Study Guide

Deathfugue Identity

By Paul Celan

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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.

Questions About Identity

  1. Why is the Nazi guard referred to only as a "man" who "lives in the house"? How is his identity presented to the reader?
  2. If "Death is a master from Deutschland," then who is Death? A real person? An abstract idea? Somewhere in the middle?
  3. Does the poem have a single speaker or several speakers? Does it make a difference to you as a reader?
  4. What do we know about the speaker or speakers of the poem? Are any details provided?
  5. How does the contrast between Marguerite and Shulamith frame our understanding of the German and Jewish cultures as presented by the poem?

Chew on This

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.

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