Nelly Sachs (10 December 1891 – 12 May 1970) was a German-Swedish poet and playwright. Her experiences resulting from the rise of the Nazis in World War II Europe transformed her into a poignant spokesperson for the grief and yearnings of her fellow Jews. Her best-known play is Eli: Ein Mysterienspiel vom Leiden Israels (1950); other works include the poems "Zeichen im Sand" (1962), "Verzauberung" (1970), and the collections of poetry In den Wohnungen des Todes (1947), Flucht und Verwandlung (1959), Fahrt ins Staublose (1961), and Suche nach Lebenden (1971). She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1966.
10 December 1891
Berlin-Schöneberg, German Empire
|Died||12 May 1970 78) (aged|
|Notable awards||Nobel Prize in Literature |
Life and career
Leonie Sachs was born in Berlin-Schöneberg, Germany, in 1891 to a Jewish family. Her parents were the wealthy natural rubber and gutta-percha manufacturers Georg William Sachs (1858–1930) and his wife Margarete, née Karger (1871–1950). She was educated at home because of frail health. She showed early signs of talent as a dancer, but her protective parents did not encourage her to pursue a profession. She grew up as a very sheltered, introverted young woman and never married. She pursued an extensive correspondence with her friends Selma Lagerlöf and Hilde Domin. As the Nazis took power, she became increasingly terrified, at one point losing the ability to speak, as she would remember in verse: "When the great terror came/I fell dumb." Sachs fled with her aged mother to Sweden in 1940. It was her friendship with Lagerlöf that saved their lives: shortly before her own death Lagerlöf intervened with the Swedish royal family to secure their release from Germany. Sachs and her mother escaped on the last flight from Nazi Germany to Sweden, a week before Sachs was scheduled to report to a concentration camp. They settled in Sweden and Sachs became a Swedish citizen in 1952.
Living in a tiny two-room apartment in Stockholm, Sachs cared alone for her mother for many years, and supported their existence by translations between Swedish and German. After her mother's death, Sachs suffered several nervous breakdowns characterized by hallucinations, paranoia, and delusions of persecution by Nazis, and spent a number of years in a mental institution. She continued to write while hospitalized, and eventually recovered sufficiently to live on her own, though her mental health remained fragile. Her worst breakdown was ostensibly precipitated by hearing spoken German during a trip to Switzerland to accept a literary prize. But she maintained a forgiving attitude toward younger Germans, and corresponded with many German-speaking writers of the postwar period, including Hans Magnus Enzensberger and Ingeborg Bachmann.
On the 127th anniversary of her birthday, 10 December 2018, Sachs was commemorated with a Google Doodle in parts of Europe and the US.
Paul Celan and lyrical poetry
In the context of the Shoah, her deep friendship with "brother" poet Paul Celan is often noted today. Their bond was described in one of Celan's most famous poems, "Zürich, Zum Storchen" ("Zürich, The Stork Inn"). Sachs and Celan shared the Holocaust and the fate of the Jews throughout history, their interest in Jewish and Christian beliefs and practices, and their literary models; their imagery was often remarkably similar, though developed independently. Their friendship was supportive during professional conflicts. Celan also suffered from artistic infighting (Claire Goll's accusations of plagiarism) during a period of frustration with his work's reception. When Sachs met Celan she was embroiled in a long dispute with Finnish-Jewish composer Moses Pergament over his adaptation of her play Eli: Ein Mysterienspiel vom Leiden Israels. In Celan she found someone who understood her anxiety and hardships as an artist.
Sachs's poetry is intensely lyrical and reflects some influence by German Romanticism, especially in her early work. The poetry she wrote as a young woman in Berlin is more inspired by Christianity than Judaism and makes use of traditional Romantic imagery and themes. Much of it concerns an unhappy love affair Sachs suffered in her teens with a non-Jewish man who would eventually be killed in a concentration camp. After Sachs learned of her only love interest's death, she bound up his fate with that of her people and wrote many love lyrics ending not only in the beloved's death, but in the catastrophe of the Holocaust. Sachs herself mourns no longer as a jilted lover but as a personification of the Jewish people in their vexed relationship to history and God. Her fusion of grief with subtly romantic elements is in keeping with the imagery of the kabbalah, where the Shekhinah represents God's presence on earth and mourns for the separation of God from His people in their suffering. Thus Sachs's Romanticism allowed her to develop self-consciously from a German to a Jewish writer, with a corresponding change in her language: still flowery and conventional in some of her first poetry on the Holocaust, it becomes ever more compressed and surreal, returning to a series of the same images and tropes (dust, stars, breath, stones and jewels, blood, dancers, fish suffering out of water, madness, and ever-frustrated love) in ways that are sometimes comprehensible only to her readers, but always moving and disturbing. Though Sachs does not resemble many authors, she appears to have been influenced by Gertrud Kolmar and Else Lasker-Schüler in addition to Celan.
