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Todtnauberg, by Paul Celan

with 6 comments

Marc Chagall

Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law
Marc Chagall, 1931

My friend Hugh Behm-Steinberg, author of the outstanding poetry collection The Opposite of Work, tagged me in an online game, so now I must write a brief comment on the poet Paul Celan, and refer interested readers to a representative poem. I decided to take the opportunity to do an original translation of Celan’s difficult poem “Todtnauberg,” which is presented below.

This autobiographical work refers to the poet’s visit to the cabin retreat owned by the great philosopher Martin Heidegger. Now, Paul Celan was a Romanian Jew whose parents were killed in an internment camp during World War II. Heidegger, on the other hand, was an outspoken advocate of the Nazi party, who wrote in the early 40s about Germany’s “special destiny” and urged his students to think in service of the Nazi state.

After the war, Heidegger said nothing in public about his involvement with the Nazis for the rest of his career, with the exception of giving a long interview with the premier German news magazine Der Spiegel in 1966, which he gave on the condition that it be published posthumously.

The truth is, it is not at all clear how to take Heidegger’s silence, and this has posed a serious problem for many important Jewish and non-Jewish intellectuals, including not only Paul Celan, but the noted psychologist Viktor Frankl as well, who is best remembered for his account of his own interment at Auschwitz in the book Man’s Search for Meaning.

Celan was impressed by Heidegger’s philosophy, which, like Celan’s poetry, is deeply concerned with history, knowledge, anxiety, death, and the darkness which surrounds the ground of our being. It is by virtue of his fluency with these very themes that Celan was uniquely able to express in the ineffable horror of the Holocaust in much of his work.

This poem describes his one personal encounter with Heidegger, who invited Celan to visit his forest retreat, and to sign his famous guest book. Celan, a student of botany, sets the scene for us by identifying two herbaceous flowering plants they saw on their walk, arnica and eyebright.

Like its subject, the poem speaks in evocative fragments that defy attempts to synthesize them into a unified image. Vivid impressions flash from out of the darkness, and end with a sense of … what? Disjunction? Futility? Defiance? It is difficult to formulate a clear response, and I get the sense that no particular meaning was intended. Perhaps, as with Heidegger’s silence, he believed there was nothing to say.


Arnica, eyebright, the
draught from the well with the
star dice above,

in the

in the book
(whose name is recorded
before mine?)
the written line
in the book
speaks of hope, today,
about a thinker
in the heart,

forest grass, unlevelled,
orchid and orchid, separate,

crude things, later, in passing,

he who drives us, the man,
he who overhears,

the half-
trodden beaten
paths in the high moor,


Now that the prayer benches burn,
I eat the book
with all its


Written by Mesocosm

January 4, 2014 at 8:16 am

Posted in Translations

Tagged with ,

6 Responses

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  1. The eloquence of your translation of this beautiful, dense-but-weightless poem leaves me, like Heidegger, silent (and breathless).

    Jody Stefansson

    January 4, 2014 at 3:56 pm

  2. Wonderful translation–not having German, I only comment on the English poetry before me. And it’s context, as another reader noted, leaves one without words. Your mastery of German seems to be remarkable. Anne

    Sent from my iPad


    Anne Campbell

    January 6, 2014 at 9:59 am

  3. Thank you for translation, but where does the final verse come from? Versions I have seen always end on “moist, much.” Can you clarify?


    February 13, 2017 at 10:14 am

    • My German source comes from “Poems of Paul Celan,” the bilingual edition edited and translated by Michael Hamburger. I don’t have the book in front of me at the moment, but I believe I may have made a mistake – what I took for a concluding stanza appears to be a short independent poem:

      Jetzt, da die Betschemel brennen,
      eß ich das Buch
      mit allen

      Thanks for pointing it out – I thought the book surely referred to the guest book he mentions above. :/


      February 13, 2017 at 12:59 pm

  4. Now that I’m home I did confirm the final stanza I included is a separate poem. Well, I like that little one too.

    Thanks for the pointer to “On Forgiveness,” interesting and timely. I’ve been reading Jan-Werner Müller’s excellent “Another Country,” and he makes much of Karl Jaspers’s “Schuldfrage.”


    February 13, 2017 at 7:15 pm

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