Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Nelly Sachs, described as the “poet of the Holocaust” when she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1966, challenges the view that poetry is impossible after Auschwitz. To untangle the disorder left in the wake of World War II, she turned to the works of Jewish mysticism. The Book of the Zohar (The Book of Light), a thirteenth century commentary on the Pentateuch, provided a new way to envision the metaphysical order of the world, a way to make sense of a system fallen apart. She posed the essential question: How could the Holocaust have occurred in a world supposedly under the care of a supreme Divinity? Mysticism provided the keys to putting the shattered world back together again. Within the darkest experience had to be found a new light. The alternative would be nihilism or deep pessimism, and both are untenable positions in a theology based on the Covenant.

Sachs was acutely aware of the dilemma that writing in German posed for her. The German language was discredited because it had been the language of the oppressors. She developed a strategy for salvaging her means of expression and communication—her system of metaphors, which is, in effect, a reinvention of language. Her system affirmed the existence of bonds between words and their meanings, while opening up a new range of meanings, and it challenged words to describe what had been termed indescribable.

In view of Sachs’s quest to transform her native language into an...

(The entire section is 414 words.)