Sachs, Nelly (Vol. 98)
Nelly Sachs 1891–1970
German poet, playwright, and translator.
The following entry presents criticism of Sachs' writing from 1966 through 1994. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 14.
As a German Jew who narrowly escaped the concentration camps of the Holocaust, Sachs built her body of poetry as a monument to the sufferings of the Jews. Her work is lyrical and often psalm-like, drawing much of its inspiration from both Jewish and Christian mysticism. Death, redemption, and the 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 for Literature in 1966.
Sachs was raised in an upper-class neighborhood of Berlin, Germany, the only child of well-to-do parents, and received a well-rounded education including literature, music, and dance. Little else is known of her life before the age of forty-nine, when she and her widowed mother escaped the Nazis and orders to report to a concentration camp through the intervention of a friend, the Swedish author Selma Lagerlöf, who arranged for their escape to Stockholm in the summer of 1940. By the time the two arrived, Lagerlöf had died, but she had made provisions for their care. Sachs's mother died several years later, leaving Sachs alone in her exile. The terrifying experience of her escape and later, safe in Sweden, the agony of hearing of the deaths of those left behind, consumed Sachs's life thereafter and provoked the writings that she is known for today.
All of Sachs's writing, with the exception of some light-hearted pre-war poems that she later requested remain out of print, can be seen as a struggle for catharsis in the wake of the horrors of the Holocaust. She stated that she felt compelled to write, describing the creation of her first post-Holocaust works, the poetry collection In den Wonungen des Todes (In the Houses of Death) and the verse play Eli, as a brutally painful process which she was powerless to stop. All of her work is concerned with the themes of sin (particularly human brutality), redemption or atonement, and death as a re-lease from the suffering of life. Her poetry is characterized by rich symbolic imagery, often violent and often drawn from the Bible or the Zohar, and concerned with the phenomenon of voicelessness in an individual, an artist, or a people. Many critics identify this preoccupation with silence as stemming from the Nazi interrogation Sachs endured before her escape, during which she became mute, unable to answer questions or defend herself. She described the experience in a prose piece entitled "Living under a Threat" as five days during which she "lived without speech in a witches' trial. My voice fled to the fish. Fled without caring about the remaining limbs fixed in the salt of terror." Sachs's devotion to serving as the voice of those murdered in the Holocaust is rooted in this experience.
Among Sachs's most studied poems is "O die Schornsteine" ("O the Chimneys"), the first piece in In the Houses of Death and a monument to the victims of the Holocaust whose ashes and souls traveled through the chimneys to freedom. Critics have praised the poem for its multilayered symbolism and its emotional impact as Sachs shows readers first the innocuous chimney stacks, then the thresholds beyond which death was certain, and finally the release from suffering demonstrated by the dispersal of "Israel's body in smoke through the air." Also collected in In the Houses of Death are the many "chorus" poems, each of which speaks for a silenced group—the "Chorus of Things Left Behind," "Chorus of Orphans," and "Chorus of Stars," among others. In her second collection, Sternverdunkelung (Eclipse of Stars), Sachs broadened her scope, including some poems that are unrelated to the Holocaust and exploring further the themes of Israel and Jewish history. The first collected edition of her work, entitled Fahrt ins Staublose (Journey into Dustlessness), was published in 1961 on the occasion of her seventieth birthday. Sachs's final collection, published posthumously and entitled Teile dich Nacht, demonstrates the multiple layers of meaning and the themes of terror and helplessness inherent in her body of work.
As awareness of the atrocities of the Holocaust grew over the years, so did interest in Sachs's work. First published in Sweden during her exile and later in post-war Germany, Sachs's work found critical acclaim and sympathy in both countries. Interest in her writings grew in the United States after 1966, the year she shared the Nobel Prize for Literature with S. Y. Agnon. Sachs's poetry has been extensively analyzed, with many critics drawing parallels between Sachs and authors including Franz Kafka and Paul Celan. As a body of work, her writings are considered among the most important interpretive reactions to the Holocaust. A number of critics have remarked that in her poetry Sachs succeeded in "describing the indescribable," although others maintain that the attempt should never be made—that creative works which take the events of the Holocaust as their subject invariably do a disservice to the victims. Rather than criticize her undertaking of the task, however, most critics applaud Sachs's stated purpose: "I will not stop following step by step the path of fire and flame and star of our people and I will bear witness with my poor being."
