Special Tributes


First Jewish Woman to Win a Nobel Prize.
Survivor of the Holocaust.
Born December 10, 1891 in Berlin, Germany;
died May 12, 1970.
German poet, Nelly Sachs shared the Nobel prize for literature with S.Y. Agnon in 1966.

One of the major Jewish poets and a refugee who fled from Nazi Germany to Sweden in 1940.

She was the first Jewish woman to win a Nobel prize.

Her best known poetry deals with the Holocaust.

Nelly, (she was called Leone at birth) Sachs was the only child of a
wealthy Berlin industrialist. The family lived in the Tiergartenviertel,
one of Berlin's better neighbourhoods. Because of her family's wealth,
Nelly was educated by private tutors. She studied music and dancing.
Her early love of literature came from home.

By the age of seventeen, Nelly began writing poems in traditional,
rhymed forms. She also wrote plays for puppets that had a fairy-tale
flavour. Although some of her early work appeared in newspapers.
She wrote mainly for her own enjoyment.

In 1921, Nelly Sachs published her first full-length work, a volume
entitled Legenden und Erzaehlungen ( Legends and Stories).
The stories in the book reflected the influence of Christian mysticism
in both the world of German Romanticism and the Catholic Middle Ages.
In the decade before Hitler came to power, Sachs had been renowned
in Germany for her expressionist lyrics. With Hitler's rise, she rediscovered
her Jewish heritage and began searching for mystical ideas in the Zohar
(a mystical interpretation of the Torah written in Aramaic which
she utilized in her poetry.)

Every member of her family, with the exception of her elderly mother was
killed in the concentration camps of the Holocaust.

She, too, might have met such a fate and indeed,
in 1940 Nelly Sachs herself was ordered to a "work camp."

Fortunately, a German friend of Sachs's, at great risk to herself,
journeyed to Sweden and met with the great Swedish poet and
1909 Nobel-prize winner, Selma Lagerlof, then on her deathbed.
Sachs and Lagerlof had corresponded with each other for many
years. In one of Lagerlof's final acts, she made a special appeal
on Sachs's behalf to Prince Eugene of the Swedish Royal House.
Though virtually no Jews were permitted to leave Germany, Prince
Eugene arranged a visa for Nelly Sachs and her mother so that they
could travel to Sweden. Sadly, Selma Lagerlof died before Nelly's
arrival in Stockholm.

Many of Nelly Sachs's works, among them the writings for the puppet
theatre, were lost after her flight to Sweden. Her early work is therefore
largely unknown. Her reputation has been based on her creative output
since the start of World War II. During the war years, ]Nelly Sachs wrote
some of her most impressive poetry. At the center of her poetry is the motif
of flight and pursuit, the symbol of the hunter and his quarry. Her poetry has
been described as ecstatic, mystical and visionary.

She wrote her best known play, Eli, A Mystery of the Sorrows of Israel, in
1943. It was published eight years later. The play is made up of seventeen
loosely connected scenes, which tell the tragic story of an eight year old Polish
shepherd boy. The boy poignantly raises his flute heavenward in anguish when
his parents are taken away and then murdered by a German soldier. A cobbler
named Michael traces the culprit to the next village. Filled with remorse, the soldier
collapses at Michael's feet. The play is interwoven with the themes from the
Jewish legend of the Lamed Vav Zaddikkim ("The 36 hidden Saints").
Nelly Sachs said she wrote Eli, later presented as a radio play and an opera,
"Under the impression of the dreadful experience of the Hitler period
while smoke was still commingled with fire."

Concentrating on the Holocaust, Nelly Sachs combined elements of Jewish
mysticism with tradition of German Romanticism. She tried to convey the
incomprehensible horror of the Holocaust, making constant use of two words:
tod and nacht, German for death and night, respectively.

Although her adult poems were largely composed in free verse, Nelly Sachs
wrote with careful craftsmanship and utilized a German that was influenced by
the language of the Psalms and was full of mystical imagery of Hasidic origin.
"If I could not have written, I could not have survived", she wrote."
"Death was my teacher....my metaphors are my sounds."

Nelly Sachs was almost fifty years old when she reached Sweden. She shared
a two bedroom apartment on the third floor of a building with her mother.
At the outset, living in exile in Sweden, Nelly Sachs made a modest living by
translating Swedish poetry into German. She eventually published several
successful volumes of her translations. Of her own poems, her best known one was
die Schomsteine ("O the Chimneys") with its poignant lines:
O the chimneys, On the cleverly devised abodes of death,
As Israel's body drew, dissolved in smoke, Through the air,
As a chimney-sweep a star received it, Turning black,
Or was it a sunbeam?

In that poem, the body of Israel is in the smoke emitted by the chimneys
of the Nazi concentration camps. In her book In den Wohnungen des Todes
(In the Habitations of Death), dedicated to "my dead brothers and sisters",
Nelly Sachs included cycles entitled: "Prayers for the Dead Fiance,."
"Epitaphs Written On Air," and "Choruses After Midnight."

Sternverdunkelung (1949) contains poetry that expressed an unyielding
faith in the survivability of the people of Israel and the importance of its mission.
Sachs recognized the existence of evil and accepted the tragedy that flows from
that evil. But she did not believe in being vindictive or plotting retaliation against
evildoers. When Sachs was awarded the peace prize from the German Book
Publishers Association in October 1965, she said, "In spite of all the horrors of the
past, I believe in you....Let us remember the victims and then let us walk together into
the future to seek again a new beginning."

Her Spaete Gedichte ( Late Poems) (1965) contained the extended poetic
sequence Gluehende Raestsel, (Glowing Riddles) (1964). Sharing the 1966
Nobel prize for literature with the Israeli novelist and short story writer S.Y. Agnon,
Nelly Sachs noted "Agnon represents the state of Israel. I represent the tragedy
of the Jewish People."

The Nobel prize citation declared:
"With moving intensity of feeling she has given voice to the worldwide
tragedy of the Jewish people, which she has expressed in lyrical laments
of painful beauty and in dramatic legends. Her symbolic language body
combines an inspired modern idiom with echoes of ancient biblical poetry.
Identifying herself totally with the faith and ritual mysticism of her people,
Miss Sachs has created a world of imagery, which does not shun the terrible
truths of the extermination camps and corpse factories, but which at the same
time rises above all hatred of the persecutors, merely revealing a genuine
sorrow at man's debasement".

Explaining her writing, Nelly Sachs said: "I have constantly striven to raise the unutterable
to a transcendental level, in order to make it tolerable, and in this night of nights, to give
some idea of the holy darkness in which the quiver and the sorrow are hidden."

Nelly Sachs's later work examined the relationship of the dead
and the living, the fate of innocence, and the state of suffering.

Nelly Sachs died in 1970 at the age of seventy eight.

© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
All rights reserved.