Paul Celan's "Deathfugue" belongs among the group of great and terrifying literary works written by survivors of the Holocaust, such as Night by Elie Wiesel and the memoirs of Primo Levi. Like those books, the subject matter of the poem is the experience of life in the Nazi concentration camps. It describes a group of Jewish prisoners who are forced to dig mass graves while other prisoners play music. They are ordered around by a sadistic guard who thinks he is a sophisticated man of letters. At the end of the poem, the guard executes the prisoners. Because so few people survived to write about the Holocaust, much less in poetry, "Deathfugue" is a work of both literary and historical importance.
The poem is partly inspired by Paul Celan's own experience in the camps, and partly by histories of places like Auschwitz. Celan was born Paul Antschel in the European country of Romania. During the war, he was separated from his parents, who died in Nazi concentration camps. He spent more than a year in a labor camp, where he saw enough horrible things to last a lifetime. After the war he began to seriously write poetry, and "Deathfugue" was published in 1948. It remains his best-known work. Later he became a teacher in Paris, but he struggled to come to terms with the Holocaust throughout his life and eventually committed suicide.
The title of the poem refers to the music played by some of the Jews while they carried out forced labor. A fugue is a musical form that was perfected in Germany by the composer J.S. Bach. We'll have a lot more to say about it in "Form and Meter" and "What's Up With The Title?". For now, it's important to know that the Nazi guards at some of the death camps really did make prisoners play music before horrible occasions like executions. Auschwitz in particular – one of the very worst camps – was notorious for this practice. The music was sometimes referred to as the "Death Tango." In fact, the original title of the poem was "Death Tango," but when Celan translated it from Romanian to German he changed the title to "Todesfuge" – which means "Death Fugue" in English.
This poem, and Celan's writing in general, is very difficult to translate. We think the attempt by John Felstiner best captures the unique sound and tone of the work. And, as a bonus, you even get to learn a little German from reading Felstiner's translation, though we admit that phrases like "Death is a master from Deutschland" do not exactly fall under the category of "practical German"….
This poem is another means of trying to understand one of the worst chapters in human history, the Holocaust during World War II. Nowadays we have become almost desensitized to this event by sleek Hollywood films. Not that there's anything wrong with these fine films. Anything that keeps us from forgetting the tragedy suffered by over six million Jews should be counted as a good thing. But the dwindling numbers of living Holocaust survivors have complained that the portrayal of concentration camps in popular culture does not do justice to how horrible they truly were.
Because poetry is such a direct and intimate form, it can convey emotional tones that films or prose histories cannot. Even great works like Elie Wiesel's Night must rely on narrative; that is, they tell a story. "Deathfugue," on the other hand, does not tell a story so much as it describes the deadening, endlessly repetitive nature of life in the camps. It uses blunt, simple language and a form borrowed from classical music to bring us into the world of Jewish suffering and Nazi sadism.
But let's back up a second and consider the very idea of writing a poem about the Holocaust. This is obviously a difficult, not to mention sensitive, subject. What's more, poetry has its origins in song, and it seems very inappropriate indeed to sing about death camps. A German-Jewish philosopher named Theodor Adorno even went so far as to say that writing poetry in the wake of Auschwitz and the other camps was barbaric. He thought that writing poetry about the Holocaust would be like saying, "We can go back to our old art forms now. Things haven't changed that much." But of course things had changed dramatically.
Celan lived in a concentration camp for eighteen months. He had to deal with the question of the appropriateness of poetry as well as the appropriateness, for him, of using the German language. He discussed the problem after accepting an important literary award:
"Only one thing remained reachable, close and secure amid all losses: language. Yes, language. In spite of everything, it remained secure against loss. But it had to go through its own lack of answers, through terrifying silence, through the thousand darknesses of murderous speech. It went through." (from "Speech on the Occasion of Receiving the Literature Prize of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen", p.34, in Celan's Collected Prose, translated by Rosmarie Waldrop, New York: The Sheep Meadow Press, 1986)
Clearly this is not a person who wrote about the Holocaust for shock value or sentimental effect.
So, yes, by all means you should try to learn more about the concentration camps from reading histories and even watching popular films like Schindler's List. We cannot afford to forget about the Holocaust. But you should also seek out the literature written by survivors. And "Deathfugue" in particular demonstrates why poetry is such a unique and powerful form.