Death is a gang-boss aus Deutschland • Poppy and Memory, Paul Celan - Post-war Writing • 1945–1970

The Literature Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained - James Canton 2016

Death is a gang-boss aus Deutschland • Poppy and Memory, Paul Celan
Post-war Writing • 1945–1970




Literature after Auschwitz


1947 In her poetry collection In den Wohnungen des Todes (“In the Apartments of Death”) Berliner Nelly Sachs describes her own sufferings and those of the European Jews.

1947 Italian writer Primo Levi’s If This is a Man is a first-hand account of his incarceration in Auschwitz.

1949 German sociologist Theodor Adorno says that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”, a condemnation not of the right to expression but of the society that had allowed Auschwitz to happen.


1971 The Nazi and the Barber, a novel by German Holocaust survivor Edgar Hilsenrath, adopts the perspective of an SS officer who assumes a Jewish identity to escape prosecution.

After the World War II concentration camp of Auschwitz was liberated on 27 January 1945, and the scale of the atrocities of the Jewish Holocaust became known, some thought the events so horrific that conventional bounds of literature would be unfit to describe them. To Jewish authors, however, some form of expression was essential.

A mournful heritage

The poet Paul Celan (1920—1970) was born Paul Antschel into a family of German-speaking Jews in Romania. He survived a ghetto and an internment camp to become, under the pen name Celan, a major post-war German-language poet. But, haunted by his experiences, he eventually committed suicide.

Poppy and Memory, which contains more than 50 poems, was Celan’s second collection and established his reputation. It includes his most famous poem, “Todesfuge” (“Death Fugue”). Written in a musical rhythm, the poem features Death, in the guise of the camp commandant, making prisoners dance by their own graves. The collection also includes another of his best-known poems, “Corona”, which has been read as a reflection on the attempt to achieve true love without it becoming an escape from the truth of the world.

Elsewhere in Poppy and Memory, haunting images of the Holocaust recur: ash, hair, smoke, mould, bitterness, shadows, death, memory, and forgetting. In exploring these themes, Celan expresses the mournful heritage of organized mass murder.

"Black milk of morning we drink you at night."


See also: The Little PrinceThe Tin DrumOne Day in the Life of Ivan DenisovichDeath of a Naturalist