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Nelly Sachs (1891-1970)


German poet and dramatist, who became a spokesperson for her fellow Jews of experiences in the Nazi death camps. In 1966 Nelly Sachs shared the Nobel Prize for Literature with the novelist S.Y. Agnon. Sachs spent the rest of her life in Sweden after escaping from Germany in 1940.

O, der weinenden Kinder Nacht!
Der zum Tode gezeichneten Kinder Nacht!
Der Schlaf hat keinen Eingang mehr.
Schreckliche Wärterinnen
sind an die Stelle der Mütter getreten,
haben den falschen Tod in ihre Handmuskeln gespannt,
säen ihn in die Wände und ins Gebälk -
überall brütet es in den Nestern des Grauens.
Angst säugt die Kleinen statt der Muttermilch.

(in 'An euch, die das neue Haus bauen')

Leonie Sachs, better known as Nelly Sachs, was born in Berlin into a middle-class Jewish family. She was the only child of the inventor and industrialist William Sachs and Margareta (Karger) Sachs. The family was religiously liberal and cultured and considered itself wholly at home in Germany. They belonged to the Berlin Jewish community, but did not celebrate Jewish holidays. Sachs did not read and write Hebrew and she did not speak Yiddish.

Before entering the Berliner Höhere Töchterschule, Sachs was educated by a private teacher and she also received instructions in Judaism. Sachs studied music, dance, and literature. At one time she planned to become a dancer. According to Sachs, she felt herself lonely, but she also had a close friend, Dora, and even shared an art studio with her in Berlin.

At the age of 15, after reading Selma Lagerlöf's Gösta Berling, she started a correspondence with the famous Swedish author. Her contact with Lagerlöf lasted some 35 years. Sachs began writing verse as a young girl, and eventually her work attracted the attention of the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, who arranged for the publication one of her poems. Sachs had read widely German Romantic writers – Goethe and Friedrich Schiller – and these slightly melancholic early poems reflected the influence of neoromantic tradition. However, later Sachs excluded these youthful productions from her collected works. Her first book was Legenden und Erzählungen (1921), a collection of stories inspired by the figures of Jesus and St Francis. Most of her work written before exile she lost or destroyed.

Sachs lived in comfortable circumstances in a quiet district of Berlin. During the 1920s and 1930s Sachs's lyrical works appeared in newspapers and magazines, but she never became a visible part of the literary scene of the city. Between 1937 and 1939 she published in Jewish magazines only. In the late 1930s Sachs joined the Jüdische Kulturbund (the Jewish Culture Association), which was established to allow Jewish artists to perform for Jewish audiences.

After her father died of cancer in 1930, Sachs lived with her mother. The Nazis seized power in 1933 and Sachs' life became even more recluse. She was arrested in 1937 with a close friend, who was active in the Resistance; Sachs never revealed the identity of her friend. "My fate was to be alone, like the fate of my people," Sachs once said. In 1939 she and her mother were required  to take the middle name Sarah, as all Jewish women had to. With the help of Gudrun Harlan and Selma Lagerlöf, the Sachs fled to Sweden in 1940, leaving all of their belongings behind. Sachs had only one small suitcase and ten Deutschmark in her pocket. Lagerlöf,  her most important literary contact in Sweden, had died  by the time they arrived.

Sachs managed to escape the forced labour camp but other members of her family died in the Holocaust. It was not until 1960 when she visited Germany, to receive the Droste-Hülshoff Prize. In her new home country, Sachs learned Swedish and supported herself and her mother by translating into German works from such Swedish poets as Gunnar Ekelöf, Erik Lindegren, and Johannes Edfelt. She also became a Swedish citizen in 1952.

Sachs wrote her most famous works in the 1940s, beginning from the poem cycles 'Grabschriften in die Luft geschrieben' (1944, Epitaphs written into the Air), 'Gebete für den toten Bräutigam' (Prayers for a Dead Bridegroom), and Eli, ein Mysterienspiel vom Leiden Israels (1945-46, Eli: A Mystery Play of the Sufferings of Israel ), published in 1951 in Malmö. The play was printed in 200 hand signed copies. Sachs's mother died in February 1950.  Her loss brought Sachs to a serious psychological crisis, from which she found an escape in Jewish mysticism. In the early 1960s, Sachs spent time in a psychiatric hospital. She had heard loud noises, a motor run all night long in the above apartment, and she could not get any sleep. She weighted only 36 kilos. Curiously, according to a document, she was 154 cm tall when she had arrived Sweden, but in her Swedish passport her height was written as 148 cm. At the Beckomberga Mental Hospital she was given shock therapy. With electric shocks she was treated about 15 times.

