In 1966, Nelly Sachs was recognized as the only German-speaking woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, an honor she shared with the Galician-born Israeli novelist Shmuel Yosef Agnon (1888–1970). She was lauded for being the “bearer of a message of solace to all those who despair of the fate of man” and for “her outstanding lyrical and dramatic writing, which interprets Israel’s destiny with touching strength” (website of the Nobel Foundation). For Sachs, a German-Jewish writer exiled to Sweden during World War II, Israel was a community bound by collective suffering and the memory of those murdered in the Shoah, which had become a possible homeland for those displaced by war and exile, a “zenith of longing,” where “wonder is heaped/like a storm upon your head,/breaks in your time’s mountains of pain” (O the Chimneys, 1967).
The first lines of the poem from her volume of poetry by the same name, O die Schornsteine (O the Chimneys), describe the future of Israel as having been eradicated by genocide and use images she witnessed in the media and learned from personal accounts: “O the chimneys/On the ingeniously devised habitations of death/When Israel’s body drifted as smoke/Through the air.”
Although barely recognized as a writer during her almost fifty years of living in her German homeland, Sachs would bear witness to the victims of the Holocaust and become a voice for those figures whom she described in her poems during her twenty-year exile in Sweden—the “rescued,” the “onlookers,” and also the “murderers.” Writing in a letter that death had been her teacher, Sachs attributed her survival in exile to her writing. She described the “metaphors” in her poetry as “wounds” and transformed the language of mourning and memory into poetic testimonials to the dead as well as to the living.
The recurring images found in Sachs’s poetry, such as fingers, hands, butterflies, stars and birds, form brilliant constellations that dare to imagine the unthinkable and the unspeakable. Like the works of Gertrud Kolmar and Rose Ausländer, Sachs’s poetry is a lyrical form of communication that monumentalizes both the possibility of atrocities committed by humankind and the beauty of humanity. Sachs’s poetry mourns yet does not despair of humankind.
Nelly Leonie Sachs was born on December 10, 1891 in Berlin, the only child of the inventor and industrialist William Sachs (d. 1930) and Margareta (Karger) Sachs (d. 1950). The family belonged to the Jewish community in Berlin but did not attend synagogue nor celebrate Jewish holidays. Although Sachs received a private education at her comfortable bourgeois home and at a private girl’s school in Berlin, it was her father who instilled in her a love of music, dance and literature. Her first ambition was to be a dancer, a passion that would lend a fluid rhythmic quality to her writing. As a young girl Sachs wrote puppet plays and poetry inspired by the German Romantic writers she cherished. She was not influenced by the Expressionist poetry popular in Berlin at this time and therefore was not widely recognized for her first book of stories, Legenden und Erzählungen (Legends and Tales, 1921) and for the poems she published in a variety of publications. The author Stefan Zweig (1881–1942), however, did recognize the young poet’s talents and arranged for one of Sachs’s poems to be published. When she was fifteen years old she was inspired by Gösta Berling (1891), the saga by the Swedish novelist and Nobel Prize winner Selma Lagerlöf (1858–1940), with whom she initiated a thirty-five-year correspondence. Sachs’s first published poem appeared in the October 1929 issue of the newspaper Vossische Zeitung. Although little is known of Sachs’s love at seventeen for a young man who would later be transported to a death camp, her feelings of loss and loneliness were chronicled in the poetry she wrote during and after this time (Bahti and Fries, 1995).
After her father’s death in 1930 she lived with her mother and became an active member of the Berlin Jüdischer Kulturbund (Jewish Cultural Society) where she gave poetry readings and kept company with the poet Gertrud Kolmar. During this time antisemitism was taking on more violent forms. Sachs was traumatized and unable to speak for five days after being interrogated by the Gestapo and after she and her mother witnessed their apartment being plundered by the Gestapo and their wives. In the one prose text, “Leben unter Bedrohung” (Life under Threat), which Sachs published during her lifetime, in the journal Ariel (1956), she wrote that her “voice fled, because it didn’t know an answer anymore” (Bower, 2000). In Sachs’s poem Als der große Schrecken kam (When the Great Terror Came) the narrator is silenced by horror like a fish, a “fish with its deathly side/turned upward” (O The Chimneys).
In 1940 Sachs and her mother were able to secure one of the last flights to Stockholm with the help of German friends, Prince Eugen of the Swedish Royal House (1865–1947) and Selma Lagerlöf, who died before Sachs’s arrival. Sachs’s remaining family was murdered in the extermination camps. Once in Sweden, Sachs mastered the Swedish language and was able to support herself and her aging mother in the one-room apartment they shared for the first seven years by writing poetry and translating into German the works of Swedish poets Gunnar Ekelöf (1907–1968), Erik Lindegren (1918–1996) and Johannes Edfelt (1904–1997).
