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Sachs, Nelly 1891–1970

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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.)

Stephen Spender

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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)

One is scarcely aware, though, of the poet's sensibility as part of the contemporary literary scene. Her poetry is not at all about poetry, still less about the poet. It is, rather, a mouthpiece, the voice of her people, and has a personality only in that it so powerfully and exceptionally represents suffering. And the answer to the suffering is to see it in the light of the history of the Jews as the religious life.

In saying that Nelly Sachs creates religious apocalyptic hymns rather than "modern poetry," I don't mean either to denigrate that other poetry, or to suggest that she does not bring to her almost impersonal suffering great literary gifts, even ones from which literary poets might learn. She has great power and intelligence in exploiting certain aspects of real experience as symbols of metamorphosis. The smoke of the chimneys of the furnaces in which the Jews were burned by the Nazis becomes associated with dust, and dust with the dust on butterflies' wings, and with the sands of the desert….

Nor is this poetry without a background in other literature, especially in Jewish mysticism….

Sometimes indeed she reminds one faintly of contemporaries, especially in the play "Eli," which is a lyric rhapsody of voices of people in a Polish village "after the martyrdom," curiously similar to Dylan Thomas's "Under Milk Wood." Yet Thomas seems fanciful, imaginative, sympathetic; with Nelly Sachs these voices seem torn out of her. The mood is so different that the parallel with Thomas seems coincidental.

One can only enjoin the reader to read this book, because it teaches one to know what of all things in modern history we ought to know about—the nightmare and the rebirth…. Nelly Sachs being a poet of immensely powerful imagination conveys this suffering on another level of thought and experience identification. It is something that everyone capable of reading poetry should understand. (p. 34)

Stephen Spender, "Catastrophe and Redemption," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1967 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 8, 1967, pp. 5, 34.

Joseph Slater

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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.

Alvin H. Rosenfeld

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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 of the poet. And Nelly Sachs's imagination, molded to such a great extent by her extreme empathy with the Jewish catastrophe in Europe, is often not far removed from silence and from the madness that waits within, and on the other side of, silence…. It is a poetry intimately familiar with despair—as it had to be, given its special task—and much of it records the torment and "lucid madness" that were both the accompanying pain and the possible victory of the poet's perceptions. (pp. 361-62)

"What now?" So many of Nelly Sachs's poems raise the question, and although various replies are given—ranging from rebirth in Israel, to silence, to madness, to death itself—the question finally remains unanswered…. Her poetry involves a continuous seeking-without-finding, a "wild craving after home" with the knowledge that, after Auschwitz, the world is homeless…. (p. 363)

"What now?" As one reads steadily in Nelly Sachs's poetry, one is beaten down by the persistence of that question, by the sheer tenaciousness of spirit that brought the poet to raise it again and again. She paid a high price for remaining faithful to this huge historic uncertainty which her terrible age foisted upon her and from which she refused any false release. The severe dislocations from normalcy, from common orientations to time and space, that characterize her poetry are part of this price. It is a poetry carved out of pain, a series of "dreams" evolved "out of wounds," as she again describes it in one of her late poems. Time, in her world, is Herzenszeit, and the heart, opened by a wound that will not close, counts off time by the heavy strokes of suffering and longing. Space is likewise abstracted from any framework of recognizable place and becomes, instead, Schmerzenländer ("lands of pain") and Schweigen … ein neues Land ("silence … a new land"). Life in this landscape of abstract and fragile dimensions is itself highly abstract and fragile, and is constituted principally of ephemeral and fading things: shadows, breath, trembling winds and nearly extinguished lights, an occasional sunbeam, sand and dust. There is not much permanence in such a world and certainly little comfort, yet it is an authentic world and honestly reflective of Nelly Sachs's experience. An exile herself, searching but never finding a true return to home, she finally lived a poet's existence in the sheer "language of breath." A finely articulated language of suffering, of all our suffering, became her home and her important legacy to us. I doubt that many will want to join her there. (pp. 363-64)

Alvin H. Rosenfeld, "The Poetry of Nelly Sachs," in Judaism (copyright © 1971 by the American Jewish Congress), Vol. 20, No. 3, Summer, 1971, pp. 356-64.

