Born into a Jewish family in Berlin on this day in 1891, Nelly Sachs studied dance and literature as a child and began writing as an adolescent. She published her poetry in German periodicals as well as a collection of stories called Legends and Tales. During this time, she corresponded with distinguished Swedish writer Selma Lagerlöf—who became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1909—and who eventually saved Sachs’ and her mother’s lives. Lagerlöf petitioned the Swedish royal family to help the Sachs escape Germany at the start of World War II.
After escaping to Sweden, Sachs supported herself and her mom in a one-room apartment by working as a translator. During this time, she wrote powerful poems and plays about the aftermath of the war and family members who died in concentration camps. Her haunting poem “O die Schornsteine” (“O the Chimneys”), evokes the spirits of the dearly departed through the image of smoke rising from the camps. Sachs described the “metaphors” in her poetry as “wounds,” but her work also explores themes of transformation and forgiveness. She expanded on these ideas in her 1951 play Eli: Ein Mysterienspiel vom Leiden Israels (Eli: A Mystery Play of the Sufferings of Israel).
The first German-speaking woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, Sachs’ poignant poetry spoke eloquently about the Holocaust. Sachs won many other accolades including the 1965 Peace Prize of the German Book Trade. “In spite of all the horrors of the past,” she said when accepting the award. “I believe in you.”
Happy Birthday, Nelly Sachs!
Doodle illustrated by German/Finnish artist Daniel Stolle.
Early drafts of the Doodle below: