Jewish Studies & Comparative Literature PhD candidate Shoshana Olidort organized and presented on a panel “Remembering Jewish Voices of the Past,” for the Modern Language Association International Symposium: Remembering Voices Lost, at the Catholic University of Lisbon, Portugal July 23-25, 2019.
My paper considered the possibilities for recuperation and recovery of a lost German mother-tongue among survivor poets who were native German speakers. I focused on poems by Paul Celan, widely regarded as one of the most important poets of the 20th century, and by the Hebrew poet Dan Pagis.
In a letter to his mother, a young poet Paul Celan asks: “And can you bear, Mother, as once on a time, / the gentle, the German, the pain-laden rhyme?” For Celan, as John Felstiner and others have noted, the choice to write in the German that was both his mother tongue, and the tongue of his mother’s murderers, was deliberate and also not a choice at all since, according to Celan, “Only in the mother tongue can one speak one’s own truth.” And yet, for Pagis, also raised in Bukovina by a German-speaking mother, the German mother tongue had to be relegated to the side for him to write at all. Still, even in Pagis’s poems one detects the shadow of a German mother tongue hovering over the Hebrew text.
My paper focused on how Celan’s poems seeks to salvage a German corrupted by its Nazi past through what the translator Pierre Joris has called Celan’s “dismantling and rewelding” of the language. Reading Pagis, I showed how the poet holds space in his Hebrew creations for a German subtext through which lost voices can be reassembled, recovered and restored. In conclusion, I argued that both Celan and Pagis effect, through very different strategies, the recuperation of a lost German mother-tongue.