Skip to main content

O the Chimneys!

O THE CHIMNEYS!

Poem by Nelly Sachs, 1947

"O the Chimneys" was the first poem in Leonie (Nelly) Sachs's collection In den Wohnungen des Todes ("In the Habitations of Death"), which was published in 1947. It also served as the title of the first book of translations of Sachs's poetry into English, in 1967, which contained a large body of texts from later work between 1949 and 1966. The poem addresses the smokestacks of the crematoria ovens of the German extermination camps. Although chimneys are associated with home and family life, the second line of the poem identifies them as being attached to "habitations of death." They do not stand as metaphors but rather represent the reality of genocide.

The poem's structure is based on a combination of irreconcilable elements. Houses with chimneys are usually designed as homes for the living, but here they serve as institutions for destruction. There is a murderous deception involved in the design of the houses; they are "invitingly" decorated, not for the welcome and entertainment of guests, but for their treacherous murder. Death, who was once only a guest, has now become the permanent host. The "fingers" addressed in the third stanza refer to selection by SS guards. Once fingers were used to show guidance and direction, but now they decide the life and death of the victims at the selection ramps, "laying the threshold/Like a knife between life and death." The perversion of the familiar meanings of "habitation," "host," and "helpful guidance" uncovers the deception that is practiced here and serves to denounce the inhumanity of the design as well as the cunning malice of the perpetrators. This sequence of realistic images is contrasted with a sequence of interspersed religious images. Quotations from the Book of Job contain images that change, the chimneys metaphorically to become "freedomways for Jeremiah and Job's dust" and "the road for refugees of smoke." These "freedomways" present a counterdesign to the maliciously "devised habitations of death." But there is no false claim of redemption: "When Israel's body drifted as smoke/Through the air—/ Was welcomed by a star …/[That] star turned black." The last lines of the poem address the images again to commemorate and lament the brutal facts of extermination: "O you chimneys/O you fingers/And Israel's body as smoke through the air!"

Other poems in the early 1947 collection speak of the "children branded for death" and of "their terrible nurse-maids" who have taken the place of their mothers and who flex their muscles to murder them ("O the night of the weeping children") and of the old men who are not allowed to die in peace, their "genuine hours of death" and their "last breaths" stolen ("Even the old men's last breath"). There is an insane mother in search of her dead child who kisses the air filled with the smoke from the crematoria ("Already embraced by the arm of heavenly solace"). And there is a child led to death who speaks of the "knife of parting" that someone raised to cut her from her mother ("A dead child speaks"). The survivors in the "Chorus of the Rescued" express their constant fear of death and ask for patience and compassion from bystanders. The children in the "Chorus of the Orphans" lament to the world that their mothers and fathers have been taken from them; they are "like no one in this world any more."

—Ehrhard Bahr

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"O the Chimneys!." Reference Guide to Holocaust Literature. . Encyclopedia.com. 21 Aug. 2019 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"O the Chimneys!." Reference Guide to Holocaust Literature. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 21, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/o-chimneys

"O the Chimneys!." Reference Guide to Holocaust Literature. . Retrieved August 21, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/o-chimneys

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.