23 May 2013

The Genesis of Paul Celan's "Todesfuge"?

From the renowned biography "Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew" by John Felstiner, Professor Emeritus of English at Stanford University and author of many standard works on Paul Celan, we learn (p. 28) on the genesis of Paul Celan's "Todesfuge" as follows:


"Celan once remarked, that 'Todesfuge' arose from something he read about Jews playing dance tunes in a Nazi camp. He might have seen a pamphlet dated 29 August 1944, on 'The Lublin Extermination Camp' (Maidanek). In July 1944 the Red Army took Maidanek, and what they discovered was publicized worldwide, as propaganda. This pamphlet, issued by Moscow's Foreign Languages Publishing House, appeared in various cities and languages. Written by Konstantin Simonov, it reports that tangos and fox-trots were played during camp functions, and it contains other details suggestive of 'Todesfuge'.

The earliest notice of Celan's poem may connect it to the Simonov pamphlet. 'Todesfuge' first appeared not in German but in Romanian (it was Celan's first published poem and his first under the name "Celan"). In May 1947, the Bucharest magazine Contemporanul printed Petre Solomon's translation, prefacing it with the note: 'The poem whose translation we are publishing is built upon the evocation of a real fact. In Lublin, as in many other 'Nazi death camps,' one group of the condemned were forced to sing nostalgic songs while others dug graves.'"

Reasons enough for me to track Konstantin Simonov and - Eureka! - I succeeded to figure out, that Konstantin Simonov visited Czernowitz while touring the fronts in June 1944. His report, headlined "ONLY ONE-THIRD OF CZERNOWITZ' 80,000 JEWS REMAIN ALIVE, RUSSIAN CORRESPONDENT REPORTS" was published by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) on June 21, 1944:


Constantin Simonov's retrospective report on his journey through Czernowitz in June 1944 reads as follows (Konstantin Simonow: Kriegstagebücher, Band 2, S. 366-369, Verlag Volk und Welt, Berlin 1979):

Is it to keen to assume a possible personal meeting between Paul Celan and Konstantin Simonov during his visit in June 1944? John Felstiner wrote to me in September 2011:

"I'm grateful for your sharing the news of his visit, and yes, it's certainly *possible* they met. But who can confirm it? [...] If you look at the Preface of my Celan anthology (Norton), you'll see he wrote to a Czernowitz exile friend in Russia on July 1st, '44: 'I've come to Kiev for two days..." So at least it appears he may have been in Czernowitz a week earlier. A bit later in my book I mention PC translating Simonov. What a story in the making!"
Just imagine how exciting it was for me, to get such an encouraging feedback! Provided that my guess is correct, we might have identified another small piece of the puzzle related to the genesis of Paul Celan's "Todesfuge"! But who can confirm it? - Back to you, Czernowitzers!


Edgar Hauster said...

Irene: Edgar, The Yiddish version (p.50 , lines 2-8) is identical with the German translation. There are "loudspeakers" (= "ruforn "!) and "radio" . No "bands"! The soviet-Yiddish orthography is very interesting.

Edgar Hauster said...

Boris: Hello Edgar, I tried to look for the Krasnaya Zvezda article, but I am glad that Galina found it and sent it to you. It is interesting that in 1944 the Soviets published this Simonov article as a little book (you call it pamphlet) in several languages even in Yiddish, but not in original Russian. It was published in Russian only in the Red Army Newspaper, Red Star. Later in the 1970s and in 1980s Simonov published a book, Writers Diaries, in which he recalls his experiences as a war correspondent. Here he talks about the concentration camps in Poland. This book is available on the Internet. There is also page or two in this book about how the author, Simonov, meets a rabbi in Czernowitz who tells him about the horrors of the ghetto in Czernowitz. It is here.

The idea of a connection between Simonov's account of the concentration camps and Paul Cellan’s famous poem is quite fascinating. It would be however hard or impossible to prove that Paul Cellan actually met Simonov in Chernowitz. (Simonov recalls in this book that a young Jewish student guided him to the Rabbi’s house. I guess it will be too farfetched to suggest that this student was actually Paul Celan.) Best, Boris

Edgar Hauster said...

