Post-Holocaust Poetry and the (In)efficacy of Language

by Heather Pujals

How can we begin to talk about the Holocaust and its resulting literature, especially now when some of us are personally so far removed from that time and place in history? I could start with a reminder of some of the innumerable horrors or express an impossible empathy—impossible because empathy requires understanding—for the survivors and victims. Instead, through examining some of the poetic works of Paul Celan (1920-1970) and Charlotte Delbo (1913-1985), I aim to shed light on what I have found to be a common message in the genre of post-Holocaust poetry: that somehow the Holocaust has fractured the system of language, making communication for survivors difficult, if not impossible, and that certain experiences during and surrounding the Holocaust can be literally indescribable because they are part of an unprecedented horror for which language has no words.

       Celan’s “Keine Sandkust Mehr” [“No More Sand Art”] is a characteristically sparse and difficult poem from late in his career. Delbo’s untitled poem (which I will henceforth identify by its first line “Vous voudriez savoir” [“You’d Like To Know”]), originally written in French, comes from Mesure des Nos Jours [The Measure of Our Days], which was published in 1971 and later became the final book translated into English by Rosette C. Lamont for Delbo’s prose-poetry trilogy Auschwitz and After. In these poems, the two writers echo each other as they address the inability of language to convey their experiences as Holocaust survivors, though they take different approaches: Celan’s point ironically seems, at least initially, lost in the general incomprehensibility of the poem, while Delbo’s claim is posed more directly. However, the claim they make—that language cannot effectively be used to convey anything meaningful to both readers and listeners—at least partially disproves itself simply because it is possible to extract meaning from their poems.

       In the fragmented first line of Celan’s “Keine Sandkunst mehr,” references to Jewish heritage in a religio-cultural sense and Germanic heritage in an artistic and academic sense run parallel: “Keine Sandkunst mehr, kein Sandbuch, keine / Meister” [“No more sand art, no sand book, no / masters”] (Paul Celan 1-2). Through the loaded signifiers “sand,” which conjures images of the desert (i.e., the region of Israel and the Jewish homeland), and “book”(likely refering to none other than the most holy book within Judaism, the Torah), he invites the German-speaking Jewish community, or whatever is left of it, to bear special witness to the claims he makes in this poem. With “No more…sand book,” Celan is insinuating religion itself, at the very least Judaism, cannot exist after the Holocaust, a claim reminiscent of Theodore Adorno’s famous statement from Kulturkritik und Gesellschaft [Cultural Criticism and Society] (1951) about how writing poetry after Auschwitz would be barbarous. Of course, this statement is often taken out of its context within Adorno’s discussion of the dialectic of culture and barbarism; but if we were to take it literally, or even interpret “barbarous” as synonymous with “lacking civilization,” then we might say that nobody could write poetry after Auschwitz in any civilized manner, or possibly that the poetry itself might be uncivilized. With this and Celan’s claim in mind, poetry and organized religion can be seen as markers of civilization on a large scale; and if those markers are “no more,” then Celan and Adorno are effectively in agreement that the Holocaust has de-civilized the world.

       The last word of the first line is just as heavily freighted. With meister, which in German can be singular or plural depending on surrounding grammar, Celan references a rich collection of German Classical and Romantic “masters” of music, literature, and philosophy; such as Beethoven, Goethe, and Kant, respectively, who represent high points in German culture. He does this more directly in his well-known and earlier poem “Todesfuge” [“Death Fugue”] when he references Margarete, a character from Goethe’s Faust. However, Celan is not claiming that the memory of these masters has been erased, but rather that the Nazis of the Third Reich have taken sole custody of this heritage, even using it against their victims who would have previously considered it their heritage as well. At Auschwitz, for example, SS officers would force prisoners who had training with musical instruments to perform and dance to well-known national German songs for hours on end while guarded via gunpoint and snarling German Shepherds. They turned playing Bach—noble, familiar Bach—into a form of torture. Celan alludes to these occurrences directly in “Todesfuge” when the speaker of the poem quotes his SS master: “ihr andern singet / und spielt…spielt weiter zum / Tanz auf” [“you others sing / and play…play on for the dance”] (Celan, Paul Celan 24-25, 28-29). Through the Nazis’ systematic appropriation of the works of these masters for their own sadistic purposes, the masters no longer belong to a broader European audience, especially not to Jews. Furthermore, “Todesfuge” asserts that “Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland” [“Death is a master from Germany”], a phrase which has at least a double meaning: the masters of death camps were from Germany in a literal sense, while the iconic meister of Germany played an indirect role in aiding Nazi malevolence. Together, “Keine Sandkunst Mehr” and “Todesfuge” reveal that the process of a vast cultural heritage being taken away from German-speaking Jews began as soon as the meister became affiliated specifically with torture at the hands of the Nazis.

