In the unimaginable aftershock of the Second World War the German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno made the famous statement, ‘To write poetry after Auschwitz is impossible.’ It was Nelly Sachs, more than anyone else, who showed that it was not only possible, it was necessary.
With the burial of your head
seed capsule of dreams
with endless resignation
ready now to sow in another country.
turned round to mother earth –
The Berlin-born Jewish poet (1891-1970) was arrested and interrogated by the Gestapo in 1938, and in 1940, after being summoned to report to a “work camp,” she narrowly escaped to the neutral country of Sweden with her mother. Throughout the war they lived in poverty, occupying a one-room apartment in Stockholm. Sachs penned poetry that bears witness to the Holocaust and the tragedy of the Jewish people with words that were also universal, symbolic of the suffering and redemption of all humanity.
On the day of her seventy-fifth birthday, Nelly Sachs was awarded the 1966 Nobel Prize in Literature. She gave the money away, half of it to the needy, half to the friend who had arranged to get her out of Germany in 1940.
At her Nobel reception, Ingvar Andersson of the Swedish Academy made the following comments to her:
Your lyrical and dramatic writing now belongs to the great laments of literature, but the feeling of mourning which inspired you is free from hate and lends sublimity to the suffering of man. We honour you today as the bearer of a message of solace to all those who despair of the fate of man.
Nelly Sachs’ book-length poem “Glowing Enigmas” is widely regarded as the Nobel Laureate’s finest poetic achievement and one of the essential poetic works of postwar Europe.
Nelly Sachs, Flight and Metamorphosis offers detailed insights into the contexts of Sachs’s formation as a writer.
Nelly Sachs died on May 12, 1970 in Stockholm, Sweden.