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:
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?