During the postwar years, Sachs read Martin Buber's Hasidic tales and the Bible. With Lenke Rothman, a Hungarian-born Swedish artists, she studied Kabbala in German –  Lenke Rothman had learned German in Auschwitz.  As a gift from a rabbi of the Great Synagogue in Stockholm, she received the Gershom Scholem's translation of the first chapter of the Zohar, Die Geheimnisse der Schöpfund von Sholem. This cabalistic work, originally  written in Aramaic, influenced her deeply.

In 1954 Sachs started a correspondence with Paul Celan. "There is and was in me, and it's there with every breath I draw," she wrote in a letter, "the belief in transcendence through suffusion with pain, in the inspiritment of dust, as a vocation to which we are called." Sachs also visited the Celan family in Paris in 1960 and laid with him flowers on Heine's grave. Both Sachs and Celan shared the conviction that the sole reason for their being lay in language. "Only one thing remained reachable, close and secure amid all losses: language," Celan once said. Sachs's Heimat was in her written words. Celan also visited her in 1960 in Stockholm when she was hospitalized.

Sternverdunklung (1949) had a great reception but sold poorly and  the publisher, Bermann-Fischer Publishing House, destroyed most of the copies. "It is a rough climate to be in exile! Believe me, Peter, it demands courage, courage again and again," she wrote to Peter Hamm in 1958. After years of isolation, Sachs started to gain an international fame. In 1960 she received the Droste-Hülshoff Prize and in 1965 the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade. Accepting the award, she said, "In spite of all the horrors of the past, I believe in you." Scholarly interest in her work began in 1970 with the appearance of three dissertations

Sachs saw victims as part of eternal metamorphosis and in her work she returned especially in the fate of Job. In the collection In den Wohnungen des Todes (1947) the central motifs were flight and pursuit, the symbols of the hunter and his quarry. The protagonist of 'Gebete für den toten Bräutigan' was the unnamed man, with whom she fell in love in her youth and who was murdered by the Nazis. Eli, ein Mysterienspiel vom Leiden Israels  depicted the tragedy of an 8-year-old Polish boy, his death, and the search for his murderer. The work was later presented as a radio play and an opera.

Flucht und Verwandlung (1959) established Sachs as an outstanding writer in German literature. In it Sachs developed her visions of metamorphosis and exile of human beings on earth. After receiving the Nobel Prize, Sachs continued to live modestly in her small dwelling. The house where she lived, part of an apartment block in a district of workers and petits bourgeois, was owned by the Jewish community of Stockholm. She wrote with an old-fashioned Mercedes Prima typewriter, placed on a little table and sitting at the edge of her bed.

Sachs never married; her only significant romantic affair, with a non-Jewish man, ended in disappointment; her father supposedly did not approve him. After her father's death, she met him again and possibly continued the relatioship. According to some sources he died in a concentration camp. Sachs dedicted Prayers for a Dead Bridegroom to him in an anthology published in 1947. Her private life Sachs kept to herself.

Sachs died of cancer on May 12, 1970, and was buried in the Jewish cemetery. By the time of her death, her work had been translated into fifteen languages. In her final published work, Die Suchende (1971), Sachs tried to find a balance between her German upbringing and her identity as a Jewish writer living in exile. Her tiny apartment has been reassembled at the National Library of Sweden. 

Recurrent images in Sachs' poetry are stars, dust, sand, as in the collection Zeichen im Sand (1962). She spoke with the rhythm of prophets and lifted the sufferings into a timeless plane, continuing the tradition of psalmists and prophets. In O The Chimneys (1967) the Jewish nation is represented as smoke drifting from concentration camp chimneys, a way to freedom between life and death. Sachs rarely breaks loose her rage like Primo Levi in his poem 'Shemá', but transcends the tragedy of the Jewish people and her apocalyptic vision and conveys a message of reconciliation and resurrection.

