10 December 1891 – 12 September 1970
Nelly Sachs was the sensitive, artistic only child of a young, over-protective mother and older, authoritarian father, to both of whom she remained devoted all her life. Her father died in 1920, her mother in 1950.
She was born into a well-to-do middle-class family in Berlin, Jewish but well integrated into the social world of Berlin’s bourgeoisie and not actively practising the Jewish religion. She seems to have been made aware of her Jewishness only when persecution started.
Extremely reticent about her private life, she always refused to divulge any personal details about the events that inspired her poems. A mystery still surrounds her absence from Berlin around the age of 17 – 18, but she is generally assumed to have had a nervous breakdown following a traumatically unhappy love affair with an older, divorced man who was not a Jew. The man in question is considered to have been a man of honour and worthy of respect, who was involved in the anti-nazi resistance movement. Their paths crossed again, almost 30 years later (1937 or 38), during the Nazi regime, when she was interrogated by the Gestapo. The man – whom she refers to in her poems as her “bridegroom” – was also arrested at the same time and tortured to death during interrogation. Nelly was most likely witness to at least part of his interrogation (“martyr’s death”) This had traumatic results: her “lips were sealed” during interrogation and after being released she was unable to speak for some time. This is frequently symbolised in her poems by her references to words and letters of the alphabet, and to fish, mute or caught on the angler’s hook.
She was finally able to flee to Sweden in 1940 with her mother just before being deported to Theresienstadt concentration camp, and lived in Sweden for the rest of her life, emotionally unable to face the idea of returning to Germany.
In 1966 she was awarded the Nobel prize for literature (for her “German Jewish” poetry).
Her themes are persecution and death, the fate of the refugee, the guilt of those who escaped the Holocaust, the martyr’s death of the beloved, birth, life and survival in spite of the horrors experienced, living with memories of horror, God and belief.
Her metaphors are the sea, butterflies, letters of the alphabet, the mute fish, heavenly bodies (moon, sun, stars, planets and the cosmos), fire, sand. Nelly Sachs speaks for refugees and victims of oppression and persecution throughout human history.