What was your golden year

100th birthday of Paul Celan The poet and the distant god

then I heard him
then he washed the world
unseen, all night long,

One and infinite,

Light was. Rescue.

Paul Celan's late poem "Once" - lines on the verge of falling silent.

"The work of Paul Celan cannot be understood without knowing his story, the story of a person of Jewish origin. Both of his parents were murdered in a concentration camp. He himself narrowly escaped this fate and if there is a poet, that Draws conclusions from this abysmal life experience, then it is Paul Celan. "

Karl-Josef Kuschel dealt intensively with Paul Celan and his work. Until 2013 he taught theology of interreligious dialogue at the Catholic Theological Faculty of the University of Tübingen.

"I never wrote a line that had nothing to do with my existence. I am, you can see it, a realist in my own way", the poet wrote to a friend in the 1960s.

Born in the melting pot of Chernivtsi

Paul Antschel, who only called himself Celan after 1945, was born on November 23, 1920 in the Romanian town of Chernivtsi, which belonged to the Austro-Hungarian monarchy until the end of World War I. The city is considered a center of German-Jewish creativity. Artists, philosophers, musicians and writers shape the cultural atmosphere of the multilingual city. A melting pot of Germans, Ukrainians, Jews and Romanians. Cuddle:

"Chernivtsi was a city with a high proportion of Jewish population; and the Jewish population was not uniform at that time, it was plural. There were the Orthodox, who led a corresponding life according to the religious law, the Halacha. But there was also one culturally open, semi-assimilated Judaism. One did not go to Talmud schools like the Orthodox Jews, but went to public high schools. "

Celan was born and raised in Chernivtsi - in today's Ukraine (dpa)

Paul's parents live in modest circumstances. The boy grows up as an only child in a German-speaking, Orthodox-Jewish family. His strict father Leo is a representative of a timber company. The boy shares his early enthusiasm for German poetry with his mother Fritzi.

"I was six years old and could recite" Das Lied von der Glocke ". Who knows if that didn't trigger everything else."

No more Jewish worship after the bar mitzvah

The boy’s close bond with his mother will shape his life. Fritzi Antschel is often at the center of his poems. Young Paul's school attendance also reflects the political turmoil in and around Czernowitz: Paul first attended the German, then the Hebrew elementary school, from 1930 a Romanian, later a Ukrainian state high school. At the age of fourteen he celebrates a bar mitzvah, comparable to the Protestant confirmation in the Christian cultural area. After that, he will never attend a Jewish service again. After graduating from high school, the young man began studying medicine in Tours, France. When his express train reached Berlin on the way to France, the city had just passed the Reichspogromnacht, called "Reichskristallnacht" by the National Socialists. The young man later recalls this moment in a poem.

About Krakow
did you come at the Anhalter Bahnhof
a smoke flowed to your eyes,
it was from tomorrow

Because of the beginning of the war, he returned to Czernowitz and studied Romance languages ​​there. In 1940 Soviet troops occupy the city. In the Hitler-Stalin Pact, Germany agreed to the annexation of parts of Romania, including Chernivtsi in Bukovina, by the Soviet Union. A year later, SS-Einsatztruppe D arrives in Chernivtsi. The Romanian units now allied with Germany occupy the city. The extermination of the Jewish population began in October 1941.


The horns of hell, faded away in the olive tree:
did they push air through his heart so that it became empty and screamed?
Once when we celebrated darkness,
he came to us into the abyss and sang.
Now that he was surrounded by freezing horns
he let us slumber and trembles on the slope.
May we, light, when the fires start
wandering olive tree, go up to you?
That your branches, sweet and mad,
stand with us in the fire, in the huge one?

The Jewish quarter is declared a ghetto. 55,000 Jews are deported to the extermination camps in Transnistria. Almost all of them starve to death, are murdered or die of cholera and typhus. Only a minority of 5,000 people survive in the ghetto.

