Google’s Celebrating Nelly Sachs’ Birthday — Here’s What You Should Know About Her
If you are one of the 3.5 billion people who use Google.com today, you’ll see a somewhat cryptic Google Doodle of a typewriter in front of two cityscapes.
That’s because December 10 marks the 127th birthday of Nelly Sachs, a German-born Jewish poet and refugee to Sweden who was honored by her adoptive country with a 1966 Nobel Prize in Literature. Sachs’s collections of poetry remain among the most powerful accounts of the Shoah ever committed to verse.
Sachs was born Leonie Sachs on December 10, 1891 in the Tiergarten district of Berlin to Georg Sachs, a wealthy rubber manufacturer. It was not until Sachs was 17 that she took up poetry, heavily influenced by the secular style and subjects of the Romantics. Though her early poems of the 1920s appeared in newspapers, she did not consider poetry writing a profession and so was also committed to writing prose.
However, when Sachs published her first book of prose, “Legenden und Erzählungen” (“Legends and Tales”) in 1921 she sent a copy of the book to the Swedish novelist Selma Lagerlöf (the first female Nobel laureate in Literature). That letter began a long correspondence that later proved vital to Sachs’ survival.
In 1940, when she was almost 50, the Gestapo stormed her home — where she lived with her mother, Margaret. The Nazi police searched the house and interrogated mother and daughter, revealing in the process that the Sachs women were scheduled for deportation to a labor camp later in the week. Thanks to Lagerlöf, who appealed to the Swedish royal family on her behalf, Sachs and her mother were able to escape to Sweden.
Once in Stockholm, Sachs learned Swedish and began translating the work of poets Gunnar Ekelöf, Johannes Edfelt and Karl Vennberg. In her first years in Sweden, Sachs was tormented by the horrors of the mounting Holocaust, which would claim the lives of many of her family members. The terror of Nazi rule, which is said to have left her temporarily mute, became the major theme of her work.
In 1946 Sachs published her first poetry collection, “In den Wohnungen des Todes” (“In the House of Death”) which contains her most famous poem “Oh die Schornsteine” (“O The Chimneys”). It powerfully evokes the crematoria, ending with the line (as translated by Michael Hamburger), “Israel’s body dissolves in smoke through the air!”
Sachs went on to publish another book of poems, 1949’s “Sternverdunkelung” (“Eclipse of Stars”) that built on the Jewish touchstones of the previous collection, evoking the diaspora and her fellow Jews’ collective suffering.
Her 1951 drama “Eli: A Mystery Play of the Sufferings of Israel” being broadcast on West German radio brought her further acclaim in Europe. This was shortly after the death of her mother in 1950, which caused Sachs a series of nervous breakdowns. Her creative output was unabated by these episodes in which she suffered visions of Nazi persecution. She became a Swedish citizen in 1952, but her rising profile brought her back several times to her country of origin.
Beginning in 1959, Germany began to recognize Sachs with a number of prizes, including the Cultural Prize for German Industry, the Droste Prize in 1960 and the Literary Prize of the city of Dortmund (the award is now known as the Nelly Sachs Prize). 1965 she was honored with the German Publishers Peace Prize, which she graciously accepted. “In spite of all the horrors of the past, I believe in you,” Sachs said of her homeland in her acceptance speech.
A year later — on her 75th birthday — Sachs was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature by the Swedish Academy. The Encyclopedia of German Literature notes that Sachs was conflicted about the honor, which she received alongside the Israeli Hebrew writer Shmuel Yosef Agnon, feeling that it classed her as a Jewish poet right as she was attempting to break away into the more universal subjects of her beloved Romantics. Nevertheless, Sachs reflected in her speech that while her co-recipient’s work illustrated the promise of Israel, “I represent the tragedy of the Jewish people.”
Sachs died in Stockholm in 1970 at the age of 78.
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture intern. He can be reached at [email protected]