But Perhaps God Needs the Longing
But Perhaps God Needs the Longing
When Nelly Sachs first began to write, she wrote of the longing for a lover and of the disappointment of lost love. After her experiences during the Holocaust, most of Sachs's poems dealt with the destruction of European Jewry. She used her poems to express the deep sense of loss and grief that she felt and as a form of catharsis for the many emotions that she had experienced during the war years. Although Sachs escaped the death camps, her escape did not leave her immune to the suffering of those Jews who were transported. Although she had been brought up in a non-religious, secular household, the experience of the Holocaust deepened Sachs's commitment to Judaism. Many of her poems, written after the war, reflect this deepened commitment to religion. This is certainly the case with "But Perhaps God Needs the Longing," (first printed in 1966 in Die Suchende) a poem in which the writer poses a reason for the inevitability of death and the grief that results from the loss of love. This poem appears in a chapter of The Seeker and Other Poems that is titled, "In the Habitations of Death," in which Sachs writes about the death camps. The dominant theme of "But Perhaps God Needs the Longing," is that of death. In this poem the poet expresses both the inevitability of death and the cycle of rebirth that are equal parts of life. One theme of "But Perhaps God Needs the Longing," suggests that the prayers of longing and grief that result from death create the light of stars in the night sky. These stars represent the continuing cycle of birth and death that are part of man's existence. The conclusion of the poem might be viewed as an affirmation that there is life after death, since the grief and longing that mankind feels perpetuates the memory of those who have been lost. The visual representation of this grief and the remembering of those lost can be seen in the birth of new stars.
Nelly Sachs was born Leonie Sachs on December 10, 1891. She was educated in Berlin, the only child born into an upper-class, liberal family. Her parents, William Sachs and Margarete Karger Sachs, were fully assimilated into German life and had largely abandoned their Jewish traditions. Indeed, many of Sachs earlier works include references to Christianity, rather than to Judaism. Sachs's father was an inventor and industrialist and her mother did not work away from home. Sachs did not adjust well to school and so she was educated at home, where she learned about literature, music, and dance. The Sachs family was musical; the father played the piano and Sachs danced for her parents. Perhaps because she did not attend school, Sachs had few friends and spent most of her time in the company of her parents. She rarely spoke about the details of her childhood, and so little is known about this part of her life. There was apparently an unsuccessful romantic attachment for a man when Sachs was only a teenager, and her various biographies allude to this man's unsuitability, but there is no solid information about the affair or why it ended. The end of this romance has been cited as the impetus for when Sachs began to write poetry at the age of 17. The next piece of information about Sachs's life refers to her father's death in 1930. Sachs was still living at home with her parents at the time, and she continued to remain at home where she cared for her mother.
At some indeterminate point, Sachs began a correspondence with the Swedish author Selma Lagerlöf. Then in 1939, as the Nazis were closing in on Sachs and her mother, she was offered a refuge in Sweden. Lagerlöf had interceded with the Swedish authorities and requested permission for Sachs to emigrate after another friend, Gudrun Harlen, had actually traveled to Sweden to make the arrangements. Sachs had already been ordered to report to the Nazi authorities and a labor camp when the offer of sanctuary arrived. She and her mother escaped Germany in May 1940 on the last passenger flight to leave Berlin for Stockholm. In leaving Germany, Sachs was also forced to leave behind all of her family's financial resources.
During the next thirty years, she lived an austere existence in a Stockholm apartment, earning a living translating the works of other writers from Swedish into German. During some periods of this time, Sachs suffered a nervous breakdown, was institutionalized, and was treated for depression, but even so, she continued to write.
The events of the Holocaust also kindled Sachs's interest in Judaism, and she became much more religious later in life. Sachs's first work, Legenden und Erzaehlungen (legends and stories dedicated to Selma Lagerlöf) was published in Berlin in 1921. This first work was a collection of stories from the Middle Ages. She did not publish any additional books until after the war ended, and when she did, her subject matter had changed. Her second book, In den Wohnungen des Todes (In the Dwellings of Death,) was published in 1946. Many more books of poetry followed, as well as what is considered to be her most important play, Eli: Ein Mysterienspiel vom Leiden Israels (Eli: A Mystery Play of the Sufferings of Israel), which was first performed in 1951. "But Perhaps God Needs the Longing" is taken from her 1966 book, Die Suchende (The Seeker, translated and published in English in 1970). In addition to several other prizes for her writing, Sachs was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1966, an honor that she shared with S. Y. Agnon. Sachs died in 1970 in Stockholm.
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Sachs's poem, "But Perhaps God Needs the Longing," articulates a reason for why grief and loss fill the world. The poem explores the universality of birth and the inevitability of death. The poet suggests that death and grief are expressions of prayer that leave their earthly bounds and fill the night sky with the light of stars. The poem also reasons that grief and longing are important in keeping the memory of loss alive. Longing is the unseen representation of grief, but the stars are the way in which longing makes grief visible. When those who are lost continue to be remembered, their existence continues, even though they no longer exist on an earthly plane.
The first two lines of Sachs's poem begin with the articulation of the first of several queries. The first question asks if God needs the desire, the yearning of mankind. The object of this feeling is unspoken, but the implication is mankind, and so the poet asks if God needs man to feel a yearning, a desire for what has been lost. But it is also unclear in this first line what it is that mankind is intended to desire. Instead of "longing," perhaps God needs the "prayers" of mankind, but to what end? For Sachs, the word longing articulates a desire to move beyond the boundaries of life. What it is exactly that the poet desires will not be revealed until later in the poem, and thus this first line projects a universal desire with which all readers can identify—the desire to escape the losses of this life, the boundaries that restrain mankind. The second question in the first line is tendered by the phrase, "wherever else should it dwell." In other words, where else might these prayers or desires exist if not in this world? What other destination remains for the accumulation of longing that exists in the world? This first line questions the very essence of existence by asking to what purpose does man exist in God's world.
Only a partial answer is forthcoming in the second line. The visible evidence of longing—the "kisses and tears and sighs" that reveal yearning—is unseen. Mankind's yearnings, instead, fill "mysterious spaces of air," whose location cannot be determined. The poet speculates that perhaps all the unfulfilled desires or prayers of mankind might be in the air that mankind breathes. Where else, the poet asks, does this longing go? Later in the poem, the reader learns that the longing of the first line of the poem exemplifies the need for solace and the relief of pain felt at the loss of love. The "longing" is an expression of grief at the experience of death. Religious dogma suggests that prayers leave an earthbound existence to fly up through the air and stars until they find their destination in heaven. Sachs's poem articulates this journey that prayers must take on their journey to God and offers the suggestion that it is the longing that creates the visible stars of the sky.
The speculation of line two is continued in line three when the poet suggests that mankind's prayers might provide the matter from which stars will grow. The poet suggests an alternative to the scientific study of the origin of stars and instead offers a more philosophical and religious solution to mankind's questions about the night sky. Prayers are the sustenance of growth. While loss will leave mankind filled with longing, that longing journeys forth to create a new world in the heavens. The world is nurtured through prayers, with even the stars depending on mankind's prayers for nourishment and rebirth.
The poet's questioning continues in the fourth line, in which the poet speculates that the very air and sky that envelop mankind's longing also contain the response that is sought from this yearning. Whose voice is that which answers mankind's prayers? It is God who offers a response and a promise of reunion, but the reunion occurs as each person dies. The grief and longing at each death become a part of the night sky and thereby joins those who have already been lost. The line also suggests an escape from the turmoil of existence that can be found among the stars of heaven. The idea of a return to God and the promise of a better existence are common tenets of religious faith. Such reliance on the promise of a better world is especially common in periods of great turmoil.
In line five, the poet finally suggests a focus of the yearning that the first line articulates. This fifth line is addressed to "my beloved." Since there is no specific mention of the individual, the line suggests that the beloved is meant to signify a universality of love that is recognizable to all readers. Instead of a lover for whom the poet yearns, the beloved is, instead, the representation of all love that has been lost. And so the question posed in line five is a universal representation of lost love and the longing for a loved one. The poet suggests that it is the longing of mankind for a loved one that leads to the creation of the stars. As a loved one is taken in death, it is the grief of those left behind that creates the stars and planets. A glance at the stars spurs the poet to ask if those very stars were created from the prayers of longing that have escaped mankind.
