Elaine Martin - Nelly Sachs. The Poetics of Silence and the Limits of Representation

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Elaine MartinNelly Sachs

Elaine Martin
Nelly Sachs
The Poetics of Silence
and the Limits of Representation
De Gruyter

ISBN 978-3-11-025672-7
e-ISBN 978-3-11-025673-4
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Martin, Elaine, 1982− Nelly Sachs : the poetics of silence and the limits of represen-
tation / by Elaine Martin. p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references.
ISBN 978-3-11-025672-7 (acid-free paper)
1. Sachs, Nelly −Criticism and interpretation. I. Title.
PT2637.A4184Z719 2011
8311.914−dc23 2011016184
Bibliographic information published by the Deutsche Nationalbibliothek
The Deutsche Nationalbibliothek lists this publication in the Deutsche
Nationalbibliografie; detailed bibliographic data are available in the Internet at http://dnb.d-nb.de.
© 2011 Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co. KG, Berlin/Boston
Cover illustration: Detail of Nelly Sachs’ apartment at Bergsundsstrand 23, Stockholm. ©National Library of Sweden, MS L 90:8:11. Photographer Harry Järv.
Printing and binding: Hubert & Co. GmbH & Co. KG, Göttingen Printed on acid-free paper
Printed in Germanywww.degruyter.com

I owe a particular debt of gratitude to Professor Florian Krobb, whose en-
couragement and enthusiasm helped me towards the completion of this
book, and whose depth of knowledge has been and continues to be an
invaluable resource. Thanks also to Professor Karen Leeder of New Col-
lege, Oxford, whose input was greatly appreciated, and to Dr. Jeff Mor-
rison, whose constructive feedback made the book a more pleasant read.
Furthermore, I wish to extend a word of gratitude to all members of the
German Department at National University of Ireland Maynooth for
their collegiality during the past number of years.Without the financial assistance made possible by the Irish Research
Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences and the John and Pat
Hume Scholarship from NUI Maynooth, this project would not have
come to fruition. My thanks therefore to these two bodies for funding
the doctoral dissertation from which this book evolved. Additionally,
the book’s publication was financed by publication grants from the Na-
tional University of Ireland and National University of Ireland May-
nooth. My thanks to both institutions for trusting in the merit of the
book. I am also grateful to the Suhrkamp Verlag for its generous permis-
sion to reprint poems from the following volumes : Fahrt ins Staublose.
Die Gedichte der Nelly Sachs (Frankfurt am Main : Suhrkamp, 1961),
Suche nach Lebenden. Die Gedichte der Nelly Sachs (Frankfurt am Main :
Suhrkamp, 1971) and Nelly Sachs Werke. Kommentierte Ausgabe Band 1.
Gedichte 1940 – 1950 (Frankfurt am Main : Suhrkamp, 2010). Articles re-
lated to parts of chapters two and three of this book have appeared in the
following volumes : Gert Hofmann, Marko Pajevic, Rachel MagShamrain
and Michael Shields (eds.) German and European Poetics after the Holo-
caust : Crisis and Creativity (Rochester/New York : Camden House,
2011) and Alfred J. Drake (ed.) New Essays on the Frankfurt School of
Critical Theory (Newcastle-upon-Tyne : Cambridge Scholars Publishing,
2009). I must also mention close friends who never forgot to ask how it was
going. A special word of thanks goes to Anne Marie, Suzanne and John,
all of whom generously gave their time to proofreading the manuscript at
various stages.

The most important word of thanks goes to my parents, who contin-
ually supported and encouraged me, and to Conleth for having been and
continuing to be so supportive in ways too numerous to mention. Sadly,
my mother is no longer here to see the final product. This book is dedi-
cated to her.
Acknowledgements VI

Introduction . ......................................... 1
I Contexts
1 Nelly Sachs : A Tumultuous Reception History . . . . . ........ 9
1.1 West Germany’s Three Myths ...................... 9
1.2 Peace with The Perpetrators . ...................... 18
1.3 Restoration in the Literary Arena . . . . ............... 24
1.4 Reception in the East . . . . . . ...................... 27
1.5 Reception in the West : “Die Dichterin der Versçhnung” 33
2 The Problematics of Holocaust Representation . . . . . ........ 49
2.1 Adorno’s ‘after-Auschwitz’ Aporia . . . . ............... 49
2.2 The Expropriation of Death and Adorno’s Modernist Critique . . . . . . ................................. 55
2.3 ‘The Extremity that Eludes the Concept’ . . . . . ........ 57
2.4 The Failure of Culture . . . . . ...................... 61
2.5 Adorno’s ‘Widerruf ’ ............................. 63
II Practices
3 Nelly Sachs’ Poetics of Silence : Poetry at the Limits of
Representation . . . . . ................................. 69
3.1 Defying ‘Verstummen’ . . . . . ...................... 69
3.2 The Decay of Language . . . . ...................... 71
3.3 Addressing the Perpetrators . . ...................... 83
3.4 Prosopopoeia as a Representational Device . . . . ........ 98
3.5 Sachs’ Nacht-Metaphorik : Reversing a Traditional Image 105
3.6 The Poetics of Disfiguration . ...................... 113
3.7 Adorno’s Extremity in Sachs’ Poetics . ............... 122
3.8 Writing the Inability to Write : Sachs’ Self-Reflective Poetics 125
3.9 ‘Grabschriften in die Luft’: Keeping Memory Open .... 131
3.9.1 The Open Wound . . ...................... 137

3.10 The ‘Death of Death’: ‘Die Todentrissenen’ . . ......... 140
3.11 Archetypes as Representational Devices . . . . . . ........ 150
3.11.1 Sachs’ ‘Anti-Job’ . . . . ...................... 152
3.11.2 Abraham : Refuting the Martyrdom Thesis . . .... 167
3.11.3 Daniel : Interpreter of Nightmares . . . . ........ 179
Conclusion . . . ........................................ 183
Bibliography . . ........................................ 187
Contents VIII

The positive reception of Nelly Sachs’ poetry in the late 1950s and 1960s
culminated in Sachs being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in
1966, jointly with the Israeli author Samuel J. Agnon. Virtually unknown
during the previous decade, Sachs was suddenly hailed as West Germany’s
“Dichterin der Versçhnung”: she and her work became symbols of Ger-
man-Jewish reconciliation in an era preoccupied withVergangenheitsbe-
wltigung – the attempt to critically address the legacy of the National
Socialist past. A close examination of how Sachs’ poetry was received
in West and East Germany, and of the socio-political factors which led
to her person and her work becoming icons of German-Jewish reconcili-
ation in the Federal Republic, sheds a fascinating light on the social and
psychological trends that dominated the post-war German landscape.
The manner in which literary works are received in the public domain
is, of course, inextricably linked with the prevailing socio-political condi-
tions. Topics, Raul Hilberg writes, “may be suppressed or catapulted to
public attention, but always for reasons that reflect the problems and
needs of a society” (Hilberg 1996 : 123). Correspondingly – so the prem-
ise of the first section of this study – the socio-political conditions of the
post-war period reveal why the tables turned with respect to the reception
of Sachs’ work in the East and in the West as the events of the Holocaust
receded in time. The initial disregard for Sachs in the Federal Republic,
followed by the sudden discovery and ensuing appropriation of her per-
son and work a decade later on the one hand, and the initial reception of
and subsequent disregard for her work in East Germany on the other, can
be attributed to the socio-political concerns of the day. The focus is then shifted to the ‘unspeakability’ maxim associated
with Theodor Adorno, whose position on post-Shoah art so pressingly re-
quires a re-examination. The debate on what has mistakenly come to be
known as Adorno’s ‘dictum’ concerning the ‘barbarity of poetry after
Auschwitz’ – “nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben ist barbarisch”
(Adorno 1977: 30) – dominated academic discussion in the decades fol-
lowing its publication in 1951. This debate serves as an effective spring-
board from which to evaluate Nelly Sachs’ Holocaust poetry given that
the aporetics of Holocaust art identified by Adorno, namely, the impos-

sibility and indispensability of bearing witness, are so evident in Sachs’
poetics. Time and time again Adorno’s extensive theoretical considera-
tions on the possibilities and limitations of art in the aftermath of the
Holocaust have been reduced to this single sentence, itself constituting
but a sub-clause of the original passage. This frequent tendency towards
simplification and misinterpretation has arguably been facilitated by the
erroneous inclination to separate Adorno’s critique of modernity from his
views on Holocaust art. This separation has done a disservice to Adorno’s
thought in light of the fact that his theoretical considerations on Holo-
caust art are intertwined with this same critique. By exploring the ‘dic-
tum’ within his larger assessment of capitalist modernity, and specifically
within his assessment of modernity’s facilitation of the reification process,
the ‘dictum’ can be restored to its original context. Reification, in con-
junction with what Adorno viewed as the perilous legacies of modernity
– all-encompassing instrumental rationality fused with irrational ends,
technological domination and the reduction of all thought to the calcu-
lation of the efficiency of means – had its apotheosis in the Nazi death
camps. The result was the liquidation of individualism which had formed
the core of critical consciousness, the obliteration of the veryconceptof
the autonomous subject. In light of this, Adorno considered any return
to artistic subjectivism a problematical endeavour. Of further significance for a recontextualisation of the so-called ‘dic-
tum’ is the fact that Adorno, crucially, does not view Auschwitz as an ac-
cidental relapse or a temporary ‘glitch’ in an otherwise progressive culture.
Rather, he views Auschwitz as part and parcel of that ‘civilising’ process
which we call ‘modernity.’ The fact that the heinous mass murder of mil-
lions had been carried out within the framework of a society that had ach-
ieved so much culturally and artistically meant that the legitimacy of ar-
tistic discourse, after this culture had gone so catastrophically awry, was
suddenly called into question. However, while Adorno makes clear that
culture’s complicity is irrefragable – and that of art as integral to this
same culture – he nonetheless calls for testimony rather than an insistence
upon silence. In the face of the seemingly insurmountable barriers which
confronted the writer in the aftermath of Auschwitz, Adorno did not call
for an end to art as has been claimed by critics such as Walter Jens (1997),
Gnther Bohnheim (2002), Susan Gubar (2003), Elrud Ibsch (2004) and
Stephen J. Whitfield (2007) – to mention just a few relatively recent con-
tributors to the debate. On the contrary ; “das Bedrfnis Leiden beredt
werden zu lassen,” he stated in Negative Dialektik, “ist die Bedingung
aller Wahrheit” (Adorno 1973 : 27). Adorno’s pronouncements were
Introduction 2

never meant as silence-inducing taboos, but rather as theoretical reflec-
tions upon the moral status of art in the aftermath of the Shoah and
as warnings of the moral peril involved in the artistic rendering of
mass extermination.Against the backdrop of Adorno’s deliberations, Nelly Sachs’ poetic
works will be examined as illustrative of what Annette Jael Lehmann
has described as “die Poetik des Scheiterns”:
Fr keine Art von Dichtung ist die ‘Poetik des Scheiterns’ so grundlegend wie
fr die Holocaust-Dichtung. Das Scheitern ist immer schon im Gedicht
angelegt. Sein Scheitern muss nicht nur eingestanden, sondern gewagt werden.
Jedes Holocaust-Gedicht muß zu einem bestimmten Grade an seinem Thema
scheitern. […] Jede literarische ußerung und sthetische Reflexion im Ho-
rizont der Shoah steht […] in der Spannung zwischen einem traumatischen
Verstummen und dem Dilemma der Inadquatheit aller Artikulationsversu-
che. […]: dem unbedingten Darstellungsgebot, der Unangemessenheit des
Schweigens steht immer wieder ein Verstummen gegenber, das die Un-
mçglichkeit bezeugt ber und nach Auschwitz zu schreiben. (Lehmann 1999 :
xvvv and 3 – 7)
Lehmann summarises the aporetic thread that runs through Sachs’ entire
body of poetry. Her work is marked by a three-pronged tension between
speechlessness, the recognition of the inevitable inadequacy of all at-
tempts at communicating the suffering, and an attendant cognizance of
the necessity of bearing witness. Erhard Bahr has issued a similar thesis :
“Daß im Extremfall des Holocaust die Leistung der Literatur eng mit
ihrem Versagen verbunden ist, versteht sich von selbst.” (Bahr 1980 :
78) Sachs’ poetry, so emblematic of this crisis within artistic discourse
in the wake of the Shoah, lends itself particularly well to evaluation with-
in the framework of Adorno’s theoretical reflections. The crisis of lan-
guage in her work, the aporetics of Holocaust representation, her dia-
logue with the perpetrators, her refutation of eschatological paradigms
and, crucially, her refusal to impose a redemptive framework on the suf-
fering by subverting Biblical archetypes together make Sachs’ poetry a
quintessential case-study of the problematics of post-Holocaust writing
as elucidated by Adorno. Biblical archetypes in particular can be consid-
ered important representational devices in her poetry, since they serve as
an effective means of refuting any redemptive or religious ‘sense-making’
framework for the horrors of Auschwitz. This is significant given the fre-
quent references to Sachs as a supposedly redemptive poet, an erroneous
claim that has found many willing proponents in critical discourse, to the
detriment of what is in fact a denunciation of any such sense-making
Introduction 3

schema. A consistent objective throughout the close reading of her work
is to underscore the disintegrative, incoherent and fragmentary nature of
her verse and to determine whether her poetry, in spite of the fact that it
thematises the impossibility of adequate representation, has representa-
tional value. Representational elements are identified with the aim of as-
sessing if and how, in the context of a poetics of unspeakability, the de-
vices of ‘Verstummen’ become evocative and representational devices in
their own right.With respect to this close reading, an important methodological qual-
ification should be mentioned at the outset. In an effort to consider the
semantic intricacy of individual works effectively, the tendency within the
secondary discourse on Sachs to analyse just fragmentary portions of in-
dividual poems is avoided. The analyses of two Sachs critics represent
welcome exceptions to this trend. Beata Sowa-Bettecken writes : “Die
gngige Praxis, Stellen aus dem Kontext des Gedichts herauszureißen
und als Beleg oder Widerlegung einer These zu nutzen, wird weder der
Textstellung noch dem Gedicht zurecht.” (Sowa-Bettecken 1992 : 33)
While selecting lines can indeed be useful in terms of analysing certain
motifs, an interpretation of her work on that basis alone can only provide
piecemeal knowledge. Such an approach, as Sowa-Bettecken points out,
cannot provide a sound foundation from which to infiltrate the complex-
ity of Sachs’ poetics, which is appreciable only within the complete
framework of each individual poem. Birgit Stocker-Keller, in a similar
vein, writes :
In vielen Aufstzen […] werden Gedichte von Nelly Sachs fragmentarisch
ausgelegt ; bestimmten Motiven werden nachgegangen, ohne dass aber das
einzelne Gedicht, aus dem jeweils die Belege stammen, als ganzes verstanden
wrde. Nelly Sachs hat aber einzelne Gedichte geschrieben, nicht eine Anzahl
von Motiven in verschiedenen Texten abgehandelt. (Keller-Stocker 1973 :1)
Matthias Krieg, by way of contrast to the methodological course chosen
here, has argued that the “Bildwelt” of Nelly Sachs’ work exhibits “ein in
sich geschlossenes Ganzes” which makes the interpretation of individual
poems “zwangslufig fragwrdig” (Krieg 1983 : 88). Paul Kersten also
considers an interpretative methodology based on individual poems to
be “zwangslufig problematisch” in the case of a “von weitreichenden
Bild- und Motivverknpfungen konstituierten Werkes wie dem von
Nelly Sachs” (Kersten 1970 : 12). Krieg’s and Kersten’s objections are es-
sentially one and the same : the assertion that the imagery and motifs em-
ployed by Sachs form a ‘system,’ and that it is the system as such that
Introduction 4

must be analysed. Both approaches are equally puzzling, however. Why,
after all, should Sachs’ motif nexus render interpretation of individual
poems ‘necessarily problematic’? If anything, one would imagine that
such a nexus would render such a method of interpretation rewarding
in terms of untangling that very nexus in the first instance. Surely a de-
ductive method is facilitated in the first instance by an inductive point of
departure. As Sowa-Bettecken explains : “[D]er These Krieges […] ist en-
tgegenzuhalten […] , daß er dieses Gesamtbild aus den Einzelgedichten
erhlt.” (Sowa-Bettecken 1992 : 33) In addition, it is on the basis of
such an inductive method that the variations in Sachs’ motif nexus be-
come appreciable. Thus whilst individual poems are analysed in this
study under various thematical headings, and whilst priority is given
each time to the heading in question, the theme is consistently embedded
within the framework of the respective poem, as opposed to selecting in-
dividual lines to suit the theme. This is, moreover, accomplished without
losing sight of intertextual connections. A balancing of the analytical
scales, in other words, is attempted by focussing on complete poems as
opposed to the problematic method of isolating individual parts to ac-
commodate the theme under consideration.The ethical gravity of the human tragedy that lies at the core of Nelly
Sachs’ work must be emphasised in any commentary on a proposed study
of her work. The suffering that occurred as a result of the depths to which
human beings sank during the period of National Socialism makes hu-
mility imperative in any approach to her work. Johannes Anderegg ex-
presses this unequivocally when he states : “In der Stille, die die Sprache
von Nelly Sachs erzeugt, klingt jedes Wort einer wissenschaftlichen Kom-
mentierung zu laut,” and he criticises in particular the ‘methodological
self-assurance’ that some Sachs criticism has displayed (Anderegg 1994 :
137). He cites a letter that Sachs wrote in 1958 in which she makes ref-
erence to those literary critics who wrote to her requesting the ‘meaning’
of ‘incomprehensible metaphors’: “Zuweilen erhalte ich Anfragen ber
unverstndliche Metaphern. Habe doch nicht ‘gemeint,’ sondern wurde
aufgerissen.” (Sachs 1984 : 183) This state of being ‘torn open,’ of
being denied the luxury of carefully pondering and choosing metaphors
and imagery, expresses the torment of the poetic voice in its attempt to
bear witness to the horror and the urgency of this undertaking. In line
with Anderegg’s call for humility in the face of the human disaster that
shapes Sachs’ work, and mindful of the state of ‘aufgerissen sein’ outlined
by the poet, this study tries not to ‘determine’ what Sachs definitively
‘means.’ Such self-assurance has no place given the ethical magnitude
Introduction 5

of the atrocities that lie at the core of her oeuvre. Rather, the objective
throughout is to explore some ways of unravelling Sachs’ intricate por-
trayal of the greatest human calamity in twentieth-century history.
Introduction 6

I Contexts

1 Nelly Sachs : A Tumultuous Reception History
1.1 West Germany’s Three Myths
Despite prolific poetic production, Nelly Sachs remained a largely anon-
ymous figure in the West German cultural sphere for a considerable pe-
riod in the aftermath of the Second World War. An analysis of how the
very gradual reception of her work was replaced by marked popularity
sheds a very interesting light on the literary scene in the years 1945 –
1966 in West Germany. The socio-political conditions of the immediate
post-war period initially presented a formidable obstacle to the publica-
tion of Sachs’ work in the West. The title alone of her first volumeIn
den Wohnungen des Todes , dedicated to “Meinen toten Brdern und
Schwestern,” left little doubt as to the overriding theme of her work. Leo-
nard Olschner writes :
Wo man nach Texten drstete, die vorgeblich dem Bedrfnis nach Zeitent-
hobenheit entsprachen, dann eigneten sich die Texte von In den Wohnungen des
Todes undSternverdunkelung wenig dazu, dieses Bedrfnis zu befriedigen. […]
Der Poesie von Nelly Sachs blieb die angemessene Aufmerksamkeit versagt, da
diese Dichtung […] das leistete, was nicht gefragt war : Erinnern, Mahnung an
Verantwortung, Jdisches. (Olschner 1992 : 279 – 81)
Ralf Trinks similarly outlines some of the criteria which governed reader
tastes at this time : “Nur wenn die Autoren eine schlssige Interpretation
des Krieges und eine berzeugende Antwort auf die drngende Schuld-
frage anboten, konnten sie den Erwartungen ihres Publikums gerecht
werden.” (Trinks 2002 : 40) Sachs most certainly did not offer a coherent
explanation for the war and, as for the question of guilt, her answer was
not the exculpatory version sought by the West German populace. Her-
bert Marcuse has highlighted the three illusory longings which guided the
West German populace and, by extension, national politics and, partly
also, the literary scene in the post-war years. These were the myths of
German victimisation, ignorance and resistance. They served, Marcuse
argues, as “suitable tools for effacing the memory of genocide and replac-
ing it with a much more palatable history” (Marcuse 2001: 74). These
myths reveal some of the reasons for Sachs’ absence on the West German
literary stage for a considerable period of time in the aftermath of the

To the first of these – the myth of German victimisation. The immediate
post-war years, and indeed right up until the late 1950s, saw not only an
unwillingness amongst the populace to accept even partial responsibility
for the Nazi crimes, but also the self-identification of the Germans them-
selves as victims – of Nazism, of Allied bombs and of the Red Army.
They had been victims of ‘fanatical’ Nazis on the one hand and ‘vengeful’
Allied forces on the other. This illusion of double victimisation was one
of the foundational myths that structured post-war memory in the Fed-
eral Republic, and it resulted in the long delay before widespread respon-
sibility for the crimes perpetuated under National Socialism received
honest recognition. This victimisation myth served two practical purpos-
es in terms of exculpation. Firstly, the Holocaust was interpreted as some
kind of ‘mysterious,’ ‘unfathomable,’ ‘extraneous force’ whereby the Nazi
leadership had somehow ‘imposed’ its will upon an ‘unwilling’ German
population ; as the contemporary critic Joachim Boeckh wrote : “Es
wird von geheimnisvollen Dmonen gemurmelt, die ber die unschuldi-
gen Volksgenossen hergefallen seien.” (Boechk 1947: 15) This myth re-
sulted in the automatic disassociation of the Nazi leadership from the na-
tional body. The consequent focus upon the leadership, and in particular
upon the figure of Hitler himself, “dem es auf ‘dmonische Weise’ gelun-
gen sei, das deutsche Volk […] zu verblenden” (Kogon 1983 : 19 – 20),
served an obvious exonerative purpose :
Es existierte die Vorstellung der NS-Herrschaft als monolotischem [sic]
Fhrerstaat unter dem Dmon Hitler, dem man erlegen war. Die Hitler-
Zentrierung hatte fr die Gesellschaf t (und ihre Beteiligung an der NS-
Diktatur) eine entlastende Funktion […] , die Faschismusinterpretation dieser
Jahre [hat] einen Gutteil dazu beigetragen, daß sich niemand zu sehr mit der
Vergangenheit beschftigen mußte. (Kçlsch 2000 : 69, 78)
If blame could be laid at the door of the ‘Fhrer’ and his most senior
henchmen, that would render self-examination superfluous, especially
so given that the Nazi leadership had ‘led’ the German populace ‘astray.’
The second effect of this victimisation myth was the attempt to equate
the German war victims of Allied bombings with the victims of Nazi per-
secution :
Neben dem verbreiteten Wunsch, das deutsche Volk in seiner Gesamtheit zum
Opfer des Nationalsozialismus zu machen und es damit von seiner Mitschuld
zu entlasten, fand sich eine Aufrechnungsmentalitt, die mit dem Verweis auf
die eigenen Opfer des Krieges die Opfer des Holocaust und der Verfolgung in
eine Reihe mit den Kriegsopfern stellen wollte. (Bergmann 1992 : 332)
1 Nelly Sachs : A Tumultuous Reception History 10

Again, the purpose of this “Aufrechnungsmentalitt” is clear : placing the
deaths of German soldiers at the hands of the Allied armies on the same
plane as the camp victims made sense in terms of allaying burdened con-
sciences. In his lecture ‘Was bedeutet Aufarbeitung der Vergangenheit,’
Theodor Adorno provides a scathing critique of these tendencies :
Wir alle kennen auch die Bereitschaft, heute das Geschehene zu leugnen oder
zu verkleinern – so schwer es fllt zu begreifen, daß Menschen sich nicht des
Arguments schmen, es seien doch hçchstens nur fnf Millionen Juden und
nicht sechs vergast worden. Irrational ist weiter die verbreitete Aufrechnung
der Schuld, als ob Dresden Auschwitz abgegolten htte. […] Kampfhand-
lungen im Krieg […] sind kaum vergleichbar mit der administrativen Er-
mordung von Millionen unschuldiger Menschen. (Adorno 1997b : 32)
The attempt to equate German suffering with the suffering of the victims
of Nazi persecution had the further effect of playing down the magnitude
of the victims’ suffering. Labelling the attempt at understatement as a
“Kollektiver Affekt,” Ralf Giordano writes : “Die Minimalisierer des kol-
lektiven Affektes […] erweisen sich an anderer Stelle […] als ausgespro-
chene Maximalisierer von Opferziffern, aber stets nur, wenn es Deutsche
betraf, zum Beispiel die Toten des alliierten Luftkrieges, und darunter
wieder besonders die Dresdens.” (Giordano 1987: 37) Giordano goes
on to state the obvious purpose of this “Affekt”: “Die Logik des Affektes :
je niedriger die Zahl der ermordeten Juden gedrckt werden kann, desto
beruhigter fhlt man sich.” (Giordano 1987: 37) Giordano thus high-
lights one of the more prevalent psychological mechanisms at work in
the mind of the German populace, namely, the attempt to focus on
and exaggerate the number of German losses in the war and to simulta-
neously lower the number of Jewish deaths.The second widespread myth amongst the post-war West German
populace was the myth of ignorance of what was happening in the
death camps – the “davon haben wir nichts gewusst” claim. This myth
served the same purpose as the myth of victimisation in terms of exoner-
ation. It is, however, an assertion that can be easily dispelled :
Die Judenverfolgung durch das Regime [fand] in einem erheblichen Umfang
çffentlich statt und [wurde] offen propagiert […] . Diese prinzipelle ffent-
lichkeit der Judenverfolgung gilt nicht nur fr die Vorkriegszeit, sondern auch
fr die Phase der Deportationen und Massenmorde in den Jahren 1941 bis
1943, in denen zwar die przisen Einzelheiten des Mordprograms als
Staatsgeheimnis behandelt wurden, das Regime sich zugleich aber çffentlich
dazu bekannte, dass es dabei war, eine radikale, eine finale ‘Lçsung’ der ‘Ju-
denfrage’ zu betreiben. (Longerich 2006 : 8)
1.1 West Germany’s Three Myths 11

Dedicated historical scholarship during the past two decades has demon-
strated beyond doubt the extent of knowledge among the German pop-
ulace about the concentration camps and the crematoria. Peter Longer-
ich’s monograph,‘Davon haben wir nichts gewusst !’ Die Deutschen und
Die Judenverfolgung 1933 – 1945 (2006), its title mocking the standard
defence of ignorance, is an elaborate and very successful attempt to
prove the very opposite : that the German populace was very much
aware of what was happening in Auschwitz, Dachau, Treblinka and the
other concentration and death camps. Indeed, as early as 1947, Eugen
Kogon had already begun to forge this argument. His words are perti-
nent, since they provide a disturbingly lucid picture of the intricate
web of culpability :
Kein Deutscher, der nicht gewußt htte, daß es Konzentrationslager gab. Kein
Deutscher, der sie fr Sanatorien gehalten htte […] . Wenig Deutsche, die
nicht einen […] Bekannten im KL gehabt oder zumindest gewußt htten, daß
der und jener in einem Lager war. Alle Deutschen, die Zeugen der vielfltigen
antisemitischen Barbarei geworden, Millionen, die vor brennenden Synago-
gen und in den Straßenkot gedemtigten jdischen Mnnern und Frauen
gleichgltig, neugierig, empçrt oder schadenfroh gestanden haben […] . Nicht
wenige Deutsche, die auf Straßen und Bahnhçfen Elendszgen von Gefan-
genen begegnet sind. […] Kaum ein Deutscher, dem nicht bekannt gewesen
wre […] , daß im Lande unentwegt hingerichtet wurde […] . Viele Ge-
schftsleute, die mit der Lager-SS in Lieferbeziehungen standen, Industrielle,
die vom SS-Wirtschafts-Verwaltungs-Hauptamt KL-Sklaven fr ihre Werke
anforderten […] , Medizinprofessoren, die mit Himmlers Versuchsstationen,
Kreis- und Anstaltsrzte, die mit professionellen Mçrdern zusammenarbei-
teten […] . Zahlreiche hçhere Wehrmachtsoffiziere, die ber die Massenli-
quidierungen russischer Kriegsgefangener in den KL, außerordentlich viele
deutsche Soldaten und Feldgendarmen, die ber die entsetzlichen Greueltaten
in Lagern, Ghettos, Stdten und Dçrfern des Ostens Bescheid gewußt haben.
(Kogon 1947: 412 – 14)
As Kogon’s analysis lays bare, knowledge of Nazi crimes must have per-
meated the consciousness of the general populace to its core, and thus an
assertion of ignorance, however untenable, provided welcome reprieve.
The third myth that pervaded post-war society was the sanguine illu-
sion of an unsullied “other Germany” that had done its best to resist the
“intruding barbarians” (Marcuse 2001: 74). This myth served the wel-
come purpose of gliding over the recent ‘interlude’ and reconnecting to
the supposed ‘true’ soul of pre-National Socialist Germany. This desire
was especially evident in the restorative cultural climate of the immediate
post-war years. In an article subtly entitled “Kultur als Alibi,” Max Frisch
provided a picture of the extent of this restorative mood : “In Deutsch-
1 Nelly Sachs : A Tumultuous Reception History 12

land […] reden wir vom Heute als stnde kein Gestern dahinter.” (Frisch
1967: 18) Frisch, in a tone of derision that is difficult to overlook, criti-
cised the attempt made by the Germans to smother the recent past by
concentrating exclusively on the present. Adorno similarly expressed his
astonishment at the unexpected cultural euphoria that enveloped the Ger-
man populace in the immediate post-war years :
Der Intellektuelle, der nach langen Jahren der Emigration Deutschland
wiedersieht, ist zunchst von dem geistigen Klima berrascht. Draußen hat
sich die Vorstellung gebildet, als htte das barbarische Hitler-Regime Barbarei
hinterlassen. […] Man [erwartet] , daß der nackte Zwang zur Selbsterhaltung
whrend des Krieges und der ersten Jahren danach dem Bewußtsein das
Gleiche antat, was den Stdten durch die Bomben widerfuhr. Man setzt
Stumpfheit, Unbildung, zynisches Mißtrauen gegen jegliches Geistige vor-
aus. […] Man rechnet mit dem Abbau von Kultur, dem Verschwinden der
Teilnahme an dem, was ber die tgliche Sorge hinausgeht. Davon kann aber
keine Rede sein. Die Beziehung zu geistigen Dingen, im allerweitesten Sinne
verstanden, ist stark. (Adorno 1971: 20)
Contrary to expectation, the German people display not a shattered na-
tional consciousness and a mistrust of all things cultural, but rather an
intact national consciousness and a fervent desire to connect to Germa-
ny’s cultural past as a means of erasing the realities of the recent past.
This restorative climate and the general cultural elation was overtly evi-
dent in the debates that surrounded the reconstruction of the bombed
Goethehaus in Frankfurt and the celebrations in Weimar in 1949, less
than ten kilometres from Buchenwald, marking the two hundreth anni-
versary of Goethe’s birth. The repressive tendencies as exemplified in the
restoration debate help to expose the environment in which Nelly Sachs’
poetry was received, and the debate also reveals some of the reasons for
the belated reception of her work. That the reconstruction project was
started in the immediate aftermath of the war is in itself telling. Already
on 5 July 1947 celebrations were held to mark the laying of the founda-
tion stone for the planned reconstruction, followed by further celebra-
tions on the occasion of the inauguration in 1949. Meier asks : “Fraglich
schien, ob der Wiederaufbau des Goethehauses eine so vorrangigestdte-
bauliche Aufgabe war : Wrde es in restaurierter Anmut nicht wirklich de-
plaziert in dem Trmmergebirge stehen […] ? Und weiter : War die Wie-
deraufrichtung dieses Reprsentationsbaues moralischvertretbar ?” (Meier
1991: 29) The debate is significant, since the rebuilding project can be
considered symbolic of the attempt by Germany’s populace to suppress
memories of the Nazi regime and interpret the Nazi rise to power as hav-
1.1 West Germany’s Three Myths 13

ing been merely an unintended accident. The longing to patch over
Auschwitz as an ‘interlude’ was quite palpable on the occasion of the in-
auguration in a speech given by Georg Hartmann, chairperson of the Fre-
ies Deutsches Hochstift, a foundation set up in Frankfurt in 1949 to pro-
mote the arts and sciences in Germany : “Wenn es auch nur zum Teil […]
die alten Steine sind, so sind es doch berall die alten Formen und Far-
ben […] . Und in allen Rumen birgt es den alten Inhalt.” Hartmann
then proceeded to cite a passage from Goethe’sItalienische Reise :
Heute frh war ich in Tiene, das nordwrts gegen die Gebirge liegt, wo ein
neues Gebude nach einem alten Risse aufgefhrt wird, wobei wenig zu er-
innern sein mçchte. So ehrt man hier alles aus der guten alten Zeit und hat
Sinn genug, nach einem geerbten Plan ein frisches Gebude aufzufhren.
This was a well-selected paragraph : “alte Risse,” “wenig zu erinnern,”
“geerbter Plan,” “frisches Gebude” could all be adopted for the present
as metaphors for the acts of purging, reconciling, continuity and the no-
tion of a new departure. Hartmann proceeded to comment on what he
believed would be Goethe’s “schçne Besttigung” of the reconstruction
project : “Wenn Goethe das schon von einem ihm gleichgltigen Ge-
bude sagen konnte, so drfen wir annehmen, daß er […] auch dem
Tun des Freien Deutschen Hochstiftes keineswegs mit Ablehnung gege-
nbergestanden htte.” (Hartmann 1951: 6 – 7) Hartmann, in effect, ap-
plied Goethe’s opinion on the rebuilding of an insignificant building,
which he encountered on his Italian trip in 1786, to what he believed
would be Goethe’s attitude towards the current reconstruction plan,
and he did so without making any reference to the rubble on which
the new Goethehaus was to be built. This allusion to Goethe as a
moral authority and the utilisation of his person to serve the purpose
of ‘Verdrngung’ is an example of a political attempt to reconnect to Ger-
many’s pre-Auschwitz past. It was furthermore clear from Hartmann’s
speech that the project was a state-funded venture. The creation of the
Goethe stamp to mark the anniversary in 1949 had been, according to
Hartmann, “der entscheidende Schritt” in the provision of funding for
the reconstruction (Hartmann 1951: 10). The state itself was thus
built on a culture of ‘Verdrngung’ as evinced by its support for the re-
storation of the Goethehaus. The timely creation of the stamp to coincide
with the two hundreth anniversary of Goethe’s birth was, furthermore, a
well-calculated strategy ; as Glaser comments : “das Jahr 1949 bot dann
mit der zweihundertsten Wiederkehr von Goethes Geburtstag die einma-
lige Chance, der Welt das ‘eigentliche’, das andere, das eigentlich ganz an-
1 Nelly Sachs : A Tumultuous Reception History 14

