Nelly Sachs(Leonie Sachs)

Nelly Sachs, writer
Passport photo of Nelly Sachs, taken in in Berlin-Charlottenburg in 1940 before she fled to Sweden
Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach

Nelly Sachs(Leonie Sachs)

Wenn man einmal auf der Flucht einen Stein gestreichelt hat, weil es das erste war, worauf man sich niederließ in einem freien Land – so hat man niemals mehr ein nahes Verhältnis zu allem, was nicht ganz direkt zum Dasein dient.

[If you have ever gently stroked a stone, because it was the first thing you stepped upon in a free country, you will never again form a close relationship to anything that does not directly serve to secure your life. (ed. trans.)]

Nelly Sachs in a letter to Dagrun Enzensberger, 22 January 1959

Bornon 10 December 1891 in Berlin, Germany
Diedon 12 May 1970 in Stockholm, Sweden
ProfessionPoet, Writer

A native of Berlin, Nelly Sachs already secretly wrote poems and stories as a child. 1921 saw the publication of her first book Legenden und Erzählungen (Legends and Tales) with eight pieces of prose, which she sent to Swedish writer Selma Lagerlöf, whom she very much admired. They began corresponding and exchanged letters until Lagerlöf’s death in 1940.

From 1929, Berlin daily newspapers printed poems by Sachs – something that only the Jewish press continued after Hitler came to power. After Reichsprogromnacht (9 November 1938), the young writer tried to obtain exit papers for her and her widowed mother, and asked Lagerlöf for help. It was not until May 1940 – after a deportation notice had already been served – that they had managed to get a hold of all the necessary documents enabling to flee to Stockholm where they then lived in modest circumstances.

Sachs’ poetry changed under the influence of the war and the persecution and murder of Europe’s Jews. Her poems are laments, her frame of reference Judaism. The first two volumes In den Wohnungen des Todes (In Death’s House,1947) and Sternverdunkelung (Darkening of the Stars,1949) were published in East Germany. Sachs did not find recognition in West Germany until the 1950s.

On her 75th birthday on 10 December 1966, Nelly Sachs received the Nobel Prize for Literature together with the writer Samuel Joseph Agnon. A citizen of Sweden since 1953, she nevertheless held her speech in German. Sachs on the day on which the poet Paul Celan – who had been a close friend since the 1950s – was buried.

Selected Works:
In den Wohnungen des Todes (poetry,1947)
Sternverdunkelung (poetry, 1949)
Eli. Ein Mysterienspiel vom Leiden Israels (1951)
Fahrt ins Staublose (poetry, 1961)
Teile dich Nacht (poetry, 1971)

Further reading:
Dinesen, Ruth: Nelly Sachs. Eine Biographie. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp 1992
Huml, Ariane (Hg.): „Lichtersprache aus den Rissen“: Nelly Sachs - Werk und Wirkung. Göttingen: Wallstein-Verlag 2008
Kraft, Andreas: „Nur eine Stimme, ein Seufzer“: Die Identität der Dichterin Nelly Sachs und der Holocaust. Frankfurt am Main: Lang 2010
Kranz-Löber, Ruth: „In der Tiefe des Hohlwegs“: die Shoah in der Lyrik von Nelly Sachs. Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann 2001