O The Chimneys

Job 19:26
“And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God”

O the chimneys
on the carefully planned dwellings of death
When Israel’s body rose dissolved in smoke
through the air –
To be welcomed by a chimney sweep star
Turned black
Or was it a ray of the sun?

O the chimneys!
Paths of freedom for the dust of Jeremiah and Job –
Who dreamed you up and built stone upon stone
The path of smoke for their flight?
O dwellings of death
Set out so enticingly
For the host of the house, who used to be the guest –

O you fingers
Laying the stone of the threshold
Like a knife between life and death –
O you chimneys
O you fingers
And Israel’s body dissolves in smoke through the air!

Illustration by Sivan Black

O die Schornsteine

Und wenn diese meine Haut zerschlagen sein wird, so werde ich ohne mein Fleisch Gott schauen“

O die Schornsteine
Auf den sinnreich erdachten Wohnungen des Todes,
Als Israels Leib zog aufgelöst in Rauch
Durch die Luft –
Als Essenkehrer ihn ein Stern empfing
Der schwarz wurde
Oder war es ein Sonnenstrahl?

O die Schornsteine!
Freiheitswege für Jeremias und Hiobs Staub –
Wer erdachte euch und baute Stein auf Stein
Den Weg für Flüchtlinge aus Rauch?

O die Wohnungen des Todes,
Einladend hergerichtet
Für den Wirt des Hauses, der sonst Gast war –
O ihr Finger,

Die Eingangsschwelle legend
Wie ein Messer zwischen Leben und Tod –

O ihr Schornsteine,
O ihr Finger,
Und Israels Leib im Rauch durch die Luft!


This has been translated so many times, I hesitate to include it.
But it is one of Nelly Sachs’ best known poems, and my challenge was to bring something new but authentic to the English version. A very moving audio version can be heard here

25 thoughts on “O The Chimneys

      • Thank you for posting all these poems of Nelly Sachs, Your translations must have taken a long time (that’s what we one-language people often believe – labor in translation!) Thank you for all the hard work,


      • Thank you for your appreciation. It’s a labour of love – and a personal challenge! And thank you for commenting – I get plenty of hits, but very few comments.

  1. Dear Catterel
    Since you get few comments I must write one; I think I already owe that you from just four poems!
    I’m planning a short trip to a wedding in Israel, leaving this Friday (27th June). I have one and a half precious days in Tel Aviv and, meaning to make the most of it, have been laying my plans.
    I know a bit of early Jewish history and, as a child in the mid 40’s, was weaned on the modern stuff. So I wanted to explore something in Tel Aviv that had not come my way before. I decided I should read something Israeli and S.Y.Agnon turned up on a website or two. From there, it was only a step to Nelly Sachs’ poetry.
    I refused my early British education because my teachers would/could not teach me how to make sense of the Holocaust. I was in my late 20’s before I came across anyone who could, and then mainly through referring me to Thomas Mann. After that, I have felt myself better furnished and have made do but now, in Nelly’s poems and your translation the heart of the matter may be starting to open up. I don’t know how much you have translated, what other translations are ‘out there’, what she has written but it’s a path I shall be wanting to travel. It’s a difficult preoccupation. The world doesn’t much approve of the Holocaust as a study, I find. I shall probably keep it pretty much to myself. I may try to share a little, at times, depending on the sort of response I get. But from first encounter I find it possible that the language, the imagery will enter me and become part of how I think and that’s hopeful.
    So thanks, Catterel. Sorry that your eyes are troublesome but from where I’m reading you probably see pretty clearly anyway.

    • Thank you, Peter, I too learnt nothing about the holocaust in school in England during the fifties, and only became aware of anything to do with it when I saw the film of the Nürnberg Trials in the early sixties, Then I made Jewish friends and.discovered more … I have 100 poems on this blog, see the index, i appreciate your interest.

  2. Thank you so much for this fine translation. How can I be so old and be just coming to these poems now? Thanks for them, though. I will share your page and hopefully bring other readers to this work.

  3. Spanish Version 🙂

    Oh las chimeneas
    En las viviendas cuidadosamente planificadas de la muerte.
    Cuando el cuerpo de Israel se levantó disuelto en humo
    a través del aire –
    Para ser recibido por una estrella fugaz de chimenea
    Se volvió negro
    ¿O fue un rayo de sol?

    ¡Oh las chimeneas!
    Caminos de libertad para el polvo de Jeremías y Job.
    Quien te hizo soñar y construyó piedra sobre piedra.
    ¿El camino del humo para su vuelo?
    Oh moradas de la muerte
    Salió tan tentadoramente
    Para el anfitrión de la casa, que solía ser el invitado –

    Oh dedos
    Colocando la piedra del umbral.
    Como un cuchillo entre la vida y la muerte.
    Oh chimeneas
    Oh dedos
    ¡Y el cuerpo de Israel se disuelve en humo por el aire!

  4. Dear Catherine, I admire your moving translation of this poem, and request your permission to include it–with accurate attribution and adequate noice of your copyright–in a volume of essays celebrating a renowned rabbi and Holocaust scholar. Looking forward to hearing from you.
    Ed Gaffney, Editor, Building Bridges Among Abraham’s Children

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