In line six, the poet continues the question posed in line five. If mankind's longing has created the stars in the sky, perhaps those sighs of longing, first mentioned in line two, have created the world in which man exists. The "cradle for life and death" is mankind's own existence, which is beyond the control of individual men. The act of breathing creates life, just as the cessation of breath signifies death. This existence is beyond mankind's direct providence, just as the creation of the stars are only a by-product of the prayers that make their way upward to heaven. The substance of man's existence is insignificant in a world so large.
Line seven articulates the ideas that were only suggested in lines five and six. The "grains of sand" make clear the smallness and insignificance of mankind. As the poet makes clear in the preceding line, death is as much a part of mankind's existence as is birth. Mankind is "dark with farewell," suggesting the darkness of grief and the prayers of longing that define man's existence. And yet the poet counters this darkness of thought with the notion that mankind's prayers lead to the birth of the sky. All those stars that light the night sky are the "secret treasure trove" of births that reveal that so many prayers of longing have not gone unanswered. The final line, then, reflects on the events that influence the poet's life. The deaths of so many have created a sky filled with stars, and so she acknowledges the inevitability of death and of grief for those lost. The grief of longing, the prayers for comfort and solace that escape mankind, will create even more stars and planets in the sky as still more death and loss fill mankind's world.
Birth and Death
Sachs's poem, "But Perhaps God Needs the Longing," explores the universal longing and grief that human beings experience at the death of a loved one. This universality of emotion is expressed in both the title and the opening line and is expressed even more clearly in line five. The "beloved" represents all of those who have died and left loved ones to mourn their loss. The poet also suggests that "in the sky of longing," there is also the opportunity for rebirth. The longing for those whom death has taken creates "worlds [that] have been born of our love." Sachs's poem acknowledges the cycle of birth and death that manifests itself in all of nature. Sachs simply takes the idea one step beyond the customary exposition to suggest that grief is not an empty emotion; instead, man's grief is felt in the heavens, and the result of this grief is the birth of a new star that represents the longing for a lost life. The final word of the poem reminds the reader of the cyclical nature of life and death. The wreath is by definition a circle, without beginning and end. Death, too, is without end, since it is the longing, the memories of those left behind, that will keep the dead alive. Each star in the sky is proof of an individual life and death.
In line six, the poet explores the meaning of man's existence. The visual expression of life is the unconscious act of breathing. Breathing is an innate action that accompanies birth. The poet refers to mankind's "breathing, in and out," as the essence of existence. The cessation of breath reveals the end of life. This notion of inevitability is captured in the last line of the poem, when the poet recognizes that all who have existed will eventually die. The idea that existence is precarious is suggested by a phrase in line seven: "We are grains of sand." Grains of sand are too miniscule to be counted, except by great effort, and thus the counting is without end. A grain of sand, an individual life, might be overlooked but not if mourned by someone who loved that person. The promise of an eternal existence lies within the same line. It is "births' secret treasure trove" that promises a life after an earthly death. Human existence, then, continues, although perhaps only in the memories of those left behind. The repetition of the word "perhaps," found in lines one, three, five, and eight, suggests only the possibility of continued existence but it also reflects the poet's hope that existence shall continue even after death.
The palpable emotion of "But Perhaps God Needs the Longing" is the expression of grief. This poem, like the many others that are included in The Seeker and Other Poems, is about living with so much death. The poet's grief at the death of so many people is expressed in the reference to the stars. Each star represents the longing and grief for a life lost. Stars, though, are without number. They are so infinite as to be uncountable. The poet's use of stars as a metaphor for lost lives is intended to suggest the depth of loss that the writer feels at so much death. The grief at the loss of life is too vast for any representation that might be accountable with numbers. The "grains of sand" phrase in line seven also represents a number too great to count, and thus a grief too vast to describe. At the same time, the poet expresses a sense that such grief is not without benefit. The visible expression of all this grief is the night sky that continues to illuminate the earth, and so mankind can never forget the loss represented in the heavens above.
Topics For Further Study
- Mankind can learn much about how people adapt to change and to economic pressure by studying how society changes in response to these economic pressures. Research life in Berlin during the 1920s and the 1930s. Compare these two periods carefully. What do you think are the most significant social changes to occur during this period?
- Locate at least two or three poems by Rose Ausländer, another German Jewish woman poet. After you have read Ausländer's poems, compare them to at least two or three of Sachs's poems. How are these poems alike? How are they different? In what ways do both Ausländer and Sachs capture the Holocaust experience? Be sure to use lines of poetry to support your findings.
- Some historians have argued that women were better able to adapt to the new laws and oppression that governed the lives of German Jews. Research the experiences of Jewish men and women in pre–World War II Germany. Explore what life was like during this time and form your own argument about which gender was better able to adapt and survive.
- In the past twenty years a great many memoirs of Holocaust survival have been published. Read at least one of these memoirs (Etty Hillesum's An Interrupted Life and Letters from Westerbork is a good choice) and compare how a writer's prose reflections compare to those of a poet, such as Nelly Sachs. What do you think are the most significant differences between the prose account and the poetry text? Is one kind of memoir more effective than another at capturing the events of this period? Be sure to use textual quotes to support your argument.
The events of the Holocaust provide the defining image in Sachs's poetry. It is impossible to grasp what six million dead actually means. The number is too large to make sense. This is the fact that Sachs acknowledges in "But Perhaps God Needs the Longing." The many references to images without number, the stars and grains of sand, all refer to numbers without meaning. Human beings cannot count the number of stars or the number of grains of sand, nor do they attempt to do so. And yet each of the six million Jews who died were sons and daughters, mothers, and fathers, husbands and wives, grandparents and siblings. Each death was an individual who was loved and who was mourned. Sachs's poem is rich with allusions to the unlimited emotion of grief that is felt at so great a loss. The poet seeks to find some solace in the idea that the grief from so much loss was not without meaning. The poem offers the suggestion of eternal life in the memories of those who do not forget. One important response to the Holocaust is the Jewish cry to action: Never forget. The demand that the events of the Holocaust never be forgotten has become the mantra of twentieth-century Jewish thought. Sachs acknowledges this mantra with her reminder that each star is a representation of grief and that as long as there is remembrance, there will be more stars, the "future moons, suns and stars" that form the circle of memory. The six million dead of the Holocaust will not cease to exist as long as grief at their loss continues to be felt.
Simply put, imagery refers to the images suggested by a poem. The relationships between images can suggest important meanings in a poem. With imagery, the poem uses language and specific words to create meaning. For instance, Sachs uses imagery to demonstrate the cycle of life and death. The wreath is a circle without beginning and end. Birth and death are the cyclical representations of nature. Each birth must end in death, but the dead are not forgotten, according to Sachs, since they remain alive in memory.
A metaphor is an analogy that identifies one object with another and ascribes to one object the qualities of a second object. The metaphor may be simple, as with a single comparison, or the metaphor may be much more complex, as in Sachs's case, where most of the poem functions as a metaphor. Sachs uses the stars as a metaphor for lost lives suggesting that each star is formed from the grief felt at a death. The stars metaphor allows Sachs to make grief a visible entity that everyone can see and acknowledge.
Parallelism refers to a repetition in style or words within the poem. This stylistic device is a means to express several ideas of similar importance in a similar manner. For example, Sachs uses parallelism of word choice, the word "perhaps," to reinforce the notion that memory might ward off death by keeping alive the memory of those who have died. This use of parallelism focuses the reader's attention on this word and signifies that this repetition is an important element of the poem.
The word poem is generally assigned to mean a literary composition distinguished by emotion, imagination, and meaning. But the term poem may also fit certain designated formulas, such as a sonnet or a couplet, which are defined by length and or a rhyme scheme. A poem may also include divisions into stanzas, a sort of paragraph-like division of ideas, and may also include a specific number of stressed or unstressed syllables in each line. Sachs's poem does not make use of a set number of syllables per line, and does not employ specific defining characteristics, as does a sonnet; however, her poem does meet many of the other elements that define poetry, especially the notion of compactness and concreteness of language. Every word in Sachs's poem suggests an image or idea, and nothing is wasted. Modern poetry has moved from the strict formulas of the early poets, but even the contemporary poet still strives for an impassioned response to his or her poem. And like the earliest poetry, modern poetry is still highly individualistic.
