How the Poet Became a Symbol of the Holocaust
by Zelda Gamson
From our Autumn 2012 issue
Discussed in this essay: Nelly Sachs, Flight and Metamorphosis, An Illustrated Biography by Aris Fioretos, translated from the Swedish by Tomas Tranaeus, Stanford University Press, 2011, 320 pages.
O the night of the weeping children!
O the night of the children branded for death!
Sleep may not enter here.
Have usurped the place of mothers,
Have tautened their tendons with the false death,
Sow it on to the walls and into the beams—
Everywhere it is hatched in the nests of horror.
Instead of mother’s milk, panic suckles those
Yesterday Mother still drew
Sleep toward them like a white moon,
There was the doll with cheeks derouged by kisses,
In one arm,
The stuffed pet, already
Brought to life by love,
In the other—
Now blows the wind of dying,
Blows the shifts over the hair
That no one will comb again.
—Nelly Sachs, 1947 (from In de Wohnungendes Todes, translated from the German by Michael Hamburger)
She wasn’t there, but she projected herself into the camps. Emotionally fragile her whole life, Nelly Sachs (1891-1970) found expression for her own suffering in the hundreds of poems and plays she wrote in exile in Stockholm. Friends nominated her for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1966, which she was awarded with S.Y. Agnon (Israel’s only Nobel-winning writer).
Sachs arrived at this point circuitously. Born in 1891 in the Schöneberg district of Berlin, Sachs had an inventor/industrialist father and a mother who was the daughter of a prosperous merchant. Sachs grew up in comfortable homes as the family climbed the social ladder of Jewish Berlin. The family did not observe Jewish holidays and celebrated Christmas. Aris Fioretos’ illustrated biography describes in rich detail the intellectual and cultural circles, both Jewish and Gentile, in which the family dwelled, including several intimate women friends who would later prove crucial to her survival.
Sachs was a talented only child who showed promise as a dancer, but her protective parents kept her from pursuing dance. An introvert who nevertheless cultivated deep friendships, Nelly turned to poetry, where she found her métier. Fioretos, a novelist of some note as well as a professor of aesthetics, allows us to read some of the poetry she wrote in her almost half-century of life before Hitler’s rise. It was heavily indebted to German Romanticism and would strike us now, as it does Fioretos, as impossibly sentimental and trite. A mysterious love affair at age 17 that haunted her for the rest of her life drove her to write, and her poems were filled with loss and danger many years before she had to flee Germany. Emotional crises that sometimes landed her in hospitals — in one episode, she stopped eating and had slipped to a dangerously low weight — went on periodically for the rest of her life.
Well-known in Sweden and Germany but not in the United States, Sachs is served well by Fioretos, whose comprehensive biography is based on material from archives, interviews, and other biographies. The size of a coffee-table book, Flight and Metamorphosis (the title of one of Sachs’ poems) draws the reader into her life and times through photographs, hand-written notes and poems, images of her typewriter, and childhood toys and drawings.
Her flight from Berlin with her mother is especially evocative. Reproduced are their one shared suitcase, bound with a strap, a picture of a plane at Tempelhof Airport in Berlin, pictures of Nelly and her mother soon after they arrived in Stockholm, and letters written in their behalf. Fioretos tells the story with all of the suspense of a good novel. Nelly and her mother, Margarete, left Berlin on the last plane to Stockholm, having lost their home and its belongings to looters, including neighbors, who took what they wanted. Nelly was following the advice of a mysterious, high-ranking German official she had encountered in a registration of Jews a few months earlier, who advised her to ignore a summons from the Gestapo to appear for what was undoubtedly a deportation. He later told her to leave Germany by plane rather than by rail, since that escape route was closed.
Their flight was possible only because German friends worked non-stop to get them to safety. Fioretos describes in some detail the efforts of one dear “sister,” Gudrun Dähnert, who flew to Stockholm and spoke to a longtime correspondent of Sachs’, the Nobel laureate Selma Lagerlöf, who eventually intervened with the Swedish government. Very few refugees at that time were receiving visas from Sweden, and a condition of admission into the country was a guarantee of sufficient income in Swedish kronor. Dähnert collected enough to guarantee that income for Nelly.
Other friends came forward with funds needed to get Nelly and Margarete out of Germany. With their shared suitcase, the clothes they were wearing, and five German marks that Margarete foolishly smuggled out, they boarded the plane on May 16th, 1940. Sachs later wrote about the period preceding their flight as “moldering in an open grave without dying.” “There is nothing here to understand anymore, not here! But a white-hot explosion — ashes in the mouth — yes blinded by being here — and the universe of the invisible — only with the soul’s constellations — these letters written in the dark — addressed far beyond the milestone where death died.”
After living in temporary quarters, the Sachs women moved into a one-bedroom apartment with a nice picture window looking out onto the River Spree and Lake Mälaren. Nelly would live there the rest of her life. The apartment building was owned by the Warburg Foundation, managed by a nearby Jewish congregation, and with furnishings from refugees who had moved on to America or other countries. The daily struggle was difficult for these women, who’d had servants to take care of them for most of their lives.
Nelly’s frailty did not mean she was helpless, however. Needing to raise money quickly, she wrote to Swedish writers and publishers and soon received translation jobs, which also put her in touch with contemporary Swedish poetry. She continued to write poems, often late at night so as not to disturb her ailing mother. These poems were very different from her pre-war poetry.
