The daughter of a wealthy manufacturer, Sachs grew up in a fashionable area of Berlin where she studied music and dancing and began writing poetry from an early age. Due to frail health, she was for the most part educated at home.
Rise of the Nazis and Emigration to Sweden
In 1940, with her mother, she fled to Stockholm, Sweden. Due to a close correspondence and friendship with Selma Lagerlöf, another Nobel Prize winner, Sachs and her mother were able to escape Germany. Lagerlöf intervened with the Swedish royal family to secure their release from Germany. Sachs and her mother escaped on the last airplane flight to for Sweden, a week before Sachs was scheduled to report to a concentration camp.
In Stockholm, the two women survived off Sachs' translation of German and Swedish texts. She translated Swedish poets Gunnar Ekelöf, Johannes Edfelt, and Karl Vennberg. After her mother's death, Sachs suffered several nervous breakdowns characterized by hallucinations, paranoia, and delusions of persecution by Nazis, and she spent a number of years in a mental institution. She continued to write even while hospitalized.
Nelly Sachs's career as a poet of note started only after her emigration. Her first volume of poetry, In den Wohnungen des Todes (In the Houses of Death), 1947, creates a cosmic frame for the suffering of her time, particularly that of the Jews.
Although her poems are written in a modern style, with many lucid metaphors, they also intone the prophetic language of the Old Testament. The collections Sternverdunkelung (Eclipse of Stars), 1949, Und niemand weiss weiter (And No One Knows Where to Go), 1957, and Flucht und Verwandlung (Flight and Metamorphosis), 1959, repeat, develop, and reinforce the cycle of suffering, persecution, exile, and death which characterizes the life of the Jewish people, and becomes transformed, in Nelly Sachs's powerful metaphorical language, into the terms of man's bitter, but not hopeless, destiny.
Of her poetic dramas, the miracle play Eli (1950), broadcast in West Germany as a radio play, has been widely acclaimed. Nelly Sachs has received awards in Sweden and Germany, among them the Prize of the Swedish Poets Association (1958) and the "Friedenspreis des deutschen Buchhandels" (1965). In 1961 her collected poems were published under the title of Fahrt ins Staublose (Journey to the Beyond); her verse dramas in Zeichen im Sand (Signs in the Sand). O the Chimneys, English translations of some of her poetry and of her play Eli, appeared in 1967. (from the Nobel Prize autobiography on Sachs)
In 1961 she became the inaugural winner of the Nelly Sachs Prize, a literary prize awarded biennially by the city of Dortmund, and named in her honour. When, with Shmuel Yosef Agnon, she was awarded the 1966 Nobel Prize for Literature, she observed that Agnon represented Israel whereas "I represent the tragedy of the Jewish people."