The Arty Semite

Paul Celan’s Lover Emerges From the Shadows

By Benjamin Ivry

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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.


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