“Perhaps I am one of the last who must live out to the end the destiny of the Jewish spirit in Europe.” Why “must”? Writing from Paris in August 1948 to relatives in the new state of Israel, Paul Celan, having barely survived the “Final Solution” expedited by Nazism, explains that a poet cannot stop writing, “even when he is a Jew and the language of his poems is German.”
This fateful pledge, from a brutally orphaned son whose stirring 1945 ballad, “Deathfugue,” intones “Death is a master from Deutschland” and threads “your ashen hair Shulamith” into the Bible’s Song of Songs, throws light across a recently discovered exchange of letters between Celan and the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai.
For decades I’d known that during Celan’s 1969 visit to Israel, Amichai had hosted a reception for the much-revered, much-troubled survivor poet, and had introduced him at a Jerusalem reading. Meanwhile in Celan’s Paris library, I’d seen an inscribed collection of Amichai’s poetry. One afternoon in their home in March 2005, Yehuda’s widow, Hana Amichai, mentioned she’d come across a letter from Celan in Yale’s Amichai archive. Stunning news! I voiced a crude spontaneous translation from the German for her, but she wasn’t allowed to make me a copy. Once home I did get a copy from Yale, absorbed it, and began wondering, Maybe Yehuda answered this? Sure enough, the Marbach Archive unearthed his response, and this (to me) momentous exchange was revived.
Born to German-speaking parents in Czernowitz, Bukovina, an eastern outpost of the Austrian Empire, Celan survived nineteen months at forced labor, eventually taking exile in Paris. There by hard degrees he became Europe’s most challenging postwar poet. His first and only journey to Israel, in October 1969, had long been deferred for fear of yet another exile from the mother tongue. Now, in Jerusalem, he finds a fellow exile who’d so fortunately left Europe before the war. And other such figures are there, like the Bukovina-born poet Dan Pagis. In Jerusalem, Amichai, who’d left Germany as a boy with his family in 1936, welcomes Celan in his home overlooking the ancient valley across from Mount Zion.
In Hana and Yehuda Amichai’s kitchen on October 8, 1969, Celan gives a radio interview. “I think that themes alone don’t suffice to define what’s Jewish,” he remarks. “Jewishness is so to speak a spiritual concern as well”—his word “spiritual” being pneumatisch, “pneumatic,” where pneuma/wind calls up the Hebrew ruach, as when God’s breath hovers over the deep. Celan also stresses his Germanic culture: “Rilke was very important to me, and afterward Kafka.”
For a reading the next day, Amichai translates some poems of Celan’s into Hebrew. “From time to time [Celan] surprised us by commenting that we could be more precise,” says Shmuel Huppert, the interviewer. “He would suggest some other root, which was stored in his memory.” Amichai also inscribes a recent collection of his own verse for Celan, in Hebrew, “with much love.” Celan later examines this book closely.
At the Jerusalem reading on October 9, Amichai and the poet Manfred Winkler present Celan. An overflow crowd, including refugees and survivors from his homeland, alarms Celan, but his reading in German overwhelms them. In one poem he binds what happened in Nazi-ridden Europe, his parents murdered in a Ukrainian winter, to his struggle for a fit language: “Just like the wind that rebuffs you, / packed round your word is the snow.”
Afterward the audience clamors for “Deathfugue,” but Celan declines. He ends by reciting a June 1967 Six-Day-War poem of intense thanksgiving for “this piece of / habitable earth, / again suffered up into life”:
Just think: this came toward me, name-awake, hand-awake for ever, from the unburiable.
A week later in Tel Aviv, thinking of the biblical tongue revived as national vernacular, Celan tells the Hebrew Writers Association: “I take joy in every newly earned, self-discovered, fulfilled word that rushes up to strengthen those who turn toward it.”
Once back in “this cold city Paris,” Celan is elated at having dwelt in a free state—“No ghetto!”—with children chattering in Hebrew. At the same time, his utter loss of family and homeland, his psychic wounds and postwar anxieties, twist and strain these sentences addressed to modern Hebrew’s leading poet.
6, Avenue Emile Zola (15e) Paris, 7 xi 1969
Dear Yehuda Amichai,
You would have had these lines long since, but I’d forgotten to make a note of your address and so first I needed to check with a friend in Tel Aviv.
For me it’s a most heartfelt need to tell you how happy I was to meet you, you and your poems, how glad I was to be with you.
I’m truly ashamed that I can find my way into your Hebrew poems only with the aid of English translations. But I’ve a strong impression it’s just this, finding my way, that affords me what’s most poetic. What really belongs to you in your poems comes through with the most convincing, most conspicuous force. You are the poem you write, the poem you write is . . . you yourself. —Right away I loaned the English selection of your work to my friend André du Bouchet, who writes poems as well, and to my great joy what had struck me came through to him too. Now this book is going round to other contributors and editors of the magazine L’Ephémère (I’m also among them). We’d be delighted to bring out a book of yours in French translation—is there someone in Jerusalem or elsewhere who’s translated you into French, or could do so?