       As I mentioned before, Celan’s “Keine Sandkunst Mehr” also suggests that the Holocaust resulted in a loss of the ability for the survivors to convey meaning through language, i.e., not only the loss of cultural heritage, but of linguistic heritage as well. The speaker asks, “Wieviel / Stumme?” which Michael Hamburger translates to “How many / Dumb ones?” (Celan, Paul Celan 3-4). I think, however, that “How many / struck dumb?” conveys the German meaning better since stumme has more of a verbal rather than simply adjectival force, which then suggests that at a certain place in time some number of people have been passively made mute as opposed to always having been so. Trying to make the lines into a sentence (“How many have been struck dumb?”) would probably be most appropriate. The Holocaust—the systematic extermination of European Jews and others deemed undeserving of life—has caused this muteness. When faced with something so impossible to explain, let alone justify, there can and never will be a clear explanation since mere signifiers, individual letters and phonemes, do not have the capability to convey that which cannot be signified—the uniquely horrible occurrences that make up the Holocaust.

       The last three lines of “Keine Sandkunst Mehr” further attempt to show (because they cannot explain) the concept that, after the Holocaust, the system of language, at least for the survivors, is broken.

              I—i—e. (Celan, Paul Celan 8-10)


At first read, these three short lines appear to be utter nonsense, and in a way they are. Although German readers may be accustomed to seeing words combined in a similar manner, it produces extra confusion for those reading the English translation. That the words are so crowded calls to mind the train cars, which were used to transport masses of Jews and other victims throughout Europe to work and death camps; and as “Tiefimschnee” suggests, those trains did not stop during winter.

       Incidentally, “snow” further acts as a replacement for the earlier mention of “sand” and its connotations, which were lost at the beginning of the poem. It hints that as an already displaced people, and originally from a desert region, Jews stuck in the snows of Europe are both literally and figuratively “out of their element.” Both within the train cars and the poet’s words there is no breathing room, no room for coherence or understanding. The following downgrade to “Iefimnee,” which at least still maintains a resemblance to the preceding triple-word, and finally to the mere phoneme string “I—i—e” is a metaphor for the dissolution of language as a means for communication. These vowel sounds are reminiscent of the babbling of infants, or perhaps that of a dying person, suggesting that the survivors’ ability to communicate has fallen out of their own conscious control.

       Furthermore, in Hebrew (Celan chose to write in German, but he knew Hebrew as well) vowels are generally not signified at all, and therefore this final line becomes even more powerful. If, let’s say, this poem were translated into Hebrew, we would be left with nothing at the end; the whole line composed only of vowels would vanish, as many Jews themselves did. The signifiers, which usually carry meaning, are reduced to, at least in German and in English, the most basic forms of utterance that signify nothing besides, perhaps, the absence of something signified. This is where we run into a paradox, though. If those isolated letter groupings (or a blank line if in Hebrew) mean nothing, then how am I here interpreting them (or it)? At this point, the only way to make sense of Celan’s poetry is to conclude that as far as language goes, it is not lost, not like the masters anyway, but it is fractured—fractured enough that there is a disconnect between survivor and “other,” and perhaps between survivors themselves as well.

