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Nelly Sachs

Nelly Sachs

The German-born poet and playwright Nelly Sachs (1891-1970), winner of the Nobel Prize, is noted for her austere but moving work, which constitutes a solemn monument to the hardships and sorrows of the Jewish people.

Born on Dec. 10, 1891, into a wealthy Jewish family, Nelly Sachs grew up in Berlin. After having studied dance and music with private tutors, she began at the age of 17 to write poetry. Her first collection of legends and sagas from the Middle Ages was published in 1921; this work reflected her fascination with the mystical elements of Christianity. Despite the influences of her own religious tradition, which can be traced throughout her poetry, in the years before the overt political persecution of the Jews accompanying Hitler's rise to power, she was not particularly concerned with her own religious origins. But with the advent of anti-Semitism, she turned to Orthodox Hasidism, where she discovered many of those occult aspects which had earlier attracted her to Christianity.

With the aid of Selma Lagerlöf, a well-known Scandinavian novelist, Sachs and her mother fled Germany in 1940 and settled in Sweden. While still working on her own poetry, she acquired sufficient knowledge of Swedish to earn a living translating Swedish works into German. Her postwar anthology of Swedish verse, Wave and Granite (1947), brought some well-deserved acclaim to little-known writers. Her first collection of poetry was But Even the Sun Has No Home (1948). Both this volume and Eclipse of the Stars (1951), which were written during her flight from Germany, deal with the annihilation of 6 million Jews under the Third Reich; for diverse reasons they received little critical attention.

In 1950 a group of Swedish friends issued a private edition, 200 copies, of Sachs's Eli: A Miracle Play of the Suffering Israel, which eventually found its way into Germany, where it became a widely acclaimed radio play. Like the other 11 plays written in this period, Eli was created in memory of those who had suffered and perished in Nazi concentration camps. Structurally the work has the simplicity of a medieval miracle play, but thematically it depicts a world devoid of trust and goodness, where innocence falls victim to evil.

Recognition of Nelly Sachs's gift as a lyric poet came in the late 1950s after the publication of And No One Knows Where to Go (1957) and Flight and Metamorphosis (1959). Once again the focus is on the black theme of the victims of the holocaust, as well as the author's personal loneliness. In the following decade she was the recipient of numerous honors, among which were the 1961 Nelly Sachs Prize, established by the city of Dortmund, and the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade at the Frankfurt Fair of 1965. In honor of her seventieth birthday, a Frankfurt publisher issued her collected works, containing a new series of poems, "Journey to the Beyond," which was dedicated by the author to "my dead brothers and sisters."

Despite the esteem in which she was held by many German-language readers, Nelly Sachs was little known to the rest of the European and American public when she received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1966. She died in Stockholm on May 12, 1970.

Further Reading

There is no substantial study of Nelly Sachs in English. A chapter in Paul Konrad Kurz, On Modern German Literature, vol. 1 (1967; trans. 1970), provides biographical information and comments on her work; and Harry T. Moore, Twentieth-century German Literature (1967), includes brief biographical data. A recent, important background study is Peter Demetz, Postwar German Literature: A Critical Introduction (1970)

Additional Sources

Jewish writers, German literature: the uneasy examples of Nelly Sachs and Walter Benjamin, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995. □

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Sachs, Nelly

Nelly Sachs (zäks), 1891–1970, German poet and translator who lived after 1940 in Sweden. Sachs describes her own experiences and the sufferings of the European Jews in the collections In den Wohnungen des Todes [in the apartments of death] (1947), Das Leiden Israels [Israel's suffering] (1969), and Die Suchende (1966; tr. The Seeker and Other Poems, 1970). The selection of her poems in English, O the Chimneys (1967), incorporates the verse mystery play Eli (written 1943–44; publ. 1951). Sachs shared the 1966 Nobel Prize in Literature with S. Y. Agnon.

See biography by A. Fioretos (2011).