The question in poetry, which is often a rhetorical question, does not always require an answer, but the posing of the question can provide an interesting means for the poet to attract the reader's attention. Sachs uses several questions; in fact, she opens her poem with the first of several questions. Sachs's questions lead the reader to search within the poem for answers. Her questions, then, serve to focus the reader's continued attention on the poem.
Rhyme is the correspondence of sound based on a terminal sound between accented syllables—often located at the end of a line—that involves both a vowel and a consonant sound. In Sachs's poem, "dwell" and "swell" rhyme lines one and three, with identical sounds. This type of rhyme is a masculine rhyme or a rhyme where the corresponding sounds are restricted to the last syllable. Rhyme can be used to unify a stanza, but in Sachs's one-stanza poem the rhyme scheme ties the poem together linguistically. Sachs uses a simple rhyme scheme of alternating lines, ababcdcd. Rather than using couplets, the alternating rhyme is less tiresome for the listener and adds more interest to the poem.
Although Sachs's poem, "But Perhaps God Needs the Longing," was included in The Seeker and Other Poems, the actual date of composition of the poem is unknown. The copyright notes that several of the poems in this book had previously been published, but there is no individual notation about the date of composition for any of the poems. Yet the influences on the poem are very clear. Sachs's poetry reflects the devastation of the Holocaust on her life, which began with a series of oppressive laws that heavily restricted her life. After Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933, he began a series of moves that would segregate Jews from mainstream German life. The first of these actions began in 1934 when Hitler demanded that all artists must glorify Nazism. Hitler created the House of German Art in Berlin, and then condemned many of the most creative people in Germany as degenerate. In response, many of Germany's artists and writers fled Germany, leaving Berlin bereft of many of the city's greatest artists. By 1935, Hitler and the Nazis had instituted the Nuremberg Laws, a series of laws that restricted Jewish life. Jews were no longer German citizens, even though many Jewish men had fought for Germany during World War I. Jews were also forbidden to marry German citizens or to have any sexual relationship with a German. Hitler declared that the Aryan race, which included the Germans, was the most superior of races, while the Jews were the lowest of all races, barely equal to animals.
Under the new laws, Germans were forbidden to associate with Jews and not permitted to do business with Jews. Jews could no longer work in public service and were not allowed to vote. They also lost all government pensions and were forbidden to teach at universities. Jewish children were not permitted to be educated with German children. Eventually Hitler ordered that all Jews leave the country, but few were able to find a country that would admit them, especially since they were also penniless after the Germans had confiscated all their money and goods. Although Sachs and her mother were not observant Jews, Hitler's new laws did not distinguish Jews based on religious practice; instead, Hitler defined Jews by race. Anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent was considered a Jew. By 1938, the persecution of Jews, destruction of their property, and the arrest and transportation to camps within Germany had begun. By 1941, the systematic extermination of Europe's Jewish population was underway. By the time Sachs was finally able to find a way to escape, she had already received a letter ordering her to report for deportation.
Word that Europe's Jewish population was being murdered had begun to be heard years before the end of the war. But the whispered rumors were too extreme to be believed by many people. However, after the war ended and the first camps were liberated, word of the destruction and of the annihilation of so many lives became more widely known. For Jews who had survived, as Sachs did, the knowledge was especially difficult. Many Jews who survived the death camps were wracked by guilt, but many of the Jews who had escaped, as well as those whose families had perished, were consumed with anguish at the enormity of loss. Many people were unable to visualize the loss of so many people. Although six million Jews had perished, another five million individuals, who were labeled as undesirables, also died. Many of Sachs's poems deal with the incomprehensible images of so much death. Sachs's poetry uses the metaphor of numberless stars and grains of sand to try and define the deaths of eleven million people, but her very metaphor makes clear how impossible it is to visualize so much death.
After the war ended, Sachs remained in Stockholm. Only a few of Germany's Jews decided to return to Germany after the end of war; most were like Sachs, with little money and no property left to claim. All that they had owned prior to the war had been taken, and many Jewish survivors lived in poverty, as did Sachs, who rarely left her Stockholm apartment. It is the events of the 1930s and 1940s that haunts Sachs's poetry. The images of so much destruction and death in that period are frequently found in her poetry. "But Perhaps God Needs the Longing" is only one example of how events of this period influenced Sachs's work for the rest of her life.
Compare & Contrast
1940s: Many Jews are deported from Germany to camps in the east, many to the camp called Auschwitz in Poland. In January of 1945, the death camp at Auschwitz is liberated by the Russian army. The Russians are so horrified by what they see at the camp that they shoot many of the German guards on the spot. The actual number of those murdered at Auschwitz is unknown and is estimated to be between one and two million people.
Today: After World War II, Auschwitz is destroyed. In its place, a memorial and museum are constructed. In recent years, an attempt to build a Christian religious sanctuary there results in protests from Jews who feel that only the memorial belongs on the land; eventually the project for the sanctuary is abandoned.
1940s: In April 1945, the allied forces circle Berlin, beginning a siege that lasts less than a week before the city falls. While Russian shelling demolishes the Reich Chancellery and the Reichstag, Hitler hides in an underground shelter. He commits suicide on April 30, 1945.
Today: In the 1960s, Berlin is divided with half of the city's inhabitants living in West Germany and the remainder in East Germany behind the Iron Curtain. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Germany is once again a united country.
1940s: In 1945, the United States drops two atomic bombs on Japan, at Hiroshima and at Nagasaki. More than 100,000 people are killed by the bombs, and many more people die later from their injuries and from exposure to radiation.
Today: The threat of nuclear expansion continues to concern people, who fear that another bomb would be used to destroy cities and people. Efforts to restrain the development of nuclear weapons have been largely unsuccessful and many countries such as Indian, Pakistan, and North Korea now possess these weapons.
Sachs's books have been largely ignored by the critics, but that does not mean that there have not been some critical studies of her work as a whole. Sachs is most often studied as a Jewish writer and as a survivor of the Holocaust. Her work, then, is studied along side those of other Jewish women writers, whose Holocaust experiences shape their work. It is only recently that the poetry and prose of Holocaust survivors have found an audience of willing readers. In fact, it took a long time for critics to discover Nelly Sachs. In her essay, "Women as Agents of Suffering and Redemption in the Poetry of Nelly Sachs," writer Erlis Glass Wickersham points out that Sachs's "artistic contributions to twentieth century poetry may have been unjustifiably neglected." In fact, as Wickersham observes, while books of Sachs's poetry have been published for many years, there have been no definitive editions of Sachs's poetry and only after 1990 did biographies begin to appear. At this point, none of these recent biographies have been published in English and most of the critical work on Sachs continues to be available only in German. Wickersham's own study focuses on the maternal images that are present in Sachs's poetry, but she also notes the many references to astronomical entities, an example of which can be seen in "But Perhaps God Needs the Longing." While many of Sachs's poems explore the death camps and the destruction of humanity that occurred in the camps, she does not limit herself to the spacial limitations of those camps. Wickersham mentions that Sachs "extends her vision outward," away from the limitations of the traditional family, and "into a new world." The images of a "common humanity" in Sachs's poetry are what Wickersham sees as the transformational effect of these poems.
Wickersham is not the only critic to study Sachs's work. In his text, The Poetry of Survival: Post-War Poets of Central and Eastern Europe, Daniel Weissbort contends that Sachs was unable to separate herself from the suffering of the victims of the Holocaust. Weissbort argues that "the reality in Sachs's almost Biblical poetry of lamentation is the sheer physical pain of loss." Weissbort also points out that in time, Sachs was able to see "the suffering of the Jewish victims in a wider context of death and renewal." That image of death and renewal is the dominant theme in "But Perhaps God Needs the Longing." Sachs's preoccupation with death may also have been a result of her own narrow escape from the Nazis in 1940. In her essay on Sachs, "The Search for Identity: Nelly Sachs's Jewishness," Ruth Dinesen asserts that Sachs's "personal experience of the closeness of death, her grieving participation in the dying and death of her loved ones and of the many people unknown to her" had a profound effect on Sachs's life and on her work. Dinesen also tells of how important the word Sehnsucht (longing) would become in Sachs's poetry. Dinesen suggests that Sachs had always wanted to move beyond preconceived boundaries, a desire that "is articulated in her poems as stretching over the edge of life." The word "longing" is a central part of "But Perhaps God Needs the Longing," since it signifies the desire to move beyond the confines of earthly pain.
