“When the great terror came/I fell dumb”: Nelly Sachs & the Written Word as the Sole Means for Vaguely Getting Across One’s Internal Turmoil

When it comes to the genre often relegated to “Holocaust writers,” Nelly Sachs frequently seems to be overlooked. Born in Schöneberg at the end of the nineteenth century, Sachs’ poetry very clearly comes from a place of seeing the contrast between prosperity and decay, tranquility and terror. Her privilege of being a part of a wealthy family allowed her the later associated with Emily Dickinson luxury of being as reclusive and introverted as she wanted to be, counting primarily on correspondence with fellow writers Selma Lagerlöf and Hilde Domin for the bulk of her social interaction (oh to have the stamina to rely on the epistolary for interactive sustenance alone). It was, in fact Lagerlöf, in her elevated position as the daughter of a lieutenant in the Royal Värmland Regiment, who had a hand in securing the liberation of the Sachses from Germany, what with her ability to bend the Swedish royal family’s ear and all. It was a prime instance of the either randomness or deliberateness of fate, as Sachs was “booked” to go to a concentration camp a week before Lagerlöf secured her flight out of the foremost territory of Hitler’s influence.

Once in Sweden with her mother, Margarete Karger, for whom she would care for as her health deteriorated, Sachs got by on the money from translating Swedish to German and vice versa. Even in the face of this drone work, Sachs still wrote her own poetry (because true artists, as you might know, cannot resist the urge to create even in the face of not being paid to do so), developing a close kinship with her contemporary, Paul Celan, whose subject matters were also heavily influenced by the Holocaust and both Jewish and Christian beliefs (Sachs’ early works being especially partial to the latter with their German Romantic slant). Both poets were able to relate and commiserate with one another in their explorations of loss and persecution. And, to be sure, as is the case with the majority of great writers and poets, Sachs’ focus on a single subject matter–an obsession with her one true love cut down by a fatal and undeserved end–is what made her work so resonant. To heighten the sense of the tragedian in her poetry, Sachs experienced the simultaneous joy and trauma of falling in love while in her teens (unequivocally the most formative part of one’s life in terms of emotional injury cementation), after which the object of her affection, though not actually Jewish, would end up in a concentration camp to meet a predictable end in said milieu. Seeing his death as a representation of not just the demise of hope in love, but as a metaphor for the unjust demise of her own people, the lyric poetry of Sachs almost consistently ends in devastation and fatality with regard to intermingling these two subjects. One such poem, “If Only I Knew,” is particularly telling of this common theme, with lines that underscore Sachs’ perpetual and unshakeable suffering:

If only I knew,
what your last look rested on.
Was it a stone that had already drunk
many last looks, until they fell in blindness
on the blind?

Or was it dirt,
earth enough to fill a shoe,
and already turned black
from so many good-byes
and from causing so much death?

Or was it your last road
that brought you the farewell from all roads
you had walked on?

A puddle, a piece of mirroring metal,
the belt buckle of your enemy, perhaps,
or any other small fortune-teller
of heaven?

Or did this Earth, that doesn’t allow
anyone to depart from her unloved
send a bird-sign through the air,
reminding your soul so that it flinched
in its body burned with anguish?

Almost unbearably heart-wrenching, the one glimmer of jaded hope Sachs can offer us through her pain is the optimistic (and also bittersweet) idea that no one can leave this earth without being loved. Without at least affecting one person in their life with their death, whether premature or “right on time.” Wrapping up the calamity of the Shoah in her lost love, the two events become intertwined to the point of perfect and inseparable harmony, a phenomenon Sachs could never have expressed through any spoken communication, struck “dumb”–catatonic–by the horrors around her. To this point, in order to genuinely get across the extent of human agony (or, occasionally, joy) any verbal manifestation not first committed to the page, the only place where demons can eloquently and adequately be exorcised–lest we allow them to swallow us whole without at least attempting to pronounce our emotional reactions to a travesty at all–is inevitably ineffective in accurate conveyance. And this is regardless of whether said travesty is personal or generalized–though in Sachs’ case, it was, of course, a combination.

Suffering numerous mental breakdowns throughout her later life, most especially after the passing of her mother, Sachs continued to write through it all. Because, to be sure, some of us must write the pain away instead of fucking it away. Fragile to a fault, it is said that one of her worst breakdowns occurred while en route to accept a literary honor in Switzerland, during which she heard someone utter a phrase in German, the mere sound of the language of the all-encompassing Tormentor sending her over the edge (perhaps this is how Mexicans feel about hearing English). So it can be asserted that, sometimes, despite our best efforts, it is as Laurie in Halloween: H20 asks: “Do you believe some traumas are so great, that you can never get over them?” Anyone who has been through something too inexplicably heinous to articulate (least of all through the mumblings and stumblings of spoken word) knows the answer is an emphatic “yes.”

And so, though Madonna may have once said, “Words are useless, they don’t stand for anything. How can they explain how I feel?,” they are the closest we’ll ever get to even being able to remotely express the depths of our inner turmoil during periods of upheaval, so very frequently par for the course in every decade, century and any other abstract measure of time (a “thing” more abstract even than our own fraught voiceovers).

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