Nelly Sachs

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Date: 2000
Document Type: Biography
Length: 1,610 words

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About this Person
Born: December 10, 1891 in Berlin, Germany
Died: May 12, 1970 in Stockholm, Sweden
Nationality: Swedish
Occupation: Poet
Other Names: Sachs, Leonie

Family: Born December 10, 1891, in Berlin, Germany; died May 20, 1970; became a Swedish subject; daughter of William (an industrialist and inventor) and Margarethe (Karger) Sachs. Education: Attended Hoch Toechterschule; educated privately. Religion: Jewish. Memberships: Bayrische Akademie fuer schoene Kuenste (Munich), Freie Akademie der Stadt Hamburg, Darmstaedter Akademie fuer Sprache und Dichtung.




Prize of the Poets' Association (Sweden); Jahrespring Literature Prize, 1959; Kulturpreis der deutschen Industrie, 1959; Annette Droste Prize for Poetry, 1960; won the first Nelly Sachs Prize for Literature (created in her honor by the town of Dortmund, Germany), 1961; Peace Prize of the West German Booksellers, 1965; Nobel Prize for Literature, 1966.




  • Legenden und Erzaehlungen (legends and stories dedicated to Selma Lagerloef), Meier Verlag (Berlin), 1921.
  • In den Wohnungen des Todes (title means "In the Dwellings of Death"; also see below), Aufbau-Verlag (Berlin), 1946.
  • Sternverdunkelung (title means "Eclipse of the Stars"; also see below), Bermann-Fischer, 1949.
  • Eli: Ein Mysterienspiel vom Leiden Israels (play; title means "Eli: A Mystery Play of the Sufferings of Israel"; broadcast over German radio, 1951, first produced in Dortmund, West Germany, 1962; also see below), privately printed, 1951.
  • Und niemand weiss weiter (title means "And No One Knows How to Go On"), Ellerman (Hamburg), 1957, 2nd edition, 1966.
  • Flucht und Verwandlung (title means "Flight and Metamorphosis"), Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt (Stuttgart), 1959.
  • Fahrt ins Staublose: Die Gedichte der Nelly Sachs (collected poems; title means "Journey to Staublose"), Suhrkamp (Frankfurt am Main), 1961.
  • Die Gedichte der Nelly Sachs, Suhrkamp, two volumes, 1961-71.
  • Zeichen im Sand: Die szenischen Dichtungen der Nelly Sachs (collected plays; title means "Sketches in Sand"), Suhrkamp, 1962.
  • Das Leiden Israels (includes Eli, In den Wohnungen des Todes, and Sternverdunkelung), Suhrkamp, 1962.
  • Ausgewaehlte Gedichte (title means "Selected Poems"), Suhrkamp, 1963, edited by Guy Stern and Gustave Mathieu, Harcourt, 1968.
  • Gluehende Raetsel (title means "Glowing Riddle"), Insel-Buecherei, 1964.
  • Spaete Gedichte (title means "Later Poems"), Suhrkamp, 1965.
  • Die Suchende (title means "The Seeker"; also see below), Suhrkamp, 1966.
  • Wie leicht wird Erde sein: Ausgewaehlte Gedichte, Bertelsmann (Guetersloh), 1966.
  • Simson faellt durch Jahrtausende und andere szenische Dichtungen, Deutscher Taschenbuch (Munich), 1967.
  • O the Chimneys: Selected Poems, Including the Verse Play, Eli, translated by Michael Hamburger and others, Farrar, Straus, 1967, published in England as Selected Poems: Including the Verse Play 'Eli,' J. Cape (London), 1968.
  • The Seeker and Other Poems (selections), translated by Ruth Mead, Matthew Mead, and Michael Hamburger, Farrar, Straus, 1970.
  • Verzauberung: Spaete szenische Dichtungen, Suhrkamp, 1970.
  • Teile dich Nacht: Die letzten Gedichte, edited by Margaretha Holmqvist and Bengt Holmqvist, Suhrkamp, 1971.
  • Suche nach Lebenden: Die Gedichte der Nelly Sachs, edited by Margaretha Holmqvist and Bengt Holmqvist, Suhrkamp, 1971.
  • Nelly Sachs, Jean-Paul Sartre, George Bernard Shaw, Frans Eemil Sillanpaa, Rene Sully-Prudhomme, A. Gregory (New York), 1971.
  • (Contributor) Stephen Spender, editor, Selected Poems, Penguin (Harmondsworth, England), 1971.
  • Paul Celan, Nelly Sachs: Correspondence, edited by Barbara Wiedemann, translated by Christopher Clark, introduction by John Felstiner, Sheeps Meadow Press (Riverdale-on-Hudson, NY), 1995.

Also author of Gedichte, edited by Hilde Domin, 1977. Work represented in anthologies, including Contemporary German Poetry, edited and translated by Gertrude C. Schwebell, New Directions, 1964.