       Charlotte Delbo also tackles the issue of post-Holocaust communication in her poem “Vous voudriez savoir” from her memoir Mesure des Nos Jours. While not as seemingly nonsensical as the closing lines of “Keine Sandkunst Mehr,” Delbo’s poem still does not conform to any typical poetic form or stanza organization. The most notable point to make about the format is that the entire poem is posed as one long run-on sentence with a capital letter beginning it and a period ending it. Otherwise, there are no other punctuation marks, and the grammar is incidentally difficult to follow, forcing readers to make assumptions about where a comma or set of quotation marks might have gone. This very act, though—making assumptions and filling in what we deem necessary additions to Delbo’s seemingly incomplete expression—may be exactly what she and other survivors warn us against. She writes, “et nous ne savons pas répondre / nous ne savons pas répondre avec vos mots à vous / et nos mots à nous / vous ne les comprenez pas” [“and we don’t know how to answer / not with the words you use / our own words / you can’t understand”], which suggests that survivors are operating in an entirely different language system than the rest of us (Delbo 10-13). Survivors cannot use our words to describe their experiences, nor can we understand the words they would use to do so. Our vocabularies do not overlap since there are no extant words to describe her experiences.

       Delbo presents patience as a solution to this conundrum. Since survivors are only capable of using language a certain way at this time, inquirers are the ones who must remain patient as survivors attempt to answer their questions. Conversely, Delbo maintains that without patience this conundrum of communication will remain so:

alors vous demandez des choses plus simples
dites-nous par exemple
comment se passait une journée
c’est si long une journée
que vous n’auriez pas la patience
et quand nous répondons
vous ne savez pas comment passait une journée
et vous croyez que nous ne savons pas répdondre. (Delbo 14-21)
[so you ask the simpler things
tell us for example
how a day was spent
a day goes by so slowly
you’d run out of patience listening
but if we gave you an answer
you still don’t know how a day was spent
and assume we don’t know how to answer.]

These lines indicate that even if a survivor were asked “simpler things,” their answer would produce enough boredom, confusion, or frustration that the inquirer would give up trying to understand. Out of impatience, the inquirer would not wait to have their question sufficiently answered and would then write off the survivor as indefinitely incapable of doing so, effectively eradicating any chance of future communication.

       In “Keine Sandkunst Mehr” with the line “Deine Frage—deine Antwort” [“Your question—your answer”], Celan agrees with this disconnection (Paul Celan 6). Firstly, it is important to note that deine is an informal pronoun and therefore carries certain implications, for instance, that the speaker is on familiar terms with the listener, as if Celan himself (or the poem’s fictional speaker) is affectionately reaching out to us, or that this is a dialogue he (or, again, the speaker) is having within his own mind, or, more pessimistically, that the speaker simply does not have respect for the listener. Regardless, the hyphen is of paramount importance. It physically implies there is a certain unbridgeable gap between question and answer, and perhaps between questioner and answerer as well. Does this, along with Delbo’s concern, mean that, despite patience and time, post-Holocaust communication may never improve?

       Upon receiving the Literature Prize of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen in 1958, Celan said,

It, the language, remained, not lost—yes, in spite of everything. But it had to pass through its own answerlessness, pass through frightful muting, pass through the thousand darknesses of deathbringing speech. It passed through and gave back no words for that which happened; yet it passed through this happening. (Selected Poems 395, emphasis mine.)

Celan’s comment suggests that since language did, in fact, survive the Holocaust, perhaps there is hope for communication to improve. It argues for language as an enduring apparatus, one that was not destroyed, but damaged, and therefore might be repaired. With this claim, Celan may be borrowing a concept from Kabbalah, an oft-misunderstood tract within the umbrella of Jewish mysticism, in hinting at a possible tikkun [repair] for language. Furthermore, arguing that the Holocaust has destroyed the capacity for survivors to communicate in any meaningful way creates a paradox and this paper is proof: here we have two survivors effectively conveying emotions and ideas, and although we can never know exactly what the survivors experienced, we can appreciate their efforts, though often fragmented and fractured, to reach out and, through patiently hearing and appreciating their accounts, we can facilitate the repair of the system of post-Holocaust communication.

