Of Schiller and Shulamith

Today, the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, has been declared by the UN as the International Holocaust Memorial Day. I have had a heavy heart all week reading remembrances of survivors and other stories relating to the Holocaust in the news, both from the US and in the press of other countries.

In a speech to the United Nations on Monday, January 24, 2005, Eli Wiesel, noted Auschwitz survivor and author of Night, said that

We know that for the dead it is too late. For them, abandoned by God and betrayed by humanity, victory did come much too late.

Wiesel then noted that, despite this tragedy,

it is not too late for today’s children, ours and yours. It is for their sake alone that we bear witness.

We need to remember the Holocaust. In a ceremony remembering the victims at Auschwitz today, Vice President Dick Cheney observed that the Holocaust happened in the very “heart of the civilized world.” He noted further that

The story of the camps shows that evil is real and must be called by its name and must be confronted.

Reflecting on this has led my thoughts to the idea of civilization and how this could happen, as Cheney stated, in the heart of the civilized world. Eli Wiesel’s question comes to mind:

[H]ow could intelligent educated men, or simply law-abiding citizens, ordinary men, fire machine guns at hundreds of children every day and in the evening read Schiller and listen to Bach?

This question is particularly potent for me because of my emphasis at Oxford on the writings of Schiller. I have no answer. I know that Schiller, and Goethe, and the other classical giants of German culture, are not to blame for this. I do not, therefore, agree with Horkheimer and Adorno that the end-product of the Enlightenment was necessarily the Holocaust. As expressed by the Boston Globe,

the left-leaning German philosophers Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno argued that the Enlightenment was responsible for the Holocaust. Incapable of defining absolute moral ends, the Enlightenment’s “instrumental reason” could define only means. A tool of power, it encouraged human beings to see their fellows as objects to be exploited like the natural resources of the earth. “Enlightenment behaves towards things,” Horkheimer and Adorno affirmed, “as a dictator toward men.” In a grim pun, they added, “The fully enlightened earth radiates the triumph of destruction.”

Rather, if I am to lay blame on the Enlightenment for the horrors of the twentieth century, I tend to side more with Oxford’s Isaiah Berlin that

the end product was not the Holocaust but the Gulag. The Enlightenment’s will to intellectual mastery, they charged, and its attempt to link all values-moral, political, and aesthetic-to a uniform rational system was akin to the perverted force that drove communist tyranny, stamping out genuine pluralism and difference in the name of reason.

But, in truth, I am pro-Enlightenment and so neither of these theories suits me. I do not lay the blame for these things at the feet of the Enlightenment, to which Goethe and Schiller contributed largely. Still, I am depressed that their ideas and the ideas of other Enlightenment thinkers and writers did not create a society in which this would literally have been impossible.

Neither do I agree with Adorno’s maxim that [t]o write poetry after the holocaust is barbaric; rather, I have found that poetry can relay some of the essence of that monstrous occurence very effectively and emotively.

One of the most poignant poems that I know of relating to the Holocaust is, of course, Paul Celan’s Death Fugue:

Black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening
we drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night
we drink and we drink
we shovel a grave in the air there you won’t lie too cramped
A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes
he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair Margareta
he writes it and 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.

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at morning and midday we drink you at evening
we drink and we drink
A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes
he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair Margareta
Your ashen hair Shulamith we shovel a grave in the air there you won’t lie too cramped

He shouts jab the earth deeper you lot there you others sing up and play
he grabs for the rod in his belt he swings it his eyes are so blue
jab your spades deeper you lot there you others play on for the dancing

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at midday and morning we drink you at evening
we drink and we drink
a man lives in the house your goldenes Haar Margareta
your aschenes Haar Shulamith he plays his vipers
He shouts play death more sweetly this Death is a master from Deutschland
he shouts scrape your strings darker you’ll rise then as smoke to the sky
you’ll have a grave then in the clouds there you won’t lie too cramped

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at midday Death is a master aus Deutschland
we drink you at evening and morning we drink and we drink
this Death is ein Meister aus Deutschland his eye it is blue
he shoots you with shot made of lead shoots you level and true
a man lives in the house your goldenes Haar Margarete
he looses his hounds on us grants us a grave in the air
he plays with his vipers and daydreams der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland

dein goldenes Haar Margarete
dein aschenes Haar Shulamith

(Tranlsated by John Felstiner, in: Paul Celan – Poet, Survivor, Jew. New Haven 1995.)

This poem is poignantly beautiful and tragic in the extreme. The words convey emotion, pain, and grief that is, ironically, beyond expression in words. Shulamith, “the ‘black and comely’ princess in the Song of Songs in the Old Testament,” is associated with the Jewish people. Margarete, on the other hand, is the fair German maid of Goethe’s writings; the pure vessel who is tragically corrupted in Goethe’s Faust and becomes, in inverse fashion to the new name given on the white stone of John’s Revelation, the despised and desperate infanticide Gretchen. The following stanza captures the discontinuity, the mystery of how this could happen in the heart of civilization:

A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes
he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair Margareta
he writes it and 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.

The Kommandant, representing Germany, like it or not, sits in his house and writes to his fair, golden-haired Margarete–and then steps outside for the mass execution of a collective, ashen-haired Shulamith.

he whistles his hounds to come close
he whistles his Jews into rows has them shovel a grave in the ground

This portion is masterfully translated, as is the entire poem. This is a powerful line for me: the dogs and the Jews in the same sentence and action. The Kommandant whistles both to attention but kills the latter after they dig their own grave.

