Sachs, Nelly (1891–1970)

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Sachs, Nelly (1891–1970)

German-Jewish poet and playwright who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966 for her work commemorating the suffering of Holocaust victims. Pronunciation: SAX. Born Leonie Sachs on December 10, 1891, in Berlin, Germany; died on May 12, 1970, at St. Görans-Hospital in Stockholm, Sweden; buried next to her parents in the Jewish cemetery in Haga Norra, Stockholm; daughter of William Sachs (a manufacturer) and Margarete (Karger) Sachs; attended Dorotheen-Schule (public school) in Berlin-Moabit, 1897–1900 (had to leave because of poor health); received private lessons until 1903; attended the exclusive Aubert-Schule, a private girls' school in Berlin, 1903–08; never married; no children.


Poetry award of the Swedish Radio (1958); prize for poetry from the Association of German Industry (1959); Droste Prize for poets (1960); city of Dortmund named her the first winner of the newly established Nelly-Sachs-Prize (1961); Peace Prize of the German Book Sellers Association (1965); named honorary citizen of Berlin (1967).

Grew up in Berlin; poems first published in the Vossische Zeitung (Berlin, 1929); published poems in Berliner Tagblatt (1932); published poems in the Jewish paper Der Morgen (1936–38); her father, a wealthy manufacturer, died (1930); endured Nazi Germany's policies against Jews (1933–40); fled with mother to Sweden (1940); published first and only prose book, Legenden und Erzählungen (1921); published first volume of poetry with the East Berlin Aufbau Verlag (1947); translated Swedish poetry into German and edited anthologies of Swedish poetry (1947, 1958, 1963 and 1965); death of her mother (1950); journeyed to Germany, Zürich, and Paris, and met poet Paul Celan with whom she had corresponded since 1954 (1960); hospitalized, with short interruptions, for paranoia and persecution mania (1960–63); together with S.Y. Agnon, awarded Nobel Prize for Literature (December 10, 1966); dedication and ceremonial opening of a Nelly Sachs room at the Kungliga Library in Stockholm (December 10, 1971).

Selected works:

Legenden und Erzählungen (Legends and Stories, 1921); In the Habitations of Death (1947); Eclipse of the Stars (1949); Eli: A Mystery Play of the Sufferings of Israel (1951); And No One Knows How to Go On (1957); Flight and Metamorphosis (1959); Journey into a Dustless Realm (1961); Death Still Celebrates Life (1961); Glowing Enigmas I–IV (1963–66); Die Suchende (1966).

Together with the Israeli writer S.Y. Agnon, Nelly Sachs was awarded the 1966 Nobel Prize for Literature, marking the high point of her career. While her poetry was largely ignored in the 1940s and 1950s, it became increasingly popular in the wake of a student movement, and Germany's attempts to come to terms with its National Socialist past. In the 1960s, Sachs, an important German-Jewish voice commemorating the Holocaust, was celebrated as one of the greatest German-language poets, though she lived in Sweden. Stylized by the press into a tragic and solemn cult figure, she received numerous honors and awards. The literary public perceived Sachs as a symbol of a German-Jewish reconciliation and misinterpreted her hopes for Germany's younger generation as a sign that the nation's past could now be laid to rest.

In 1966, before the Jewish World Congress, the Jewish philosopher Gershom Scholem spoke of an immeasurable abyss between Germans and Jews and declared the German-Jewish dialogue a dangerous illusion. By honoring Sachs' work, many Germans believed that the hopelessly divisive relationship between German and Jews could be overcome, that forgiveness could be attained, and that a reconciliation was possible after all. Conveying honors on a Jewish poet provided Germany with the opportunity to display its remorse. In her poetry, Sachs remembers the Jewish suffering without directing words of hatred or thoughts of revenge against the perpetrators. Thus, by honoring Sachs, the German literary public was able to pay tribute to the victims of the Holocaust without being confronted with their own repressed feelings of guilt about the unspeakable atrocities. In 1967, the Swedish writer Olof Lagercrantz called upon German readers to accept Sachs as a fellow German who was forced to leave her native country, and not as a stranger who can suddenly be turned into an honorary citizen.

