Study Guide

Deathfugue Suffering

By Paul Celan

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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.

Questions About Suffering

  1. Why do the speakers of the poem often sound so ironic and detached from their situation? Were you expecting more direct expressions of suffering from this "Holocaust poem"?
  2. How does the fugue form express the suffering of the prisoners?
  3. What is your interpretation of the phrase, repeated several times, "there you won't lie too cramped"?
  4. How does the symbol of "black milk" help to capture the dismal quality of life in the camp?

Chew on This

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.

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