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The Holocaust's Impact on the Poetry of Paul Celan

Olivia Mills is passionate about literature. In her writing, Olivia seeks to bring new perspectives and insights to her readers.


If you're reading this, then you're probably interested in poetry. And if you're interested in poetry, then you should know about Paul Celan.

Few poets are as renowned and respected as Paul Celan. Born in 1920 in Czernowitz, Bukovina, which was then part of Romania, now part of Ukraine, Celan was a poet who drew inspiration from his experiences during the Holocaust and the devastation of war. He committed suicide in 1970.

His poetry is full of mystery and esotericism, which can be challenging to decipher. But it's also full of beauty, sadness, and coldness.

  • His work offers a unique perspective on the 20th century.
  • Some of his most famous poems include "Tallow Lamp" and "Your Hand Full of Hours."
  • After reading just a few of his poems, you will be able to see why he is considered one of the greats.

If you are interested in poetry and the challenges it poses to language, grammar, and logic skills and if you're up for the challenge, then read on to learn more about this fascinating poet.

Celan, Ukraine, War and the Holocaust

Paul Celan was born Paul Antschel, or Ancel in the Romanian adaptation in a Jewish family. In 1775, Czernowitz was part of the Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg Empire. It was a region were the Empire colonized Germans and Hebrews.

Paul Celan’s parents grew up in this thriving world. The Austro-German culture was something they took pride in. His mother insisted on a German education for him.

After the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the 1920s, Czernowitz (Cernauti) became part of Romania and was subsequently conquered by the Russians in 1940 and invaded by the Nazis in 1941. In 1944, when the Red Army drove out the Axis forces, the city was incorporated into the Ukrainian SSR.

Fifty thousand Jews were deported to concentration camps. Celan was imprisoned in a work-camp in Romania, but his parents did not survive the Nazi concentration camps in Transnistria.

Celan wrote poetry during his time in the ghetto and translated Shakespeare's sonnets. This complicated history no doubt informed Celan's writing, giving it a unique perspective. If you are interested in reading his work, it is worth being aware of the events that shaped his life.


Celan and the Search for Home

Paul Celan lived in Bucharest, the Romanian capital, from 1945-1947. He didn't feel at home in the newly communist country and moved to Vienna and then Paris. Celan was a Jewish person with a Romanian name who lived in France.

Multicultural, he wrote poems in German. Despite this, his poetry does not show emotional detachment. Rather, it is the detachment of a painter who uses images or structures to express feelings or facts.

In reality, he lost his home, but he found no home. Elemental images abound in his poetry. We would hope he found refuge in nature, yet their coldness conveys another impression. His poetry is tough as a diamond, perfect, and precious. There are no half measures in his work, reading it is a complete experience.

One of his best appreciated poems, "Todesfuge - Fugue of death" is a haunting exploration of war and the role it plays in shaping individual destiny. It is a powerful spell, close to a curse, yet not poisoned. It is of course, about Judaism and war. It could be about the role tragedy forces on an individual’s destiny.

With its intricate imagery and complex structure, Celan's poetry is a truly unforgettable experience for any poetry reader.


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Some poetry lovers might find the themes Celan tackles difficult to read about. After all, World War II had just taken place and poetry was asking a lot from him. However, he saw no other choice but to confront these issues through his writing. By writing about these difficult topics, Celan was able to confront them and provide readers with a different perspective.

I invite you to explore the following lyrics by Celan.

Tallow Light

The monks with hairy fingers laid open the book: September.

Jason now throws snow at the sprouting seed.

A necklace of hands the forest gave you, so dead you walk

the rope.

A darker blue becomes part of your hair, and I speak of love.

Shells I speak and light clouds, and a boat buds in the rain.

A little stallion gallops over the leaf-turning fingers —

Black the gate leaps open, I sing:

How did we live here?

"The monks with hairy fingers open the book: September."

The monks with hairy fingers open the book. This is the first verse in a poem called "Tallow Lamp". The verse makes you feel nostalgic, excited, and curious. The thin fingers of the monks in the forest make you think about autumn and how it makes you feel: beautiful, sad, and cold.

