Sachs, Nelly 1891–1970
A German poet, playwright, and translator, Sachs left Germany for Swedish exile when the Nazis rose to power. Narrowly escaping the concentration camp, she chose to create in her work a monument to the sufferings of the Jews. Her poetry is lyrical and often psalm-like, drawing much of its inspiration from both Jewish and Christian mysticism. Death, redemption, and the human search for peace are important themes throughout her work, which Stephen Spender called "apocalyptic hymns rather than 'modern poetry'." Sachs was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1966. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.; and Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)
One terrible aspect of our century is that fantasies horrible as the worst nightmares of writers like Baudelaire and Dostoevsky in the previous century have become literally true, realized in world wars, mass murder, genocide, concentration camps. They have come true in the minds of all of us, and in the lives and deaths of the victims….
Nelly Sachs … escaped from the Germany of concentration camps into neutral Sweden in 1940. [She is] a poet who writes out of a life immersed in the horror of the actual nightmare, the deaths of those who were burned in ovens. Reading "O the Chimneys," one is there. One feels at once that here is a writer who does not make poetry out of material which she imagines from afar. Her poetry is the lived material itself.
Her poems have variety, but they might all be one poem, and each poem seems part of the suffering of her people in the camps, a death which in her imagination extraordinarily flows into the resurrection which is Israel. The idea of the Jewish people so prevails that the lives and the deaths seem aspects of the same consciousness. The history of destruction and rebuilding seems to happen at the same time, to be contained in a single moment of time, which is the concept of "my people."
In "Chorus of the Unborn," the unborn with their hope, the dead with their anguish, the murdered and the builders of new life, seem the same…. (p. 5)
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[The publication of Nelly Sach's O The Chimneys, a selection of her work in translation,] enables the greatness of her spirit and her art to cross the frontier into English.
Her poetry seems almost designed for translation. It is formally and rhythmically free, concrete and sensuous, difficult in ellipsis and juxtaposition rather than in texture, startling in metaphor, often mysterious, but rarely ironic or ambiguous. Many lines can be rendered literally in English and yet remain poetic….
Fantastic, expressionistic, Yeatsian (with Hassidic mysticism in place of Irish myth), Chagallian, [Eli, a Mystery Play on the Sufferings of Israel] is a drama of pursuit and retribution. At the end a Voice from above proclaims the "Last earthly moments of Israel," and its doctrine is simply stated in a phrase of her postscript: "No more trust in good on earth." It is the work through which, in radio and theatrical productions, Nelly Sachs became widely known in Germany, and it should have a place in the American theater. It ought to have been the prelude rather than the postlude to this book.
For the movement of her linked and interwoven poems and books is not from torment to despair, but from death to rebirth. The opening poems of her first book are lamentations…. But the great closing "choruses" of that book sing both the metamorphosis of tears into eternity and the rebirth of Israel itself in the mirror of its dying.
Her later works are variations and extensions of these themes, more inward and more subtly made, and elaborations of others: exile, language, love for the dead, the everlastingness of what has been, the slow evolution of man's knowledge of God. Ultimately, in the long sequence "Glowing Enigmas," two main themes emerge: sweet cravings for death and a turning through art back to life, "into the world again / with the haunting strength of letters." It is the second that dominates at the end….
Heinrich Luebke, when he presented Nelly Sachs with the Friedenpreis in Frankfurt in 1965, said that her poems had been "works of forgiveness, of deliverance, of peace." They are. They are also rare examples of the power of art to metamorphose murder into beauty and death into life.
Joseph Slater, "From Death to Rebirth," in Saturday Review (© 1967 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), Vol. L, No. 44, November 4, 1967, p. 36.
