, or the mordant early nineteenth century works of Heinrich Heine. Throughout the six stanzas, specifically German references are woven together with Jewish ones. Der Meister aus Deutschland for instance, has his “golden-haired Margarete”—a central character in Goethe's Faust—while “we,” the prisoners in the camp, have our “ashen-haired Shulamith,” who comes from the “Song of Songs,” by way of the crematorium.
Paul Antschel—his original last name, Celan being a nom de plume and a phonetic anagram he adopted in later life—was born into a German speaking middle-class Jewish family in 1920 in Cernauti, Romania, in the multi-lingual hinterland of the former Habsburg empire. He grew up speaking Romanian, Yiddish, Russian, Hebrew—later adding English and French. But it was the German language that he loved—and sought with great effort to use to his exacting purpose, in the process partly re-inventing it.
Right from the outset of the war, things in Cernauti—especially for its many Jews—got ugly. As part of the Molotov Ribbentrop pact in 1940 Stalin took over the city and the former Romanian province of Bukovina. A few months later—after the Nazi invasion of Russia—the SS Einsatzkommandos arrived. Egged on by the Nazis, Romanian ant-Semites burned down the town's six-hundred year old synagogue, and began rounding up the Jews, at first herding them into a ghetto, where Celan occupied himself translating Shakespeare. In1942, the Romanian fascists and the SS began the deportations. In June they came for Celan’s parents, Leo and Fritzi Antschel. Both were dead by year’s end, his father from typhus and his mother from a bullet through her skull. Celan himself somehow managed to escape, though was later taken to a German labor camp where he survived until his liberation by the Red Army early in 1944. He then returned to Cernauti—by then reoccupied by the Soviets—where he worked for a while as a psychiatric nurse.
It was there, in the summer of that year, under Soviet occupation, that early versions of Todesfuge began to circulate. His need to communicate led to impromptu readings in the street. Some—knowing he had never been in an extermination camp—wondered where his images and ideas came from. In particular they wondered about the macabre image of music making as an accompaniment to extinction. In the poem, he has the master from Germany calling out “jab deeper into the earth you lot you others sing now and play ”
Rumors of the full horror and extent of the Final Solution had seeped into the press in the U.S. and Britain, but until the summer of 1944, there was no actual proof. There was a feeling that the stories that were being told were greatly embellished exaggerations designed to drum up allied support. The first allied troops to actually set eyes on a gas chamber—and hear eyewitness accounts of the mass liquidation of millions—were Russian. They were advance units of Marshal Rokossovsky's 1st Soviet Army that reached Lublin and the extermination camp at Majdanek in south east Poland on July 23, 1944. Majdanek was thus the first of the six Polish extermination camps to be liberated. Embedded with Rokossovsky was the best known Soviet war correspondent, of the time’—Konstantin Simonov. Simonov remained behind in the camp for days interviewing survivors as well as SS guards. He filed a report a week later telling the world for the first time what had happened at Majdanek (and by implication elsewhere) which was published in early August in the Soviet army paper Red Star. His story, entitled “Extermination Camp,” caused a Soviet sensation but was ignored in the West. (A “typical Soviet propaganda stunt” the BBC called it in an internal memo, refusing to broadcast a report recorded by its own correspondent who had been specially flown to the Eastern front by the Russians). Simonov even included details of how some prisoners had been given musical instruments and taught to play the tango and the fox trot while other inmates were made to dig their own graves.
His account, in the form of a pamphlet put out by the army, must have reached the civilian population in Soviet controlled Cernauti—and thus Celan—in mid-August. We know that a month later his poem had very largely taken shape. Since it was not until November that the next of the six Polish extermination camps, Treblinka, was uncovered by the Russians (an event grippingly described by Vasily Grossman, another of the great Soviet war correspondents, and later the paramount novelist of his generation), one must assume it was from Simonov's writings, and his writings alone, that Celan drew most of his facts. There was no other source that summer, being too early to have heard from returning survivors.
After a communist government began to emerge in Romania, Celan fled to Vienna for a while, before settling in 1948 in Paris. For years there he made his living working as a translator—in particular of the works of Russian dissident poet Osip Mandelstam—while his own work received scant recognition. (When Primo Levi’s memoir, Survival in Auschwitz—now regarded as a classic—was published in 1947, it too was ignored). In 1953, Celan was invited to read Todesfuge to the award committee of the prestigious West German literary assembly, Gruppe 47, which included such luminaries as Günter Grass and Heinrich Boll. They spurned it, finding it dense, obscure, and unworthy of their prize. But by the end of that decade, German critical sentiment began to shift, in part because of much championing of his work by his lover, the acclaimed Austrian poet Ingeborg Bachmann. Slowly, but inexorably, recognition came. In 1958 he was finally awarded one of the country’s leading literary accolades, the Bremen Prize for German Literature. In his acceptance speech, Celan was finally able publically to repudiate Adorno:
“Only one thing remained reachable amid all the loss language,” he told the audience. “In spite of everything language remained secure against loss. But it had to endure its own failure to find answers. Through terrifying silence it endured. It could not describe what was happening, but nevertheless survived, resurfacing enriched.”
Nellie Sachs, the German language poet who won the Nobel Prize in 1966 for her Holocaust poetry, once said, “If I had not been able to write I would not have survived”. Celan, like his friend Primo Levi, was tormented by the fact that he did survive, while others, like his parents, whom he felt he should have been able to save, did not. Both men eventually took their own lives, Celan by drowning himself in the Seine, aged 49.
As for Adorno, he finally recanted. “I was wrong to say no poem could be written after Auschwitz,” he wrote in the nineteen sixties, by then greatly influenced by his admiration for Celan. “Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as the tortured have to scream.”April 13, 2010
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