Leone Nelly Sachs was born in Berlin on December 10, 1891. She was the only child of a wealthy Berlin industrialist. The family lived in the Tiergartenviertel, a fashionable area of Berlin. Because of her family's wealth, Nelly was educated by private tutors her before she entered the Berliner Hhere Tchterschule. She studied music and dancing, and at an early age began writing poetry. Her early love of literature came from home. Her preference was for the German Romantic writers.
At the age of 15 she began a correspondence friendship with the Swedish author Selma Lagerlf, which lasted some 35 years. Lagerlof would later win the Nobel Peace prize in 1909 and donate the gold medal to provide war relief to Finland when Stalin's troops attacked. This friendship would become important for Nelly in the years to come.
Nelly began writing poems by the age of seventeen in the traditional, rhymed forms. She also wrote plays for puppets that were of a fairy-tale nature. While many of Sachs' early lyrical works appeared in newspapers and magazines during the 1920's and 30's, she wrote primarily for her own enjoyment.
Her early poems attracted the attention of the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig. He arranged for the publication of one of her poems. Her early poems were slightly melancholic and reflect the influence of the neo-romantic tradition. Sachs excluded many of these early poems from her collected works.
Nelly Sachs first full-length work was published in 1921. It was a volume entitled Legenden und Erzaehlungen (Legends and Stories). The book was a collection of stories that reflected the influence of Christian mysticism in both the world of German Romanticism and the Catholic Middle Ages. Sachs had been distinguished in Germany for her expressionist lyrics during the years before Hitler's rise to power. With Hitler's rise, she rediscovered her Jewish heritage and began searching for mystical ideas in the Zohar (a mystical interpretation of the Torah written in Aramaic, which she utilized in her poetry.)
During World War II, every member of Sachs' family, with the exception of her elderly mother, was killed in the concentration camps of the Holocaust. Then, in 1940, the Nazis ordered Nelly Sachs to a "work camp." Sachs' friend Selma Lagerlf had been helping German intellectuals and artists escape Nazi persecution. A friend of Sachs traveled to Sweden and met with Lagerlof. Upon explaining the situation to Lagerlof, in one of her final acts from her deathbed, Lagerlof made a special appeal on Sachs' behalf to Prince Eugene of the Swedish Royal House.
While no Jews were permitted to leave Germany, Prince Eugene arranged a Swedish visa for Nelly Sachs and her mother so that they could travel to Sweden. Sadly, Selma Lagerlof died before Nelly's arrival in Stockholm.
Many of Nelly Sachs' works, including her writings for puppet theatre, were lost during her flight to Sweden.
Because of this, her earlier works are virtually unknown.
Her reputation has been based on her creative writings since the start of World War II.
Nelly Sachs was almost fifty years old when she reached Sweden. She shared a two-bedroom apartment with her mother on the third floor of a building. Nelly Sachs was now in a country where she did not know the language, tied to the home by the need to look after her old, weak mother. This meant that letter-writing was often her only contact with the outside world; at first with Swedish intellectuals who broke the usual reserved attitude and made personal efforts in connection with the refugees. Sachs was able to make a modest living supporting herself and her mother while in exile in Sweden by translating the works of Swedish poets Gunnar Ekelf, Erik Lindegren and Johannes Edfelt into German. She eventually published several successful volumes of her translations. She also became a Swedish citizen.
Nelly Sachs wrote some of her most striking poetry during the war years. At the center of her poetry is the image of flight and pursuit, the symbol of the hunter and his prey. Her poetry has been described as ecstatic, mystical, and visionary. Although her poems are written in a keenly modern style, with an abundance of metaphors, they also articulate the prophetic language of the Old Testament.
Sachs' career as a meritorious poet started only after her immigration. Her first volume of poetry, In den Wohnungen des Todes (In the Houses of Death), 1947, creates a cosmic frame for the suffering of her time, particularly that of the Jews. Although her poems are written in a keenly modern style, with an abundance of lucid metaphors, they also intone the prophetic language of the Old Testament.