For further reading: The Change of the Religious Voices through the Trauma of Exile in the Works of Else Lasker-Schüler, Nelly Sachs, and Barbara Honigmann by Renate Kaiser Sturdevant (dissertation, 2010); Flykt och förvandling. Nelly Sachs, författare, Berlin / Stockholm by Aris Fioretos (2010); Apropos Nelly Sachs by Gisela Dischner (1997); Jewish Writers, German Literature: The Uneasy Examples of Nelly Sachs and Walter Benjamin, ed.  Timothy H. Bahti and Marilyn Sibley Fries (1996); Post-Shoa Religious Metaphors: The Image of God in the Poetry of Nelly Sachs by Ursula Rudnick (1995); Nelly Sachs. Neue Interpretation by M. Kessler et al (1994); Nelly Sachs: Mit Selbstzeugnissen und Bilddokumenten by Gabriele Fritsch-Vivié (1993); Nelly Sachs by R. Dinesen (1992); Nelly Sachs by E. Bahr (1980); Poetik des modernen Gedichts by G. Bezzel-Dischner (1970); Nelly Sachs by P. Kersten (1969); Nelly Sachs - Nobel laureate by A. Alan Steinbach (1967); Nelly Sachs zu Ehren, ed. W. Berendsohn et al. (1961)

Selected works:

  • Legenden und Erzählungen, 1921
  • In den Wohnungen des Todes, 1947
    - Kuoleman asunnot (teoksessa Israelin kärsimys, suom. Aila Meriluoto, 1966)
  • Sternverdunklung, 1949
    - Tähdenpimennys (teoksessa Israelin kärsimys, suom. Aila Meriluoto, 1966)
  • Eli, ein Mysterienspiel vom Leiden Israels, 1951
    - Eli: A Mystery Play of the Sufferings of Israel (tr. 1967)
    - Israelin kärsimys (teoksessa Israelin kärsimys, suom. Aila Meriluoto, 1966)
  • Aber auch diese Sonne ist heimatlos, 1956  (translator)
  • Und Niemand Weiss Weiter, 1957
  • Flucht und Verwandlung, 1959
  • Fahrt ins Staublose, 1961
  • Zeichen im Sand. Die szenischen Dichtungen, 1962 (includes Abram im Salz)
  • Poesie. Schwedisch Deutsch, 1962 (translator)
  • Ausgewählte Gedichte, 1963 (afterword by Hans Magnus Enzensberger) 
  • Glühende Rätsel, 1963-66
  • Späte Gedichte, 1965
  • Schwedische Gedichte, 1965 (translator)
  • Die Suchende, 1966
  • Landschaft aus Schreien, 1966 (selected and afterword by Fritz Hofmann)
  • Simson fällt durch Jahrtausende und andere szenische Dichtungen, 1967
  • O Die Schornsteine, 1967
    - O the Chimneys: Selected Poems, Including the Verse Play, Eli (translated by Michael Hamburger et al., 1967)
  • The Seeker and Other Poems, 1970 (translated by Ruth Mead and Michael Hamburger)
  • Verzauberung, 1970
  • Teile Dich Nacht. Die letzten Gedichte, 1971 (edited by Margaretha Holmqvist and Bengt Holmqvist)
  • Suche nach Lebenden. Die Gedichte der Nelly Sachs. 2. Band, 1971 (ed. Margaretha Holmqvist)
  • Briefe der Nelly Sachs, 1984 (edited by Ruth Dinesen und Helmut Müssener)
  • Paul Celan, Nelly Sachs: Briefwechsel, 1993
    - Paul Celan, Nelly Sachs: Correspondence (edited by Barbara Wiedemann, translated by Christopher Clark, 1995)
  • Nelly Sachs: Briefwechsel und Dokumente, 1998 (edited by Reinhard Kiefer and Bernhard Albers)
  • Collected Poems II: 1950-1969, 2004 (translated by Michael Hamburger, Ruth and Matthew Mead, Michael Roloff)
  • Collected Poems I: 1944-1949, 2006 (translated by Michael Hamburger, Ruth and Matthew Mead, Michael Roloff)
  • Werke: kommentierte Ausgabe in vier Bänden, 2010-11 (4 vols., ed. Aris Fioretos)

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