In den Wohnungen des Todes (poetry) 1946
Sterverdunkelung (poetry) 1949
Eli: Ein Mysterienspiel vom Leiden Israels (play) 1951
Und niemand weiss weiter (poetry) 1957
Flucht und Verwandlung (poetry) 1959
Fahrt ins Staublose: Die Gedichte der Nelly Sachs (poetry) 1961
Ausgewählte Gedichte (poetry) 1963
Glühende Rätsel (poetry) 1964
O the Chimneys: Selected Poems, Including the Verse Play, Eli (poetry) 1967
The Seeker and Other Poems (poetry) 1970
Teile dich Nacht (poetry) 1971
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SOURCE: "Nelly Sachs," in Saturday Review, Vol. XLIX, December 10, 1966, pp. 46-7.
[Schwebell is an author and translator. In the following essay, she traces Sachs' poetry career from its beginnings in Sweden, noting the gradual growth of her popularity in Sweden and Germany and its culmination in the Nobel Prize for Literature.]
"Let us walk together into the future to seek again and again a new beginning; let us try to find the good dream that wants be realized in our hearts." This is Nelly Sachs, who just received the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Born in 1891, the only child of a well-to-do manufacturer, she grew up in the Tiergartenviertel, the most distinguished neighborhood of Berlin. She studied music and dancing and, at the age of seventeen, started to write poetry—pretty, highly polished verse in the traditional manner. In accordance with her wish, this poetry was not included in her collected work.
With the Nazi rise to power, Nelly Sachs's world collapsed, but she stayed on in Berlin until 1940, when she and her ailing mother were taken to Sweden, where, acting on the request of Selma Lagerlöf, Prince Eugene of Sweden had interceded on her behalf. They arrived in Stockholm, shaken and afraid, for Selma Lagerlöf had died. However, a friend of the novelist welcomed the fugitives. By then almost fifty years old, Nelly Sachs started to write the sweeping...
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SOURCE: "Journey into Dustlessness: The Lyrics of Nelly Sachs," in his On Modern German Literature, University of Alabama Press, 1967, pp. 194-215.
[In the following essay, Kurz presents a deep analysis of Sachs's poetry, concentrating on her use of biblical imagery and of symbols including the butterfly.]
Klaus Nonnenmann does not even mention Nelly Sachs in his Schriftsteller der Gegenwart ("Present-Day Writers"). The Kleines Lexikon der Weltliteratur ("Small Lexicon of World Literature") allots her only a third as much space as has been allotted the biography of Ingeborg Bachmann. Michael Landmann, a Berlin professor of philosophy closely connected with the ivory tower of Stefan George's former circle of disciples [the Georgekreis], complained in 1963: "Even today, fashionable abuse allows poems to be written—not certainly for the sake of musicality, but rather from extreme aversion to what can be rationally comprehended—which, like those of Nelly Sachs or Perse, either say disturbingly little—are little more than emoted printer's ink—or else remain so inaccessible to even the most genuine attempt to understand them, that one longs for a return to banal clarity." Hans Magnus Enzensberger, who trumpeted his Landessprache ("Vernacular") angrily across the land, knew her as early as 1961, when he wrote: "In the center of Stockholm … between the neat Paalsundpark and...
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SOURCE: "Nelly Sachs: A Characterization," in Dimension, Vol. 1, No. 2, 1968, pp. 377-81.
[In the following essay, Kahn explores Sachs's unique place among modern poets.]
In its treatment of recent poetry literary history likes to employ the term "modern" to emphasize the deep gulf that separates the old and the new trends in the development of the genre. Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, T. S. Eliot, Garcia Lorca are "modern" poets, whereas Goethe and the Romantics belong to the old tradition.
Nelly Sachs, who was born in Berlin in 1891 and is now living in Stockholm, in many ways is a "modern" poet. She, too, is lonely and fearful in an apparently empty and chaotic world; she, too, in her work destroys reality and the logical and effective order of normal existence; she, too, increasingly breaks down the form of her poem, and operates instead with the irrational force of the word; she, too, relies on suggestiveness rather than rationality; she, too, communicates—if at all—by evocation rather than by precise meaning; she, too, is conscious of living at a time of civilization which is approaching its end.
But in contrast to Gottfried Benn, for instance, her work is emotional and inspirational in character; in contrast to Georg Trakl her views are founded on humanistic values; in contrast to Karl Krolow her imagination is nonintellectual; in contrast to Rainer Maria...
