O the Chimneys

by Leonie Sachs

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The Poem

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A free-verse poem of twenty lines originally in German and divided into four stanzas, “O the Chimneys” is a meditation on the Nazi death machine that destroyed six million Jewish people in the Holocaust. The chimneys of the title refer to those ovens built to incinerate the bodies of concentration camp victims killed in gas chambers.

Throughout the poem, the Nazi death camps are called “abodes of death” that are “devised.” That is, they are technologically planned and scientifically administered for destruction. This statement conveys with chilling horror the clinical efficiency, the numbing methodicalness and appearance of business-as-usual that filmmakers such as Claude Lanzmann and philosophers such as Hannah Arendt have associated with the implementation of the Final Solution.

The smoke of the furnaces in which the Jewish people are burned, in the first stanza, becomes dust, which the poet associates with Jeremiah and Job, both martyrs to stubborn, defiant faithfulness to God. In the Hebrew Scriptures, Jeremiah becomes a political outcast, Job a social one, as each resists easy presumptions about God’s justice.

Similarly, the poet raises questions about her people’s suffering: Who or what receives it? Who devised it? These questions hang in the air with their tangible evidence: ashes, dust, smoke. Such suspension freezes the event, in history and consciousness. The event is moreover a cosmic one, blackening stars or sunbeams. The poet—and the reader, both now witnesses to the crime—find themselves on the border, the “threshold,” between life and death.

Quoted beneath the poem’s title is a verse from Job (19:26): “And when this my skin has been destroyed, from my flesh shall I see God,” which some interpreters have understood as an affirmation of resurrection. Rather than a sense of discontinuity, however, the poet’s revelation conveys a sense of metamorphosis, in which Israel’s body and the smoke rising through the air are “dissolved” into each other, ever present in the atmosphere.

Forms and Devices

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With its emphasis on imagery—on metaphor, juxtaposition, and ellipsis—rather than on complex rhythmic texture or intricate rhyme scheme, Nelly Sachs’s poetry can be readily appreciated in translation.

The poem images the Jewish victims of the Holocaust as a single human body; thus particularized, their suffering is made more concrete, more immediate, more identifiable. Unlike the Nazi administration of the Final Solution, the fate of the victims cannot be abstracted into numbers, into statistics. The poet further concretizes the Holocaust by embodying the Nazi genocide in its death camps. The controlling image of the camps resonates in specific references to “chimneys,” “abodes,” “stone upon stone,” “house,” and “threshold.”

The dynamic imagery of transmutation is evident throughout the poem, as flesh is dissolved in smoke and roads materialize from dust. As in Sachs’s other work, biblical imagery submerges the poem in the depths of myth. The casualties of the Holocaust are associated with Jeremiah and Job, linking their suffering with that of the prophets and wise men. The simultaneity of Jewish existence, transcending time and space, confounding life and death, is thereby grasped in the poet’s vision.

The poet asks rhetorical questions regarding the sufferings of the Holocaust, conscious of the inadequacy of any conventional explanation. Such questions echo the series of rhetorical questions with which God reveals himself to Job out of the whirlwind. The reader is thus drawn into the eternal dialogue engaging God and humanity.


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Sources for Further Study

Bahti, Timothy, and Marilyn Sibley Fries, eds. Jewish Writers, German Literature: The Uneasy Examples of Nelly Sachs and Walter Benjamin. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995.

Bower, Kathrin M. Ethics and...

(This entire section contains 156 words.)

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Remembrance in the Poetry of Nelly Sachs and Rose Ausländer. Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 2000.

Dove, Rita. “Poet’s Choice.” The Washington Post, May 28, 2000, p. X12.

Foot, Robert. The Phenomenon of Speechlessness in the Poetry of Marie Luise Kaschnitz, Gunter Eich, Nelly Sachs, and Paul Celan. Bonn, Germany: H. Grundmann, 1982. Focusing on one aspect of her work, this typewritten comparative study analyzes Sachs as a metaphysical poet who views speech as inadequate to express the anguish of twentieth century experience. Although helpful within its boundaries, this plodding text is replete with quotations in German and therefore of limited usefulness.

Hirsch, Edward. “Nelly Sachs, 1891-1970.” The Washington Post, August 15, 2004, p. T12.

Myers, Ida. “Nelly Sachs: Neglected Nobelist.” Jerusalem Post, May 12, 1995, p. 25.