Although she had not gone to synagogue nor taken part in Jewish ceremonies in Germany, Sachs had been deeply influenced by the Hasidic stories of Martin Buber (1878–1965). In Sweden she became fascinated with Kabbalistic mysticism and the writings of Gershom Scholem (1897–1982) on Jewish mysticism and the Zohar. For Sachs writing was linked to the mystical and became what biographer Kathrin Bower described as “momentary manifestations of Divine Presence in the world [that] indicate a path to transcendence” (Bower, 11).
Sachs’s 1947 poetry collection In den Wohnungen des Todes (In the Dwellings of Death) are early testimonial poems that focus on the suffering of the people of Israel and on the metamorphosis of humankind. The death of Sachs’s mother on February 7, 1950 heightened the feelings of isolation and depression from which she had suffered for much of her life. Sachs had been treated for persecution paranoia between 1959 and 1962 at the Beckomberga sanatorium (Ruth Dineson quoted in Bahti and Fries). Her 1951 tragedy Eli: Ein Mysterienspiel vom Leiden Israels (Eli: A Mystery Play of the Suffering of Israel) makes reference to motifs from Hasidic books and tells of an eight-year old Polish boy and the search for his murderer (Ruth Dineson quoted in Bahti and Fries). Eli became an acclaimed radio play in Germany after Sachs’s Swedish friends had made it public by sponsoring a private edition of two hundred copies. Sachs viewed her time in exile as one in which it was her duty to bear witness to the voiceless victims murdered in the Shoah. Her use of the German language to write poetry became her only tie to her former homeland. In her 1959 collection Flucht und Verwandlung (Flight and Metamorphosis) she writes of her poetry as a spiritual entity that transcends nationality and geography: “I hold instead of a homeland/the metamorphoses of the world” and of herself: “The sick butterfly/will soon learn again of the sea” (O the Chimneys). It is in exile that Sachs confronted her relationship with Judaism and reassessed her identity as a Jew and as a German writer. Sachs did not view exile as a solution; instead she referred to herself in her poem Chor der Wandernden (Choir of Wanderers) as one of many “wanderers” who carry the burden of their exile like luggage to the new country. Sachs describes those in exile as having exposed roots that wilt on the new paths that will never lead to a homeland (Weissenberger, 1976). The 1962 volume of poetry, Zeichen im Sand (Signs in the Sand), reveals the further development of Sachs’s themes of flight, exile and metamorphosis.
Before gaining international fame with her Nobel Prize, Sachs won numerous awards including the Prize of the Club of Swedish Poets in 1958, the Droste-Hülshoff Prize in 1960, the Literature Prize of the City of Dortmund in 1961, and the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in 1965. The City of Berlin named Sachs an honorary citizen in 1967.
Throughout her life she maintained friendships and correspondences with other internationally acclaimed German-speaking authors such as Ingeborg Bachmann (1926–1973) and Paul Celan (1920–1970), who confronted the Holocaust in their poetry and prose. Bachmann, who had not experienced the Holocaust personally but who was deeply affected and transformed by it, wrote about her reactions to the atrocities committed in Austria and against fascism in her poetry and novels. Bachmann, who met Sachs during a reading tour to Zurich and Meeresburg in 1960, had been greatly moved by her work from the time at which she had first read it, in the 1950s. The Bukovinian Jewish German-speaking writer Paul Celan from Czernowitz had experienced the horrors of Auschwitz and had survived physically but not psychically, and confronted his encounter with horror in his writing. Sachs and Celan admired each other’s writing and were friends for over sixteen years until her death, a literary relationship chronicled in a book of their exchange of letters, Briefwechsel: Paul Celan–Nelly Sachs, published in 1996. Celan wrote a poem in Sachs’s honor, “For Nelly Sachs,” after meeting her in person for the first time in 1960. Sachs died of cancer on May 12, 1970, only a few days after her friend Celan committed suicide in Paris.
Sachs had made evident in her drama Eli that the future could not be built on the ruins of hatred and revenge; instead she hoped that her poetry would be an agent of healing and a source of renewal. Her belief that remembrance provides strength for a more peaceful future permeates her work and demonstrates the relevance of her poetry for the present.