Sachs's books of poetry are out of print in the United States, although they can still be found occasionally in used bookstores. In addition, English translations of literary criticism of her work remains scarce.
Sheri E. Metzger
Metzger has a doctorate in English Renaissance literature and teaches literature and drama at the University of New Mexico. She is also a professional writer and the author of several reference texts on literature. In this essay, Metzger discusses how Sachs's identification with Jewish suffering and representations of genocide are transformed into healing images that transform grief in Sachs's poem.
Nelly Sachs is not the only Jewish writer who has used poetry to try and understand the events of the Holocaust and the destruction of European Jewry. The Nazi desire to destroy an entire culture and the people who were that culture's literal representations has confounded historians and social scientists since the scale of destruction was first uncovered in the 1940s. The resulting outpouring of literary writing that has dealt with the Holocaust is enormous. Many Jewish women survivors have written of their experiences in prose memoirs, and while it is true that these memoirs are able to capture the events and emotions of this period, they can only rarely find meaning in an event that so clearly defies understanding. Sachs is one of the few Jewish women writers who used poetry as a way to express her anguish and outrage at this destruction. For Sachs, the Holocaust was an event that would permeate her poetry with images of death and sorrow.
Sachs's life was filled with loss. As an only child, who was educated at home, her life was controlled within the narrow parameters of family. Sachs never married and never left home until forced to do so by the Nazis. In the space of only five years, she lost both her father and her cultural identity. Her father's death in 1930 was followed by the establishment of government-sanctioned anti-Semitism in Germany. Even though the Sachs were fully assimilated Jews, who were more Christian in practice than Jewish, the family suffered under the 1935 Nuremberg Laws that took away German citizenship and heavily restricted the freedoms of Jews. Within a few years, Sachs and her mother had lost their home and property. They were at the mercy of friends who were able to secure the family's escape from Germany just as Sachs was about to be deported to a labor camp where she would certainly have died. The family had lost everything and arrived in Stockholm as penniless refugees. By the time Sachs and her mother arrived in Sweden in May 1940, all that Sachs had ever known was gone.
At this time, Sachs was 48 years old and was no longer a German; instead, she had become a Jew, something about which she knew nothing. In her essay on Sachs's quest for identity, "The Search for Identity: Nelly Sachs's Jewishness," Ruth Dinesen begins her study by focusing on Sachs's early development as a writer. Dinesen notes that the poet had always thought of herself as a German writer and not a Jewish woman writer. In fact, the subjects of some of her earliest poems were Catholic saints. Dinesen points out that Hitler's leadership "had cast her [Sachs] out of the German community and into a group of persecuted people who were forced to think of themselves as Jews, and to make the best of it." Yet Sachs did not think of herself as a Jew. She knew no Hebrew and knew nothing about Jewish culture or religion, but as a poet she was expected, as Dinesen suggests, to write about Jewish topics. As it happens, Hitler made this easy, since one way for Sachs to find an identity as a Jew was to identify with Jewish suffering.
An essential part of Jewish identification is to live as part of a Jewish community. As a Jewish refugee in Sweden, Sachs became a part of the suffering that European Jews were enduring. Dinesen writes that Sachs's
loss of identity as a German, her personal experience of the closeness of death, her grieving participation in the dying and death of her loved ones and of the many people unknown to her renew Nelly Sachs's complete isolation and loss of orientation in her Stockholm exile, a situation from which she rescues herself only by accepting a Jewish identity.
Her identification with Jewish suffering not only made Sachs a part of the Jewish community, it gave her an identity as a Jew that would become an essential part of the poetry she would write. According to Dinesen, Sachs identifies so closely with the history of the Jewish Diaspora that she considers herself "a part of the dispersed and persecuted Jewish people, who are entrusted with a special God-given task." For Sachs, the task will be to use her poetry to try to heal the pain of all the death and suffering that surrounds her. A significant part of this healing is Sachs's search for life beyond the boundary of death.
In her poem "But Perhaps God Needs the Longing," this need to expand boundaries is represented in the image of the creation of new stars. It is the grief that is experienced at so many deaths that creates the "invisible soil from which roots of stars grow." In Sachs's poem, grief is not just limited to the "kisses and tears and sighs" that respond to loss. She wants to create images that move beyond the familiar. If each star represents the memory of grief felt at a death, then each lost life will live again in the night sky. Instead of death, life is created from sorrow. Dinesen suggests that Sachs's search for life beyond the boundaries of death is not simply a religious experience but is, instead, the need to move beyond preconceived boundaries. This desire to expand boundaries is designated in Sachs's poems as "longing," a recurring theme in her poems, and is the need to find meaning in life after loss. An example of Sachs reliance on "longing" can be taken from the first line of "But Perhaps God Needs the Longing," when the poet poses the rhetorical question from the title. This opening line signifies the importance of the word "longing" and directs the reader's attention beyond the question in the first line and to the necessity of grief as a part of memory.
Sachs's use of "longing" should not be read in the same context as it might be in society today when longing is often associated with the desire to possess something that one does not have. Nor is the poet simply longing for death. In his essay on Sachs's poetry, "Nelly Sachs: The Poem and Transformation," Johannes Anderegg points out that in Sachs's poetry, the word "longing" takes on new meaning. Anderegg suggests that "longing" is for Sachs
inscribed into all wandering, all life; it is the expression of being-under-way; it belongs to a path that leads to death—and longing is therefore surely also the hope, indeed perhaps the certainty, that this path is a path to God.
Sachs's longing, as expressed in her poetry, is for another world without pain and sorrow. Anderegg notes that in some of Sachs's poetry, this "longing is connected with a movement that overcomes gravity and rises above the earth," as it does in "But Perhaps God Needs the Longing," when longing is the impetus that creates new stars. Dinesen also notes that Sachs's use of "longing" reflects a need to "cross all boundaries, which is articulated in her poems as stretching over the edge of life." As both Anderegg and Dinesen have observed, Sachs wants to expand the universe to find a place of solace and solitude, a place of healing and hope. In some of her poems, she does this with references to the oceans, while in others she moves out into the universe, as she does with "But Perhaps God Needs the Longing." In her use of stars as a way to assuage grief, Sachs offers a healing that falls outside the conventional religious view of death and the afterlife. The solace from grief is not built upon an idea of being reunited with loved ones after death. Instead, Sachs offers a way to reunite with the living through the transformation of grief. The profound grief that is felt at the revelation of so much death is transformed in Sachs's poem to worlds that "have been born of our love." Sachs escapes the boundaries of death and offers healing in the night sky. All who grieve, then, are bound together by the stars that cover all earthly people.
One cannot underestimate the impact of the Holocaust on Sachs's poetry, and yet, her poetry is not only focused on images of pain. In her book Ethics and Remembrance in the Poetry of Nelly Sachs and Rose Ausländer, Kathrin M. Bower describes how Sachs felt the need to use her poetry to give voice to the events that had happened in Europe. Rather than making her poems about the individual, as she might well have done since she had also suffered much, Bower suggests that Sachs "wished to subordinate herself as an individual survivor to the collective mass of victims with whom she so strongly empathized." It is the many, who have suffered and who continue to suffer, whose sorrow can be found in the grief that creates so many stars in the sky, and it is the many whose grief is captured in "grains of sand" too numerous to count. Sachs felt that it was memory that would best preserve those who had been lost, just as she also saw herself as the means to voice so much sorrow. In her poem "But Perhaps God Needs the Longing," Sachs suggests that memory is held in the stars created by grief. Bower describes Sachs as intent on becoming a "vessel for the sufferings of her people." As noted above, Sachs's identification with Jewish culture was as a witness and participant to Jewish suffering. One way for Sachs to accomplish her immersion in the Jewish community was to use her poetry as a way to address the effects of genocide. She chose to do this by demonstrating the common humanity of mankind, expressed through a universal grief at the genocide that the Jews had experienced.
