A Haunted Silence: Examining Poetry’s Relationship with Silence in the Wake of the Shoah through the Work of Johannes Bobrowski and Paul Celan
Essay by Elizabeth Myhr



Poetry as an art has a long and distinguished relationship with silence. Language has since our beginnings been inextricably related to silence, beginning with Genesis, where God separates light from darkness and makes words for light and darkness by calling them Day and Night (Genesis 1:5). The naming of the world comes out of a great and unknowable silence. To quote Steiner, “[p]ossessed of speech, possessed by it…the human person has broken free from the great silence of matter. “ To speak is to be human. And there is in Western poetry the unassailable assumption that to write poetry successfully is a high human art, done in homage to and to contain for its culture in words some moment of that original silence. A relationship with divine silence has forever been integral to the art.

But the nature of silence was changed in the middle of the twentieth century by World War II. This essay will explore the German poetic response to that event. I argue that the nature of silence changed after the Holocaust, that a new silence was spawned, and out of this silence the great poets of Europe began to write in response to the trauma of the war. No, there could be no more poetry after Auschwitz, as Adorno wrote, not in the way there had been poetry (a poetry of celebration) before it. Where God had been poetry’s ultimate silence, silence now meant something terribly, awfully different. In the Holocaust-torn soul of humanity, the creation had been reduced to “urns of ashes in a burned out garden” (Zbigniew Herbert, “To Ryszard Krynicki--A Letter”, 1983).

So how was this silence conceived of, absorbed, finally written about? I will ponder these questions by examining the poetry of Johannes Bobrowski, a German foot soldier serving and writing poetry during the very worst days of Germany’s occupation of Poland, and the poetry of Paul Celan, Jewish, a survivor, and a man struggling to survive spiritually in a world in which Jews had been decimated by intentional murder, whose absence was a great silence itself and from which Celan emerged as a symbol of the perseverance of poetry in the face of evil.


The Semitic term for silence means “be humble, be calm.” The Latin word, sïl?re, is a word of unknown origin, is a mystery. It implies slowly flowing water; something windless, quiet; slow, or ceasing, a growing calm. But now, post-Holocaust (yes, we are still post-Holocaust, it has not become part of the past in any real sense) this calm, quiet ceasing is not the only silence that informs the poetry of the age. Poets writing now make choices about their orientations toward silence. Out of what do they write? Light or the silence following devastation? Was it, after all, possible to write out of the roaring silence of a mass grave before the Holocaust? I do not think so, not in any profound way. A haunting and haunted troubled silence has entered poetry, both in form and meaning. And in so many ways, this terrible silence has been unintentionally carried forward, without a clear understanding of its cultural origin, into modern poetry.


As a philosophical background for a discussion of poetry’s post-war relationship to silence, I shall refer to writings of George Steiner and Max Pickard:

"Silence is always close to history. There was an example of this at the end of the last World War [World War I]…when silence was powerfully present for a few days. Nothing was said about the war; it was absorbed by the silence before it was spoken. Silence was for a time more potent than all the horrors of the war. It could have been a healing influence, and the world could have been transformed and re-created in that silence if it had not been overrun and destroyed by the noise of the whole industrial machine [specifically Nazi Germany’s propaganda machine] getting down to work again. That was the great defeat that mankind suffered immediately after the war."
(Max Picard, Silence and History, 1948. Annotations mine)

After World War II, no one could any longer claim that “[s]ilence was for a time more potent than all the horrors of the war. “ Silence, as poets knew it up until that point in history, as a word, a force, a companion in the creative process, took on a new dimension. How could it be the same word, same force, same companion as the silence created by the Holocaust? It could not. In the equivalent of a historical moment, silence became something new and took on new dimensions.

