Holocaust Memorial Day 2019: Remembering Nelly Sachs, the poet who captured the horror in verse

Writer found sanctuary from persecution in Sweden

Nelly Sachs: Who was the poet who escaped Nazi Germany and recorded the horror of the Holocaust in verse?

Nelly Sachs, the German-Swedish poet who expressed the horror of the Holocaust in verse, was born on 10 December 1891.

Sachs was honoured with the 1966 Nobel Prize for Literature and is known for her poetry collections In the Houses of Death (1946), Eclipse of Stars (1949), And No One Knows Where to Go (1957), Flight and Metamorphosis (1959) and for the play Eli (1951).

She was born Leonie Sachs in the affluent Tiergarten district of Berlin on 10 December 1891, her father Georg a wealthy manufacturer of natural rubber products, and showed early promise as a dancer, but was discouraged by her parents over fears for her frail health. She was home-schooled for the same reason and began composing romantic verse at 17.

Georg William Sachs died in 1930 and Nelly and her mother Margarete were ultimately forced to flee Germany for Sweden in 1940, aided by the Swedish novelist Selma Lagerlof, after their apartment was torn apart by the Gestapo and the women subjected to a terrifying interrogation. They had been scheduled to report to a concentration camp within a week.

The young Nelly’s fear of Nazi tyranny had been so great that, at one stage, she briefly lost the power of speech.

She would live in Stockholm for the rest of her days, gradually learning the language and taking citizenship in 1952. She never married, however, spending her days writing and caring for her mother in their small two-room flat. She suffered a series of nervous breakdowns in the wake of Margarete’s death in 1950, tormented by nightmarish visions of persecution.

Nelly Sachs died of intestinal cancer on 12 May 1970, aged 78.

Her most famous poem, “O Die Schornsteine” translates as “O the Chimneys”, and addresses the camps where the rest of her Jewish relatives would meet their end.

‘O Die Schornsteine’ (1967)

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!

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