Holocaust and Auschwitz Poems

Paul Celan's Death fugue or "Fugue of Death" poem belongs among the group of great and terrifying literary works written by survivors of the Holocaust, such as Night by Elie Wiesel and the memoirs of Primo Levi. The poem is partly inspired by Paul Celan's own experience in the camps, and partly by histories of places like Auschwitz. During the war, he was separated from his parents, who died in Nazi concentration camps. He spent more than a year in a labor camp, where he saw enough horrible things to last a lifetime. After the war he began to seriously write poetry, and "Deathfugue" was published in 1948. It remains his best-known work. Later he became a teacher in Paris, but he struggled to come to terms with the Holocaust throughout his life and eventually committed suicide. The title of the poem refers to the music played by some of the Jews while they carried out forced labor. A fugue is a musical form that was perfected in Germany by the composer J.S. Bach. We'll have a lot more to say about it in "Form and Meter" and "What's Up With The Title?". For now, it's important to know that the Nazi guards at some of the death camps really did make prisoners play music before horrible occasions like executions. Auschwitz in particular – one of the very worst camps – was notorious for this practice. The music was sometimes referred to as the "Death Tango." In fact, the original title of the poem was "Death Tango," but when Celan translated it from Romanian to German he changed the title to "Todesfuge" – which means "Death Fugue" in English. This poem, and Celan's writing in general, is very difficult to translate. We think the attempt by John Felstiner best captures the unique sound and tone of the work. And, as a bonus, you even get to learn a little German from reading Felstiner's translation, though we admit that phrases like "Death is a master from Deutschland" do not exactly fall under the category of "practical German"….

Fugue of Death

Death Fugue by Paul Celan, Anselm Kiefer (1981)

Black milk of daybreak we drink it at nightfall
we drink it at noon in the morning we drink it at night
we drink it and drink it
we are digging a grave in the sky it is ample to lie there
A man in the house he plays with the serpents he writes
he writes when the night falls to Germany your golden
hair Margarete
he writes it and walks from the house the stars glitter he
whistles his dogs up
he whistles his Jews out and orders a grave to be dug in
the earth
he commands us strike up for the dance

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you in the morning at noon we drink you at
nightfall
drink you and drink you
A man in the house he plays with the serpents he writes
he writes when the night falls to Germany your golden
hair Margarete
Your ashen hair Shulamith we are digging a grave in the
sky it is
ample to lie there

He shouts stab deeper in earth you there and you others
you sing and you play
he grabs at the iron in his belt and swings it and blue are
his eyes
stab deeper your spades you there and you others play on
for the dancing

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at nightfall
we drink you at noon in the mornings we drink you at
nightfall
drink you and drink you
a man in the house your golden hair Margarete
your ashen hair Shulamith he plays with the serpents

He shouts play sweeter death’s music death comes as a
master from Germany
he shouts stroke darker the strings and as smoke you
shall climb to the sky
then you’ll have a grave in the clouds it is ample to lie
there

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at noon death comes as a master from
Germany
we drink you at nightfall and morning we drink you and
drink you
a master from Germany death comes with eyes that are
blue
with a bullet of lead he will hit in the mark he will hit
you
a man in the house your golden hair Margarete
he hunts us down with his dogs in the sky he gives us a
grave
he plays with the serpents and dreams death comes as a
master from Germany

your golden hair Margarete
your ashen hair Shulamith.


Poem about Death

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