The individual poet, accustomed to praising or damning—essentially creating—history with the written word, faced a new reality: events of the war had been so terrible—and language itself had been so butchered in service to genocide--that words changed meanings and, in a very real sense, lost their power in a new way. Where words had once failed in the face of the divine, words now failed in the face of evil. The poet found himself in the position of remaining silent not because silence could heal, but because it was the most humane choice. The distinction is crucial. Here is Steiner, writing on the same subject as Max Picard, a mere eighteen years later:

It is better for the poet to mutilate his own tongue than to dignify the inhuman either with his gift or his uncaring. If totalitarian rule is so effective as to break all chances of denunciation, of satire, then let the poet cease…a few miles down the road from the death camp. Precisely because it is the signature of his humanity, because it is that which makes of man a being of striving unrest, the word should have no natural life, no neutral sanctuary, in the places and season of bestiality. Silence is an alternative. When the words in the city are full of savagery and lies, nothing speaks louder than the unwritten poem.

(George Steiner, Silence and the Poet, 1966)

Silence in these instances was still divine insofar as it was recognized as the proper response to trauma and atrocity, as a response in grief, and it is to this silence, the silence of death and silence of mourner, that the root definitions of the word clearly apply. But silence now became personal and forced: the poet had no choice but to feel it as something beyond his control, and because it was created by humankind against humankind, the poet had to exist inside of it and it had to exist inside of him. This was a silence from which there was no escape, about which there was no choice. The poem--atrocious after Auschwitz because the old models no longer sufficed, there being a real danger of using beauty, language, image, metaphor, attention incorrectly—was useless against conquering, or even complimenting, silence. From what could poetry now emerge, and toward what could it aim as an art? Poetry had, in a way, been defeated.

Furthermore, where silence is no longer divine but brutally created by circumstances, the poet becomes either the individual responsible for the unendurable nature of this silence, or is individually responsible for creating the necessary silence to follow the occasion of its making. Silence, historically divine, became polluted by its improper residence in the individual artist instead of its proper residence in a divine spirit alive throughout his person and his culture.

What happens to poetry when the proper response to atrocity is to not speak, to not write, when the only proper spiritual response is what Steiner calls “the suicidal rhetoric of silence”? I will look at two poets who did not choose silence in the face of the terrible events of World War II in Eastern Europe. Yet they did not manage to escape it.


One of the most fascinating German poets of the war is Johannes Bobrowski. Bobrowski was born in Tilsit and raised in Eastern Germany (now Poland). He was a German citizen and grew up among villages with a mixed population of Lithuanians, Russians, Poles and Jews. The Jewish population was the largest religious group among the four nationalities.

He did not start writing poetry until 1941 after he became a Nazi foot soldier in the huge armies the Nazis gathered for the invasion of Russia. A part of the first wave of German soldiers moving east toward the Russian border in 1941, Bobrowksi witnessed the beginning of a period now historically recognized as the most murderous part of the Nazi campaign to exterminate the Jewish people of Eastern Europe. Prior to 1941 and this campaign, 90% of Europe’s Jews were still alive. Within three years, only a small percentage remained.. The years from 1941- 44 included the killings at Babi Yar, along with thousands of smaller-scale mass killings that occurred on a daily basis throughout this time and are well documented. Bobrowski was writing poetry literally in, and at the heart of, the sickest and most insane months of the Holocaust.

Bobrowski walked, literally, in the shadow of the Nazi Einsatzgruppen. What his duties were remain unclear. In order to better understand his writing circumstances, I offer the online definition from www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Holocaust/einmap.html of Einsatzgruppen:

Mobile killing squads (Einsatzgruppen) were German special duty units, composed primarily of SS and police personnel, assigned to kill Jews as part of the Nazi program to kill the Jews of Europe. During the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, the mobile killing squads followed the German army as it advanced deep into Soviet territory, and carried out mass-murder operations. Wherever the mobile killing squads went they shot Jewish men, women, and children, without regard for age or gender. Mobile killing squads killed more than a million Jews….

On his return to Germany he published his early poems in Nazi and Communist magazines. He was captured by the Russians and sent to labor in a coal mine in Siberia for a time, and returned to live in Eastern Germany and to become one of Germany’s most famous and beloved post-war poets. He died prematurely in 1965 from an illness curable by antibiotics. Apparently he simply did not take them.

