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by Paul Celan

Deathfugue Summary

The speakers of this poem are Jewish prisoners. They describe drinking "black milk," a symbol for the un-nourishing life of a concentration camps. They drink this toxic brew all day long. They also dig mass graves under the orders of one of the Nazi guards.

The guard lives in a house and thinks about classic German literature a lot. He has a thing for Marguerite, the innocent blond-haired heroine of Goethe's Faust. He also beats the Jewish prisoners and makes some of them play music while the others work: the "Deathfugue" or "Death Tango."

The poem begins repeating itself – this is the "fugue" form. Each stanza sounds faster and more disorienting. Marguerite is compared with Shulamith, a symbol for a Jewish feminine ideal. References to death and the Nazi crematoriums add a sense of menace. The speaker claims that "Death is a master from Germany."

The guard executes some of the prisoners with gunfire and turns his vicious dogs on others. The poem ends with a repetition of three mysterious phrases that explore the fractured identity of the German and Jewish cultures.

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