In 1994, the Yiddish writer Chava Rosenfarb argued that Paul Celan “sought to distance the German language from the language of his murderers […], as if he had wanted to transform German into Yiddish.” In his talk, Matthew Johnson analyzes this striking claim within the larger history of Celan’s Yiddish reception from 1965 to 2002.
Paul Celan, a German-language poet and Holocaust survivor, once described himself as “one of the last who must live out to the end the destiny of the Jewish spirit in Europe,” a literary and personal project that marked a turning point in postwar culture. This talk reconstructs the intensely ambivalent—and largely neglected—reception of Celan’s life and poetry by Yiddish readers, writers, and translators, for whom his work became a source of inspiration, provocation, and frustration. Johnson devotes particular attention to the poem “Todesfuge” (“Death Fugue”), which was translated into Yiddish at least six times. This poem engendered a series of often painful reflections about the possibility of poetry and the definition of Jewish writing in the face of catastrophe, as well as a passionate debate about the disparity—or the “linguistic abyss,” to quote one of Celan’s translators—between German and Yiddish.
Matthew Johnson studied comparative literature, German, and Jewish studies in Chicago, Berlin, and New York and completed internships at the Archive of the Jewish Museum Berlin and at the Leo Baeck Institute in New York. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Germanic Studies at the University of Chicago and Fulbright/IFK_Junior Fellow.