SELECTED WORKS BY NELLY SACHS
Legenden und Erzählungen. Berlin: 1921; In den Wohnungen des Todes. 1947; Sternverdunkelung. Amsterdam: 1949; Von Welle und Granit (translated from Swedish). 1947; Aber auch diese Sonne ist heimatlos. 1957; Der Schattenfischer. 1959; Nelly Sachs zu Ehren. Gedichte, Prosa, Beiträge. 1961; Fahrt ins Staublose. Die Gedichte der Nelly Sachs. Frankfurt am Main: 1961; Zeichen im Sand. Die szenischen Dichtungen der Nelly Sachs. Frankfurt am Main: 1962; Poesie, 1962; Ausgewählte Gedichte. 1963; Glühende Rätsel. 1964; Späte Gedichte. 1965; Die Suchende. 1966; O die Schornsteine. 1967; O the Chimneys. New York: 1967; The Seeker and Other Poems. 1970; Teile Dich Nacht. 1971; Suche Nach Lebenden. Frankfurt am Main: 1971; Selected Poems. 1971; Briefe der Nelly Sachs. Frankfurt am Main: 1984; Briefwechsel: Paul Celan–Nelly Sachs. 1996; Nelly Sachs. Edition Text + Kritik. München: 1979.
Bahr, Ehrhard. Nelly Sachs. Munich: 1980; Bahti, Timothy and Marilyn Sibley Fries, eds. Jewish Writers, German Literature: The Uneasy Examples of Nelly Sachs and Walter Benjamin. Ann Arbor: 1995; Beil, Claudia. Sprache als Heimat: Jüdische Tradition und Exilerfahrung in der Lyrik von Nelly Sachs und Rose Ausländer. Munich: 1991; Berendsohn, Walter. Nelly Sachs: Einführung in das Werk der Dichterin jüdischen Schicksals. Darmstadt: 1974; Blumenthal, Ilse Weiss. Begegnungen mit Else Lasker-Schüler, Nelly Sachs, Leo Baeck, Martin Buber. New York, 1977; Bower, Kathrin M. Ethics and Remembrance in the Poetry of Nelly Sachs and Rose Ausländer. Rochester, NY: 2000; Dinesen, Ruth. Nelly Sachs: Eine Biographie. Frankfurt am Main: 1992; Falkenstein, Henning. Nelly Sachs. Berlin: 1984; Foot, Robert. The Phenomenon of Speechlessness in the Poetry of Marie Luise Kaschnitz, Günter Eich, Nelly Sachs and Paul Celan. Bonn: 1982; Fritsch-Vivié, Gabriele. Nelly Sachs. Reinbek bei Hamburg: 1993; Fuchs, Esther. Women and the Holocaust: Narrative and Representation. Lanham, MD: 1999; Holmqvist, Bengt, ed. Das Buch der Nelly Sachs. Frankfurt am Main: 1977; Kersten, Paul. Nelly Sachs. Hamburg: 1969; Kessler, Michael and Jürgen Wertheimer, eds. Nelly Sachs: Neue Interpretationen. Tübingen: 1994; Kranz-Löber, Ruth. In der Tiefe des Hohlwegs: Die Shoah in der Lyrik von Nelly Sachs. Würzburg: 2001; Krieg, Matthias. Schmetterlingsweisheit: Die Todesbilder der Nelly Sachs. Berlin: 1983; Lehmann, Annette Jael. Im Zeichen der Shoah: Aspekte der Dichtungs- und Sprachkrise bei Rose Ausländer und Nelly Sachs. Tübingen: 1999; Lermen, Birgit and Michael Braun. Nelly Sachs ‘an letzter Atemspitze des Lebens.’ Bonn: 1998; Rudnick, Ursula. Post-Shoah Religious Metaphors: The Image of God in the Poetry of Nelly Sachs. Frankfurt am Main: 1995; Schwedhelm, Karl. Nelly Sachs: Briefwechsel und Dokumente. Aachen: 1998; Sowa-Bettecken, Beate. Sprache der Hinterlassenschaft: Jüdisch-christliche Überlieferung in der Lyrik von Nelly Sachs und Paul Celan. Frankfurt am Main: 1992; Spalek, John M. Exile, The Writer’s Experience. Riverdale-on-Hudson: 1995; Weissenberger, Klaus. Zwischen Stein und Stern. Mystische Formgebung in der Dichtung von Else Lasker-Schüler, Nelly Sachs und Paul Celan. Bern: 1976.
How to cite this page
Krick-Aigner, Kirsten. "Nelly Leonie Sachs." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 10, 2019) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/sachs-nelly-leonie>.