Iosif: The cover and several pages of the original Russian edition can be
seen at http://leibstandart.com/military/2825/42766/
Full Russian text from the later edition is at
It is more likely that Celan saw the 1944 or 1945 Romanian translation
of the book: http://www.okazii.ro/recomandate/bibliofilie/carti-vechi/constantin-simonov-lagarul-nimicirii-maidanek-ed-1944-a127837246
or http://catalog.bnrm.md/opac/bibliographic_view/396129

While Simonov's book may have played a role in inspiring Celan to
write "Todesfuge", much greater role was played by the poem "ER",
written in 1944 by Celan's friend Immanuel Weissglas, which contains
almost all major images of Todesfuge:


Wir heben Gräber in die Luft und siedeln
Mit Weib und Kind an dem gebotnen Ort.
Wir schaufeln fleißig, und die andern fiedeln,
Man schafft ein Grab und fährt im Tanzen fort.

ER will, daß über diese Därme dreister
Der Bogen strenge wie sein Antlitz streicht:
Spielt sanft vom Tod, er ist ein deutscher Meister,
Der durch die Lande als ein Nebel schleicht.

Und wenn die Dämmrung blutig quillt am Abend,
Öffn' ich nachzehrend den verbissnen Mund,
Ein Haus für alle in die Lüfte grabend:
Breit wie der Sarg, schmal wie die Todesstund.

ER spielt im Haus mit Schlangen, dräut und dichtet,
In Deutschland dämmert es wie Gretchens Haar.
Das Grab in Wolken wird nicht eng gerichtet:
Da weit der Tod ein deutscher Meister war.

Edgar Hauster said...

Berti: The discussion between Simonov and the Rabi looks more like an imaginary work then what really happened. The Rabbi's data are quite inaccurate and or at least partly invented by Simonov. There was a group of youngsters who helped the local Militia to keep up order, I remember being on guard several times at night and also at the municipality building. So the part of somebody having him brought to a Rabbi might be true. P.C. being the one? Chance of 1 to some 200. But if Simonov talked to local youngsters he might have asked or told about music etc. and at that time such information would have spread easily among the Jewish population and Celan would have (may be) taken it up. Si non e vero e ben trovato.

For those who like to compare this Jidish to the german version. A kopdarenish experiment:

In Zwei Schah arum nach dem wie der Kap von der Kolone is arein in lager, hat inem ganzen Lager un in der umgebent umgehoiben spilen muzik. fun etliche zehndlik rufern sainen gefloigen fartoibentike foxtroten un tangos. di radio hat gespilt dem ganzen inderfri, dem ganzen tog, dem ganzen avent un di ganze nacht.

"Zwei Stunden, nach dem die Spitze des Zuges im Lager verschwunden war, ertönte im ganzen Lager und in seiner Umgebung Musik. Aus Dutzenden von Lautsprechern schallten ohrenbetäubende Foxtrots und Tangos. Das Radio spielte den ganzen Morgen, den ganzen Tag und die ganze Nacht."

Edgar Hauster said...

Galina: Dear Edgar,
I'm sending you three issues of Soviet military newspaper "Red
Star"("Krasnaya Zvezda")
(August 10, 11, 12 - 1944). They published an article by Konstantin Simonov
"Extermination camp" about the camp Lublin (Majdanek). This article is of
great size, divided into 3 parts, printed on the third page of each issue
of the newspaper.

Unfortunately I was not able to send you these articles by files PDF -
they were
too large.
Here is a links to them:


With much gratitude for your work,

Edgar Hauster said...

Bianca: Hello everybody,
1. Re Boris B.'s reprint: The CZ rabbi is more than a 100 years old, quite over the hill,
almost surreal. He shows a picture of his younger years with his wife and two children.
Who might he be?
2. Petre Solomon who translated "Todesfuge" into Romanian, stated that the original
was based on a Lublin camp without mentioning further details.
3. On the other hand, beginning in 1944, there were a number of escapees/returnees
from various camps to CZ. with whom Celan could have talked.