dere innere Deutschland zu prsentieren.” (Glaser 1991: 138) In the face
of the horrific photographic evidence from the camps that had been
spread worldwide with the help of the media, the opportunity had
now come to show Germany’s ‘true’ side to the rest of the world.There were, however, several commentators who took an openly crit-
ical stance. Joachim Boeckh, for example, condemned the notion that re-
turning to a culturally rich chapter of pre-National Socialist Germany
could somehow eclipse the recent ‘interlude’: “Es ist doch wahrhaftig
nicht so, daß wir, als ob nichts geschehen wre, auf ein unangetastetes Ka-
pitel geistiger und moralischer Realitten zurckgreifen kçnnten. Wren
wir vor 1933 im ungestçrten Besitz solcher Werte gewesen, dann wre es
ja nicht zum großen Unglck gekommen.” (Boechk 1947: 20) Richard
Alewyn was another outspoken critic of these post-war restorative trends
demonstrated so vividly in the debate surrounding the resurrection of the
Goethe cult. In a lecture entitled “Goethe als Alibi,” delivered at the Uni-
versity of Cologne in 1949, he derided the hollow nature of the post-war
cultural elation :
Es gibt wenig, was auf den Neuankçmmling in Deutschland einen so be-
strzenden Eindruck macht, als die Unbekmmertheit, mit der man sich
allerorten schon wieder anschickt, Goethe zu feiern, als ob dies fr einen
Deutschen die natrlichste Sache von der Welt wre, als ob gar nichts ge-
schehen wre, oder als ob irgend etwas damit ungeschehen gemacht werden
kçnne. […] Meinen wir, er lasse sich heute, zu seinem zweihundertsten Ge-
burtstag, leicht wieder ins Leben rufen ? Freilich, wieder rstet sich die Welt
Goethe zu feiern. Aber kann das uns irgend etwas anderes als peinlich sein ?
Auch bei uns stampfen schon die Druckerpressen, es hmmert auf allen
Bhnen, noch ein Paar Monate, und Hallen und Mrkte werden von seinem
Namen drçhnen. Aber es ist ja noch nicht so lange her, daß alle Lautsprecher
Deutschlands einen anderen Namen ausspien, von dem Ihnen noch die Ohren
gellen. Gestern Hitler, heute Goethe, und morgen ? Ist es nicht angebracht und
anstndig, einmal zu fragen, wie wir berhaupt dazu kommen, Goethe zu
feiern ? Ob es uns berhaupt zusteht. […] Zwischen uns und Weimar liegt
Buchenwald. Darum kommen wir nun einmal nicht herum. […] Wir haben
an Grenzen gestanden und haben in Abgrnde geblickt, die dem Brger des
humanistischen Weltalters erspart geblieben sind. Wir wissen heute mehr
darber, wessen der Mensch imstande ist. […] Es gibt kein zurck zu Goethe.
(Alewyn 1977: 333 – 35)
Alewyn derides the notion of national radio ‘spewing out’ Hitler’s name
one day and the next day Goethe’s and the German populace eagerly tun-
ing in. By effectively linking Weimar and Buchenwald, he dismisses the
idea that Goethe could be simply brought back to life merely because
the socio-historical situation deemed such a resurrection timely. For the
1.1 West Germany’s Three Myths 15

post-war populace, however, the activity surrounding the resurrection of
the Goethe cult provided welcome reprieve from otherwise burdened
consciences. The appeal of the reconstruction project to its supporters
lay partly in the automatic focus on the Germans as victims :
Reconstruction projects […] have some appeal to conservatives. Connecting
to the pre-war cultural past makes it possible to remove the Nazi and Social-
ist years from cultural memory ; turning the destroyed heritage buildings into
symbols for German suffering during the war, without consideration for
Nazi crimes, makes it possible to identify Germans as victims, shifting
focus away from their role as perpetrators. (Vees-Gulani, 2005 : 159 – 160)
Rebuilding the Goethehaus also served the dual purpose of reconnecting
to apparently immaculate traditions and thereby passing over the ‘tempo-
rary glitch’ that had been Nazism. Supporters of the restorative project
saw in the Goethehaus
ein besseres, ein unzerstçrbares Deutschland […] , eine Fortdauer nationaler
Kultur und Wrde, der auch die ‘schlimmen Jahre’ seit 1933 nichts anhaben
konnten. […] so als kçnne mit Rumlichkeit und Inventar auch der kulturelle
Raum der Goethezeit – ber Faschismus, Weltkrieg und absehbare Niederlage
– restauriert werden. (Meier 1991: 29 – 30)
Here, Meier condemns the idea that the restoration project would serve
to distract from the reality of the Nazi past and that by gliding over the
recent past the cultural greatness of the Goethe era could somehow be re-
stored. For the supporters of the project, Goethe was called upon for pre-
cisely those reasons, as an advocate, a cultural icon that could be utilised
to sponsor amnesia ; as Glaser comments : “Goethe erwies sich fr die
Trmmerjahrkultur als ein bedeutsamer Nothelfer. ‘Er war unser, er ist
unser, er wird unser sein’ – eine solche Suggestion, mit deren Hilfe
man sich weiterhin als Volk der Dichter und Denker verstand, verhalf
zur Enthebung von trister Wirklichkeit.” (Glaser 1991: 137) The depths
to which this same “Volk der Dichter und Denker” had sunk were over-
looked as inconvenient details in the supposed greater scheme. Within
this ‘greater scheme’ Nazism was interpreted as a downfall, a temporary
regression, its memory thus serving no useful purpose :
Es sind […] oft wiederholte Begriffe oder Metaphern, die dem Projekt eine
Art historische, fast sogar metaphysische Rechtfertigung zu geben scheinen :
‘Sintflut’ beispielsweise, ‘Wideraufbau’ und ‘Heiligtum’. Naziherrschaf t und
Weltkrieg werden, wenn berhaupt, als Sintflut, Katastrophe, Not und Elend
bezeichnet, als dunkle Zeiten, als Untergang […] . Fast scheint es, als mache
solche schicksalhafte Katastrophik nicht nur die Frage nach Schuld, sondern
die Rckerinnerung schlechthin unsinnig. […] Solche Auffassung entsprach
1 Nelly Sachs : A Tumultuous Reception History 16

in den Nachkriegsjahren einer weit verbreiteten Stimmung. In der neu ein-
setzenden […] Aktivitt glaubte man sich dem Zwang zu Erinnerung, Trauer
und moralisch-politischer Selbstprfung enthoben. (Meier 1991: 33 – 34)
As Meier maintains here, interpreting the Holocaust in terms of regres-
sion had the attendant consequence of rendering memory superfluous.
Dolf Sternberger, another outspoken critic of the project, argued that
the recent past, by virtue of its being past and, as such, history could
not be simply ignored. Writing inDie Wandlung, he recalled the Kristall-
nacht as Frankfurt’s synagogues were burned to the ground and the city’s
Jews were deported :
Ich weiß, daß man dergleichen Erinnerungen heute nicht mehr hçren mag.
Aber es ist einmal geschehen und nicht wegzuwischen. Geschichte. Und das
bedeutet eben Geschichte : daß es vorbei ist und gerade darum nicht wegzu-
wischen. Damalsist der Geist Goethes vertrieben worden aus der Luft dieser
Stadt. (cited in Meier 1991: 37)
For Sternberger, the unpleasantness of memories such as the Kristallnacht
does not condone amnesia. If anything, the reality behind such memories
exposes the futility of re-connecting to and attempting to restore the cul-
tural richness of the Goethe era.
Karl Jaspers was one of the leading critical voices against resurrecting
the ‘Goethe cult,’ and he used the occasion of his acceptance speech for
the Goethe-Preis as a forum to express his view about the recent past. He
criticised the attempt to revive the ‘Goethe cult’ as nothing more than es-
capist myth-making : “Die Zeit des Goethe-Kultus ist vorbei. Wir finden
bei Goethe gleichsam Erholung und Ermunterung, nicht aber die Be-
freiung von der Last, die uns auferlegt ist […] . Goethe ist nicht Vorbild
zur Nachahmung.” (Jaspers 1948 : 34) Here, Jaspers provides a discerning
perspective on the rebuilding venture. After all, German culture as exem-
plified by Goethe was itself caught up in the web of guilt. As Meier com-
ments : “Fr […] die Gegner des Wiederaufbaus war der Goethe-Geist
selber und das an ihn gebundene Kulturverstndnis zu innig mit dem re-
alen Geschichtsverlauf verquickt, als daß sie einer eiligen Restaurierung
htten zustimmen wollen.” (Meier 1991: 30) German culture had failed
to prevent the rise of National Socialism, and the Nazis had even misap-
propriated Goethe and Schiller to justify their goals. Attempting to re-
store this same culture and erase the memory of the Nazi crimes in the
process was therefore a morally questionable endeavour. The publicist
Walter Dirks similarly criticised the restoration of the Goethehaus as evi-
dence of a desperate attempt to suppress the memory of the atrocities of
1.1 West Germany’s Three Myths 17

National Socialism by reviving old traditions. In a letter to the mayor of
Frankfurt, Dirks argued that the restoration of the house was based on a
“zentrale Lge,” and he added “die Haltung, die […] Goethes wrdig ist,
heißt : das Schicksal annehmen […] ; gefallen sein lassen, was gefallen ist.”
He called on the German populace to have “die Kraft zum Absch-
ied, […] , zum unwiederruflichen Abschied, sich selbst und niemanden
in frommer Tuschung vorschwindeln wollen, daß das Goethehaus ei-
gentlich doch noch da sei :es ist nicht mehr da”(cited in Meier 1991:
36). The absurdity of the finished project has been highlighted by
Meier : “1951 zeigte uns Pressefotos das wiedererrichtete Goethehaus
[…]: in einem Trmmerfeld.” (Meier 1991: 38) This laconic statement
speaks volumes : an apparently impervious culture, represented by the
Goethehaus, stood surrounded by the destruction wrought by Nazism.
1.2 Peace with The Perpetrators
The restorative tendencies in the public sphere were mirrored in the po-
litical arena. During the founding years of the Federal Republic, the dem-
ocratic left and the democratic right held profoundly contrasting views on
the relationship between democracy and memory. The policy of the right,
represented by Konrad Adenauer, was reticence about the crimes of Na-
tional Socialism, while that of the left, represented by Kurt Schumacher,
was direct confrontation with the crimes committed and justice for the
perpetrators. The results of the 1949 elections made it very clear that Ad-
enauer’s policy was one of strategic political calculation, with the demo-
cratic right producing a solid majority in the Bundestag.The electorate
opted for Adenauer’s tactful silence about the Nazi past. The public
will for ‘amnesia’ now had political legitimacy. As Jeffrey Herf writes :
“The German electorate did not want him [Schumacher] , in part because
he would remind them of a past which Adenauer was willing to help
them forget.” (Herf 1997: 280) Glaser summarises Adenauer’s success :
Konrad Adenauer war […] deshalb so erfolgreich, weil er dem Volkswillen
entgegenkam, der sich eben keine Trauerarbeit aufbrden wollte. […] ‘Be-
wltigung von Vergangenheit’ versprach keine sichere Mehrheit. Anstelle einer
Katharsis kam es zu einem Amnestiefieber ; die Masse der Mitlufer und
Belasteten hatte allen Grund, dem Kanzler, der keine moralische Wehleidig-
keit zeigte und Verdrngung wie Vergeßlichkeit fçrderte, dankbar zu sein.
(Glaser 1991: 53, 151)
1 Nelly Sachs : A Tumultuous Reception History 18

Adenauer’s support for the suppression of memory came to the fore in his
inaugural speech in 1949 in which he postulated “Vergangenes vergangen
sein zu lassen” (Adenauer 1949). He also called for amnesty for those
awaiting punishment in the Allied military courts, while, astonishingly,
in a speech delivered to theBundestagon the National Day of Reflection
a year later, the Jews did not so much as receive mention. Schumacher’s
death in 1952 deprived West German democracy and the remaining Jew-
ish community of the most prominent West German advocate of a direct
confrontation with the Nazi past. Ralf Giordano provides a trenchant cri-
tique of the strategic political calculations of the democratic right in West
German politics during these years :
Das Bewußtsein, daß es unpopulr war, sich mit den zwçlf Nazijahren aus-
einanderzusetzen, und daß es unpopulr bleiben wrde – diese unverdeckte
Verweigerung betrchtlicher Whlermassen ist von allen Parteien der Bun-
desrepulik als feststehende Grçße in ihr wahlpropagandistisches Kalkl ein-
bezogen worden. Im allgemeinen wurde die nationale Verantwortung fr die
zwçlf Jahre methodisch verkleinert und einer winzigen Fhrungselite ange-
lastet […] . Statt die verstokten Massen zu einer ehrlichen, wenn auch
schmerzhaften Auseinandersetzung mit sich selbst aufzurufen, buhlten die
‘politischen Willenstrger’ von vornherein schamlos mit großzgiger Exkul-
pierung um Stimmen. Alle bundesdeutschen Parteien haben den Whlern
Wahlhonig ums noch lange braungefrbte Mundwerk geschmiert […] . Die
zweite deutsche Republik war die Nachfolgerin eines Gewaltstaates ohne-
gleichen, und sie war es ber eine lange Phase der Nachkriegsgeschichte, das sei
wiederholt, mit derselben Bevçlkerung wie vor 1945. […] ; der große Frieden
mit den Ttern. Er ist das historische Fundament, auf dem die Bundesrepublik
steht. (Giordano 1987: 95 – 103)
The long-term damage to memory caused by a campaign for short-term
political gain was great. Blame was attributed solely to the Nazi leader-
ship, a welcome message for a populace attempting to shake off oppres-
sive feelings of guilt. The competition for voters by the SPD and CDU
resulted in “Rcksichtsnahmen”; this meant in practice “dem offenkundi-
gen Bedrfnis der Whler, die Vergangenheit Vergangenheit sein zu las-
sen, Rechnung zu tragen” (Kielmansegg 1989 : 16 – 17). Political expedi-
ency came at the severe cost of memory suppression.
There are admittedly a small number of historians who emphasise the
practical function of this campaign of reticence. Hermann Lbbe and
Jeffery Herf, to take two prominent examples, have argued that reticence
was necessary for the successful establishment of a functional democracy.
Herf argues that the establishment of what would prove to be a successful
democracy was initially aided by a measure of collective “amnesia” (cf.
1.2 Peace with The Perpetrators 19

Herf 1997). Lbbe goes a step further. He refutes the argument that a
process of ‘Verdrngung’ was underway, emphasising instead the integra-
tive function of what he calls “eine gewisse Zurckhaltung”:
Diesegewisse Stille war das sozialpyschologisch und politisch nçtige Medium
der Verwandlung unserer Nachkriegsbewçlkerung in die Brgerschaft der
Bundesrepublik Deutschland. Es htte eines solchen Mediums nicht bedurft,
wenn die Herrschaft des Nationalsozialismus ihre Wirklichkeit exklusiv in
jenen Machthabern gehabt htte, die in den Prozessen der Allierten abgeurteilt
wurden […] . Zur nationalsozialistischen Realitt gehçrten ja aber ebenso die
schließlich weit mehr als Duzendmillionen registrierter Parteigenossen, die
noch grçßere Zahl der mitlaufenden Volksgenossen […] – kurz : die Mehrheit
des Volkes. Gegen Ideologie und Politik des Nationalsozialismus mußte der
neue deutsche Staat eingerichtet werden. Gegen die Mehrheit des Volkes
konnte er schwer eingerichtet werden. (Lbbe 1983 : 585 – 86) [my emphasis]
There is, however, a distinction to be made between this understated ‘lull’
as the necessary medium for transforming the populace into the citizenry
of the Federal Republic and the degree of restoration that in fact took
place. As Saul Friedlnder writes : “The two decades following the war
can be characterised as a period of virtual silenceabout the Shoah : the
consensus was one of repression and oblivion. Adult contemporaries of
Nazism still dominated the public scene. Even the survivors chose to re-
main silent, since very few people were interested in listening to them.”
(Friedlnder 2000 : 5) [my emphasis] As Lbbe emphasises there were, of
course, immense practical difficulties when it came to punishing each so-
called ‘Schreibtischtter.’ The application of normal judicial standards to
brown-collar criminality carried out under the direction of the state pre-
sented, practically speaking, formidable obstacles. Such crimes, after all,
were “unprecedented in human history, transcending all situations for
which laws had been devised. They were extremely modern in their con-
ception and administration, and archaically barbarian in their day-to-day
implementation” (Marcuse 2001: 89). These facts notwithstanding, the
reinstitution of former compromised elites into the top echelons of na-
tional politics casts into doubt both the thoroughness of the denazifica-
tion process and Lbbe’s concept of a mere “gewisse Stille.” With reference to the particularly strong continuity of elites in public
office, a number of important observations deserve mention. Kielman-
segg, for example, questions whether the need for the skills and knowl-
edge of those who had served the Nazi state was really so great that the
new Federal Republic could not have exercised a little more selectiveness :
1 Nelly Sachs : A Tumultuous Reception History 20

Bedurfte man des Sachverstandes der Richter, Staatsanwlte, Diplomaten,
Verwaltungsbeampten, Lehrer, die bis 1945 dem nationalsozialistischen Staat
gedient hatten, so sehr, daß man nicht allzu whlerisch sein durfte ? […] Wo
war die Grenze, jenseits derer solche Ntzlichkeitserwgungen schlechterdings
unstatthaft waren ? Htte man es nicht doch mit einem Programm vollstn-
diger Erneuerung des çffentlichen Dienstes versuchen kçnnen und mssen ?
[…] Es ist unzweifelhaft eines der gravierenden Versumnisse der jungen
Bundesrepublik gewesen. (Kielmansegg 1989 : 38 – 40)
In his monographWohin treibt die Bundesrepublik ? Karl Jaspers issued a
similarly trenchant judgment on the reinstitution of former prominent
members of the Nazi regime :
Einst prominente Nationalsozialisten wurden wieder wirksam und maßge-
bend. […] Es gibt eine faktische, wenn auch nicht organisatorisch geplante
Interessenpolitik aller, die sich belastet und irgendwie mçglicherweise an-
greifbar fhlen, weil irgendetwas in ihrer Vergangenheit ist, das sie weg-
wnschen. Ein einzelner, aber besonders wichtiger Fall ist die Bundeswehr. Sie
ist aufgebaut und gefhrt von Offizieren, die in der nationalsozialistischen
Armee gedient haben, Hitler gefolgt sind, am Geiste dieser Armee teilnahmen,
das Attentat vom 20. Juli verwarfen. […] Analog liegt es bei den Richtern, den
Professoren, der Polizei usw. Dieses Fortwirken der alten Nationalsozialisten
ist ein Grundgebrechen der inneren Verfassung der Bundesrepublik. Alle
verdammen sie Hitler, alle behaupten, nicht eigentlich Nationalsozialisten
gewesen zu sein. (Jaspers 1966 : 183)
Jaspers questions the apparent transformation of previously convinced
party members and their claims to having never really been Nazis at
heart. Their status as steadfast supporters of National Socialism, after
all, would not prove conducive to the new political climate. One of
the major symbols of this restoration at the highest levels of national pol-
itics was the appointment of Hans Globke as Adenauer’s Junior Minister.
Globke had been the co-author of a commentary on the Nuremberg Race
Laws which institutionalised the racial theories prevalent in Nazi ideolo-
gy. Giordano summarises his person : “Dr. Hans Globke, Staatssekretr
Konrad Adenauers, Schçpfer des Bundeskanzleramtes, graue Eminenz
der bundesdeutschen Frhepoche und Kommentator der nationalsozialis-
tischen Rassengesetze von Nrnberg aus dem Jahre 1935 !” (Giordano
1987: 106) Other prominent cases of restoration in the upper echelons
of political life were the appointments of Theodor Oberlnder, a high-
ranking Nazi official who had developed so-called ‘resettlement’ plans
for the occupied eastern territories, and Hans Filbinger, a former SA
and Nazi party member, who was a leading CDU member in the
1.2 Peace with The Perpetrators 21

1960s and 1970s. Schçnberger provides a clear sense of how entrenched
these restorative practices really were :
Hitlergenerle bauten die Bundeswehr auf, Gestapobeamte die Kriminalpo-
lizei der Lnder, SD-Agenten den Bundesnachrichtendienst, Arisierungs- und
Kriegsgewinnler die westdeutsche Wirtschaft. Die Hauptangeklagten im IG-
Farben-Prozeß waren sehr bald wieder auf leitenden Posten der chemischen
Industrie ttig. Einige Spitzenfunktionre des ‘Dritten Reiches’, die einer
Verurteilung durch die ordentlichen Gerichte entgangen waren, nicht zuletzt
weil dort dieselben Verhltnisse herrschten wie berall, konnten sogar Minister
und Staatssekretre werden. (Schçnberger 1999 : 132)
Even those top functionaries of the Nazi state who did go through the
judicial system managed to emerge safely and proceeded to occupy piv-
otal roles in the new Republic. This was facilitated by the fact that the
judicial system itself was replete with reinstated former Nazi elites.
These restorative policies resulted in what Giordano describes as “die
scham- und hemmungsloseste Massenlge, die es je in der deutschen Ge-
schichte gegeben hat” (Giordano 1987: 91). The policy of West-Europe-
an integration was yet another step in this process of shaking off memo-
ries of the recent past. Given that the West Germans were suddenly on
the ‘correct’ side once again, the need to remember the National Socialist
past seemed inconsequential in contrast to fighting the communist
Die rasche Eingliederung der Deutschen in den Ost-West-Konflikt [ist] einer
offenen und gewissenhaften Auseinandersetzung mit der eigenen Vergan-
genheit keineswegs fçrderlich gewesen. […] So plçtzlich Mitverteidiger von
Demokratie und Rechtstaat gegen ein totalitres Imperium geworden zu sein,
mußte ihnen zu rasch ein gutes Gewissen bereiten. Das Engagement gegen den
gegenwrtigen fremden Totalitarismus konnte ein Stck weit an die Stelle der
Auseinandersetzung mit dem eigenen von gestern treten. Es ist nicht zu be-
zweifeln, daß von dieser Chance […] sehr bewußt Gebrauch gemacht worden
ist. (Kielmansegg 1989 : 71 – 72)
The East-West conflict thus served as a mechanism to facilitate amnesia
by supplanting memory with other concerns. Further attempts by the
federal government to foster a so-called ‘Schlußstrichmentalitt’ remained
evident throughout the fifties. Aside from Adenauer’s aforementioned
speech to theBundestagon the National Day of Reflection of the Ger-
man People in 1950, in which he made no reference to the persecution
of the Jews, another speech to the Bundestagregarding the question of res-
titution a year later was equally questionable because the greater part of
1 Nelly Sachs : A Tumultuous Reception History 22

the speech was devoted to exculpating the majority of German citizens.
His use of the passive voice is particularly striking :
Die Bundesregierung und mit ihr die große Mehrheit des deutschen Volkes
sind sich des unermeßlichen Leidens bewußt, das in der Zeit des National-
sozialismus ber die Juden in Deutschland und in den besetzten Gebieten
gebracht wurde. Das deutsche Volk hat in seiner berwiegenden Mehrheit die
an den Juden begangenen Verbrechen verabscheut und hat sich an ihnen nicht
beteiligt. Es hat in der Zeit des Nationalsozialismus im deutschen Volke viele
gegeben, die mit eigener Gefhrdung aus religiçsen Grnden, aus Gewis-
sensnot, aus Scham ber die Schndung des deutschen Namens ihren jdi-
schen Mitbrgern Hilfsbereitschaf t gezeigt haben. Im Namen des deutschen
Volkes sind aber unsagbare Verbrechen begangen worden, die zur moralischen
und materiellen Wiedergutmachung verpflichten. (cited in Vogel 1967: 36)
By mentioning elsewhere in his speech the ‘suffering brought upon the
German people,’ Adenauer left the perpetrators unnamed, while his use
of the phrase “im Namen des deutschen Volkes” had the effect of distanc-
ing the crimes from ordinary Germans. Separating the Nazi elite from the
national body constituted, as Herf writes, an attempt to “soften the blow
to the national psyche” (Herf 1997: 283). Language was thus very skil-
fully used as a tool in this widespread culture of memory suppression.The celebration of 5 May, marking the end of the Allied occupation,
is further evidence of extensive attempts at suppressing the Nazi past :
“Bezeichnenderweise feierte man in Bonn als den ‘großen Tag in der
deutschen Geschichte’ den 5. Mai. 1955 – das Ende der Besatzungszeit
– nicht den 8. Mai.” (Kçlsch 2000 : 79) Surely if attempts at coming
to terms with the recent past were genuine, then the day that the German
army – and along with it the scourge of Nazism – had finally capitulated
should be remembered as a date of intrinsic importance in the post-war
German calendar ? Kçlsch then proceeds to quote the words spoken by
Adenauer in a bulletin on 5 May 1955 : “Der Tag der Zurckgewinnung
der Souvernitt ist ein großer Tag in der deutschen Geschichte. Vor zehn
Jahren zerbrach Deutschland und hçrte auf, ein sich selbst zu regierender
Staat zu sein. Es war die dunkleste Stunde unseres Vaterlandes.” (Kçlsch
2000 : 80) For Adenauer Germany’s darkest hour was not the million-fold
extermination, but rather the moment the country was forced to surren-
der sovereignty. Another telling sign was the fact that in 1956 the federal
government commemorated the victims of Stalinism, but omitted those
persecuted under Nazism. In the main speech held on the day of the
commemoration by Dr. Heinrich Vockel, the West German governmen-
tal representative in Berlin, the victims of the Stalinist regime were re-
1.2 Peace with The Perpetrators 23

membered “ohne ein Wort zur NS-Zeit, als sei einfach klar, daß eine sol-
che Rede nicht auf deutsche Verhltnisse passe” (Kçlsch 2000 : 80). With
restorative trends so pervasive in the socio-political arena, there would be
little scope within the literary sphere to serve the purposes of transparency
and enlightenment.
1.3 Restoration in the Literary Arena
The literary scene was directly influenced by the trends that characterised
the socio-political landscape of post-war West Germany. Schçnberger
summarizes the literary situation :
Auf dem Buchmarkt und in den Illustrierten erschienen die Rechtferti-
gungsmemoiren von Prominenten des ‘Dritten Reiches’. In den Kinos do-
minierte amerikanische Militr- und Kriegspropaganda, gefolgt von west-
deutschen Versuchen einer Entnazifizierung des Zweiten Weltkriegs. Unter
diesen Umstnden htten Bcher, die ber das Naziregime und seine Ver-
brechen aufklren wollten, wenig Chancen. (Schçnberger 1999 : 133)
Else R. Behrend-Rosenfeld’s novelIch stand nicht allein : Erlebnisse einer
Jdin in Deutschland 1933 – 1944 (1949) serves as a revealing example
in this respect. Recounting the story of a Jew who recalls the humanity
she encountered amongst her non-Jewish neighbours during the period
of discrimination, and eclipsing the brutal suffering and mass extermina-
tion, the book understandably found a wide readership. It is easy to see
why an account emphasising the benevolence, as opposed to the guilt,
of ordinary Germans would be welcomed by the post-war West German
populace. These escapist trends also made the Heimkehrerliteraturex-
tremely popular in the post-war era, since it offered the West German
populace a coherent interpretation of the war and fostered a sense of ex-
culpation. Commenting on its popularity in the immediate post-war
years, Trinks writes :
Kaum ein anderes Sujet war fr die unmittelbare Stellungnahme zu den
drngenden Zeitfragen in gleicher Weise prdestiniert wie das Heimkehrer-
thema. […] An den Kriegsheimkehrer ließ sich die Frage nach der Schuld und
nach dem Sinn der Kriegsopfer knpfen, an seinem Vorbild die Misere der
Gegenwart als berwindbar zeigen und eine Perspektive fr die Zukunft ge-
winnen. […] Das Heimkehrerdrama sollte helfen nach einer neuen geistigen
Orientierung zu suchen [….] . Denn in den ersten Nachkriegsjahren kam es zu
sozialen Umwlzungen nie gekannten Ausmaßes. […] Heimkehrer zu sein
wurde folglich zu einer Orientierung stiftenden gesellschaftlichen Kategorie.
(Trinks 2002 : 27)
1 Nelly Sachs : A Tumultuous Reception History 24

What made theHeimkehrerliteratur so exculpatory in nature was the fact
that the Germans were often presented not as perpetrators, but as vic-
tims : “Der Krieg auf der Bhne findet in der Defensive statt – im Luft-
schutzkeller oder in der Endphase der Heimatverteidigung. […] Die Aus-
wahl hat Methode. […] ; das Bild einer geschlagenen Armee wird besch-
woren. Die Deutschen erscheinen nicht als Tter, sondern als Opfer.”
(Trinks 2002 : 41) The exonerative nature of these works was further fa-
cilitated by the dramatic perspective chosen by the author, in particular
the so-called ‘worm’s eye view’: the common soldier had merely obeyed
orders without any knowledge of the bigger picture :
Entscheidend gesttzt wird diese Exkulpation durch die dramatische Per-
spektive. Die Protagonisten berichten aus der ‘Froschperspektive’. Als einfache
Befehlsempfnger, die weder strategische noch politische Zusammenhnge
kennen, sind sie bar jeder Verantwortung und gegen Reflexion ber den Sinn
des Krieges immunisiert. (Trinks 2002 : 42)
The Heimkehrerdramatik was also perfectly suited to the presentation of
German suffering : “Ein anderer Stoff […] eignete sich wie kaum ein an-
derer zur Darstellung der Leiden der Deutschen. Im ‘mçrderische[n]
Luftkrieg’ konnte man den Tod von Frauen, Kindern und Greisen zeigen,
mithin von solchen Opfern, die in der Logik der Stcke als unschuldig
und wehrlos gelten.” (Trinks 2002 : 57) In addition to the Heimkehrerli-
teratur , works written by political prisoners found a wide readership :
Audiences in both Germanies found it comparatively easy to comprehend
the stories of political prisoners who could make sense of the time they
had spent in concentration camps. They could celebrate their survival be-
cause they had outlasted their tormentors, and triumphed over them. For
Jews, Sinti and Roma, however, survival often meant being the only member
of one’s family who was not gassed, shot dead, hanged or starved to death.
(Neumann 1999 : 63)
The literature of political prisoners attempted to make sense of what had
occurred. The literature of a Jewish survivor such as Nelly Sachs, on the
other hand, was anything but ‘sinnstiftend’ for the majority of the pop-
ulation and served only to remind the post-war German populace of the
enormity of the crimes committed. Her work demanded of its readers the
unwelcome task of engaging with the uncomfortable questions of perpe-
tration and complicity.
In the early years of the post-war period there were voices – albeit a
small number – which criticised these restorative trends and called for a
sober confrontation with the recent past. At the Berlin Writer’s Confer-
ence of 1948, attended by writers from all four occupied zones, Stephan
1.3 Restoration in the Literary Arena 25