Unfortunately I can’t offer you something similar where the German language is concerned: for a long time now I’ve not contributed to any German-language magazine. The changes that have happened there—involving not only the publishers’ mindset, though of course it’s that above all—they’ve blocked my access. But as for radio, I’d certainly find one way or another—let me know about this? Manfred Winkler meant to send me, through my Tel Aviv friend David Seidmann, some German versions of Hebrew lyrics, including yours, but so far he hasn’t done it.
Dear Yehuda Amichai, let me here say again what came to my lips spontaneously, in our conversation: I cannot imagine the world without Israel, and I will not imagine it without Israel. That I would wish to see this kept personal, not public, you no doubt understand: that way it acts with all its intensity. With your person and your poems, you too make me think of this over and over.
Celan’s visit to Israel buoyed him, to the point that he imagined resettling there. But his letter, written only three weeks afterward, suggests why that did not happen. For one thing, this linguistic genius makes a point of playing down his competent Hebrew. As a child he’d gone to Hebrew day school and became bar mitzvah in 1933. His poems over the years often embed a key Hebrew word or phrase. The Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld, born on the same street where Celan lived in Czernowitz, recalls that Celan’s Hebrew in Jerusalem was good. His script was fluent too. Reuniting with Ilana Shmueli, a childhood friend who’d emigrated after the war, “He remembered Hebrew quotations, and came up suddenly with difficult words and sentences.” And a few months after this letter, he translated the Hebrew poems of a German-born Israeli poet, David Rokeah.
Why such diffidence about the holy tongue? Born in 1920, Celan witnessed the rise of Romanian and German anti-Semitism. With Nazism rampant in 1938, his father opted not to leave, and Paul went to study in France. In 1945, although—or precisely because—his mother tongue had overnight turned into his mother’s murderers’ tongue, he forged ahead writing in German. Friends asked, Why not write in his well nigh perfect Romanian or French? The poet clung to his lifeline: “Only in the mother tongue can one speak one’s own truth.”
Amichai also had a German-Hebrew upbringing, but he emigrated to Palestine before the war. So an encounter between the much-loved, iconic Israeli poet, and the poet spoken of in the same breath with Hölderlin and Rilke, must have been fraught, daunting. Living out the destiny of the Jewish spirit in Europe was a staunch task, Celan’s life’s work. Chipping away at the truth in German, in yet another exile, even the Promised Land, would be something else.
In Celan’s letter to Amichai we have the discreet cri de coeur of a poet surviving through his (and his new friend’s) mother tongue, while encountering the challenge of Hebrew in the person and poetry of Amichai. Two sentences betray Celan’s struggle to get something crucial said. In tortuous German, one half-sentence says: “What really belongs to you in your poems comes through with the most convincing, most conspicuous force.” Uprooting and transplanting to Israel might dissipate his own force.
The other sentence derives from Celan’s oblique sense of Israel, at once apprehensive yet remote. Recrudescent German anti-Semitism after 1945, plus a bogus charge of plagiarism, had terribly exacerbated his wartime trauma while stiffening his resolve. Persecution mania and mental breakdowns brought long spells in French clinics. Telling Amichai he will not imagine a world without Israel, Celan then feels he must withdraw a little: “That I would wish to see this kept personal, not public, you no doubt understand: that way it acts with all its intensity.”
A month later Amichai writes back, immediately testing Celan’s stake in him. The Israeli aligns his own destiny, in a nation welded to its revivified tongue, with the diaspora poet’s desperate grasp on a mother tongue. In slightly unaccustomed German, Amichai then touches Celan’s genius as a writer exposing human experience in its molten form.
Dear Paul Celan,
I was overjoyed at your letter. It’s truly a heavy yoke you lay on me, to carry all of Israel on my shoulders. Anyone who writes in Hebrew binds his own existence with that of the language and the people. Israel’s downfall would mean the downfall of my language. All the more so, with no consolation in the permanence of the written word, of the spirit.
Dear Paul Celan, I frankly envy the way your art renders word and image objective (with extremest subjectivity!). My poetry, which holds forth in what’s real and is prompted pragmatically by events, stands in envy of yours. My images are only the clatter of chainlinks that tie me to life’s happenings.
As far as translations are concerned, I joined up with Winkler. Alas I haven’t yet found a French translator for my poems.
With best regards to you and please write me again or do come back here from time to time.
Celan did not come back. Four months after receiving this letter, living apart from his wife Gisèle and son Eric, he walked from his Avenue Emile Zola apartment and (apparently) drowned himself in the Seine. Amichai wrote an elegy that begins:
Toward the end the words grew fewer and every word turned so heavy in your body that God laid you down like a heavy load, maybe just for a moment, to take a breather and wipe his brow.
Commentary and translation copyright 2008 John Felstiner. Paul Celan’s letter, from the Beinecke Collection at Yale University, is published with permission of Eric Celan and Suhrkamp Verlag. Yehuda Amichai’s letter, from the Deutsches Literaturarchiv, is published with permission of Hana Amichai. All rights reserved.