Nelly Sachs Sachs, Nelly (Vol. 98) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

Gertrude Schwebell (essay date 10 December 1966)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 poetry that has now brought her worldwide renown.

She wrote during the night to find herself again, wrote about "The Houses of Death" where her friends were perishing, wrote "Eclipse of Stars," "And No One Knows Where to Go." She wrote in German: her mother tongue was the only home left. Nevertheless, Nelly Sachs studied Swedish, and soon she was translating Swedish poetry into German, perhaps to find a way into the new world that had received her. Here Miss Sachs's sensitive language penetrates the innermost confines "into the mysterious that blurs all boundaries." Her first anthology of Swedish poetry, Welle und Granit ("Wave and Granite"), was published in West Berlin in 1947; Aber auch diese Sonne ist heimatlos ("But Even This Sun Has No Home") followed in 1957. Such books brought well deserved recognition to Swedish poets: Gunnar Ekelöf, Johannes Edfelt, Karl Vennberg, Erik Lindgren, to name only a few. In 1958 Miss Sachs received the Prize of the Swedish Poets' Association.

Neither the first collection of her own verse. In the Houses of Death (In den Wohnungen des Todes), printed in West Berlin in 1946, nor her second volume, Eclipse of Stars (Sternverdunkelung), printed in Amsterdam in 1949, received much attention since there was no communication within Germany in those years. Life was but a bleak struggle for survival. In 1950, Swedish friends had published 200 copies of her Eli: A Miracle Play of the Sufferings of Israel in a private edition. A copy found its way to West Germany, where it was read over the radio station Süddeutscher Rundfunk in the same year. Later Eli was turned into a radio play and became widely known in West Germany.

Nelly Sachs's next two books, Und Niemand weiβ weiter ("And No One Knows Where to Go"), published in 1957, and Flucht und Verwandlung, ("Flight and Metamorphosis"), which came out two years later, brought her deserved acclaim as a lyric poet. Rainer Gruenter writes in a review in Neue Deutsche Hefie, "Her poetic voice descends from Luther down to Trakl, yet is entirely the speech of today. There also is a sisterly echo of the Lamentations of Jeremiah…. Miss Sachs does not have the attitude of Job, who in his misery ascertains the Lord's love in testing him, nor does she feel the security in God that the Prophets have, which rests on their knowing about good and evil, about guilt and punishment…."

Hugo von Hoffmannsthal said that suffering is the only business we shy away from, but suffering is our lot. Nelly Sachs accepts in her poetry the suffering of creatures for nothing but suffering's sake, a conception which raises her beyond conventional morality—with good and evil for touchstones—into the realm of a cosmic trust. "Man," she wrote in Nightwatch, "will always become guilty. Wherefore? Therefore. This is his tragedy on earth. This most terrible question, one of the essential questions of mankind, permeates the whole: why is evil necessary to create the saint, the martyr? No one will ever be able to answer this—Mars and the Moon would rather give up their secrets before this eternal sigh of mankind will find an answer." Miss Sachs is not speaking of revenge and of the wrath of the angry God, nor is she using the word forgiveness. She does not feel that she has to forgive the horrors of our...

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Paul Konrad Kurz (essay date 1967)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Robert L. Kahn (essay date 1968)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Hayden Carruth (review date September 1968)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Times Literary Supplement (review date 21 November 1968)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Ehrhard Bahr (essay date May 1972)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Hamida Bosmajian (essay date Spring 1973)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Dinah Dodds (essay date January 1976)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Lawrence L. Langer (essay date April 1976–77)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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William H. McClain (essay date Autumn 1980)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Burghild O. Holzer (essay date 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Eleonore K. Cervantes (essay date Spring 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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'...

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Elisabeth Strenger (essay date 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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:


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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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...

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