Death Fugue (Todesfuge)

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DEATH FUGUE (Todesfuge)

Poem by Paul Celan, 1948

Paul Celan's "Death Fugue" was originally written in Romanian in 1944, put in its final form in 1945, then translated into German in 1948, the date of its first publication. It has appeared in several English translations. In its German version the poem has become widely known and is frequently invoked as a principal instance of Holocaust poetry. It juxtaposes and provocatively links the two German achievements of masterful artistry and unprecedented mass murder. Celan patterns his poem—about a blue-eyed German master who rules over a death camp where Jews shovel their graves—after the cyclical theme-and-repetition model of a baroque fugue. The poem's central image depicts Jewish prisoners forced to dig their graves and play music while being told that they will rise like smoke in the air. In the poem's most trenchant formulation, which has served as title for innumerable anthologies and documentaries, Celan declares that "death is a master from Germany." Celan based "Death Fugue" on accounts by survivors of concentration camps returning to Romania in late 1944. He describes no particular camp but invokes an unspeci-fied murderous setting outside of Germany where individual agency and perspective all but vanish in the numbing monotony of forced laborers toiling on the brink between life and death.

The poem's incantatory rhythm is propelled by a haunting refrain of "Black milk of daybreak we drink it at nightfall." The recurring line introduces a series of stark and quasi-surrealist images recounted in the present tense by an unidenti-fied "we" which presumably encompasses all Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Each of the poem's six varied-length stanzas includes disturbingly concrete descriptions of "a man" alternately writing to his sweetheart in Germany, playing with snakes, whistling his dogs, swinging an iron bat, ordering "his Jews" to dig and to sing, and shooting them "with perfect aim." In this decidedly modernist poem, sentence fragments are spliced and recombined to create the impression of a scene of suffering, fear, and death that is at once chaotic and random, yet entirely self-contained.

In response to critics' suggestions that the artistic achievement of "Death Fugue" transcends all suffering, Celan insisted in a letter in the 1960s that the "grave in the air" in " this poem, God knows, is neither a borrowed reference nor a metaphor." At the time "Death Fugue" had become a touch-stone in debates about the possibility of writing "poetry after Auschwitz," which German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno had famously declared to be "barbaric." Since Celan feared that his poem might be misunderstood as whitewashing German crimes or overcoming the Holocaust by means of art, he stressed the literalness of his images.

The poem contains both explicit and oblique references to German and Jewish literary sources. Its rhythmic structure is a decidedly modernist adaptation of a long tradition of dances of death in works as diverse as medieval verse, the poetry of Heinrich Heine, and the lyric modernism of Georg Trakl. Although "Death Fugue" is a severe indictment of the notion of German-Jewish coexistence, it refuses to forsake the artistic achievements often associated with the German tradition, or to uncouple these achievements from Jewish influence. Celan places the German camp commander's "golden-haired Margarete" from Goethe's Faust tragedy next to and ultimately contrasts her with an "ashen-haired Shulamith" from the "Song of Songs." Celan even employs the Nazis' cynicism ("we are digging a grave in the air there we won't lie too cramped") to assert his right to speak on behalf of Jewish survivors, and to condemn the German crimes all the more severely by relying on artistic means associated with German culture. The deceptively straightforward poem becomes a powerful dirge for the Jewish victims of German violence through Celan's technique of layering several contradictory meanings into a single compacted image.

In the 1960s Celan's poem became a standard literary representation of the camp experience. Partly in response to overly formalist readings of "Death Fugue" where the poem's theme was downplayed in favor of metrical analyses or buried with praise of its literary achievement, Celan refused reprinting it in anthologies. He was also dismayed at seeing his poem included in collections with poets of erstwhile ultra-conservative or fascist political leanings or with writers who had previously been associated with the surrealist poet Yvan Goll's widow, who waged an unfounded campaign charging Celan with plagiarism. It is possible to find occasional veiled references to images from "Death Fugue" in Celan's later work. In light of the poet's suggestion that every poem is as much "wounded by reality" as it is in "search of reality," "Death Fugue" remains one of the most powerful directives in efforts to map the terrain of the Holocaust in literature.

—Ulrich Baer