Paul Celan’s Poem, ‘Todesfuge (Death Fugue)’

The poet and Holocaust survivor Paul Celan.

One of the accounts I follow on Twitter that belies all the jokes and memes about how awful Twitter is as a platform is the invaluable, educational, and difficult-to-look-at-but-we-must, Auschwitz Museum account, which every day, every two hours, posts a picture (if available) and a note about a victim from the Holocaust. We cannot forget the Holocaust. As each day marches forward, that history and its survivors can be harder to hold on to, but again, the Auschwitz Museum account is doing exemplary work in trying to keep the memories of those who perished alive. One day, I would be humbled to see the camps in person. I’ve been to the Museum in D.C. on multiple occasions, and it’s never enough.

On Nov. 23, on occasion of his birth, the Museum posted Paul Celan’s poem, “Todesfuge” (translated in English as, “Death Fugue”). Celan was a Holocaust survivor. According to the Academy of American Poets, Celan (that’s a pseudonym; his real name is Paul Antschel) was born in Romania to German-speaking Jews. He studied medicine in Paris in 1938, but returned to Romania before WWII. His parents were deported and killed in the Nazi labor camps. Celan was interned for 18 months before escaping to the Red Army (Soviet Union). Sadly, in 1970, Celan died by the act of suicide.

The poem was translated from German by A.Z Foreman. The Tweet gives the poem in full:

Courtesy of the Auschwitz Memorial Twitter account.

Here’s an excerpt:

He yells you there dig deeper and you there sing and play
He grabs the nightstick at his belt and swings it his eyes are so blue
You there dig deeper and you there play loud for the dance

It’s a difficult poem to read. The image of “black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening / we drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night,” is one that sticks and will linger with me for a long time to come. It’s obviously written from the vantage point of being inside one of the Nazi concentration camps. The most horrifying image is that of the Jews in the camps being forced by the German guard to dig graves — graves they themselves may one day fill with their own bodies or at least, it’s for the bodies of those they know.

Amid all of this death lingering in the air, the guard treats the Jews as play things, and makes them sing and dance for his amusement. It’s adding insult to injury, to use a cliched phrase that doesn’t seem even remotely befitting the situation.

“Death is a German-born master,” is a line that says more than I ever could by adding more to it. But, I will say, that image of death personified juxtaposed to how striking the blue eyes are that Celan evokes throughout is haunting. Death with his eyes so blue.

The title, too, is interesting because it seems like you could interpret “fugue” either way here or maybe it applies in both ways. That is, the first idea of fugue, musically, wherein (going by Google here since I don’t know anything about music composition) a melody or phrase is introduced by “one part and successively taken up by others.” In other words, it works as a metaphor, as the sort of assembly line-like quality of the Holocaust, where for now, the guard will be entertained by this set of captive Jews, and then once they’re exterminated, more Jews will take up the melody. The other interpretation is the fugue state, where one loses their identity, and well, that’s rather self-explanatory during the Holocaust where all the Jews were stripped of any autonomy and individuality by having their heads shaved and having numbers assigned to them. Again, as if they were items on an assembly line. It’s barbaric and inhuman.

What do you think about this poem?

14 thoughts

  1. To be honest, I prefer my translations of the poem, although I may be biased. 😉

    What do you think?

    Todesfuge (“Death Fugue”)
    by Paul Celan
    loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

    Black milk of daybreak, we drink it come morning;
    we drink it come midday; we drink it, come night;
    we drink it and drink it.
    We are digging a grave like a hole in the sky; there’s sufficient room to lie there.
    The man of the house plays with vipers; he writes
    in the Teutonic darkness, “Your golden hair Margarete …”
    He writes poems by the stars, whistles hounds to stand by,
    whistles Jews to dig graves, where together they’ll lie.
    He commands us to strike up bright tunes for the dance!

    Black milk of daybreak, we drink you each morning;
    we drink you at midday; we drink you at night;
    we drink you and drink you.
    The man of the house plays with serpents, he writes …
    he writes when the night falls, “Your golden hair Margarete …
    Your ashen hair Shulamith …”
    We are digging dark graves where there’s more room, on high.
    His screams, “You dig there!” and “Hey you, dance and sing!”
    He grabs his black nightstick, his eyes pallid blue,
    cries, “Hey you, dig more deeply! You others, keep dancing!”

    Black milk of daybreak, we drink you each morning;
    we drink you at midday, we drink you at night;
    we drink you and drink you.
    The man of the house writes, “Your golden hair Margarete …
    Your ashen hair Shulamith.” He toys with our lives.
    He screams, “Play for me! Death’s a master of Germany!”
    His screams, “Stroke dark strings, soon like black smoke you’ll rise
    to a grave in the clouds; there’s sufficient room for Jews there!”

    Black milk of daybreak, we drink you at midnight;
    we drink you at noon; Death’s the master of Germany!
    We drink you come evening; we drink you and drink you …
    a master of Deutschland, with eyes deathly blue.
    With bullets of lead our pale master will murder you!
    He writes when the night falls, “Your golden hair Margarete …”
    He unleashes his hounds, grants us graves in the skies.
    He plays with his serpents; he’s a master of Germany …

    your golden hair Margarete …
    your ashen hair Shulamith.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. When I took a class on Jewish-American literature, my professor read us this poem (even though it’s not technically “American”). Anyway, he read it with a lot of emotion and it was so hard for me to hold back my tears! I agree with you that even though it’s hard to read things like this, it’s important to not forget the Holocaust. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh and as a correction to my comment: maybe it is American? I’m not actually sure, and maybe it depends on where he wrote it, though “What makes literature ‘American'”? was one of the overarching topics for that class.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Okay, thanks for the clarification! I was second guessing myself thinking about why we read that poem in class, but I guess it was simply just an extra poem we read. Also, great translation!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Tirza, thank you for reading and commenting! The Jewish-American literature course you took sounds fascinating and I’m also fascinated by the question of what makes literature American. That’s interesting. I need to do some digging on that!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. The thing that struck me about the poem in your post, Bret, is the dragging rhythm. It feels like a dirge, and conjured (for me) images of the camp overshadowed by a hypnotic serpent and hooded death. Michael’s translation (thanks for sharing) feels more like a fugue state. I found it more immediate, but less haunting.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi everyone. If my translation helped in any way, I’m glad. I think it’s important to note that a fugue is a composition into which a repeating melody or refrain is interwoven, while a fugue state is a disorder in which one becomes disconnected from reality. I suspect Celan intended both. He creates a sort of Twilight Zone, suspended between reality and the surreal.

        Liked by 1 person

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