In Sachs's poetry, and notably in "But Perhaps God Needs the Longing," which is discussed in this essay, the poet universalizes the experience of Jewish suffering to create a poem that finds hope and healing for those who grieve. As Dinesen, Anderegg, and Bower have all noted, Nelly Sachs was a poet who used her poetry to escape the boundaries of earthly pain. Through her images of grief transformed into stars, the poet is able to suggest an escape from sorrow and a place of solace for readers who seek escape from the knowledge that the destruction of millions was created by mankind. Sachs never forgets the basic humanity of man and finds that poetry can transcend earthly boundaries defined by unbearable pain.
Source: Sheri E. Metzger, Critical Essay on "But Perhaps God Needs the Longing," in Poetry for Students, Gale, 2004.
In the following essay excerpt, Dinesen examines Sachs's background as a German Jew and her search for identity in her poetry.
Some time ago, a Danish colleague of mine wrote a history of Eastern Jewry. She was working intensely on this project and told me a lot about it when I met her the first time. In the course of the conversation I asked her, "Are you perhaps yourself a Jew?" to which she answered, briefly, "No," and the conversation continued. This was nothing remarkable; I also worked on a Jewish topic without being a Jew—nevertheless the emphasis on the word "No" stuck with me.
After several years we met again. Her book had been published and had been followed by another. I knew that she had gone through a serious illness. Talking about it, she told me suddenly that she had just converted to Judaism. Still remembering the previous "No," I asked her for her reason. I was told a long story about the discovery of a Jewish identity. This story is on the one hand quite personal; on the other it seems to me typical enough to serve as the introduction to my topic.
The chances for recovery were slim; she looked death in the eye and thought about where she wanted to be buried and about burial rites. At this boundary she felt unexpectedly alien in her familiar environment, like one who did not belong; she sought her burial place at a Jewish cemetery. She is completely irreligious; no faith guided her. She had grown up without the least knowledge of a Jewish culture, had never before called herself a Jew, and certainly not a Zionist; therefore her decision was not political. Then why? She called this her "ethnic identity"—a designation to which I could not relate.
Then she told her story, starting with her Jewish orthodox grandparents, who had fled Russia, persecuted by a pogrom, and had eventually landed in Vienna. There their children—my colleague's parents—distanced themselves from their Jewish up-bringing; atheistic and politically active, they raised their own children to be completely assimilated. The militant anti-Semitism in Vienna caught the family unprepared. Expelled from Austria like unwelcome strangers, they were viewed in England as possible enemies, and after the beginning of the war they were temporarily interned there. This twice-estranged woman went to Denmark, lived as a Dane, was married in the church, had her children christened—but she remained a foreigner, marked already by her use of the language, which betrayed her at once.
On death's threshold the feeling of foreignness overwhelmed her. She looked for a place from which she could not be expelled. Through her history, discovered in long talks with her maternal grandmother, she found her way back to her Jewish identity, and thus to a sense of groundedness that made it possible for her to die. She did not find a perfect world, a religion, a cultural or political system; she found a community of foreigners in the world—not of course the community of all foreigners and expellees, but rather the singular foreignness of the Jews in the Diaspora: an "ethnic alienation" that returned to her the identity she had lost, the identity of a Jew.
Her story is unique—but I have listened to other unique stories of numerous other Jews. Everyone has his or her own inimitable history, but it is remarkable how Jewish identity inscribes itself into a biography's record. Identity comes into being and is captured in the narration of a human life.
The biography of Nelly Sachs leads repeatedly to the boundary of death. As a poet she sought this border position and gleaned her poems each time from this closeness to death. These poems functioned for her simultaneously as breathing exercises at the threshold of destruction, and as the search for the possibility for life after the loss of identity. Here I suggest tentatively five stages in her search for identity:
The first stage, when a partnership with a beloved man was forbidden to the sixteen-year-old girl;
The second stage, when the forty-year-old woman was denied her German identity;
The third stage, when the refugee found herself rescued but totally isolated in Stockholm;
The fourth stage, when the last remaining beloved person, her mother, died;
The fifth and last stage, the loss of any orientation and of any shelter through mental disorder.
This, then, is a narration of five stages in a human development, each of them a crisis whose working through brought the poet face-to-face with death, but which in every instance led to a new level of self-understanding.
The "Jewish component" of this life can only be described against the background of its complete absence during the first stage.
The unhappy love of the very young girl must be taken seriously as resulting in the loss and gain of identity, although this experience might seem insignificant to a later observer. It was, indeed, life threatening due to her refusal of food; and the poet herself regarded it up to her death as her Schicksal (fate) and as the primary source of her work.
The love crisis led Nelly Sachs to the word; earlier she had expressed her feelings in a child's free dance, which accompanied her father's piano playing. She dealt in her poetic attempts with the painful love experience and found a path toward a new self-understanding. The prose collection Legenden und Erzählungen (1921) includes some texts about the renunciation of love; but here I prefer to discuss the sonnets that date from that period. This early cycle appeared for a long time to be lost; in 1959 Nelly Sachs searched for it in vain.
After my visit in Jerusalem in January 1986 with Eva Steinthal, who belonged to the early circle of Nelly Sachs's friends, Steinthal gave me a handwritten copy of these poems, which she had prepared, "in 1923 at the latest," for the pleasure of her lifelong friend Friedl Meier. The cycle, which includes twenty-four poems, celebrates a lost beloved; the "I" mourns its unhappy fate and seeks partners in misfortune, referred to as "sisters," with whom to identify. In addition to classical examples, one finds the Madonna in a prominent position among these sisters. The Mother of God is also praised in other poems over the years—but there are definite indications that this meek servant did not quite suffice as a model for the poet.
The Nelly Sachs Archive in Stockholm maintains the library of the poet as it existed at the time of her death. Here one finds the Fioretti twice: Die Blümlein des heiligen Franziskus von Assisi and Die schönsten Legenden des heiligen Franz, the latter with a dedication "to the celebration of love 1920," and the former with a Francis manuscript by Nelly Sachs as enclosure. In St. Francis's "Song of the Sun" we read:
Praised be thou, Lord,
by our brother, Death of the body.
In her third sonnet, Nelly Sachs likewise calls death "brother":
Death, my brother, thou once burntest in me
But the "I" is hindered by "a cherub" from acting according to its death drive, and the fourth sonnet consequently begins with the question: "Where to turn with this love?" whereupon the "I" answers itself: "By giving in meekness, I can fulfill myself."
The "I" defines meekness as a life spent in service to the poor and the orphans, but also in loving nature—"blossom and leaf and every animal"—which is "born mute and deaf to the word." Obvious here, although he remains unnamed, is the inspiration of St. Francis, whose legend tells not only of his preaching to the birds and the flowers but also of his liberation of captured wildlife or fish.
This cycle is followed by four sonnets titled "Franz von Assisi." From the very beginning Francis is called "the hero," a "king of gestures." In this cycle of sonnets, the most important sign of his paradigmatic and heroic characteristics is the Inbrunst (ardor) that climaxes in his vision of God. The fire of his love illuminates earth's hidden agonies: the tearless suffering of Nature—"dust, animal, and plant"—under its own laws. This is a singular concept, and it captivated the poet: here it is angels who bow beneath earth's yoke; in her later work, nature's ardor, born of suffering, opens the Godly eye so that it weeps. Francis assumes a central position in the sensibilities of the poet. In 1959, for example, she writes to two young German friends: "Your pictures, photos, are all around me in the cabin at Lake Mälar together with my other loved ones. St. Francis is on the new bookshelf."
Betrayed by love, the young girl turned to religion. She sought this not in the form of a community of faith; her independence and own assumptions led her, rather, to search for herself in religious models. In keeping with the values of the times, these were more likely to be Catholic saints than, for example, Protestant or Jewish mystics. She seeks, on the one hand, an antithesis to her death drive, a balance that is masked as a longing for heaven, as a burning desire for God; here and in her later works, she calls this yearning Inbrunst (ardor). On the other hand, her religiosity is characterized by her close relationship—her connectedness—to nature, which again echoes contemporary sensibilities by prescribing the poet's task: to give voice to a mute and tearless nature, and to translate creation's sighs into poetic expression.
