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Todesfuge (Death Fugue) is a German language poem written by Paul Celan and first published in 1948. It describes life in a German concentration camp.


[edit] Meaning of the title

The structure of the poem is similar to that of a fugue: The phrases are recombined, which is typical for a fugue.

Furthermore, the title can be seen as a reference to "death music" (Todesmusik): Prisoners in concentration camps were forced to play music to other prisoners waiting for their death in gas chambers.

[edit] Interpretation

The poem begins with an oxymoron: âschwarze Milchâ (Black milk).

Possibly Celan referred here to the Book of Lamentations of the Old Testament. A quote: "Their Lords were purer as the snow and cleaner as the milk ... now their habitus had become black by the darkness".

The "black milk" is a synonym for something which is simultaneously good and bad. In this case it is life in a concentration camp. Life itself is positive (milk), but through oppression, torture and murder under the Nazi camp guards it becomes an object controlled by others and no longer by the individual himself (black). So the milk gets its fatal black color. Life is poisoned by the omnipresent threat of death. It also represents the black smoke of the burning dead the Jewish inmates were forced to drink and suggests that it is an almost palpable and constant presence; you could drink it.

The "grave in the clouds" stands for the cremations of the people killed in the gas chambers. There is not enough room in the ground for all the bodies, but "in the clouds", there is ("you won't lie too cramped").

The man who lives in the house is the task master in the concentration camp. Instead of living in bare barracks with hundreds of others, the guard lives in a noble house. He is a stereotypical Aryan: He has blue eyes and his wife has blond hair ("your golden hair Margarete"). The contrast to her is the Jewish woman called Shulamith, who has ashgrey hair. Margarete is also the name of Faust's love in Goethe's Faust, a German masterpiece, and Shulamith is the name of the beautiful love interest in the Song of Songs in the Tanakh.

The man lives like a normal person while he is in the house, he even writes love letters to Margarete. But as soon as he leaves it, he becomes a mass murderer and commander.

The text part "steps out of doors and the stars are all sparkling, he whistles his hounds to come close // he whistles his Jews into rows has them shovel a grave in the ground // he commands us to play up for the dance" represents the Aryan's self-conception as master race. For the guard, dogs and Jews are the same level of race hierarchy.

[edit] "Der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschlandâ

The most famous quote from the poem is der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland.

Der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland

Sein Auge ist blau
Er trifft dich mit bleierner Kugel
Er trifft dich genau

Death is a Master from Germany

His eye is blue
He shoots you with shot made of lead
Shoots you level and true

The quote is often used in antifascist context, and found in graffiti and posters. It is also used in music, often in altered form, eg. by the Black Metal-Band Eisregen (their Hexenhaus contains "Der Tod ist ein Meister aus Thüringen"). The poem is used in a song by seminal German punk band Slime, "Der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland." Rüdiger Safranski titled his biography of Martin Heidegger, who was involved with the nazi party, Ein Meister aus Deutschland.

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