  • Von Wolle und Granit: Querschnitt durch die schwedische Lyric des 20. Jahrhunderts (title means "From Wool and Granite: A Cross Section of Swedish Poetry of the Twentieth Century"), Aufbau-Verlag, 1947.
  • (And editor) Aber auch diese Sonne ist heimatlos: Schwedische Lyric der Gegenwart (title means "Once Again the Sun Is Homeless: Swedish Poetry of Today"), Buechner (Darmstadt), 1957.
  • (With others) Johannes Edfelt, Der Schattenfischer (poetry; title means "The Shadowy Fisherman"), Bonniers (Stockholm), 1959.
  • Gunnar Ekelof, Poesie (bilingual edition in German and Swedish), Suhrkamp, 1962.
  • Erik Lindegren, Gedichte (poetry), Bonniers, 1962.
  • Karl Vennberg, Poesie, Suhrkamp, 1965.
  • (And editor) Schwedische Gedichte (title means "Swedish Poetry"), 1965.
  • Also translator and editor of Erik Lindegren, Weil unser einziges Nest unsere Flugel sind, 1963.


  • Das Buch der Nelly Sachs, edited by Bengt Holmqvist, 1968.
  • Briefe, edited by Ruth Dinesen and Helmut Mussener, 1984.



Nelly Sachs was largely an unknown writer until after World War II, but her anguished poetry memorializing the victims of the Holocaust then brought her the respect of the literary world and, eventually, the Nobel Prize. Sachs, a German Jew who was raised in an upper-class family in Berlin, escaped the Nazis with her widowed mother and went into exile in Sweden when the Nazis rose to power. Her horror over the war atrocities and the deaths of many loved ones who did not escape Germany eventually led to serious depression, a nervous breakdown, and a prolonged period of hospitalization. Death, redemption, and a search for peace pervade her work. Harry Zohn wrote, "There is little doubt that Nelly Sachs ranks with Else Lasker-Schueler and Gertrud Kolmar, the foremost German-Jewish poetess of our century." Hans Magnus Enzenberger called her "the greatest author writing today in the German language." A New York Times writer noted that her work progressed from "a bitter lament for the sufferings of the Jewish people" to "expressions of sympathy for the suffering of all," with "tones of reconciliation and forgiveness."

Kurt Pinthus called Sachs "the presumably final expression in the German language of the ancestral sequence of 6,000 years which began with the psalmists and the prophets." Zohn believed Sachs was regarded "as a sort of soul sister of Franz Kafka, and surely her statement 'Writing was my mute outcry--I only wrote because I had to free myself' is eminently Kafkaesque. [She] regards herself as the vessel of a higher idea: she did not seek to become the poetess of the Holocaust; the subject sought her out. From the outset her poetry has not been easy of access. Highly personal, mystical, and visionary in quality, her poems sought to embody her conception of 'the invisible universe.' She strove for universal dimensions and incorporated an intricate symbolism born of a desire to go to the roots of our age and of the human condition."

Sachs's poetry can be divided into three distinct periods. In the first, 1943-1949, her work is dedicated to memorializing the victims of the Holocaust. Death is at the center of these poems, which are for the most part free of metaphor. The chilling details of reality are presented: fingers pointing the way to the gas chambers, smoke pouring from the chimneys of the crematoriums. During the 1950s, she moved into an experimental period influenced by Jewish mysticism. Metamorphosis is a recurring theme in this period, frequently expressed through the image of a butterfly. "Opposing modes of existence are unified: fleeing is experienced as homecoming, exile as homeland," remarked Ehrhard Bahr in Reference Guide to World Literature.

The third period of Sachs's work unfolded after she suffered a nervous breakdown and a long stay in a sanatorium. These poems, which usually take hospital experiences or commonplace incidents as their subject matter, show "the development of an individual language expressing a universal mysticism." Bahr finds the poems in the cycle "Gluhende Ratsel" ("Glowing Enigmas") to be "the best of her later poetry," excellent in their "laconic brevity." Bahr classifies Sachs as "a mystic poet" who raised "the issue of mystic poetry in a acentury averse to mysticism. Her poetry invited either celebration or rejection rather than critical reading. None the less, hers is an authentic poetic voice and her achievements cannot be denied. As Marie Syrkin has said, 'the literary virtue of Sachs is that she has managed to transmute personal anguish into personal vision.'"

"In her verse," wrote Bauke, "Miss Sachs has raised a monument to the Jews that is at once modern and timeless. Combining impulses from the German world of Hoelderlin, Novalis and Rilke, from surrealism, Chassidism, and the Old Testament, she has found a language uniquely her own. Totally free of irony, understatement and anger, her verse reaches the hymnic pathos of prophecy. In visions of cosmic sweep her lines associate the hunting scenes on the walls of prehistoric caves with the horrors of Auschwitz and Belsen. Her sibylline incantations invoke in ever new variations 'the sound at the heart of the world' and approach the mysteries of evil and suffering with the resignation of Job." Her work was not derivative but rather what she called "a sheaf of lightning on this acre of paper." She "creates on a large canvas," wrote Zohn, "and raises the tragedy of her time, of her people, from chaos and formlessness, from subjective emotion to a higher plane where it can be contemplated for its universal significance."

