[This page by Florian Strob]

Nelly Sachs (1891-1970)

Nelly Sachs was regarded by many of her contemporaries and above all by many German-language writers of the time (Celan, Bachmann, Enzensberger etc.) as one of the most significant poetic voices of the 20th century. In 1966 she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature – the first female German writer to be so and still the only German poet. Her German awards in particular, however, gave rise to misreadings of her work, and to the political exploitation of her ‘symbolic biography’ as a survivor of the Shoah and German writing poet after 1945. Her work remains a unique attempt at bringing history and literature to bear on one another after the Shoah.

Berlin, 1891-1940

Nelly Sachs was born in Berlin in 1891. The only child of rich assimilated Jews, Sachs lived a sheltered and lonely life throughout her childhood. Although her parents were Jews they were not religious. They rather thought of themselves as being primarily German. German Romanticism and classical German literature were intellectual influences on Sachs during her childhood, but not the Jewish religion. This is quite remarkable for a writer who was later in her life to be known as ‘die Dichterin jüdischen Schicksals’, the poetess of Jewish fate.

Right after completing school in 1908, she suffered from a first psychological crisis (due to an unfulfilled love for an older, and possibly married man). Her psychiatrist encouraged Sachs in her writing, which she started during her school years. The unknown lover and writing as a way of living with pain and suffering will remain key aspects in her later works from the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Books by the German Romantics and works on mysticism, which she found in her father’s library, as well as dance and music are further elements of her early life and works to be continued later on.

Until her father’s death in 1930 Sachs led an upper-class life. She had a circle of female friends, with whom she discussed poetry and attended seminars on German literature (particularly of the Romantic period). But she never took part in the intellectual or avant-garde movements of 1920s Berlin, nor did she obtain any university degree. Selma Lagerlöf, Hermann Hesse and Rainer Maria Rilke were contemporary writers she read and admired.

Her first book, Legenden und Erzählungen; Legends and Stories was published in Berlin in 1921 by a very small publisher. All critics of the last thirty years agree on it being a rather conventional, romantic and epigonic piece of literature. Chelion, Sachs’ mawkish story of a childhood written in the 1930s, has never been published, though read in public.

After the death of her father she stayed with her mother and took care of the household and the business matters of her family. Besides her collection of stories from 1921 she could only publish several poems in Jewish newspapers and magazines after 1933. Hence, the Nazis took her identity as a German writer and made her Jewish instead. In 1940, after seven years of terror and fear, Sachs and her mother fled to Sweden. Soon Sachs would hear about the concentration camps, about the murders and the suffering of the Jewish people.

Stockholm, 1940-1970

Immediately after her flight to Stockholm Sachs started to translate Swedish poetry and prose. It was through her translations of Swedish modernist writers that she really got to know the European avant-garde movements. She subsequently changed her style of writing fundamentally and found her own, truly unique voice. Her 1940s poems and the play Eli, all predominantly dealing with the Shoah, remain her best-known body of work until today.

Only in 1950, after the death of her beloved mother, did Sachs begin to write prose texts again, mainly notes but also some essayistic works and speeches for several award ceremonies. Sachs intended to publish her notes written in the early 1950s as Briefe aus der Nacht; Letters from the Night, yet never pursued this idea to its end, because it was also in the first half of the 1950s that she turned her attention from the suffering of the Jewish people to suffering beings in general. Her personal notes would have stood against this new universal approach.

Leben unter Bedrohung; Life under Threat, the fragmented account of Sachs’ seven years in Nazi Germany, and her Frankfurt speech from 1965 are the two most interesting and fascinating of the few prose texts which she published herself. While Life under Threat focuses on her life in Nazi Germany and Letters from the Night on her mother’s death, suffering and death in general, Sachs’ later notes, especially those from the 1960s, deal predominantly with her mental health issues. Sachs suffered from severe paranoia and had to live in a psychiatric institution near Stockholm from 1960 to 1963. Although she had to endure strenuous treatment, for example electric shock therapy, she was able to work very productively.

Sachs’ thematic development from the suffering of the Jewish people to suffering beings in general led to the short and dense poetry of the 1960s, especially Glühende Rätsel; Glowing Enigmas, Die Suchende; She Is Searching and the posthumously published volume Teile dich Nacht; Divide Yourself, Night. In their shortness, density and radical darkness of images the poems of Glowing Enigmas (1962-1966) show a tendency to silence. Although her 1960s poetry is surely her best body of work and could be described as an essential achievement in 20th century German-language poetry, Sachs received her awards mainly for her 1940s writings.

Her work does generally not comply with the common categorisation of 20th-century German-language literature. It was in her early years in Sweden when Sachs decided to never publish her early Berlin works again or let anybody else publish them. It was obvious and crucial for Sachs that her flight and the Shoah marked her birth as a writer. Thus, she officially made her literary debut aged 59. While the works she wrote in Berlin could be called pre-modern or neo-romantic, her 1940s work can be seen as the last chapter of German modernism (as suggested by her fellow poet, friend and heir Hans Magnus Enzensberger in his famous anthology Museum of Modern Poetry). However, from 1950 onwards, she produced rather postmodern texts; postmodernism understood primarily as a response to the Holocaust, among other things concerned with the limits of discourse and the metaphysics of comprehension (see Robert Eaglestone, reading list below). Death, she said, was her teacher, and her texts are, consequently, deeply radical, belonging to the darkest works ever written in German. After 1945, night is the constant state of the world according to Sachs.