At this point, we may recall Rilke's speech on modern poetry of 1898, which contains the following definition:
Art seems to me to be an individual's attempt to seek—beyond the narrow and the dark—an understanding with all things, with the smallest as well as with the largest, and to come closer to the ultimate and quiet sources of all life through such consistent conversations. The secrets of things merge in his inner being with his own deepest sensitivities and become for him loud, as if they were his own desires.
Although in later years Nelly Sachs did not want to be reduced to any influences and therefore denied all knowledge of Rilke, she had long owned Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge and Das Stundenbuch, as well as Rilke's translation of the Vierundzwanzig Sonette der Louïze Labé, which may be seen as a model for Sachs's own cycle of sonnets. After the death of her mother, she seems again to have sought consolation in Rilke: "How I look forward to The Duino Elegies . . . I own the Book of Hours and also The Sonnets to Orpheus," she writes to Gudrun Dähnert in 1950.
But I am anticipating myself. Through her poetic work, Nelly Sachs worked through the loss of her identity as a loving woman. Gradually, she comes to think of herself as a writer—as a German author, to be sure, without the smallest Jewish component; this is clear, for example, in her first publication Legenden und Erzählungen (Legends and stories) from 1921. The religiosity that dominates this collection is distinguished by the ardor and connectedness with nature, for which St. Francis provided the model; the poetic task that she conceives in many ways resembles Rilke's poetic enterprise.
Nelly Sachs was as unprepared as other assimilated German Jews to cope with the denial of her identity as a German by the National Socialist rulers. Leo Hirsch, the cultural editor of the Berliner Tagesblatt until this newspaper was suspended by the Nazis, describes the modern Jewish German author's situation in 1938 as follows:
It is, in truth, also very difficult for the writer. No matter what he wrote before the change, it was hardly "Jewish." Now he is expected—and expects himself—to bring about the renaissance of Jewish culture. How does one do that? . . . Whoever writes about graveyards must at least also be able to decipher the Hebrew epitaphs. Most Jewish authors suffer from this lack of knowledge: they can read only German. As a result, the Jewish world remains almost closed to them. They take another look at the Bible, but only the Luther translation is halfway accessible. But because one is dependent on such materials in order to remain alive, one gives oneself a Jewish orientation as easily as possible, secondhand. Since one cannot get at the biblical sources, Auerbach's Wüste und Gelobtes Land has to suffice; history is acquired by way of Graetz and Dubnow, and Hasidism via Buber's little Schocken volume. None of this would be worth speaking of if it concerned only a few individuals in this country who have been identified, nolens volens, as Jewish authors; but it is the difficult problem of Jews in all countries who have been cast out of their old customs. They have unlearned the Jewish way of thinking; thus they are incapable of Jewish writing.
Hirsch had published three poems by Nelly Sachs in the Berliner Tagesblatt in 1933; he also enabled her last publication in Berlin, on April 4, 1939, in the Monatsblätter of the Jewish Cultural Society (Jüdischer Kulturbund). Immediately after her escape to Sweden, Nelly Sachs enlisted the help of Swedish refugee workers in an attempt to get Hirsch and his wife out of Berlin as well. She did not succeed.
Hirsch's analysis of the situation of the Jewish author fits Nelly Sachs exactly. Der Umschwung (the change)—as the Jewish newspapers called Hitler's assumption of power, with all its evil consequences—had cast her out of the German community and into a group of persecuted people who were forced to think of themselves as Jews, and to make the best of it. This could not be achieved through external force alone; it was necessary to construct a quasi-Jewish identity—an inner attitude that would provide some kind of counterpressure. In accord with Hirsch's comment, she was expected and expected herself to produce Jewish poems; but she had not unlearned Jewish thinking—she had never learned it and thus had to make do with brief introductory essays.
The Luther Bible in the Stockholm collection does not seem to come from Berlin; it is full of marginal notes and bookmarks, and there is also an envelope with notes on the Bible. The marginal comments concern the biblical story of Samson, which Nelly Sachs used as model for her scenic poem Simson fällt durch Jahrtausende (Simson falls through millennia) in 1958. Most of the notes are dated after the death of her mother in 1950. As far as can be determined, no mark or note originates from the time before the escape to Stockholm. This corresponds well to the assumption of Margit Sahlin (the daughter of Enar Sahlin, who was Nelly Sachs's friend during the first refugee years); Margit Sahlin reports that her father was astonished to discover that the two Jewish ladies (Sachs and her mother) did not own a Bible and demonstrated only a vague understanding of biblical tradition, whereupon he provided a Bible and read to them from it.
Although Nelly Sachs's insight into the biblical stories was scant, in the opinion of this Swedish mentor, who was well versed in the Scriptures, the tales nevertheless provided material for the "newly Jewish" poet in her renewed search for identity. Twelve poems under the title "Melodien der Bibel" exist in the Lagerlöf bequest as enclosures to a letter from 26 November 1938. The only biblical or Jewish elements in these "Melodies of the Bible" are what Kurt Pinthus calls "Jewish decorations and motifs . . . in which a poem is wrapped," but which do not, in his opinion, make a poem "Jewish." The "Jewish feeling and Jewish perspective" that are necessary for this are not yet discernible in Nelly Sachs's writing. This is most evident in a small poem in folk-song rhyme earlier titled "Hirtenlied" (Shepherd's song), which is later recast as a biblical poem and renamed "Jakob und Rahel"—without any further alteration in the poem's language.
A few of these poems speak nonetheless to the situation of the times; they are songs of the flight and the Diaspora: "Eine Mutter singt in der Wüste ihr Kind in den Schlaf" (A mother sings her child to sleep in the desert), "Lied eines Mädchens aus Babylonischer Gefangenschaft" (Song of a girl from Babylonian imprisonment), "Esther geht zum König" (Esther goes to the king).
Nelly Sachs remained in Berlin long enough to receive the obligatory name "Sara" in January 1939. In these extreme circumstances, Jewish identity remained for her only an outer shell imposed upon her, without any significant content.
In his Versuch einer Charakterisierung des Jüdischen: Juden—Christen—Deutsche of 1961, H. G. Adler concludes: " 'To be a Jew' means, therefore, to belong to a certain community of destiny"; Simon N. Herman formulated the same view in 1977 as follows:
The feeling of interdependence, of a common fate, represents the widest minimal basis, the common denominator, of Jewish belonging in our times. . . . A Jew anywhere is what he is because of the centuries of Diaspora existence experienced by his people.
Rescued from Berlin, Nelly Sachs experienced the essence of Jewish identity in Stockholm much in the sense of these words; in exile she experiences the full implications of the Diaspora. From this time on she declares herself to be a part of the suffering and persecuted European Jewry; she accepts the community of destiny and places her own destiny and herself as poet in the service of the Jewish people as she has come to understand it.
She looks back to Germany, observes and absorbs everything that happens to the chosen people, suffers immensely from her nightly visions; but she has no religious or artistic idiom to work through the experiences until she becomes absorbed in Buber's adaptations of the Hasidic stories.
In her unpublished memoirs, Gudrun Dähnert says that the friends talked about the legend of the Ba'al Shem in the years of persecution:
During this threatening time, around 1937, Lichen [little Nelly] gave me Martin Buber's legend of Ba'al Shem. Anneliese also read this wonderful book. It generated warm conversations among the three of us.
I do not know whether the Schocken volume, mentioned by Hirsch, was actually available to these friends at the time. It cannot be located in the Nelly Sachs library. It would have been almost too fitting to Hirsch's description of a newly Jewish author.
These "warm conversations" were followed, in the solitude of her exile in Stockholm, by Nelly Sachs's decisive discovery of a possible means of identification. In Martin Buber's Hasidic tales and in his introduction she found the sketch of a people that satisfied her religious, psychological, and poetic needs. In the sense of this description, her self-perception became that of a Jew.
Buber asserts that the particularity of Jewish mysticism resides in the "way" and the "fate of the people, out of which it grew." In the post-Hitler era, we seize up at the mention of anything that sounds like racist teaching. Buber's emphasis on a special Jewish character therefore makes us uneasy. It is said that the Jew has a special propensity toward mysticism; extreme contrasts release new energies in the Jew. According to Buber, devotion to a boundless mystery may thus originate in a poor and restricted existence; indeed, it borrows its strength precisely from these limitations. He suggests that pathos arises from this and stretches its arms out to embrace the boundless.
