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.