Sachs' popularity was short-lived. In the past 30 years, her work has not received much attention, either from the reading public or from the literary establishment. Although most of her major works of poetry have been translated into English, at present they are no longer in print. Her biography is representative of thousands of Jews of her generation who were able to escape the horrors of National Socialism in Germany. The experience of persecution and exile, the remembrance of the Holocaust, and the awareness of the dangers of nationalism and anti-Semitism are an integral part of her work. Recognizing that her own fate was shared by many of her generation, Sachs emphasized the symbolic meaning of her work and insisted that her own life was insignificant. The biography she wrote for the Nobel Prize Committee consisted of three sentences: "Nelly Sachs was born on December 10, 1891 in Berlin. On May 16, 1940 she came with her mother to Sweden as a refugee. Lives in Stockholm since 1940 and works as a writer and translator." Sachs carefully guarded her private life; even friends remarked on her tendency to conceal large parts of herself. Therefore, despite the availability of her letters and notes, little is known about her; biographical research has been limited to mostly facts and dates.

Leonie "Nelly" Sachs was born in Berlin in 1891, the only daughter of Margarete Karger Sachs and William Sachs, a wealthy inventor and manufacturer. Both parents came from assimilated Jewish families, and the Sachs household was conservative-liberal and non-religious. As was the case with many upper-class Jews, assimilation was a fact of life and membership in the Jewish community was a formality. Sachs grew up in a villa in the area around the Tier-garten in Berlin. Her early childhood was seemingly idyllic and carefree. The Sachs family had servants, and Nelly enjoyed playing in the garden with her pets. Her father, who loved to read and admired the genius of Leonardo da Vinci and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, was an accomplished musician and a great fan of the music of the Classical and Romantic age. He also had an extensive collection of crystals, rocks, corals, fossils, and books on insects and flowers. Later, rocks and butterflies became central motifs of Sachs' poetry. Her father, a complex and emotionally withdrawn man, died of cancer in 1930, and it was the unconditional love and cheerfulness of her mother that gave her courage in the years of persecution and exile.

Young Nelly perceived dance to be her element, but it was her tragic fate, she said later, that kept her from fulfilling that dream. Thus, she turned to language as a form of expression. From 1897 to 1900, Sachs attended public school but had to withdraw for health reasons. She received private tutoring until 1903, when she began attending the exclusive private Aubert-Schule. Graduating in 1908, she continued her life as an upper-class daughter without training or profession, then began writing poems and painting in watercolors at age 17. Until the Nazis came to power in 1933, Nelly and Margarete Sachs did not have to worry about their standard of living.

In 1921, Sachs published Legenden und Erzählungen (Legends and Stories), in which she clearly imitated the style of Swedish writer Selma Lagerlöf , whom she admired. In later years, Sachs distanced herself from this work—and from her poems written before 1942—and refused to have the stories reprinted. Though she sent her book to Lagerlöf and received a thank-you note praising her stories, Sachs' early work lacks both independence of thought and a style of its own.

I wrote in order to be able to survive.

—Nelly Sachs

Sachs did not participate in the spirited intellectual life of Berlin in the 1920s and had no contact with the artistic circles of the time. Apparently she lived her life apart from the coffee-houses and knew little of the Expressionist movement, the theater and cabaret scene, and even other Jewish women poets in Berlin, such as Else Lasker-Schüler and Gertrud Kolmar . Sachs did, however, visit several lectures on Romanticism at the University of Berlin and met two of her lifelong friends, Gudrun Harlan and Vera Lachmann ; both would be instrumental in arranging for Sachs' escape from Nazi Germany.

After Hitler's rise to power in 1933, Sachs and her mother endured the German harassment and persecution of Jews. They were no longer allowed to attend cultural events or use the streetcars and public gardens. They were not allowed to keep pets and could not receive stamps to obtain milk, meat, fish, or fruit. Sachs was summoned by the Gestapo, the German security force, to appear for an interrogation. Afterwards, she suffered a complete paralysis of the larynx for five days. Sachs compared her inability to speak to the muteness of a fish, and later the silent suffering of fish became a central motif of her poetry.