Hermlin called on writers to confront the realities of National Socialism
and to reflect on the consequences of the crimes committed for German
literature. He attacked in particular the restorative character of much
post-war writing and its avoidance of any engagement with the realities
of fascism :
Unsere zeitgençssische nichtfaschistische Literatur, unsere lyrische Dichtung
im besonderen, trgt […] den Stempel des Troglodytenhaften, sie ist eine
Dichtung von Hçhlenbewohnern. […] Was den geistigen Gehalt angeht,
scheut man das Direkte, das Konkrete, man flchtet in die Metaphysik und
nennt die Totschlger am liebsten Dmonen. (Hermlin 1998 : 52)
Hermlin’s juxtaposition of post-war literature with the writing of troglo-
dytes or cave-dwellers encapsulates the flight from reality that character-
ised the “lyrische Kuscheltiere” – to borrow Olschner’s phrase – that
flooded the markets in the post-war period (Olschner 1992 : 276). At
the same event Joachim K. Boeckh delivered a similarly harsh critique
of the failure of so much post-war literature to confront the recent
past, and he criticised in particular the disregard for the few attempts
that were made by historians to record what had happened :
Wenn – ausnahmsweise – einmal ein Buch erscheint, das auf Grund umfas-
sender Sachkenntnis […] die Motive und die Praxis des eigentlichen Natio-
nalsozialismus […] enthllt und zugnglich macht – was geschieht ? Die
Lehrsthle schweigen. Die Schriftsteller schweigen. Das Buch erscheint – und
verschwindet. Offenbar ist es unangenehm. […] Die Presse schweigt oder
bringt es hçchstens zu einer kurzen Rezension. Die Zeitschrif ten schweigen
…. Aber : Die Dichter ! Sie dichten in Mengen. Sie dichten von der Liebe und
vom Frhling und von Gott und der Welt. […] Es ist ein Elend mit unseren
deutschen Poeten. Was haben ihre Gedichtchen mit dem Deutschland von
1947 zu tun ? Nichts, gar nichts. Nennen wir diese Produkte frank und frei was
sie sind : lyrische Selbstbefriedigungen. (Boechk 1947: 5)
The book in question is almost certainly a reference to Eugen Kogon’s
Der SS Staat, the first thorough analysis of the Nazi system of terror, pub-
lished in 1946. This first attempt to document the crimes committed and
to encourage open engagement with the recent past had the wholly oppo-
site effect to that intended. Boeckh’s reference to post-war “Gedichtchen”
is a critique of what he considered to be the lack of merit of so much
post-war poetry in its evasion of the realities of Auschwitz and its indif-
ference to the “Zivilisationsbruch” (Diner 1988) that Auschwitz had ush-
ered in. Those writers who did attempt to thematise the Holocaust also
came under attack. In a review article entitled “Stimmen eines anderen
Deutschland,” Max Frisch criticised the restorative tendency in works
1 Nelly Sachs : A Tumultuous Reception History 26

such as Ernst Wiechert’s memoirDer Totenwald(1945), written during
his incarceration in Buchenwald. Frisch mocks a particular scene in the
novel in which the same branches of the great oak, which had apparently
fallen on Goethe and Charlotte von Stein, afford Wiechert’s alter ego, Jo-
hannes, spiritual comfort :
Melancholisch steht Wiechert unter einer Eiche, die Goethe und Charlotte
von Stein beschattet habe, im Grunde auch schon getrçstet, da er sich nher bei
Goethe fhlt als bei der deutschen Wirklichkeit und Gegenwart, die unter
dieser Eiche stattfindet ; ohne auch nur die augenblicklange Frage : warum
dieser Goethe, dessen Geisteshçhe uns bekannt und lange genug als Aus-
hngeschild benutzt worden ist, und alle die anderen Schtze, die diesem Volk
geschenkt wurden, Mozart und Hçlderlin, die er anruft, warum all dies gerade
das deutsche Volk von nichts bewahrt hat.
1(Frisch 1946 : 301)
Frisch was deeply critical of Wiechert’s unquestioned subscription to the
notion of ‘Weimar versus Buchenwald,’ as if the former remained an un-
sullied and unblemished concept. He also criticised Wiechert’s resolute
belief that the ‘true’ German tradition as personified by Goethe was
still viable despite the recent past. Nelly Sachs’ poetry, completely lacking
in any such restorative tendencies, was not to find a home in the West for
a considerable period yet. It would be in the Soviet zone that Sachs would
find an initial readership for her work, and her reception there sheds a
very interesting light on the socio-political and literary trends in the
East in the immediate post-war period.
1.4 Reception in the East
As distinct from the complete lack of reception of Sachs’ work in West
Germany for a considerable number of years in the aftermath of the
war, her first volume of poetry, In den Wohnungen des Todes, was publish-
1 The part of the memoir to which Frisch is referring is presumably the following :
“Er [Johannes] hatte nur eine Minute zu gehen, bis er unter der Eiche stand, von
der man sagte, daß ihr Schatten schon auf Goethe und Charlotte von Stein gefallen
sei. […] [U]nd er versuchte, sich aller der Verse zu erinnern, die er von dem wußte,
der vor hundertfnf zig Jahren hier gestanden haben mochte. Es war nichts ver-
lorengegangen von dem großen Leben, und auch wenn er mit fnfzig Jahren an
eine Galeere geschmiedet worden wre, wrde nichts verlorengegangen sein. ‘Edel,
hilfreich und gut…’ Nein, nicht einmal dies war untergegangen, solange ein
einziger Mensch es vor sich hinsprach und es zu bewahren versuchte bis in seine
letzte Stunde hinein.” (Wiechert 1957: 277)
1.4 Reception in the East 27

ed in 1947 in the Soviet zone by the Berlin publisher ‘Aufbau’ on the in-
itiative of Johannes R. Becher, who later became the first Minister of
Culture in the German Democratic Republic. Once again, the socio-po-
litical situation provides an explanatory framework for this. In the imme-
diate post-war period it was a plausible assumption that the memory of
the Jewish persecution would find a home in the post-war communist
‘anti-fascist’ narrative. Both Jews and communists had been victims of
Nazi persecution. The Central Committee for the Victims of Fascism
(Hauptausschuß fr die Opfer des Faschismus ), which was established as
a body outside the communist party by former prisoners of the Nazis
in June 1945, published a front-page article in the Deutsche Volkszeitung
in September 1945 acknowledging the Jews’ status as victims of fascism.
A ceremony held in Berlin in November 1945 to commemorate the Kris-
tallnacht pogrom was further evidence of the Communist Party’s ap-
proach to the persecution of the Jews. (Neumann 2000 : 116) Another
positive sign came from returned exile author Johannes R. Becher. In
his essay “Deutschland klagt an,” published in January 1946 in the inau-
gural issue of Aufbau, the leading cultural and political journal of the
SED – ( Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands ), the destruction of Eu-
ropean Jewry occupied a pivotal role. In April 1948, at a communist cer-
emony at Buchenwald, the Holocaust also received direct attention. This
can be contrasted with Adenauer’s inaugural speech in 1949 in which he
postulated “Vergangenes vergangen sein zu lassen.” At this ceremony Ste-
fan Heymann, a VVN official ( Vereinigung der Verfolgten des Naziregimes ),
spoke directly of the millions of Jews murdered in the death camps. In
addition, the decision of the authorities of the newly-formed German
Democratic Republic to make anti-Semitism a criminal offence was
praised in the various speeches, while the bonds between the racially
and politically persecuted were also emphasised. (cf. Herf 1997: 96 –
97) It was admittedly a small minority of communists, most especially
Becher and Merker, who were responsible for placing the issue of Jewish
suffering at the core of the communist ‘anti-fascist’ narrative. For the ma-
jority on the other hand, represented by Walter Ulbricht, the Jewish cat-
astrophe remained peripheral. However, as long as communists like
Becher and Merker held influence – which, as later transpired, would
prove short-lived – and as long as they had the opportunity to speak at
public events such as the aforementioned ceremony, Soviet memory of
Nazism would include Jewish suffering. It was within this arena that Sachs’ first volume of poetry was pub-
lished in East Berlin in 1947. In addition, Peter Huchel, editor of the
1 Nelly Sachs : A Tumultuous Reception History 28

journalSinn und Form, the primary organ of the Kulturbund zur demok-
ratischen Erneuerung Deutschlands , also published several of her poems. In
contrast to West Germany, Sachs thus, initially at least, found a forum in
the East, amidst the adamant socialist disavowal there of any Nazi legacy.
As Erhard Bahr explains :
In der damaligen sowjetischen Besatzungszone gab es nicht das Phnomen der
massenhaften Verdrngung der NS-Verbrechen von seiten smtlicher Bevçl-
kerungsschichten, sondern nur eindeutige Verurteilung, da das ‘neue
Deutschland’ […] als antifaschistischer Gegenentwurf konzipiert war. […]
Deshalb war man auch […] der Exil-Literatur gegenber weitaus aufge-
schlossener als in den westlichen Besatzungszonen. (Bahr 1980 : 12 – 13)
Following the news that the volume was to be published, Sachs wrote to
the Swiss journalist and author Max Rychner :
Ich erhielt einen Brief vom Aufbau-Verlag Berlin, darin wurde mir mitgeteilt,
daß man nach Anempfehlung von Johannes Becher, Prsident des deutschen
Kulturbundes, sich entschlossen hat, meine Gedichte in einer Auflage von
20.000 Exemplaren Anfang Dezember herauszubringen, und bittet gleichfalls
um meine weitere Produktion. […] Sie werden verstehen wie froh es mich
macht, daß die Stummen endlich reden drfen. (Sachs 1984 : 69)
The decisive role played by Johannes R. Becher in getting Sachs’ work
published comes to the fore in this passage, as does the stark contrast
with the situation in West Germany : not only was the East German pub-
lishing house keen to publish her existing volume of poetry, she was even
being encouraged to submit more of her work for consideration. Express-
ing her delight using a phrase that would come to dominate her work in
varied forms – “die Stummen” – the aporia between the state of muteness
and the indispensability of bearing witness is already perceptible at this
early stage. Her choice of words also expresses how great the suppressive
tendencies were in the West in relation to Holocaust memory. In a letter
to Curt Trepte a week later, she conveyed her delight once again that her
work was finally reaching her intended German audience : “Ich habe
heute frh den Vertrag mit dem Aufbau-Verlag Berlin unterzeichnet zur-
ckgesandt. […] [E]s ist fr mich eine unendliche Freude, daß die Ge-
dichte dort sprechen drfen, wo das Leid seinen Anfang nahm.” (Sachs
1984 : 70) At the same time, however, Sachs was acutely aware of the re-
pressive tendencies in the West and, whilst delighted that her work was
finally reaching its intended German audience, she expressed her disap-
pointment in a letter to Walter Berendsohn at the fact that this was
only the case in East Germany : “Man hat dort [in Ost-Berlin] […]
eine Ausgabe von 20.000 Exemplaren herausgegeben, aber wer weiß
1.4 Reception in the East 29

wann etwas hierher kommt.” (Sachs 1974b : 137) That 20,000 copies was
moreover viewed at the time to be a considerable number is evinced by a
letter to Sachs from the publishing director of Aufbau, Erich Wendt :
“Von Ihrem Buch ‘In den Wohnungen des Todes’ haben wir 20,000 Ex-
emplare verbreitet. […] , wobei ja auch zu bemerken ist, daß 20,000 eine
beispiellos hohe Auflage fr einen Gedichtband in Deutschland darstell-
en.” (cited in Olschner 1992 : 271)The reception of Sachs’ work in the East would prove short-lived,
however. As the cultural politics of the GDR increasingly began to
serve the ends of the USSR, Sachs’ initial success in the East began to
wane. In 1950 she succeeded in having just one poem – “Vçlker der
Erde” – published in Sinn und Form.Leonard Olschner points out on
the basis of a letter which Sachs wrote to the journal’s editor that the latter
had plans for further publication of her work. (Olschner 1992 : 271) Al-
though these plans would never be realised, the intent is nonetheless very
clear in the letter in question : “Heute kamen die Exemplare ihrer […]
Zeitschrift ‘Sinn und Form.’ Ich danke Ihnen, daß ich dabei sein
darf. […] Inzwischen werden Sie wohl auch meine Sendung erhalten
haben, die ich nach Ihrem Wunsch zusammenstellte.” (Sachs 1984 :
115) With the increasing emergence of a dogmatic Soviet cultural policy,
nothing was to come of this “Sendung,” and any previously harbored
publication intentions had little hope of coming to fruition. From 1949 the Jewish question began to be decisively marginalized as
the initial Soviet support for the state of Israel was reversed. The views of
communists like Merker and Becher on the Jewish question grew progres-
sively intolerable. Paul Merker’s essay, “Hitlers Antisemitismus und wir,”
in which the persecution of the Jews was placed at the centre of Nazi
crimes, conflicted with the interpretation of the majority of communists
who saw the Jews as merely one among many persecuted groups and who
placed the communist resistance at the pinnacle of the victim ‘hierarchy.’
In this essay, Merker also declared support for Jewish financial restitution
and for the creation of a Jewish state. What stirred considerable ire
amongst communist readership was his proposal to place the claims of
Jewish survivors on the same plane as the ‘anti-fascist’ resistance fighters.
(Merker 1942 : 9 – 11) This proposal, instead of calling for what Jeffrey
Herf calls “a monopoly of empathy or special treatment among the var-
ious victims of fascism,” came into direct conflict with the communists’
resolve that the “anti-fascist resistance fighters” should be at the top of the
Nazi victim hierarchy” (Herf 1994 : 632). An attack on so-called ‘cosmo-
politanism’ and on communists who allied themselves with Jewish con-
1 Nelly Sachs : A Tumultuous Reception History 30

cerns ensued. This anti-cosmopolitan campaign rested, as Herf points
out, “on reinforcing associations of Jews with the West, as well as Stalin’s
personal blend of paranoia and anti-Semitism” (Herf 1997: 108). The in-
itial sign of the dramatic turn was the removal of Merker from the Polit-
buro, apparently on charges of espionage, and the abolishment of the
‘Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee.’ (cf. Herf 108 – 109) However, the fact
that all the other figures denounced alongside Merker were Jewish, and
with Merker’s pro-Jewish stance a well-known fact, singling him out as
the only non-Jewish party member to be expelled lent the affair a very
sinister tone for those who were concerned about anti-Semitism resurging
in a communist guise. (cf. Herf 1994 : 365) The influence of a rigid So-
viet cultural policy became increasingly evident, and the memory of the
Holocaust was increasingly suppressed. Nazi ideology came to be inter-
preted primarily in terms of capitalist class interest. Memory of the Jewish
catastrophe would now have to compete with the memory of the suffer-
ings of communists under the Nazi regime.In the East works such as Bruno Apitz’s Nackt unter Wçlfen(1958)
enjoyed major success and began to replace literature which specifically
thematised the Jewish persecution. Apitz’s book went through over two
million printed copies following its initial publication and inspired vari-
ous radio dramas and film versions. The book’s success can be attributed
to its plot in which a valiant communist resistance takes centre stage.
Apitz provides a portrayal of the underground resistance in the final
few months of the war. His specific focus on the heroic communist resist-
ance in Buchenwald, with the Jewish figures remaining peripheral, was
very much in line with the official memory politics of the GDR at the
time. By this point a restrictive cultural policy was firmly in place
which called for ‘socialist realism’ as the favoured form for art and liter-
ature. ‘Socialist realism,’ the primary function of which was to serve the
propagandistic and ideological functions of the Soviet state, put emphasis
on the advancement and glorification of the political and social ideals of
communism. Culture in the East rapidly became ever more strongly
moulded by the dictates of a socialist ideology. In addition, the official
identification of monopoly capitalism as the source of fascism resulted
in the rejection by the East German leadership of any responsibility for
what had occurred :
Die KPD, seit 1946 dann die SED, entpuppte sich […] trotz aller Verlust-
erfahrungen als historische Gewinnerin, die sowohl innen als auch außen auf
der richtigen, am Ende siegreichen Seite gestanden hatte. Wer ihr beitrat oder
ihre Politik untersttzte, konnte dieses Erfolgsbewußtseins teilhaftig werden.
1.4 Reception in the East 31

Potentiell verwandelte sich daher ein Volk von Opfern […] in ein Volk von
Siegern, das jegliche Verantwortung fr die Geschehnisse zwischen 1933 und
1945 ablehnte. Verantwortlich und schuldig blieb lediglich das Monopolka-
pital, das im eigenen Staat wirkungsvoll entmachtet worden war, dafr aber,
wie es schien, in der Bundesrepublik um so ungehemmter agierte. Der West-
Staat stellte sich aus dieser Sicht nicht nur juristisch in die Nachfolge des
“Dritten Reiches”, sondern auch politisch. (Assmann 1999 : 168 – 69)
By interpreting Nazism as merely the direct result of monopoly capital-
ism and by ridding East Germany of these structures which, according
to Marxism-Leninism, had facilitated fascism in the first place, East Ger-
many essentially developed a myth all of its own : they had been on the
‘right side’ during the war and were on the ‘right side’ once again. East
Germany was thus in a position to condemn the continued existence
of those ‘fascist’ capitalist structures in the West. This sense of East Ger-
man righteousness would lead to the complete absence of any form of
critical public memory or sober confrontation with the recent past.
Peter Graf Kielmansegg, drawing on the famous Mitscherlich thesis,
writes : “In der DDR war es angesichts des makellos guten Gewissens,
das die neuen Herren fr sich und ihren Staat zur Schau trugen, mit
der ‘Fhigkeit zu trauern’ sicher nicht besser bestellt als im Westen.”
(Kielmansegg 1989 : 73) By parodying the supposed pristine communist
consciousness, Kielmansegg lays bare how the so-called ‘coming to terms’
process in the East developed essentially into ritualistic ‘antifascism.’ Thus
unlike the West, where the issue of the continuity of former compro-
mised elites turned the denazification process into a questionable enter-
prise at best, it cannot be contended that denazification was a complete
success in the East either since, although denazification at the highest po-
litical levels was more thorough and lasting than in the West, the former
National Socialist elite was effectively replaced by an authoritarian social-
ist elite :
In the Soviet zone, Russian military government officials were replaced by
Germans, but elite positions remained in Russian hands through thede
facto annexation of the zone to the Soviet Union. In effect, the problem
of post-totalitarian succession leadership was solved by permanently replac-
ing the old totalitarian elites of Nazi-Germany with Russian decision-makers
in Moscow. (Edinger 1960 : 78)
In the East fascism was viewed first and foremost as a regime for the re-
pression of the working classes in the service of capitalism, at the centre of
which was its anti-communism, notits anti-Semitism. In the face of such
1 Nelly Sachs : A Tumultuous Reception History 32

an increasingly dogmatic political, social and cultural arena, whatever in-
itial success Sachs enjoyed in the East proved to be short-lived.
1.5 Reception in the West : “Die Dichterin der Versçhnung”
The tripartite structure of post-war restorative tendencies in the public
arena and on the political and literary stages examined earlier, presented
a formidable barrier to any form of reception, let alone engagement, with
Sachs’ work in West Germany. Her work was not to appear there until
1957. The post-war literary scene was not conducive to publishing the
works of an exiled author whose overriding theme was the annihilation
of the Jews in the death camps. Indeed, Sachs even faced difficulties
when it came to those publishing houses sympathetic to exile literature.
In a letter to the Swiss author and journalist Max Rychner, who had
tried in vain to arrange for the publication of her work with the exile
publisher Europa-Verlag Emil Oprechts, Sachs expressed her despair :
Ich erhielt von diesem Verlag einen Brief […] , in welchem man bedauerte, daß
man das Manuskript bereits an meine Addresse gesandt hatte […] , und mir
weiter mitteilt, daß […] es durchaus nicht im Sinn des Verlages wre, allge-
meine Urteile abzugeben. Man htte nur soviel Emigrantenliteratur erhalten,
davon vieles nicht Gutes, so daß die Stimmung ermdet wre, hoffte aber, daß
sich bald alles nderte etc. Es ist also, wie ich fhlte, wohl gewesen : man hat die
Manuskripte, nachdem man den Titel sah, zu den Haufen der Zeugen- und
Protokollschriften geworfen, die leider ja oft wirklich mit dem Rauch der
Scheiterhaufen die Seufzer der Opfer ersticken. (Sachs 1984 : 62 – 63)
The general lack of interest in publishing Holocaust-related literature is
stated quite explicitly here by Sachs : the title of her volume alone,In
den Wohnungen des Todes sufficed, she presumed, to preclude her from
consideration. In a letter to Arnold Zweig in 1948, Fritz H. Landshoff,
who had established the exile publishing house Querido in Amsterdam
in 1933, expressed his disappointment at the fact that the doors of Ger-
man publishing houses continued to be closed to exiled authors three
years after the defeat of National Socialism : “Wer htte gedacht, daß
drei Jahre nach der Niederlage Hitlers das […] deutsche […] Gebiet
noch immer den Autoren, die 1933 Deutschland verlassen haben, prak-
tisch vollstndig verschlossen sein wrde.” (cited in Schnell 1993 : 75) In
a letter to Johannes Edfelt as late as 1953, Sachs echoed this sentiment :
“In Deutschland lehnt man bei fast allen Verlegern Dichtung ab, die […]
eine Form fr diese, unsere zerbrochene Welt sucht. Es soll alles glatt und
1.5 Reception in the West : “Die Dichterin der Versçhnung” 33

harmonisch im frheren Sinne sein. Wie ist das mçglich, fragt man
sich […] .” (Sachs 1984 : 147) Terence Des Pres’ description of the Hol-
ocaust survivor provides an aid for understanding this refusal by West
German publishers to sanction material by a writer like Nelly Sachs.
The survivor, Des Pres writes, is a “disturber of the peace,” a “runner
of the blockade men erect against knowledge of unspeakable things”;
but, since it is about these “things” that the survivor aims to speak, he
undermines in the process “the validity of existing norms.” The world
to which the survivor appeals “does not admit him,” and the survivor
is plagued with guilt with regard to “his task” and “his vow to the
dead.” The survivor’s “worst torment,” Des Pres concludes, “is not to
be able to speak” (Des Pres 1980 : 42 – 43). Nelly Sachs’ work represented
such a ‘disturbance of the peace.’ Already in 1946, in a letter to Max
Rychner, Sachs expressed her disappointment at the fact that her work
was being translated into Swedish and even Norwegian but was receiving
no attention in Germany : “Johannes Edfelt hat eine Reihe meiner Ge-
dichte ins Schwedische bertragen, auch erscheint der beigelegte Zyklus
in norwegischer Sprache, aber wohin mit der deutschen Sprache ?”
(Sachs 1984 : 48) Heinz Dieckmann, editor at the Saarlndischer Run-
dfunk, drew a direct causal relation between post-war restorative tenden-
cies and the lack of reception of her work in the West : “Daß die deutsche
Kritik […] und die gegenwrtige deutsche Literaturbetrachtung Sie gern
bersieht, berhrt die Reuelosigkeit der Deutschen, sowie das Bestreben,
die Anstze einer geistigen Erneuerung im restaurativen Schmutz zu er-
sticken.” (Dieckmann 1953) Dieckmann’s letter indicates that Sachs’ ab-
sence in the West German public arena did not go unnoticed ; advocates
of her work remained nonetheless in the minority. In a letter to Walter
Berendsohn, Sachs herself commented – with premature accuracy, it
might be added – on the repressive tendencies of the day : “Es ist merk-
wrdig, wie schnell das jdische Schicksal verschttet wird von den lau-
fenden Ereignissen, als ob die Menschheit froh wre, einer Verantwor-
tung, der sie […] sich nicht gewachsen gezeigt hat, ledig zu sein.”
(Sachs 1974e : 145) As late as 1957, in theAllgemeine Wochenzeitung
der Juden in Deutschland , Berendsohn, who himself campaigned tirelessly
for the public recognition of Sachs’ work, provided a further insight into
the reasons for her belated reception : “Obwohl es nun schon ber ein
Jahrzehnt her ist, daß die Verlagsarbeit nach dem Verfall im Dritten
Reich erneuert wurde, ist bisher in West Deutschland kein Buch der j-
dischen Dichterin Nelly Sachs erschienen […] . Kein deutscher Verleger
wagte es bisher, die Werke der Dichterin in Buchform zu verçffentli-
1 Nelly Sachs : A Tumultuous Reception History 34

chen.” (Berendsohn 1957: 9) Publishing literature about the extermina-
tion of the Jews was risky on two fronts. Firstly, it was not a financially
viable venture in light of the post-war socio-political conditions examined
earlier. Secondly, publishing Sachs’ poetry demanded a measure of cour-
age, since it involved swimming against the tide. The imagery that per-
meates Sachs’ oeuvre was not likely to promote her popularity. In addi-
tion, given that her poetry contained “de[n] verzweifelste[n] Schrei des
Grauens, der jemals im Gedicht deutscher Sprache gehçrt ward,” as
Kurt Pinthus wrote in a 1949 review of her work, chances of publication
were limited even further (cited in Olschner 1992 : 275). The condemna-
tory message that permeated Sachs’ poetry was also unwelcome ; the Ger-
man public was more concerned with cultural restoration than with hav-
ing the pangs of a guilty collective consciousness roused. In another letter
to Berendsohn in 1949, Sachs quoted a line from correspondence she had
received from an acquaintance who explained the lack of publishing out-
lets for her work thus : “Hier haben alle Verleger Angst, ihr schçnes Papier
mit einem Stck glhender Lava zu verbrennen.” (cited in Braun and
Lerman 1998 : 182) By 1953 Sachs had surrendered all hope of ever find-
ing a home for her poetry in Germany ; as she put it in a letter to Jo-
hannes Edfelt : “Ich weiß nur zu genau, daß ich es bestimmt nicht
mehr erleben werde, mit meinen Dingen eine hiesige Land-Heimat zu ge-
winnen.” (Sachs 1984 :145) It would not be until the late 1950s and
1960s that Sachs’ work would begin to receive any further attention,
and developments in the political arena by that stage were to have a pro-
found effect on the reception of her work in West Germany.The intense focus on Nelly Sachs from the very late 1950s onwards
was sudden and unexpected, but it had design. It was based less on the
merit of her work – that would come with critical scholarship which real-
ly only began in the 1970s – than on avoiding a genuine attempt at ‘Ver-
gangenheitsbewltigung.’ This sudden reception of her work coincided
with a change in the relationship between memory and democracy in
the Federal Republic. During the late 1950s and 1960s memory of the
Nazi persecution of the Jews came to occupy a ubiquitous place in the
West German political and public consciousness. There were a number
of reasons for this transition. The first external influence was the
media sensation caused by the so-called Ulm Task Force Trial in which
the facts pertaining to the Jewish extermination were extensively uncov-
ered. The trial brought to light the reality that the executions committed
by the task force were but a miniscule portion of what had in fact been a
programme of systematic mass execution throughout Eastern Europe and
1.5 Reception in the West : “Die Dichterin der Versçhnung” 35

the Soviet Union during the war. In the wake of this trial, the ‘Zentrale
Stelle der Landesjustizverwaltungen zur Aufklrung von nationalsozialis-
tischen Verbrechen’ was established in 1958 as a centralised system to un-
cover and expose those perpetrators who had escaped punishment. Devel-
opments in the period between 1958 and 1965 provide the second key to
understanding this transition. During this time the mass media played a
significant role in bringing to the forefront of public consciousness two
further events which rendered Auschwitz an agonizing actuality : the
trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961 and the Auschwitz trials
in Frankfurt from 1963 to 1965. Along with the Auschwitz Trials – an
important turning point since they were accompanied by broad national
as well as international press coverage – this period also saw increased
awareness in the face of a resurgence of anti-Semitic violence which
reached a highpoint in 1959 with the desecration of the Cologne synago-
gue. 1965 marked yet another step as debates commenced over the statute
of limitations on the crime of murder. The discussion centered on the
question of the extension of Germany’s statute given that, unless it was
extended, thousands of those who had been involved in Nazi crimes
would escape trial and justice merely by virtue of the passing of time.
These debates, alongside the various trials, all served to bring both the
crimes of the Nazi past and the magnitude of the judicial failure of the
1950s to the centre stage of West German politics. The spring of
1965 saw yet another major step forward with Adenauer’s successor Lud-
wig Erhard establishing diplomatic relations with Israel.The sudden discovery of Sachs’ work ran concurrent to this transition
in political and public memory. After years of non-recognition, publish-
ers now had good reason to sanction her work. In 1957 the Heinrich El-
lermann publishing house published the first collection of her poems in
West Germany under the title Und niemand weiß weiter.It is clear from
Sachs’ correspondence that Ellermann had approached her directly in
1956 expressing his interest in her work. He had sensed that the socio-po-
litical tide was turning and, along with it, the demands and tastes in the
literary arena : “Ellermann [machte] mir ein Angebot betr. meiner eigenen
Dinge. Er gibt jedes Jahr einen Dichter heraus, finanziert es privat und
rechnet nicht mit Verdienst. So etwas gibt es auf Erden.” (Sachs 1984 :
153) While Ellermann’s willingness to take a chance on publishing
Sachs’ work is commendable, the timing indicates that this was not an
uncalculated gamble. A number of Sachs’ poems also appeared in the
journal Texte und Zeichen , edited by Alfred Andersch.
1 Nelly Sachs : A Tumultuous Reception History 36

The honours soon followed the publications. Virtually unknown in
the West German public sphere in the post-war years, Sachs was suddenly
showered with honours and prizes, beginning with the Lyrikpreis des Kul-
turkreises im Bundesverband der Deutschen Industrie in 1959, followed by
the Meersburger Droste-Preis in 1960. In 1961 she was endowed with the
newly-created Nelly Sachs-Preis der Stadt Dortmund , named after its first
recipient. This in turn was followed by the awarding of the prestigious
Friedenspreis des Deutschen Buchhandels in 1965. These honours reached
a highpoint in 1966 when Sachs was awarded the Nobel Prize for Liter-
ature, together with the Israeli author Samuel J. Agnon. Finally, in 1967,
she was made an honorary citizen of Berlin in what one critic calls “a final
and ironic act of reclamation” (Bahti 1995 : 3). After decades of non-rec-
ognition, Sachs was transformed from a virtually unknown writer and
had come to embody the concept of German-Jewish reconciliation. It became clear very quickly that Sachs’ poetry was being utilised as a
vehicle for repressed mourning ; the sudden reverence represented “die
Vereinnahmung ihrer ‘Trauerarbeit’ fr die in Deutschland auf breiterer
Ebene nicht geleistete” (Bossinade 1985 : 143). The appropriation of
her work and the reclamation of her person as a quasi ‘public alibi’ served
a very definite purpose. Reclaiming Sachs would serve to relieve West
Germans of the task of mourning : a reconciliatory message of the
strength as the one supposedly on offer in her work, after all, rendered
self-examination superfluous. The award of the Droste-Preiswas surpris-
ing given that, at the time, Sachs was living in almost total obscurity in
Sweden, while her work was also absent in most anthologies of the day.
The presentation speech delivered by Swiss author and publisher Hans
Rudolf Hilty at this particular award ceremony is especially significant,
since it would prove to be one of very few speeches at the various
award ceremonies in which the disregard for Sachs and her work
would receive honest acknowledgement :
Und nun also sind wir […] versammelt zum feierlichen Akt der Preis-ber-
gabe in diesem festlichen Saal. […] Und nun erwarten Sie von mir eine
entsprechend festliche Rede. […] Nun, gegen Festreden bin ich skeptisch. In
jenem ersten Gesprch mit Nelly Sachs am vergangenen Mittwoch fiel auch
das Wort ‘Verlogenheit’. Aus dieser Ecke stammt meine Skepsis gegenber
Festreden. Gerade im Falle Nelly Sachs. […] Ich mßte nun vielleicht die
anwesenden Verleger der Gedichtbnde von Nelly Sachs bitten, die Ver-
kaufszahlen dieser Bcher zu nennen. Mag sein, daß auf 100.000 Menschen
deutscher Sprache ein Exemplar trifft. Ich weiß nicht, was einen an dieser
Bilanz besonders festlich stimmen kçnnte. Oder ich mßte darauf hinweisen,
1.5 Reception in the West : “Die Dichterin der Versçhnung” 37

daß die grçßte Dichterin, die heute in deutscher Sprache schreibt, in den
meisten Anthologien deutscher Gegenwartsdichtung fehlt. (Hilty 1960 : 1 – 3)
Hilty’s presentation speech also warned against ‘buying off ’ Sachs with
literary prizes. Quoting from two of Sachs’ poems “Ihr Zuschauenden”
and “An euch, die das neue Haus bauen,” from her first collection of
post-war poetry, he warned : “Jene, die das neue Haus bauten – oder
eben nicht ein neues Haus bauten, sondern wiederaufbauten – schttelten
ihn gern ab, den Blick im Rcken, den Blick der Toten. […] Vom Blick
auf den Rcken kann man sich nicht loskaufen mit Literaturpreisen.”
(Hilty 1960 : 4, 6) A later report in the Swiss paperDer Bundon the oc-
casion of the awarding of the Nobel Prize expressed a similar sentiment :
“keine Preisverleihung schafft sie aus der Welt.” (Erni 1966) Citing the
well-known lines from Gnther Eich’s poem ‘Wacht auf ’ (1950), a
poem that urges resistance against the machinations of power, Hilty
then concluded : “Sie singt die Lieder, die man heute von einem Lyriker
nicht erwartet. Ihre Gedichte sind nicht l im Getriebe der Welt, son-
dern Sand.” (Hilty 1960 : 7) Hilty’s words of honesty had little conse-
quence, however. Not long thereafter, as Olschner comments, “hagelte
es Regelrecht Preise und Anerkennung” (Olschner 1992 : 279). That
same year, the anthology of lyric poetry from around the world Museum
der modernen Poesie , edited by Hans Magnus Enzensberger, included
Nelly Sachs as the only living German poet. The renowned linguist Hel-
mut Geißner pointed out the unexpectedness and peculiarity of this :
Das mag manchen Leser verwundern ; er htte andere Namen erwartet, Na-
men, die in den Literaturzeitschriften zu finden sind, die man von Litera-
turpreisen her kennt, ber die gesprochen und geschrieben wird. Wer ist
verglichen mit ihnen Nelly Sachs ? Erst seit wenigen Jahren beginnt man ihre
Gedichte zu entdecken. […] Und doch sollen ihre Gedichte die deutsche Lyrik
in einer internationalen Anthologie reprsentieren – wie ist das mçglich ? Nun,
wie die Dinge liegen, es ist mçglich. Dieser Fall paßt genau in die fnfzehn
zurckliegenden Jahre des Aufbauens und Verdrngens. Ein Stck deutscher
Geistesgeschichte nach 1945. (Geißner 1961: 1)
There was, of course, good reason for Sachs’ virtual absence in poetry col-
lections during the previous fifteen years. Anthologies in the decade prior
to 1960, as Olschner points out, “geben […] ein Indiz ab fr Lesewn-
sche, Lesererwartung, lyrische Kuscheltiere, nicht jedoch fr herausfor-
dernde Texte, die dem Leser unbequem werden kçnnen” (Olschner
1992 : 276). Sachs’ works could certainly not be classified as “lyrische Ku-
1 Nelly Sachs : A Tumultuous Reception History 38