If this describes a Jewish characteristic, then one can indeed maintain that Nelly Sachs lived the Jewish way, especially in her first years of exile: closeted in a small, dark, and cold room with her sick mother, she exhibited the pathetic will, understood in the Buberian sense, to embrace the boundlessness of the tragedy and of the divine. Her own statements about the Hasidim are not determined psychologically, but rather by content. They refer to central images and to the kind of world understanding that these represent.
According to Martin Buber's interpretation, the basis of Hasidic teaching lies in the recognition that the relationship between God and his creation is a linguistic one. God is seen concretely as the one who speaks; the formation of things constitutes the answer. In this creative dialogue, all things and all living beings find themselves face-to-face with God, addressed by God, addressing God and receiving response. The dialogue between God and his people takes place in the world, but the world is also the medium of the dialogue. Buber speaks about "Gegenstand" [object], but he does not mean thereby that the dialogue concerns the world, rather that it takes place between the human being and the parts of the world that the human being encounters. "God speaks to humans through the things and beings that he sends into their lives; human beings answer through their actions toward these things and beings." The similarity to Rilke's description of the relationship between humans and things as "dialogue/conversation" is striking.
This poetic comprehension of the world must have been immensely fascinating for Nelly Sachs as author. Since her St. Francis period, she had tried to define the poetic task given her by God as service to things; now, feeling herself chosen to give voice to a dead people, she encounters Buber's Hasidism. Here she finally finds a weltanschauung that contains essential elements of her own religiosity. At the same time, precisely this view of life and this missionary sense are described as specifically Jewish. She identifies with this people described by Buber—with the suffering and ecstatic people of the prophets and mystics. This explains her unqualified support for Israel in these years of persecution as well as her subsequently hesitant attitude toward the state of Israel; it explains her later expansion of this community to include all suffering and persecuted human beings.
Nelly Sachs wrote her "Jewish" poetry during and after the war: the poems of the books In den Wohnungen des Todes and Sternver-dunkelung, the former published in 1947 by the Aufbau-Verlag, the latter in 1949 by the Berman-Fischer Verlag. Sounding a dirge for European Jewry, the poems of this period arose from her sense of Jewish identity. But the mystery play Eli: Ein Mysterienspiel vom LeidenIsraels is most clearly related to Hasidic motifs. Describing its completion to a Swedish friend, Nelly Sachs quotes Martin Buber extensively; the text itself includes images, figures, tales, and liturgical elements from the Hasidic books. A Hasidic farm boy, who blew his shepherd's pipe out of pure religious exuberance or ardor during the feast of atonement, stands model for the eight-year-old shepherd boy Eli, who sounds his pipe to God when his parents are being chased down an alley by Nazi executioners. The Hasidic boy of the tale broke the curse and drove anger from the face of the earth, says the Ba'al Shem; but the Heavens remain closed to Eli, the Polish boy, who is murdered by a young soldier.
Eli is a unique interweaving, on the one hand, of memories and of reports of painful events that actually took place before the eyes of the world, and, on the other, of the ethnic and religious self-image that Nelly Sachs found in Martin Buber's Hasidic tales. With this complex poetic expression there emerges as well a new concept of the poet's function. A poet who speaks for an entire people has to give precedence to their statement: the "I" of the author has to disappear from the work of art.
Religious consciousness also influences the image of the poet. The poet is not a craftsperson who works in her shop with collected linguistic materials; she is a mystic who perceives secret things. Just as the assignment to serve as mouthpiece for others demands an objectivity of poetic expression, so mystical vision demands the meekness of a mystic. This subservient poetic attitude toward the mystery gives rise to the unique pathetic style that is evident in Sachs's poems of the succeeding years.
This stylistic pathos appears in Eli as a "rhythm that makes Hasidic-mystical ardor visible to the actor, even in mime," as Nelly Sachs writes in the comments to Zeichen im Sand (III, 345). In Eli, she does not portray only Hasidic views and a scene of Jewish life. She carries her own destiny, her poetics, and her personality as poet with her as she enters this ethnic and religious Jewish community and represents it through her art.
Her loss of identity as a German, her personal experience of the closeness of death, her grieving participation in the dying and death of her loved ones and of the many people unknown to her renew Nelly Sachs's complete isolation and loss of orientation in her Stockholm exile, a situation from which she rescues herself only by accepting a Jewish identity. She embraces the biblical myth, the history of the Diaspora, and considers herself, in Buber's sense, a part of the dispersed and persecuted Jewish people, who are entrusted with a special God-given task.
On 7 February 1950, Margarethe Sachs died and left her daughter in uncomprehending grief. Nelly Sachs had accompanied her mother to the boundary of death. Indeed, it seemed to her at times as if she had accompanied her beyond it; she did not want to return. In mind and spirit, she had already left life behind her, and she was reluctant to learn it again. To learn solitude, no longer to perceive oneself as daughter, to develop a new self-image: it is once again a matter of the loss of self at the threshold of death and of the search for a new identity. What she finds is a strengthened consciousness of her vocation as poet, a further development of the concept—reached by way of Rilke and Buber—that sees the poet in the image of creator.
On 25 October 1950, Nelly Sachs finds Ernst Müller's book Der Sohar und seine Lehre in the library of the Jewish congregation in Stockholm. This book signals the start of a deeper absorption in the verbal mysticism of the Zohar. Among her books in Stockholm is Gershom Scholem's translation of the first chapter of the Zohar, Die Geheimnisse der Schöpfung, with handwritten notes in text and margins, and pressed flowers and bookmarks still between the pages today.
Here one really cannot agree with Leo Hirsch when he says that one can look at the books published by Schocken for a quick and easy introduction to the unfamiliar Jewish spiritual life. This Zohar text, as it is presented in Scholem's translation, cannot be read quickly and easily. Again and again the text changes abruptly: from an apparent description of the external events of creation to a description of the form and context of the letters. The juxtaposition of created world and individual segments of language, a combination entirely un-mediated by thought, provokes an intuitive experience that sees language contained in the individual parts of the world, and the world in language.
On the first page of Scholem's introduction, Nelly Sachs underlines the words "Wort" [word] and "geheime Wirklichkeit" [secret reality]. These two underscorings can be seen as headings for her entire engagement with the Kabala. This is the core of the Zohar and the core of her own work with poetic expression: the duality of the secret reality of mysticism and the word's unique creative power.
The notion of the poem as epiphany connects Nelly Sachs directly to the modern poets of the early twentieth century and assigns her a central position in that period's search for linguistic expression. In her view, mysticism and a modernist conception of language belong inseparably together.
The newly acquired identity of the poet becomes evident in her Zohar cycle of April 1952. The description of the Zohar writer in the poems is objective; Nelly Sachs does not forget to include him in the text as the writing "I." She has him represent—assert, in fact—the reciprocal dependence of word and reality; nothing exists before it is given a name. She has him create a universe from his letters, and in so doing presents him as the poet per se. This poet, who groups words together and forms linguistic structures, who simultaneously heals and recreates the cosmos, also creates structure in chaos, a place for the encounter between the divine and the created world.
Language and religiosity, mysticism and modern poetry join to form an ideal image for the work of the poet. In this image, Nelly Sachs finds her new identity as a poet—successor to the Zohar writer, as she understands him.
The final period, with its closeness to death and increased sense of identity, is more complicated and more difficult for the distressed poet. For several years following the death of her mother, Nelly Sachs lived according to her new self-understanding of being called to heal the world through the poetic word. The message of reconciliation among human beings, of humanity and nature, of cosmos and God, was entrusted to her. Many poems emerged, but her voice was not heard. Her first volume of poems was out of print, the remaining copies of Sternverdunkelung were destroyed, and no one had the courage to publish the newly written poems. Added to this was the struggle for existence under conditions of extreme poverty, which forced her to accept charity and gifts from friends. Finally, in 1957, Heinrich Ellermann published a large and heterogeneous collection of poems under the title Und niemand weifl weiter; Alfred Andersch printed poems in his journal Texte und Zeichen, and the literary public of West Germany embraced them.