He began writing poetry in 1941 next to a Russian lake. In order to ascertain Bobrowski’s actual movements and whereabouts as a soldier as it relates to his poetry, I would need to undertake an extensive research project into the Holocaust archives. Without this research it is impossible to verify whether or not Bobrowski participated in war crimes and atrocities. He certainly witnessed them. In “Kaunas, 1941” he describes the “slavering wolves” of the SS driving the “grey processions” of prisoners over a hill to their deaths. Historically, this description is not of an isolated event: it is an accurate description of what happened to Jews in Russia and Poland day after day, group after group, for four years. We know one thing to be certain: Bobrowski was in the first wave of Nazi soldiers to enter Eastern Europe specifically to exterminate Jewish peoples throughout Poland as a prelude to invading Russia. The literature on Bobrowski’s poetry is decidedly silent on the moral issues surrounding his circumstances. We do know he was moving, with the Einsatzgruppen, through the land of his childhood.

He wrote about silences he witnessed and felt at the front—deserted towns, empty landscapes, open plains that had witnessed one conquering force after another. His aim, he himself wrote, was to memorialize for the German people his homeland the way it existed before the war. In some instances his poems remember the people of his childhood town, including, in several poems, Jewish inhabitants. His work is marked by serenity, sadness, stillness, and is often lyrical and in some cases very beautiful. It is a particularly haunting literature given its historical context.

The following poem, “Deserted Township,” is quite typical. It appears in Shadow Lands, translated by Ruth and Matthew Mead, the only book of Bobrowski’s selected works available in English.

Deserted Township

Across the empty
market-place the wind
a chicken’s-wing,
draws a track in the dust.
Fences. Lopsided
crosses, Jackdaw-voice.
Who comes, a board on his shoulder,
who will cut a new sill
for the window, who
came, a green pot
under the shawl?
Here no one comes. The sky
finds a ribbon
lying and whisks it up,
moss grows on the
housewall, mist flies
round a white tower, and where
have you come from?
Across the moaning fences
of the pastures, across
the meadow near the bog-hole,
black water follows you, drowning your footprints.

The silences in this particular poem are found in the poem’s setting and pronouns. The silence of the setting is at first visual: the empty township marketplace with the wind imagined as a lopped off wing (associated with hearth and angel and in German “chicken” and “wind” with “Windpocken” chickenpox, a disease). This wing writes in the dust. The futility of the single image of a fence (is there anything starker in a rural setting?) with nothing to enclose. Tilted crosses. A jackdaw’s voice, a bird named specifically because it belongs to the corvids, a group of birds including crows that signify death. These objects may also be covert symbols for Nazi occupiers: the town “deserted” of its inhabitants except for piecemeal remains; the tilted crosses of the swastika; the croaking voice of an SS commander.

The silence also finds a home in the poem’s grammatical use of pronouns. The pronoun “who” is one of only three pronouns that is in itself a question (the others being “what” and “which”). By asking about people who do not exist, the poet fills the town with the missing--the one who might come someday, the one “who/came, a green pot, under the shawl” and is gone. Silence is felt as an historical force that runs back into history and forward into the future.

The answer to the questions is “Here no one comes.” The pronoun “you” in the poem has two different readings, neither positive. It can be interpreted as either a narrative voice questioning itself as it slides across the natural landscape, distanced, second person, vague: “and where/did you come from?”, doomed, as “black water follows you, drowning your footsteps.” Or the “you” could be the Jewish victims of the empty town ruled by the all-powerful sky, the “you” that is “no-one”, that came from nowhere, that walked through the meadows and across the bog and disappeared (through murder). Either way it is read, the poem is chilling, the stillness and vacancy of the “deserted” town having soaked everything and left behind a silence that contains in itself children (“ribbon”), homes (“house wall”), and faith, “a mist flies/round a white tower”, the village church spire. This silence engulfs everything.