The entire poem is a lamentation of Biblical quality, in my opinion. It could be and perhaps should be scripture. The Jewish people, God’s chosen people, have drunk the black milk. Either the Bible’s Job or Celan’s Shulamith embodies this experience. The difference is that Celan’s Shulamith represents six million, maybe more, exterminated human beings. It pains me to say it, but I find it difficult to disagree with Wiesel’s bitter remark that the victims were abandoned by God and betrayed by humanity. It is, unfortunately, so true. . . .

9 Responses to Of Schiller and Shulamith

  1. Anonymous says:


    This is a very appropriate tribute- thank you!

    “Schwarze Milch” is a truly tragic masterpiece. And Paul Celan (geb. Antschel) was very affected by the holocaust. He killed himself in 1970.

    By the way- do you have Felstiner’s book? 

    Posted by Jordan Fowles

  2. Anonymous says:

    Unfortunately I don’t. Do you? If so, I would love to borrow it sometime. I know far less about Celan than I should. He was a native Yiddish speaker, if I am not mistaken. Did he publish any poetry in Yiddish, that language and ethnic culture decimated by the Holocaust? 

    Posted by john fowles

  3. Anonymous says:

    I don’t think he published any poetry in Yiddish. He had three native tongues, like so many Jewish people born in that time in Eastern Europe: German, Yiddish, and Romanian.

    He was born in Czernowitz (in the Bukowina region of what is now Romania), which was a Yiddish cultural center, indeed the site of a famous conference held in 1906 or 1907 where Yiddish was advocated for fiercely as a more mainstream language and as the language of the Jews for the future (in opposition to the contemporary movement for more mainstream Hebrew usage).

    I don’t have that book, unfortunately. If you don’t have the book, where did you get that translation? 

    Posted by Jordan Fowles

  4. Anonymous says:

    I got the translation from the celan-projekt online. I thought I provided a link to it in the post. 

    Posted by john fowles

  5. Anonymous says:

    I agree — Felstiner’s translation is amazing and as chilling as the original.

    What’s sad is that there is no longer much of a Jewish presence in Romania (even a weak one). Almost all of the Romanian Jews that weren’t killed in the Holocaust emigrated (many of them to Israel).

    I remember talking with an old man who, although his family wasn’t Jewish, grew up in the Jewish part of Bucharest. His memories albeit colored by the passage of time painted a picture of a wonderful, vibrant neighborhood. And it always made me sad to realize that it was a part of the city that was gone and that I would never know. 

    Posted by William Morris

  6. Anonymous says:

    This is my first comment to your blog. I wanted to thank you for posting this moving piece.

    I was fortunate enough to go to junior high and high school in a predominantly Jewish community (West L.A. & Beverly Hills). Naturally, lots of my friends were Jews, grandchildren of survivors and the liberation of WWII was a key celebration for them, almost to the point of sacred observance. Sadly, our collective generation, regardless of faith or nationality, has a tendancy to forget how vulnerable, and responsible, we are to each other.

    Keep up the good work. 

    Posted by Simón

  7. Anonymous says:

    Thanks Simon. Welcome to bird’s eye view. I also grew up in a community with many Jews. Northeast Dallas, and in particular the neighborhood where I grew up, had many and Jewish holidays in High School always meant sparser hallways and classrooms. Many of the Jewish students in my high school attended Shul after school, where they went to the synagogue or other facilities to learn Hebrew or Yiddish. They did a better job of remembering than the rest of us. It should never be forgotten; it is not ancient history, after all–it was only 60 years ago.

    Having grown up with many Jewish classmates, some of whom were descendants of survivors, a chilling and sobering thought for me is that many of my German friends are descendants of German soldiers in WWII and some of them, surely, are descendants of Nazis and perhaps even SS and other “ordinary men” who found themselves in Eastern Europe with orders to carry out such monstrosities.  

    Posted by john fowles

  8. Ronan says:

    I too do not wish to see the Holocaust as the end result of the Enlightenment, and yet, and yet…

    As you know I have been reflecting on the Magic Flute recently, and find a small trace of something grimly “Aryan” about Tamino and Pamina. This whole obsession with pagan myth feels very German, very Wagnerian, and we all know what that came to symbolise. Is it such a surprise, then, that the Nazis came to choose fair, German Margarete over the swarthy, biblical Shulamith?

  9. john f. says:

    When the Magic Flute, in its final scenes, places conditions on who “deserves” to “be a [good] person (Mensch)”, this can easily be interpreted as a statement about who deserves to be classed as a human. This interpretation is seen as the ultimate arrogance of the Enlightenment and the kind that leads inexorably to the Holocaust. Other writers have published on this very thesis, actually.

    I find it unconvincing. Conditioning becoming a decent person on the ability to love — to feel, comprehend, and share love — is not really all that radical and hardly counts as a view restricted to the Enlightenment, although the methods of the Enlightenment certainly seem to have been more effective in bringing the principles into people’s lives. This was a conscious effort, I should add, with writers such as Lessing, Goethe, and Schiller implementing pragmatic drama, one could almost say Enlightenment dogma, with the express hope of winning hearts and minds for the cause of progress and humanity. (For Schiller and others, the French Revolution was a tragedy that threatened their view of this possibility in much the same way that you, Ronan, are wondering whether in light of the Holocaust the Enlightenment is actually noble or not.)

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