You can think of World War II as the story of two wars: first, the war against Germany's expansion that American fought in, and second, Germany's war against the Jews and other minorities they despised. It is this second war that the poem describes. "Deathfugue" is important from a historical perspective because it is one of the only well-known poems to come directly from the concentration camp experience. In it, we witness the terrible efficiency of the Nazi killing machine. Jewish prisoners are forced to dig their own graves to save on labor, and dead bodies are burned instead of buried to save space and effort. Meanwhile, the Nazi guard sometimes acts like the war does not exist. He daydreams about German literature and culture, an example of what the German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt called "the banality of evil."
"Deathfugue" is not intended to capture any specific experience of the Holocaust, such as Paul Celan's, but rather the most general outlines of the death camp experience.
"Deathfugue" is more revealing of the Nazi guard than it is of the experience of the prisoners.
In Holocaust films like Schindler's List, the depictions of suffering (even though it's white-washed a bit by Hollywood) are vivid and realistic. Shootings, beatings, and all manner of abuse are right up there on the screen. "Deathfugue," by contrast, does not have gruesome or shocking images. Nonetheless, the sense of suffering is arguably stronger in this poem than in almost any other artistic work about the Holocaust. The speakers of the poem have a kind of ironic detachment, but we realize that their attitude is the result of having been worn down by months and months of what they call "black milk." The guards treat them like cattle, beating and killing them at will. Death almost begins to sound like a relief compared to the nightmare of life in the camp. And the repetition of language in the poem contributes to the sense of an inescapable cycle of misery.
The suffering of the prisoners is captured more by the sound and form of the poem than by its language or imagery.
The Jews in the poem trace their suffering to an abandonment by God.
Jewish and German identity are kept separate in "Deathfugue." The Jews are treated as an undifferentiated group and live inside a camp. The German guard is taken as an individual and lives in a house like an average person. The figure of Marguerite represents a particular Nazi racial ideal, in which blond-hair and blue eyes represent a kind of innocent virtue. The figure of Shulamith is contrasted against her as a beautiful woman whose "ashen" hair reminds us that the race she belongs to is going up in smoke. In creating this separation, Celan demonstrates how Nazi thinking managed to impress itself even on its victims. Even though the Jews are also citizens of European countries, they have been denied a national identity. They cannot be both German and Jewish, but only one or the other. Notice, too, how all the characters in the poem are described only in the most general terms, as if to show the dehumanizing effect of the camps.
The guard represents the idea of "the banality of evil," and he is deliberately presented as an ordinary and unexceptional person.
Shulamith is a symbol for the homelessness of the Jewish people, who have been expelled from their mother- and father-lands in Europe.
Death is a tricky subject in "Deathfugue." The Jewish prisoners, who make up our group of speakers, must constantly confront their mortality, as the moment of their deaths could come at any hour. But the speakers treat death with dark irony, noting for example that they will have so much more space after they have died. The situation in the camp has become so dire and hopeless that, for all the fear it inspires, death might be considered a release from an even worse condition. The prisoners are also reminded of death by the Nazi guard, who is like Death incarnate. Instead of a guy in a black robe holding a scythe, we are unexpectedly asked to see Death as a cultured, blue-eyed soldier. Also, Germany as a whole is associated with death. The poem suggests that many of the landmarks of German culture, like Goethe's Faust and the fugue form, have been contaminated by the death-obsessed Nazi ideology.
The prisoners view death as a liberation from a fate worse than death: life in a Nazi concentration camp.
The prisoners fear death and even drink "black milk" just to stay alive, but the guard tries to seduce them into thinking that death will be a release.
People nowadays like to use the word "meta," but "Deathfugue" really is meta: it is a work of art that comments on itself as a work of art. Celan was brought up to appreciate the highlights of German high culture: its glorious music, poetry, and storytelling. It is easy to think that culture brings morality along with it, but Nazism demonstrated once and for all that this is not the case. The Nazi guard is the most obviously "cultured" person in the poem, and he has a love of nineteenth century German Romanticism in particular. But he sees no disconnect in being a poetry- and nature-lover by night and a murderer by day. As readers, we might be tempted to think that reading a poem like "Deathfugue" helps us to understand events like the Holocaust so that they do not happen again. But does art really have this effect, or does art have no effect on morality at all?
Celan believes that art can help to give a voice to victims of events like the Holocaust.
The poem uses art to demonstrate the futility and hopelessness of art. Our position as readers of "Deathfugue" is no different than the camp guard's admiration from Goethe's Faust.