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."