In 1939, when the Nazi policy of the destruction of European Jewry moved toward its "final solution," Gudrun Harlan traveled to Sweden in the hope of saving Sachs' life. Harlan had planned a trip earlier that year to try to obtain a Swedish visa for Nelly and Margarete, but she had been hit by a car and had to spend several months in the hospital. After her release, she sold her living-room furniture to finance the train ride to Sweden. On crutches and with no knowledge of Swedish, Harlan made her way to Selma Lagerlöf, who apparently wrote a letter on Sachs' behalf. Harlan was also able to get an audience with Swedish Prince Eugene and convinced him to help Sachs obtain a visa for Sweden. In May 1940, Sachs received an order to keep herself available for transport to a work camp. On the very same day, she received her transit visa for Sweden. When she requested an exit visa from Germany, a Gestapo official advised Sachs to tear up her transport order, exchange her train tickets for airplane tickets, and leave Germany immediately. Thus, with a small suitcase and five Reichsmark each, which was all they were allowed to take, Sachs and her mother arrived in Stockholm on May 16, 1940, a few days before the borders were closed and the ban on emigration was put in force.

After living in a home for refugees in Stockholm, Sachs received a one-room apartment from the Jewish Warburg Foundation, in which she lived for the rest of her life. The first years of exile were extremely difficult, but the love and sense of responsibility for her mother kept Sachs alive. She earned some money through translation and received a permanent visa in 1944. Because of the cramped quarters, writing became difficult. Afraid to disturb her mother's sleep, Sachs did not want to turn on the light at night in the room they shared. Therefore, she composed her poems in her thoughts and wrote them down the next morning. Her breakthrough as a poet came in the winter of 1943–44: "I wrote as if I were in flames," she later remarked. The Holocaust, exile, Jewish mysticism, and Israel as a land of peace and belonging became consistent themes of Sachs' poetry. She contributed to the establishment of a new tradition in literature, Holocaust literature, in which death, dehumanization, the passing of time, the disintegration of reality, the corruption of reason and morality, speechlessness, the violent end to childhood and innocence, and the escape into madness were central themes and motifs.

Death and life under the constant threat of extinction recur throughout In the Habitations of Death (1947):

O the chimneys
On the ingeniously devised habitations of death
When Israel's body drifted as smoke

By matching the divergent concepts of habitat and death, Sachs unmasks the duplicity of the concentration camps. The "ingeniously devised habitations" are not places where people live, but where they die, and the smoke that drifts through the chimneys stands in contrast to the smoking chimney of a home associated with warmth and nourishment.

O the habitations of death,
Invitingly appointed
For the host who used to be a guest—

Here, the habitations of death represent a reversal of expectation: death, an occasional guest in the home, is the host and master of the habitations of death. The insidiousness of the invitation and hospitality demonstrates the systematic dissolution of the perception of reality. The victims are confronted with a new reality that defies all previous expectations.

The theme of the murder of children is taken up in the third poem. At the camps, children are robbed of their innocence and the fundamental trust inherent in the mother-child relationship is destroyed. "O the night of the weeping children!" speaks of the terror of the children branded for death. Deprived of their dolls and pets and separated from their mothers, they spend the night alone "in the nests of horror" devoid of love and security.

Sleep may not enter here.
Terrible nursemaids
Have usurped the place of mothers

Instead of love and hope for the future, there is a "wind of dying" in the air which blows over the hair "that no one will comb again."

After the death of her mother in 1950, Sachs experienced an existential crisis. Life had lost its meaning and purpose. She turned to Jewish mysticism for solace and studied the hasidic writing of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. The influence of Jewish mysticism upon Sachs' poetry becomes prevalent in the works of the 1950s. The themes of exile, the longing for deliverance, and the loss of language now took on mystical dimension and are seen in the context of the Cabala and the Biblical experience of the exiled

Jews. The cycle of creation and destruction is prevalent in both And No One Knows How to Go On and Flight and Metamorphosis. No arrival is possible without death, one poem states, as Sachs redefines flight as both a religious experience and an existentialist mode. However, she also expresses a longing for love, deliverance from suffering, and "rest during flight."