       To some extent, communication is and may remain broken, however, simply because effective communication is based on a necessary identification, a perception of common ground, between the speaker (or writer) and the listener (or reader). The nature of the Holocaust, i.e., the impossibility to replicate it (and who would want to?), ensures that listeners and readers will never be able to have that moment of identification, of recognition, with the speakers and writers.

       So what can we take away from this dismal situation? Celan’s “Keine Sandkunst Mehr” laments that somehow certain aspects of culture, like artistic and academic heritage, along with language itself, have been lost indefinitely, while Delbo’s “Vous voudriez savoir” suggests that people are asking the wrong questions and not listening with enough patience to connect with survivors. Both are certainly valuable points, but actively addressing Delbo’s more tangible one may be the most productive path toward improving communication. Imre Kertesz intrepidly speaks for us all with the question, “How should the world free itself from Auschwitz, from the burden of the Holocaust?” He justifies that despite its seemingly “dishonest motives,” the question expresses a natural longing possessed by survivors and outsiders alike, and answers it thusly:

The decades have taught me that the only passable route to liberation leads us through memory. The artist hopes that, through a precise description, leading him once more along the pathways of death, he will finally break through to the noblest kind of liberation, to a catharsis in which he can perhaps allow his reader to partake as well. (Kertesz 268)

Kertesz suggests that as outsiders our choice of action should be to hear, in more than just a literal sense, what the survivors have to say. Surely there will remain facets of culture indefinitely tarnished, certain experiences may never be able to be put into words, and maybe post-Holocaust poetry is itself “barbarous,” but following the survivors’ written trajectory is the only way we can hope to tikkun olam, repair the world. By narrowing the gap between us and them we can begin to transcend the burden of the Holocaust, which, as citizens of the world regardless of temporal or regional origin, we all inherit.

Works Cited

Celan, Paul. Paul Celan: Poems, a Bilingual Edition. Trans. Michael Hamburger. New York: Persea, 1980.

Celan, Paul. Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan. Trans. John Felstiner. New York: W.W. Norton, 2001.

Delbo, Charlotte. Auschwitz and After. Trans. Rosette C. Lamont. New Haven: Yale UP, 1995.

Delbo, Charlotte. Mesure des nos jours. Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1971.

Kertesz, Imre. “Who Owns Auschwitz?” Trans. John MacKay. The Yale Journal of Criticism 14.1 (2001): 267-72.

“Keine Sandkunst Mehr” by Paul Celan

Keine Sandkunst mehr, kein Sandbuch, keine

Nichts erwürfelt. Wieviel

Deine Frage—deine Antwort
Dein Gesang, was weiß er?


“No More Sand Art” translated by Michael Hamburger

No more sand art, no sand book, no master.

Nothing won by dicing. How many
dumb ones?

Your question—your answer.
Your song, what does it know?


An untitled poem by Charlotte Delbo

Vous voudriez savoir
poser des questions
et vous ne savez quelles questions
et vous ne savez comment poser les questions
alors vous demandez
des choses simples
la faim
la peur
la mort
et nous ne savons pas répondre
nous ne savons pas répondre avec vos mots à vous
et nos mots à nous
vous ne les comprenez pas
alors vous demandez des choses plus simples
dites-nous par exemple
comment se passait une journée
c’est si long une journée
que vous n’auriez pas la patience
et quand nous répondons
vous ne savez pas comment passait une journée
et vous croyez que nous ne savons pas répdondre.

Charlotte Delbo’s poem translated by Rosette C. Lamont

You’d like to know
ask questions
but you don’t know what questions
and don’t know how to ask them
so you inquire
about simple things
and we don’t know how to answer
not with the words you use
our own words
you can’t understand
so you ask the simpler things
tell us for example
how a day was spent
a day goes by so slowly
you’d run out of patience listening
but if we gave you an answer
you still don’t know how a day was spent
and assume we don’t know how to answer.