Nelly Sachs: 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know

Nelly Sachs

Nelly Sachs is the inspiration behind the December 10 Google doodle, which features a black and white artistic rendering of a typewriter. Sachs was a Jewish German-Swedish poet and playwright who won the 1966 Nobel Prize in Literature.

Throughout the span of her life, Sachs published several poetry collections, the titles of which translate from German into the following English titles: In the Houses of Death (1946), Eclipse of Stars (1949), And No One Knows Where to Go (1957), Flight and Metamorphosis (1959). She’s also known for writing the play, Eli.  Many of her writings chronicled the horrors of the Holocaust.

December 10, 2018 marks the 127th anniversary of Sachs’ birth. Here’s what you need to know:


1. Sachs Was Born on December 10, 1891 & Grew Up in Berlin

According to Britannica, Sachs grew up in Berlin, and was the daughter of a successful manufacturer. She was a writer at a young age, and even achieved mild success: her poems were featured in several newspapers in the 1920s.

Though Sachs grew up in an upper-middle-class family prior to the rise of antisemitism in Germany, The Washington Post reports that she later described her childhood as a “hell of loneliness.” Over the course of her life, Sachs would develop lifelong friendships with fellow writers Paul Celan (of whom she shared a 16-year correspondence that spawned a collection) and Selma Lagerlof, who was responsible for finding safe passage for Sachs and her mother to Sweden in 1940.

Sachs’ father passed away in 1930.


2. Sachs Lived in Germany in the 1930s & Was Able to Escape to Sweden With Her Mother in 1940

According to the Jewish Women’s Archive, Sachs’ father died in 1930, but she and her mother still lived in Germany as antisemitism began to grow; Sachs was traumatized, the JWA reports, from an interrogation she went through with the Gestapo, and witnessed her apartment getting torn apart by the police.

In 1940, Sachs and her mother made it onto one of the last German flights to Stockholm, thanks to her friendship with Lagerlof. The rest of her family were sent to concentration camps and subsequently killed. While in Sweden, Sachs learned how to speak Swedish. She supported herself and her mother for the first seven years of their time in Sweden by working as a translator.

In 1950, Sach’s mother died. The Washington Post reports that Sachs suffered the first of many psychiatric breakdowns following her mother’s death. She spent the rest of her life in Sweden. It’s not clear if she ever married or had children.


3. READ: Sachs’ Poem, ‘O Die Schornsteine,’ Which Translates to ‘O the Chimneys’ & Is About Concentration Camps

Sachs wrote a number of moving poems and other written works about the experience of being a Jew during the holocaust. Translated to English, here’s one of her most famous poems on the topic:

O the chimneys
on the carefully planned dwellings of death
When Israel’s body rose dissolved in smoke
through the air –
To be welcomed by a chimney sweep star
Turned black
Or was it a ray of the sun?

O the chimneys!
Paths of freedom for the dust of Jeremiah and Job –
Who dreamed you up and built stone upon stone
The path of smoke for their flight?
O dwellings of death
Set out so enticingly
For the host of the house, who used to be the guest –

O you fingers
Laying the stone of the threshold
Like a knife between life and death –
O you chimneys
O you fingers
And Israel’s body dissolves in smoke through the air!

Sachs once compared the metaphors in her poetry to “wounds.” Via The Washington Post, Sachs said, “The frightful experiences that brought me to the edge of death and darkness are my tutors. If I couldn’t have written, I wouldn’t have survived. . . . my metaphors are my wounds.”


4. Sachs Won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966

Nelly Sachs

In 1966, having survived the Holocaust and published over four collections of poetry and written multiple plays, Sachs won the Nobel Prize in Literature, along with Shmuel Yosef Agnon, who earned the reputation of being one of the “greatest living Hebrew writers,” according to the Nobel Prize Foundation. 

In her acceptance speech, Sachs said, “In the spring of 1940, after tortuous months, we arrived in Stockholm. The occupation of Denmark and Norway had already taken place. The great novelist was no more. We breathed the air of freedom without knowing the language or any person.”

Sachs continued, “Today, after twenty-six years, I think of what my father used to say on every tenth of December, back in my home town, Berlin:Now they celebrate the Nobel ceremony in Stockholm. Thanks to the choice of the Swedish Academy, I am now in the midst of that ceremony. To me a fairy tale seems to have become reality.”

Sachs also said in part, “In spite of all the horrors of the past, I believe in you.”


5. Sachs Died of Intestinal Cancer in May, 1970 at 78 Years Old

Sachs passed away on May 12, 1970 at 78 years old of intestinal cancer.

In addition to winning the Nobel Prize, Sachs also won the Prize of the Swedish Poets Association, the Droste-Hülshoff Prize, and the German Publishers Peace Prize, according to the Poetry Foundation.

She also won the Prize of the German Book Trade, the Prize of the City of Dortmund, was named an honorary citizen of Berlin in 1967, according to the Jewish Women’s Archive. 

You can see earlier drafts of the Nelly Sachs Google doodle (drawn by Daniel Stolle) here.

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