Sachs’ metamorphosis into a serious poet began at age 50 in Stockholm, but she didn’t become a Swedish poet: She wrote almost exclusively in German, about the Holocaust, for the first time embracing the Jewish people as her own and identifying herself so closely with their tragedy that it seemed as if she had been exterminated herself. She discovered Jewish mysticism and adopted images from the Kabbalah. Her writing remained lyrical, but now it was taut, even modernist. Her tone was often incantatory, invoking themes of loss through images of dust, stars, breath, stones, blood.
She saw her poems and plays as giving voice to those who didn’t escape. Her radio and stage play, “Eli: A Mystery Play of the Suffering of Israel” draws on Hasidic tales in its portrayal of a dead 8-year-old Polish boy’s search for his murderer. Later, in reaction to the Stern Gang’s assassination of the United Nation’s negotiator in Palestine, Swedish Count Folke Bernadotte, she added to her themes the interchangeability of victims and executioners.
Fame came soon. Fioretos describes the artistic and cultural setting into which Sachs was adopted in Sweden. The poets Johannes Edfelt, Erik Lindegren, and Gunnar Ekelöf were members of a growing circle of Swedish intellectuals, artists and writers who made sure her poems were published. Like her old friends in Germany, they watched over and took care of her. Sachs added to her adopted extended family a new generation of German poets such as Alfred Andersch and Hans Magnus Enzenberger; the latter would become the holder of the rights to Sachs’ works. For Germans and Swedes in the postwar period, Sachs defined the Jewish experience of the Holocaust. Even before the Nobel, she was winning prizes in Germany.
One of her most complicated friendships was with the younger Jewish poet, Paul Celan (né Ancel), who was also writing poems in German after the war with similar themes. Fioretos treats Celan as sympathetically as he does Sachs, and devotes many pages to understanding the relationship between them. Raised in a Zionist family in Romania, Celan (1920-1970) received a Jewish education and later became active in Jewish socialist organizations and with the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. In 1942 he was deported by the Romanian fascists from Bukovina to a labor camp, where he remained imprisoned until 1944. His parents perished in an earlier transport to a labor camp. Celan’s poem “Todesfuge” (“Death Fugue”) draws on accounts from the death camps in Poland.
The two poets discovered each other and for more than ten years exchanged poems and letters, but when they met face-to-face, it did not go well. They stimulated each other’s depression and paranoia. In time Celan came to object to Sachs’ openness to the new Germany and its promise of reconciliation. Although he stopped just short of blaming her, he saw her as a tool who was willing to let herself, as Fioretos puts it, “be identified as a representative of an entire people’s suffering . . .
For Celan, every human being was exceptional, and his or her words irreplaceable. The German institutions hid their guilty conscience by celebrating a poet who was called a queen or a prophet, but whose poetry there was reason to believe they didn’t take at its word.”
Fioretos reproduces a poem by Celan that exploded the friendship:
Who and what
Drove Nelly Sachs to madness?
deceit and arrogance?
In Stockholm I heard her say:
“Those in Auschwitz
did not suffer what I am suffering.”
Others heard it too, among them
Who supported this? And
Raged behind it?
“The sentence was harsh but not groundless,” Fioretos writes, adding a phrase of Celan’s about “the hubris of pain.”
Nelly Sachs died of cancer in 1970, three weeks after Paul Celan threw himself into the Seine. A memorial plaque honoring Sachs can be found in Schöneberg at her birthplace, and a park is named after her in another section of Berlin. The Nelly Sachs Room, which preserves the interior of her apartment, was established at the Royal Library in Stockholm. Not far from her home on the island of Kungsholmen is the Nelly Sachs Park.
Did she warrant these honors? Did she deserve the Nobel Prize for poetry? In his Foreward to Flight and Metamorphosis, Fioretos writes about “the interplay between life and letters, inside and outside in a body of work neglected by critics in recent years.” About her poetry, however, he temporizes: “Her development is remarkable not least because she began the memorable part of her oeuvre when she was over 50 . . . During the quarter-century that followed, her poems became ever more convincing from a critical point of view.”
Relatives of those who perished might object, but it is easy to see why Germans and Swedes wanted to honor a woman who had adopted the identity of a martyr in her personal suffering and in her poetry. Sachs’ life became an emblem of the Holocaust for them, as Anne Frank became an emblem for Americans. (Anne Frank’s message of hope appeals to Americans in a way that Sachs’ bleakness would probably not.) Yet unlike Celan’s poetry, which is still read and translated, Sachs’ poetry seems dated. Writing about her well-known “O the Chimneys,” Fioretos says: “If zeitgeist can be defined as all that which we can take seriously at a given point in time, Sachs tests her present-day readers severely. On the one hand [is] afterthought and gravitas, on the other the high-flown tone prevents true consternation.”
In my view, Nelly Sachs did not transcend the zeitgeist of her time — or, sadly, her own suffering. Nobel Prize and all, the poet thus became more of a symbol of human grief than a literary force still present in our culture.
Zelda Gamson is a retired professor from the University of Massachusetts in Boston who helped establish the New England Resource Center for Higher Education there. Among the many causes that have engaged her time, she has been an activist for affordable housing on Martha’s Vineyard, where she lives.