Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Nelly Sachs ( 1891- 1970) 'Chorus of the Rescued '

Nelly Sachs   - 'The Worms of Fear  Still Feed Upon Us'

I wish to thank the 'Swedish History in English' Facebook group for their help with this feature

Nelly Sachs in 1966 at the time of being joint winner of the Nobel prize for Literature

                     German Jewish poet Nelly Sachs (1891- 1971) managed to escape from Berlin  to Sweden in 1940.  A fellow poet, Gudrun Harlan, managed to contact the Swedish novelist  Selma Lagerholf to assist : Nelly Sachs had been a long standing reader of Selam Lagherholf's work and they had corresponded for some years, and Nelly Sachs later maintained that her own love for Sweden developed from Selma Lagerholf's writing- particularly the novel 'Gosta Berling' (1891) .  Prince Eugene of Sweden also helped in acquiring the necessary documentation.

 Nelly Sachs  had already been interrogated a number of times by the Gestapo, and one source suggests that she had actually received notification to report for deportation. However on 16th May 1940, Nelly Sachs and her mother took one of the last flights from Germany  to Sweden, where they remained for the rest of their lives.

It was only after World War 2 that Nelly's poetry received international acclaim : She wrote a great deal about the Holocaust. Her most famous poems include Chimneys, Numbers. Some are just too stark and painful to read . They evoke the systematic brutality of the Holocaust as much it could be possible in the written word.

There is an element of trauma for having escaped, the 'guilt of the rescued' . Many of Nelly Sachs'  relatives did not survive the camp. A number of friends such as fellow poet  Getrud Kolmar were also murdered in the holocaust. Nelly befriended the Romanian poet Paul Celan, who survived a Nazi Labour camp, and later settled in Paris.

There is a brittle and fragile element to her poetry- 'the rescued' can not separate themselves from the horror of those who perished:

Chorus of the Rescued

We, the rescued,
From whose hollow bones death had began to whittle his flutes,
And on whose sinews he had already stroked his bow-
Our bodies continues to lament
With their mutilated music.
We, the rescued,
The worms of fear still feed on us.
Our constellation is buried in dust.
We, the rescued,
Beg you;
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 burst forth again
and carry us away-
We beg you;
Do not show us an angry dog, not yet-
It could be, it could be
That we will dissolve into dust-
Dissolve into dust, before your eyes ,
For what binds our fabric together?
We whose breath vacated us,
Whose soul fled to Him out of that midnight
Long before our bodies were rescued
Into the ark of the moment.
We, the rescued,
We, press your hand
We look into your eye-
But all that binds us together now is leave-taking,
the leave-taking in the dust
Binds together with you.

- Nelly Sachs, translated by Michael Hamburger 

Taken from the anthology 'Poetry of the Second World War- An International Anthology ' .edited by Desmond Graham 1995.

Several collections of her work were printed during Nelly Sachs' lifetime.  Her New York Times obituary suggested that her collection  ' Flight and Metamorphosis'  (1959) received particular acclaim.
A play 'Eli' from 1950- set in Nazi Occupied Poland- was read out on West German radio, and performed on stage in 1962. In 1965 Nelly Sachs won the Peace Prize of German Publishers ( Friedenspreis des Deutcshen Buchandels ) And  in 1966 she became the joint winner of the Nobel Prize of Literature along with Israeli writer Schmuel Yosef Agnon.

Paul Celan took his own life in 1970, three weeks before Nelly Sachs died in a Stockholm hospital on 12th May 1970. She was 78.

Links of interest 

Nelly Sachs'    Nobel Prize Speech 1966

New York Times obituary  to Nelly Sachs

Jewish Women's Archive   Article on Nelly Sachs

Nelly Sachs Collection on line

Home page has English language biography feature. The digitalised documents are largely in German and Swedish.

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