Sachs wrote her most recognized play Eli, A Mystery of the Sorrows of Israel, in 1943. It was published eight years later. Seventeen loosely connected scenes make up the play, which tells the tragic story of an eight-year-old Polish shepherd boy. In the story, the boy poignantly raises his flute heavenward in anguish when his parents are taken away and murdered by a German soldier. A cobbler traces the culprit to the next village. Filled with remorse, the soldier collapses at cobbler's feet without the cobbler having to raise his hand against him.. This ending denotes a divine justice, which has nothing to do with earthly retribution. The play is interwoven with the themes from the Jewish legend of the Lamed Vav Zaddikkim ("The 36 hidden Saints").
Nelly Sachs said she wrote Eli, later presented as a radio play and an opera, "Under the impression of the dreadful experience of the Hitler period while smoke was still commingled with fire."
Concentrating on the Holocaust, Nelly Sachs combined elements of Jewish mysticism with tradition of German Romanticism. She tried to convey the incomprehensible horror of the Holocaust, making constant use of two words: tod and nacht, German for death and night, respectively. Although she was geographically distant from the death camps when she began writing her poetry, she empathized with the suffering of her people and "sought to speak for those who could not speak for themselves" (Schiff 1995). Sachs struggle to reconcile the horrors of the Holocaust with her hope for the future is reflected in her poetry. During the post-war years Sachs published poems, plays and dramatic fragments, as a "mute outcry" against the Holocaust. According to one anthology: "Unwilling to allow despair to sabotage hope but too honest to let hope supplant despair, Sachs hovers between an ancient tradition of suffering and the modern legacy of atrocity" (Langer 1995).
Although her adult poems were largely composed in free verse, Nelly Sachs wrote with careful craftsmanship and utilized a German that was influenced by the language of the Psalms and was full of mystical imagery of Hasidic origin. "If I could not have written, I could not have survived," she wrote." "Death was my teacher.... my metaphors are my sounds."
Sachs explained her writing by saying "I have constantly striven to raise the unutterable to a transcendental level, in order to make it tolerable, and in this night of nights, to give some idea of the holy darkness in which the quiver and the sorrow are hidden."
Sachs was asked once why she wrote about the Holocaust. Her response was insightful. "The dreadful experiences that brought me to the very edge of death and eclipse have been my instructors. If I had not been able to write, I would not have survived...my metaphors are my wounds" (Langer 1995). Other outstanding poets of the Holocaust repeat Sachs' sentiment. While the writers understand poetry's ineffectiveness in confronting the inhumanity of the Holocaust, their impulse to bear witness, to relieve the burden of the memories, and to reconcile the horrors of the Holocaust, with hope for humanity, continues to result in moving poetry. Sachs' later work examined the relationship of the dead and the living, the fate of innocence, and the state of suffering.
Sachs' best known poem was die Schomsteine ("O the Chimneys") with its poignant lines:
the chimneys, On the cleverly devised abodes of death,
As Israel's body drew, dissolved in smoke, Through the air,
As a chimney-sweep a star received it, Turning black,
Or was it a sunbeam?
The body of Israel is represented in the smoke emitted by the chimneys of the Nazi concentration camps. In her book In den Wohnungen des Todes (In the Habitations of Death), dedicated to "my dead brothers and sisters," Sachs included sections entitled: "Prayers for the Dead Fiance," "Epitaphs Written On Air," and "Choruses After Midnight."
Her book Sternverdunkelung (1949) contains poetry that voiced faith in the survivability of the people of Israel and the significance of its mission. Sachs recognized the existence of evil and accepted the grave adversity that comes from that evil. But being vindictive or plotting retaliation against those who plotted evil was not part of Sachs character. Sachs' later work often examined the relationship of the dead and the living, the fate of innocence, and the state of suffering.