Last reviewed: June 2017
German-born Swedish Nobel Prize–winning poet and playwright.
December 10, 1891
May 12, 1970
The major work of Nelly Sachs, written during and after World War II, is a witness to the Holocaust. In 1966, when she shared a Nobel Prize in Literature with the writer Shmuel Yosef Agnon, Sachs commented, "Agnon represents the state of Israel. I represent the tragedy of the Jewish people."
Sachs, born in Berlin, Germany, in 1891, was reared in one of its finest neighborhoods. An only child, she early on demonstrated an interest in the arts, particularly dance. Her earliest published writing, which she wished not to be included in her collected works, are neo-Romantic in their traditional rhymed forms and rootedness in Nordic myth and German mysticism. Not until the 1930s did Sachs, having become acquainted with Gershom Scholem’s interpretation of Jewish mysticism, begin to draw from this tradition and from the writings of the seventeenth century Christian mystic Jakob Böhme. These teachings alike viewed light and darkness, ascent and descent, in dialectical terms. Nelly Sachs
In 1940, largely through the intervention of the Swedish novelist and Nobel laureate Selma Lagerlöf, with whom Sachs had corresponded for several years, Sachs and her mother escaped Nazi Germany. Unfortunately, their benefactor died before they arrived in Sweden, and their life in exile was isolated. Settling in a two-room apartment in Stockholm, they supported themselves through Sachs’s German translations of Swedish poems and through private donations and foundation grants.
Eli: A Mystery Play of the Sufferings of Israel, written "in a few nights" after her "flight to Sweden," poses a problem central to the Holocaust, which Sachs resists resolving: the suffering of the innocent. Yet in this work, although the world fails to be redeemed by the death of the child Eli, his pipe playing as he is led away by Nazis sounds an affirmation as well as an echo.
Sachs again poses the problem of innocent suffering in her allusion to Job in the 1949 poem "O the Chimneys," which opens and sets the mood for her first collection of verse, In den Wohnungen des Todes (in the habitations of death). In the poem she links the casualties of the Holocaust with the biblical Job and with the prophet Jeremiah, thus evoking the simultaneous transcending of time and space, the confounding of life and death. Following the Jewish mystics in their pursuit of tikkun—the reconciliation of a shattered creation—Sachs’s poetic vision unites body and spirit, nature and the cosmos, death and life, past and future, in a ceremony of transformation. For Sachs, the only hope for life’s redemption lies in its transformations.
In 1960 Sachs returned to Germany to accept the Droste-Hülshoff poetry prize. Five years later, when she received the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in Frankfurt, the citation described her lyric works as "masterpieces of German, works of forgiveness, salvation, and peace." The horrors of the Holocaust as they are presented by Sachs loom so large that evil is transmuted into mystery. Yet despite her belief in transcendence Sachs never denied an intimate sense of pain; in her later life she suffered from nervous breakdowns requiring hospitalization. She once remarked, "My life is so torn in pain that each time I plunge into fire to find words for the unsayable."
For Sachs, as for such fellow survivors as Eli Wiesel, the Holocaust murdered language as well as people. In Sachs’s poems, therefore, not only images but also the meanings of words must undergo transformation. In the poem "Fleeing," for example, which Sachs recited in her Nobel acceptance speech, flight becomes reception, a stone something impressionable and communicative. The critic Lawrence L. Langer has pointed out that neologisms in Sachs’s work, such as Schwarzmond (blackmoon) and Sterntod (stardeath), "squeeze fresh vigor into weary words."
Sachs turned to experimental drama to enlarge the dimensions of language. Drawing on her early training in dance, she attempted a synergy of words, rhythm, and movement. Production of these works, collected in Zeichen im Sand: Die szenischen Dichtungen (signs in the sand), poses practical problems; one is subtitled "an attempt at a breaking-out for two people and two marionettes with built-in tapes."
Sachs’s seventieth birthday was honored with the publication of her collected poems, Fahrt ins Staublose (journey into a dustless realm). She died nearly a decade later, of cancer, on May 12, 1970, in her adopted city of Stockholm. Perhaps one of the greatest tributes to her came when influential critic and philosopher Theodor W. Adorno, who had declared that "there can be no more poetry in German after Auschwitz," retracted that with his later statement "Sachs has disproved this."