The German-born poet and playwright Nelly Sachs (1891-1970), winner of the Nobel Prize, is noted for her austere but moving work, which constitutes a solemn monument to the hardships and sorrows of the Jewish people.
Born on Dec. 10, 1891, into a wealthy Jewish family, Nelly Sachs grew up in Berlin. After having studied dance and music with private tutors, she began at the age of 17 to write poetry. Her first collection of legends and sagas from the Middle Ages was published in 1921; this work reflected her fascination with the mystical elements of Christianity. Despite the influences of her own religious tradition, which can be traced throughout her poetry, in the years before the overt political persecution of the Jews accompanying Hitler's rise to power, she was not particularly concerned with her own religious origins. But with the advent of anti-Semitism, she turned to Orthodox Hasidism, where she discovered many of those occult aspects which had earlier attracted her to Christianity.
With the aid of Selma Lagerlöf, a well-known Scandinavian novelist, Sachs and her mother fled Germany in 1940 and settled in Sweden. While still working on her own poetry, she acquired sufficient knowledge of Swedish to earn a living translating Swedish works into German. Her postwar anthology of Swedish verse, Wave and Granite (1947), brought some well-deserved acclaim to little-known writers. Her first collection of poetry was But Even the Sun Has No Home (1948). Both this volume and Eclipse of the Stars (1951), which were written during her flight from Germany, deal with the annihilation of 6 million Jews under the Third Reich; for diverse reasons they received little critical attention.
In 1950 a group of Swedish friends issued a private edition, 200 copies, of Sachs's Eli: A Miracle Play of the Suffering Israel, which eventually found its way into Germany, where it became a widely acclaimed radio play. Like the other 11 plays written in this period, Eli was created in memory of those who had suffered and perished in Nazi concentration camps. Structurally the work has the simplicity of a medieval miracle play, but thematically it depicts a world devoid of trust and goodness, where innocence falls victim to evil.
Recognition of Nelly Sachs's gift as a lyric poet came in the late 1950s after the publication of And No One Knows Where to Go (1957) and Flight and Metamorphosis (1959). Once again the focus is on the black theme of the victims of the holocaust, as well as the author's personal loneliness. In the following decade she was the recipient of numerous honors, among which were the 1961 Nelly Sachs Prize, established by the city of Dortmund, and the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade at the Frankfurt Fair of 1965. In honor of her seventieth birthday, a Frankfurt publisher issued her collected works, containing a new series of poems, "Journey to the Beyond," which was dedicated by the author to "my dead brothers and sisters."
Despite the esteem in which she was held by many German-language readers, Nelly Sachs was little known to the rest of the European and American public when she received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1966. She died in Stockholm on May 12, 1970.
Further Reading on Nelly Sachs
There is no substantial study of Nelly Sachs in English. A chapter in Paul Konrad Kurz, On Modern German Literature, vol. 1 (1967; trans. 1970), provides biographical information and comments on her work; and Harry T. Moore, Twentieth-century German Literature (1967), includes brief biographical data. A recent, important background study is Peter Demetz, Postwar German Literature: A Critical Introduction (1970)
Additional Biography Sources
Jewish writers, German literature: the uneasy examples of Nelly Sachs and Walter Benjamin, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995.