Prior to the announcement of the Nobel Prize for Literature for 1966, Nelly Sachs, co-winner with S. Y. Agnon, was largely unknown, especially in this country. Almost nothing of her poetry had appeared in English translation; it was a rare article, whether scholarly or popular, that was devoted to her; and she was seldom referred to in books. Certainly there was no book in English about her. There still is none. In sum, she had virtually no audience here. (p. 356)
[It] was not easy for her to emerge from her general obscurity. She could claim no participation in the revival of a modern Jewish state or in its newly emerging literature. Her language was German, not Hebrew, or what is even more popular with an American audience, Yiddish. Her origins seemed somehow both archaic and anachronistic, in either case hard to sentimentalize; born in Berlin, the old Berlin, she was now living in Stockholm. Most distancing of all, perhaps, was that her art form was not only poetry but lyric poetry, and lyric poetry of an intensely personal, even private, kind—"glowing enigmas" as she herself called a large section of her work. She was not easily or naturally prepared for, but seemed, instead, suddenly to have materialized. What accounted for her?
The answer, of course, centered chiefly in her subject matter. She was a poet, the poet now of reputation, of the Holocaust, or, as she came to name it, of das Leiden Israels, "the sufferings of Israel." The titles of her books, by themselves, indicate her single, overriding concern: In den Wohnungen des Todes ("In the Dwellings of Death," 1947) was published immediately after the war and showed, from the start, that she had undertaken to commemorate the enormity of Jewish suffering in Europe. Her later work, collectively dedicated "to my dead brothers and sisters," continued and extended this same direction…. As these books make clear, Nelly Sachs was devoting her poetry and, with it, her life to remembering and ennobling the tragedy that had overtaken her time and her people. Hers was the most prodigious, the most consistently sustained, effort in poetry to record the Holocaust of European Jewry, and the Nobel Prize Committee, in honoring her, seemed also to be extending solemn honor to the millions who had gone to a silent, uncommemorated death. Through her voice, remarkably never highly impassioned, never outraged, they were given a chance to be heard. (pp. 356-57)
What can be said of [O the Chimneys and The Seekers and Other Poems]? First, one must be initially grateful for their appearance, inasmuch as they do now make available to American readers the work of an important but heretofore neglected poet. Second, although each volume is a collection of selected poems, the two together present almost the entirety of Miss Sach's mature poetry. (p. 358)
Miss Sachs's writings, persistent as they are in their remembrance and interpretation of the tragedy of the Holocaust, accumulate their effects most strongly in large groups of poems. Taken collectively, they comprise a moving body of poetry, but the fact is that in no single poem is Nelly Sachs as powerful as Paul Celan's "Todesfuge," Jacob Glatstein's "Without Jews," "Smoke," or "Not the Dead Praise God," or Aaron Zeitlin's "Ani Maamin." This is not to deny the high value of her poetry, but only to begin to focus on where that value lies—not in any single masterpiece, but in coherent units of work. Miss Sachs was surely conscious of this quality in her poetry, and often, in her books, she took care to place particular poems in specific groupings, designating each of these by a separate title…. In each case, the poems in the sub-sections relate to and reinforce one another, and, in this fashion, they begin to accumulate a total effect of theme, mood, and general poetic value. This interrelatedness is basic to Nelly Sachs's poetry and, probably more than anything else, helps to direct and make meaningful the reader's response to it. To a remarkable degree Nelly Sachs's poetry all tends to move in the direction of a single, large poem, a pained but transcendent kaddish for the dead. This is its pathos, its beauty, its fullest achievement. (pp. 358-59)
I see no chance of Nelly Sachs winning a popular success with the Jewish reading public, or any other reading public, in this country, and essentially for one reason: she asks too much of us.
Nelly Sachs's poetry is a poetry of deep and even fearsome mood, so much so that one can enter into it only at the cost of rather severe detachment from the normal mood of one's daily life. There is a risk involved in reading such poetry, and the risk goes hand in hand with the kind of enrichment which the poetry can provide. A deepening of spirit can be gained only through an open release of spirit, through genuine engagement of the reader's imagination with the imagination...
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