Nelly Sachs (1891-1970) is one of the great poets of lamentation in the German language. She has deep affinities with her friend Paul Celan (their 16-year correspondence is a remarkable 20th-century document), whose work is now more widely read and frequently discussed. They are true peers. One could say that each of them formulated a brave and unnerving lyric response to the unbearable catastrophe of the Holocaust, which is unimaginable but nonetheless needs to be remembered and imagined. Celan spoke of passing through "the thousand darknesses of deathbringing speech." Sachs declared: "The frightful experiences that brought me to the edge of death and darkness are my tutors. If I couldn't have written, I wouldn't have survived. . . . my metaphors are my wounds."

Sachs grew up in a prosperous upper-middle-class Jewish family in Berlin. An only child, she later referred to her privileged early life as a "hell of loneliness." She began by writing a kind of high, neo-Romantic poetry, but in the 1930s increasingly turned to biblical themes and Hasidic mystical subjects. She was deeply bonded to her mother -- her father died in 1930 -- and, with the aid of the Swedish writer Selma Lagerlof, the two of them escaped to Stockholm in May 1940. She lived the rest of her life in Sweden. After her mother's death in 1950, she had the first of many psychiatric breakdowns. She earned a modest living as a translator of Swedish poetry into German and created a full and heartbreaking body of her own work. She won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1966. The citation praised her for "lyrical laments of painful beauty and . . . dramatic legends."

Sachs bore the burden of writing in German during the dumbfounding horrors of the death camps. She carried the lifelong weight of continuing to write in the language of Goethe and Schiller in the wake of the Final Solution. She entered her true poetry under the shadow of the Holocaust, which is why In the Habitations of Death (1947) was her first wholly characteristic work. It begins by evoking the crematoriums:

O the chimneys

On the ingeniously devised habitations of death

When Israel's body drifted as smoke

Through the air --

Hans Magnus Enzensberger has pointed out that metamorphosis is at the heart of Sachs's work. Transformation was her enduring theme. "I hold instead of a homeland/ the metamorphoses of the world," she wrote in Flight and Metamorphosis (1959). The sense of renewal is key to Sachs's enigmatic and grief-stricken poetry that takes, to use one of her titles, a Journey into a Dustless Realm (1961). That's why the butterfly is one of her signature figures, an airy fundamental.


What lovely aftermath

is painted in your dust.

You were led through the flaming

core of earth,

through its stony shell,

webs of farewell in the transient measure.


blessed night of all beings!

The weights of life and death

sink down with your wings

on the rose

which withers with the light ripening homewards.

What lovely aftermath

is painted in your dust.

What royal sign

in the secret of the air.

(The lines from "O the Chimneys" are translated by Michael Roloff. The lines from "Fleeing" as well as the poem "Butterfly" are translated by Ruth and Matthew Mead. All appear in Nelly Sachs, "O the Chimneys." Farrar Straus Giroux. Copyright © 1967 by Farrar Straus Giroux.)