Biography (Dictionary of World Biography: Twentieth Century)
Article abstract: Sachs, primarily because of her focus upon the deaths of Europe’s six million Jews in World War II and her anguished outcry against this ghastly event, has become known as the poet of the Holocaust. One who escaped Nazi horrors because of last-minute maneuvering on her behalf, Sachs was a witness who had to find a fitting way to commemorate the dead and engender hope despite the horror of the event; incredibly, given the difficulty of the task, Sachs succeeded brilliantly.
Nelly Sachs was the only daughter of humane, highly cultured parents. Her father, William, was a prosperous manufacturer living in Berlin; her mother, Margarethe, was a pleasant, refined woman. Sachs’s Berlin was busy with trade and self-importance, being the arrogant new capital of a recently united Germany bent upon proving its worth to the world. Though certainly no stranger to anti-Semitism as a child, Sachs was spared an acquaintance with the rough side of life as a child and grew up in a household in which self-expression was esteemed. A member of the upper-middle class, she had ample time to create puppet plays and stories as well as write verse.
Sachs’s parents sent her to fine schools and encouraged her interests, especially her love of music. Adept at dancing, she wanted to be a dancer in her teen years but also harbored the hope of becoming a mime. At age seventeen, Sachs wrote her first poetry, which was of a romantic, even florid type conventionally approved of in Berlin and therefore acceptable to the local newspapers to which she sent her poems. Berlin intellectuals, however, paid no attention to her newspaper poems, for they enjoyed the avant-garde poetry of the expressionists then in vogue. The tame and often mawkish poems of Sachs’s teen years gave no hint of the powerful verse she would one day write.
Sachs’s safe, secure, and pleasant Berlin began to change for the worse beginning in the pivotal year 1933, when Adolf Hitler assumed the office of German chancellor. Anti-Jewish feeling, on the rise throughout the post-World War I period, had grown intense, leading to the persecution of all Jews regardless of financial position. To escape the oppression and hatred she felt, Sachs turned to studies of such books as the Kabala, the Bible, and those of mystic writers such as Jakob Böhme.
Fortunately for Sachs, she had corresponded for a long time with Swedish author Selma Lagerlöf, whose Gösta Berlings saga (1891; The Story of Gösta Berling, 1898) and other writings she passionately admired. In fact, Sachs had been writing to Lagerlöf since Sachs published her first volume of work, Legenden und Erzählungen (1921; legends and tales). When it became apparent that the Nazis would send Sachs and her mother to the gas chambers, Lagerlöf used whatever influence she could muster to persuade the King of Sweden to intercede for her friends in Germany—which he did. Sachs and her mother fled to Stockholm, narrowly missing being caught by the Gestapo and sent to a concentration camp.
From 1933 to 1940, the year Lagerlöf engineered Sachs’s escape, Sachs had kept to herself as much as possible, fearing that contact with the world outside her home would bring disaster. Living a hermetic existence, Sachs studied Hebrew and German literature, absorbing the rhymes and rhythms found there as well as the authors’ mystical sense of the world. Thwarted in her pursuit of a writer’s career because of the fact that she was Jewish, Sachs put all of her energies into honing her imagination. Also during this period she fell in love with a man, though little is known about him except for the fact that the Nazis dragged him away to his death.
When she went to Sweden in 1940, she knew only one person there—Lagerlöf; yet Lagerlöf died only two months after her arrival in Stockholm, a further source of anguish for Sachs and her mother. A stranger in a strange country, Sachs, exiled from a country gone insane with blood lust and hatred of the Jews, started to write as a survivor surveying the wreckage of lives she had known. Gone were the nature poems of her youth. In their place was a new kind of poetry, a harder, tougher poetry that spoke of the unspeakable—tortures, ashes, smoking chimneys, madness, suicide, mass death, all the realities with which she was faced as a survivor of the cruelest spectacle in mankind’s cruel history. In her tiny apartment she could join with her ailing mother in lamenting the loss of friends and family. In Stockholm she was alone and unknown as a writer. Her poetry became her only way out of spiritual torpor and anguish.
Out of the wartime exile came her first notable poems, those of In den Wohnungen des Todes (in the dwellings of death), first published in 1946, in which she discovered her true themes and poetic voice. Here she concentrated her considerable imaginative powers upon the sufferings of the people of Israel and, for the first time, took as her own responsibility the solemn, enormous task of remembering the dead victims of Hitler’s tyranny. To Sachs, there could be no division between herself and those who...
