Sachs, Nelly (Leonie Sachs)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Sachs, Nelly (Leonie Sachs)

Sachs, Nelly (Leonie Sachs) (1891-1970) German Jewish playwright, poet, and translator

Nelly Sachs spoke through verse and letters of the grief and powerlessness of fellow Jews murdered during the Holocaust. Born Leonie Sachs, the daughter of an inventor and businessman, she grew up in the affluent Tiergarten section of Berlin and was homeschooled until her entry into the Aubert Academy in 1903. In childhood, she wrote puppet plays and short stories with medieval themes. She began submitting poems to magazines and newspapers when she was in her mid-teens. Timid and reclusive, she developed friendships through correspondence with the Romanian Jewish poet Paul Celan, the German Jewish expatriate poet Hilde Domin, and the Swedish educator and CHILDREN’S LITERATURE author Selma Lagerlof. After a call-up to a concentration camp and a five-day interrogation at Nazi headquarters, Sachs, then 49, escaped with her widowed mother, Margarete Sachs, to Stockholm through the intervention of Lagerlof and Prince Eugen of Sweden.

The uprooting redirected Sachs's ethnic, religious, and literary outlook. The horrors of Jewish suffering and GENOCIDE and the failure of her inquiries about dead and missing persons plunged Sachs into paranoia and nervous collapse requiring hospitalization. She renounced her German citizenship to become a Swedish citizen, but she continued to write in German as a way of retaining ties to her homeland. In place of agnosticism, she sought a spiritual reprieve through Hasidism and a study of Kabbala, a form of scripture-based divination. Both sources of traditional wisdom influenced her emotionally stark verse. Four years before her death from cancer, she received the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade and shared the 1966 Nobel Prize in literature for her lyric identification with a victimized race. Her works circulated among Ashkenazi Jews in central and eastern Europe and among diasporic communities in the Middle East and Switzerland.

Reminders of the Holocaust

As a witness to conspiracy to mass murder, Sachs, like ELIE WIESEL, used universal metaphors to visualize her emotional wounds and those of departed spirits, the “dead brothers and sisters” to whom she dedicated her work (Sachs 1967, 1). She commiserated with Paul Celan on his “sulphurous epiphanies,” her term for the corrosive memories of Nazi Germany (Celan and Sachs 1995, 17), and she inveighed against survivors’ silence. From her brush with annihilation, she wrote the mystical collection In den Wohnungen des Todes (In the habitations of death, 1947), in which she addressed death camps and the calculated barbarity of Hitler’s “final solution.” The poem “But Perhaps God Needs the Longing” conjectures that death meshes with reincarnation to keep stars burning in the night sky. Her most famous poem, “O die Schornsteine” (“O the Chimneys,” 1947), allegorizes the erasure of Israel as smoke drifting up “the ingeniously devised habitations of death” into a pitiless sky (Sachs 1967, 3). Her words for the voiceless fill a trio of antiphonal poems, “Chorus of Orphans,” “Chorus of Stars,” and “Chorus of Things Left Behind.” In “Chorus of the Rescued,” she pictures herself and other survivors forever haunted by dangling nooses and gnawed by worms of fear. On the solace of the written word, “Chorus of Comforters” questions the right of poets to record so appalling an atrocity against European Jewry.

In the tradition of psalmists and visionaries, Sachs's poetry covers the extremes of human suffering from torture and torment to an earthly reconciliation and redemption in the afterlife. Her titles create mind pictures of terror: “Even the Old Men's Last Breath,” “Landscape of Screams,” and “Death Still Celebrates.” The GOTHIC poem “What Secret Cravings of the Blood” turns Hitler into a cartoon figure—“the terrible puppeteer … with foaming mouth” who reduces “Sinai's people” to ashes and dust (17). “O the Night of the Weeping Children!” describes Nazi minions as “terrible nursemaids” (7) suckling small children with panic. The cry in “A Shoe” echoes the rootlessness of postwar refugees in Israel.

Sachs's stage play Eli, ein Mysterienspiel vom Leiden Israels (Eli: A Mystery of the Sorrows of Israel, 1951) merges a pervasive sorrow over a child's murder with the joy of living in a Jewish homeland free of Hitler's imperialistic aims. The poem “And No One Knows Where to Go” (1957) captures the post-World War II displacement and spiritual vacuum of genocide survivors. Sachs envisions sprigs of hope in the budding branches a woman collects in the poem “White in the Hospital Park” (1962). Setting her apart from other postHolocaust writers was her unwillingness to seek vengeance against German Nazis. In place of bitterness, she cultivated a spiritual transcendence that infused her poetry with images of fire, flame, dust, sand, and heavenly constellations.


Bower, Kathrin M. Ethics and Remembrance in the Poetry of Nelly Sachs and Rose Auslander. Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell and Brewer, 2000.

Celan, Paul, and Nelly Sachs. Correspondence. Translated by Christopher Clark. Berlin: Sheep Meadow, 1995.

Langer, Lawrence L. Art from the Ashes: A Holocaust Anthology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Lorenz, Dagmar C. G. Keepers of the Motherland; German Texts by Jewish Women Writers. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.

Sachs, Nelly. O the Chimneys: Selected Poems, Including the Verse Play, Eli. Translated by Michael Hamburger, Christopher Holme, Ruth Mead, Matthew Mead, and Michael Roloff. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1967.