Who Was Nelly Sachs? Originally published December 14-15, 2018.

What would we do without Google, which reminded us to remember Nelly Sachs?  Born December 10, 1891, in Schöneberg, Berlin, Germany, Nelly Sachs was a poet who went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature (1966) and the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade.

Nelly Sachs was named Leonie by her parents, Georg and Margarete Sachs.  Georg was a wealthy rubber manufacturer, and Nelly took to writing both poetry and prose.  She began writing verse at age 17, admiring the Romantics.  Some of her early work was published in the 1920s in  newspapers.  

Her first book of prose, Legenden und Erzählungen (Legends and Tales), was published in 1921, and she sent a copy to the Swedish novelist Selma Lagerlöf (who was the first female Literature Nobel laureate), and the subsequent correspondence and strong connection later saved Nelly’s life.

Nelly Sachs and her work were very much shaped by the Holocaust.  In 1940, when Nelly was almost 50 years old, the Gestapo stormed the home where she lived with her mother.  They were scheduled for deportation to a labor camp that week, but Selma Lagerlöf appealed to the royal family of Sweden on their behalf, and mother and daughter were able to escape to Sweden.  Nelly went on to earn a living translating between German and Swedish.

But the horrors and the loss of friends, family and home stuck with her, leaving her temporarily unable to speak while also majorly informing her writing.  Her first poetry collection, In the House of Death, was published in 1946, and contains her most famous poem, “O the Chimneys.”  She published another collection in 1949, Eclipse of Stars, illuminating the suffering of the Jewish people.  In 1951 she wrote a radio play Eli: A Mystery Play of the Sufferings of Israel, which was broadcast on West German radio.

Nelly Sachs’ mother died in 1950, instigating in Nelly a series of nervous breakdowns, but she continued to create and also became a Swedish citizen in 1952.  Still her country of birth afforded her a series of honors and awards.  When she received the Nobel, at age 75, it was alongside Israeli writer Shmuel Yosef Agnon, which  served to solidify her as a Jewish writer, even though she was at that time attempting to return to Romanticism.  She did illustrate the most negative aspects of humanity clearly for the ages.  She noted that Mr. Agnon was writing toward the future of the Jewish people, and she was illuminating the darker past.

Nelly Sachs died in Stockholm on May 12, 1970.