It is as if the wall against which she had pounded so long had now fallen—but the poet falls as well. The relief and joy sweep over her, and she lacks the stamina to endure this. She begins to complain of headaches; the poems of the new cycle Flucht und Verwandlung appear, young friends come to visit, she is celebrated—but the anxieties of the years of persecution return. In her exposed position as literary-prize winner, as the saint of the movement to compensate the war victims, she becomes the target of anti-Semitic invective and threats—a target both real and imagined. Her persecution mania needs treatment; her three-year stay in the mental sanitorium Beckomberga is interrupted only rarely. She perceives herself as a Jew who is once again persecuted, as representative of all persecuted Jews; and she intercedes on Adolf Eichmann's behalf—as a gesture of reconciliation, but also out of fear of retaliatory measures. Worried to death, she steadfastly sees death as a way to salvation.
What Do I Read Next?
- Sachs's collection of poems O the Chimneys: Selected Poems; including the verse play "Eli" (1967) also contains the first play that she wrote.
- Paul Celan, Nelly Sachs: Correspondence (1995), edited by Barbara Wiedemann, contains translations of the many letters that Sachs and Celan wrote to one another.
- The Last Lullaby: Poetry from the Holocaust (1998), edited and translated by Aaron Kramer, is an anthology of Holocaust poetrypoetry with a strong focus on the loss of children.
- Art from Ashes: A Holocaust Anthology (1995), edited by Lawrence L. Langer, is a comprehensive collection of Holocaust writing that includes fiction, poetry, drama, as well as journals and diaries.
- Holocaust Poetry (1995), compiled by Hilda Schiff, is a collection of Holocaust poetry by men and women of all nationalities, languages, backgrounds, and experiences.
At Beckomberga she reformulates her religious message. She retains her earlier belief in an undogmatic faith with Christian nuances and remains true to her Kabalistic mysticism, now enlivened by new inspirations from the mysticism of all peoples: Native American, Indian, and Tibetan, among others. She speaks as a poet of nothingness, no longer of the God of a positive religion, and she perceives herself as a citizen of the world. After accepting the Nobel Prize in 1966, she no longer wished to discuss the sources of her metaphors, her poetic language. She could reject all conjectures very abruptly: "I live in Sweden and write German; that should be enough for you."
It became increasingly important to her to deny speculations about the literary sources of her work and the circumstances of her life. Two letters to Bengt Holmqvist from February and March 1968 occupy a special position in Nelly Sachs's oeuvre, because she expressed her views only rarely in dis-cursive prose. Both letters are written from the same solemn perspective, as recorded testaments to which the receiver could refer after her death. The content is a summary of her lifelong topic: religion or the religious way of life.
Religions are not opinions or systems, but lived life, an inner dimension, a burning commitment: "Since childhood, I have lived only in the precise moment that burned." The moment burns, and she burns as well. This is the Franciscan "burning," which she had called Inbrunst (ardor) since her earliest poetry.
She had never been theoretically concerned with matters of faith; rather she had always, and with her whole being, striven to move beyond preconceived boundaries. This endeavor to cross all boundaries, which is articulated in her poems as stretching over the edge of life, as bending over into the ocean from the furthest point of land, was designated Sehnsucht (longing) from her earliest poetry on. In these late formulations, Nelly Sachs retains the inner core of her being, that which constitutes her repeatedly renewed identity. The religious personality exists, prior to dogma, in a nonmediated relation to life and is filled with an ardent longing to cross life's boundaries.
During the deepest humiliation, in moments of the most extreme desperation, the Hasidic mysticism of Martin Buber's adaptations touches her sensibilities as something to which she can relate inwardly. Nevertheless, she claims that it would be a misunderstanding to speak of a Kabalistic influence on her work. World mysticism, religious mysticism in general, her own life, and her fate are determining factors for her poetry. In the sanitorium, lost in the hell of persecution mania, she perceives the living flame of postbiblical Jewish mysticism as her beckoning companion. This deepest humiliation seems to her, "at the edge of insanity," to be the necessary precondition for an existence in the spirit of Jewish mysticism, not as theory but as an option for life. But precisely at this point she ceases to regard the Jewish people as sole representatives of suffering humanity. Those chosen to suffer are not only Jews; Sachs finds her people, the people of suffering, all over the world. She thus expands her religious mysticism from Kabalistic Hasidism to what she calls "world mysticism."
She points to her "Baalschem-Francis-poem" as characteristic of her efforts at unification rather than separation. This poem unites Ba'al Shem and St. Francis of Assisi with Christ in the garden of Gethsemane, when he screamed to God in fear:
On the utmost tip of the spit of land
abyss threatens addicted gravity
St. Francis—Baalshem, overstep the holy feast
shining in nothing—
The Mount of Olives prays with the single cry
which tore the stone's heart
music of agony
in the ear of the universe
that which is stigmatized by worlds
ignites its own colloquial language—
[Auf der äuflersten Spitze der Landzunge
Abgrund droht süchtiger Schwerkraft
Franziskus—Baalschem übersteigen heiliges Fasten
glänzen im Nichts—
Der Ölberg betet mit dem einzigen Schrei
der dem Stein ein Herz zerrifl
Musik der Agonie
ins Ohr des Universums
das mit Welten Stigmatisierte
entzündet seine Umgangssprache—
Nelly Sachs's self-conception is now finally grounded in a religiosity without dogma, in a mysticism of suffering and redemption that breaks with the Jewish tradition and finds resonance in all other religious paradigms.
Just in time for the acceptance of the Nobel Prize for Literature on 10 December 1966, Nelly Sachs received permission from the Swedish office of personal records to erase the fear-instilling name Sara from her registry.
Source: Ruth Dinesen, "The Search for Identity: Nelly Sachs's Jewishness," in Jewish Writers, German Literature: The Uneasy Examples of Nelly Sachs and Walter Benjamin, edited by Timothy Bahti and Marilyn Sibley Fries, University of Michigan Press, 1995, pp. 23–42.
Anderegg, Johannes, "Nelly Sachs: The Poem and Transformation," in Jewish Writers, German Literature: The Uneasy Examples of Nelly Sachs and Walter Benjamin, edited by Timothy Bahti and Marilyn Sibley Fries, University of Michigan Press, 1995, pp. 59–75.
Bower, Kathrin M., Ethics and Remembrance in the Poetry of Nelly Sachs and Rose Ausländer, Camden House, 2000, pp. 21, 127, 160.
Dinesen, Ruth, "The Search for Identity: Nelly Sachs's Jewishness," in Jewish Writers, German Literature: The Uneasy Examples of Nelly Sachs and Walter Benjamin, University of Michigan Press, 1995, pp. 23–42.
Sachs, Nelly, "But Perhaps God Needs the Longing," in The Seeker and Other Poems, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970 pp. 24–25.
Weissbort, Daniel, in Poetry of Survival: Post-War Poets of Central and Eastern Europe, Anvil Press Poetry, 1991, p. 56.
Wickersham, Erlis Glass, "Women as Agents of Suffering and Redemption in the Poetry of Nelly Sachs," in Women and the Holocaust: Narrative and Representation, edited by Esther Fuchs, University Press of America, 1999, pp. 63–87.
Baer, Elizabeth and Myrna Goldenberg, eds., Experience and Expression: Women, the Nazis, and the Holocaust, Wayne State University Press, 2003.
This text contains a collection of essays that focus on the experiences of women during the Holocaust. Several of the essays examine the ways in which women nurtured one another and thus enabled their survival.
Dwork, Debórah, ed., Voices & Views: A History of the Holocaust, The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, 2002.
This text provides an unusual historical account because it is formatted as a collection of personal essays that explore both the events of the Holocaust and the impact and meaning of this period of history.
Rittner, Carol and John K. Roth, eds., Different Voices: Women and the Holocaust, Paragon House, 1993.
This book is an anthology that is divided into three separate sections. The first section contains memoirs written by Jewish women who experienced the Holocaust. The second section provides a collection of essays that interpret the events of the period, from racism to resistance to moral choice. The final section contains essays that reflect on the events of the Holocaust.
Yahil, Leni, The Holocaust: The Fate of European Jewry, 1932–1945, Oxford University Press, 1987.
This comprehensive history of the years from 1932 to 1945 remains one of the most thorough examinations of this period in history. Yahil explores every facet of life, every political decision, and every action that had an impact on European Jews.