O the Chimneys

by Leonie Sachs

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Themes and Meanings

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By alluding to Job in the poem, Sachs connects the Holocaust to the thorny question of innocent suffering, so scandalous to moral certitude. Her conjuring of natural and cosmic imagery, her parable of smoke and dust and air, suggests that the scandal of the Holocaust can best be comprehended by metaphysical or mystical insight. Such comprehension is not explanation; rather, it is an encounter with the mystery of existence. This encounter occurs at the nexus of flesh and dust, spirit and matter, life and death. Thus, on the verge of extinction, the enduring presence of the Jewish people is revealed.

Sachs herself was a survivor of Nazi Germany, emigrating to Sweden in 1940. Her major work, which established a reputation that eventually led to a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1966, was written during and after World War II. Her body of poetry forms a witness to the Holocaust. This witness, like that of other Holocaust writers, especially Elie Wiesel, is unflinching and resistant to moralizing. The spirit of Job, who affirmed his integrity in the face of doubt and suffering, informs the work of these authors.

Sachs, in addition, demonstrates sympathy with the Jewish mystics, the Kabbalists, who relentlessly pursued tikkun, or the reconciliation of a shattered creation. Her poetic vision unites body and spirit, nature and the cosmos, death and life, in a ceremony of metamorphosis.

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