The “professionelle Vergangenheitsbewltiger,” as the literary critic
Paul Kersten astutely refers to them (Kersten 1984), soon jumped on
the band wagon with the creation and presentation of what would be-
come the Nelly Sachs-Preis. Once again this award was somewhat bizarre
since, as one journalist commented in his report on the ceremony, “man
hat von Nelly Sachs […] bis vor wenigen Jahren in der ffentlichkeit
kaum etwas gewußt” (Nils 1961). In the presentation speech at the
award ceremony, the mayor, Dietrich Keuning, praised Sachs as the
‘guardian’ of the German language and exalted her ‘exemplary message
of forgiveness’:
Mit dieser Auszeichnung ehrt Dortmund eine Dichterin, die sich durch ihr
lyrisches Werk als Hterin deutscher Sprache und Kultur erwiesen […] hat.
Die Stadt will mit der Bindung des Kulturpreises an den Namen Nelly Sachs
die Bedeutung der Dichterin […] wrdigen, die in vorbildlicher Weise Ver-
sçhnung und Toleranz ausdrckt. (Keuning 1961)
To describe Sachs as the ‘guardian’ of the German language and of Ger-
man culture – forceful statements in light of the fact that no mention was
made of Sachs’ despair at the breach in both language and culture that
Auschwitz had engendered – was one thing. To describe her work as ex-
hibiting an exemplary message of reconciliation was quite another. This
marked just the beginning of the reduction of Sachs’ person to a recon-
ciliatory figure.
From this point on, what was arguably a process of appropriation was
gradually developing into one of misappropriation, and the use of Sachs’
person and work for political purposes was becoming increasingly evi-
dent. One particular event speaks volumes in this respect. At a reading
of Sachs’ poetry in Stockholm in 1960, organised by the German ambas-
sador, Sachs was placed sitting between the German and Israeli ambassa-
dors. This was a significant moment given that it was just five years be-
fore the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel. As Sparr com-
ments : “Das ist in der Tat ein unglaublicher historischer Moment – fnf
Jahre vor der Aufnahme diplomatischer Beziehungen zwischen der Bun-
desrepublik und Israel, die gegen große Widerstnde in Israel durchge-
setzt wurde. Es war der Markstein einer besonders symboltrchtigen, po-
litisch inspirierten Rezeption ihrer Lyrik.” (Sparr 1998 : 50) 1965 then
marked the award of the prestigious Friedenspreis des Deutschen Buchhan-
dels. The wording of the official announcement at the presentation cere-
mony was marked by a weighty vocabulary. Sachs was selected as the prize
recipient on the following grounds : “Das dichterische Werk von Nelly
1.5 Reception in the West : “Die Dichterin der Versçhnung” 39

Sachs steht ein fr das jdische Schicksal in unmenschlicher Zeit undver-
sçhnt ohne Widerspruch Deutsches und Jdisches. Ihre Gedichte und sze-
nischen Dichtungen sind Werke hoher deutscher Sprache, sie sind Werke
der Vergebung , der Rettung, des Friedens.” (anon. 1965 : 2286) [my em-
phasis] What makes this event somewhat macabre retrospectively is the
greeting that was sent by President Karl Heinrich Lbke, in which he
thanked Sachs for her supposed willingness to forgive, claiming her
poems “knden […] von der erlçsenden Macht der Verstndigung, Ver-
sçhnung und Nchstenliebe” (Lbke 1965 : 9). At the time, Lbke’s in-
iquitous past had not yet been uncovered. It is thus with the benefit of
hindsight that his greeting acquires its unsettling underside ; as Erhard
Bahr comments : “Wie es sich spter herausstellen sollte, bedurfte
Lbke, als stellvertretender Bauleiter von Konzentrationslagerbarack-
en […] selbst dringend die Versçhnung, die er in seiner Grußadresse anp-
ries.” (Bahr 1980 : 57)
2A glimpse at any volume of Sachs’ work makes
appraisals such as Lbke’s somewhat bewildering. In his presentation
speech at the award ceremony, the chairman of the German Publishers’
and Booksellers’ Association Friedrich Wittig went so far as to speak of
the ‘wonder’ that Nelly Sachs, who herself had escaped persecution at
the last minute, had responded to the Jewish persecution with ‘forgiving
love’: “Denn ist es selbstverstndlich, daß sie auf Bedrohung und Dem-
tigung, auf Leiden und Grausamkeit mit verzeihender Liebe antwortet ?”
(Wittig 1965 : 14) However problematic Lbke’s comment was regarding
‘Versçhnung,’ Wittig’s claim was even more questionable, not least be-
cause of the impudent supposition contained in the rhetorical nature
of his wording. These speeches were then followed by a speech delivered
by Werner Weber, and it was he who finally issued a warning against su-
perficial applause :
Es gibt verschiedene Mçglichkeiten, einen Dichter zu erledigen. Die
freundlichste, freilich auch die hinterhltigste ist die : man spendet ihm Beifall,
und zwar unter allen, besonders festlichen Umstnden. Das nennt man
‘Laudatio’. […] Wir wollen lieber versuchen […] , vor dem Dichtwerk der
Nelly Sachs zu bestehen. (Weber 1965 : 2)
Applause, like laudatios, has an exculpatory function ; it replaces the task
of really engaging with the past. Weber proceeded to compare what Schil-
ler called the ‘moral institution’ of the theatre space with a “Stundenho-
2 The enduring legacy of this scandal is chronicled in a substantial article entitled “Der Fall Lbke,” which appeared as recently as 2007 in Die Zeit.(cf. Wagner
1 Nelly Sachs : A Tumultuous Reception History 40

tel,” a morally dubious but functional space that provides temporary re-
lief ; one leaves the theatre having been entertained, provides a good solid
applause for this entertainment and then returns to ‘business as usual.’
Instead of making citizens better people, drama, and by analogy Sachs’
poetry, makes them feel better, since it does the work of mourning for
them. Weber thus warns against reducing her work to an alibi, since
such a practice has a compensatory psychological function. He warns
against cynical applause, the kind of applause that silences the work itself,
the kind used to avoid any engagement with the work – “der zynische
Beifall, in den wir uns flchten, um nicht ins Gesprch verwickelt, um
nicht durch den Dichter in die volle Verantwortung gefordert zu werden”
(Weber 1965 : 2).Weber’s cautionary assessment received little attention in the press,
however. Rather, sentiments in a similar vein to those expressed by Wittig
above were echoed in the majority of the newspaper reports. One report
in the Rheinische Post, for example, entitled “Dichtung aus dem Geist der
Versçhnung,” contained the following assessment : “Das fr uns heute vor
allem Bewundernswerte ist, daß diese Frau ohne Haß, ohne Vorwurf ge-
lebt hat und ihr Werk ein einziger Appell zur Versçhnung ist.” (Schçfer
1965) [my emphasis] “Werke der Vergebung” was the headline in the
Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung (anon. 1965a). “Bei Nelly Sachs findet
sich keine Anklage” read the headline in the Neue Ruhr Zeitung(Schuman
1965). In addition to the emphasis placed on Sachs’ supposed reconcilia-
tory message, the presentation of the Peace Prize in the same year as the
establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel was too great a coinci-
dence to go unnoticed. One report in Die Weltmade the connection :
“Warum [entschloß sich] Westdeutschlands Buchhandel erst so spt,
eine Dichterin auszuzeichnen, deren Werk seit 1961 geschlossen vor-
liegt […] ? Sollte die Vermutung berechtigt sein, daß die Aufnahme dip-
lomatischer Beziehungen zu Israel eine entsprechende Geste nahelegte ?”
(Kleßmann 1965) The timing of the award, in other words, lent the hon-
our a strong politically motivated undercurrent. One noticeable tendency
in the newspaper reports was the extraction of one particular line from
Sachs’ acceptance speech, where she said she had come to Germany to
tell the new generation that she believed in it : “Preistrgerin Nelly
Sachs : ‘Ich glaube an die neue deutsche Generation’” (anon. 1965c) is
a representative example of press trends in this respect. Her qualifying
words were omitted in almost every report :
1.5 Reception in the West : “Die Dichterin der Versçhnung” 41

ber alles Entsetzliche hinweg, glaube ich an sie. […] Lassen Sie uns ge-
meinsam der Opfer in Schmerz gedenken und hinausgehen aufs Neue, um
wieder und wieder zu suchen – von ngsten und Zweifeln geplagt zu suchen,
wo vielleicht entfernt […] eine neue Aussicht schimmert. (Sachs 1965 : 7)
Even with the glimmer of hope expressed in the last line, these words can-
not be interpreted as an uncomplicated reconciliatory gesture. Neverthe-
less, her words regarding her belief in the future generation were decon-
textualised and read as a general absolution.The Nobel Prize for Literature was next in line, and it quickly became
apparent that this decision was also politically and ideologically motivat-
ed. In his laudatio Walter Jens praised the Swedish Academy for their de-
cision to award this accolade to Sachs : “Ich danke Ihnen, Nelly Sachs,
und ich danke der schwedischen Akademie. Sie hat mit Ihrer Ehrung
die Blicke wieder auf jene Symbiose gerichtet, die deutsch-jdische
Verschwisterung im Geist, der die Welt so viel verdankt.” (Jens 1977:
389) This was an astonishing remark given that the Jewish population
of Europe had little for which to ‘thank’ this German-Jewish symbiosis
in recent decades. As Amir Eshel writes : “Die Worte, mit denen Walter
Jens das Begehren, Deutsches und Jdisches widerspruchsfrei zu denken,
sie gar symbiotisch aufzufassen und das Versçhnende einer immer schon
gewesenen Verbundenheit ‘im Geist’ herbeizureden versucht, vermçgen
nur Staunen zu erwecken.” (Eshel 1999 : 84) Jens also made the rather
bizarre claim that Sachs’ language was the language of Goethe, “aber
nicht die Sprache Hitlers” (Jens 1977: 389), as if Sachs had somehow ‘un-
done’ the poisoning of the German language that had occurred during
the years of National Socialism. This comment also overlooked the fact
that Sachs’ work is permeated with a sense of despair at the knowledge
of her linguistic medium having served as the “death idiom” of National
Socialism (Steiner 1970 : 108).
The press reports employed a similarly weighty vocabularly : “Der
Nobelpreis fr Nelly Sachs ehrt nicht nur eine literarische, eine poetische
Leistung, er weist auf einen jener seltenen Menschen hin, die es uns
immer wieder mçglich machen, an einem Sinn der Geschichte zu glau-
ben” (anon. 1966b), was the stance taken by one reporter. As the analysis
below will demonstrate, however, it is difficult to see how Sachs’ poetry
could be interpreted as providing the reader with a reason to believe “an
einem Sinn der Geschichte.” The newspaper headlines served to further
boost what was essentially becoming a “Nelly-Sachs-Kult” (Lorenzen
2005 : 2): “Versçhnende Kraft der Erinnerung” (Best 1966), “Ihr Werk
versçhnt” (anon. 1966a), “Entscheidende Bereitschaft zur Versçhnung
1 Nelly Sachs : A Tumultuous Reception History 42

mit den Deutschen” (anon. 1967), “Werke der Rettung und des Friedens”
(anon. 1965b) are representative examples of press trends, and they pro-
vide strong evidence of how excessive the process of misappropriation ac-
tually was. Particularly good expositions of the trends in West Germany
are, however, those contemporary press reports which adopted a critical
stance vis-a-vis the decision of the awards committee. These voices give
a clear sense of how it was felt at the time, by at least some onlookers,
that somehow something did not quite add up.Four aspects of the 1966 Nobel Prize award were highlighted in these
critical reports. Firstly, in an article entitled “Unergrndlich,” the confu-
sion felt by some contemporary commentators at the fact that the highest
literary accolade was being awarded to a poet who had been virtually un-
known less than a decade previously is perceptible : “Nelly Sachs ist, so
heißt es, ganz sicher eine gute Lyrikerin […] , doch bis vor wenigen Jah-
ren wußte man kaum etwas von ihr.” (Grill 1966) Grill emphasises the
very recent acknowledgement of Sachs as a poet of distinction and ex-
presses his sense of perplexity at her being chosen nonetheless as the
prize recipient. In another report, Karl Krolow highlighted the second
questionable aspect of the 1966 award, namely, the division of the
prize between Sachs and the Israeli writer Samuel Josef Agnon :
Die Doppelung der Preistrger ist als eine Mehrung des literarischen und
symbolischen Gehalts des Preises aufzufassen. […] Wir verstehen die Stock-
holmer Jury wohl nicht falsch, wenn wir annehmen, daß sie mit diesem ge-
koppelten Preis die Literatur einmal sehr deutlich unter Zeichen eines
Volksschicksals stellen wollte […] . Die ihn erhalten, tragen den Preis zugleich
stellvertretend fr ihr Volk. (Krolow 1966)
Krolow viewed the division of the prize – an exceptional case which had
not occurred since 1917 – as cause for speculation, since it suggested a
possible ideological motivation behind the decision, with Agnon repre-
senting the Jews of Israel and Sachs the remaining Jewish community
in Germany. A third curious aspect of the award on this particular occa-
sion was brought to the fore in another report subtly entitled “Flucht ins
Konfessionelle,” namely, the sudden emphasis on the ‘Jewishness’ of the
prize recipients :
Von Anfang an waren Juden unter den Nobelpreistrgern […] . Ihre pro-
zentuale Beteiligung am Nobelpreis ist bedeutend grçßer als ihre Verhlt-
niszahl zur Kulturbevçlkerung der Welt, aber niemals hat man frher daran
gedacht, bei der Auszeichnung das Glaubensbekenntnis des Preistrgers be-
kanntzugeben oder gar bei der Wahl zu bercksichtigen. Es war nicht der
Halbjude Paul Heyse, der 1910 den Nobelpreis fr Literatur erhielt, sondern
1.5 Reception in the West : “Die Dichterin der Versçhnung” 43

der deutsche Dichter Heyse, und es war auch nicht der Jude Henri Bergson,
sondern der franzçsische Philosoph, dem 1927 der gleiche Preis zuerkannt
wurde. […] Wer hat 1921 das Jdische in Albert Einstein betont, als ihm der
Nobelpreis fr Physik zugesprochen wurde ?
The author goes on to ask “Welche Grnde – etwa politischer Natur
– […] haben zu dieser ungewçhnlichen Teilung und zu dieser Flucht
ins Konfessionelle gefhrt ?” (Unger 1967: 45 – 47). This report high-
lights the possible political considerations at play in awarding the
Nobel Prize first and foremost to a Jew who had remained anonymous
in literary circles up until a few years previously. By this point Sachs’ Jew-
ishness had acquired what Sparr calls “eine representative Grçße” (Sparr
1998 : 50). The fourth, and perhaps most significant, aspect was high-
lighted in a report inDer Bund, namely, the shallow reverence that the
Nobel Prize on this occasion represented :
Nelly Sachs – dieser Name hat noch vor zwanzig Jahren recht wenig bedeutet.
Wenig oder vielleicht sogar nichts. Dann aber kam jene große Welle : die Welle
der Wiedergutmachung ; ausgehend von einem Deutschland, das sich im
Wohlstand streckte und dehnte. Und Schwemmgut eben dieser Wohl-
standswelle war auch sie […] , sie und ihr Werk : Nelly Sachs. Als man nmlich
in Deutschland damit begann, sich im Lehnstuhl zu rkeln und all des Bçsen
und Grauenvollen zu fluchen, ‘das nazistischer Ungeist einem ganzen Volke
angetan’, da nahm man auch ihre Gedichte zur Hand, denn sie gehçre ja
schließlich dazu – eine Gepeinigte aus dem gepeinigten Volk. Und man las
wohl auch einige ihrer Verse. Fand sie ‘ganz hbsch’; recht seltsam zwar oder
fast wie Gebete. ‘Aber immerhin … ’. Und weil es sich ziemt, zum Beten
niederzuknien, man aber – wie gesagt – im Lehnstuhl saß, so legte man schnell
das Bndchen weg. (Erni 1966)
This report condemns the superficial recognition of her work in the Fed-
eral Republic and the avoidance of any form of meaningful engagement.
It is a critique of the obsequious reverence shown towards Sachs which
characterised the various awards. Hilde Domin later provided a subtle
commentary on this servile reverence :
Hohe Ehrungen hat die Dichtung der Nelly Sachs auf sich geladen, sogar die
hçchste : den Nobelpreis. […]: als habe die deutsche Nachkriegsgesellschaft
mit diesen Verbeugungen vor der Reprsentantin des bergroßen, des un-
aussprechlichen und doch ausgesprochenen Leids sich freigemacht von der
Verpflichtung mit solchen Gedichten zu leben, das ist, sie lesen […] zu
mssen. (Domin 1977: 105) [emphasis in original]
Domin calls for Sachs’ poetry to be read “unbelastet vom Zwang zum
Kotau” that had characterised the reception of her poetry in West Germa-
ny (Domin 1977: 110). An article published on the occasion of the one
1 Nelly Sachs : A Tumultuous Reception History 44

hundreth anniversary of Sachs’ birth, a juncture that finally saw a wel-
come reassessment of how Sachs had been received in post-war Germany,
expressed a similar critique of this deferential reverence. Drawing on Paul
Kersten’s “professionelle Vergangenheitsbewltiger” thesis, Hannelore
Crolly argued : “Immer wieder wurde ihr Werk jedoch von professionell-
en Vergangenheitsbewltigern ohne Blick auf den poetischen Gehalt zu
einem Akt nachtrglicher Wiedergutmachung stilisiert. […] Als mache
die Verbeugung vor Nelly Sachs’ Gedichten von der Verpflichtung frei,
sie zu lesen und ber sie zu reden.” (Crolly 1991)The Nobel Prize, whilst representing the height of this obsequious
veneration, did not, however, mark the end. The last accolade in the
line of honours was the bestowal of honorary citizenship of Berlin on
Sachs. Once again it became clear that this decision had a strong degree
of political motivation which is exposed best by those reports which took
a critical stance in relation to this honour :
Als Nelly Sachs Deutschland besuchte und ihr dort ein Preis verliehen wurde,
hat man sie wie eine Fremde begrßt, sie die große jdische Dichterin genannt,
ihre Dichtung als Denkmal der nazistischen Judenverfolgung bezeichnet.
Diese deutsche Einstellung hat ihre Wurzel in einer Scheu vor dem jdischen
Leiden und in dem Gefhl, daß es vermessen wre, von seiten Deutschlands
einen Anspruch auf Nelly Sachs zu erheben. Dennoch liegt in dieser Haltung
ein schweres Irrtum. […] Es ist Zeit, daß man in Deutschland begreift, daß sie
eine Landsmnnin ist, die vertrieben wurde, und keine Fremde, die man zur
Ehrenbrgerin macht. Es ist leicht, allzu leicht, sie als große jdische Dichterin
zu bezeichnen. Schwerer scheint es zu sein, zu verstehen und zu erkennen, daß
Nelly Sachs auch des deutschen Volkes grçßte zeitgençssische Dichterin ist.
(Wallmann 1967)
The bestowal of honorary citizenship seemed to suggest that Sachs was a
stranger ; it seemed to overlook the fact that Sachs wrote in German about
a massacre committed by Germans on German soil, uncomfortable
though this reality may be. As Helmut Geißner commented : “Daß sie
es in der Sprache tut, in der die Schreie der Opfer und die Befehle der
Mçrder klangen, in unserer Sprache, macht sie auf besonderer Weise
zu unserer Dichterin.” (Geißner 1961: 64) To have Sachs’ uncomfortable
works integrated as part of German culture was not, however, what the
various accolades aimed for. The “Vergangenheitsbewltiger” chose selec-
tively from her work, and in the process “das schmerzlich Unversçhnli-
che,” as literary critic Christine Rospert commented, “von dem ihr
Schreiben doch auch kndet, wurde einfach ausgeblendet” (Lorenzen
2005 : 2). A paradox resulted : on the one hand, the “Vergangenheitsbe-
wltiger” were content to acknowledge Sachs as a German-speaking
1.5 Reception in the West : “Die Dichterin der Versçhnung” 45

poet for the purposes of promoting her as a ‘guardian’ of the German lan-
guage, and as a German-Jew who was apparently calling for forgiveness –
who better, after all, to convey such a message than one of the persecuted.
On the other hand, however, Sachs’ ‘Germanness’ was a thorn in West
Germany’s side, and at the various award ceremonies, and in particular
by bestowing honorary citizenship on her, she was treated to all intents
and purposes like a foreigner.The litany of accolades that followed the years of non-recognition –
to the extent that the presence of philo-Semitic trends was detectable –
represented the process in post-war Germany outlined by cultural com-
mentator Fritz Raddatz :
Nicht Mord und Verfolgung drohen heute deutschen Schriftstellern, wohl
aber zuweilen eine andere Gefahr : sie werden ‘heimgeholt’, mit Freundlichkeit
und Beifall bedeckt, wenn nicht erstickt. Nelly Sachs ist ein solcher Fall. Den
Krematorien knapp entronnen, ist es nun der Rauch der Weihrauchkerzen, der
sie fast konturlos macht. […] Die Hymnen berwiegen in der Literatur ber
Nelly Sachs. (Raddatz 1972 : 43)
Regrettably, much of the initial subsequent Sachs scholarship, which
began in earnest in the 1970s, proceeded to adopt the line taken by
the “professionelle Vergangenheitsbewltiger” by avoiding critical engage-
ment. Lili Simon’s article serves as a case in point : “Und doch ist diese
Trauerdichtung frei von Haß, verharrt auch nicht beim unwiederbrin-
glich Verlorenen, sondern klingt zukunftshaltig aus in einem Aufruf
zur Versçhnung und zum Frieden.” (Simon 1973 : 36) Aside from the
problematic nature of any argument which suggests that Sachs’ poetry
can be viewed as a clear-cut appeal for reconciliation, Simon’s assertion
here is dubious on another front. To allege that Sachs’ work “verharrt
auch nicht beim unwiederbringlich Verlorenen” and that it is “zukunft-
shaltig” is disputable on several counts. As the analysis below demon-
strates, Sachs’ poetry is very much frozen in the events of the Shoah,
while her entire poetic project is dedicated to the impossible task of re-
covering the unrecoverable – the dead. Simon’s article is also questionably
selective in nature. She finishes her analysis by quoting four words from
Sachs’ poem “An euch die das neue Haus bauen” which, when examined
in its entirety, arguably contains one of the poet’s most austere cautionary
messages for the post-Shoah world. Simon concludes her article with
what appears to be one complete line from the poem : “Baue, aber
weine nicht,” giving the impression that Sachs’ poetry is indeed “zukunft-
shaltig,” when in fact this poem is a distressing attempt at rendering with-
in language the harrowing consequences of survivor trauma. Sachs cer-
1 Nelly Sachs : A Tumultuous Reception History 46

tainly does not paint a positive, future-orientated picture, as the second
stanza demonstrates : “Seufze nicht, / wenn du dein Laken bettest, / Es
mischen sich sonst deine Trume / Mit dem Schweiß der Toten.”
(Sachs 1961: 9) This cannot be interpreted as an “Aufruf zur Versçh-
nung.” What the various prizes, honours and the attendant public dis-
course attest to is an attempt to have Sachs perform the task of mourning
on behalf of the German people, to applaud her for doing so and to re-
turn to ‘business as usual.’ This casts doubt on the intentions of the post-
war West German socio-political and cultural institutions, whose primary
purpose appears not to have been a genuine attempt at ‘Vergangenheits-
bewltigung.’ Rather, it can be argued that they were themselves instru-
mental to the wider agenda of memory suppression.Before an endeavour is made to examine the omnipresence of Ausch-
witz in Nelly Sachs’ work, an exploration of the debate surrounding one
of the most oft-cited lines in post-45 literary history – “nach Auschwitz
ein Gedicht zu schreiben ist barbarisch” (Adorno 1977: 30) – provides a
productive theoretical paradigm for that examination. Aside from being a
very valuable springboard in terms of the formal analysis of Sachs’ poetry,
what makes the ‘poetry after Auschwitz’ debate additionally relevant is the
infrequently noted fact that Nelly Sachs herself was drawn into the centre
of this debate following the publication of Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s
article “Die Steine der Freiheit” in 1959, in which the author, having
criticised Adorno’s supposedly harsh judgement, proceeded to hail
Nelly Sachs as a writer whose work provided concrete evidence that po-
etry could and indeed should be written ‘after Auschwitz’:
‘Nach Auschwitz ist es nicht mehr mçglich, ein Gedicht zu schreiben.’ Wenn
wir weiterleben wollen, so muß dieser Satz widerlegt werden. Wenige ver-
mçgen es. Zu ihnen gehçrt Nelly Sachs. Ihrer Sprache wohnt etwas Rettendes
inne. Indem sie spricht, gibt sie uns selber zurck, Satz um Satz, was wir zu
verlieren drohten : Sprache. (Enzensberger 1995 : 73)
A dialogue ensued with Adorno replying to Enzensberger’s concerns in
the essay “Engagement” (1962), in which it is clear that an interdiction
of ‘poetry after Auschwitz’ was not what Adorno had in mind :
Den Satz, nach Auschwitz noch Lyrik zu schreiben, sei barbarisch, mçchte ich
nicht mildern […] . Aber wahr bleibt auch Enzensbergers Entgegnung, die
Dichtung msse eben diesem Verdikt standhalten, so also sein, daß sie nicht
durch ihre bloße Existenz nach Auschwitz dem Zynismus sich berantworte.
(Adorno 1965 : 125 – 26)
1.5 Reception in the West : “Die Dichterin der Versçhnung” 47

Adorno prescribes here what Nelly Sachs attempts to do ; namely, to defy
the verdict of the ‘barbarity’ of poetry in recognition of the indispensa-
bility of bearing witness. This aporetic tension finds a strong resonance
throughout Sachs’ work, as indeed do all of Adorno’s reflections on
what constitutes legitimate art in the aftermath of the Holocaust, includ-
ing his deliberations on the perils involved in attempting to represent the
Holocaust in aesthetic form, the inherent profanity of any attempt to
‘make sense’ of Auschwitz, the difficulties that the anonymity of death
in the camps pose for the writer, the question of survivor’s guilt, and
his emphasis on the significance of self-referential writing.
1 Nelly Sachs : A Tumultuous Reception History 48

2 The Problematics of Holocaust Representation
2.1 Adorno’s ‘after-Auschwitz’ Aporia
The debate that raged from the 1950s following the publication of Ador-
no’s ‘dictum’ regarding ‘the barbarity of poetry after Auschwitz’ raises
many of the pivotal concerns that permeate Nelly Sachs’ poetry. Because
representation necessarily mediates between a subject and its reader, and
since, in the case of the Shoah, the subject is one of acute moral magni-
tude, there is inevitably a moral peril involved in its artistic rendering.
Representation, after all, requires a medium, medium implies the impo-
sition of form, and form raises the question of literary language as the
means of representation. The publication of Adorno’s ‘dictum’ in 1951
acted as a catalyst for a debate on this moral peril that has continued
up until the present day.The writer in the aftermath of the Shoah was confronted with an ir-
resolvable dilemma : there was a moral obligation to bear witness to the
heinous crimes, yet the writer was constantly threatened with speechless-
ness due to the constraints which this event of unimaginable magnitude
imposed upon conventional language. As a formidable challenge to
human comprehension and conceptualisation, the Shoah presented, by
extension, a formidable challenge to articulation. The challenge to con-
ceptualisation has been summarised by Ruth Kranz-Lçber. Lçber de-
scribes the chimneys of the crematoria as “Insignie eines Verbrechens,
dessen bloße Quantitt das menschliche Vorstellungsvermçgen […]
nicht fassen kann. Die Bilder von aufgetrmten Leichenhalden, und
das Wissen, daß deren Beseitigung mit zu den grçßten organisatorischen
Probleme der Tter gehçrte, ermçglichen vielleicht noch am ehesten eine
Ahnung vom Charakter des Ereignisses.” (Kranz-Lçber 2001: 21) Gior-
gio Agamben has similarly commented on the challenge posed to the
human mind that attempts to assimilate a horror such as the ‘Sonder-
kommando.’ Drawing on Primo-Levi’s concept of the “grey zone,” Agam-
ben views the ‘Sonderkomando’ as the “extreme figure” of that horrific,
morally confused space in the camps :
The extreme figure of the ‘grey zone’ is the Sonderkommando.The SS used
the euphemism ‘special team’ to refer to this group of deportees responsible

for managing the gas chambers and crematoria. Their task was to lead naked
prisoners to their death in the gas chambers and maintain order among
them ; they then had to drag the corpses, stained pink and green by the cy-
anotic acid, and wash them with water ; make sure no valuable objects were
hidden in the orifices of the bodies ; extract gold teeth from the corpses’ jaws ;
cut the women’s hair and wash it with ammonia chloride ; bring the corpses
into the crematoria and oversee their incineration and, finally, empty out the
ovens of the ash that remained.
“We can,” Agamben continues, “enumerate and describe each of these
events, but they remain singularly opaque when we truly seek to under-
stand them. (Agamben 2002 : 11 – 12) Another aspect of Auschwitz utter-
ly incomprehensible to the human mind is the normality of its perpetra-
tors. That most of the perpetrators were ordinary human beings who
would freely flow through any “psychiatric sieve,” as Zygmunt Bauman
comments, is both morally disturbing and theoretically puzzling, espe-
cially when seen conjointly with those “normal” organisational structures
that co-ordinated the actions of these normal individuals into the enter-
prise of mass murder (Bauman 1989 : 19). Hannah Arendt’s controversial
concept of the “banality of evil,” the result of her report on the Eichmann
trial published in 1963, in no way obfuscates the fundamental evil that
Auschwitz represented, as has been contended by some critics ; it serves,
rather, to highlight it. After all, the horror of the evil is inextricably linked
with the banality of its perpetrators. (cf. Arendt 2006)Those writing in German faced yet another formidable barrier : the
medium itself had become compromised as a consequence of having
been manipulated and distorted under the National Socialist regime.
The German language was now permeated with perverse and sinister
meanings and associations. The writer attempting to bear witness was
thus forced to express a horror of unimaginable magnitude by means
of an impaired and misappropriated linguistic medium, which seemed
to be completely incommensurate with its subject of representation.
Added to this was the question of the legitimacy of the artistic rendering
of the suffering of millions ; in addition to the question of aesthetics there
was also a grave ethical dimension. The moral and aesthetic justification
for the very act of writing itself was now in doubt. The issue was not only
how the Shoah could be represented, but whetherits appropriation in lit-
erary form was legitimate at all.
It is difficult to think of another area of literary discourse in which a
critic has brought such a profound influence to bear as Theodor Adorno
has in the area of Holocaust literature. It is also difficult to think of an-
2 The Problematics of Holocaust Representation 50

other area of literary discourse in which a critic’s pronouncements have
been misinterpreted so often and to such a degree as Adorno’s reflections
on the status of art after the Shoah. Reference here is of course being
made to Adorno’s supposed ‘dictum’ concerning the ‘barbarity of poetry
after Auschwitz.’ Originally published inPrismen. Kulturkritik und Gesell-
schaft in 1951, this ‘dictum’ constitutes just a very minor part of what is
in fact an extensive set of reflections on the possibilities and limitations of
the representation of the Holocaust in aesthetic form. There are few con-
tributions to the debate surrounding the representation of the Shoah that
do not draw, to some degree or other, upon Adorno’s thought. And un-
derstandably so : his deliberations on the status of art after the event are
crucial to any consideration of the representation of the event. The prob-
lem, however, is that time and time again his deliberations have been, and
indeed continue to be, reduced to a single sentence : “Nach Auschwitz ein
Gedicht zu schreiben ist barbarisch.” These eight words have come to be
known as Adorno’s ‘dictum’; a ‘dictum’ that has supposedly denounced all
art after Auschwitz. Of Adorno’s many reflections on the problematics of
art in the wake of the Holocaust, this single sentence – by now a seem-
ingly established ‘maxim’– has attracted the inordinate share of attention,
and has been widely interpreted as a call for the abandonment of art in
the face of the horrors of the Holocaust. What is somewhat bewildering
is not only its repeated citation without reference to the broader frame-
work of Adorno’s thought, but also the fact that it is habitually extracted
from its immediate textual context. To cite but a very brief number of
misquotations and misinterpretations : Walter Jens has interpreted Ador-
no’s words in terms of resignation : “‘Nach Auschwitz kann man nicht
dichten.’ Ein bitteres, ein abschließendes Wort, ein Wort der Resigna-
tion.” (Jens 1967: 4) Hans Magnus Enzensberger has construed Adorno’s
words as a pronouncement on the ‘impossibility’ of poetry after Ausch-
witz : “Der Philosoph Theodor W. Adorno hat einen Satz ausgesprochen,
der zu den hrtesten Urteilen gehçrt, die ber unsere Zeit gefllt werden
kçnnen : Nach Auschwitz sei es nicht mehr mçglich, ein Gedicht zu
schreiben.” (Enzensberger 1995 : 73) Three more recent contributors to
the debate are Susan Gubar, Elrud Ibsch and Stephen J. Whitfield, all
of whom have misread Adorno’s words as a call for silence. Gubar
makes reference to Adorno’s “injunctionagainst poetry” and to the “nihil-
ism of his prohibition against poetry” (Gubar 2003 : 240) [my emphasis] .
Ibsch argues that Adorno must be contradicted since [ d]as Verstummen
der Poesie wre der Triumph der NS-Barberei noch ber ihr politisches
Ende hinaus” (Ibsch 2004 : 48) [my emphasis] , while Whitfield refers
2.1 Adorno’s ‘after-Auschwitz’ Aporia 51

