The daughter of a Berlin industrialist, Sachs grew up in an artistic home where she early imbibed a love of literature. At the age of 15, after reading Gösta Berling by Swedish author Selma Lagerlöf, who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1909, Sachs and Lagerlöf became correspondents. Lagerlöf instructed the adolescent Sachs on the techniques of imagination and creativity.
At 17, she began writing neo-romantic 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, like many other assimilated German Jews, Sachs discovered her Jewish heritage and found ideas akin to Boehme’s in the Zohar. Her early work remained largely unknown, and she refused to allow it to be republished.
In 1940, with the spread of Nazi power, and persecution of the Jews in Europe, Lagerlöf helped Sachs and her mother escape to Sweden but died before they arrived. At first, Sachs 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, 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 Hasidic origin.
The experiences and emotions of Nazi persecution and the Holocaust left a deep impression on her. It was these memories of the Jewish people’s devastation that influenced much of Sachs’ writing. In 1947, Sachs published her first volume of poetry, In den Wohnungen des Todes (In the Houses of Death). Through these poems and future volumes, including Und niemand weiss weiter (And No One Knows Where to Go) finished in 1957, she laments over the horrors of the Holocaust as well as the exile of the Jewish people.
If I could not have written, I could not have survived, 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 ?addikim (36 Hidden Saints). Eli was later presented as a radio play and as an opera. O the Chimneys, an English version of selected poems of Eli by Michael Hamburger and other translators, was published in 1967.
Nelly Sachs was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966 alongside the Israeli writer Shmuel Yosef Agnon. At that moment, Sachs realized that while Agnon embodied the future of the Jewish people in Israel, “I represent the tragedy of the Jewish people.”
Nelly Sachs passed away from cancer on May 12, 1970.
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.
Photo: Nobel Foundation, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.