Of Spaete Gedichte, Zohn wrote: "This is curiously compressed, elliptic and enigmatic poetry which seeks to penetrate to the mystic border region where language touches silence. These poems reduce everything earthly to its barest substance, and the horror of the concentration camps is made the more vivid and searing by this searching beyond material fact and realistic description." Die Welt, a Hamburg newspaper, wrote of her work in general: "Her volumes of lyrics are dominated by a single theme: Israel. Not today's state bearing that name, but the people of the Old Testament--a God-chosen, tried and afflicted people; not a militant people, but one that has known suffering and sacrifice, mockery, persecution, destruction. . . . To the millions of the nameless and voiceless who are generally recalled only in the form of merciless, six-digit figures, Nelly Sachs has given mouth and voice. It is her one theme. For 20 years her allegorical and metaphorical variations on it have been unusually daring and extremely beautiful."

Sachs recited some of her poetry for a recording titled Nelly Sachs liest Gedichte. Her scenario, "Eli," was made into an opera by the Swedish composer Moses Pergament.




  • Bahti, Timothy, and Marilyn Sibley Fries, Jewish Writers, German Literature: The Uneasy Examples of Nelly Sachs and Walter Benjamin, University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor), 1995.
  • Bosmajiam, Hamida, Metaphors of Evil: Contemporary German Literature and the Shadow of Nazism, University of Iowa Press (Iowa City), 1979.
  • Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit), Volume 14, 1992, Volume 98, 1997.
  • Foot, Robert, The Phenomenon of Speechlessness in the Poetry of Marie Luise Kaschnitz, Gunter Eich, Nelly Sachs, and Paul Celan, Bouvier Verlag Herbert Grundmann (Bonn), 1982.
  • Kurz, Paul Konrad, On Modern German Literature, University of Alabama Press (University), 1967, pp. 194-215.
  • Reference Guide to World Literature, St. James Press (Detroit), 1995.
  • Rudnick, Ursula, Post-Shoa Religious Metaphors: The Image of God in the Poetry of Nelly Sachs, P. Lang (New York), 1995.
  • Nelly Sachs zu Ehren (festschrift), Suhrkamp, 1961.
  • Nelly Sachs zu Ehren II, Suhrkamp, 1966.
  • Sachs, Nelly, Nelly Sachs, Jean-Paul Sartre, George Bernard Shaw, Frans Emil Sillanpa, Rene Sully-Prudhomme, A. Gregory (New York), 1971.
  • Sachs, Nelly, and Paul Celan, Paul Celan, Nelly Sachs: Correspondence, edited by Barbara Wiedemann, translated by Christopher Clark, introduction by John Felstiner, Sheeps Meadow Press (Riverdale-on-Hudson, NY), 1995.
  • Strenger, Elisabeth, and Amy Colin, editors, Bridging the Abyss: Reflections on Jewish Suffering, Anti-Semitism, and Exile, Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1994, pp. 225-236.


  • Booklist, December 1, 1967, p. 419.
  • Book World, October 8, 1967, p. 4.
  • Books Abroad, winter, 1967.
  • Bucknell Review, spring, 1973, pp. 43-62.
  • Chicago Review, December, 1969.
  • Choice, March, 1968, p. 56.
  • Christian Science Monitor, October 12, 1967, p. 11.
  • Colloquia germanica, April, 1976-77, pp. 316-325.
  • Congress Bi-weekly, November 7, 1966.
  • Dimension, volume 1, number 2, 1968, pp. 377-381.
  • Germanic Review, XLIV, 1969, pp. 221-227.
  • German Quarterly, May, 1972, pp. 480-83; January, 1976, pp. 50-58.
  • Hebrew University Studies in Literature, autumn, 1980, pp. 281-300.
  • Judaism, summer, 1971, pp. 356-364.
  • Kirkus Reviews, August 15, 1967, p. 1020.
  • Library Journal, September 1, 1967, p. 2931; August, 1995, p. 74.
  • Midstream, volume 8, number 3, 1967.
  • Modern Language Review, July, 1978, pp. 550-562.
  • New Republic, October 30, 1995, p. 35A.
  • New Yorker, March 30, 1968, p. 136.
  • New York Times, October 21, 1966; December 11, 1966.
  • New York Times Book Review, November 6, 1966; October 8, 1967, pp. 5, 34.
  • Poetry, September, 1968, pp. 418-419.
  • Publishers Weekly, August 28, 1967, p. 270.
  • Rendezvous, spring, 1986, pp. 47-50.
  • Saturday Review, December 10, 1966, pp. 46-47; November 4, 1967, p. 36.
  • Time, October 6, 1967, p. 123.
  • Times Literary Supplement, November 21, 1968, p. 1304; October 15, 1971, pp. 1265-1266.
  • Translation Review, number 18, 1985, pp. 26-29.
  • Voice Quarterly Review, summer, 1968, p. CV.
  • Washington Post, March 6, 1972.*


Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1000086298