[The posthumous volume] Teile dich Nacht (the phrase comes … from one of Nelly Sachs's poems) is divided into four sections: the first contains poems written between 1962 and 1967, related for the most part to Glühende Rätsel; the second and third the beginnings of a new cycle which develops further the imagery and linguistic resources that went to the making of Glühende Rätsel; the fourth poems written in 1969, the last year of the author's life. Variants and fragments are not reprinted—these await the full critical edition which will surely become necessary in the near future.

Nelly Sachs conducts her "search for the living" out of a constant awareness of death and a possible spiritual attrition that is worse than death. The beloved, a "Du" addressed in many of these poems, has gone before into darkness, murdered by those who have killed humanity within themselves; reality and memory are filled with the presence of silent victims, human and animal, the hunted and their hunters. The "I" that addresses us or communes with itself speaks out of a physical sickness and weakness that threaten, constantly, to extinguish the envisioning spirit, close the eye that sees, silence the voice that still makes itself heard. Behind and within such awareness is the most terrible memory of all: that of a time in which the poet had been literally struck dumb by shock and suffering, had undergone an agony akin to death, mute as a fish. As omnipresent as the theme of death is that of homelessness: the feeling of being exiled from the country whose language is the poet's mother-tongue, of searching for communion among a people of alien speech.

It is not difficult to see what historical realities are reflected in these solemn poems, what persecutions and murders and drivings-out, what racial, national, ideological intolerance. Nelly Sachs offers her readers no easy consolation; she does not prettify or seek—as another German poet has so memorably said—to decorate the slaughterhouse with geraniums. The slaughterhouse is there, constantly present as immediate experience and indelible recollection. Yet terror and the experience of inhumanity are transmuted, through Nelly Sachs's characteristic alchemy, into fellow-feeling for all that lives; homelessness is transformed into a sympathetic "openness" which transcends limits and frontiers; alienation becomes a sense of nearness to other beings that feel strange and lost; hatred and bitterness are swallowed up in reverence and love.

These are not easy victories, and the poems that communicate them are not easy poems. Their rhythms are occasionally jagged and tortured, their leaps from image to image abrupt. They end, almost all of them, on the syntactical sign "—", the dash of aposiopesis, incompletion, receptiveness; they stand by themselves yet need also to be sustained and supplemented by each other, as men do. They are knit together by a recurrent imagery which looks back to a long poetic tradition yet grows in personal significance from poem to poem: sand and desert, the butterfly, the dumbly suffering fish, the circulating blood, the rolling planets; the figures of Deborah, Job, the Hebrew prophets; Leonardo da Vinci looking for a colour blacker than black to render the blackness of darkness; the mad, the sick and the old, the hunters and their victims. They are knit together, above all, by the need not to minimize the suffering of which the world is so full and yet to give that suffering a positive significance—so that one poet's transmutation of her pain and loss may increase the sum of humanity and understanding in the world to which she belongs….

Loving openness to the unknown in the midst of pain and suffering: that is the keynote of Nelly Sachs's last poems. Here the urban, the intimately domestic, encounter the cosmic; personal concerns blend with the great searchings of mankind; the teachings of Jewish sages coexist easily with Christian symbolism and Germanic fairy-tale; what is still sayable merges into what can only be hinted at. Mystery and reality are conveyed together, through anaphora and aposiopesis; through a grave, sweet word-music that never becomes an empty swell but is caught up in short, spare lines in which the rhythm, the sound, the denotation and the connotation of each word receive their full weight. Nelly Sachs's voice is unmistakable in every one of her poems…. It is the voice of a major poet whose reputation this posthumous volume can only enhance and sustain. (p. 1265)

"Exile, Silence and Death," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1971; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3633, October 15, 1971, pp. 1265-66.

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