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In the Habitations of Death , by Nelly Sachs

 

 

 

In a typically questionable decision by the Swedish Academy, the German Jewess Nelly Sachs (1891-1970) was obliged to share the Nobel Prize in Literature with the Israeli poet, Schmuel Yosef Agnon, in 1966.(*) This very nearly didn't happen and almost all of Sachs' poems were within a hairbreadth's margin of never being written, because in 1940 the Nazi authorities had issued orders to have her conveyed to a concentration camp. But thanks to the efforts of friends who finally interested the brother of the Swedish King in the matter, Sachs (and her mother) had been able to escape Nazi Germany with no time to spare on May 16, 1940, in one of the last passenger planes to Sweden. Sachs spent the rest of her life in Sweden writing poetry and excellent translations of modern Swedish-language poets into German.

 

I suppose that a good number of persons have heard all they want to hear about the Holocaust, but I assure them that if they haven't read Paul Celan's Todesfuge or Sachs' first book of poems, In den Wohnungen des Todes (In the Habitations of Death), there are still some things well worth hearing. In light of the fact that In den Wohnungen des Todes was published in the famous Aufbau-Verlag in 1946, these poems also mark a beginning of the massive struggle to perceive, comprehend and then somehow digest what the Nazis and other fascists (for it was a team effort) did to the Jews. 

 

Though it is often enough clear to which general events Sachs is responding, these poems of pain and rage, of despair and spite, even of occasional hope can carry the enormous burden of expression of loss and outrage much more widely. What I mean to say is that poems like the following speak with the voice of every mother and child who have been murdered by men who have lost or discarded or somehow pushed their humanity into some tiny lockbox:

 

                         Ein totes Kind spricht

 

Die Mutter hielt mich an der Hand.
Dann hob J
emand das Abschiedsmesser:

Die Mutter löste ihre Hand aus der meinen
Damit es mich nicht träfe.
Sie aber berührte noch einmal leise meine Hüfte −
Und da blutete ihre Hand −

 

Von da ab schnitt mir das Abschiedsmesser
Den Bissen in der Kehle entzwei −
Es fuhr in der Morgendämmerung mit der Sonne hervor
Und begann, sich in meinen Augen zu schärfen −
In meinem Ohr schliffen sich Winde und Wasser,
Und jede Trostesstimme stach in mein Herz −

 

Als man mich zum Tode führte,
Fühlte ich im letzten Augenblick noch
Das Herausziehen des großen Abschiedsmessers.

 

(                A Dead Child Speaks

 

Mother held me by my hand.

Then Someone raised the knife of parting:

So that it would not strike me

Mother took her hand from mine.

But she touched my hip once lightly -

And her hand bled -

 

Then the knife of parting

sliced the bite in my throat in two -

It rose in the dawn with the sun

And began to sharpen itself in my eyes -

Winds and water ground in my ear,

And every voice of solace pierced my heart -

 

As I was led to death,

I felt in the final moment 

The great knife of parting being pulled out.   )

 

The love of her life was killed by the Nazis, a love which filled all of the rest of her life, and she never was able to learn the circumstances of his death. She wrote to him and for him in many poems, and in this first collection there is an entire section called Prayers for the Dead Groom dedicated to such poems. Once again, her poems speak the pain of any who have lost a loved one. Here is the shortest one, rhymed, which I won't try to reproduce in translation.

 

Ich sah eine Stelle, wo ein Herd stand

Auch fand ich einen Männerhut -

O, mein Geliebter, welcher Sand

weiß um dein Blut?

 

Die Schwelle, die liegt ohne Tür

Sie liegt zum Beschreiten bereit -

Dein Haus, mein Geliebter, ich spür

Ist ganz von Gott verschneit.

 

( I saw a place, where a stove stood

And I found a man's hat -

Oh, my love, which sand

knows of your blood?

 

The threshold, which lies doorless

Lies ready for your step -

Your house, my love, I sense

is completely snowed in by God. )

 

Though the Old Testament is often present with allusions to Job and Jeremiah, Sachs does not call upon God for explanation or justice. But she seems to be sure of the latter:

 

Auch der Greise
Letzten Atemzug, der schon den Tod anblies
Raubtet ihr noch fort.
Die leere Luft,

Zitterend vor Erwartung, den Seufzer der Erleichterung

Zu erfüllen, mit dem diese Erde fortgestoßen wird -

Die leere Luft habt ihr beraubt!

 

Der Greise
Ausgetrocknetes Auge
Habt ihr noch einmal zusammengepreßt
Bis ihr das Salz der Verzweiflung gewonnen hattet −

Alles was dieser Stern

An Krümmungen der Qual besitzt,

Alles Leiden aus den dunklen Verliesen der Würmer

Sammelte sich zuhauf -

 

O ihr Räuber von echten Todesstunden,

Letzten Atemzügen und der Augenlider Gute Nacht

Eines sei euch gewiß:

 

Es sammelt der Engel ein

Was ihr fortwarft,

Aus der Greise verfrühter Mitternacht

Wird sich ein Wind der letzten Atemzüge auftun,

Der diesen losgerissenen Stern 

In seines Herrn Hände jagen wird!

 

( Also the old woman's

Last breath, which already blew on death,

You stole away from her.

The empty air,

Quivering with anticipation to fill the

Sigh of relief with which this earth is pushed away -

You stole the empty air!

 

The old woman's

Dried up eye

You have pressed together

Till you squeezed out the salt of despair -

All that this globe possesses

In torment's contortions,

All the suffering from the dark dungeons of the worms

Piled itself up -

 

Oh you thieves of genuine hours of death,

Last breaths and the eyelids' Good Night

Let one thing be certain:

 

An angel collects

All that you have discarded,

Out of the old woman's premature midnight

A wind of last breaths will rise

And fling this unmoored globe

Into its Master's hands!         )

 

Let it be so!

 

 

 

(*) Was it "theme year"? Was it "two for the price of one"? What the hell was it? At least this assured that most of her poetry was translated into English.