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SOURCE: A review of O the Chimneys, in Poetry, Vol. CXII, No. 6, September, 1968, pp. 418-19.
[In the following excerpt from a review of several authors' work, Carruth describes O the Chimneys as deeply moving, and notes the influence of the Nobel Prize in bringing Sachs's work to the attention of English-speaking readers.]
I shall begin with the translations among the books assigned me, because in the whole range of my assignment, the book that has moved me most deeply, without any doubt, is O the Chimneys, by Nelly Sachs; a good and generous selection of poems from all her books, translated by various hands. With poetry like this we are hesitant to say whether our response is primarily to the generalized emotional context or to the particular qualities of the poems themselves; but does it matter? Not, at any rate, as much as we once thought. Nelly Sachs fled from Germany to Sweden in 1940, taking with her nothing but her heart and her language; meager tools with which to confront the murder of her people; yet bravely and bitterly she did it. Using the merest rudimentary poetic tokens—the butterfly and the chrysalis, sun, stone, smoke, wind, the ideas of dust and distance—she worked ever more deeply into her feelings, in short compressed poems; until finally, from beginnings perhaps not promising, great poems emerged. Naturally she took what help she could from whatever sources...
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SOURCE: A review of Selected Poems, in Times Literary Supplement, Vol. 67, No. 3482, November 21, 1968, p. 1304.
[In the following review, the critic praises Selected Poems in spite of some "signs of hurry" evident in the translation of the poems from German to English.]
Nelly Sachs was almost unknown to English-speaking readers until she won the 1966 Nobel Prize for Literature. Younger Germans had discovered her poems only a few years before …, and even then such transcendental treatment of suffering and violence, specifically genocide, must have seemed, to many, a lofty irrelevance. With the award of the Nobel Prize, Nelly Sachs has been rushed into English: Christopher Holme's version of her play Eli was sent for, Michael Hamburger was commissioned to translate poems, Ruth and Matthew Mead contributed their share, as did Michael Roloff (who had made the capture).
The translations do show some signs of hurry. These are highly volatile and precarious poems, in which the German words may carry seven shades of meaning to every three carried by their English counterparts. It is also, in many respects, an esoteric poetry which relies heavily on metaphor, yet the metaphors seldom allow strong visualization (which is likely to vex English readers). Perhaps the translations might have been no better even if the haste had been more decent:
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SOURCE: "Shoemaking as a Mystic Symbol in Nelly Sachs's Mystery Play Eli," in German Quarterly, Vol. XLV, No. 3, May, 1972, pp. 480-83.
[In the following essay, Bahr explains the elements of Jewish mysticism in Eli.]
Nelly Sachs' Eli: Ein Mysterienspiel vom Leiden Israels, one of her Szenische Dichtungen, as she has called her verse plays, has received much attention by the critics. Nevertheless, some important features of the play, such as the figure of the protagonist Michael, the motif of his trade as a shoemaker, and the central image of the joining of the upper leather to the sole of a shoe, have so far remained unexplained. This omission may be due to the fact that any meaningful interpretation of Nelly Sachs' lyric and scenic poetry cannot ignore certain basic concepts of Jewish mysticism (Kabbalism and Hasidism), especially with reference to religious promise and fulfilment. Analyzed in the light of these concepts, some of the problematical symbolism of Eli emerges in clearly understandable form.
Nelly Sachs' mystery play concerns the murder of Eli, an eight-year-old boy, a God child, as indicated by the Hebrew name. The action takes place in a small town in Poland, the home of Hasidism, "the latest phase of Jewish mysticism," as Gershom Scholem has called it. The time of the play is defined symbolically rather than historically, as the period "Nach...
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SOURCE: "'Landschaft aus Schreien': the Shackled Leaps of Nelly Sachs," in Bucknell Review, Vol. XXI, No. 1, Spring, 1973, pp. 43-62.
[In the following essay, Bosmajian presents a deep analysis of "Landschaft aus Schreien," emphasizing Sachs's use of imagery and symbolism.]
Nelly Sachs's poems disprove and confirm Theodor Adorno's statement that "after Auschwitz we cannot write poetry." The conjunction of Auschwitz and poetry seems an obscenity, for what has the cruel reality of the camp to do with lyricism?
