1920: 'Black Milk': A Guilt-wracked Poet Who Would Write About the Holocaust Is Born

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Paul Celan (1920-1970) survived the Holocaust but not the memories: He drowned himself in the Seine, leaving behind seven published volumes of poetry and three readying for publication.
Paul Celan (1920-1970) survived the Holocaust but not the memories.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

November 23, 1920, is the birthdate of the poet Paul Celan, a Romanian-born, German-speaking Jew who survived the Holocaust and went on to write some of the most powerful poetry about the experience before his tragic death at the age of 49.

He was born Paul Antschel in the cosmopolitan city of Czernowitz, Bukovina province, formerly part of the Austrian Empire, but after 1918 in the newly independent Romania. Czernowitz, or Cernauti in Romanian, was a multi-cultural and multi-lingual town, some half of whose 110,000 residents were Jews.

Paul’s father, Leo Antschel, who made his living as a lumber broker, was a Zionist who aspired to move to Palestine, and insisted that Paul attend a Hebrew-speaking middle school. His mother, the former Friederike Schrager, known as Fritzi, passed on her deep love of German literature to her only son.

While traveling through Berlin

Following his bar mitzvah, in 1933, Paul lost interest in Jewish life, though he felt the identity: In a 1934 letter addressed to an aunt in Palestine, he wrote: "With regard to anti-Semitism in our school, I could write you a 300-page book. But he dropped out of his Zionist youth group to become active in a radical, anti-fascist organization, supporting causes like that of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War.

Paul began writing poetry while he was a student at the Great Prince Mihai Preparatory School, in Czernovitz. His first known poem was entitled “Mother’s Day 1938.”

An early 20th-century postcard depicting the Czernowitz Synagogue.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

After graduating high school, in 1938, Paul traveled to Tours, France, to begin premedical studies. (By then, Jews were not accepted to medical studies in Romania.) His train trip west took him through Berlin on November 10, 1938, where he saw the results of Kristallnacht, which had happened the previous night.

He returned to Romania in the summer of 1939, after which the tense political situation in Europe made it impossible for him to return to France. Instead, he began to study literature and Romance languages in his hometown.

At the start of World War II, Bukovina was occupied by the Soviets, who were replaced by the Germans after the latter declared war on the USSR. When the Germans entered Czernovitz, in July 1941, they burned down the Great Synagogue, confined the Jews to a ghetto, and began deportations.

Black milk of morning

Paul Celan reading his own poem, TodesfugeCredit: YouTube

Paul tried unsuccessfully to convince his parents to go into hiding. When they were arrested, on June 21, 1942, and sent to an internment camp in Transnistria, he was away from home. Later he was sent to a labor camp. He continued to write poetry.

Both Leo and Fritzi Antschel died in captivity, and their son was deeply affected when he received the news, and was tormented by guilt for the rest of his life.

After the Red Army liberated Bukovina, in the spring of 1944, Celan first returned to Czernowitz, and the following year moved to Bucharest, where he began translating Russian literature into Romanian. He also started publishing poetry, using the pseudonym “Celan,” an anagram of his family name “Ancel” (the Romanian spelling of Antschel).

By 1948, when Celan moved to Paris, he had already published what is now considered his greatest poem, “Todesfuge” (Death Fugue) https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/death-fugue, with the lines, “Black milk of morning we drink you at night / we drink you at noontime / Death is a gang-boss aus Deutschland his eye is blue / he shoots you with leaden bullets his aim is true.”

With proficiency in seven languages, Celan made his living as a translator and teacher, while continuing to write poetry in German.

In 1951, he married Gisele de Lestrange, a graphic artist and non-Jew whose aristocratic family objected to their union. They had two children, one of whom died at birth.

Celan suffered from frequent depression, which worsened after the widow of a poet friend accused him in the 1950s of plagiarizing her husband’s work – charges that eventually proved to be baseless. He was hospitalized frequently for mental problems, but continued to publish his work, which showed increasing Jewish influence toward the end of his life. When he drowned himself in the Seine, on or about April 20, 1970, he left behind three volumes of poetry that were ready for publication, in addition to the seven volumes that had already been published.