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The story of Nelly Sachs’ career of a writer is a deeply sad tale. She was the only child of a German couple and the family was living in Berlin as the Nazis came to power and the war began. Her father died in the concentration camps, but in very dangerous times she and her mother were able to get out of Germany and to Stockholm, Sweden for the rest of the war. They escaped with the help of German friends in 1940. Sachs was almost fifty years old (b. 1891).
Her career as a poet began in response to the Holocaust and the great bulk of her poetry is Holocaust related and inspired. That body of work earned her the Nobel Prize for literature in 1966.
The opening poems are tributes and revelations of the Holocaust. The poems are powerful, wrenching and profoundly moving. One after the other simply rocked me to the core of pain and sadness. Two stood out for me and touched deep places in my heart and left me with tears running down my face.
In “If only I knew” the poet tries to imagine one of her loved ones being led to the gas chamber, and what might have been the very last thing that person saw in life. It’s short enough to share the whole poem:
“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
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?”
In “Chorus of the Rescued” the people speak out asking their loved ones to be gentle and go slowly in the process of bringing them back into life lest the experience be too much. One stanza says:
“We, the rescued
Show us your sun, but gradually.
Lead us from star to star, step by step.
Be gentle when you teach us to live again
Lest the song of a bird,
Or a pail being filled at the well,
Let our badly sealed pain burst forth again
And carry us away – “
The poem “Numbers” speaks chillingly of the roll of the tattooed numbers on the arms of prisoners, especially, for her, the memory of her father.
When your forms turned to ashes
into the oceans of night
where eternity washes
life and death into the tides –
there rose the numbers –
(once branded into your arms
so none would escape the agony)
there rose meteors of numbers
beckoned into the spaces
where light-years expand like arrows
and the planets
of the magic substances of pain –
numbers – root and all
plucked out of murderers’ brains
and part already
of the heavenly cycle’s
path of blue veins.
It seems that she must have had her father in mind when writing “Old men”
In the folds of this star
covered with tatters of night
they stand and wait for God.
A thorn has closed their mouths,
they speak only with their eyes,
they speak like a well
in which a corpse has drowned.
O the old men
who carry their burnt succession in their eyes
as their sole possession.
While most of the selections from this, her second book, are about the holocaust, she does begin to branch out in a forward looking toward Israel as the future of hope.
In “Now Abraham has seized the root of the winds,” toward the end she speaks of the hope that a new birth holds:
But youth has unfurled its flag of longing,
for a field yearns to be loved by them
and a desert watered
and the house shall be built
to face the sun: God
and evening again has the violet-shy word
that only grows so blue in the homeland:
It seems that Sachs’ hopes turn, cautiously toward Israel as a new beginning expressed in “All lands are ready to rise”
All lands are ready to rise
from the map.
To shake off their skin of stars
to tie the blue bundles of their seas
on their back
to set their mountains with fiery roots
as caps on their smoking hair.
Ready to carry the last weight
o melancholy in a suitcase, this chrysalis
on the wings of which they will one day
end the journey.
The poem “How many” cries out for relief form the sorrows of life and a return to the peacefulness she knew as a child. We read in part:
must heart steps take
that travels by day
finally has been reached –
How many dream-washed limits of earth
must be drawn out
till music comes
from an alien star –
How many mortally sick conquests
must they make
before coming home
moon-milk in their mouths
into the screaming air
of their brightly pennoned childhood playground –
“Estranged” contains a beautiful three line description of love:
“love is a flower that grows in sand
which serves in fire
and is not devoured.”
Perhaps a description of the essence of her poetry is captured in the three lines:
“My love flowed out into your martyrdom
broke through death
we live in resurrection.”
Yet I seldom see much of this resurrection. Her poetry seems to primarily rest in mourning. There is very little of rebirth.
However, every now and again there is a slight glimmer of hope that breaks through. She goes from:
“. . . the laws consumed in the lighting of stillness
at the rim leaning out
over my life laid on its bier”
To a glimmer of hope
“In the interim
love at times takes trips into brightness
that smashes to smithereens
all protecting night.”
The story of this verse play is rooted in ancient Jewish Hassidic tradition. The young 8 year old boy Ely, not really understanding the war and what was going on, is piping a Jewish hymn on the street. He looks to heaven in being caught up in his music. A German soldier sees the boy and his actions and believes him to be calling down his God against the Nazis, so he strikes the boy dead with the butt of his rifle.
Michael, the local shoemaker, sets out to avenge Ely’s death. Along the way we watch the whole village come to terms with what has happened to them. There are those who simply can’t imagine what has happened and that somehow God has abandoned them. Others are already in the process of trying to rebuild lives within the limits they face. Yet others had their own way of dealing with this horror.
Eventually Michael does meet up with the soldier and avenges the death of Eli.
The play is quite ritualistic, I would guess following the rules of such a play in Jewish history. I found it a bit puzzling here and there, but overall quite moving.
Overall I found many of the poems to be deeply moving. However, the collection as a whole gave me the notion that Sachs was quite limited as a poet. No doubt she was profoundly moved by the Holocaust which killed her gather, destroyed the nature of her life and her people. Nonetheless, while it seems she tried to see hope in the world of Israel and a rebirth of Jewish culture, she simply could never really move forward from her profound grief. It’s not that I can’t understand that. I can. However, I do think it limits her place in theBob Corbett firstname.lastname@example.org
Bob Corbett email@example.com