to the “vow of silence” that Adorno’s “famous axiom” has implied (Whit-
field 2007: 194). Adorno’s writings on this subject are, however, too in-
voluted to license any such interpretation. The ambiguity that character-
ises the original proposition has almost certainly contributed to the fre-
quent misunderstandings. “In spite of its forthrightness,” as Howard Cay-
gill points out, “it remained unclear whether it was a judgement of poetry
written after Auschwitz, a Darstellungsverbot on poems about Auschwitz,
or a condemnation addressed to post-war art and culture in general”
(Caygill 2006 : 69). Caygill’s line of reasoning considered, however, one
thing is nonetheless still relatively certain : the misinterpretation of Ador-
no’s thought generally emerges when quotations are examined in isolation
from context. In this respect, the compound sentences nestled within the
passage in question, as well as the tendency to split the original passage
into two separate sentences in English translation, have also undoubtedly
contributed to the simplification and dissemination of the ‘dictum’ in its
partial form. When read in isolation from immediate textual context and
without reference to the overall framework of Adorno’s thought, the ‘bar-
barity’ pronouncement and those others most frequently cited – in par-
ticular the so-called ‘Widerruf ’ thesis – lose the crucial dialectical quality
conferred on them in the original text. What is perhaps most perplexing
in the case of the ‘dictum’ is the fact that it constitutes a mere sub-clause
of the original text. When analysed within both the more immediate and
broader contextual framework, it becomes clear, however, that Adorno
did not cancel the possibility of art after Auschwitz. Rather, his consider-
ations highlight the aporia confronting the post-Shoah writer, an aporia
so extreme that it leaves no space for meaningful resolution. Defined
as an irresolvable impasse as a result of equally plausible yet inconsistent
premises, the term ‘aporia’ captures the essence of Adorno’s deliberations
on post-Shoah art : the imperative to represent the egregious crimes and
the impossibility of doing so adequately.
Je totaler die Gesellschaf t, um so verdinglichter auch der Geist und um so
paradoxer sein Beginnen, der Verdinglichung aus Eigenem sich zu entwinden.
Noch das ußerste Bewußtsein vom Verhngnis droht zum Geschwtz zu
entarten. Kulturkritik findet sich der letzten Stufe der Dialektik von Kultur
und Barberei gegenber : nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben, ist bar-
barisch, und das frißt auch die Erkenntnis an, die ausspricht, warum es un-
mçglich ward, heute Gedichte zu schreiben. (Adorno 1977: 30)
For Adorno the barbarism of poetry after Auschwitz stems from the fact
that it will fail to discern its own inadmissibility due to reification, which
has halted the process of self-reflection. The artist, that is, fails to recog-
2 The Problematics of Holocaust Representation 52

nise the entrenchment of a reification process of which he too forms part.
Reification or ‘Verdinglichung’ – the transformation of human beings
into ‘thing–like’ beings – is the concomitant factor of advanced capitalist
society that has liquidated individualism. Individualism, however, had
formed the core of critical consciousness. The difficulty with representing
the Shoah in figurative discourse lies in the tendency of the latter towards
subjectivity. As a form of individual expression, the very nature of figu-
rative discourse is irreconcilable with the reality of this reification process,
the catastrophic reflection of which was to be seen in the liquidation of
the individual under fascism, its murderous and most extreme reflection
in the Nazi death camps, where human life had been rendered expenda-
ble. The extremity of this liquidation process in the concentration camps
is most vividly evinced by the figure of the so-calledMuselmann.Primo
Levi provides a description of this figure : “Their life is short, but their
number is endless ; they, the Muselmnner, the drowned, form the back-
bone of the camp, an anonymous mass, continually renewed and always
identical, of non-men.” (Levi 1959 : 82) This liquidation of the very con-
cept of the individual in the concentration camps is central to Adorno’s
line of thought :
Der Vçlkermord ist die absolute Integration, die berall sich vorbereitet, wo
Menschen gleichgemacht werden, geschliffen, wie man beim Militr es
nannte, bis man sie, Abweichungen vom Begriff ihrer vollkommen Nichtig-
keit, buchstblich austilgt. […] Was die Sadisten im Lager ihren Opfern
ansagten : morgen wirst du als Rauch aus diesem Schornstein in den Himmel
dich schlngeln, nennt die Gleichgltigkeit des Lebens jedes Einzelnen […] ;
schon in seiner formalen Freiheit ist er so fungibel und ersetzbar wie dann
unter den Tritten der Liquidatoren. […] ; daraus fhrt so wenig hinaus wie aus
der elektrisch geladenen Stacheldrahtumfriedung der Lager. (Adorno 1973 :
The Shoah marked the obliteration of the very notion of the autonomous
subject, and Adorno’s reflections in this regard are fundamental to his de-
liberations concerning the status of art in its aftermath. Not only is the
idea of artistic subjectivism intrinsically problematic, given that the
Shoah had rendered the idea of individuality entirely void, the concept
of subjectivism is itself an illusion in the aftermath of Auschwitz, an illu-
sion which, in turn, prevents the artist from recognising the extremity of
the reification process, in whose web he too is caught. Furthermore, the
question of agency itself is highly problematic in a post-Auschwitz con-
text : “Die Undarstellbarkeit des Faschismus aber rhrt daher, daß es in
ihm so wenig wie in seiner Betrachtung Freiheit des Subjekts mehr
2.1 Adorno’s ‘after-Auschwitz’ Aporia 53

gibt. Vollendete Unfreiheit lßt sich erkennen, nicht darstellen.” (Adorno
1980 : 148) Reinhard Baumgart has taken a resolute stance with regard to
the presentation of the individual subject in Auschwitz ; it wasn’t just peo-
ple who were murdered at Auschwitz, he argues, but also individuality :
“die Individualitt ist liquidiert worden.” Where mass murder is the
theme, he continues, literature cannot afford the luxury of such “Individ-
uation”: “sie [die Literatur] wird esthetisch zur Lge, moralisch zur Heu-
chelei. (Baumgart 1966 : 23 – 28) In the camps the victims had been rob-
bed of freedom and individual choice. The imposition of agency on the
part of individual characters in the process of representation would thus
inevitably result in a distortion. It is in this regard that certain genres have
intrinsic difficulties when it comes to the representation of the Shoah.
This is especially true with respect to drama, since the basic premise
upon which drama rests – human agency, individual motivation, the
choice of one course of action over another – simply cannot be met.
Drama depends on the freedom of its individual characters to choose
and to opt for various courses of action. In the death camps, however,
the inmates did not have the luxury of choice. Irving Howe writes :
Exterminations, in which thousands of dazed and broken people were sent
up each day in smoke, hardly knowing and barely able to respond to their
fate, have little of drama in them […] . Those soon to be dead are already
half or almost dead ; the gas chambers merely finish the job begun in the
ghettos. The basic minimum of freedom to choose and act that is a central
postulate of drama has been taken from them. (Howe 1988 : 189)
Tragedy, as one of the main dramatic genres, is particularly problematic.
As Howe points out, if the death camps and the extermination do not
allow much scope for the dramatic, nor do they allow much scope for
the tragic in any traditional sense of the term. In classical tragedy, after
all, “man is defeated,” whereas in the Holocaust “man is destroyed.” Ad-
ditionally, in classical tragedy, characters struggle against forces that over-
whelm them, and the resulting downfall may have “an aspect of gran-
deur.” (Howe 1988 : 190) This is, of course, completely inappropriate
when the subject of representation is systematic mass murder. Howe con-
tinues :
Except for some religious Jews who were persuaded that the Holocaust was a
re-enactment of the great tradition of Jewish martyrdom […] , the Jews de-
stroyed in the camps were not martyrs continuing along the ways of their
forefathers. […] Few of the victims […] could even grasp the idea of total
annihilation, let alone regard it as an act of high martyrdom. (Howe
1988 : 190)
2 The Problematics of Holocaust Representation 54

Given these insurmountable barriers, it is not surprising that drama has
yielded fewer individual works about the Shoah than the other major lit-
erary forms. This process of reification assumes further importance in
Adorno’s modernist critique, which is in turn intimately related to his
views on post-Holocaust art.
2.2 The Expropriation of Death and Adorno’s ModernistCritique
The concept of reification assumes importance in Adorno’s deliberations
on the possibilities and limitations of post-Shoah art in terms of the ex-
propriation of death itself in the camps. In Auschwitz, as Giorgio Agam-
ben writes, “people did not die ; rather, corpses were produced. Corpses
without death, non-humans whose decease is debased into a matter of se-
rial production.” It is precisely this degradation of death, Agamben ar-
gues, that constitutes the “specific offense of Auschwitz” (Agamben
2002 : 72). This expropriation was the direct consequence of mass-pro-
ducing death on an industrial scale, and it is in this respect that Adorno’s
indictment of modernity assumes significance :
Mit dem Mord an Millionen durch Verwaltung ist der Tod zu etwas geworden,
was so noch nie zu frchten war. Keine Mçglichkeit mehr, daß er in das er-
fahrene Leben der Einzelnen als ein irgend mit dessen Verlauf bereinstim-
mendes eintrete. Enteignet wird das Individuum des Letzten und rmsten,
was ihm geblieben war. Daß in den Lagern nicht mehr das Individuum starb,
sondern das Exemplar, muß das Sterben auch derer affizieren, die der Maß-
name entgingen. (Adorno 1973 : 355)
It is this perfidious “Mord durch Verwaltung” that has become imprinted
onto the consciousness of the post-Shoah world ; it is the industrialised
nature of the extermination process that is responsible for producing a
set of ‘Auschwitz images’ which, despite their graphic nature, remain,
as David Roskies puts it, “utterly inassimilable”:
Unique to the Holocaust are the mounds of shoes, combs, hair, prostheses,
eyeglasses, and valises belonging to the murdered victims. They bear witness
to something heretofore unknown. Never have the innocent been so system-
atically stripped of security, sanctity, property, and sustenance before being
stripped of their lives. Unique to the Holocaust are the tattooed numbers.
They represent the permanent branding of every Jew marked for slave
labor and eventual murder. (Roskies 2000 : 6)
2.2 The Expropriation of Death and Adorno’s Modernist Critique 55

The elimination of the concept of the individual – a concept traditionally
considered central to the process of a dignified death – by means of this
highly efficient and bureaucratically organised death machinery resulted
in the expropriation of the one thing considered an indefeasible posses-
sion of the victim, namely, death itself. Giorgio Agamben directly links
the fabrication of corpses, this “Mord durch Verwaltung,” with its logical
extreme, namely, with the figure of theMuselmann, the camp figure that
haunts his reflections on Auschwitz :
What defines the Muselmnneris not so much that their life is no longer life
– this kind of degradation holds in a certain sense for all camp inhabitants
and is not an entirely new experience – but, rather, that their death is not
death. This – that the death of the human being can no longer be called
death […] – is the particular horror that the Muselmannbrings to the
camp and that the camp brings to the world. (Agamben 2002 : 70)
A similar image appears in Adorno’s writings : “In den Konzentrationsla-
gern des Faschismus wurde die Demarkationslinie zwischen Leben und
Tod getilgt. Sie schufen einen Zwischenzustand, lebende Skelette und
Verwesende, Opfer, denen der Selbstmord mißrt.” (Adorno 1973 : 42)
The Muselmann, neither alive nor dead, represented such a “Zwischenzu-
stand.” Thus even suicide was not an option for this ‘living skeleton.’
Adorno’s link between the administrative murder of millions and
modernity is a very direct one. The highly ‘efficient’ and industrialised
murder system, after all, had been facilitated by modern industry and
modern bureaucratic structures. Feingold provides a picture of the bu-
reaucratic and mechanical nature of the extermination process :
Rather than producing goods, the raw material was human beings and the
end-product was death, so many units per day marked carefully on the man-
ager’s production charts. The chimneys, the very symbol of the modern fac-
tory system, poured forth acrid smoke produced by burning human flesh.
The brilliantly organised railroad grid of modern Europe carried a new
kind of raw material to the factories. It did so in the same manner as with
other cargo. […] Engineers designed the crematoria ; managers designed
the system of bureaucracy that worked with a zest and efficiency more back-
ward nations would envy. (Feingold 1983 : 399 – 400)
Moreover, the rational means employed to implement the death system
were seen by Adorno as the perilous legacies of modernity, since their fu-
sion with wholly irrational ends – the liquidation of European Jewry –
had resulted in the catastrophic blend that Auschwitz represented. Mod-
ernity’s facilitation of the factory-like extermination is thus central to
Adorno’s thought. As Kranz-Lçber writes : “Besonders in den Tçtungsme-
2 The Problematics of Holocaust Representation 56

thoden offenbart sich die Shoah als ein spezifisch modernes Ereignis, als
technologisierter, arbeitsteilig organisierter und brokratisch verwalteter
Prozess.” (Kranz-Lçber 2001: 25 – 26) Adorno’s critique of post-Shoah
art must be seen within the framework of his critique of modernity.
After all, it was this bureaucratically organised murder machinery that fa-
cilitated the programme of extermination which, in turn, led to the ob-
literation of the concept of the individual in Auschwitz, a concern that is
central to his deliberations on art after Auschwitz. The deeply problem-
atic concept of individuality in a post-Shoah world finds a similarly acute
presence throughout Nelly Sachs’ body of poetry.
2.3 ‘The Extremity that Eludes the Concept’
Adorno’s reflections on the actual process of artistically rendering the suf-
fering of the victims form an integral part of his overall stance on post-
Shoah art, and these deliberations are thus indispensible for any explora-
tion of his views on the dilemmas of Holocaust representation generally.
These meditations highlight his concerns with regard to the moral peril
involved in any attempt to render the suffering in artistic form. As
such they serve as an important contextual framework for an analysis
of his ‘dictum.’ Adorno highlights a multitude of obstacles which make
the representation of the Shoah a formidably problematic endeavour.
The first problem was the German language itself : “Kein vom Hohen ge-
tçntes Wort, auch kein Theologisches, hat unverwandelt nach Auschwitz
ein Recht.” (Adorno 1973 : 360) What is being referred to here is the
decay that now lay at the core of the German language as a result of
its abuse and misappropriation under the Nazi regime. “Use a language,”
George Steiner writes, “to conceive, organise and justify Belsen ; use it to
make out specifications for gas ovens […] . Something will happen to it.
[…] Something will happen to the words. Something of the lies and sad-
ism will settle in the marrow of the language” (Steiner 1970 : 101). The
German language had served the purpose of disseminating and justifying
an ideology whose primary goal was to provideLebensraumfor those sup-
posedly ‘worthy of life,’ while so-called ‘unwertes Leben’ was targeted for
extermination. The extermination of such life designated ‘unworthy’ was
facilitated by what H. G. Adler calls the ‘non-values” or “Unwerte” of the
Nazi system : in order to present Jews as ‘unwertes Leben’ deserving of an-
nihilation, they were assigned a purely negative ‘value’ as a prelude to
their extinction. (cf. H. G. Adler 1960 : 634) The language at the core
2.3 ‘The Extremity that Eludes the Concept’ 57

of Nazi ideology, as Bauman writes, had been “fraught with images of dis-
ease, infection, infestation, putrefaction and pestilence” (Bauman 1979 :
71). Language, as Adorno points out, had provided fascism with its me-
dium : “Die Sprache gewhrt ihm [der Faschismus] Asyl ; in ihr ußert das
fortschwelende Unheil sich so, als wre es das Heil.” (Adorno 1967: 416)
The German language had been used to shroud the most barbaric crimes
in euphemisms such asEndlçsung,Umsiedlung, Selektion,Sonderbehand-
lung, whose technocratic abstractness concealed what was in fact a pro-
gram of total extermination. Adorno viewed the task of cleansing the lan-
guage after such abuse as a well-nigh impossible task : “Den berlieferten
sthetischen Formen, der traditionellen Sprache […] wohnt keine rechte
Kraft mehr inne. Sie alle werden Lgen gestraft von der Katastrophe jener
Gesellschaft, aus der sie hervorgingen.” (Adorno 1971: 27) The second danger was the potential that some degree of pleasure
would be derived from the artistic rendering of the victims’ suffering
and that the transformation of this suffering into an artwork would re-
sult, by default, in diminishing the horror of the event :
Aber indem es trotz aller Hrte und Unversçhnlichkeit zum Bild gemacht
wird, ist es doch, als ob die Scham vor den Opfern verletzt wre. Aus diesen
wird etwas bereitet, Kunstwerke, der Welt zum Fraß vorgeworfen, die sie
umbrachte. Die sogenannte knstlerische Gestaltung des nackten kçrperli-
chen Schmerzes, der mit Gewehrkolben Niedergeknppelten, enthlt, sei’s
noch so entfernt, das Potential Genuss herauszupressen. (Adorno 1965 : 125)
As this passage makes clear, Adorno holds deep reservations concerning
the artistic representation of the suffering. Experiencing any form of aes-
thetic pleasure from a portrayal of the victims’ suffering is considered to
be an unacceptable distortion of that suffering. Not only would represen-
tation in aesthetic form shear away some of the horror ; this would in turn
result in the falsification and trivialisation of the suffering endured and
lead to a breach between the artwork and the subject of representation.
In the case of the Shoah, an event of such profound moral magnitude,
this was deemed wholly unacceptable. The third, and perhaps, most formidable peril, was the possibility
that aesthetic representation, which, by its very nature, results in the im-
position of form upon the material, would result in the attribution of
some kind of meaning and, by extension, some degree of sense to the
wholly senseless massacre : “Durchs sthetische Stilisationsprinzip […] er-
scheint das unausdenkliche Schicksal doch, als htte es irgend Sinn ge-
habt ; es wird verklrt, etwas von dem Grauen weggenommen, damit al-
lein widerfhrt den Opfern Unrecht.” (Adorno 1965 : 125) This formida-
2 The Problematics of Holocaust Representation 58

ble peril of somehow ‘making sense’ of or attributing some kind of mean-
ing to Auschwitz was a thought to which Adorno returned again and
again. InNegative Dialektik he attempts to describe an unsettling “Ge-
fhl, das nach Auschwitz gegen jegliche Behauptung von Positivitt des
Daseins als Salbadern, Unrecht an den Opfern sich strubt, dagegen,
daß aus ihrem Schicksal ein sei’s noch so ausgelaugter Sinn gepreßt
wird.” (Adorno 1973 : 354) ‘Squeezing sense’ out of the victims’ suffering
would be achieved, for example, by placing Auschwitz within some kind
of progressive, teleological narrative whereby some higher moral truth or
insight was gained at the expense of millions. This problem of ‘making
sense’ of the events of the Holocaust affects historical enquiry also.
Saul Friedlnder, for example, has noted the difficulties facing the histor-
ian who attempts to situate the historical place of the Jewish extermina-
tion, despite the fact that it has become one of the defining events of our
time. He questions how historical enquiry can ever define the significance
of sites such as Treblinka, whose solefunction was immediate extermina-
tion. He questions how such events can ever be integrated in the interpre-
tation of the epoch “as they neither influenced the course of the war, nor
any major trend in post-war history” (Friedlnder 2000 : 12). Of partic-
ular concern to Adorno in terms of the dangers inherent in an artistic ren-
dering of Auschwitz, was what he termed “das sthetische Stilisationsprin-
zip.” This ‘principle of aesthetic stylisation’ ran the risk of attributing
meaning to the fate of the victims by imposing meaningful formupon
senseless mass murder : “Das sthetische Prinzip der Form ist an sich,
durch Synthesis des Geformten, Setzung von Sinn, noch wo Sinn inhalt-
lich verworfen wird.” (Adorno 1970 : 403) Adorno feared that by means
of aesthetic stylisation the suffering of the victims would be transfigured
into an aesthetically rounded and formally coherent narrative. This ques-
tion of formal coherence was cause for particular concern : “Wo vom
ußersten, dem quallvollen Tod die Rede ist, schmt man sich der
Form, so, als ob sie an dem Leiden frevelte, indem sie es unausweichlich
zu einem Material macht, ber das sie sich verfgt.” (Adorno 1973 : 597)
For Adorno the transformation of the events of the Shoah into meaning-
ful form provides the artist with the semblance that the ‘material’ at his
disposal – Auschwitz – can somehow be ‘shaped’ or ‘worked with’; that
it can be ‘fitted’ into a neat narrative framework. However, representing
the horror within such an ordered and coherent formal structure runs the
risk, not only of attributing a sense of meaning – in aesthetic terms – to
the senseless massacre, it also assumes the intelligibility of and the ability
to conceptualise Auschwitz. For Adorno, however, there is something in
2.3 ‘The Extremity that Eludes the Concept’ 59

the experience of the Shoah, which resists conceptualisation ; an excess
that exceeds the boundary of what the mind can assimilate. He calls
this excess ‘the extremity that eludes the concept’: “Mißt es [das Denken]
sich nicht an dem ußersten, das dem Begriff entflieht, so ist es vorweg
vom Schlag der Begleitmusik, mit welcher die SS die Schreie ihrer Opfer
zu bertçnen liebte.” (Adorno 1973 : 358) Adorno’s concept of the ex-
tremity is similar to the “lacuna” that Giorgio Agamben speaks of in re-
lation to survivor testimony. This lacuna makes the imposition of form
on the events of the Shoah highly problematic, since it can neither be wit-
nessed nor contained within any formal aesthetic framework : “At a cer-
tain point, it became clear that testimony contained at its core an essential
lacuna ; in other words, the survivors bore witness to something it is im-
possible to bear witness to.” (Agamben 2002 : 13) This lacuna refers to
the ‘non-testimony’ of those who – in Primo Levi’s words – “touch bot-
tom”: “We the survivors are not the true witnesses. […] We survivors are
not only an exiguous but also an anomalous minority : we are those who
by their prevarications or abilities or good luck did not touch bottom.
Those who did so […] are the complete witnesses.” (Levi 1989 : 83 –
84) For Levi, then, the true witness is the one who, by definition, cannot
bear witness. The ‘extremity’ and the ‘lacuna’ to which Adorno and
Agamben refer mean that the very nature of thought itself must be differ-
ent in a post-Auschwitz world. Thought must now recognise this ‘extrem-
ity’; the ‘lacuna’ must be “interrogated” and “listened to” (Agamben
2002 : 17). Thought cannot simply be as it was before, since this
would be a mockery of the deference owed to the victims. The Shoah,
as a ceasura, must be formative for what comes after. Adorno is calling
for thought to be self-referentially sceptical. This ‘extremity that eludes
the concept’ must not, however, be equated with the idea of negative sa-
cralisation, an interpretation which flows from the above-mentioned mis-
interpretation of Adorno’s thought as a general call for silence, since neg-
ative sacralisation inadvertently leads to exculpation by placing the event
outside the realm of the human and, as such, beyond the reach of rational
discourse. Johann Baptist Metz has summed up the dangers : “Dieses
Grauen darf nicht aus der Geschichte herausgenommen und zu einer
Art ‘negativen Mythos’ stilisiert werden. Dadurch wrde der Holocaust
zum unfaßlichen Schicksal, zur Tragçdie beyond history, die den Stand-
punkt der Verantwortung und der Scham […] auflçsen wrde.” (Metz
1992 : 36) Ruth Kranz-Lçber has pointed out a further urgent danger
of negatively sacralising the Holocaust :
2 The Problematics of Holocaust Representation 60

Wie kaum ein anderes historisches Ereignis verlangt der systematische Vçl-
kermord nach Zeugenschaft […] und es sei nur, um dem immer wieder ge-
spensterhaft auftauchenden Vorwurf der sogennanten ‘Auschwitz-Lge’ zu
begegnen […] . Die Behauptung, der Genozid habe nie wirklich stattgefunden
und die Nachricht davon sei bloß erlogen [erdichtet] , nhert sich parado-
xerweise vom Charakter des Ereignisses : seine Unvorstellbarkeit legt seine
Undurchfhrbarkeit nahe, und demnach auch, daß es nicht durchgefhrt
wurde. (Kranz-Lçber 2001: 39)
Negative sacrilisation can be used to further the goals of those who pro-
fess the ‘Auschwitzlge’: the more unimaginable the Holocaust is pro-
fessed to be, the more argumentative capital the so-called ‘revisionists’
have at their disposal. This makes the record – however inadequate –
of these events all the more pressing.
2.4 The Failure of Culture
Critics have done a further injustice to Adorno’s position on post-Shoah
art by overlooking the fact that his considerations are tightly interwoven
with his reflections on the state of culture in the aftermath of the event.
These considerations form an indispensable framework for any interpre-
tation of his thought. In his essay “Auferstehung der Kultur in Deutsch-
land” (1950), he writes : “Es hat sich noch nicht herumgesprochen, daß
Kultur in traditionellem Sinn tot ist.” (Adorno 1971: 23) Writing against
the backdrop of powerful restorative elements in post-war Germany, and
taking issue with the attitudes displayed in the context of the Goethehaus
restoration, Adorno argues against the delusion that German culture
could simply be ‘resurrected’ at a time that called for a meticulous ques-
tioning of culture’s complicity – and that of art as part of this culture – in
the Third Reich and the Shoah : “Zur Selbstverstndlichkeit wurde, daß
nichts, was die Kunst betrifft, mehr selbstverstndlich ist, weder in ihr
noch in ihrem Verhltnis zum Ganzen, nicht einmal ihr Existenzrecht.”
(Adorno 1970 : 9) For Adorno the Shoah did not emerge at theexpense
of culture ; his writings do not lament the loss of once ‘glorious’ and ‘en-
lightened’ cultural traditions ; on the contrary. He warns against the com-
fortable interpretation of the Shoah as historical anomaly or as a tempo-
rary breakdown of civilised norms :
Auschwitz [hat] das Mißlingen der Kultur unwiderleglich bewiesen. Daß es
geschehen konnte inmitten aller Tradition der Philosophie, der Kunst und der
aufklrenden Wissenschaf ten, sagt mehr als nur, daß diese, der Geist, es nicht
2.4 The Failure of Culture 61

vermochte, die Menschen zu ergreifen und zu verndern. […] Alle Kultur
nach Auschwitz […] ist Mll. (Adorno 1973 : 360)
The Shoah, in Adorno’s view, had demonstrated conclusively that culture
and barbarism are not diametrically opposed to each other. He does not
see the Holocaust as a mere blemish on an otherwise pristine cultural tra-
dition, since this very tradition had proven far from impervious to the
crimes committed. He questions what the concept of culture could
now mean, given that a culturally and artistically accomplished society
had allowed such barbarity to be unleashed. What’s more, the gas cham-
bers had flourished alongside civilised artistic pursuits ; as Steiner poign-
antly states : “We now know that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the
evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at
Auschwitz in the morning.” (Steiner 1970 : ix) In a letter to the reviewer
of his playNun singen sie wieder (1945), Max Frisch similarly reflected on
culture’s complicity with National Socialism :
Die bloße dumpfe Bestie, die nichts anderes kann und kennt, ist nicht das
Ungeheuerliche ; denn sie ist leicht zu erkennen. Ungeheuerlich scheint mir die
Bestie mit dem Geist, der so hoch fliegt, daß er den gleichen Menschen nicht
hindert, eine Bestie zu sein. Ungeheuerlich ist das Januskçpfige, die Schizo-
phrenie, wie sie sich […] innerhalb des deutschen Volkes […] offenbart hat.
Nicht wenige von uns hielten sich lange an den trçstlichen Irrtum, es handle
sich um zweierlei Menschen dieses Volkes, solche, die Mozart spielen, und
solche, die Menschen verbrennen. Zu erfahren, daß sich beide in der gleichen
Person befinden kçnnen, das war die eigentliche Erschtterung […] . (Frisch
1983 : 151)
In the light of the perviousness of culture to the evil of National Social-
ism described by Adorno, and the schizophrenia outlined here by Frisch,
the original ‘dictum’ assumes yet another level of meaning ; after all, given
culture’s complete failure, what value could culture – and art as part and
parcel of that same culture – possibly have after Auschwitz ? After all,
poems written before Auschwitz, as Howard Caygill comments, did
not prevent it ; so how could those written in its aftermath be called
upon to prevent its repitition ? (Caygill 2002 : 81) To simply continue
with those pre-Auschwitz artistic forms was seen by Adorno as ignoring
the irredeemable break that Auschwitz had occasioned. He criticised
the feverish attempts made in post-war Germany to reconnect to cultural
traditions, since such efforts had the attendant danger of relegating Nazi
Germany to the status of an irrelevant intermezzo :
Millionen schuldloser Menschen […] wurden planvoll ermordert. Das ist von
keinem Lebendigen als Oberflchenphnomen, als Abirrung vom Lauf der
2 The Problematics of Holocaust Representation 62

Geschichte abzutun, die gegenber der großen Tendenz des Fortschritts, der
Aufklrung, der vermeintlich zunehmenden Humanitt nicht in Betracht
kme. (Adorno 1997a : 49)
Adorno is at pains to reiterate the complicity of modernity and culture as
part of modernity. Michael Rothberg comments in a similar vein : “as the
rationalised production of death, Auschwitz […] casts a retroactive judge-
ment on the ideology of Enlightenment with its trust in reason and the
sanctity of culture.” (Rothberg 2000 : 52) The legitimacy of artistic dis-
course, given that this culture had gone so catastrophically awry, was
now cast into doubt. Adorno’s objective is to reiterate culture’s failure
and to highlight the connection between modernity and the death
camps, the latter falsifying the idea of the former as progressive.The elucidation thus far of the barriers facing the post-Shoah artist
and the complicity of modernity and culture as emphasised by Adorno
would seem to merely lend yet further support to an interpretation of
his thought as a call for silence. In spite of these obstacles, however, Ador-
no is simultaneously at pains to make it clear that silence is not permiss-
able. This aporetic tension is central to his deliberations, and it is in light
of this tension that any argument which interprets his mediations as a
general call for silence may be refuted. Adorno states unequivocally :
“Das bermaß an realem Leiden duldet kein Vergessen.[…] jenes Lei-
den […] erheischt […] die Fortdauer von Kunst , die es verbietet ; kaum
wo anders findet das Leiden noch seine eigene Stimme, den Trost, der
es nicht sogleich verriete.” (Adorno 1965 : 125) [my emphasis] The prob-
lem informing Adorno’s proposition is thus acutely aporetic in quality : it
is, to borrow Caygill’s words, one of “how to select the appropriate form
of impossibility to give expression to suffering” (Caygill 2002 : 81). Ador-
no deems post-Shoah art inadmissible but obligatory ; his objective is to
highlight the profundity of the problematics of representation and the
imperative – albeit inherently futile – to surmount these same problem-
2.5 Adorno’s ‘Widerruf ’
With respect to this aporetic tension, Adorno’s own qualifications of his
original pronouncement assume crucial significance. What has attracted
much attention in critical discourse is Adorno’s supposed “Widerruf,”
the alleged ‘retraction’ of his original ‘dictum’ (cf. Tiedemann 1997,
Gubar 2003, Kyriakides 2005). The most obvious problem with reading
2.5 Adorno’s ‘Widerruf ’ 63

the passage in question as a retraction – aside from the fact that one is
essentially arguing that he retracted something he never actually stated
to begin with – is that Adorno does not even come close to recanting
his original pronouncement ; what he does is in fact radicalise his posi-
tion. The section of the passage in question most commonly cited
fromNegative Dialektik (1966) reads as follows : “Das perennierende Lei-
den hat soviel Recht auf Ausdruck wie der Gemarterte zu brllen, darum
mag falsch gewesen sein, nach Auschwitz ließe sich kein Gedicht mehr
schreiben.” (Adorno 1973 : 355) When read like this in isolation from
its immediate textual context, and alongside the original decontextualised
pronouncement, then it does indeed appear to be a retraction of that
same pronouncement. When examined in the light of the lines which im-
mediately follow, however, Adorno’s words assume very different mean-
ing :
Nicht falsch ist aber die minder kulturelle Frage, ob nach Auschwitz noch sich
leben lasse, ob vollends es drfe, wer zufllig entrann und htte umgebracht
werden mssen. […] Zur Vergeltung suchen ihn Trume heim wie der, daß er
gar nicht mehr lebte, sondern 1944 vergast worden wre. (Adorno 1973 : 354)
These qualifying sentences are extremely significant. In both the original
German text and in the English translation, it is evident that the second
sentence is a qualification of the first. The use of negation in the clause
“Nicht falsch aber” and the crucial inclusion of the adverb ‘however’ –
which, by its very definition, is used to introduce a statement that con-
trasts with a previous one – clearly denote this connection. Adorno ques-
tions not only the possibility of art in the wake of the Shoah, he also
questions existence itself. Adorno does not retract. Rather, he supersedes ;
the spheres of art and culture are subsumed under the all-encompassing
notion of existence. He widens the scope of his reflections from the legiti-
macy of art after Auschwitz to the question of the legitimacy of existence
itself. The verb “drfen” denotes permission ; this is significant. Adorno is
not writing about a physical ability to live on ; rather, he raises the issue to
a moral level. He broadens the scope of his deliberations to the figure of
the unmerited survivor – unmerited because those who survived the
camps did so purely by chance ; the regime was simply not given enough
time to fulfil its murderous task. He does so to refute the delusory notion
of simply ‘moving on’ after Auschwitz. Its shadow must be formative for
everything that follows in its aftermath. In the death camps, after all,
staying alive had merely been a perverse question of statistics ; survival
for one had been secured at the cost of the life of another : “Die Schuld
2 The Problematics of Holocaust Representation 64

des Lebens, das als pures Faktum bereits anderem Leben den Atem raubt,
einer Statistik gemß, die eine berwltigende Zahl Ermorderter durch
eine minimale Geretteter ergnzt, […] ist mit dem Leben nicht mehr
zu versçhnen.” (Adorno 1973 : 357) Aesthetic order cannot be imposed
on the chance and randomness that characterised death in the camps.
How, for example, can one render in artistic form what Adorno calls
the “drastische Schuld des Verschonten” (Adorno 1973 : 354) – the
guilt felt by the survivor for having usurped a fellow inmate’s place and
lived in his stead ? Any attempt to impose some kind of higher meaning
on the arbitrariness and elusiveness of the death camp experience would
be a violation of the deference owed to the victims.The most critical passage with respect to Adorno’s supposed “Wider-
ruf ” can be found in his essay “Die Kunst und die Knste” (1966), in
which Adorno makes explicit reference to his earlier pronouncement :
“Whrend die Situation Kunst nicht mehr zulßt – daraufzielte der
Satz ber die Unmçglichkeit von Gedichten nach Auschwitz – bedarf
sie doch ihrer.” (Adorno 1970 : 374) [my emphasis] Once again Adorno
raises the issue to moral grounds : the verb “zulassen” signifies permission ;
yet again Adorno makes the dialectical tension of his argument clear :
post-Shoah art is not permissible but simultaneously indispensable ; the
attempt must be made to give voice to the suffering whilst remaining
conscious of the inevitable failure in doing so adequately. For Adorno
art’s task is to say the ‘unsayable’ or to think the ineffable. He calls for
a form of negative representation that presentsthe existence of the ‘ex-
tremity’ that defies representation ; he calls for evocation through absence.
Representation must be austere ; it must avoid the possibility that pleasure
or positive meaning be ‘squeezed’ from it. He warns against self-compla-
cent, untroubled narrative that avoids dealing self-reflectively with the
problematics of representing the ineffable. It must be anti-redemptory
in nature to avoid a repetition of the violation of the victims. It must
avoid ‘making sense’ of the event through the imposition of coherent for-
mal structure or by incorporating it into any positive fable of progress. In
Adorno’s view art regains validity by reflecting and engaging with its own
impossible status even if the extremity of the reification process means
that this reflection cannot be carried out in any meaningful way. He
calls for art to be self-referentially wary of itself, of its form and of its
means of representation. Beate Sowa-Bettecken highlights a line from
Paul Celan’s poem “Nhe der Grber” as a quintessential example of
such a self-reflective poetics : “Und duldest du, Mutter, wie einst, ach, da-
heim / den leisen, den deutschen, den schmerzlichen Reim ?” (cf. Sowa-
2.5 Adorno’s ‘Widerruf ’ 65

