It seems to me that the most natural among the life’s images of Paul Celan is the image of a refugee. Only afterwards is he a poet, Jew, philosopher, resident of Chernivtsi, translator and a man of the XX century. But, first and foremost, he is a refugee.
As a child, I figured out how to understand a historical figure better. It is pretty simple: you just have to imagine the person in modern circumstances, to see him or her in the light of present developments and to look at the person’s greatness and motives through this perspective.
If Paul Celan lived nowadays, what would he be like? Which group would he belong to? He would belong to the refugees. To those people who left their homelands to never find a new home in a foreign country. They found shelter, but they did not find home.
Paul Celan had to run away his entire life. First, he runs away from reality into writing. He writes a letter describing conditions he is growing up in: “I could write a book of 300 pages about the anti-Semitism in our school”. This technique of running away from reality into writing will be his lifeline for several decades.
Yet as a youth, almost a child, he flees to France, because it is no longer possible for a Jew to receive a higher education in Chernivtsi, Bucharest or Vienna. As they say, one cannot escape one’s fate, so the war catches Paul in his native Chernivtsi, where he returns for the holidays so recklessly. Then come the phases of occupation, so different at first glance, but equally deadly. During the Soviet occupation, Paul Antschel runs away from his own language, he learns Russian and works as a translator.
During the Romanian-German occupation, the jaws of death engulf his family, and Celan himself ends up in a labor concentration camp. A bitter trick of fate makes him build roads in forced labor. The road itself is a symbol of his life. For he could not stop, constantly running away.
After the war, he flees from Chernivtsi, supposedly from the Soviet authorities, but more likely from the empty walls of the family house. Could Celan stay in the house where every object reminded him of the tragic death of his beloved ones?
Having arrived in Bucharest, a young poet finally immerses into literary life. He translates, and he has his works published. He becomes a part of intellectual society and it could finally herald a streak of luck in his life. But history, the one with a capital letter H, catches him again: as a result of the creeping coup, Romania becomes a communist state, and Celan flees again. He remembers how the establishment of the communist regime in Bukovyna meant the purge and deportation for tens of thousands of people. He escapes, and this time – attention! – he illegally crosses the border, thus becoming a real refugee.
He is suffocating in Vienna. It seems like he should finally feel free, but everything is so strange and foreign there. He is a German-speaking Jew who survived the Holocaust, so he receives all the documents, citizenship and a chance to finally settle down. The refugee gets all the rights.
How did people treat him? And how does Europe treat refugees today? Progressive and liberal-minded people treat them nicely and try to help. They believe they are guilty of the tragedy so they support those who suffered from it in order to make them – but above all us, Europeans – feel better and relieved. We do not redeem, but just buy off the guilt. The rest treats refugees with the dumb condemnation. Some of them even vigorously protest against the migrants.
He feels uncomfortable in the German-speaking Vienna. A line from his poem written in Chernivtsi comes to mind: “Death is a master from Germany”. Those who are running away from Syria today and millions of Ukrainian refugees who left their homes in the Donbas could say: “Death is a master from Russia”. Putting all the geopolitical details aside, one can terribly conclude that death is a master, no matter where it is from. Death is a master who will always find a way to destroy a small and defenceless human being. So one has to run away.
Celan flees to Paris. Paradoxically, he escapes from the German language, but he takes it as a luggage with him. The German language is his suitcase, heritage and wealth.
And each poet, especially a good poet, is a refugee from his own language. Because he inadvertently leaves its traditional borders and syntactical checkpoints, breaking through the barbed wire of synonymic rows to finally reach the neutral zone of a metaphor. The poet leaves his native language to create his own one.
Paul Celan has no home. In fact, there is a house made of bricks, covered with tile, a house with windows and furniture in Chernivtsi, but it is no home. People who now demand from the refugees to return home do not understand that they have no place to go back to. Or, to be more precise, there is a place to return, but there is no one to return to. For how does the city, streets and bricks make it home? Is it possible to feel home in the place without familiar people, their smiles and language?
There is nothing like that in Chernivtsi any longer – Celan’s home was destroyed in this sense. He tries to build a new home in Paris with a family, children, friends, work, success. But it does not work out. He is alone, he is an orphan. His parents were killed, and he became an orphan. His world was ruined and he became an orphan. Only memory and language remained from his previous world: bloody and terrible memory, and the German language… where every word reminded him of blood and horror.
He fled from countries and cities, but in fact, he was running away from himself, from his memory and his language. Sometime shortly before his death, Celan wrote that apparently, it would have been better for him if he had returned to the “beeches of his homeland”, to Bukovyna. Despite seeming success, escape to Paris was also a defeat. There was no sense to keep running away.
But Paul Celan finds the way to escape once more. At last, he becomes a refugee from life. It was his tragedy that the black milk of morning slowly flooded him from inside, he drowned in himself, in his memory and language. The method of escape is symbolic – the poet jumps into the river. And what is a river? It is running, flow, motion. And to flee means to fly, flow.
So when I see refugees on the streets of European cities today, I always try Celan’s fate on them. How many of them will become successful and recognized? Who will write brilliant poems, and who will not find home and run away from life?