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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

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