The Poet Celan
To the Editor:
Hillel Halkin’s review of my book, Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew [Books in Review, June] makes a searching and exact critique, for which I am grateful. He has one remark, though, that may be misleading. Mr. Halkin speaks of “the almost impenetrable decade of the 1960’s. . . . Passing over these last years quickly, Felstiner makes little attempt to explicate their poems.” But in fact there are ten chapters, more than half the book, devoted to Celan’s life and work during the 1960’s.
To the Editor:
Hillel Halkin’s fine review of the biography of Paul Celan touched me so much that I have been moved to add a personal note of my own.
Recently a friend brought me a small booklet printed in Bucharest in 1970 (the Ceausescu era). The booklet is titled simply Versuri—Paul Celan. It comprises 129 poems (Celan wrote 800 poems), with translations by Peter Solomon and Nina Casian; but there is not one single word about me author, no introduction, no preface, and not one biographical note.
After the war, in 1945, when Paul Celan was twenty-five (I was twenty-six), he came to Bucharest, where he spent two years before leaving for Paris. I remember him saying goodbye to his friends at the Bucharest north railway station on a late autumn evening in 1947. Shortly before he left, at an evening of poetry reading, his friend, the poet Peter Solomon (who translated most of his poems), read Celan’s great work, Deathfugue (Tangoul Mortii in Romanian). During the reading I remember being fascinated by Celan’s deep black, sad eyes.
Celan’s poetry speaks to me in a very personal and direct way. As a witness to the Nazi occupation of Romania, the Transnistria deportations, and the Romanian Kristallnacbt (January 21-23, 1941 in Bucharest), I feel the pain of Celan’s lines:
witnesses for the
Canadian Institute for Jewish Research
Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Hillel Halkin writes:
John Felstiner does devote more of his book than my review implies—although by my count closer to a third of it—to Celan’s life and work in the 1960’s, and I apologize if I left the wrong impression. And I am glad that I have prompted Baruch Cohen to share his memories with the readers of COMMENTARY.