You picture fascinating scenes based on what you read:

The monks with hairy fingers open the book: September. They leaf through its pages, searching for something, anything. But they find nothing but emptiness. The book has been hollowed out, emptied of all its words and stories.

The monks are disappointed. They had been hoping to find some guidance in these pages, some hint of what is to come. But now there is nothing left but an empty husk.

They close the book and put it back on the shelf. September has failed them once again.

Or: the monks with hairy fingers open the book: September. They leaf through its pages, searching for the right passage. One of them finds it and reads aloud:

"And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea."

The monks nod in agreement, satisfied that they have found the right verse. They begin to recite the prayer that will send them on their way.


Memory of France

Together with me recall: the sky of Paris,

that giant autumn crocus...

We went shopping for hearts at the flower girl's booth:

they were blue and they opened up in the water.

It began to rain in our room,

and our neighbour came in. Monsieur Le Songe, a lean little man.

We played cards, I lost the irises of my eyes;

you lent me your hair, I lost it, he struck us down.

He left by the door, the rain followed him out.

We were dead and were able to breathe.

"Monsieur Le Songe, a lean little man."

How beautiful the apparition in the poem "Memory Of France". Mister Dream, Mister Illusion, wonderful creation, a play with words, yet the atmosphere is not playful.

You may wonder why Celan chose to write in such a dark and mysterious way, and what it all means.

Some people think that Celan's dark poetry was a reaction to the horrors of the Holocaust, which he witnessed firsthand. Others believe that his unique style was a way of expressing the anguish and loneliness that he felt in his own life.

Whatever the reason, Celan's poems are some of the most beautiful and moving works of poetry ever written. If you're looking for something new to read, then I urge you to check out his works.

Aspen Tree

Aspen Tree, your leaves glance white into the dark.

My mother's hair was never white.

Dandelion, so green is the Ukraine.

My yellow-haired mother did not come home.

Rain cloud, above the well do you hover?

My quiet mother weeps for everyone.

Round star, you wind the golden loop.

My mother's heart was ripped by lead.

Oaken door, who lifted you off your hinges?

My gentle mother cannot return.

"Aspen tree, your leaves gaze white into the dark. My mother’s hair ne’er turned white."

If you're a poetry lover, then you know that the best poems are often those that are the most personal. They tell a story or express a feeling, that goes beyond what can be put into words. This is certainly true of Paul Celan's poem "Aspen Tree."

No esotericism, the poem is instantly comprehensible. A fountain of sadness and sorrow that uplifts yet emotionally destroys.

This poem was written for Celan's late mother, and it captures the deep sadness and sorrow that he felt in the wake of her death. Through beautiful imagery and rich language, Celan explores his grief, while also hinting at the hope that lies just beneath the surface.

If you're looking to dive deeper into Celan's work or explore other emotionally powerful poetry, then this poem is a must-read.

With a Variable Key

With a variable key

you unlock the house in which

drifts the snow of that left unspoken.

Always what key you choose

depends on the blood that spurts

from your eye or your mouth or your ear.

You vary the key, you vary the word

that is free to drift with the flakes.

What snowball will form round the word

depends on the wind that rebuffs you.

More Poems: "A Variable Key", "Speak You Also", "Flower"

One of our greatest inclinations as readers is to demystify and make sense of complex subjects. We believe that poetry has the power to resolve, clarify, and illuminate issues in ways that other forms of writing simply can't.

The two poems that best nurture this inclination are "A Variable Key" and "Speak You Also". These two poems invite the reader to delve deeply into the meaning of words and explore their hidden complexities and subtleties.

Another poem that speaks to the love of demystifying and making sense of things is "Flower". Although it starts out seeming stony and unyielding, when you read more carefully, it reveals glimmers of hope and possibility.

At the same time, however, there are also expressions in this poem that seem to have both positive and negative implications, leaving the reader wrestling with conflicting emotions as they try to understand its message. In all, this poem challenges the reader to think about concepts in new ways and explore their deepest meanings.

