Archive for the ‘Jewish Poets’ Category

I discovered Nelly Sachs a few years back. I saw her photo and it looked like a photo of a gentle aunt or grandma that we all might have. It was love at first sight for me. I went and got a poetry collection by her and dipped into it. It was mostly moving and heartbreaking poems. I wanted to read her biography, and after some search I discovered this one, ‘Nelly Sachs, Flight and Metamorphosis‘ by Aris Fioretos . I was very excited! I read this for ‘German Literature Month’ (#GermanLitMonth) hosted by Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life’, which runs through the whole of November.

Nelly Sachs was born in a privileged family and her father was a small industrialist. She never married and was single all her life. When she was young she fell in love with someone, but her dad didn’t approve of her lover, and so she stayed single. Her dad fell ill at some point, and Nelly Sachs took care of him for years. After he died, her mom fell ill, and Nelly Sachs took care of her mom for years. When her mom passed, Nelly Sachs was sixty years old. Her life was a lifetime of service dedicated to her parents.

Nelly Sachs at around the time she won the Nobel Prize

When the Nazis came to power, and started bringing laws which squeezed the Jewish community, Nelly Sachs and her mom suffered because they were Jewish. At some point, exactly on the day she got a letter from the government that she had to report to a labour camp, she and her mom, with the help of friends, fled to Sweden. Nelly Sachs was fifty years old then. She spent the next thirty years in Sweden, initially as a refugee, and later as a Swedish citizen. During her time in Sweden, Nelly Sachs wrote poems which were mostly about the Holocaust. They were well received and acclaimed, but in small literary circles. In the 1960s, Nelly Sachs was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for her moving, powerful poetry.

After her mom passed, Nelly Sachs fell into a deep depression. All the anguish, that she had probably held in her heart for years, appeared to have come out. She imagined that the followers of the Nazis were pursuing her again. She had to get herself admitted to the hospital multiple times to take care of her mental health. Her greatest, most famous years as a poet, when she won many literary prizes, including the Nobel, were also the years filled with deep depression. Nelly Sachs died when she was seventy-nine. Her long life of suffering and anxiety, which was also filled with beauty, friendship and people whom she could call family, came to an end.

Nelly Sachs was virtually unknown in the wider literary world before she won the Nobel Prize. After a few moments of fame, when she won the Nobel, she has slipped into obscurity now, and is forgotten today. It is hard to find her poetry in English translation. For many years a small indie publisher called Green Integer, kept two volumes of her poetry collection in print. Even those two volumes are out-of-print now.

Nelly Sachs had a modest opinion about herself. She said, “I have never been a poet, you know. To this day I’ve never owned a desk – my manuscripts are here in the kitchen cupboard…I’m not a literary person. Actually, I’m a real housewife. Not a poet at all.”

Nelly Sachs’ poetry can be divided into two periods. From the time she started writing till 1940, when she lived her life in Germany, and from 1940 till 1970, when she lived in Sweden. There is a distinct difference between her poems of these two periods – they are like chalk and cheese. The poems she wrote during her German years were like traditional German poetry and were on familiar German themes, on fairy tales, fantasy, love, nature. The poems written during her Swedish years were mostly about the Holocaust. When one of her compilers tried publishing a collection of her poetry in later years, Nelly Sachs asked him to remove the poems from her German years, because she wanted to forget them. Her poems from that time are hard to find now.

This book is a beautiful, illustrated biography, and it talks about all this and more. There are photographs in every page, which are deeply linked to the particular section, photographs of books, places, documents, people, objects. The text with pictures brings us a deeply rich reading experience.

The book is not always smooth going. The biographical parts of it flow smoothly. I loved reading about Nelly Sachs’ friends especially, with whom she had really close relationships, and who were her soul sisters, some of whom took great risk during the Nazi era, and helped her escape the country. I also loved reading about her friendship with the poet, Paul Celan, whom she treated as her own brother, though she was thirty years older than him. Celan described their friendship beautifully like this – “Between Paris and Stockholm runs the meridian of pain and solace.” Outside of her parents, Nelly Sachs didn’t have a family, but these friends were her family, and they helped her and were there with her till the end. As they say, we are born into our biological family, about whom we can’t do much, but we can create our own family filled with the people whom we love and who love us back, and Nelly Sachs did exactly that.

The poetry parts of the book were challenging to read, and demanded a lot of attention. I’m not a big fan of analyzing poetry – I love reading poems and contemplate on them and let them do their magic. So reading the analysis of the poems was extra hard for me. The book has a fascinating section which describes how the Nazis restricted Jewish writers and artists and finally banned them. It was a very insightful and heartbreaking part to read.

I loved reading Nelly Sachs’ biography. This is the only biography of hers available in English. It is a labour of love and the author Aris Fioretos has to be commended for his sensitive portrayal of this beautiful poet as well as his deep research into those times.

I’m sharing one of my favourite Nelly Sachs poems here. It makes me cry everytime I read it.

If I only knew

If I only knew

On what your last look rested.

Was it a stone that had drunk

So many last looks that they fell

Blindly upon its blindness?

Or was it earth,

Enough to fill a shoe,

And black already

With so much parting

And with so much killing?

Or was it your last road

That brought you a farewell from all the roads

You had walked?

A puddle, a bit of shining metal,

Perhaps the buckle of your enemy’s belt,

Or some other small augury

Of heaven?

Or did this earth,

Which lets no one depart unloved,

Send you a bird-sign through the air,

Reminding your soul that it quivered

In the torment of its burnt body?

– Translated by Ruth and Matthew Mead

Have you heard of Nelly Sachs? Have you read any of her poems?


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