Bettecken 1992, 24) Deliberating on the problematics of formal aesthe-
ticisation and the German language, Celan questions through the medi-
um of German whether the German language can be tolerated, and he
questions in the form of rhymed verse whether rhyme can be tolerated.
Nelly Sachs’ poetry can be considered a similarly quintessential example
of a self-referential poetics. Through the medium of poetry, Sachs per-
forms an intense engagement with the medium at her disposal ; she me-
diates on the perils and dilemmas of Holocaust representation, attempt-
ing all the while, alongside this meta-poetic discourse, to represent.
2 The Problematics of Holocaust Representation 66

II Practices

3 Nelly Sachs’ Poetics of Silence : Poetry at the Limitsof Representation
3.1 Defying ‘Verstummen’
Alvin Rosenfeld, outlining the challenge which Auschwitz as the ultimate
caesura poses for the writer attempting to render the event in poetic lan-
guage, argues that the Nazi terror turned the long-held belief in a recog-
nisable, commonly-accepted human scale into something that began to
look like its opposite : the belief that human life could be, and in select
instances even should be, undone, that certain people were trash and
should be disposed of as such. (Rosenfeld 1988 : 83) It was precisely
such a realised horror – the ‘disposal’ of millions of human lives as
“trash,” the loss of a “commonly-accepted human scale” – with which
Nelly Sachs was confronted as reports began to filter into the Swedish
press about the million-fold slaughter in the death camps. In a letter to
Gudrun Dhnert in 1948, Sachs emphasised the exigency of the quest
of bearing witness to this new reality : “Unsere Zeit, so schlimm sie ist,
muß […] in der Kunst ihren Ausdruck finden, es muß mit allen neuen
Mitteln gewagt werden, denn die alten reichen nicht mehr aus.” (Sachs
1984 : 98) Like Adorno, Nelly Sachs was acutely conscious of the formi-
dable task confronting the post-Shoah writer attempting to find literary
tools with which to express the horror of the Shoah in artistic form.
The issue was not the legitimacy of the artistic rendering of the Shoah,
but rather the quandary of finding the appropriate artistic tools ; the apo-
ria, in other words, between compulsion and inability. The question was
howthe suffering was to be rendered, not whether, a fact highlighted by
Sachs’ double employment of the modal verb ‘mssen’ as opposed to ‘sol-
len.’ This aporia is a constant theme running throughout Sachs’ work.
Dying had, of course, as Rosenfeld points out, occasioned century
upon century of poetic expression. (Rosenfeld 1988 : 83) With the at-
tempted Nazi annihilation of Europe’s Jewish population, however,
dying was now of a new order ; death in the camps had been an industri-
alised process of “willed de-creation,” “a savage and systematic undoing of
the human species.” The factory-like attempt at exterminating the Jews of
Europe “could not be embraced within any concepts of poetry known to

us thus far” (Rosenfeld 1988 : 83) [my emphasis] . Both Sachs and Ador-
no recognised the irreparable fissure that this concept of industrialised
“willed de-creation” had left in its wake. Art’s task was now to find the
means to present the reality of this fissure.Sachs was acutely aware of the fact that the literary tools of yesterday
no longer sufficed to render the recent catastrophe. In a letter to Swiss
author Carl Seelig in 1947, she expressed this dilemma :
Wir […] sind geschieden von allen frheren Aussagen durch eine tiefe
Schlucht, nichts reicht mehr zu, kein Wort, kein Stab, kein Ton – (schon
darum sind alle Vergleiche berholt) was tun, schrecklich arm wie wir
sind […] , wir mssen es herausbringen […] . [A]ber wir wollen […] doch
keine schçnen Gedichte machen … Nur darum, denke ich, geht es, nur
darum, und deswegen unterscheiden wir uns von den frheren, denn der on
der Schmerzen darf nicht mehr gesagt, gedacht, er muß durchlitten werden.
(Sachs 1984 : 83 – 84)
In this passage the aporetic tension between obligation and inability
comes to the fore. A ‘gorge’ now separates the writer of the post-Ausch-
witz world from everything that has gone before. The writer is ‘impover-
ished’ in terms of representational tools, and yet in spite of this fact, the
exigency of voicing the suffering is clearly stated : “wir mssen es heraus-
bringen.” There can be no seamless return to traditional artistic forms,
nor can the task of bearing witness be served by writing “schçne[.] Ge-
dichte.” The suffering cannot be adequately ‘said,’ it cannot even be ad-
equately ‘conceived’; it must be ‘suffered through.’ In another letter to
Gudrun Dhnert, Sachs further emphasised this position using the
image of the wound, a motif that appears repeatedly throughout her
work as a reference to the rupture that Auschwitz has occasioned in lan-
guage : “Zwischen Gestern und Morgen liegt die Wunde, die offen ist.
Wir kçnnen einfach nicht mehr die alten verbrauchten Stilmittel anwen-
den. In keiner Kunst ist das mçglich.” (Sachs 1984 : 110) That Sachs
viewed the gorge dividing the pre- and post-Auschwitz worlds as un-
bridgeable is further evinced by the fact that she entirely dismissed her
pre-war lyric poetry. In a letter to the Swedish academy, in which he rec-
ommended Nelly Sachs for the Nobel Prize, Walter Berendsohn com-
mented : “Ich besitze etwa 100 Gedichte aus dieser Frhzeit […] . Ihre
damalige Dichtung […] ist gebunden in traditionellen Formen. Alle Ge-
dichte sind gereimt ; sie fllt u. a. die kunstvolle Form des Sonetts […]
und in ihrem Bilder- und Wortschatz steht sie im Bannkreis der deut-
schen Romantik. […] Nelly Sachs selbst will von diesen Dichtungen
nicht mehr wissen.” (Berendsohn 1964 : 1) Sachs deemed everything
3 Nelly Sachs’ Poetics of Silence : Poetry at the Limits of Representation 70

she had written prior to the Holocaust meaningless, so great was the fis-
sure that had occurred. Mellifluous rhyme, the form of the sonnet and
romantic imagery were no longer merely inappropriate, nor were they
of any use ; such poetic devices belonged to the pre-Shoah world. They
were incapable of reflecting the horror of Nazism. It was imperative
that appropriate literary devices be found, and yet the post-Holocaust
writer was confronted with the predicament that this imperative could
not be met. At the foundation of this aporia lay what can be considered
one of the greatest impasses of the post-Auschwitz literary crisis, namely,
the dilemma of language itself ; the fact that the German-Jewish writer
was attempting to render the suffering endured in the language of the
murderers : “Genagelt ist meine Zunge an eine Sprache, die mich ver-
flucht,” as the poet and survivor of the Holocaust Hilda Stern Cohen de-
scribed the quandary (Stern Cohen 2003 : 43). Bearing witness using the
medium in which the extermination orders had been given posed an im-
mense problem for the writer attempting to communicate the suffering of
the victims. This is just the first layer of the multi-layered dilemma that
Sachs was forced to confront.
3.2 The Decay of Language
In a letter to Kurt Pinthus in 1952, Nelly Sachs expressed the hopeless-
ness confronting the Jewish writer attempting to render the attempted ex-
termination of the Jewish population of Europe through the medium of
the German language : “An die deutsche Sprache verbunden hat man als
jdischer Mensch nicht viel Aussicht.” (Sachs 1984 : 144) Sachs continu-
ally wrestled with this irresolvable predicament, but held on to German
nonetheless as her poetic idiom. On the occasion of the awarding of the
Peace Prize, the “professionelle Verganenheitsbewltiger” conveniently re-
ferred to Sachs as one of the greatest language healers of the time : “H-
terin der Sprache,” were the words used in one report (Kleßmann 1965).
Another reporter claimed that she employed the German language with
‘the power of tenacious love’: “Sie hat die Sprache ihrer Verfolger nicht
verdammt. Sie hat sich der deutschen Sprache angenommen mit der
Kraft beharrlicher Liebe zu einer Zeit, da dieselbe Sprache entstellt war
von Haß und Gewalt.” (Schçfer 1965)Der Jungbuchhandel, in a similar
vein, carried the headline “Versçhnung in der Sprache” (Meuer 1965 :
1070). What these appraisals failed to consider, however, was Sachs’
deep-seated scepticism as to whether language could ever be cured of
3.2 The Decay of Language 71

the corruption it had endured under National Socialism. Sachs was cer-
tainly not of the belief that language could be simply cured by what Law-
rence Langer calls “the stroke of an imaginative pen” (Langer 1982 : 224).
Rather, her work reflects a deep ambivalence about the efficacy of signi-
fication in general. Susan Gubar summarises the dilemma : “If stirring ex-
pressions – in speeches, songs, and slogans in scholarly and imaginative
books – facilitated or failed to derail the Nazis’ ‘final solution’; if language
was, therefore, itself an instrument and casualty of the disaster, then lit-
erary artists confronted a confounding perplexity about their own medi-
um.” (Gubar 2004 : 443) Although Sachs had severe reservations about
the expressive capacity of language in general with regard to communicat-
ing the horrors of Auschwitz, these reservations were particularly en-
trenched with respect to German. The deceit that accompanied the mis-
appropriation of language for the murderous purposes of the ideology it
served was a dilemma that haunted her. In his lecture “Zerstçrte Sprache
– Zerstçrte Kultur” (1939), Ernst Bloch sums up this deceit :
Die deutsche Sprache ist des Teufels geworden, der Teufel ist der Vater der
Lge, ihr allein soll sie dienen. Schleim und Schwulst, Nebel und Gebrll,
Schwachsinn und Elefantiasis der Superlative dienen der Demagogie. Die
Chloroformmasken, die dem Konzentrationslager leider fehlen, verwendet
Goebbels fr die so gennante Massenbasis außerhalb : die Sprache wird
Narkose, Worte verlieren ihren Sinn, Krieg heißt Frieden, Pogrom Notwehr,
der Lustmçrder Fhrer. (Bloch 1970 : 292)
Here, Bloch describes the wholesale linguistic perversion that lay at the
heart of Nazism. Language had undergone a fundamental distortion
within the Nazi propaganda machinery. The superlatives and the hyper-
bolic diction that characterised National Socialist propaganda had func-
tioned as narcotics. Similarly, in his post-war philological studyLingua
Tertii Imperii : Notizbuch eines Philologen (1947), Viktor Klemperer ex-
posed the malevolent use of language by the Nazis through an intensive
scrutinisation of newspapers, pamphlets, books, advertisements and even
roadside conversations. He argued that Nazi propaganda, in its attempt
to secure widespread public support for Nazi policies, involved a funda-
mental alteration of language, which made uniform a vocabulary that
embodied the ideals of fascism. This ‘Nazi language,’ with its million-
fold hyperbolic repetitions, permeated the German language and was dis-
seminated in the public arena to such an extent that it was absorbed by
the population in a mechanical manner. (cf. Klemperer 1996) The evil in
which this hyperbolic propaganda culminated led Sachs to severely doubt
the possibility of ever cleansing the German language of the malevolence
3 Nelly Sachs’ Poetics of Silence : Poetry at the Limits of Representation 72

that had been imposed upon it. Like Adorno, she despaired at the possi-
bility of finding uncompromised words to render Auschwitz in literary
form. “Wo nur finden die Worte / […] / die nicht mit Zungen verwun-
deten” she asked in a poem from her later cycleGlhende Rtsel.(Sachs
1971: 52) Michael Braun’s claim that “Celans schlechtes Gewissen gege-
nber der zur Mçrdersprache gewordenen Muttersprache war ihr [Nelly
Sachs] fremd. Unbeirrt hielt sie an den alten Kçnigswçrtern wie ‘Stern’
und ‘Quelle’ fest” (Braun and Lerman 1998 : 53), is disputable given
that Sachs’ poetry contains in fact an acutely apparent distrust of the abil-
ity of language to render the realities of Auschwitz. Whilst she indeed
held onto such words like ‘Stern’ and ‘Quelle,’ she did not do so “un-
beirrt.” Rather, the traditional literary function of such former ‘royal
words,’ of expressive poetic concepts, of images and their traditional as-
sociations, undergoes a fundamental distortion in her work.
In a letter to Hugo Bergmann in November 1947, Sachs provided a
vivid portrayal of the gap between the corrupted, ‘wounded’ linguistic
medium at her disposal and the horror which she wished to express :
“Es reicht ja doch kein Wort zu nichts mehr hin. Von gestern auf morgen
ist eine Wunde, die nicht heilen darf.” (Sachs 1984 : 85) In another letter
she expressed the uselessness of pre-Auschwitz vocabularly in any attempt
to render the horrors in literary form : “Unsere Zeit [kann] nicht mit
einem frheren Zeiten angemessenen Wortschatz angerhrt werden.”
(Sachs 1984 : 173) Confronted with these seemingly insurmountable lin-
guistic barriers, Sachs attempts to create new linguistic reference fields,
and in the process she actively employsthe abused vocabulary of a lan-
guage which, in Gisela Dischner’s words, had been “verhunzt” and “pros-
tituiert” under Nazism :
Sie setzt sich der mißbrauchten Sprache aus […] . Diesem Ja-Sagen zu den
mißbrauchten Wçrtern ist ein Gefhl tçdlicher Bedrohung – Bedrohung der
Sprachexistenz als Ausschlag der Existenzbedrohung – vorausgegangen. Es ist
kein trotziges, eher ein zçgerndes Dennoch-Sprechen vor der Folie tçdlichen
Schweigens, hervorgegangen aus der Erfahrung des totalen Mißbrauchs der
Sprache und des Menschen […] . Die verbrauchten und mißbrauchten
Worthlsen werden zu neuen spannungsgeladenen Wortfeldern, Zeichen-
konstellationen, Symbolbezgen und Metaphern zusammengefgt, zusam-
mengefgt auf Widerruf, denn sie sind vom Zerspringen bedroht. (Dischner
1977: 329 – 30)
The jaded and abused catchwords of National Socialism are coalesced in
Sachs’ work into new semantic fields ,into constellations of signs, symbols
and metaphors. The poem “Vçlker der Erde,” from the cycle Sternver-
3.2 The Decay of Language 73

dunkelung(1949), serves as an exemplary instance of Sachs’ engagment
with the polluted German idiom. Here, Sachs thematises the deceit
that accompanied Nazi jargon, and the poem conveys the depth of the
author’s despair at the distortion which language had endured :
Vçlker der Erde
ihr, die ihr euch mit der Kraft der unbekannten
Gestirne umwickelt wie Garnrollen,
die ihr nht und wieder auftrennt das Genhte,
die ihr in die Sprachverwirrung steigt
wie in Bienenkçrbe,
um im Sßen zu stechen
und gestochen zu werden –
Vçlker der Erde,
zerstçret nicht das Weltall der Worte,
zerschneidet nicht mit den Messern des Hasses
den Laut, der mit dem Atem zugleich geboren wurde.
Vçlker der Erde,
O daß nicht Einer Tod meine, wenn er Leben sagt –
und nicht Einer Blut, wenn er Wiege spricht –
Vçlker der Erde,
lasset die Worte an ihrer Quelle
denn sie sind es, die die Horizonte
in die wahren Himmel rcken kçnnen
und mit ihrer abgewandten Seite
wie eine Maske dahinter die Nacht ghnt
die Sterne gebren helfen – (Sachs 1961: 152)
This poem consists of four verse groups in varying lengths, each begin-
ning with a repeated plea. The use of anaphora at the beginning of
each strophe, combined with the imperative, serves to define Sachs’ in-
tended audience : those who come after the Shoah. Symmetry and mellif-
luous rhyme are wholly absent, the length of each line is irregular, there is
no discernible metrical pattern and a lack of traditional stanzaic patterns.
The syntactic subordination resulting from the hypotactic style employed
by Sachs – which, by its very nature, nestles thoughts within thoughts,
qualifies and reflects – lends the poem a convoluted, almost tortuous
quality. This is most especially evident in the first stanza which alone con-
tains three relative clauses. Hypotaxis lends the entire poem an interrupt-
ed, confused and breathless sense of urgency and serves here as a highly
effective representational device, since the “Sprachverwirrung” process is
recreated in the hypotactical ‘structure’ of the poem itself ; “der Vorgang
3 Nelly Sachs’ Poetics of Silence : Poetry at the Limits of Representation 74

der Sprachverwirrung,” as Michael Braun writes, “[wird] im Text selbst
nachvollzogen” (Braun and Lerman 1998 : 50). Each of the three relative
clauses has a descriptive function. The first clause describes mankind –
die Vçlker der Erde – as so wholly entangled that it resembles spools
of thread ; this evokes images of ensnarement. Language has been abused
to such an extent that words no longer carry traditional meaning ; it has
been ‘ensnared’ in the “Schleim und Schwulst, Nebel und Gebrll,
Schwachsinn und Elefantiasis” of Nazi propaganda, to draw on Ernst
Bloch once again. In the next clause, the act of incessant knitting and un-
ravelling is used by Sachs to communicate the senselessness of what has
happened. Michael Braun argues that this may also be a reference to
the senseless labour that the concentration camp inmates were forced
to carry out. Braun cites a passage from Sachs’ dramatic pieceNachtwache
(1962), in which she describes this camp labour in similar terms : “Ja so
ist sie immer / baut mit den Steinen / und reißt wieder ein. / Das mußten
sie im Lager so machen / einen Platz pflastern / und wieder aufreißen /
oder / so eine Art / Strmpfe in die Wolken stricken.” (Braun and Ler-
man 1998 : 51) The third clause mentions the fatal “Sprachverwirrung”
process. This is a probable reference to the confusion of tongues that ac-
companied the fragmentation of languages during the construction of the
tower of Babel. Traditionally associated with the hubris of mankind,
Sachs uses this story from Genesis to deride the collective lethal hubris
of the Nazis who considered themselves ‘Herrenmenschen’ over those
‘Untermenschen’ ‘destined’ to be obliterated. A tonal connection between
the bees and “Sprachverwirrung” is also rendered audible here, since the
comparison with beehives is mindful of the ‘hum’ one might associate
with the “Sprachverwirrung” process.
In the second stanza, Sachs employs a double imperative, directed
once again at “die Vçlker der Erde.” The use of the verb ‘zerschneiden’
immediately brings the image of the wound to mind : her choice of
this verb over ‘schneiden’ is significant : the prefix ‘zer’ indicates the de-
structive process of carving “den Laut” – a metaphor for language per
se – to pieces. By choosing this verb, Sachs thus reminds her readers of
the profundity of the destruction that language suffered under Nazism.
The third stanza thematises the perfidious manner in which the horrific
crimes were covered up in fatal euphemisms. The detachment of symbols
from their original referents was characteristic of so-called ‘Nazi Deutsch’:
Die unwillkrliche Trennung des Wortzeichens von seiner Bedeutung und die
Fllung der alten Worthllen mit einer neuen Bedeutung, die dem ur-
3.2 The Decay of Language 75

sprnglichen Inhalt entgegengesetzt ist, kennzeichnet die ideologisch ver-
zerrte, von ihrer ‘Quelle’ im lebensspendenen Schçpferwort entfernte Sprache.
(Vaerst 1999 : 81)
In line with this description of the process of linguistic manipulation,
whereby the word is separated from its source, the final three stanzas
of the poem are similarly permeated with a ‘source’ vocabulary : “Quelle,”
“Wiege,” “gebren,” and “Weltall” all indicate a creation motif : Sachs
sees language and creation as inseparable. The purpose of language is
to impose order on reality ; the innocent, ‘ordering’ language of creation
in these three verses is therefore juxtaposed with the confusion thematised
in the opening stanza, highlighting the euphemistic and hyperbolic ma-
nipulation that characterised Nazi jargon.The third stanza contains a double imperative introduced with the in-
terjection “O”; this double imperative functions as a stylistic characteristic
of urgency : a warning to those who come after of what happens when
words lose their innocence. This is the climax of the poem, where
Sachs portrays the deadly consequences of the ‘Sprachverwirrung’ proc-
ess. She attempts to describe a terrifying world where words such as
‘life’ and ‘cradle’ mean ‘death’ and ‘blood’; a world in which the language
of creation is transformed into the language of “willed decreation” – to
draw on Rosenfeld once again. These lines pivot on the knowledge
that under Nazism language as a signifier became severed from the signi-
fied. The imperative in the final stanza is the most urgent in the poem.
Of the several similar grammatical structures in the various strophes, it is
the only imperative that is formulated in the affirmative : “lasset die
Worte an ihrer Quelle” – Sachs commands that the word be left at its
source. The poem “Diese Jahrtausende” ( Glhende Rtsel IV(1966)) is an-
other attempt to deal explicitly with the destruction of language :
Diese Jahrtausende
geblasen von Atem
immer um ein zorniges Hauptwort kreisend
aus dem Bienenkorb der Sonne
stechende Sekunden
kriegerische Angreifer
geheime Folterer
Niemals eine Atempause wie in Ur
da ein Kindervolk an den weißen Bndern zog
mit dem Mond Schlafball zu spielen –
3 Nelly Sachs’ Poetics of Silence : Poetry at the Limits of Representation 76

Auf der Straße mit Windeseile
luft die Frau
Medizin zu holen fr das kranke Kind
Vokale und Konsonanten
schreien in allen Sprachen
Hilfe!(Sachs 1971: 91)
This poem is an example of Sachs’ coalescence of disparate images and
concepts into new and often uncomfortable semantic constellations. In
the first strophe, the language of creation reappears : “geblasen von
Atem” may be read as a reference to a creative, divine, life-giving force.
A tension immediately ensues, however, between creation as it was in-
tended and the reality that ensued. By the fifth line the ‘millennia’ of
the opening lines have become tortuous ‘stinging seconds’; as Gisela Dis-
chner writes : “Es ensteht die Assoziation eines nicht endenden […] , stn-
dig stechenden Schmerzes.” (Dischner 1977: 349) The reader links this
stinging with the image of the beehive in the previous line, while the gen-
itive construction “Bienekorb der Sonne” connects it to the sun ; instead
of the sun being a life-giving force it has become an ‘aggressor’ and a ‘tor-
turer.’ This is an exemplary instance of Sachs’ manipulation of familiar
In the second strophe, Sachs makes reference to the city of Ur. Ur
may be considered a primeval symbol of totalitarianism during the
reign of the tyrannical King Nimrod, who ordered the building of the
tower of Babel as a hubristic act of defiance against God. In a letter to
Walter Berendsohn, in which Sachs discussed her use of this figure for
her proposed drama Abram im Salz (1944), she describes him as
“Jger” and “Gestalt des Unholdes unserer Zeit” (Sachs 1974b : 135).
The allusion to moon worship contained in the curious reference to
the “Kindervolk” playing “Schlafball” may, as Shanks interestingly points
out, be an allusion to those who opted for “an attitude of sleepy resigna-
tion to tyranny” (Shanks 2001: 134) in the ancient city. This reference
may thus be read as analogous to the German populace’s unquestioning
acceptance of the tyranny of National Socialism. It may be an allusion, in
other words, to the idolatry rampant in the ancient city and the subse-
quent uncritical, deadly worship of National Socialism.
In the third stanza, Sachs presents the whole ‘body’ of language in an-
thropomorphic terms : it is ‘sick.’ This stanza is a reminder that just as a
child requires care, so too does language. Neglect, in the form of the Ger-
man populace’s naive and passive assimilation of the deadly Nazi propa-
3.2 The Decay of Language 77

ganda, for example, leads to the medium being poisoned. The question as
to whether adequate ‘medicine’ for the diseased linguistic corpus can be
found is left unanswered in the void represented by the dash. The spacing
in the linguistically reduced closing line “H i l f e ” physically marks the
culmination of the writer’s despair ; it is also a revealing illustration of
how the formal features of Sachs’ work serve very often as functions of
literary content : the image of vowels and consonants ‘screaming’ for
help is physically recreated by the dissolution of the word itself. The cli-
max of the poem is thus direct speech in the form of a plea ; it is an en-
gagement with language, or at least with what is left of it. Like the plea to
the peoples of the earth in the previous poem, and hence expressing the
danger that what happened in Germany can happen anywhere, Sachs
similarly universalises her deliberations in these final lines by expanding
her considerations beyond the German language to “alle[.] Sprachen.”
While, for Sachs, the difficulties of representing the suffering are partic-
ularly anchored with respect to German, as evinced by her letter to Kurt
Pinthus cited earlier, bearing witness presents obstacles for writers of all
tongues. Throughout this poem Sachs thus engages in a meta-reflective
discourse on the problematics of representation and on the crisis of lan-
guage in the aftermath of the Holocaust.The poem “Abschied” ( Sternverdunkelung(1949), sub-cycleberle-
bende ) is one of Sachs’ most disturbing and multi-faceted attempts to
present the rupture that Auschwitz has occasioned in language :
Abschied –
aus zwei Wunden blutendes Wort.
Gestern noch Meereswort
mit dem sinkenden Schiff
als Schwert in der Mitte –
Gestern noch von Sternschnuppensterben
durchstochenes Wort –
Mitternachtgekßte Kehle
der Nachtigallen –
Heute – zwei hngende Fetzen
und Menschenhaar in einer Krallenhand
die riß –
Und wir Nachblutenden –
Verblutende an dir –
halten deine Quelle in unseren Hnden.
Wir Heerscharen der Abschiednehmenden
die an deiner Dunkelheit bauen –
3 Nelly Sachs’ Poetics of Silence : Poetry at the Limits of Representation 78

bis der Tod sagt : schweige du –
doch hier ist : weiterbluten !(Sachs 1961: 124)
The “Abschied” motif, which can be counted among the fundamental ci-
phers of Sachs’ poetry, finds expression in this poem’s multi-layered se-
mantic field. Sachs establishes an opposition between the state of lan-
guage before and after the Shoah. This division of time into the pre-
and post-Shoah segments occurs over and over in her work. The farewell
of yesterday is associated with imagery such as the sinking ship, the shoot-
ing star and the sound of the nightingale. The farewell of today, however,
is associated with rags and clawing limbs. The concept of leave-taking has
undergone a fundamental distortion : ‘Abschied’ is now a ‘bleeding’ word,
soaked in the blood of the victims : “blutendes Wort” / “durchstochendes
Wort.” “Abschied,” as Eshel comments, “zeichnet eine unberbrckbare
zeitliche Schwelle nach, einen gewaltttigen Schnitt : Was einst ein Ganzes
war, wird zu ‘Fetzen’, das Wort – ‘durchstochen’” (Eshel 1999 : 96). The
word ‘Abschied’ has a multifaceted function in this poem. Apart from
being a probable reference to the scene of separation on the ramps
and, as such, standing aspars pro totofor the Shoah, its own linguistic
make-up, Christine Rospert argues, also carries meaning : “Die Vorsilbe
‘Ab-’ impliziert eine Bewegung weg, fort, und ‘-schied’ geht bekanntlich
auf das Verb ‘scheiden’ zurck, welches ‘spalten, trennen’ denotiert. Inso-
fern ist das Substantiv ‘Abschied’ ber-, weil doppelt, bestimmt.” (Ro-
spert 2004 : 67) Rospert reveals the semantic polyvalence of “Abschied”:
the word itself is literally split ; the ‘word’ generally, that is, language, is
‘pierced,’ while the unspoken but palpable connotation that ‘Abschied’
evokes, namely, the selection process on the ramps of the death camps,
also refers to a violent separation. The cause of the split between the lan-
guage of yesterday and today is not explicitly mentioned. Instead, Sachs
calls on the reader to supply the “unspoken reality behind the lines”
(Langer 1982 : 230). That unspoken reality is most probably the selection
process on the ramps where family members and friends were violently
separated from each other as some were ‘selected’ for labour and others
were ‘selected’ for death. The process of ‘leave-taking’ on the ramps has
forever distorted the traditional connotations associated with the notion
of ‘Abschiednehmen’: it is now a process of forced and violent tearing
apart. In her prose text Leben unter Bedrohung(1956), Sachs gives a sim-
ilar description of the violence that accompanied the ‘Abschiedsprozess’
under Nazism : “Das Trennungsmesser [fuhr] tiefer. Aus der Familie wur-
3.2 The Decay of Language 79

den Teile ausgeschnitten, Teile, die in weit fort eroberte Zeit verfrachtet
wurden. In die Zeit der gekrmmten Finger und der starken Schritte.”
(Sachs 1974 : 10)The image of “hngende Fetzen” in the second stanza is significant in
terms of the poem’s general lack of form : this image, it can be argued, is
reproduced on a textual level in the poem, since we do not encounter a
complete sentence until the final verse. The line “Menschenhaar in einer
Krallenhand” carries clear associations of perpetration : the outstretched
hand bidding farewell is distorted into the animal-like image of a clawing
hand holding human hair. The aggression, violence and humiliation that
characterised the Nazi terror culminate at this juncture. The hyphen after
the violent verb ‘reißen’ leaves the reader to imagine the horror behind
the words. This hyphen is an indicator of limits ; it points to the limits
of poetic expression in the process of representation.
The final stanza conveys the life-long damage done to the survivors of
the Shoah. The use of the present tense here is significant ; as Eshel
writes : “An der Erfahrung der brutalen Trennung bluten “wir” immer
noch, an ihr erleben wir den Verblutungstod im prsentischen Raum
des Gedichts.” (Eshel 1999 : 96) The wound inflicted is so great that
the attendant bleeding is ever present. The ‘bleeding in aftermath’ descri-
bed in this stanza may thus be read as the consequence of the wound of
the opening stanza. The use of the verb ‘bauen’ in relation to ‘Dunkelheit’
is unsettling ; it suggests that as time passes, the survivor is being increas-
ingly enveloped by rather than gradually emerging from the darkness that
the ‘Abschiedsprozess’ has left in its wake. Of further significance is the
‘du’ of the final stanza. Although it is difficult to ascertain to whom or
what this second-person subject might refer, one thing can be stated
with relative certainty : the ‘du’ / ‘wir’ exchange in the poem supposes dia-
logue ; the poem communicates. Thus, even though words may be bleed-
ing, and even if “H i l f e” is the only viable utterance in the aftermath of
the ‘Sprachverwirrung’ that characterised Nazi attempts at inculcation,
Sachs does not completely abandon the notion of communication
through language.
Another example of the poetic voice on the brink of despair, working
with language incommensurate with the horrors of Auschwitz, is the
poem “Und berall” from the cycle Flucht und Verwandlung(1959):
Und berall
der Mensch in der Sonne
den schwarzen Aderlaß Schuld
werfend in den Sand –
3 Nelly Sachs’ Poetics of Silence : Poetry at the Limits of Representation 80

und nur im Schlaf
dem trnenlosen Versteck
mit dem lodernden Pfeil des Heimwehs
fahrend aus dem Kçcher der Haut –
Aber hier
immer nur Buchstaben
die ritzen das Auge
sind aber lange schon
unntze Weisheitszhne geworden
Reste eines entschlummerten Zeitalters.
Jetzt aber
der Wettercherub
das Vier-Winde-Tuch
nicht um Erdbeeren zu sammeln
in den Wldern der Sprache
die Trompete vernderlich anzublasen
im Dunkel
denn nicht kann Sicherheit sein
im fliegenden Staub
und nur das Kopftuch aus Wind
eine bewegliche Krone
zeigt noch zngelnd
mit Unruhgestirnen geschmckt
den Lauf der Welt an –(Sachs 1961: 288)
Sachs opens this poem with a seemingly pleasant image. For the reader
familiar with Sachs’ work, this apparently pleasing imagery is cause for
suspicion. And such suspicion is justified, since this image undergoes im-
mediate distortion in the line that succeeds it. For Sachs, the significance
of the sun lies not its warmth or its brightness or in any of the positive
properties we traditionally associate with it. Its significance lies, rather, in
its exposure of the ‘bleeding shadows’ of human guilt in the sand. The
image of bleeding shadows conjures up veins of guilt-suffused blood
flowing in all directions, haunting the perpetrators “wie eine endlos
ber den Sand kriechende Schleppe” (Schweizer 2005 : 160). Blood
and shadows are conflated here and, in this way, Sachs ascribes a new di-
mension to the romantic notion of ‘Schattenverkauf.’ Shadows, as Ralf
Flores points out, are indicators of physical flesh and of mortality, and
having a shadow means belonging to the society of mortal things. (Flores
1974 : 571) The shadows of bloodletting guilt in Sachs’ poem thus re-
mind the reader that guilt belongs to humans just as shadows do. Shad-
3.2 The Decay of Language 81