The poems of Nelly Sachs do not reproduce that reality with documentary exactness; they fail to reveal the essence of evil. This failing is not new, for the makers of verbal universes have always revealed little about the essences with which they have concerned themselves. Dante envisioned the essence of evil as a corporeal and grotesque image of a trinity immobilized in the icy pit of hell, and he could do no more than humbly sing the praises of the eternal moving light of goodness. Nelly Sachs knows that evil is real and manifests itself in millions of grotesque examples which in aggregation reach cosmic if not metaphysical dimensions. Again and again her poems come to a point of demonic epiphany beyond which beckons the glimmer of a very uncertain hope. This is the case in Zahlen ("Numbers") where she describes the future of the numbers that were branded into the arms of the...
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SOURCE: "The Process of Renewal in Nelly Sachs' Eli," in German Quarterly, Vol. XLIX, No. 1, January, 1976, pp. 50-8.
[In the following essay, Dodds examines Eli as a work representative of the influence of Hasidism on Sachs's writing. The piece includes a concise explanation of Hasidism and its place within Judaism.]
In 1940 Nelly Sachs fled Germany for Sweden, leaving behind her the country of her German-Jewish heritage. The war years 1943 and 1944 saw the composition of the verse drama Eli and of many poems, which appeared in 1946 as In den Wohnungen des Todes. Here almost her sole poetic theme was death…. This preoccupation with the images of war manifests itself in Eli and in the poems of In den Wohnungen des Todes. The same tone, the same metaphors and symbols permeate both works. In the poems of the volume Sternverdunklung, published in 1949, death continues to be the prominent theme.
Nelly Sachs' work transcends, however, this brief period of history. Having been uprooted from her native tradition, she sought to reestablish ties with a much older tradition, with that found in Hasidism. For her, the years 1939–1945 were not linear history but rather constituted one revolution of a repeating cycle. In addition, they became part of a myth which, although resting on the basis of Hasidism, represented her own attempts to come to...
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SOURCE: "Nelly Sachs," in Colloquia Germanica, Vol. 10, April, 1976–77, pp. 316-25.
[In the following essay, Langer discusses Sachs's treatment of divine and human justice in her writings.]
One of the last poems Nelly Sachs wrote before her death is called "Teile dich Nacht" (the name also given to her last volume of poems by its editor). Her first collection of verse was called In den Wohnungen des Todes. It should come as no surprise to us that the two words used most often in her poems, according to the count of a diligent scholar, are "Tod" and "Nacht". For in the twentieth century, we have lived in the habitations of death as no previous generation has been compelled to, and no matter how we "divide" night in our search for greater light, we only seem to encounter the memory of more corpses. "Death" and "night" are not merely metaphors for Nelly Sachs, they literally describe the reality of her experience, the history of her time—and ours. They define the terrain which the imagination must cross in its search for a vision to restore to men a sense of justice and a justification for human life. For without that sense, how can men tolerate their pain, or endure their existence? Night and death are powerful masters that challenge the poet to find counter images to resist their dominion. We survive the threat of annihilation only by "seeing", and the poet's images are indispensable beacons...
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SOURCE: "The Imaging of Transformation in Nelly Sachs's Holocaust Poems," in Hebrew University Studies in Literature, Vol. 8, No. 2, Autumn, 1980, pp. 281-300.
[In the following essay, McClain examines the "images of transformation" in Sachs's Holocaust poems, and discusses poems which provide insight into the personal losses the Holocaust imposed on her.]
One of Nelly Sachs's most revealing comments about her writing is her statement in an early letter to her friend Walter Berendsohn that her aim as a poet was "… die Verwandlung der Materie in das uns jenseitig Verborgene" ("the transmutation of the material into that which is hidden from us in the beyond"). One of the ways in which she sought to realize this aim technically was to transpose into various images of transformation her intuitions of the connections between the visible world and an invisible higher reality. She created several of these images for the holocaust poems and dramas which she wrote during her first exile-years in Sweden. Because she employed them again and again in modified form in later poetic works, however, they gradually became fundamental modes of expression in her poetic vocabulary, as several scholars have pointed out. In this paper I have attempted to show how in the poems for which they were initially created these images fulfill not only a representational function but also function in a subtle way as rhetorical...
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SOURCE: "Concrete (Literal) versus Abstract (Figurative) Translations in Nelly Sachs's Poetry," in Translation Review, No. 18, 1985, pp. 26-9.
[In the following excerpt from her dissertation entitled "Nelly Sachs and Kabbala," Holzer discusses the problem of conveying in other languages the multiple meanings created in Sachs's highly symbolic poetry.]