The 21-year-old is employed as a road builder four hundred kilometers south of Chernivtsi - in a labor camp set up by the Romanians. As a result, he escaped deportation to a German concentration camp. When he went to visit his parents in Chernivtsi in June 1942, he found the apartment empty. They were deported to Transnistria on the same day. His father died of cholera shortly afterwards, and his mother was shot in the neck the following winter. Karl-Josef Kuschel:

Celan lost his parents in a concentration camp - he escapes deportation as a road builder in a labor camp (picture alliance / dpa / Fritz Schumann)

"The fate of both parents deeply traumatizes him, so that in fact he no longer had any confidence in life, confidence in language is nothing without confidence in life and that was destroyed by the brutal racial policy of the Nazis, of whom he was the victim."

Escape to Paris in the post-war period

After the war, Paul Antschel calls himself Paul Celan. He moves from Chernivtsi to Bucharest, works as a translator and editor. In 1947 he fled to Vienna via Hungary and settled in Paris a year later. In 1948 his first volume of poetry, "Sand in den Urnen", was published - enthusiastically received by the critics. The content and form of his poems change radically. The subject of death, the fate of the Jewish people and the distant God pervade his work until the year of death - even the love poems. The rhyme disappears more and more from his work.

And you will tolerate, mother, like once at home
the quiet, the German, the painful rhyme?

"This dialectic of mother tongue and killer language is one of the keys to understanding how he writes his poems. The mother tongue is also the language of the murderers - and he wants to signal that in his poems. The German language is no longer innocent, she is contaminated with this unique crime. "

Says the Catholic theologian Karl-Josef Kuschel.

I rode through the snow, do you hear
I rode God into the distance - the near,
he sang,
it was
our last ride over
the people - hurdles.

"Reality wants to be won and filtered. That is a key phrase for him. Everything was broken by the civilization breach of the Shoah. All conventional ways of speaking are in a sense being put to the test and therefore it has to be won back."

Mother tongue and mother tongue

In 1945 Paul Celan wrote a poem that became the epitome of post-Auschwitz poetry: The "Fugue of Death". The disturbing poem turns out to be the "Guernica" of post-war literature. Like almost no other modern text, it is also publicly recognized internationally. In 1988 the death fugue was recited in the Bundestag - to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the November pogroms.

Black milk of the morning, we'll drink you at night
we drink you at noon and in the morning we drink you in the evening
we drink and drink

a man lives in the house of your golden hair Margarete
your ashen hair Sulamith he plays with the snakes
He calls plays death sweeter death is a master from Germany

he calls, strokes the violins darker, then you rise as smoke in the air
then you have a grave in the clouds there you don't lie close
Black milk of the morning we drink you at night

we drink you at noon death is a master from Germany
we drink you in the evening and in the morning we drink and drink
death is a master from Germany his eye is blue
he hits you with a leaden bullet he hits you exactly

a man lives in the house of your golden hair Margarete
he incites his males on us he gives us a grave in the air
he plays with the snakes and dreams
death is a master from Germany

your golden hair Margarete
your ashen hair Sulamith

Paul Celan now lives in Paris. He made his way as a factory worker and interpreter, translating texts by over forty authors into seven languages. In 1952 he married the French painter Gisèle Lestrange. Their first son François dies soon after giving birth. Claude François was born in 1955.

"You can have great reading experiences with Paul Celan"

Kuschel: "Even well-meaning readers cannot deny that his poems are out of reach for the time being. If you get involved with them, let them work on you in the act of meditation, then you can have great reading experiences with Paul Celan."

Celan's poetry deals with the Holocaust throughout his life. (picture alliance / Mika Schmidt)

In his poems, Celan tries to embed the Shoah in the spiritual traditions of Judaism over the past three thousand years. He connects the mass murder of the National Socialists thematically with religious motifs, especially from the Old Testament. His doubts, his willingness to believe, but not being able to, will accompany him until his death.


We are close, Lord
close and tangible.

Already taken, sir,
clinging to each other as if
the body of each of us
your body, Lord.

