by Paul Celan
The poem expects that the reader is familiar with the enduring images of misery that have come out of the Holocaust: emaciated prisoners behind wire fences, guards with machine guns in watch towers, and especially mass graves and crematoriums. Most of the Jews who died in the camps were never buried, and many were burned to make their remains more easily disposable. The images of ashes, smoke, and graves in the air subtly allude to this practice. Others were dumped in mass graves, and the prisoners were often forced to dig their own graves before being killed. This, too, is recorded in the poem. Finally, throughout the poem an ironic voice seems to lure or tempt the prisoners to death, promising them freedom from their "cramped" conditions.
- Line 4: A "grave in the air" is an ironic allusion to the Nazi practice of burning the bodies of dead Jews. It is ironic because the Jews are not actually given a proper burial. The line also alludes to the fact that prisoners in the Holocaust sometimes had to dig their own graves.
- Line 9: The poem shifts from the symbolic "grave in the air" to the literal grave in the ground. The language shifts between the imaginary and the realistic.
- Line 16: The phrase "there you won't lie too cramped" has an ironic tone because we don't usually think that dead people will be worried about being cramped in their graves. It is a way of putting a cruelly positive spin on death.
- Line 26: "You'll rise then in smoke to the sky" is a direct allusion to Nazi crematoriums in the concentration camps.
- Line 34: The word "grants" is highly ironic. Usually "grant" has positive connotations, like granting a wish, but here it literally means, "he kills us."