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Nelly Sachs

SACHS, NELLY (Leonie; 1891–1970), German poet and Nobel Prize winner. The daughter of a Berlin industrialist, Nelly Sachs grew up in an artistic home where she early imbibed a love of literature. At 17 she began writing neoromantic poetry in traditional, rhymed forms and puppet plays with a fairytale flavor. Her first work, Legenden und Erzaehlungen (1921), reflected a Christian intellectual world tinged with mysticism. The poet was then rooted in the world of German Romanticism, the Catholic Middle Ages, and the mysticism of Jacob Boehme. After 1933, when Nelly Sachs, like so many other assimilated German Jews, discovered her Jewish heritage, she found ideas akin to Boehme's in the Zohar. Her early work remained largely unknown, and she refused to allow it to be republished. Her reputation is largely based on her output after the end of World War II. In 1940 Nelly Sachs emigrated to Sweden through the good offices of the writer Selma Lagerlöf and the Swedish royal family. At first she made a modest living in Stockholm by translating Swedish poetry into German, but eventually published several successful volumes of her translations.

Throughout the war years, however, Nelly Sachs wrote some of the poetry that was to bring her fame. The motif of flight and pursuit, the symbol of the hunter and his quarry, are at the center of her poetic thought. Her poetry is ecstatic, mystical, and visionary. It is also very much in the German romantic tradition and, as such, has been criticized by some as disingenuous and incompatible with her subject matter. Although her poems were mostly composed in free verse, she wrote with careful craftsmanship, using an exquisite German flavored with the Psalms and filled with mystical imagery of Ḥasidic origin. "If I could not have written, I could not have survived," Nelly Sachs wrote. "Death was my teacher… my metaphors are my sounds." In den Wohnungen des Todes (1946), dedicated "to my dead brothers and sisters," includes cycles titled "Prayers for the Dead Fiancé," "Epitaphs Written On Air," and "Choruses After Midnight." Sternverdunkelung (1949) contains poems expressing unquenchable faith in the indestructibility of the people of Israel and the importance of its mission. Three subsequent collections were Und niemand weiss weiter (1957), Flucht und Verwandlung (1958), and Die Suchende (1966). On the occasion of her 70th birthday, her collected poetry was issued as Fahrt ins Staublose (1961). Her Spaete Gedichte (1965) contains the extended poetic sequence "Gluehende Raetsel" (1964) and suggests a mystical border whose language touches silence.

The 14 collected plays of Zeichen im Sand (1962) include Eli, ein Mysterienspiel vom Leiden Israels (1951). Written in 1943, this deals with the cosmic aftermath of the Holocaust. In 17 loosely connected scenes, the tragedy of an eight-year old Polish shepherd boy, who raises his flute heavenward in anguish and is murdered by a German soldier, is interwoven with the old Jewish legend of the Lamed Vav Ẓaddikim (36 Hidden Saints). Eli was later presented as a radio play and as an opera. O the Chimneys, an English version of selected poems and of Eli by Michael Hamburger and other translators, was published in 1967. The 1966 Nobel Prize for literature, which Nelly Sachs shared with S.Y. *Agnon ("Agnon represents the State of Israel. I represent the tragedy of the Jewish people"), was the culmination of several awards honoring her work.


Nelly Sachs zu Ehren: zum 75. Geburstag… (1966), incl. bibl.; O, Lagercrantz, Versuch ueber die Lyrik der Nelly Sachs (1967); S. Rappaport, Tribute to Nobel Prize Winners, 1966 (1967); D. Bronsen, in: Judaism, 16 (1967), 120–8.