Pray Lord
pray to us
we are close.

We went to water, sir.
It was blood, it was
what you shed, lord.
It shone.

It threw your picture in our eyes, Lord.
Eyes and mouth are so open and empty, Lord.
We drank, sir.
The blood and the image that was in the blood, Lord.

Pray Lord.
We are close

Exchange between sacrifice and God

Kuschel: "The title of the poem refers to the hour of Jesus' death, the onset of darkness, Tenebrae. And this hour of death is now to a certain extent transferred to those who are exposed to this horrible fate. And by becoming victims of these conditions, God and them exchange Sacrifice themselves here. 'Pray, Lord, we are close' can only be said by those who are in this radical annihilation situation.


We swear by Christ the New to wed the dust to the dust,
the birds to the wandering shoe,
our heart of a staircase in the water.
They shout: You blaspheme!
We already know.
We have known for a long time, but what does it do?
You grind the white flour of promise in the mills of death,
you put it before our brothers and sisters -
We wave the white hair of time.

The refrain of the poem: "You shout: You blaspheme" is clearly reminiscent of Master Eckart's line: "Whoever blasphemes God himself praises God". Cuddle:

"The Eckart word can easily be transferred to Celan, because he was a brilliant connoisseur of Eckart's writings. Those who blaspheme God remain connected with God. Only those who have lost all hope in God cut their relationship with God, are interested no longer for God, turns away. Only those who blaspheme still have expectations of God. They remain connected to God even in the act of blasphemy. If they address the search for God at all, then in this sense. In this respect, they do not indifference, but rather keeps them alive in this sense. "

Worsened mental state and crisis of meaning

In the 1960s, further volumes of poetry appeared that made Celan world-famous. For example "The No Man's Rose", "Atemwende" or "Fadensonnen". At the same time, the poet's mental state deteriorates, which leads to several stays in psychiatric clinics. Then hope germinates, according to the theologian Kuschel:

"1967 in June: Israel surprisingly won a victory over its Arab neighbors, and Paul Celan suddenly began to hope that Israel would have a future after all. And then in October 1969 his own trip to Israel. And that was deeply ambivalent Born a Jew, living in Paris, he is now returning to the city that forms the center of Judaism, and the question of where he belongs is intensified in him that he is faced with the hard question: Could I be in? Live Israel? "

The twenty "Jerusalem Poems" are created.

Close, in the aortic arch,
in light blood:
the Hellwort.

Mother Rachel no longer weeps.
carried over
everything we wept.

still, in the coronary arteries,
Ziw, that light.

"Ziw" is a term used in Jewish mysticism. Ziw means a supernatural shine of light in which the presence of God can show itself. "Unthreaded" and "quiet" this light seems to be hidden under all horror for Celan. Cuddle:

"The trip to Jerusalem fails in the end. He is unable to identify with a life in Jerusalem."

Associated in Paris

And feels increasingly lonely in his Paris homeland. His family's withdrawal also hits him hard. He writes to his Jerusalem friend Ilana Shmueli:

Paul Celan spent most of his life in Paris, where he presumably committed suicide in 1970 (imago / PanoramiC)

"Every day I have to go down into my abysses. Every day is a burden. What you call 'my health' can probably never exist. The destruction extends to the core of my existence. I have been healed."

On May 1, 1970, a fisherman found Paul Celan's body in the Seine - ten kilometers down from Paris. He probably threw himself into the river on the night of April 19-20 at the Pont Mirabeau near his home. There is no farewell letter. Cuddle:

"The fascination for me is: One of them is familiar with the German language, even though it is the language of the murderers and leaves behind a unique work. Every poem has to be meditated several times; and we owe this tremendous concentration of language to the work of Paul Celan. He is a poet, which generates reading resistance, but beneficial reading resistance. "

Thread suns
over the gray-black wasteland.
A tree-high thought
picks up the light tone: there are
still singing songs beyond
the human.

This program was broadcast for the first time on March 29, 2017 in the series "From Religion and Society".