(The entire section is 2144 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of this article. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
Biography (Critical Survey of Poetry)
Leonie (Nelly) Sachs was born in Berlin on December 10, 1891, the only child of William Sachs, an inventor, technical engineer, and manufacturer, and his wife, Margarete (né Karger). The family lived in very comfortable financial circumstances, and Sachs was educated in accordance with the custom for daughters of the upper-middle class. Although both of her parents were of Jewish ancestry, Sachs’s family had few ties with the Jewish community and did not practice their religion. Sachs attended public schools from 1897 to 1900, but for reasons of poor health was removed and received private instruction until 1903. She then attended a private secondary school for daughters of wealthy and titled families and finished her education in 1908 without any formal professional training. In the summer of that year, she fell in love with a man whose name she never revealed. That experience, which ended unhappily, escalated into a crisis, making Sachs consider suicide. The man was later killed in one of Germany’s concentration camps.
For the next twenty-five years, even after the death of her father in 1930, Sachs led a sheltered and not particularly noteworthy existence. She produced some poetry, read extensively, and did watercolors, some of which have been preserved in the Nelly Sachs Archive in Stockholm. In 1906, Sachs received Lagerlöf’s novel Gösta Berling (1891) as a birthday present. Her admiration for the writer resulted in a correspondence between the two, and Sachs sent Lagerlöf many of her own literary experiments. Through the intervention of Lagerlöf and the brother of the reigning Swedish king, Sachs and her mother received permission to emigrate to Sweden in 1939. Shortly after Lagerlöf’s death in 1940, Sachs received orders from German authorities to appear for deportation to a work camp. Leaving all their possessions behind, Sachs and her mother fled Germany, arriving in Stockholm on May 16,...
(The entire section is 790 words.)
Biography (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
In almost eighty years, Nelly Sachs (saks) moved from affluence to poverty, from her native Germany to exile in Sweden, and from obscurity to fame. On her seventy-fifth birthday, in 1966, frail but radiant, she received the Nobel Prize in Literature.
The only child of Jewish businessman Georg William Sachs and his young wife, Margarete (née Karger) Sachs, Nelly grew up surrounded by loving adults: her parents, maternal grandmother, and great-grandmother. They lived in richly furnished apartments, with gardens large enough for Nelly to have a roe deer, goats, and dogs as pets. In the evenings, her father played the piano and she danced to the music.
Sachs’s emotional suffering first manifested itself when she was seventeen. A brief romantic involvement with a man she never named precipitated anorexia that required her to be hospitalized for more than two years. Her attending psychiatrist, Dr. Richard Cassirer, restored her to health by encouraging her creative writing.
Sachs then returned to the shelter of her parents’ home. She began corresponding with the 1909 Nobel laureate, Swedish author Selma Lagerlöf. In 1921, Sachs’s first book was published, Legenden und Erzählungen (legends and stories). It was a rare attempt at prose and shows clearly the influence of other authors. Sachs had not yet found her poetic voice.
Sachs’s father died of cancer in 1930. Around this time, her interest in German Romanticism led her to Professor Max Herrmann and to new friends in his circle. These contacts were to save her life. Two friends from this circle, Gudrun Harlan and Vera Lachman, were instrumental in the Sachses’ escape from Germany.
Like many assimilated Jews, Sachs and her mother reacted to initial reports of Nazi persecution with...
(The entire section is 794 words.)
Biography (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Nelly Sachs shared the 1966 Nobel Prize in Literature with another Jewish author, Shmuel Yosef Agnon, and is often studied in conjunction with other twentieth century German Jewish authors. Although Sachs was a member of a persecuted race and wrote about the Holocaust, her work contains no hatred or desire for revenge. She expresses her feeling of tremendous loss in terms of concern for the effects that such extreme disregard for life may have on the balance of the world. Sachs’s work is not depressing, but it conveys a transcendent vision.
(The entire section is 91 words.)
Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
The major work of Nelly Sachs (saks), written during and after World War II, is a witness to the Holocaust. In 1966, when she shared a Nobel Prize in Literature with the writer Shmuel Yosef Agnon, Sachs commented, “Agnon represents the state of Israel. I represent the tragedy of the Jewish people.”
Sachs, born in Berlin in 1891, was reared in one of its finest neighborhoods. An only child, she early on demonstrated an interest in the arts, particularly dance. Her earliest published writing, which she wished not to be included in her collected works, are neo-Romantic in their...
(The entire section is 766 words.)