In 1961 Sachs won the first Nelly Sachs Prize, a literary award given biennially by the German city of Dortmund and named in her honour. The city commissioned Walter Steffens to compose the opera Eli based on her mystery play, which premiered at the new opera house in 1967. When, with Shmuel Yosef Agnon, she was awarded the 1966 Nobel Prize in Literature, she observed that Agnon represented Israel whereas "I represent the tragedy of the Jewish people." She read her poem "In der Flucht" at the ceremony.
Sachs died from colorectal cancer in 1970. She was interred in the Norra begravningsplatsen in Stockholm. Her possessions were donated to the National Library of Sweden.
A memorial plaque commemorates her birthplace, Maaßenstraße 12, in Schöneberg, Berlin, where there is also a park named for her in Dennewitzstraße. A park on the island of Kungsholmen in Stockholm also bears her name.
- Legenden und Erzählungen [Legends and Tales], 1921.
- Fahrt ins Staublose: Die Gedichte der Nelly Sachs 1 [Journey into the Dustless Realm: The Poetry of Nelly Sachs, 1], 1961.
- Suche nach Lebenden: Die Gedichte der Nelly Sachs 2 [Search for the Living: The Poetry of Nelly Sachs, 2], 1971.
- Briefe der Nelly Sachs [Letters of Nelly Sachs] ed. Ruth Dinesen and Helmut Müssener, 1984.
- O the Chimneys: Selected Poems, Including the Verse Play, Eli, tr. Michael Hamburger et al., 1967.
- The Seeker and Other Poems. tr. Ruth Mead, Matthew Mead, and Michael Hamburger, 1970.
- Contemporary German Poetry, selections, ed. and tr. Gertrude C. Schwebell, 1964.
- Glowing Enigmas, tr. Michael Hamburger, 2013.
- The Seeker, and Other Poems (1970), Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN 978-0-374-25780-4
- Collected Poems I, 1944–1949 (2007), Green Integer. ISBN 978-1-933382-57-9
- List of female Nobel laureates
- List of Jewish Nobel laureates
- Manfred George, Nelly Sachs's cousin
- Nelly Sachs on Nobelprize.org
- "Nelly Sachs". www.nobel-winners.com. Retrieved 10 December 2018.
- "Nelly Sachs' 127th Birthday". www.google.com.
- Excerpt Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan, translated by John Felstiner. W. W. Norton. In The New York Times
- "Nelly Sachs - Banquet Speech". Retrieved 23 May 2020.
- "Kungliga biblioteket". www.kb.se.
- Wilson, Katharina M. (1991). An Encyclopedia of Continental Women Writers. New York & London: Garland Publishing, Inc.
- "Nelly Sachs - Suhrkamp Insel Autoren". Retrieved 23 May 2020.
- Bower, Kathrin M. Ethics and remembrance in the poetry of Nelly Sachs and Rose Ausländer. Camden House, 2000. ISBN 978-1-57113-191-1
- Barbara Wiedemann (ed.) Paul Celan, Nelly Sachs: Correspondence, trans. Christopher Clark. Sheep Meadow, 1998. ISBN 978-1-878818-71-3
- Olsson, Anders. Nelly Sachs at Svenskt kvinnobiografiskt lexikon
- Ruth Dinesen (2005), "Sachs, Nelly", Neue Deutsche Biographie (in German), 22, Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, pp. 336–337
- Walter A. Berendsohn: Nelly Sachs: Einführung in das Werk der Dichterin jüdischen Schicksals. Agora, Darmstadt 1974, ISBN 978-3-87008-046-4.
- Gudrun Dähnert: "Wie Nelly Sachs 1940 aus Deutschland entkam. Mit einem Brief an Ruth Mövius." in: Sinn und Form February 2009, pp. 226–257
- Ruth Dinesen: Nelly Sachs. Eine Biographie. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt 1992, ISBN 978-3-518-40426-3
- Gabriele Fritsch-Vivié: Nelly Sachs. Monographie. Rowohlt, Reinbek, 3rd edition, 2001, ISBN 978-3-499-50496-9.
- Petra Oelker: "Und doch, am Ende steht wieder das Licht, wenn auch noch so fern". In: Charlotte Kerner: Nicht nur Madame Curie. Frauen, die den Nobelpreis bekamen. Beltz, Weinheim 1999, ISBN 978-3-407-80862-2.
- Gerald Sommerer: Aber dies ist nichts für Deutschland, das weiß und fühle ich. Nelly Sachs – Untersuchungen zu ihrem szenischen Werk. Königshausen & Neumann, Würzburg 2008, ISBN 978-3-8260-3860-0.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Nelly Sachs.|
- German Wikiquote has quotations related to: Nelly Sachs
- Guide to the Papers of Nelly Sachs
- Red Yucca – German Poetry in Translation (trans. by Eric Plattner)
- Nelly Sachs Collection, AR 3991 Archival Collection at the Leo Baeck Institute, New York