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Sachs, Nelly

Sachs, Nelly (1891–1970) German-Jewish poet and dramatist. She escaped from Nazi Germany in 1940, and her works, such as In the Houses of Death (1947) and Later Poems (1965), bear witness to the suffering of European Jewry. Her best-known play is Eli: A Mystery Play of the Sufferings of Israel (1951). She shared the 1966 Nobel Prize in literature.

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Sachs, Nelly

SACHS, NELLY

SACHS, NELLY (Leonie ; 1891–1970), German poet and Nobel Prize winner. The daughter of a Berlin industrialist, Nelly Sachs grew up in an artistic home where she early imbibed a love of literature. At 17 she began writing neoromantic poetry in traditional, rhymed forms and puppet plays with a fairytale flavor. Her first work, Legenden und Erzaehlungen (1921), reflected a Christian intellectual world tinged with mysticism. The poet was then rooted in the world of German Romanticism, the Catholic Middle Ages, and the mysticism of Jacob Boehme. After 1933, when Nelly Sachs, like so many other assimilated German Jews, discovered her Jewish heritage, she found ideas akin to Boehme's in the Zohar. Her early work remained largely unknown, and she refused to allow it to be republished. Her reputation is largely based on her output after the end of World War ii. In 1940 Nelly Sachs emigrated to Sweden through the good offices of the writer Selma Lagerlöf and the Swedish royal family. At first she made a modest living in Stockholm by translating Swedish poetry into German, but eventually published several successful volumes of her translations.

Throughout the war years, however, Nelly Sachs wrote some of the poetry that was to bring her fame. The motif of flight and pursuit, the symbol of the hunter and his quarry, are at the center of her poetic thought. Her poetry is ecstatic, mystical, and visionary. It is also very much in the German romantic tradition and, as such, has been criticized by some as disingenuous and incompatible with her subject matter. Although her poems were mostly composed in free verse, she wrote with careful craftsmanship, using an exquisite German flavored with the Psalms and filled with mystical imagery of Ḥasidic origin. "If I could not have written, I could not have survived," Nelly Sachs wrote. "Death was my teacher… my metaphors are my sounds." In den Wohnungen des Todes (1946), dedicated "to my dead brothers and sisters," includes cycles titled "Prayers for the Dead Fiancé," "Epitaphs Written On Air," and "Choruses After Midnight." Sternverdunkelung (1949) contains poems expressing unquenchable faith in the indestructibility of the people of Israel and the importance of its mission. Three subsequent collections were Und niemand weiss weiter (1957), Flucht und Verwandlung (1958), and Die Suchende (1966). On the occasion of her 70th birthday, her collected poetry was issued as Fahrt ins Staublose (1961). Her Spaete Gedichte (1965) contains the extended poetic sequence "Gluehende Raetsel" (1964) and suggests a mystical border whose language touches silence.

The 14 collected plays of Zeichen im Sand (1962) include Eli, ein Mysterienspiel vom Leiden Israels (1951). Written in 1943, this deals with the cosmic aftermath of the Holocaust. In 17 loosely connected scenes, the tragedy of an eight-year old Polish shepherd boy, who raises his flute heavenward in anguish and is murdered by a German soldier, is interwoven with the old Jewish legend of the Lamed Vav Ẓaddikim (36 Hidden Saints). Eli was later presented as a radio play and as an opera. O the Chimneys, an English version of selected poems and of Eli by Michael Hamburger and other translators, was published in 1967. The 1966 Nobel Prize for literature, which Nelly Sachs shared with S.Y. *Agnon ("Agnon represents the State of Israel. I represent the tragedy of the Jewish people"), was the culmination of several awards honoring her work.

bibliography:

Nelly Sachs zu Ehren: zum 75. Geburstag… (1966), incl. bibl.; O, Lagercrantz, Versuch ueber die Lyrik der Nelly Sachs (1967); S. Rappaport, Tribute to Nobel Prize Winners, 1966 (1967); D. Bronsen, in: Judaism, 16 (1967), 120–8.