Sachs’ plays are a major, but neglected part of her work. During the 50s and 60s, Sachs developed her very own drama theory and called it ‘Totaltheater’, a ‘total theatre’ incorporating mime, music and dance. (Which possibly brings her close to Beckett, with whom she saw herself poetically affiliated.) While her poems ‘just happened’ to her, as Sachs often said, the plays seemed to be the ‘real work’ for her. It is all the more astonishing that only very few of her plays have ever been staged.

German politicians and officials exploited Sachs and her work for their compensation politics, e.g. by awarding her the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade. However, even the Nobel Prize and the Peace Prize could not prevent that, after her death in 1970, Sachs would soon be forgotten. The problematic reception of Sachs’ work has often been criticized, but only recently have there been notable attempts to reassess her poetry and plays. A new annotated edition of her complete works published in 2010-2011 will lead to further academic and general re-evaluation, as will the major touring exhibition on Sachs in 2010-2012 and its accompanying monograph by Aris Fioretos (see below).

Her poems have been widely translated into many languages, e.g. into English by Michael Hamburger and others.

Collections and Cycles of Poems include:

In den Wohnungen des Todes (1947); In the Habitations of Death

Sternverdunkelung (1949); Astral Eclipse

Und niemand weiß weiter (1957); And No One Knows How to Go On

Flucht und Verwandlung (1959); Flight and Metamorphosis

Fahrt ins Staublose (1960); Journey into a Dustless Realm

Noch feiert Tod das Leben (1961); Death Still Celebrates Life

Glühende Rätsel I-IV (1962-1966); Glowing Enigmas I-IV

Die Suchende (1966); She is Searching

Teile dich Nacht (posthumously); Divide Yourself, Night

Plays include:

Eli (1951)

Abram im Salz (1962); Abraham in Salt

Nachtwache (1962); Night Watch

Simson fällt durch Jahrtausende (1962); Samson Falling through Millennia

Der magische Tänzer (1959); The Magic Dancer

Beryll sieht in der Nacht (1962); Beryll Sees in the Night

Prose works include:

Briefe aus der Nacht (1950-1959); Letters from the Night

Leben unter Bedrohung (1955); Life under Threat

Rede anlässlich der Verleihung des Friedenspreises des Deutschen Buchhandels (1965); Frankfurt Speech

Correspondences include:

Briefe der Nelly Sachs (1984); Letters of Nelly Sachs (selection)

Paul Celan/Nelly Sachs: Briefwechsel (1993); Correspondence

English Translation

Nelly Sachs, Collected Poems 1944-1949. Vol. 1; trans. by Michael Hamburger and Ruth Mead (Copenhagen and Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2011)

Further Reading in English

Kathrin M. Bower, Ethics and remembrance in the poetics of Nelly Sachs and Rose Ausländer (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2000)

Robert Eaglestone, The Holocaust and the postmodern (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004)

Aris Fioretos, Nelly Sachs, Flight and Metamorphosis; An illustrated biography, trans. by Tomas Tranaeus (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012)

Jennifer Hoyer, “The Space of Words”: Exile and Diaspora in the Works of Nelly Sachs (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2013)

Charlie Louth, 'Death the teacher' (Times Literary Supplement, 7th October 2011)

Elaine Martin, Nelly Sachs. The Poetics of Silence and the Limits of Representation (New York: de Gruyter, 2011)

Nelly Sachs, O the chimneys; selected poems including the verse play Eli; trans. by Michael Hamburger et al. (Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1968)

Further Reading in French

Laurent Cassagnau, Utopie et dialogue dans la poésie de Nelly Sachs (Bern et al.: Peter Lang, 1993)

Further Reading in German

Ruth Dinesen, Nelly Sachs; Eine Biographie, trans. by Gabriele Gerecke (Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 1994)

Ruth Dinesen, „Und Leben hat immer wie Abschied geschmeckt“. Frühe Gedichte und Prosa der Nelly Sachs (Stuttgart: Heinz, 1987)

Gabriele Fritsch-Vivié, Nelly Sachs. Mit Selbstzeugnissen und Bilddokumenten (Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 2001)

Bengt Holmqvist, Die Sprache der Sehnsucht, in Das Buch der Nelly Sachs, ed. by Bengt Holmqvist, pp. 9-70 (Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 1977)

Christine Rospert, Poetik einer Sprache der Toten; Studien zum Schreiben von Nelly Sachs (Bielefeld: Transcript, 2004)

Nelly Sachs, Werke. Kommentierte Ausgabe in vier Bänden, ed. by Aris Fioretos (Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2010-11)

Web Links

Nobel Prize citation for Nelly Sachs (1966)

Website for the travelling Nelly Sachs exhibition (March 2010-January 2012)