Paul Celan (say-LAHN) was born Paul Antschel in Romania to Jewish parents, Leon and Fritzi Antschel, in 1920. It was a culture-rich household. Young Celan showed early promise in linguistics, learning a number of languages as a child and adolescent and developing a love of literature. Nevertheless, in 1938 he undertook premedical studies in France. While studying at Tours, he developed an admiration for Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, and Arthur Rimbaud, controversial French poets very much in vogue with young intellectuals.
Celan came home to the beginning of World War II and the capture and death of his parents, who refused to flee; his father died from disease in an internment camp and his mother was shot. He himself was forced to work in a Nazi labor camp in Moldavia for about eighteen months between 1942 and 1944. His anguish over the loss of his parents and his helplessness during the war informed his poetry throughout his life. His early poem “Todesfuge” (“Death Fugue”), still perhaps his most widely anthologized, was probably written in 1944.
After the war was over, Celan went to Bucharest, Romania, where he worked for a publishing house and associated with Surrealist poets and artists. He made the acquaintance in these years of both experimental poets and Jewish poets who were dealing specifically with Holocaust themes, including Nelly Sachs, with whom he had a long correspondence. He then stayed briefly in Vienna,...
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