[Harry Zohn]

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Sachs, Nelly

SACHS, Nelly

Nationality: Swedish (originally German: immigrated to Sweden, 1940, granted Swedish citizenship, 1952). Born: Leonie Nelly Sachs, Berlin, 10 December 1891. Education: Hoch Töchterschule; educated privately. Career: Writer and translator. Fled to Sweden, 1940. Awards: Prize of the Poets' Association (Sweden); Jahrespring Literature prize, 1959; Kulturpreis der deutschen Industrie, 1959; Annette Droste prize for poetry, 1960; won the first Nelly Sachs prize for literature (created in her honor by the town of Dortmund, Germany), 1961; Peace prize, West German Booksellers, 1965; Nobel prize for literature, 1966. Member: Bayrische Akademie fuer schoene Kuenste (Munich), Freie Akademie der Stadt Hamburg, Darmstaedter Akademie fuer Sprache und Dichtung. Died: 12 May 1970.

Publication

Poetry

Legenden und Erzaehlungen. 1921.

In den Wohnungen des Todes [In the Habitations of Death]. 1947.

Sternverdunkelung [Eclipse of the Stars]. 1949.

Und niemand weiss weiter [And No One Knows How to Go On]. 1957.

Flucht und Verwandlung [Flight and Metamorphosis]. 1959.

Noch feiert Tod das Leben [Death Still Celebrates Life]. 1960.

Fahrt ins Staublose: Die Gedichte der Nelly Sachs [Journey into a Dustless Realm: Poems of Nelly Sachs]. 1961.

Die Gedichte der Nelly Sachs (2 vols.). 1961-71.

Ausgewaehlte Gedichte [Selected Poems]. 1963.

Glühende Rätsel [Glowing Enigmas]. 1964.

Spaete Gedichte [Later Poems]. 1965.

Die Suchende [The Seeker]. 1966.

Wie leicht wird Erde sein: Ausgewaehlte Gedichte. 1966.

O the Chimneys: Selected Poems, Including the Verse Play, Eli (selections in English). 1967; as Selected Poems: Including the Verse Play 'Eli,' 1968.

The Seeker and Other Poems (selections in English). 1970.

Teile dich Nacht: Die letzten Gedichte. [Open Yourself, Night: The Last Poems]. 1971.

Suche nach Lebenden: Die Gedichte der Nelly Sachs. 1971.

Gedichte. 1977.

Plays

Eli: Ein Mysterienspiel vom Leiden Israels [Eli: A Mystery Play of the Sufferings of Israel] (radio broadcast 1951; produced 1962). 1951. In Das Leiden Israels, 1962; in O the Chimneys: Selected Poems, Including the Verse Play, Eli, 1967; in Selected Poems: Including the Verse Play 'Eli,' 1968.

Zeichen im Sand: Die szenischen Dichtungen der Nelly Sachs

[Traces in the Sand: Collected Plays of Nelly Sachs]. 1962.

Das Leiden Israels (includes Eli; In den Wohnungen des Todes; Sternverdunkelung ). 1962.

Simson fällt durch die Jahrtausende und andere szenische Dichtungen [Samson Falls through the Ages]. 1967.

Verzauberungen: Späte szenische Dichtungen [Magic Plays: Late Scenic Poems]. 1970.

Other

Das Buch der Nelly Sachs. 1968.

Briefe. 1984.

Paul Celan, Nelly Sachs: Correspondence. 1995.

Editor and translator, Aber auch diese Sonne ist heimatlos: Schwedische Lyric der Gegenwart [Once Again the Sun Is Homeless: Swedish Poetry of Today]. 1957.

Editor and translator, Weil unser einziges Nest unsere Flugel sind by Erik Lindegren. 1963.

Editor and translator, Schwedische Gedichte [Swedish Poetry]. 1965.

Translator, Von Wolle und Granit: Querschnitt durch die schwedische Lyric des 20. Jahrhunderts [From Wool and Granite: A Cross Section of Swedish Poetry of the Twentieth Century]. 1947.