Paul Celan was another poet who did not accept Steiner’s idea of the suicidal rhetoric of silence. He is to my mind the one Jewish poet of his century who represents the soul of his culture in language and who wrote a poetry that attempts to encompass and contain the great grief-silence of the Shoah using the very language, now corrupted, that spawned and supported atrocity. Here is Paul Celan:

COUNT the almonds,
count what was bitter and kept you awake,
count me in:
I looked for your eye when you opened it, no one was looking at you,
I spun that secret thread
on which the dew you were thinking
slid down to the jugs
guarded by words that to no one’s heart found their way.
Only there did you wholly enter the name that is yours,
sure-footed stepped into yourself,
freely the hammers swung in the bell frame of your silence,
the listened for reached you,
what is dead put its arm around you also
and the three of you walked through the evening.
Make me bitter.
Count me among the almonds.
(Poppy and Recollection, 1952, trans. Hamburger)

The first clue to Celan’s relationship with silence is his deliberate refusal to title poems. He presents them to his readers unintroduced. Here is a poet who said in an acceptance speech for a literature prize in Bremen, Germany, in 1958 that “a poem as a manifestation of language (is)…essentially dialogue….” His poems do in fact appear out of (black) space and start speaking without introduction.

“Count the almonds,” (the Jews) / “count what was bitter and kept you awake,”(count what was Jewish and kept you awake). Celan deliberately used bitter almonds as a symbol of the Jews, the bitterness being the bitter food traditionally served at Passover (Felstiner). “count me in:” (as one of the Jews who kept you awake. I will join.)

The next line is difficult to decipher with any certainty, ambiguity being one of Celan’s great gifts as a linguistic technician. I tend to read him as literally as possible. “I looked for your eye when you opened it, no one was looking at you,” (the opening up of your eye caused me to look at your eye opening, and God was looking at you). / “I spun that secret thread / on which the dew you were thinking / slid down to the jugs” (I made a conduit—a poem—for you so you could be realized and collected) / “guarded by words that to no one’s heart found their way.” I must explain briefly Celan’s use of the phrase “no one.” Within his universe it is the name of the God who allowed the Holocaust, the “niemand” of “Die Niemandsrose” (The No One’s Rose) . It is, I think, his name for the aspect of God that comes out of this terrible silence. I suspect it was taken—as befits Celan’s sense of life soaked in death—from Rilke’s epitaph (see below).

Celan’s mature work came to equate the “no-one’s rose” with the longstanding traditional literary symbol of the rose as silence or secrecy. This is the rose symbol famously used by Rilke for his own epitaph “rose, o pure contradiction, desire / to be no one's sleep beneath so many lids” and by T.S. Eliot in the vision contained in Burnt Norton in The Four Quartets: “And the unseen eyebeam crossed, for the roses / Had the look of flowers that are looked at.” It is interesting that all three poets equate silence with human vision, that in their imaginations silence is twinned with the eye instead of the ear.

“Only there did you wholly enter the name that is yours,” (in “the no one’s heart”—although “there” in this context is again deliberately ambiguous), / “sure-footed stepped into yourself, / freely the hammers swung in the bell frame of your silence, / the listened for reached you,/ what is dead put its arm around you also / and the three of you walked through the evening.” (the listened for, the dead, and God walk together). / “Make me bitter. / Count me among the almonds.” And for this, to be with God in this way, bitterness and one of the lost among the lost.

I know of no poet who writes more deeply from inside the Holocaust’s silence than Celan. His bravery is exemplary. So is his linguistic ability to conjure ambiguity. In this way I believe Clean is unrecognized as a mystic poet. Much is made of his re-vision of German language, of his depth of identification with Holocaust victims, of the difficulty of understanding his work, especially his later work, much of which has never been translated into English because it is considered so cryptic and German-language dependent. But no one writes about his ability to make the reader experience the divine in a new and important way, as it relates to the Shoah and the new spiritual realms that event created. His poems are utterly surrounded by silence, the silence of the mass grave, the silence of the vast distances between worlds that he felt compelled to elucidate to the world. Though “Count the almonds” is a whole unto itself, it feels, like so much of Celan’s work, as if it were a fragment of a deep, interstellar space, a piece not sprouted from or grown out of the organic, divine quiet, not of this earth, but a piece broken off and falling, or perhaps more accurately floating up toward, the reader from an unimaginably large and empty place. I know of no other poet who can accomplish such a thing.

