Nelly Sachs Biography


(History of the World: The 20th 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.

Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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...

(The entire section is 2141 words.)