Nelly Sachs, honored on Monday with a Google Doodle, won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1966. The award came just two decades after her first volume of poetry, In den Wohnungen des Todes (In the House of Death) was published and at the time, she was commended for her “outstanding lyrical and dramatic writing, which interprets Israel’s destiny with touching strength.” Sach’s poems reflected her role as a witness and victim to the Holocaust; her work was a marriage of mourning and memory.
The poems which gained her acclaim also emerged when Sach was in exile. Born in 1891, Sach and her mother escaped Berlin in 1940 and arrived as refugees in Sweden. While she published a few poems in German magazines as a young woman, Sach’s later work reflected the persecution and death she witnessed inflicted by Nazis. Metaphorical language is infused within her poems, and recurring images like butterflies, stars, and the presence of a beloved are stalwart.
Below are five of her poems translated from German to English, each capturing her dual motifs of life and death. The Jewish Women’s Archive notes that her writing was “linked to the mystical,” testimonial poems that appeal to the grace of humankind.
“Glühende Rätsel II” (“Glowing Puzzles II”)
Plunge straight into the extreme
Not playing hide-and-seek with pain
I can only seek you if I take the sand into my mouth
So I can taste resurrection
For you have all abandoned my grief
And you are isolated from my love, dear ones
“Immer noch um die Stirn geschlungen” (“Still Looped Around His Forehead”)
Still looped around your forehead
sickness’s stern horizon
with the rushing rebellion of battle —
the rescue rope thrown into the abyss
to catch those drowning in night
cradled in a rolling sea of vowels
words have all gone headlong
“Die gekrümmte Linie des Leidens” (“The Crooked Line of Suffering”)
The crooked line of suffering
tumbling along the godfired
geometry of the universe
forever on the trail of light leading to you
and dimmed again in the falling sickness
impatient to reach the end —
Diese Nacht” (“Last Night”)
as I was walking down a dark side street
around the corner
my shadow lay down
in my arms
This weary garment
wanted to be carried,
and the color nought appealed to me
You are beyond the pale!
“Hier und Da” (“Here and There”)
Here and there the lantern of compassion
should be lent to the fishes
where the hook has been swallowed
or choking been well practiced.
That is where the stars of torment
have grown ripe for redemption.
Or there, where lovers hurt each other,
who are forever close to dying.