Paul Celan is revered as the most important European poet of his generation in the twentieth century by almost every living poet in America who knows his work (and there are not many). His influence on American letters has yet to be determined. He is still opening out into the consciousness of western literature in general, and American literature in particular. His poems are like stones just now thrown into the lake of poetry, the rings still moving outward. In his work we hear the silence the Shoah left behind. It is a remarkable achievement.


The idea of silence in poetry was irreversibly changed by the Holocaust. And yet poetry is still taught in the English tradition young poets are required to read, as if arising out of a divine silence. It is a completely outdated model that places profound limitations on younger poets. They are missing a whole range of ideas about art and the spirit of creation, ideas of critical importance to western culture and the poetic art. Poets can no longer afford to ignore European literature in translation if they want to explore the most disturbing questions of the twenty-first century. We cannot stand at the helm of poems by Wordsworth or Eliot or Auden. They are no longer enough.

Poems arise now out of noise. To quote Montale from his Nobel acceptance speech in 1975:

"Mass communication, radio, and especially television, have attempted, not without success, to annihilate every possibility of solitude and reflection. Time becomes more rapid, works of a few years ago seem "dated" and the need the artist has to be listened to sooner or later becomes a spasmodic need of the topical, of the immediate."

This cultural obsession with media is having a deep effect on poetry. Silence of any kind is no longer the place to begin. There is barely even a blank page. “Influence” has taken on such enormous proportions and become such a standard starting point (rather than the very limited tool that it is) that “new” work is coming out of what exists (almost without exception) and returning to noise. The result is contemporary poetry that feels recycled, tired, self-referential.

Exceptions to creating out of noise do exist. Nature and hermetic poets still write out of divine silences, but younger writers seems to consider these poetries archaic, naïve, old-fashioned, or at least a luxury. Work arising from any kind of silence no longer appears to capture everyday experience. The modern movement that brought collage—the artistic attempt to make a whole out of a fragmented world—is collapsing under a great need to cut away or fend off excess. Emerging uses of form, line break--including actual amputation of the line--are now in existence, exemplified in new poetic forms. One of which was recently invented by Reginald Gibbons in “Stop” found in his 2002 collection It’s Time, and in the work of many young experimental poets whose work is still not well-known. How far this movement inside of noise can go remains to be seen.


Shadow Lands, Johannes Bobrowski, translated by Ruth and Matthew Mead, Introduction by Michael Hamburger, New Directions, 1994

Poems of Paul Celan, translated by Michael Hamburger, Persea Books, 1994

Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan, translated by John Felstiner, Norton, 2001

Celan Studies, Peter Szondi, translated by Susan Bernofsky, Meridian, Stanford University Press, 2003

Paul Celan Poet, Survivor, Jew, John Felstiner, Yale University Press, 2001

http://german.berkeley.edu/poetry/chymisch.php, Chymical, Paul Celan, translated by Robert Clarke, afterword from cracks of silence – gleaming of hope, Bob Clarke, 2001

The Trace of a Hand Searching for Form: Zbigniew Herbert, Classical Heritage and Poetry after Auschwitz, Djuna Popovic, Princeton University, Slavic and Eastern European Journal, Vol. 51, No. 1 (2007): p 74--p. 86

Language and Silence, George Steiner, Atheneum, 1970

Grammars of Creation, George Steiner, Yale University Press, 2001

Silence and History, Max Picard, Eighth Day Press, 2002

The Oxford German Dictionary, Berkeley Books, 1997