On the 50th Anniversary of Nelly Sachs’ Passing

The great Jewish German-Swedish poet & playwright Nelly Sachs passed on this day, 12 May, 1970. Raised in Germany, the rise of nazism in the thirties terrified her so much that at one point she lost the ability to speak, as she would remember in verse: “When the great terror came/I fell dumb.” In 1940 she escaped with her mother on the last flight from Nazi Germany to Sweden, a week before she was scheduled to report to a concentration camp.  Sachs became a Swedish citizen in 1952. During the sixties she suffered from many psychic breakdowns, spending time in mental institutions, but she kept writing through all her tribulations. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1966.  Here is my translation of her poem HIOB/JOB, followed by Paul Celan’s poem Zürich, “Hotel Zum Storchen,” the place they met in 1960, and a commentary on that poem.

O you windrose of torments!
Torn by urstorms
into upheaval’s other & always other directions:
your South too spells loneliness.
Where you stand lies the navel of pain.

Your eyes have sunk deep into your skull
like cave doves in the night
which the hunter draws out blindly.
Your voice has gone dumb,
having too often asked Why.

Your voice has joined the worms and the fishes.
Job, you have wept through all the vigils
but some day the constellation of your blood
will turn all rising suns pallid.

On October 28, 1959 she wrote to her friend Paul Celan: “Dear Paul Celan, let us continue to pass truth over to each other. Between Paris and Stockholm runs the meridian of pain and consolation.” This meridian — the friendship with Sachs & the term ‘meridian’ — became core to Celan’s (well)being & work. After they met in Zürich a year later, Paul celan wrote the following poem to commemorate their meeting:


for Nelly Sachs

Our talk turned on the Too Much, on the
Too Little.  On you
on and-yet-you, on
blurring through brightness, on
Jewishness, on
your God. 

On the day of an ascension, the
Minster stood over there, it came
with some gold across the water. 

There was talk of your God, I  spoke
against him, I
let the heart I had
his highest, his death-rattled, his
contending word —  

Your eye looked at me, looked away,
your mouth
spoke across to the eye, I heard: 

just don’t know, you know,
just don’t know,


Commentary by Barbara Wiedemann & myself on: Zürich, Zum Storchen | Zurich, Hotel Zum Storchen

Written, Paris, 5. 30. 1960. 

T Zurich, Hotel Zum Storchen, Dedication, For Nelly Sachs, 9 On the day of an ascension] The poem refers to Celan’s first encounter, on 5. 26.1960, Ascension Day, at that hotel in Zurich, with the German-Jewish poet Nelly Sachs who lived in Sweden. A dated & signed ms. copy is kept in Sachs’ literary estate (PC/Sachs 41-43). 

1f. Vom Zuviel war die Rede, |vom Zuwenig || Our talk turned on the Too Much, |on the Too Little] cf. Felstiner’s suggestion that “Celan’s opening sentence gives a nod to Margarete Susman, who lived in Zurich and whose 1946 book of Job and the Fate of the Jewish people says that vis-à-visa the catasstrophe, ‘every word is a Too Little and a Too Much.’” (PSJ p.158)

9f. das|Münster stand drüben || the | minster stood across] From the hotel one sees the Großmünster on the other shore of the Limmat. 

10f. es kam|mit einigem Gold übers Wasser || it came | with some gold across the water ]  Ref. to the Book of Job: “Von Mitternacht kommt Gold, um Gott her ist schrecklicher Glanz” (Job 37.22) The King James version has this as: “Fair weather cometh out of the north: with God is terrible majesty, “ missing the “gold,” though other English versions have it as “golden splendor.” See also v. 10 of “Nah, im Aortenbogen | Near, in the Aortic Arch,” which reads: “Ziv, that light.” In Breathturn into Timestead (p. 535) I comment on the mystical meaning of  “Ziv” & then quote the following letters to Sachs: “It would seem that Celan himself had a mystical light-experience in company of Nelly Sachs, first in Zurich and then in Paris. The following letters from the poet to Nelly Sachs make reference to and would seem to corroborate this experience [PC / NS ## 105 & 108]]:


My dear Nelly,
it was so good to hold your letter in my hands and to be reminded by you yourself of that light that shone over the water in Zurich and then in Paris. Once, in a poem, a name for it even came to me through Hebrew.
And with my warmest congratulations upon your birthday!
Your Paul
Paris, March 22, 1968.

My dear  Nelly,
thank you for your lines, for the reminder of that light.
Yes, that light. You will find it named in my next book of poetry, which is to appear in autumn — called by a Hebrew name.

 22-27 Wir | wissen ja nicht, weißt du, | wir | wissen ja nicht, | was | gilt || We | just don’t know, you know, | we | just don’t know, | what | counts.”] Cf. PC’s note in his agenda (5. 26. 1960): “Hotel Zum Storchen | 4 pm Nelly Sachs, alone. ‘I am a believer.’” PC wrote to Hermann Kasack on 5. 30. 1960: “May I tell you what she said to me a few days ago  — we were speaking about her faith  — when I told her about my hope to be able to blaspheme and quarrel to the end? Nelly Sachs nodded and commented: ‘Wir wissen ja nicht was gilt | We just don’t know what counts…’” (PC/Sachs 41). In her Meersburger Prize acceptance speech, Sachs said explicitly: “Everything counts. Everything is ferment, that works. And we —smoking from error — try, well or badly — we try again and again.” (Works, vol. 4, p. 80).

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2 Responses

  1. Len Kaplan says:

    Thank you. A fine remembrance.

  2. Olivia Fox says:

    Thanks for these memories, I love Nelly Sachs’s poetry, it’s poetry riddled with some mysticism.

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