Hallel from Heaven and Hallel from Hell“Just as the praise of the Holy One ascends to Him from Heaven, so it ascends from Hell.”
What do poet Paul Celan, novelist Aharon Appelfeld, and religious legalist Meshulam Rath share in common? Two things.
First, they all emerged from Tchernowitz (today Chernivtsi, Ukraine), capital of Bukovina, a relic of the Habsburg era, located at the Eastern extreme of the defunct Austro-Hungarian Empire. Tchernowitz, whose Jewish population was estimated at 50,000 in the interbellum (roughly half the total population). Tchernowitz, where Jews spoke German while their gentile neighbors spoke Ruthenian or Ukrainian, or maybe Rumanian.
Second, these three men bequeathed a literary legacy of Holocaust response that deserves our careful attention.
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Paul Celan (1920-1970), whose last name is an anagram of his original patronym Ancel (Antschel), would after the war reinvent himself in Paris as a German poet of distinction, hailed by many as the greatest of the postwar German poets. His existence was riddled with contradictions. A Jew living in France, writing in German, no less. He could not extricate himself from the tongue. The language of the murderers was also the language of his mother—a mother whose loss haunts his poetry. We may say that Celan was a survivor who did not survive. A quarter of a century later the Holocaust would catch up to him, plunging his body into the Seine, drowning out a voice that had been slowly drowning for half its life. As Katharine Washburn, one of Celan’s many translators, wrote: “Celan described the trajectory of his own poetic career as ‘still geworden,’ becoming silent.”
Celan’s poem Todesfuge (Death Fugue), written while the war yet raged, created a sensation when it was published in Germany in 1952 and established the poet’s career. It captures the eerie incongruity of Jewish violinists being forced to perform concert music in the death camps. One of the most haunting images is the following:
Er ruft streicht dunkler die Geigen
Dann steigt ihr als Rauch in die Luft
Dann habt ihr ein Grab in den Wolken
Da liegt man nicht eng.
He shouts strike the fiddles darker
Then you’ll rise as smoke in the air
Then you’ll have a grave in the clouds
There you won’t lie cramped.
As the years went by, Celan’s poems became sparser: Begrudgingly few words and their meanings obtuse beyond comprehension. There was set in motion a total breakdown of language (running a course parallel to Celan’s mental breakdown). Celan was being overtaken by silence, his voice being choked as a rehearsal for its final “stilling” in the Seine.
But before the total strangulation of sense, Celan’s eye would light on the King within the Nothing.
Im Nichts—wer steht da? Der König.
Da steht der König, der König.
Da steht er und steht.
Judenlocke, wirst nicht grau.
In Nothing—what dwells there? The King.
There the King dwells, the King.
There he dwells and dwells.
Jew’s curl, you’ll turn not grey.
(“Mandorla” from Die Niemandsrose ;
in Paul Celan: Poems, translated by M. Hamburger
[New York: Persea Books, 1980], pp. 156-157)
Had Celan read Rabbi Nahman of Breslov? Or had their minds’ eyes shared a common vision of a King who reposes in the Void? And might Celan’s cranium have yet retained the verses of Judah the Pious’ Hymn of Glory sung in synagogue on the Sabbath:
The tresses of His head are like His youthful days;
His locks are black curls.
And maybe the two mystical visions of Nahman of Breslov and Judah the Pious collided in Celan’s imagination, yielding a marriage of Heaven and Hell; the destruction of Jewry and its immortality.
* * *
Aharon Appelfeld (1932- ) was a boy at the time of the Holocaust. Like Celan, he is eternally orphaned of his mother. Unlike Celan, he traded his maternal language of German for Hebrew. Since settling in Israel after the War in 1946, he has produced novel after novel in the “sacred tongue.” In those novels, he returns time and again to Tchernowitz. The guises change from narrative to narrative; through the diaphanous veil we easily make out the features of the boy orphaned of his mother. (Both Celan and Appelfeld are openly Oedipal.) Appelfeld and his readers are forced to forever revisit the scene of the trauma; to reopen a wound that never heals.
Appelfeld was spared Celan’s agony of taking German’s infamously long words and dissecting them until they dissolve into nothingness. Instead, Appelfeld opted for a Hebrew language that is trim and laconic, a quality that persists in English translation. To quote the New York Times Book Review of All Whom I Have Loved, “he has an artfully spare writing style.”
Though Appelfeld’s silence is not as invasive as Celan’s, it should not to be underestimated:
But in his heart Hugo knows that what had been would never be again. The time in the ghetto and in hiding is already embossed on his flesh, and the power of the words he would use has faded. Now it isn’t words that speak to him, but silence. This is a difficult language, but as soon as one adopts it, no other language will ever be as effective.
(Blooms of Darkness, translated by Jeffrey M. Green [New York: Schocken, 2010], p. 53)
A theme that runs through Appelfeld’s novels is the sociological observation, usually made by devout Ukrainian peasants, that the Old Jews believed in God and prayed in the synagogue but the New Jews no longer believe and have no use of synagogues.
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Finally, we come to Meshulam Rath (1875-1962), the elder Rabbi of Tchernowitz. He survived the inferno that engulfed Europe and settled in Israel in 1944, where he was frequently consulted by the Chief Rabbinate. (Since youth, Rath had been identified with the Religious Zionist movement.)
Even those who could not abide Meshulam Rath’s Zionist sympathies dared not impugn his credentials as a world-class halakhic authority. Rabbi Meshulam Rath’s most famous—and controversial—legal decision concerns reciting Hallel (Psalms of thanksgiving) on Israel’s Independence Day. In 1952, at the behest of Rabbi Judah Leib Maimon, he penned a formal responsum wherein he expressed his bold opinion that it behooves Jews to recite Hallel with a blessing on Yom Ha-‘Atsma’ut.
Rabbi Rath entitled his collection of responsa Kol Mevaser (Voice of the Herald):
I pray that just as I merited after the terrible Holocaust to see the beginning of the redemption, so may the Lord grant me the privilege to hear the voice heralding our complete redemption, speedily in our days.
(From the Introduction to Kol Mevaser, datelined B’nei Berak, 23 Menahem-Av 5715/1955)
The poet who emerged from the Holocaust a young man, lapsed into silence, and eventually madness and suicide. The novelist who emerged from the vanished world an adolescent, also succumbed to silence. It was the old rabbi, the septuagenarian sage, who saw a world destroyed and rebuilt, that summoned the strings of King David’s harp. And these strings would not establish for the Jews a space in the sky—as in Celan’s Death Fugue—but a space on Earth.
Celan’s cryptic remark proved true:
Judenlocke, wirst nicht grau
Jew lock you’ll turn not gray.