ows of guilt cannot be bartered as in the case of Chamisso’s character,
Peter Schlemiel. This impossibility of casting off shadows of guilt may
be an allusion to the attempt made by the German populace in the
post-war years to do just that. The message that Sachs is attempting to
communicate here is clear : the guilt for the crimes committed in Ausch-
witz and the guilt of having stood by as onlookers – “die Zuschauenden,”
as she puts it in another poem – is inescapable. The reference to “den
schwarzen Aderlaß Schuld” is significant in terms of the medical conno-
tations it carries : the darkness of venal blood is attributed to its deoxyge-
nation. The venal blood in Sachs’ poem, however, is not only dark, it is
black : the cause – its thorough permeation with guilt.In the second stanza, the poetic voice despairs once again at the futil-
ity of the language at her disposal to describe the horrors of the Shoah.
The chiastic structure of the lines “Aber / nur – hier / immer” gives a
strong impression of temporal and spatial linguistic ensnarement. Firstly,
the adverb in the line “aber hier” connects this line to the “berall” of the
opening line. The temporal phrase “immer” is, in turn, chiastically con-
nected with the spatial phrase “hier”; the “berall” of the opening line is
thus expanded to become a temporal perpetuity in which the witness is
left in a constant state of linguistic ensnarement. This chiastic structure,
as Erika Schweizer writes, “lsst den Ist-Zustand als totale rumlich-zei-
tliche Verfangenheit begreifen, aus der […] die Sprache keinen Ausweg
zu weisen vermag” (Schweizer 2005 : 160). Letters now ‘scratch out’ the
eye ; in the post-Shoah world they are ‘useless wisdom teeth,’ letters
have lost their creative, regenerative force and yet, despite this, the lyrical
subject has recourse to nothing except this same futile and tainted medi-
um. Sachs performs a self-reflective poetics here : she ‘writes’ the useless-
ness of letters usingthese very letters. Once again she re-creates the before
/ after division so prominent in her work. Auschwitz has rendered letters
mere remains of a previous, dead epoch. In the pre-Shoah world, letters
were wise, they had representative powers ; they were the micro parts of
the system of language. In the aftermath of Auschwitz, they have been
stripped of these properties ; letters have become hollow, they are ailing.
Letters are, moreover, poisoned by virtue of their being micro parts of the
system of language which itself can be considered “Mittterin der schuld-
verstrickten Wirklichkeit” (Schweizer 2005 : 161). In the final stanza, Sachs evokes the image of the ‘weather cherub’
who is curiously described as tying together the corners of the ‘four
winds’ scarf.’ The scarf ’s corners are not being tied, however, for the pur-
poses of gathering fruit – that is, words – from the ‘forests of language,’
3 Nelly Sachs’ Poetics of Silence : Poetry at the Limits of Representation 82

since the post-Holocaust poet no longer has the luxury of simply choos-
ing words appropriate to the subject matter. Such a practice is a luxury
that belongs to the past : “[v]orbei, und zwar unwiderruflich, ist die
Zeit, da es mçglich war, mçglich und zulssig, ‘Erdbeeren zu sammeln
in den Wldern der Sprache,’” as Michael Kessler comments (Kessler
1994 : 235). Instead, Sachs’ Cherub knots the ‘four winds’ scarf ’ – a likely
play on Job’s desperate search for God in all four cardinal directions – to
sound trumpets “im Dunkel.” The cherub no longer functions as throne
bearer as in the Old Testament. He now elicits his trumpet sounds in
darkness. These trumpet sounds, in light of the probable intertextual ref-
erences in this poem to the Job story, can be interpreted as futile cries as
to the whys of the Holocaust. The cries must be sounded in the dark, be-
cause there are no longer any certainties when it comes to the divine :
“[d]enn nicht kann Sicherheit sein.” This line presents the poetic persona
as entirely vulnerable and exposed to the uncertainties – suggested by
‘fliegend’ and ‘beweglich’ – that characterise life in the aftermath of the
Holocaust, while the crown shape of the knoted “Vier-Winde Tuch” is
decorated with ‘uneasy stars’ which release a mere faint glow.
3.3 Addressing the Perpetrators
“Ihr Werk enthlt kein einziges Wort des Hasses. Den Henkern […] wer-
denverziehen und nicht gedroht.” (Enzensberger 1995 : 73) [my empha-
sis] “Das dichterische Werk von Nelly Sachs […] versçhnt ohne Wider-
spruch Deutsches und Jdisches. Ihre Gedichte […] sind Werke der Verge-
bung, der Rettung, des Friedens.” (anon. 1965b : 2286) [my emphasis]
While it is true that Sachs was certainly not a proponent of revenge,
claims that the perpetrators of the million-fold massacre receive forgive-
ness in her work are very problematic. Critics have also suggested that the
perpetrators generally find no place in her work : “Generell wird in den
Gedichten […] der Aspekt der Tterschaft nicht bercksichtigt.”
(Kranz-Lçber 2001: 41) An examination of several poems, in which
Sachs explicitly addresses the perpetrators of the Shoah casts doubt
upon the tenability of such evaluations. Sachs tackles the question of
complicity by addressing and indicting those responsible for the Holo-
caust, those who were actively involved in the extermination program
and, crucially, those who stood by. The poem “Auch der Greise” serves
as a point of departure in terms of what can be considered an unrelenting
engagement with the perpetrator motif. This poem is from the first vol-
3.3 Addressing the Perpetrators 83

ume of her post-war poetryIn den Wohnungen des Todes (1947),” the sub-
title of which “Dein Leib in Rauch durch die Luft” can be read as a direct
reference to the trail of the victims’ smoke through the chimneys of the
crematoria :
Auch der Greise
Letzten Atemzug, der schon den Tod anblies
Raubtet ihr noch fort.
Die leere Luft,
Zitternd vor Erwartung, den Seufzer der Erleichterung
Zu erfllen, 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 Krmmungen der Qual besitzt,
Alles Leiden aus den dunklen Verliesen der Wrmer
Sammelte sich zuhauf –
O ihr Ruber von echten Todesstunden,
Letzten Atemzgen und der Augenlider Gute Nacht
Eines sei euch gewiß:
Es sammelt der Engel ein
Was ihr fortwarft,
Aus der Greise verfrhter Mitternacht
Wird sich ein Wind der letzten Atemzge auftun,
Der diesen losgerissenen Stern
In seines Herrn Hnde jagen wird !
(Sachs 1961: 12)
In this poem Sachs unambiguously addresses the perpetrators – “ihr” –
and attempts to recount their horrific crimes. In the first stanza she em-
ploys the motif of ‘thievery’ as a descriptive tool in her attempt to describe
the Nazis’ murderous deeds : the prisoners are described as having been
‘robbed’ of even the last breath that normally accompanies the inception
of death. The reference to “die Leere Luft” in line four initially defies in-
terpretation. However, by the time it reappears in line seven, Sachs has
provided the reader with some supporting interpretative material : it
may now be read as a reference to how the Nazis ‘stole’ and destroyed
the ‘clean’ air necessary for life, replacing it with the poisonous gas
from the pellets of Cyclone B. In the camps the “Seufzer der Erleichter-
ung” that accompanies the onset of death was absent ; instead the inmates
3 Nelly Sachs’ Poetics of Silence : Poetry at the Limits of Representation 84

were herded in their hundreds into a room where they waited “zitternd”
for either water or gas to spout from the ceiling ; the notion of death as a
dignified individual experience was destroyed. The first strophe may thus
be considered an attempt by Sachs to thematise the ‘death of death’ that
occurred in the camps as a result of the industralised manner in which the
million-fold slaughter was carried out, a concept that haunts both Ador-
no’s and Sachs’ post-Holocaust writing.In the second strophe the accusations continue unabated. The perpe-
trators are accused of pressing the parched and salt-filled eye of each vic-
tim to the point of perverse victory. Salt is an image that appears fre-
quently in Sachs’ poetry as symbolic of the victims’ suffering : “das Salz
der Trnen,” as one critic writes, “die sich zum Meer sammeln, geweint
um die Qual der gepeinigten Schwestern und Brder […] , gehçrt zum
Bildkomplex des Leidens” (Jeziorkowski 1997: 133). The references to
the “Krmmungen der Qual” and the anguish amassed from the “Verlie-
se[n] der Wrmer” in the closing lines of this stanza conjure up the dis-
turbing imagery of warped walking corpses – the “non-men” of the
camps, to borrow Primo Levi’s term once again – and the decaying
piles of bodies all-too familiar from the photographic evidence of Ausch-
witz. In the third stanza, the Nazi perpetrators are described as ‘robbers’ of
the ‘authentic hours of death,’ a probable reference to how millions of
lives were prematurely truncated. Although the suffering of the victims
takes precedence throughout, it cannot possibly be argued that the perpe-
trators are forgiven ; they are very clearly and unswervingly accused as re-
sponsible for this suffering. That Sachs does not so much as approach the
notion of forgiveness is made clear in the final two stanzas : addressing the
perpetrators with the foreboding imperative “[e]ines sei euch gewiss,”
Sachs declares that the ‘thieves of the authentic hour of death’ will be
on the receiving end of a whirlwind made up of the final breaths of
those who were murdered, the verb ‘fortwerfen’ functioning as a clear ref-
erence to the manner in which the victims were ‘discarded’ like refuse.
This cannot be interpreted as a reconciliatory gesture. In the poem “Hnde der Todesgrtner” ( In den Wohnungen des Todes
(1947), sub-cycle Dein Leib in Rauch durch die Luft ), Sachs undertakes
the ultimately unrealisable challenge of entering the minds of the perpe-
trators. This is a poem of acute despair as the poetic voice attempts to
comprehend how normal human beings became what she calls ‘gardeners
of death.’ Interestingly, the perpetrators are reduced to the bodily parts
that committed the atrocoties : Sachs names the perpetrators’ hands as
3.3 Addressing the Perpetrators 85

the tools of death. This serves a very significant purpose : it reminds the
reader thatindividualperpetrators actively participated in the industrial-
ised killing :
Der Todesgrtner,
Die ihr aus der Wiegenkamille Tod,
Die auf den harten Triften gedeiht
Oder am Abhang,
Das Treibhausungeheuer eures Gewerbes gezchtet habt.
Des Leibes Tabernakel aufbrechend,
Der Geheimnisse Zeichen wie Tigerzhne packend –
Was tatet ihr,
Als ihr die Hnde von kleinen Kindern waret ?
Hieltet ihr eine Mundharmonika, die Mhne
Eines Schaukelpferdes, faßtet der Mutter Rock im Dunkel,
Zeigtet auf ein Wort im Kinderlesebuch –
War es Gott vielleicht, oder Mensch ?
Ihr wrgenden Hnde,
War eure Mutter tot,
Eure Frau, euer Kind ?
Daß ihr nur noch den Tod in den Hnden hieltet,
In den wrgenden Hnden ? (Sachs 1961: 15)
The metaphor “Todesgrtner” draws a powerful contrast between the tra-
ditional image of the gardener as someone who, with due care, encourag-
es life to flourish and the image of the Nazis as industrialised ‘gardeners
of death.’ The first six lines of the poem constitute an incomplete sen-
tence that is further disturbed by theapo koinouconstruction “Tod.”
From the Greek “in common,” apo koinouis a device in which a single
word or phrase is shared by two independent syntactic units. In this in-
stance, “Tod” is not syntactically determined : it could relate to both what
precedes and what follows. Its positioning, as pointed out by Henning
Falkenstein, serves the purpose of presenting the omnipresence of
death : “Dadurch daß das Wort hier als Apokoinu gebraucht wird […] ,
wird es absichtlich berbetont. Es weist in dem Satzfragment gleichzeitig
nach vorne und nach hinten und beherrscht so den ganzen Teil des Ge-
dichts.” (Falkenstein 1984 : 29) Sachs refers pointedly to the mass-pro-
duced killing by her use of the verb ‘zchten.’ In the camps, death became
a ‘craft,’ a ‘trade’; it had been ‘bred’ as if in a glasshouse. This culminates
in a desperate questioning of the deeds of the perpetrators. She asks what
3 Nelly Sachs’ Poetics of Silence : Poetry at the Limits of Representation 86

aspect of their childhood served as an impetus for the atrocities they sub-
sequently committed ; whether it was the death of a mother, a wife or a
child that resulted in them, in turn, taking lives ? This frantic questioning
serves to compound the sense of poetic despair, especially so because it is
done in vain, as demonstrated by the culmination of the poem in the pa-
ralysis of the final question mark ; as Annette Jael Lehmann writes in re-
lation to Sachs’ questioning of the ‘whys’ of the Holocaust : “Paralysier-
ung und ohnmchtige Fassungslosigkeit nehmen bei ihr neue Gestalt
an, wenn sie nach Antworten auf die Frage nach den Hintergrnden
der Shoah sucht.” (Lehmann 1999 : 27) In a letter to Gudrun Dhnert,
Sachs outlined just some of the utterly inassimilable crimes committed
by the Nazis, as knowledge about them unfolded and as reports on the
camps began to filter into the Swedish press in the aftermath of the war :
Gestern las man hier in der Zeitung, daß der Henker des Lagers Mislowitz,
Rudolf Hçß, mit eigener Hand jdische Kinder den Mttern vom Arm nahm
und lachend in die Flammen geworfen hat. Auch hat er außer den 4 Millionen
Toten, die er auf dem Gewissen hat, 4000 Juden lebendig verbrannt. […]
Wenn man noch dazu die Untaten der rzte liest, die alle erdenklichen
Versuche am lebendigen Menschen in den Lagern machten, so glaubt man
wirklich nicht mehr an das Urbild, das einmal Mensch hieß. (Sachs 1984 : 74)
An acute sense of despair, similar to that perceptible in this letter, is au-
dible in this poem through the use of rhetorical questions which, signifi-
cantly, remain unanswered. Commenting on the culmination of the lyr-
ical subject’s desperation in the final stanza, Erhard Bahr writes : “Die
Bestialisierung des Menschen wird in den verzweifelten Fragen an die
Mçrder thematisiert. Die Unfaßbarkeit der Grausamkeit, zu der diese
Mçrder fhig sind, kommt […] zum Ausdruck. Die rhetorische Frage
ist hierad absurdum gefhrt : ihre existenzielle Unbeantwortbarkeit
wird offenbar.” (Bahr 1980 : 75) By the final lines of the poem, Sachs
has distorted all familiar imagery ; the image of the innocent child’s
hands described in the second stanza is now contrasted with the hands
of the Nazi henchmen. In childhood these hands played music ; they
clutched their mother’s skirt ; they pointed to words in a story book. In
the final stanza, these same hands are strangling the victims. By this
point in the poem, Sachs has surrendered any hope of comprehending
how the one-time innocence of the perpetrators disappeared. It is impor-
tant to bear in mind, however, that in spite of her despairing questions as
to the ‘bestialisation’ of man under National Socialism, Sachs – and this is
tremendously significant – humanisesthe perpetrators, ascribing to them
very real guilt in the process. She thereby avoids any exculpatory notions
3.3 Addressing the Perpetrators 87

of the Nazis as ‘demons,’ that myth so prevalent, as hitherto seen,
amongst the post-war German populace. Moreover, this attempt at hu-
manisation serves a similar purpose to Sachs’ utilisation of the hands im-
agery : it delivers the message that although the killing was carried out on
an industrial scale, each individual perpetrator is culpable. It serves as a
reminder to the reader that theen massemurder system was composed
of individual human beings, whose guilt cannot be assuaged by virtue
of their being merely part of that system.
Another poem in which bodily parts play an important role is “Wel-
che geheimen Wnsche” ( In den Wohnungen des Todes (1947), sub-cycle
Dein Leib in Rauch durch die Luft ). This may be counted among Sachs’
most acoustic poems, since she succeeds in reproducing both a tangible
sense of the fear stoked by the so-called “Blut und Boden” ideology
and an audible sense of the militaristic, tyrannical and ‘bulldozer-like’ na-
ture of the Nazi oppression :
Welche geheimen Wnsche des Blutes,
Trume des Wahnes und tausendfach
Gemordetes Erdreich
Ließen den schrecklichen Marionettenspieler entstehen ?
Er, der mit schumendem Munde
Furchtbar umblies
Die runde, kreisende Bhne seiner Tat
Mit dem aschgrau ziehenden Horizont der Angst !
O die Staubhgel, die, wie von bçsem Mond gezogen
Die Mçrder spielten :
Arme auf und ab,
Beine auf und ab
Und die untergehende Sonne des Sinaivolkes
Als den roten Teppich unter den Fßen.
Arme auf und ab,
Beine auf und ab
Und am ziehenden aschgrauen Horizont der Angst
Riesengroß das Gestirn des Todes
Wie die Uhr der Zeiten stehend.
(Sachs 1961: 17)
In this poem Sachs takes familiar items of nature which belong to the cus-
tomary imagery of romantic verse and distorts their original consolatory
function : we are confronted with constructs such as ‘earth a thousand
times murdered’ and ‘an ash-grey horizon of fear.’ These are yet further
poignant examples that cast doubt upon Michael Braun’s earlier claim
3 Nelly Sachs’ Poetics of Silence : Poetry at the Limits of Representation 88

that Sachs, in her alleged unshaken trust in language, holds “unbeirrt” on
to traditional imagery. Nelly Sachs is not a poet who continues to trust-
ingly employ traditional imagery in its traditional sense ; rather, we are
confronted with a thorough deformation of conventional imagery. By dis-
torting their traditional function within romantic poetry, Sachs makes
clear the futility of existing images to represent the horror of the Holo-
caust. She makes very clear that she is writing ‘nach Auschwitz.’ This is
noteworthy in light of the earlier discussion of the problematics of Hol-
ocaust representation. As Wolf Dieter Schnurre comments : “es kommt
darauf an, daß der Gedichtverfertiger es sichklarmacht,nach Auschwitz
zu dichten. Er kann schreiben worber er will. Auch ber Bume.
Aber seine Bume mssen andere sein, als die, die in den Gedichten
rauschten, die vorAuschwitz entstanden.” (Schnurre 1978 : 125) Sachs’
moon, earth and horizons are certainly not the moon, earth and horizons
of romantic poetry : hers are murderous, evil and permeated with fear. The inexplicability of the slaughter is expressed in the opening lines
of this poem. “Why,” as Langer comments, “is replaced by Whatas if to
suggest […] the impossibility of discovering causal relationships in a fun-
damentally irrational situation” (Langer 1975 : 26). Whilst the term ‘se-
cret cravings of blood’ recreates the deep-seated hatred that lay at the
core of National Socialism, it also has an accusatory function : Sachs ac-
cuses those who followed the murderous National Socialist ‘doctrine’ of
having ‘dreamed up’ the ‘machinery’ that swallowed up millions of
lives, so profound was their anti-Semitic hatred. “Geheime Wnsche
des Blutes” is thus a highly effective representational construct ; after
all, we usually associate “geheime Wnsche” with unfulfilled desires in
the positive sense. In National Socialist doctrine, however, it was blood
in the form of a million-fold slaughter that was ‘dreamed up.’ Sachs
then proceeds to use animal attributes in her description of the main per-
petrator “Er,” this pronoun being a probable reference to Hitler himself.
(cf. Bahr 1980 : 76) With his animal-like ‘foaming’ mouth, he blew over
the ‘stage of his deed’which is described as having an ash-grey ‘horizon of
fear.’ The choice of colour is important here in terms of connotation ; this
horizon, as Anita Riede comments, “impliziert mit seinem attributiven
Bestimmungswort ‘Asche’ die Ermorderung des jdischen Volkes in den
Konzentrationslagern” (Riede 2001: 75). The lines “Arme auf und ab, /
Beine auf und ab” are an unmistakable allusion to the terrifying uniform-
ity and dictatorial oppression of the gigantic Nazi army. In these lines
Sachs makes the ruthless ‘preußischer Stechschritt’ – attributed by associ-
ation to the Nazi machine – audible to the reader. And while the Nazis
3.3 Addressing the Perpetrators 89

march, the sun begins to set. Yet again, however, Sachs’ sun is not of the
same order as times gone by. Rather, it is a red carpet composed of the
blood of the countless victims. The repetition of “Arme auf und ab /
Beine auf und ab” at the start of the final stanza expresses the tortuous
incessancy of the murderous Nazi tread on this ‘carpet’ of coagulating
blood.This poem can be considered profoundly anti-redemptive : the future
is shrouded in darkness – “die untergehende Sonne” – while on the ‘ho-
rizon of fear’ a ‘star of death’ looms like a gigantic clock face functioning
as a reminder to humanity of the depths to which mankind can sink.
When reading this poem, it is important to bear in mind that although
Sachs makes direct reference to Hitler by mentioning the puppet master
and by using the capitalised pronoun “Er” in the first and second stanzas,
the charge cannot be laid against her that she attributes the blame entirely
to Hitler, exculpating those who were supposedly ‘misled’ by him in the
process. Sachs makes it clear through the repetition of “Arme auf und ab /
Beine auf und ab” – a reference to Hitler’s mass following – that those
who supported the ‘Blut und Boden’ ideology are equally culpable.
This is a significant element that Erhard Bahr overlooks in his assessment.
(cf. Bahr 1980 : 76) Sachs does not present the masses as rendered power-
less by a manipulative ‘puppet master,’ that escapist myth so widespread
amongst the general populace in the post-war period. Having been sup-
posedly deprived of their capacities to identify right from wrong as a re-
sult of the ‘magic-like’ manipulative force of Hitler, the masses could con-
sider themselves innocent of the crimes committed ‘in their name.’ The
rhetorical question posed in the first stanza is evidence that this was de-
finitively not the message that Sachs was attempting to deliver : she im-
plicates the general German populace by emphasising that the people’s
‘secret cravings of blood’ allowed the ‘puppet master’ to come to power
in the first instance. That Sachs considered the guilt of the masses to
be widespread is further evident in “Die Zuschauenden” ( In den Wohnun-
gen des Todes (1947), sub-cycle Dein Leib in Rauch durch die Luft ), a
poem that thematises the appalling consequences of indifference and pas-
sivity towards the victimisation of others :
Ihr Zuschauenden
Unter deren Blicken getçtet wurde.
Wie man auch einen Blick im Rcken fhlt,
So fhlt ihr an eurem Leibe
Die Blicke der Toten.
3 Nelly Sachs’ Poetics of Silence : Poetry at the Limits of Representation 90

Wieviel brechende Augen werden euch ansehn
Wenn ihr aus den Verstecken ein Veilchen pflckt ?
Wieviel flehend erhobene Hnde
In dem mrtyrerhaft geschlungenen Gezweige
Der alten Eichen ?
Wieviel Erinnerung wchst im Blute
Der Abendsonne ?
O die ungesungenen Wiegenlieder
In der Turteltaube Nachtruf –
Manch einer htte Sterne herunterholen kçnnen,
Nun muß es der alte Brunnen fr ihn tun !
Ihr Zuschauenden,
Die ihr keine Mçrderhand erhobt,
Aber die ihr den Staub nicht von eurer Sehnsucht
Die ihr stehen bliebt, dort, wo er zu Licht
Verwandelt wird.(Sachs 1961: 20)
Helmut Geißner has argued that this poem goes some way towards ex-
plaining why poetry after Auschwitz can no longer be as it was : “Viel-
leicht gibt dieses Gedicht Antwort, warum es […] keine ungebrochenen
Naturgedichte geben kann ; warum daneben z. B. Carossas ‘Alter Brun-
nen’ beinahe lppisch wirkt mit seinen ‘vollzhligen Sternen’; warum
das deutsche Gedicht nicht mehr so sein kann wie frher.” (Geißner
1961: 4) Geißner’s attribution of such significance to this particular
poem becomes appreciable upon close examination. Sachs once again ad-
dresses the perpetrators – in this case those who stood idly by are consid-
ered equally guilty by virtue of their inaction and pretence of ignorance.
The first stanza contains some of the most severe lines to be found in the
entire body of Sachs’ work. The use of the passive voice – “getçtet wurde”
– ironises the onlookers’ standard defence that the extermination of six
million people occurred without their knowledge. The threefold repeti-
tion of the noun ‘Blick’ exerts a powerful effect : it brings the motif of
the gaze into focus. Sachs uses this motif both as an accusatory tool –
the killing took place under the gaze of those who looked on – and as
a device of admonition in terms of the price the bystanders will pay :
Sachs cautions that they will forever ‘feel’ the reverse ‘gaze’ of the mur-
dered victims upon their own bodies. The verb ‘fhlen’ lends the gaze
motif – “[den] Blicke[n] der Toten” – a penetrative effect : the reader con-
jures up the image of the countless vacant stares of the dead burning
holes in the bodies of the bystanders.
3.3 Addressing the Perpetrators 91

Sachs’ indictment of the bystanders continues in the second stanza.
She cautions that in the post-Shoah world these same vacant stares of
the dead will observe the everyday activities of those who failed to act
during the suffering. She then proceeds with a relentless distortion of tra-
ditional descriptive vocabulary : the branches of the oak tree are trans-
formed into mangled, countless hands begging for help, while memories
are described as ‘congealing’ in the blood of the evening sun. Yet again
Sachs employs traditional romantic imagery but thoroughly deforms it :
she works with what remains of language after its abuse and engineers
the linguistic means at her disposal in her attempt to bear witness. The
reader then observes a transition from a tone of indictment to one of
mourning. The reference to cradle songs represents the mourning of
lost innocence and prematurely truncated lives, while the employment
of the subjunctive suggests profound sadness at the thought of things
that might have been. In the final stanza, the bystanders’ complicit status
is emphasised once again, the adverb ‘aber’ suggesting that although they
did not physically raise a ‘murderous hand,’ their complicity is beyond
question. The bystanders, as Kathrin Bower writes, “are equivalent to ac-
complices because of their dust-covered inertia” (Bower 2000 : 23). They
halted and looked on – “Die ihr stehen bliebt” – but failed to ‘shake off ’
the dust of apathy.
The poem “Chor der Waisen” ( In den Wohnungen des Todes(1947),
sub-cycle Chçre nach der Mitternacht ) is another instance of direct indict-
ment. Critics, generally speaking, have read this poem in terms of lament.
This is a questionable interpretation, however, given that the interpreta-
tive capital that would support such an evaluation is, in my view, entirely
lacking. Henning Falkenstein, to take just one example, has argued that
Sachs presents “Klage” here but not “Anklage” (Falkenstein 1984 : 32 –
33), when, arguably, the poem can be counted among Sachs’ most accu-
satory works :
Wir Waisen
Wir klagen der Welt !
Herabgehauen hat man unseren Ast
Und ins Feuer geworfen –
Brennholz hat man aus unseren Beschtzern gemacht –
Wir Waisen liegen auf den Feldern der Einsamkeit.
Wir Waisen
Wir klagen der Welt :
In der Nacht spielen unsere Eltern Verstecken mit uns –
Hinter den schwarzen Falten der Nacht
Schauen uns ihre Gesichter an,
3 Nelly Sachs’ Poetics of Silence : Poetry at the Limits of Representation 92

Sprechen ihre Mnder :
Drrholz waren wir in eines Holzhauers Hand –
Aber unsere Augen sind Engelaugen geworden,
Und sehen euch an,
Durch die schwarzen Falten der Nacht
Blicken sie hindurch –
Wir Waisen
Wir klagen der Welt :
Steine sind unser Spielzeug geworden,
Steine haben Gesichter, Vater– und Muttergesichter
Sie verwelken nicht wie Blumen, sie beissen nicht wie Tiere –
Und sie brennen nicht wie Drrholz, wenn man sie in den Ofen wirft –
Wir Waisen wir klagen der Welt :
Welt warum hast du uns die weichen Mtter genommen
Und die Vter, die sagen : Mein Kind du gleichst mir !
Wir Waisen gleichen niemand mehr auf der Welt !
O Welt
Wir klagen dich an !(Sachs 1961: 54)
The opening lines of this poem are among some of the most poignant to
be found in Sachs’ entire body of poetry. They demonstrate plainly that
Sachs’ work, contrary to the press reports that accompanied her various
literary awards, does not deliver an uncomplicated reconciliatory message.
We are presented with the image of branches being cut down – a likely
allusion to the violent tearing apart of the family unit – as loved ones
were ‘thrown’ into the fires of the crematoria. The orphans are left in a
state of absolute vulnerability : those whose responsibility it was to protect
them were wholly stripped of their dignity and their humanity and were
used as mere “Brennholz.” Sachs’ use of the term ‘man’ in relation to the
perpetrators may be considered a stylistic device with a purpose similar to
that of the hands motif in the poem “Hnder der Todesgrtner” analysed
above : it reminds the reader of the individuality of each perpetrator.
Sachs once again avoids any escapist notions of individual perpetrators
having merely acted amidst an anonymous murder machinery. The use
of the hyphen at the end of lines four and five may be considered a mark-
er of limits : limits in terms of what the poetic voice is capable of express-
ing and a moral limit that may not be transgressed ; the reader is remind-
ed of the dignity that must, above all else, be afforded the victims.
The description of the orphans lying “auf den Feldern der Einsam-
keit” in line six serves to drive home the sense of the never-ending lone-
liness they are forced to endure, while their absent dead loved ones para-
doxically saturate each line. Sachs then presents her reader with the, ini-
3.3 Addressing the Perpetrators 93

tially pleasant, image of murdered parents appearing to their children in
the black folds of the night. This is, however, immediately distorted into
the very disconcerting image of these same parents’ mouths recalling the
unspeakable crimes that were committed against them. Sachs’ use of the
present tense at this juncture is significant in terms of refuting those as-
sessments that evaluate her work as reconciliatory : “Hinter den schwarzen
Falten der Nacht /schauenuns ihre Gesichter an, / sprechenihre Mnder :
/ Drrholz waren wir in eines Holzhauers Hand – /” [my emphasis] . The
present tense is an indication that the crimes have not been forgotten ;
Sachs’ aim is to render the memory of Auschwitz an agonizing actuality.
This point is further emphasised by the enduring image of the stone ;
each time the orphan plays with this new “Spielzeug,” the countless
faces of the Shoah victims re-appear. The line “Sie verwelken nicht wie
Blumen” is similarly an unambiguous reference to the fact that not
only have the crimes not been forgotten, they will never be forgotten.
At this stage, Sachs affords the victims the dignity of which they had
been robbed in the death camps : the image of the victims ‘biting like an-
imals’ as they are thrown into the fires of the crematoria and burning like
dry wood is replaced by the simple image of “Vater- und Muttergesicht-
er.” The use of anaphora “Wir Waisen / Wir klagen der Welt” serves as an
effective crescendo to the final lines, at which point the poem becomes a
renewed and poignant accusation of both the perpetrators and the world
that looked on.
“O der weinenden Kinder Nacht” ( In den Wohnungen des Todes
(1947), sub-cycle Dein Leib in Rauch durch die Luft ), a poem that
deals solely with the murder of children in the death camps, has an equal-
ly accusatory tone :
O der weinenden Kinder Nacht !
Der zum Tode gezeichneten Kinder Nacht !
Der Schlaf hat keinen Eingang mehr.
Schreckliche Wrterinnen
Sind an die Stelle der Mtter getreten,
haben den falschen Tod in ihre Handmuskeln gespannt,
Sen ihn in die Wnde und ins Geblk –
berall brtet es in den Nestern des Grauens.
Angst sugt die Kleinen statt der Muttermilch.
Zog die Mutter noch gestern
Wie ein weißer Mond den Schlaf heran,
Kam die Puppe mit dem fortgekßten Wangenrot
In den einen Arm,
Kam das ausgestopf te Tier, lebendig
3 Nelly Sachs’ Poetics of Silence : Poetry at the Limits of Representation 94

In der Liebe schon geworden,
In den andern Arm, –
Weht nun der Wind des Sterbens,
Blst die Hemden ber die Haare fort,
Die niemand mehr kmmen wird.(Sachs 1961: 10)
In this poem death is omnipresent, as Sachs attempts to depict a night
scene in the death camps. The children have been literally ‘branded’
for death. While this can of course be interpreted as denoting the num-
bers tattooed on the inmates’ hands, it may also be a reference to their
physical marking in the form of the yellow star before the onslaught of
the wholesale massacre and, as such, a damning accusation of those
who idly stood by during the initial stages of the Nazi terror. Night is as-
sociated with death and fear, and the pre- and post-Auschwitz time divi-
sion is drawn up : the child of yesterday fell asleep in an innocent and safe
environment with its mother and stuffed pet. The child in Auschwitz is
torn from its mother and herded in among thousands of others to await
death and, in a terrifying irony, the new “Wrterinnen” are the SS guards.
The image of ‘tightening tendons’ recreates the sense of trepidation at the
oncoming ‘false death,’ a likely allusion to the premature, unnatural and
undignified death that the camp inmates suffered. In this first stanza,
Sachs attempts to present the sense of terror stoked by the camp guards :
death is ‘sown’ onto the walls and into the beams of the camp. The act of
sowing is traditionally associated with growth and life. In Auschwitz,
however, it was death that was ‘planted,’ and in this poem it is the
“schreckliche Wrterinnen” who are the planters. The verb ‘sen’ evokes
the ubiquity of death in the camps : “[d]iese Saat”, as Helmut Geißner
writes, “durchdringt alles, setzt sich berall fest” (Geißner 1961: 2).
The use of the verb ‘brten’ in relation to ‘nests of horror’ evokes the
image of terrified children huddled into corners, a complete contrast
to the cosy and safe ‘nest’ that was the home in the pre-Auschwitz
world. The lack of an explicit subject in this line – “berall brtet es
in den Nestern des Grauens” – suggests that death was being ‘sown’ on
such a massive scale that it perversely began to take on a ‘life’ of its
own. The child no longer has the protection of the mother, as alluded
to by the complete distortion of the the hitherto life-giving process ‘su-
gen’; it now suckles on fear : “die bebrteten Nester und die saugenden
Kleinen sind ins entsetzliche Paradox verschrnkt : ‘Nester des Grauens,’
3.3 Addressing the Perpetrators 95