Translator, Poesie by Gunnar Ekelof. 1962.

Translator, Gedichte by Erik Lindegren. 1962.

Translator, Poesie by Karl Vennberg. 1965.

*

Critical Studies:

"Journey into Dustlessness: The Lyrics of Nelly Sachs" by Paul Konrad Kurz, in his On Modern German Literature, 1967; "A Theosophy of the Creative Word: The Zohar-Cycle of Nelly Sachs" by W. V. Blomster, in Germanic Review, XLIV, 1969, pp. 221-27; "The Process of Renewal in Nelly Sachs' Eli " by Dinah Dodds, in German Quarterly, XLIX(1), January 1976, pp. 50-58; "Toward the Point ofConstriction: Nelly Sachs's 'Landschaft aus Schreien' and Paul Celan's 'Engführung,"' by Hamida Bosmajiam, in his Metaphors of Evil: Contemporary German Literature and theShadow of Nazism, 1979; "The Imaging of Transformation in Nelly Sachs's Holocaust Poems" by William H. McClain, in Hebrew University Studies in Literature, 8(2), Autumn 1980, pp. 281-300; The Phenomenon of Speechlessness in the Poetry of Marie Luise Kaschnitz, Gunter Eich, Nelly Sachs, and Paul Celan by Robert Foot, 1982; Jewish Writers, German Literature: The Uneasy Examples of Nelly Sachs and Walter Benjamin by Timothy Bahti and Marilyn Sibley Fries, 1995; Post-Shoa Religious Metaphors: The Image of God in the Poetry of Nelly Sachs by Ursula Rudnick, 1995.

* * *

(Leonie) Nelly Sachs was born on 10 December 1891 in Berlin. Her father was a well-to-do businessman who dabbled in the arts. The family was Jewish but was assimilated to such a degree that it did not observe the high holidays. Sachs was first educated at a public school, from 1897 to 1900, but she then went to a private school in Berlin. She lived the typical life of a young woman of her class and was interested in literature, music, and dance. Most of her time was devoted to literature, and she began writing poetry, puppet plays, and legends in the style of the Swedish writer Selma Lagerlöf. In 1921 Sachs published a book of Christian legends and short stories and sent a copy to Lagerlöf, who responded positively to her young admirer. The first major change in her protected life took place when her father died in 1930. Sachs and her mother had to move from their villa to an apartment house, but her father had left them enough money to live a comfortable life. The next change was the Nazi takeover in 1933, which affected their lives with the endless chicaneries of the racist regulations against German Jews and finally, in 1940, with the threat of deportation to a concentration camp. Sachs was able to obtain a visa for Sweden. Lagerlöf intervened with the Swedish royal family and the Swedish government on behalf of Sachs and her mother, and on 16 May 1940 they escaped from Nazi persecution on one of the last planes of the regular service between Berlin and Stockholm.

Sachs spent the rest of her life in Sweden and, except for a few short visits after World War II to accept literary prizes in recognition of her Holocaust poetry, did not return to Germany. In 1952 she obtained Swedish citizenship. In the beginning Sachs and her mother were supported by Jewish welfare organizations in Stockholm and by a number of Swedish publishers. They lived in a small one-room apartment in the house of a Jewish welfare organization in the harbor district. Later Sachs earned a living by translating. She became a highly recognized translator of contemporary Swedish poetry into German. In the end she also received restitution payments from the West German government.

