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Born as Paul Antschel to a Jewish family in Czernowitz, Romania (now a part of Ukraine), Paul Celan became one of the major German-language poets of the post-World War II era. Much of Celan’s writings are autobiographical, reflecting the personal anguish and turmoil inflicted upon Celan and his family during the years of Nazi occupation. On the night of June 21, 1942 (while Celan was away from home) his parents were taken and sent to an internment camp in Transnistria Governorate. There, his father succumbed to the sub-human living conditions and his mother was shot after becoming exhausted from forced labor. Celan learned of their death after having himself been expelled from his home to a labor camp in Romania, where he remained imprisoned until February 1944, when Soviet advances forced the abandonment of the Romanian camps. He would return to Czernowitz where he served as a nurse in a mental hospital, surrounded by the often unseen damage resulting from torment and abuse.
The death of Celan’s parents and the experience of The Holocaust are defining forces in his poetry and in his use of language. It has been suggested that writing in German was a way for him to remember his parents, particularly his mother, who taught him the language.
Celan’s PSALM, translated here by Michael Hamberger, is less a reflection of his experiences during the war and more of a realization of the effects of those events on one’s relationship with God. On the surface, Celan’s Psalm is anti-creator—“No one moulds us…no one conjures our dust…Praised be your name, no one.” Celan even represents God as a villainous “thorn” ravaging the heaven-gazing stamen of our rose. Celan’s words, however, do not attempt to negate the existence of an almighty from an atheist perspective. Celan instead reflects an understandable bitterness towards a God who seemingly abandoned so many during a time when they pleaded for His mercy. Celan’s Psalm, therefore, is not anti-creator, but a powerful insight into the struggles of individual faith when juxtaposed against a reality of persistent vitriol.
Celan committed suicide by drowning in the Seine river in Paris in April, 1970.
No one moulds us again out of earth and clay,
no one conjures our dust.
Praised be your name, no one.
For your sake
we shall flower.
we were, are, shall
the nothing-, the
no one's rose.
our pistil soul-bright,
with our stamen heaven-ravaged,
our corolla red
with the crimson word which we sang
over, O over
Text from "Poems of Paul Celan: A Bilingual German/English Edition, Revised Edition"
Translated by Michael Hamburger, Copyright © 2002 by Persea Books, New York
Original words by Paul Celan from "Die Niemandrose", Copyright © 1963 by S. Fisher Verlag, Frankfurt