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Writing as the only mainstay

· ​Artists ·

A timid, introverted and melancholic little girl, Leony (Nelly) Sachs was born into a Jewish family in Berlin in 1891. She was introduced to art and music by her father, an authoritarian figure with an ambivalent character whose opposition to her relationship with a young man led his daughter to the brink of anorexia. When Nelly was only 15 years old, after reading a book by Selma Lagerlhöf, she wrote to the author to express her enthusiasm, not knowing that those few words of her comment would shortly save her life as well as her mother’s. In fact, after her father’s death, and following the promulgation of the racial laws and the beginning of the deportations, it was precisely Selma Lagerlhöf, with whom Nelly had stayed in touch, who helped the two women, who in the meantime had been forced to sell all the family possessions, to flee to Stockholm. Lagerlhöf, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1909, died shortly before Nelly Sachs and her mother arrived.

In Stockholm their living conditions were at first extremely precarious – to start with Nelly worked washing dishes – but the young woman was introduced into the lively literary and artistic circles of the capital and was thus enabled to begin a vast and demanding work commitment, translating the great Swedish poetry into German. This effort was subsequently to give her own poetry a new expressive range. From this period of suffering, due to her mother’s terminal illness and the deportation of relatives and friends who had remained in Germany, were born the collections Nelle dimore della morte (1947) [In the Houses of Death] and Le stelle si oscurano (1949). [Eclipse of the Stars].

In Nelly Sachs the human tragedy and “theological scandal” of the Shoah were transformed into an inexhaustible drive to write. Hers are the raw, agonizing words of the survivor: a survivor who, trusting in the last extreme drops of hope that remain within her, seeks to show to those “unaware” of it the horror she has been through, to claim their attention, to call on them to listen:

If the prophets rose up

in the night of humanity

like lovers seeking the heart of the beloved,

night of humanity.

would you have a heart to give?

Her poems offer a tenuous possibility for alleviating pain after the tragedy of the Shoah, since they constitute evidence and an appeal for openness, inasmuch as they are the only subtle link left with hope in a future devoid of hatred. Nelly Sachs’ poetry becomes prophecy:

If the prophets broke in

through the doors of night

gashing wounds with their words in the fields of habit….

If the prophets broke in

through the doors of night

seeking an ear like a homestead –

you ear of humanity

overgrown with cotton,

would you hear?

The survivor lives in an intermediate position as go-between among the dead – to whom he or she wishes to do justice – and the living, who do not know or do not wish to know of the fate of their brethren. Words are not a salve but rather cause wounds, for they show, they whisper, like flutes carved by death, of the extermination of millions of innocent people and seek to give them a voice (“Lightly we slither down this steep rock of horror”). The stateless Sachs, the uprooted woman, “the wandering Jew”, repositions her raison d’être in poetic verse endowed with prophetic valency, making of the “ear” her own homeland, the landing place in the other of her own voice, having escaped the massacre (“Instead of my homeland I hold the metamorphoses of the world”).

“But, you understand, we both live in the invisible home country”, the poet wrote to Paul Celan, the great Romanian poet whose mother tongue was German and who was French by adoption, with whom in 1954 she began an intense and long-lasting correspondence. Sachs shared with Celan, who was also Jewish, the condition of exile, psychological suffering and intense poetic creativity as an anchor of salvation from the horror of the past. Celan wrote: “I always think of you, Nelly, we always think of you and of what is alive thanks to you! Do you still remember when we talked about God for the second time, in our house, of your God, the God who awaits you, do you remember that there was a golden reflection on your walls? It is you, being near you, which makes it possible to see the reflection; there is a need of you, also in the name of those to whom you are and believe yourself to be very close, there is a need of your presence here, and among men and women there is a need of you for a long time yet, there are those who are seeking your gaze; send it, that gaze, send it again out into the open, give them your true words, your liberating words, entrust yourself to him, entrust yourself to us, the companions of your life, make that gaze such that we, already free, become freer in the absolute, let us stand upright, with you, in the light!”.

Her friendship with Celan was a soothing balm in Nelly Sachs’ troubled life: in 1950 the writer began to suffer serious psychological disturbances which involved long stays in psychiatric clinics, with terrible electric shock sessions. Writing, in this predicament too, was her only mainstay: Fuga e trasformazione [Flight and Transformation] dates from 1959 and Al di là della polvere [Journey Beyond the Dust] from 1961.In 1960, although she was by then at the end of her tether, Nelly Sachs was able to make a journey which took her for the first time back to Germany (to which she had never wanted to return), and finally to Paris, where at last she could meet Paul Celan in person.

In 1966 Nelly Sachs was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, a recognition which she received with the modesty of a lost and incredulous smile. Despite the fame that the Nobel Prize brought her, Nelly continued her usual life in her modest apartment in Stockholm between physical and psychological collapses, in contact with her painful inner world and with the liberating creativity of her poetry: she died on 12 May 1970, on the same day that Paul Celan’s funeral was being held in Paris; he had committed suicide a few days earlier by throwing himself into the River Seine.

Elena Buia Rutt

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