Sachs, Nelly

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Nelly Sachs was born as Leonie Sachs, on December 10, 1891, in the Tiergarten section of Berlin. She grew up as the only child of the manufacturer William Sachs and Margarete Sachs, née Karger, in comfortable circumstances. Her first exposure to German literature was in her father’s library. She received private lessons for several years, until she began attending the private girls’ school Aubert in 1903. Her greatest wish at this point in her life was to become a dancer.

In 1908 Sachs completed school. She began writing to the Swedish writer Selma Lagerlöf, whose writing she admired, when she was 15 years old, and her first published work Legenden und Erzählungen (Legends and Stories) was written in a similar fashion as Lagerlöf’s. During this time, some of her poetry was published in several publications, much of it written in the Romantic style. Her father, with whom she was very close, died in 1930, after a long illness.

After the Nazis rose to power in Germany Sachs was only allowed to write for Jewish newspapers. She was picked up by the Gestapo several times. Near the end of 1937 she was arrested with a close friend who was active in the Resistance. Nelly never saw her friend again, whose identity she never revealed. He was deported to a concentration camp where he later died. It was during the 1930s that Sachs began to develop an interest in Jewish mysticism, which would later be reflected in her writing.

It was through the work of friends that Nelly Sachs was finally able to escape Germany. A friend of hers, Gudrun Harlan, was able to contact the Swedish writer Selma Lagerlof. Selma Lagerlöf, with the aid of the Swedish royal family, assisted Nelly Sachs in acquiring a visa for Sweden, shortly after receiving deportation orders for a work camp. Nelly Sachs and her mother took one of the last flights to Sweden and arrived on May 16, 1940 in Stockholm. Not yet fluent in Swedish, Nelly Sachs began translating Swedish poetry in addition to working on her own writing.

In 1943 the first reports reached Sweden of the concentration camps, and Nelly Sachs discovered that her friend had been a victim of this terror. With the exception of her mother, who had fled with her to Sweden, all of her family members and many friends were also lost in the Holocaust. Out of this period came her work In den Wohnungen des Todes (In the Habitations of Death), published in 1947, with a series of poems entitled "Gebete für den toten Bräutigam," followed by Sternverdunklung (Eclipse of Stars) in 1949. Shortly thereafter came her well-known play Eli, ein Mysterienspiel vom Leiden Israels which would later be made into a radio play in West Germany. Three years later her mother died.

In 1952 Nelly Sachs received Swedish citizenship.

Although Sachs was a well-known translator of Swedish poetry, it was some time before publishers in Germany were prepared to publish her works. She was not noticed until some of her poems were published in the magazine Texte und Zeichen in 1956. In 1957 her book Und niemand weiß weiter (And No One Knows How to Go On) was published, and in 1959 Flucht und Verwandlung (Flight and Metamorphosis). A visit to Germany brought Sachs great trauma. After returning to Sweden, Sachs suffered a nervous breakdown and spent 1960-1963 in a psychiatric hospital caused by fears which stemmed from her life in Germany during the Nazi period. During this time she wrote her work Noch feiert Tod das Leben, published in 1961.

Nelly Sachs received many awards for her work. In 1957 she became a member of the Deutsche Akademie für Sprache und Dichtung in Darmstadt. The following year she was the first winner of the Lyricist's Prize of the Swedish Writers' Union (Schwedischen Schriftstellersverband). Sachs won the Meersburger Droste-Preis for female poets in 1960. In 1961 she became a member in the Hamburg free academy for art. That same year the city of Dortmund established a Nelly Sachs Prize, named after its first winner. In 1963 Nelly Sachs became a member of the Bavarian academy of arts. In 1965 she received the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade. Nelly Sachs reached her high point when she was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1966, together with the Israeli writer Shmuel Yosef Agnon. Finally, in 1967 Nelly Sachs received honorary citizenship from the city of her birth, Berlin. During the same year her work O, die Schornsteine (O, the Chimneys) was published.

Nelly Sachs died on May 12, 1970 in Stockholm, where she was buried in the Jewish cemetery.

  • December 10, 1891: Nelly (Leonie) Sachs born in Berlin
  • 1921: Legenden und Erzählungen
  • 1930: William Sachs dies
  • 1940: Nelly and Margarete Sachs flee Berlin, arrive in Stockholm, Sweden
  • 1947: In den Wohnungen des Todes
  • 1949: Sternverdunklung
  • 1951: Eli, ein Mysterienspiel vom Leiden Israels
  • 1952: Nelly Sachs receives Swedish citizenship
  • 1954?: Margarete Sachs dies
  • 1957: Und niemand weiß weiter Member of Deutsche Akademie für Sprache und Dichtung, Darmstadt
  • 1958: Received Swedish Lyricist's Prize
  • 1959: Flucht und Verwandlung
  • 1960: Received Droste-Prize from city of Meersburg
  • 1961: Fahrt ins Staublose Received Culture Prize of the city of Dortmund Noch feiert Tod das Leben
  • 1962: Zeichen im Sand
  • 1964: Glühende Rätsel
  • 1965: Späte Gedichte Received Peace Prize of the German Book Trade
  • 1966: Die Suchenende Received Nobel Prize for literature, shared with S.Y. Agnon
  • 1970: Verzauberungen
  • May 12, 1970: Nelly Sachs dies in Stockholm
  • 1971: Suche nach Lebenden
  • 1971: Teile dich Nacht

Some information for biographical note from: Wall, Renate. Lexikon deutschsprachiger Schriftstellerinnen im Exil, 1933-1945, Band II. Freiburg im Breisgau, Kore, 1995.

From the guide to the Nelly Sachs Collection, 1891-1992, bulk 1954-1967, (Leo Baeck Institute)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
referencedIn George, Manfred, 1893-1965. Manfred George papers, 1933-1965. University at Albany, University Libraries
referencedIn Bar Kochba-Theodor Herzl Prague Academic Association Collection, 1931-1977 Leo Baeck Institute Archives
referencedIn Zohn, Harry. Harry Zohn papers, 1897-2001. Harvard University, Houghton Library
creatorOf Berlinski, Herman. Etz chayim = Der Baum des Lebens : eine dramatische Kantate / music von Herman Berlinski ; text von Herman Berlinski. Jewish Theological Seminary of America
referencedIn Ilse Blumenthal-Weiss Collection, 1935-1989, bulk 1942-1978 Leo Baeck Institute.
creatorOf Binder, Arthur. Songs from poetry of Nelly Sachs / by Arthur Binder. New York Public Library System, NYPL
referencedIn Antioch Review mss., 1940-2007 Lilly Library (Indiana University, Bloomington)
referencedIn Erika Guetermann Collection, 1920-1967 Leo Baeck Institute Archives
referencedIn Berlinski, Herman. Sinfonia no. 5, for organ : on poetry by Nelly Sachs / [music by] Herman Berlinski. Jewish Theological Seminary of America
creatorOf Nelly Sachs Collection, 1891-1992, bulk 1954-1967 Leo Baeck Institute.
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith Antioch review. corporateBody
associatedWith Berlinski, Herman. person
associatedWith Binder, Arthur. person
associatedWith Blumenthal-Weiss, Ilse, 1988-1987 person
associatedWith George, Manfred, 1893-1965. person
associatedWith Guetermann, Erika person
associatedWith Verein jüdischer Hochschüler Bar Kochba in Prag corporateBody
associatedWith Zohn, Harry. person
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Person

Birth 1891-12-10

Death 1970-05-12

Swedes

German

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