In 1960, Sachs returned to Germany for the first time since her escape to Sweden in 1940. To avoid having to spend the night there, she took a hotel in Switzerland and crossed Lake Constance on the day she was to receive the Droste Prize in Meersburg. In Zürich, she met German-Jewish writer Paul Celan, who had grown up in a remote area of Rumania, the Bukovina. Celan, a survivor of a work camp, had lost his parents in the Holocaust and now lived in Paris. He had corresponded with Sachs since 1954, but only met her, together with the Austrian poet Ingeborg Bachmann , at the hotel in Zürich in 1960. Celan was undergoing an acute crisis caused by a persecution mania, self-doubts, and the rise of anti-Semitism in Germany. The meetings with Sachs in Zürich and Paris, where she visited him after her excursion to Germany, seemed to help him conquer his fears and overcome his crisis, though only temporarily. Sachs and Celan admired each other's works and formed a deep bond of friendship. In Death Still Celebrates Life, which she wrote in a mental hospital in 1961, Sachs describes the "Marvel of encounters," which appears to refer to her meeting with Celan, as a conversation of two minds:

far beyond their bodies
that mourn like orphans
down to the tips of their toes
with abandonment.

Upon her return to Stockholm, Sachs fell into a state of deep depression, paranoia, and persecution mania. In her own words, she lived through a "descent into hell," experiencing hallucinations and obsessive delusions. She felt secretly observed and pursued by spies. "The insufferable happened, and I was unable to put into words what truly stood behind that which brought me to the brink of spiritual and physical destruction," she wrote to Celan in December 1960. With short interruptions, she spent the next three years in a hospital and a convalescent home. Harlan and Celan rushed to her side, but Sachs refused to see Celan out of fear of infecting him with her terrors. Journey into a Dustless Realm and Death Still Celebrates Life, both written during her illness, testify to Sachs' torment and anguish: "Who calls," the lyrical I asks in the poem under this title and answers, "My own voice!" "Who answers?" it inquires next and replies, "Death!"

In her acceptance speech for the Peace Prize of the German Booksellers' Association in 1965, Sachs spoke of the need to continue the despairing search for peace: "Together let us remember with sorrow the victims and let us go out anew—plagued by fear and doubt—to search again and again for a new opportunity" which may be afar "but nevertheless exists." On December 10, 1966, her 75th birthday, Sachs received the Nobel Prize for Literature. To her it seemed as if a fairy tale had become reality. At the end of her acceptance speech in Stockholm, she cited the poem "Fleeing" from Flight and Metamorphosis: "Fleeing, what a great reception on the way," the poem begins, recalling her flight to safety from Germany to Sweden. The poem ends by giving expression to the feeling of loss which is counterbalanced by the ability to accept change:

I hold instead of a homeland
the metamorphoses of the world

Nelly Sachs died on May 12, 1970, the day Paul Celan was buried in Orly near Paris. He had drowned himself in the river Seine around April 20. On December 10, 1971, which would have been her 80th birthday, the Swedish prime minister Olof Palme opened the Nelly Sachs room of the Kungliga Library in Stockholm. The room recreates Sachs' small apartment and contains her furniture and books. Sweden, Sachs' chosen land of exile, honored the German refugee and poet, who suffered from and kept alive the haunting memory of the Holocaust.


Bahr, Ehrhard. Nelly Sachs. Munich: Beck, 1980.

Berendsohn, Walter. Nelly Sachs. Darmstadt: Agora, 1974.

Kessler, Michael, and Jürgen Wertheimer. Nelly Sachs: Neue Interpretationen. Tübingen: Stauffenburg, 1994.

Nelly Sachs zu Ehren. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1966.

Wiederman, Barbara, ed. Paul Celan-Nelly Sachs Briefwechsel. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1994.

suggested reading:

Sachs, Nelly. The Seeker and Other Poems. NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1970.

——. O The Chimneys: Selected Poems, including the verse play ELI. NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1967.

Wiederman, Barbara, ed. Paul Celan-Nelly Sachs: Correspondence. Translated by Christopher Clark. Sheep Meadow, 1995.

Karin Bauer , Assistant Professor of German Studies, McGill University, Montreal, Canada