Sachs dismissed her poetry before 1945 and did not allow it to be published or even listed in bibliographies. During her first years in Sweden she continued writing some poetry in the style of her Berlin poems. It was the news of the German extermination camps that caused the breakthrough of her Holocaust poetry. Her first book of poems was published in 1947 under the title In den Wohnungen des Todes ("In the Habitations of Death"), and another volume, under the title Sternverdunkelung ("Eclipse of the Stars"), followed in 1949. In 1951 her mystery play Eli was published for subscription in Sweden. The Swedish composer Moses Pergament set the play to music, and it was produced as an opera by Radio Sweden in 1959. A collection of her "scenic poetry," as Sachs called her plays, was published under the title Zeichen im Sand ("Traces in the Sand") in 1962. Two additional titles followed: Simson fällt durch die Jahrtausende und andere szenische Dichtungen ("Samson Falls through the Ages") in 1967, and Verzauberungen: Späte szenische Dichtungen ("Magic Plays: Late Scenic Poems") in 1970. Only a few of her plays were ever produced, and those mostly by small experimental theaters or by radio stations in Germany.

In 1950 Sachs's mother, on whom she had emotionally been very dependent because of their common exile, died after a long illness. Between 1957 and 1961 Sachs published a number of collections of poetry devoted to mourning death and bearing witness to the Holocaust. They appeared under the titles Und niemand weiss weiter ("And No One Knows How to Go On") in 1957, Flucht und Verwandlung ("Flight and Metamorphosis") in 1959, Noch feiert Tod das Leben ("Death Still Celebrates Life") in 1960, and Fahrt ins Staublose ("Journey into a Dustless Realm") in 1961. While her poetry and plays of the 1940s were based on Sachs's familiarity with Jewish legends and Martin Buber's books on Jewish mysticism, she was influenced by the mysticism of the cabala during the 1950s. She read excerpts from the Zohar, the "Book of Splendor," in German translation and Gershom Scholem's monograph Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism.

Glühende Rätsel ("Glowing Enigmas") began a cycle on which she worked between 1962 and 1966. Sachs transcended the Holocaust theme without leaving it behind. The cycle shows her concentrating on riddles as a new short-form genre. Her long poem Die Suchende ("The Seeker") of 1966 was based on the Siberian exile of Marja Wolonskaja, a historical saint figure from Russian history. After 1966 Sachs did not publish. Her posthumous poems appeared under the title Teile dich Nacht: Die letzten Gedichte ("Open Yourself, Night: The Last Poems") in 1971 and were never translated.

In 1960 Sachs met Paul Celan in Zurich, and she later visited him in Paris. He was the other well-known German-language poet who had focused his work on the Nazi genocide against the Jews. Celan, who suffered from depression because of anti-Semitism in West Germany, confided his fears to Sachs. When she returned to Stockholm, she had a nervous breakdown caused by persecution anxiety. She required medical treatment and was committed to a sanatorium for a long time. Celan visited her in Stockholm to support her, but she did not want him to see her in her state of severe mental illness. She was able to return to writing poetry but needed hospitalization again and again.

In 1965 Sachs was awarded the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in Frankfurt, and in 1966 she shared the Nobel Prize for Literature with S.Y. Agnon . She was praised "for her outstanding lyrical and dramatic writings that interpret Israel's destiny with touching strength." In 1967 she planned to visit Israel but had to cancel her visit for reasons of health. Although she declined to speak on behalf of Israel, she considered it her spiritual homeland. Sachs died on 12 May 1970, on the same day Celan, who had committed suicide, was buried in Paris.

Next to Celan, Sachs is the best-known German-language poet and playwright dealing with the Holocaust. She was celebrated as "the voice of the suffering of the Jewish people" when she received the Nobel Prize, but her voice has largely been forgotten since. This may be because of her exalted language and her mysticism. She wrote mystic poetry and drama in an age that was averse to mysticism. Her poetry invites either celebration or rejection rather than critical reading. Because of their experimental staging requirements, her plays are rarely performed. Although Sachs used Samuel Beckett's dramas as models, she never achieved a similar success as a playwright. Her plays never found a home on the German or the international stage. Nonetheless, hers is an authentic voice of Holocaust literature, and her achievements cannot be denied.

—Ehrhard Bahr

See the essays on Eli: A Mystery Play of the Sufferings of Israel,"Landscape of Screams," and "O the Chimneys."

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