During the process of translating [Nelly Sachs's] Teile Dich Nacht, I frequently came across individual words that seemed of key importance within a poem but resisted translation. Upon closer inspection of such an obstacle, I would often find that the word functioned both on a literal and a figurative level, and that the English language forced me to make a choice between the two. In German both possibilities would clearly echo within the context of the poem, but in English I would lose that echo. I would then try to comb the poem for clues that would support either a literal or a more figurative translation of the word, but would find myself unable to determine either. During this search, however, I would become extremely sensitive to all the nuances between these concrete and abstract poles. I finally decided that this was precisely the "function" of such a word—to echo between these two poles. However, this function can rarely be translated. While in the German original the concrete and the abstract echo within the same word, in English they are...
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SOURCE: "A Woman's View of the Holocaust: The Poetry of Nelly Sachs," in Rendezvous, Vol. XXI, No. 2, Spring, 1986, pp. 47-50.
[In the following essay, Cervantes discusses Sachs's role as the "voice of the silenced victims" of the Holocaust.]
In her exhaustive study, Accounting for Genocide, Helen Fein takes note of the historical fact underlying her social history: Two thirds of European Jews alive in 1930—in the territories later to experience the dominance of Nazi terror—had been killed by 1945. And the majority of the victims were women and children. All of poet Nelly Sachs' published oeuvre is indelibly marked by the nightmarish experience of the Nazis' extermination policies and practices against Jewish people, what we have come to know as the Holocaust. Earlier in the twentieth century Jewish writers, such as Franz Kafka, had turned visionary nightmares into masterful prose. In the 1940's, when Sachs began writing about her people's fate, the nightmare had become a physical reality that the Jewish writer could no longer ignore and had to grapple with for understanding.
Sachs' point of view is that of the victim facing her end in the isolation of "l'univers concentrationnaire." Though she herself managed to escape to the Swedish exile of her later life in 1940, she had previously experienced the welling up of terror during a Nazi interrogation. It is this intense fear,...
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SOURCE: "Nelly Sachs and the Dance of Language," in Bridging the Abyss: Reflections on Jewish Suffering, Anti-Semitism, and Exile, edited by Strenger and Amy Colin, Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1994, pp. 225-36.
[In the following essay, Strenger examines Sachs's use of the body as a symbol in her work.]
The Hasidic tales collected by Martin Buber constituted part of Nelly Sachs's initial significant intellectual and poetic contact with Jewish culture. The following anecdote, entitled "Silence and Speech," evokes the historical reasons Sachs had for maintaining the struggle for her poetic voice, at first as the memorializer, then as the singer, of her people:
A man had taken upon himself the discipline of silence and for three years had spoken no words save those of the Torah and of prayer. Finally the Yehudi sent for him. "Young man," he said, "how is it that I do not see a single word of yours in the world of truth?" "Rabbi," said the other to justify himself, "why should I indulge in the vanity of speech? Is it not better just to learn and to pray?" "If you do that," said the Yehudi, "not a word of your own reaches the world of truth. He who only learns and prays is murdering the word of his own soul …"
In her own poetry, Nelly Sachs locates the poetic voice in the throat, die Kehle, at times, more specifically—the...
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Blomster, W. V. "A Theosophy of the Creative Word: The Zohar-Cycle of Nelly Sachs." Germanic Review XLIV (1969): 221-27.
Presents an investigation of Sachs's concern with the word of God in her poetry, particularly the poems of the Zohar cycle.
Bosmajiam, Hamida. "Towards the Point of Constriction: Nelly Sachs's "Landschaft aus Schreien" and Paul Celan's "Engführung." In his Metaphors of Evil: Contemporary German Literature and the Shadow of Nazism, pp. 183-228. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1979.
Compares "Landschaft aus Schreien" and "Engführung," describing them as "hermetic poems forged by the imagination of two survivors who internalized the chaos of history and struggled with it until their deaths in 1970."
Foot, Robert. The Phenomenon of Speechlessness in the Poetry of Marie Luise Kaschnitz, Günter Eich, Nelly Sachs and Paul Celan. Bonn: Bouvier Verlag Herbert Grundmann, 1982, 415 p.
Examines the phenomenon of "Verstummen," or speechlessness, in twentieth-century poetry, a condition brought on by the poet's lack of faith in his abilities and subsequent "attitude of self-defeat," and provoked in Sachs' work by her difficulty verbalising both "the unspeakable cruelty of the human world" and...
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