Nelly Sachs: The Daring Backstory Behind the Nobel Prize-Winning Poet

Monday's Google Doodle commemorates that journey.

Nelly Sachs was a Nobel-prize winning poet who died at the age of 79 in 1970. Her long life was a testament to the horrors Sachs was forced to confront. On Monday, the Google Doodle honoring her acknowledged that strife with its representation of Berlin in flames. The Doodle also includes imagery key to Sach’s story as a refugee: soaring letters and a single plane.

Her body of work, most of it published after 1947, is thematically representative of her life as a victim of the Holocaust. Born in Berlin and the daughter of a wealthy manufacturer named William, Stach began writing poems early on — although her career as a poet of note began after she fled Nazi Germany. This escape was possible, in part, because of her interest in writing. At the age of 15, after reading Gösta Berling, Sachs began a correspondence with another Nobel prize winner — Selma Lagerlöf, a Swedish novelist who was the first woman to win the prize in literature.

In these letters Lagerlöf gave the young Sachs writing advice while laying the groundwork for an impossibly important friendship — the correspondence continued for 35 years, building towards the penultimate moment where Lagerlöf arranged for Sachs’ escape from Germany.

Sachs had been an active member of the city’s Jewish Cultural Society; as anti-semitism in the city soared she and her mother became victims of the Gestapo’s attention. She survived a five-day interrogation — and in 1940, Lagerlöf was able to get Sachs and her mother on one of the last flights to Stockholm.

On the right, Selma Lagerlöf and on the left, a young Nelly Sachs.

Wikimedia Commons

While Lagerlöf died before Sachs arrived, her efforts to get her to Sweden — a long with the help of Prince Eugen of the Swedish Royal House — secured Sachs twenty more years of life. She ultimately died of cancer on May 12, 1970.

Sweden is where Sachs immersed herself in the creation of poetry that reflects the struggle of the Jewish people, the importance of remembrance, and life’s counterbalance of horror and hope.

When she received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966, she observed that she represented “the tragedy of the Jewish people.” But Sachs, in turn, also represents resilience — and her poems and plays were not without hope.

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