Edgar Hauster said...

Iosif: Edgar,

Celan's intertextuality is indeed very rich. Besides Simonov, in the
quoted first lines of Todesfuge "Schwarze Milch" comes from Rose
Ausländer and "Milch der Frühe" quite possible is influenced by the
Russian poet Segei Esenin (Celan translated many of his poem into
German). Here are two lines from Esenin's "Pugachev" (1921):

The Orenburg dawn like a red-furry camel
Dropped sunrise milk into my mouth.

[Оренбургская заря красношерстной верблюдицей
Рассветное роняла мне в рот молоко.]


Edgar Hauster said...

Hardy: Was Celan fluent in Russian ?


Edgar Hauster said...

Iosif: Yes, he was one of the best translators of Russian poetry into German
(several books of his translations from Russian were published), his
own poetry was greatly influenced by Osip Mandelstam (with whom Celan
strongly identified also on a personal level, the title of Celan's
book of poems "Die Niemandsrose" is a quote from Mandelstam and the
book is dedicated to Mandelstam).

Well-known Celan's trilingual signature reads (exact Celan's orthography):

Pavel Lvovitsch Tselan
Russki poët in partibus nemetskich infidelium
's ist nur ein Jud


Edgar Hauster said...

Irene: Thanks Iosif for the P.C. Signature !

For me it is new .

But, I knew that he translated from Russian.

Sometime in 1962-63 I copied the poem "Babij Jar" by Jewgenij Jewtuschenko (
in German orthography ) translated (uebertragen von) by Paul Celan.

I still have it, in my handwriting.

I have no idea WHERE I found it? In the "Niemandsrose" -volume?

Does anyone know where and when this version of "Baby Yarn" was printed ?

I know it was the first time I have read the poem, before it was translated
to Rumanian.


Edgar Hauster said...

Marion: dear Iosif, dear Edgar,

may I quote in German what Rose Ausländer said about "Schwarze Milch":

"Daß Paul die Metapher 'schwarze Milch', die ich in meinem 1925 geschriebenen, jedoch erst 1939 veröffentlichten Gedicht 'Ins Leben' geschaffen habe, für die Todesfuge gebraucht hat, erscheint mir nur selbstverständlich, denn der Dichter darf alles als Material für die eigene Dichtung verwenden. Es gereicht mir zur Ehre, daß ein großer Dichter in meinem frühen Werk eine Anregung gefunden hat. Ich habe die Metapher nicht so nebenhin gebracht, er jedoch hat sie zur höchsten dichterischen Aussage erhoben. Sie ist ein Teil von ihm selbst geworden." -
Rose Ausländer to Israel Chalfen, May 1972.

"Nur aus der Trauer Mutterinnigkeit
strömt mir das Vollmaß des Erlebens ein.
Sie speist mich eine lange, trübe Zeit
mit schwarzer Milch und schwerem Wermutwein."
Rose Ausländer, first publ.1939 in "Der Regenbogen", Literaria (Czernowitz)

Regards, Marion

Edgar Hauster said...

Jerome: For the Germanically challenged from Google Translate:

"The fact that Paul has the metaphor of 'black milk', which I have
created in my 1925 written, but only published in 1939 poem 'into being'
needed for the Fugue of Death, it seems to me only natural because the
poet can do everything as material for their own use seal. It served me
credit that a great poet has found in my early work a suggestion. I have
not brought the metaphor so casually, however, he has raised her to the
highest poetic statement. It is a part of him has become even. "-
Rose foreigners to Israel Chalfen, May 1972.

"Only from the mourning mother intimacy
flows to me that the measure of the experience.
They fed me a long, hazy time
black milk and heavy Vermouth. "
Rose Auslander, first publ.1939 in "The Rainbow", Literaria (Chernivtsi)


Edgar Hauster said...

Iosif: Irene,

Celan translated "Babij Jar" soon after it was published in Russian in
1961. Celan's translation was published twice in 1962, he paid close
attention to the critical reactions to this translation (letter to
G.B.Fischer from June 25, 1962). Here is the translation (in the
second link together with three other German translations):