The Arty Semite

Paul Celan’s Lover Emerges From the Shadows

By Benjamin Ivry

  • Print
  • Share Share

The Suhrkamp Verlag series of the great Romanian-born Jewish poet Paul Celan’s letters has received worldwide attention. Among the avid readers was an 81-year-old Austrian-born historian of anthropology, Britta Rupp-Eisenreich, long resident in France, where she publishes on ethnology and related subjects.

Eisenreich recently decided to speak up about her own secret nine-year love affair, starting around 1952, with Celan. Under the name Brigitta Eisenreich, she has just published with Suhrkamp “Celan’s Chalk-Star” (“Celans Kreidestern”), the title being an allusion to a Celan poem from the 1963 collection “Niemandsrose” (“No-One’s-Rose”).

In 1952 Eisenreich and Celan met in Paris through Eisenreich’s brother Herbert, an odd author obsessed with nationalism, soccer and model trains, and who wrote a book on the latter subject titled “Big World on Small Tracks.”

The well-read, auburn-haired Brigitta was bewitched by Celan, whom she describes as possessing a seductive “repertory of magic arts.” Although Celan would marry the French artist Gisèle Lestrange the following year, Eisenreich suggests that the marriage was mainly for financial and visa-related reasons, and their own relationship was not impeded. She describes Celan, only a few hours after his newborn son died, standing under her window, whistling a bit of Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony to get her attention.

Celan also presented her with an LP of Yiddish songs conducted by the now-forgotten American musician Robert Cornman, featuring melodies like the joyous “Der Rebbe Elimelech” and the winsome “Di Verbe,” or “Willow Tree.” He also gave her works by Kafka and Gershom Scholem, as well as Martin Buber’s 1909 anthology, “Ecstatic Confessions: The Heart of Mysticism,” and “Die Erotik der Kabbala” (Kabbalah Erotics) by Jiří Mordechai Langer, a Prague-born friend of Kafka’s.

Less romantically, Celan allowed Eisenreich to travel alone to Berlin in 1956 when she needed an abortion. With macho assurance, Celan hoped Eisenreich and his wife would become “sisters” and live with him in a threesome, but both women demurred. Indeed, “Celans Kreidestern” includes Gisèle’s furious diary notations after she discovered that Eisenreich was writing surreptitious letters to Celan, signing them “Bruno Ferrari.”

When Celan became the target of antisemitism after unfounded charges of plagiarism from the ghastly literary widow Claire Goll, he told Eisenreich to “Judaize” (verjuden) herself further to reassure him of her support. When his tormented raging drove her to tears, he tells her paradoxically: “A Jew does not cry!” Celan sunk further into paranoid depression and the relationship ended, eight years before he threw himself into the Seine River.

All told, a highly literate emotional roller-coaster of a love affair, which urgently calls for translation into English.

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Paul Celan, Gisèle Lestrange, Britta Rupp-Eisenreich

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.