Authors: Nelly Sachs

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

German-born Swedish Nobel Prize–winning poet and playwright.

December 10, 1891

Berlin, Germany

May 12, 1970

Stockholm, Sweden

Biography

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

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By Nobel Foundation [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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."

Author Works Poetry: In den Wohnungen des Todes, 1946 Sternverdunkelung, 1949 Und niemand weiss weiter, 1957 Flucht und Verwandlung, 1959 Fahrt ins Staublose, 1961 Noch feiert Tod das Leben, 1961 Glühende Rätsel, 1964 (parts 1 and 2 of the cycle), 1965 (part 3, in Späte Gedichte), 1966 (part 4, in the annual Jahresring) Späte Gedichte, 1965 Die Suchende, 1966 O the Chimneys, 1967 The Seeker, and Other Poems, 1970 Teile dich Nacht, 1971 Short Fiction: Legenden und Erzählungen, 1921 Drama: Eli: Ein Mysterienspiel vom Leiden Israels, pb. 1951 (Eli: A Mystery Play of the Sufferings of Israel, 1967) Zeichen im Sand: Die szenischen Dichtungen, pb. 1962 Nonfiction: Paul Celan, Nelly Sachs: Correspondence, 1995 Bibliography 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. Biographical and critical essays of Sachs’s and Benjamin’s lives and works. Includes bibliographical references and an index. Bosmajian, Hamida. Metaphors of Evil: Contemporary German Literature and the Shadow of Nazism. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1979. A historical and critical study of responses to the Holocaust in poetry and prose. Includes bibliographical references and index. Bower, Kathrin M. Ethics and Remembrance in the Poetry of Nelly Sachs and Rose Ausländer. Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 2000. Critical interpretation of the works of Sachs and Ausländer with particular attention to their recollections of the Holocaust. Includes bibliographical references and index. Bronsen, David. "The Dead Among the Living: Nelly Sachs’ Eli." Judaism 16 (Winter, 1967). In-depth discussion of Sachs’s best-known play. Langer, Lawrence L. Versions of Survival: The Holocaust and the Human Spirit. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1982. Brilliantly illuminates the paradoxes in Sachs’s verse. Rudnick, Ursula. Post-Shoa Religious Metaphors: The Image of God in the Poetry of Nelly Sachs. New York: P. Lang, 1995. A biography of the poet and an in-depth interpretation of seven poems. Rudnick traces the biblical and mystical Jewish tradition which grounds Sachs’s work. Includes bibliographical references. Sachs, Nelly. Paul Celan, Nelly Sachs: Correspondence. Translated by Christopher Clark. Edited by Barbara Wiedemann. Riverdale-on-Hudson, N.Y.: Sheep Meadow Press, 1995. A collection of letters by two poets living outside Europe and tormented by guilt that they had escaped the Holocaust. Includes bibliographical references and index.

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