Celan and the mother tongue

I vaguely remember reading that Paul Celan, the Jewish-German poet born in Romania and going through the Shoah, had issues writing in German after the Holocaust. 

That makes more than sense.

Yet, wikipedia claims he said: “There is nothing in the world for which a poet will give up writing, not even when he is a Jew and the language of his poems is German.”

I’m not really a poet, but writing used to be important to me. 

I didn’t go through Auschwitz; merely through being Polish, on benefits, queer and somewhat autistic in a small German town. A bit of isolation, a bit of coldness. Alienation. Not even bullying that would be worth the name. 

Just no one to talk to; no one to do stuff with; no one who gets it; and perhaps watching my parents not find their place either. 

Perhaps the loss of the country of my childhood, which despite its flaws had felt like home; the new country didn’t. Only the small local immigrant community did, but it was small and fell apart quickly. 

I couldn’t find myself. 

I had memories of more beautiful and home-y places, lost doubly by emigrating and by the rapid change that took these places over after we left. 

As an adult, I realise that if I had to grow up there (gay, trans, weird), I’d hate these places now, perhaps even more than I hate Germany. It’s easier to reject a country that you weren’t born into either, and that never particularly saw you as one of their own (and reciprocally). 

I’m not as obstinate as Celan.

I’ve actually given up writing for years, specifically for the 13 years between mentally checking out of Germany (to leave physically two years later) and taking the leap into clumsy and cumbersome writing in English last year (on this very blog; if you can call that writing; it’s a form of expression and voice, at the very least). 

I’ve never written in Polish (except for a few attempts I disliked); English seems to make more sense after having completed my higher education in that language, and with the illusion of having a broader potential audience across various countries (that mostly consists of my international friends, either way).

So perhaps there’s nothing that will stop a writer from writing, even if he feels compelled to forget one language in order to laboriously and always imperfectly learn another. (And a bunch of others just to leave no brain space for that “second” one that my parents have never learned to speak correctly and that was never spoken to me in a context of love or closeness.)

I really hope I won’t drown myself in a river. I hope Celan didn’t do it for the linguistic dissonance; he presumably had far better reasons. 

Yet language loss hurts. 

For some people, language and emotions will not be disentangled easily.

It’s heartrending in ways when the language whose cadences, semantics, etymology are most intimately ingrained and which carries the broadest palette of colours also carries the most jarring emotions; or perhaps enshrines your loss of self over years. (Or the conditions in which your tender attempts to grow a sense of self were thwarted.)

Certainly better than Auschwitz, as my Jewish friend would jest (and I just allows myself to do that for that reason). 

For Celan, it was despite all the language of his mother, childhood, family, perhaps. The first, Romanian or Hebrew probably the second (no sources at hand).

I still understand some Romanian from the man who wanted to marry me ages ago and some Hebrew from my eccentric philosopher companion in the nightly streets of orthodox Jerusalem (specifically, that long endless street leading to the bus station). 

Flying back from London to Berlin, 

I couldn’t stand waiting at the boarding gate with all the Germans chatting in German. I walked over to the next one, the flight to București, listening to trivial conversations with pleasure to postpone the moment of re-entry into my personal linguistic minefield for a few more minutes. 


Actually, Celan’s Todesfuge was probably the only German poem that’s ever impressed me. At least I’ve forgotten all the others that I’ve had to read in the course of my education. Perhaps I remember one other one, containing Hebrew words. Oddly. 

Having found my love in Berlin (or another love, better than what I’ve known), I’m standing as is customary between facing monsters and packing suitcases to places where I don’t need headphones in the streets.  


Concluding with my Patriotic Madonna #2 (#1 was yesterday), perhaps for being appropriately scarred yet intense.


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