Speak, You Also

Speak, you also

Speak at the last,

Have your say.

Speak –

But keep yes and no unsplit.

And give you say this meaning:

Give it the shade.

Give it shade enough,

Give it as much

As you know has been dealt out between

Midnight and midday and midnight

Look around:

Look how it all leaps alive –

Where death is! Alive!

He speaks truly who speaks the shade.



The stone.

The stone in the air, which I followed.

Your eye, as blind as the stone.

We were


we baled the darkness empty, we found

the word that ascended summer:


Flower - a blind man's word.

Your eye and mine:

they see

to water.


Heart wall upon heart wall

adds petals to it.

One more word like this word, and the hammers

will swing over open ground.

The Meaninglessness of Existence and Messages of Hope

Through his poems, readers can see the full breadth of Celan's struggles—from dark musings on the meaninglessness of existence to messages of hope and rage directed towards God. Though many of his poems leave the reader grappling with their deeper implications, they are all deeply moving works that reflect the creative power of human resilience in the face of hardship. In this way, Paul Celan both inspires readers with his artistic achievements and touches hearts with his tragic personal story. Ultimately, it is this complex combination that makes him such an enduring figure in both poetry and history alike.

It is no secret that poetry has the power to induce visions and transport readers to other realms. In the world of poetry, nothing is as it seems, and everything falls into place in a newly surreal and enchanting way. This is certainly true of Paul Celan's poems, which have an oneiric quality and dream-like tone. Whether he was describing a garden or meditating on death, Celan always seemed to be tapping into another realm of consciousness, one that lay just beyond the reader's grasp.

This dream-like quality was evident from reading the very first poem by Celan. As soon as first reading his words, readers feel caught in a beautiful contraption - like a lens through which they see the world with new eyes. It becomes harder to breathe, as if their body is trying to break free from this magical spell, but even so they can't stop reading until they reach the very last word. It is only then that they fully understand that Celan's poetry might be a slow poison - it seeps into the soul and slowly changes the perception of the world around until the reader can never again see it with quite the same eyes.

Whether through the raw power and intensity of his words or the poetic language that induces dream states in the reader, Celan's work is truly unique and unforgettable. Indeed, his work is certainly proof that poetry can be a potent tool for getting lost--and perhaps even finding oneself--in its dream worlds.


A Profound Sense of Heartbreak

While Paul Celan's writing is deeply moving and expressive, it is also characterized by a sense of isolation and bleakness that stems from the tragedies he experienced throughout his life.

This grief is evident in much of Celan's work, which is often marked by themes of pain, loss, and disconnection. His poems are deeply personal yet eerily detached, reflecting a complex psychology that is further complicated by the heavy use of symbolism and metaphor in his writing. Indeed, you may note that there seems to be a tension between Celan's desire to communicate meaningfully through poetry and his inability or refusal to fully connect with others.

His poetry could be described "diamond-like," evoking images of steel and ice rather than warmth or emotion. Despite the seemingly cold tone of his work, however, there is actually a profound sense of heartbreak beneath it all. Celan was deeply haunted by his experience in World War II, and he struggled throughout his life with feelings of guilt and self-blame. Though his poems seem detached at times, they are also intensely creative and full of raw emotion.

Despite this apparent lack of connection, many readers find immense power in Celan's poetry. Celan's tragic suicide is a consequence of his struggle with darkness and melancholy; however, it only serves to further emphasize the passion and intensity of his poetic voice. Through the depths of pain that he endured and expressed so eloquently in verse, Paul Celan helps us all to better understand the power of art to move us, even through our darkest moments. In this way, though he will not be saved from his sorrows by some kind of magic resolution or salvation in death, he has already achieved something extraordinary: immortality through great art.

There is an undeniable power in Celan's work. He is a survivor through and through, even as he struggles with deep inner turmoil. Ultimately, what makes Celan such an impactful poet is the fact that he channeled the relentless pain into art that ultimately speaks to all who come in contact with it.

© 2015 Olivia Mills

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