Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 530
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, finally relocating to Paris in 1948, where he studied philology, receiving his licence de lettres degree in 1950. His first poetry collection was published in Paris, and Celan was to remain there for the rest of his life, teaching German literature, publishing his poetry, and winning literary awards, including the Bremen Literature Prize and the George Büchner Prize.
Celan hated the German language and its Holocaust baggage but felt stuck with it; most of his poems are in German, although he wrote some in Romanian. His poetry from the outset was dark and difficult, becoming more so as he became older. His work became increasingly knotted and obscure as he engaged in his struggle with the language and his past. He changed his name first to Ancel, then to the French-sounding anagram of Ancel, Celan, fleeing the heritage that was his one true language. Ironically, Celan also translated the work of dozens of poets from many countries into German.
In Paris, Celan married the artist Gisele de Lestrange, and the couple had two children. One son died in infancy. His surviving son, Eric, gave Celan a large part of the little joy he had in his life. The wonder and delight Celan experienced through his son appears in some of his last poems and in the published collection of his letters. These emotions, however, were not enough to outweigh his tragic past; he suffered constantly from depression, and at one point he voluntarily committed himself to a mental hospital, at the suggestion of his wife. He committed suicide by drowning himself in the Seine River sometime in April, 1970, after writing in his diary the comment, “Depart Paul.” His body was not found until the beginning of May; thus, his death date remains uncertain, although some sources list it as May 1.