‘Angst statt Muttermilch’” 1(Geißner 1961: 2). The contrast between the
language of the two stanzas, that is, between the simple language gestures
from the child’s world in the second stanza (“die Puppe,” “das ausges-
topfte Tier”) and the terrifying language of the death camp in the first
(“der zum Tode gezeichneten Kinder Nacht,” “Schreckliche Wrterin-
nen,” “in den Nestern des Grauens,” “Angst sugt die Kleinen”) reminds
the reader of the wholesale perversion of life that Auschwitz represented.
In the final lines of the poem, Sachs proceeds to describe ‘the wind of
death’ that blows through the camp. This is quite possibly an allusion
to the deathly gas inhaled by the victims in the gas chambers. This
‘wind of death’ dishevels the child’s hair and the ensuing relative clause
“die niemand mehr kmmen wird,” suggests that Sachs does not hold
out on any salvatory or redemptive gesture. In the poem “Zahlen” ( Sternverdunkelung(1949), sub-cycleberle-
bende ), Sachs explicitly addresses the total loss of individuality in the
death camps. Here, the perpetrator motif is presented by way of further
enumerating the specifics of the extermination process :
Als Eure Formen zu Asche versanken
in die Nachtmeere,
wo Ewigkeit in die Gezeiten
Leben und Tod splt –
erhoben sich Zahlen –
(gebrannt einmal in eure Arme
damit niemand der Qual entginge)
erhoben sich Meteore aus Zahlen,
gerufen in die Rume
darin Lichterjahre wie Pfeile sich strecken
und die Planeten
aus den magischen Stoffen
des Schmerzes geboren werden –
Zahlen – mit ihren Wurzeln
aus Mçrdergehirnen gezogen
und schon eingerechnet
in des himmlischen Kreislaufs
blaugederter Bahn.
(Sachs 1961: 110)
1 This distortion of the verb “sugen” reappears in the poem “Mund” where the
mouth is disturbingly described as suckling on death : “Mund / saugend am
Tod” (Sachs 1965 : 344).
3 Nelly Sachs’ Poetics of Silence : Poetry at the Limits of Representation 96

The reader is very quickly drawn into a most uncanny atmosphere. The
use of the term “Formen” in relation to the victims in the opening line
conjures up countless silhouettes, each individual victim having become
a mere undifferentiated ‘number’ among the millions exterminated.
This opening line can be interpreted as an allusion to a concrete aspect
of the annihilation process, namely, the reduction of the victims to
ashes in the crematoria. Sachs then situates her poem : the scene is
night. The plural neologism “Nachtmeere” suggests little hope of night
being replaced by day, however. The countless, ghostly numbers tattooed
onto the prisoners’ arms, representing the incalculable number of victims
of the Nazi extermination, begin to rise up into this night sky. The use of
parentheses immediately attracts the reader’s eye. Typically used to pro-
vide supplementary information, Sachs’ use of parentheses, instead of de-
tracting the reader’s attention from the lines contained therein, leads us
directly there, due to the fact that parenthesis is a feature otherwise vir-
tually absent in her work. The words within thus acquire additional sig-
nificance. Sachs’ employment of this formal device has design, naturally.
She is attempting to draw attention to the manner in which each victim
was thoroughly stripped of anything resembling dignity in the camps :
they were ‘branded’ like cattle in order to ensure that the extermination
process was as ‘comprehensive’ as possible. The tattooed arm can thus be
considered a symbolpar excellenceof what H. G. Adler calls “de[s] verwal-
tete[n] Mensch[en]” (H. G. Adler 1974). Along with the infamous vacant
stare of the ‘Muselmann’ and the endless piles of undifferentiated corpses,
these tattooed numbers remain among the most horrifying images of Na-
tional Socialism. Sachs proceeds to use astronomical terms as a means of
conveying the path of destruction that Auschwitz has left in its wake : the
image of ‘meteors of numbers’ brings to mind the spectacular brightness
associated with a meteor shower. Brightness, however, is present in the
poem not as a symbol of hope, but rather as a tool that exposes the num-
bers on the victims’ arms. Sachs creates a haunting spectre, a world in
which the survivor cannot escape the image of the unspeakable crimes
perpetrated against the millions who perished. Thus, as Karin Bower
comments, the numbers “remain burned into the poetic persona’s mem-
ory long after the bodies […] have ceased to exist.” Bower describes this
as “an ironic triumph of a program of depersonalization which had suc-
ceeded in systematically effacing individual identities” (Bower 2000 :
189). Jeremy Adler makes a similar point to Bower with reference to
the photographic ‘emblems’ of the death camps. He argues that concen-
trating on the sheer number of victims, as we do when contemplating
3.3 Addressing the Perpetrators 97

photographs of inmates or corpses, defines the enormity of the crime
without regard to the individual sufferers. Given the scale of the suffering,
he writes “this needs no defence.” Adler goes on to argue, however, that
the disadvantage of such a practice lies in the fact that it “metaphysically
reasserts the position of the perpetrators and perpetuates their own mas-
ter-slave ideology : the perspective of the prisoners as victims becomes ab-
solute at the expense of their humanity.” He concludes that memory con-
demns the victims to “everlasting subjugation,” and he describes this as “a
central, but […] largely unreflected aporia of our collective remem-
brance” (J. Adler 2000 : 77). In the final lines Sachs attempts to address
this very aporia by affording the victims the dignity of which they were
robbed : the allusion to roots in the lines “Zahlen – mit ihren Wurzeln /
aus Mçrdergehirnen gezogen” may be interpreted as a reference to thein-
dividual victim carrying the number. Sachs attempts, in other words, to
represent the reality of mass annihilation and, at the same time, rehuman-
ise the victims by re-ascribing to them some semblance of the individu-
ality of which they were robbed. What these six poems have in common is their direct engagement
with the perpetrators of the million-fold massacre. They provide strong
evidence against claims that the perpetrators find no place in her work
and the assertions that the perpetrators find forgiveness in her work.
Sachs not only accuses the Nazis of the mass slaughter and indicts the
passivity of those who stood by, she does so by reminding the reader
that they were people, not monsters and, crucially, not just an anonymous
mass of automated murderers ; she casts them as individuals responsible
for their crimes as opposed to mere ‘cogs’ in the Nazi machinery. Along-
side direct accusation on the part of the poetic voice, Sachs also indicts
the perpetrators by providing the mass dead collective and the conscience
of the Holocaust survivor respectively with a voice.
3.4 Prosopopoeia as a Representational Device
Prosopopoeia is a literary tool that Sachs frequently employs as a means
of ‘equipping’ the anonymous collective of dead victims with words. As a
rhetorical device, it identifies the specific rhetorical act of giving a voice
to and speaking in the name of another. Prosopopoeia’s imaginary status,
as Paul de Man explains, is announced by its name : “‘prosopon-poiein’
means to give a face and therefore implies that the original face can be
missing or nonexistent.” (De Man 1984 : 57) In addition to ventriloquis-
3 Nelly Sachs’ Poetics of Silence : Poetry at the Limits of Representation 98

ing the dead, Sachs also uses this device as a means of portraying the trau-
ma of the surviving victims and, interestingly, the tormented conscience
of the perpetrator. Prosopopoeia is an especially prominent device in the
sub-cycleChçre nach der Mitternacht (1947), where it serves to trouble
the reader, to loosen traditional binaries and to undermine comfortable
categories. It is employed by Sachs as a literary tool to provide the victims
with a voice and to make tangible within the space of the poem the pres-
ence of the dead of the Shoah. Sachs composes her titles in Chçre nach der
Mitternacht in such a way that the reader is forced to situate the poems
historically ; as Christine Rospert writes : “Schon in den Titeln der Ge-
dichte deutet sich an, daß die verschiedenen Stimmen eines ‘Wir’ aus
dem Blick zurck sich definieren ; sie sprechen als ‘Gerettete’ (von
was ? ), als ‘Waisen’ (wodurch dazu gemacht ? ), als ‘Trçster’ (wen ?
Warum ? ).” (Rospert 2004 : 40) In other words, Sachs makes the fact of
the Holocaust present before a single line of the main body of the
poem has even been read. The poem “Chor der Toten” serves as a
point of departure. The use of prosopopopeia in this poem is as an exem-
plary instance of a poetic device of ‘Verstummen’ assuming representa-
tional value :
Wir von der schwarzen Sonne der Angst
Wie Siebe Zerstochenen –
Abgeronnene sind wir vom Schweiß der Todesminute.
Abgewelkt an unserem Leibe sind die uns angetanen Tode
Wie Feldblumen abgewelkt an einem Hgel Sand.
O ihr, die ihr noch den Staub grßt als einen Freund
Die ihr, redender Sand zum Sande sprecht :
Ich liebe dich.
Wir sagen euch :
Zerrissen sind die Mntel der Staubgeheimnisse
Die Lfte, die man in uns erstickte,
Die Feuer, darin man uns brannte,
Die Erde, darin man unseren Abhub warf.
Das Wasser, das mit unserem Angstschweiß dahinperlte
Ist mit uns aufgebrochen und beginnt zu glnzen.
Wir Toten Israels sagen euch :
Wir reichen schon einen Stern weiter
In unseren verborgenen Gott hinein.
(Sachs 1961: 56)
The title of the poem expresses an impossibility : the dead, an absent col-
lective, are made present as part of a choral song. The break that Ausch-
witz has occasioned in terms of literary convention is made clear by Sachs’
3.4 Prosopopoeia as a Representational Device 99

misuse of the chorus. As Rospert points out, Sachs’ chorus deviates signif-
icantly from the chorus associated with Greek tragedy, since hers has the
significant additional element of self-reflection, an element that is lacking
in the former. In other words, Sachs’ ‘Chorus of the Dead’ reflects both
on the crimes committed and on the fact that the chorus, i. e. writing it-
self, has been damaged almost to the point of destruction by the mass
atrocities. Her chorus represents “ein selbstreflektieres Sprechen – ein
Klagegesang, eine Totenklage, die auf sich selbst zurckbezogen ist” (Ro-
spert 2004 : 42). The image of the sieve in the opening lines presents a
collective ‘we’ as not merely injured, but rather so grievously harmed
that a ‘black sun of fear’ has pierced countless holes in their bodies.
Once again, Sachs’ sun is not a life-giving force ; the traditional associa-
tions of this familiar image are distorted anew. The sun, traditionally as-
sociated with light, warmth, life and hope has turned black in the post-
Auschwitz world ; it rouses only fear. It retains its burning properties, but
no longer for the purpose of providing warmth from afar : it is now a re-
lentless sun of terror that burns countless holes in the skin of the victims
subjected to the Nazi terror : “Schwarz, zerstçrend,” Anderegg comments,
“gewinnt sie [die Sonne] Eigenwert als Gegenbild zur Normalvorstellung
einer lichtspendenden, lebensfçrdernden Sonne” (Anderegg 1970 : 32).
The image of black rays that Sachs evokes can be read as an allusion to
the far-reaching and all-encompassing sphere of the Nazi terror. Rospert
reads the oxymoron “schwarze Sonne” with its piercing form and pene-
trating effect as a likely reference to the Nazi swastika : “Die Schwrze
und die stechend spitze Form dieser Sonne und ihrer Strahlen lassen
sich […] als Anklang an das Symbol des Nazi-Faschismus schlechthin
verstehen : an das Hakenkreuz, ein schwarzes Sonnenrad.” (Rospert
2004 : 54) This is an interesting interpretation. For the victims of the
Holocaust, this terrifying symbol of National Socialism did not represent
the supposed ‘greatness’ of the ‘Third Reich’; rather it represented the all-
pervasive nature of the Nazi threat for those deemed to be ‘Untermen-
schen’ for whom this ‘Reich’ had no place. The accusatory overtones con-
tained in the participle construction in the fourth line – “die uns angeta-
nen Tode” – are clearly audible, while the use of chiasmus in lines four
and five is an extremely effective representational device within the the-
matic constraints of the poem, since the chiastic structure directly con-
nects “Hgel Sand” with “Leibe.” The resulting image is one of piled-
up corpses : “durch die chiastisch-anaphorische Wiederholungsstruk-
tur […] treten die ‘Leibe’ mit dem ‘Hgel Sand’ in Beziehung. […]
‘Der Hgel Sand’ spricht von einer Anhufung, einem bereinanderlie-
3 Nelly Sachs’ Poetics of Silence : Poetry at the Limits of Representation 100

gen, welche(s) implizit das bereinander toter Leiber miteinschließt.”
(Rospert 2004 : 56 – 57) Although the typical chiastic ‘(a)-(b)-(b)-(a)’ pat-
tern is not particularly strong in this instance – (a) “Abwelkt an unserem
Leibe” (b) “sind die uns angetanen Tode” (b) “Wie Feldblumen” (a) “ab-
gewelkt an einem Hgel Sand” – the repetition of “abgewelkt” is very
striking, as is the fact that this verb is followed each time by the prepo-
sition “an,” and this makes the two ‘(a)’ sections of the chiasmus strong
2Together, they leave behind a haunting feeling of refrain.
Aside from the tonal connection between “die” and “wie,” the ‘(b)’
parts are not grammatically linked, but together they form a significant
central nexus that links “die uns angetanen Tode” with “Feldblumen.”
The irony of these “Feldblumen” as flowers of death which results
from the chiastic arrangement of these lines is very poignant indeed. Fur-
ther close observation reveals that, strictly speaking, what confronts us
here are in fact lines that are both parallel andchiastic ; parallel since
“Leibe” is metonymically related to “Tode,” while “Hgel” is related to
“Feldblumen,” and chiastic on the basis that “Leibe” is then correlated
with “Hgel,” while “Tode” interacts with “Feldblumen.” Although it
is impossible to know with certainty whether an author creates inverted
parallel structures intentionally, the ethical gravity of the image that re-
sults from the structure, namely, an image of piled up corpses, would sug-
gest the likelihood of a conscious employment of chiasmus here to create
this disturbing effect. The chiastic structure thus extends this passage
greatly beyond the meaning of individual words, resulting in the con-
struction of images that may be read as unmistakable references to the
Holocaust atrocities. The repetition of relative clauses and sentence structure in verse two
lend the poem a sense of urgency – the reader senses that the poetic voice
is on the verge of suffocation. On a number of occasions, Sachs herself
expressed the urgency of the task of bearing witness when confronted
with muteness induced by breathlessness. In a letter to Walter Berend-
sohn in May 1946 she wrote :
Mein Leben ist so in Schmerz zerrissen, daß ich jedesmal wie in Feuer tauche,
um mir die Worte zu dem sonst Unsglichen zu holen. Immer wieder ber-
kommt mich das Zagen, das mich stumm machen will vor dem bermch-
2 I am indebted to John W. Welch’s article on the criteria for identifying and eval- uating chiasmus (cf. Welch 1995) and to Professor Welch himself, who brought
the prepositional aspect of the chiasmus in these lines to my attention.
3.4 Prosopopoeia as a Representational Device 101

tigen, und es kommen die Nchte, wo es mich berwltigt und ich es zitternd
wagen muß. (Sachs 1974a : 131)
In this letter the proximity between the looming threat of ‘Verstummen’
and creativity in defiance of this threat – ‘es wagen’– comes to the fore in
a manner similar to the aporetic tension so perceptible in Adorno’s reflec-
tions. In the poem under consideration, Sachs presents us with a similar
sense of petrified daring on the part of the poetic persona, and this is es-
pecially palpable in the aforementioned rushed declarative sentences of
the second stanza ; it is as if Sachs is attempting to recount the crimes
committed against the victims before the poetic voice is suppressed by
imminent muteness. The enormous scale of the destruction is clearly in-
dicated by the assertion that the Shoah has destroyed even the four cos-
mological elements, the very basis of human existence. The original func-
tions of the elements have been warped to the core : previously air gave
life to the lungs ; during the Shoah the ‘air’ in the gas chambers smothered
the lungs ; previously fire provided warmth, during the Shoah the fire in
the crematoria completed the ‘process’ begun in the gas chamber ; previ-
ously the earth was used for the repose of the dead, during the Shoah it
became a mass grave in which the victims were ‘disposed of ’ – the Nazi
description of the Jews as ‘vermin’ and ‘refuse,’ which served to upkeep
the ‘logic’ and ‘necessity’ of the murderous program, resonates here
with Sachs’ use of the term “Abhub” – previously water was a life-giving
force, during the Shoah water appeared in the form of “Angstschweiß.”
Sachs’ dead have not reached another redemptory world ; rather, they
maintain a ghostly omnipresence in this world, this uncanny omnipre-
sence being a probable allusion to their prematurely truncated lives ;
the dead, as Lawrence Langer writes, are all-too present “because of the
mannerof their absence” (Langer 1982 : 244).
The final lines of this poem “Wir reichen schon einen Stern weiter /
In unseren verborgenen Gott hinein,” have been read by numerous critics
as Sachs’ affirmation of religious redemption. Anderegg, for example,
claims “der Tod ist nicht mehr als Leid, sondern – bloßer Durchgang –
als Annherung an Gott relevant” (Anderegg 1970 : 34). Firstly, the
claim that Sachs sees death as “bloßer Durchgang,” a mere transition
en route to God, is to undermine the centrality that the concept of the
premature, unnatural, ‘false’ camp death holds in her work. Secondly,
the argument that an uncomplicated concept of divine redemption is
present in Sachs’ work is at odds with Sachs’ overall stance in relation
to the divine, a fact that will become clearly evident at a later point in
3 Nelly Sachs’ Poetics of Silence : Poetry at the Limits of Representation 102

this study with respect to Sachs’ employment of Biblical archetypes.
Whilst it is true that Sachs rarely presents her readers with nihilistic state-
ments, it cannot be argued that she held an unswerving confidence in di-
vine transcendence. “To the end of her life,” as Lawrence Langer writes,
“Sachs refused to lapse into nihilism […] , but she insisted that we be ab-
solutely honest about the terms on which we accept our continued exis-
tence (Langer 1982 : 246). The adverb “weiter” in the penultimate line
suggests that Sachs views a reconnection to the divine as neither an assur-
ed nor uncomplicated process.Another poem from this sub-cycle in which the device of prosopo-
poeia assumes an important role is “Chor der Schatten”:
Wir Schatten , O wir Schatten !
Schatten von Henkern
Geheftet am Staube eurer Untaten –
Schatten von Opfern
Zeichnend das Drama eures Blutes an eine Wand.
O wir hilflosen Trauerfalter
Eingefangen auf einem Stern, der ruhig weiterbrennt
Wenn wir in Hçllen tanzen mssen.
Unsere Marionettenspieler wissen nur noch den Tod.
Goldene Amme, die du uns nhrst
Zu solcher Verzweiflung,
Wende ab O Sonne dein Angesicht
Auf daß auch wir versinken –
Oder laß uns spiegeln eines Kindes jauchzend
Erhobene Finger
Und einer Libelle leichtes Glck
ber dem Brunnenband
(Sachs 1961: 57)
In the opening lines of this poem, the reader is confronted with a discon-
certing scene. The suffering at the hands of the gargantuan death ma-
chine is being played out on a wall in the form of shadows. We see the
shadows of the innumerable victims alongside those of the perpetrators
committing their crimes. Interestingly, whilst prosopopoeia was em-
ployed in “Chor der Toten” to ventriloquise the dead victims, the device
is used in this poem as a means of giving a voice to the tortured consciences
of the surviving victims and, crucially also, the consciences of the perpe-
trators, both groups constituting absent faces. In the case of the victims,
re-living the hell of Auschwitz alludes to the trauma that haunts the sur-
vivors of the camps in the manner described by Dominic LaCapra, name-
ly, “the tendency to compulsively repeat, relive, be possessed by […] trau-
3.4 Prosopopoeia as a Representational Device 103

matic scenes of the past. […] [W]hat is denied or repressed […] does not
disappear ; it returns in a transformed, at times disfigured and disguised
manner” (LaCapra 1998 : 10). The shadows of scenes from Auschwitz
‘dancing’ on the walls may be seen as an example of such disfiguration.
The use of the present participle “zeichnend” suggests furthermore that
this is an unremitting process for the survivor. The first strophe of this
poem thus lends itself to interpretation within the framework of survivor
trauma. As such, it can be read as a prescient commentary by Sachs on a
subject that would later come to permeate psychological discourse on the
Holocaust. In the third line, the shadows of the perpetrators are described
as ‘bound’ to the dust of their deeds, a likely allusion to the impossibility
of casting off guilt. Similar images of entrapment permeate the first verse.
The image of the helpless, trapped moth brings to mind the panic that
ensues when a winged creature attempts to escape a situation of ensnare-
ment. This motif could be interpreted in two ways. Firstly, it may be a
reference to the panic that broke out among the camp inmates in that
space of ultimate entrapment, namely, the gas chamber. It could also
be a reference to the panic experienced by the Holocaust survivor who
attempts to give voice to the suffering, whilst continually ‘entrapped’ in
a state of muteness. It may be read, in other words, as a reflection on
the post-Auschwitz crisis of expression. The gradual burning of the trap-
ped moth is underway while the shadows dance ‘in hell.’ The temporal
phrase “wenn” in the line “Wenn wir in Hçlle tanzen mssen” indicates
that this ‘dance’ is very much in the present for the Holocaust survivor.
The use of the term “ruhig” in the phrase “ruhig weiterbrennt” does
not arouse a sensation of calm and quiet in the reader. Rather, it generates
a sense of the tortuousness and of the perpetuity of this burning entrap-
ped state in which the Holocaust suvivor finds himself. The first stanza
closes with a profoundly non-reconciliatory message : “Unsere Marionet-
tenspieler wissen nur noch den Tod”: the minds of the puppeteers – a re-
current metaphor in Sachs’ work for the Nazi henchmen – will be con-
tinually invaded by reminders of their role in the million-fold annihila-
tion.In the second stanza the sun is addressed as “Goldene Amme”, and it
momentarily regains its light- and life-giving properties. These properties
are promptly cast off, however, with the introduction of the relative
clause “die du uns nhrst / Zu solcher Verzweiflung.” This use of the
verb “nhren” in relation to “Verzweiflung” sits very uncomfortably
with the reader. The sun in the post-Shoah world ‘nurtures’ the survivors,
not by providing light and warmth, but by increasing their despair. Like
3 Nelly Sachs’ Poetics of Silence : Poetry at the Limits of Representation 104

in the poem “Und berall,” the sun’s sole function now is to expose the
shadows of victims and perpetrators, as the former mentally relive the
Auschwitz hell. At this juncture, the ventriloquised consciences of both
survivor and perpetrator call on the sun to turn away – “Wende ab O
Sonne dein Angesicht” – so that the shadows which it exposes will disap-
pear. This wish for the sun to hide its countenance has a different motive
in both cases, of course. In the case of the victims, the sun serves only as a
reminder of suffering and pain, as it lays bare on the walls the shadows of
Auschwitz. For the perpetrators, on the other hand, the sun is a continual
reminder of their guilt ; its rays expose their “Untaten.” This is yet anoth-
er instance of traditional images being distorted, calling into question yet
again Braun’s claim regarding Sachs’ alleged unwavering embrace of tra-
ditional imagery.In the final lines it remains unsaid, but nonetheless apparent, that the
respective calls for the shadows to disappear will remain unfulfilled. Sachs
draws again on the notion of ‘Schattenverkauf ’ as an unrealisable option :
the survivors cannot be free of their trauma, nor can the perpetrators ever
be free of their guilt. Prosopopoeia serves in these poems as an extremely
valuable representational device in terms of commenting on the key no-
tions of survivor trauma and perpetrator guilt that would find such res-
onance in later post-war historical and psychological discourse. This per-
sonifying trope serves, on the one hand, in “Chor der Toten” as a means
of speaking in the stead of the dead victims, in spite of the fact that their
experience can never truly be known – the true witnesses, to draw on Levi
once again, are those “who touched bottom” (Levi 1989 : 83 – 84) – while
in “Chor der Schatten”, it is used by the poetic persona to tap into the
minds of both the surviving victims and – albeit to a far lesser degree
– the perpetrators, thereby ascribing to Sachs’ poetry a sense of compre-
hensiveness in terms of perspective.
3.5 Sachs’ Nacht-Metaphorik : Reversing a Traditional Image
Night can be counted among Sachs’ most frequently employed images.
This motif, which permeates Romantic poetry, undergoes, like all pre-
Auschwitz imagery, a fundamental alteration in her work. In her poetry
night is consistently synonymous with the death-world of Auschwitz :
“Nachtgrab” (Sachs 1961: 158), “Nachtfetzen” (Sachs 1961: 173) and
“Rabennacht” (Sachs 1971: 57) are just some examples of the neologisms
with which Sachs confronts her readers. These constructs represent a dis-
3.5 Sachs’ Nacht-Metaphorik : Reversing a Traditional Image 105

tortion of the traditional concept of night almost beyond recognition.
Langer describes Sachs’ use of such neologisms as an attempt to “use a
process of linguistic annealing to squeeze fresh vision out of weary
words” (Langer 1976/77: 322 – 25). The objective is to engineer yester-
day’s futile language in an attempt to find adequate expression for the
horrors of the Holocaust. Night in the pre-Shoah world was an interval
between twilight and dawn ; it facilitated sleep and escape in the form of
dreams. For the Romantics it was a time of ‘Erkenntnis,’ inspiration and a
heightened sense of and unity with nature. Sachs deviates from all such
associations. In her poetry night is permanent ; it is haunted and shattered
by nightmares from the concentration camps. The poem “Aber in der
Nacht” (Sternverdunkelung (1949), sub-cycleIm Geheimnis) is an excel-
lent example of Sachs’ manipulation of this conventional image :
Aber in der Nacht,
wenn die Trume mit einem Luftzug
Wnde und Zimmerdecke fortziehen,
beginnt die Wanderung zu den Toten.
Unter dem Sternstaub suchst du sie –
Deine Sehnsucht baut an der Schwester –
aus den Elementen, die sie verborgen halten,
holst du sie herein
bis sie aufatmet in deinem Bett –
der Bruder aber ist um die Ecke gegangen
und der Gatte zu hoch schon eingekehrt
du lßt die Demut dich verstummen –
Aber dann – wer hat die Reise unterbrochen –
beginnt die Rckkehr
Wie der kleinen Kinder Wehklagen
erschrocken an der Erde
bist du –
Der Tod der Toten ist mit der Zimmerdecke
herabgesunken –
schtzend liegt mein Kopf auf deinem Herzen
die Liebe – zwischen dir und dem Tod –
So kommt die Dmmerung
mit dem roten Sonnensamen hingestreut
und die Nacht hat sich ausgeweint
in den Tag –
(Sachs 1961: 139)
This poem is thoroughly permeated by death. The scene is night and the
survivor’s nightly – as suggested by the temporal conjunction “wenn” in
the second line – “Wanderung zu den Toten” begins. The survivor’s sense
3 Nelly Sachs’ Poetics of Silence : Poetry at the Limits of Representation 106

of the ubiquity of the dead victims of the Holocaust comes to the fore ;
“die Ermordung in den Konzentrationslagern,” as Lehmann writes,
“[fhrt] zu einer permanenten Prsenz des Todes fr den berlebenden
[…] . Opfer und berlebende befinden sich in demselben vom Tod be-
zeichneten Lebensraum” (Lehmann 1999 : 12). There is an audible over-
tone of weariness in the concept of a ‘nightly trek’ to the dead. Indeed, it
could be argued that Sachs uses the concept of the ‘trek’ as a metaphor for
the dilemma of the writing process in the aftermath of Auschwitz : the
lyrical subject continually attempts to recover, to ‘write’ the faces of the
countless victims and, initially at least – as suggested by the image of
walls drifting apart – there is some hope of succeeding in this endeavour.The strange atmosphere of these opening lines finds momentary re-
prieve in the second stanza : the survivor, longing desperately to see the
faces of murdered loved ones attempts to imagine close family members
‘back to life.’ Some, however, are not recoverable, not even by the imag-
ination. Instead, they blur into one mass collective, and the survivor is left
‘verstummt.’ This state of muteness is then rendered absolute by the re-
sounding silence into which the sentence trails off, represented by the fa-
miliar dash. The sense of eeriness perceptible in the first stanza returns in the third
stanza : the ‘trek tothe dead’ of the opening stanza now finds its reverse :
the poetic persona now embarks on her returnjourney : “Aber dann / […]
/ beginnt die Rckkehr.” Just before this return journey begins, a question
is posed : “wer hat die Reise unterbrochen ?” This could be interpreted as a
reference to the interruption of the nightly “Wanderung zu den Toten,”
the interruption, that is, of the poetic ‘journey’ to represent the Holo-
caust. The answer, although not directly provided, could in fact be in
terms of ‘what’ rather than ‘who’: the inability to imagine the faces of
loved ones, the inability to recover the dead disrupts the writing process.
The poet attempts to ‘write’ the dead, but it is the sheer scale of the dead
collective that renders this attempt futile, a fact evinced by Sachs’ refer-
ence in the sixth line of this stanza to the ‘double death’ suffered by
the victims – “der Tod der Toten”. This is a commentary on the fact
that in addition to being murdered, the victims were denied the dignity
of an individual passing as a result of the industrialised nature of the ex-
termination. In a letter to Berendsohn in 1948, Sachs states this explicitly
in her comments on the coming to be of the sub-cycle to which this poem
belongs : “Mein neuer Cyklus ‘Und reißend ist die Zeit’ ist aus der Her-
zensangst vor allem ‘mechanisierten’ Tod im Vergleich zum leisen natr-
lichen […] enstanden.” (Sachs 1974d : 144) The futility of all attempts at
3.5 Sachs’ Nacht-Metaphorik : Reversing a Traditional Image 107

imagining individual faces may thus be read as a reference to both the
anonymity that characterised death in Auschwitz and to the sheer volume
of the collective that fell victim to the Nazi death machinery. The initial
hope of recovering the dead suggested by the shifting walls in the opening
stanza is now reversed ; the bedroom ceiling begins to ‘sink downwards,’
evoking the impression of a claustrophobic and deathly atmosphere in-
vading the room. The language of entrapment and claustrophobia in
this stanza forms a complete contrast to the imagery contained in the
opening stanza, where the walls and ceilings had begun to drift outwards.
As they gradually close in, any initial hopes of connecting with loved
ones, of ‘writing’ the victims back to life, are dashed.In the final stanza, the all-pervasiveness of night for the survivor is
conveyed anew. Sachs undermines the reader’s expectations here ; we an-
ticipate reprieve with the onset of dawn, but dawn has been eclipsed by
the darkness of night which now invades the light of day – “die Nacht hat
sich ausgeweint / in den Tag.” Sachs avoids juxtaposing night and day,
because for the survivor it is darkness that continually holds sway. The
hyphen, in which the poem culminates compounds this darkness ; it sym-
bolises that night, and with it the omnipresence of death, are destined to
be a perpetual and inescapable state for the Holocaust survivor. The poem
“Da” ( Teile dich Nacht (1966)) similarly thematises the ubiquity of death.
It explores the invasion of the survivor’s mind by memories from the
death camps :
in der Nacht
wo sie am schrecklichsten dunkelt
bevor Tod sie wieder erhellt
im Brennesselwald des Wahnsinns
der die Bume hinaufklettert
die Wunden am Mond zu khlen
nach Ost und West
die Hnde gestreckt
Aufgang und Untergang
in einer Umarmung zu fassen
und verzehrt von den Flammenden
morsches Holz
den Himmel zu versçhnen – (Sachs 1971: 139)
This poem is an account of acute survivor trauma. The poetic voice fo-
cuses on a particular point during the night – as suggested by the adverb
3 Nelly Sachs’ Poetics of Silence : Poetry at the Limits of Representation 108

“Da” – at which it grows ‘horrifyingly’ dark. We are presented with the
evocative image of hysteria in the form of stinging nettles weaving them-
selves around and climbing up the trees. This may be read as a metaphor
for the invasion of the survivor’s mind by traumatic memories of the Hol-
ocaust, “das wahnhafte Wiedererleben” of the traumatic event, as Birgit
Kellet-Stocker describes it (Keller-Stocker 1973 : 133). The past participle
“zurckgeworfen” suggests that the wounds on the moon – an allusion to
the profundity of the destruction – cannot be healed.In the second half of the poem, hands – possibly those of the lyrical
subject – are outstretched within this night-time scene in an attempt to
contain within one ‘embrace’ the rise and fall of the Jewish people.
This can be read as a poetic attempt at embracing within language the
disaster that befell the Jewish population of Europe – their “Untergang.”
As such, this can be considered an element of meta-poetic discourse. The
futility of this attempt, however, is expressed unequivocally in the image
of the flames consuming the victims’ demise : “Verzehrt von den Flam-
menden” is a likely reference to the total obliteration that the Holocaust
represented : the crematoria were part of the annihilation machinery ; they
merely completed the ‘process’ begun in the gas chambers. The only thing
remaining of the trees of the first half of the poem is wood rendered rot-
ten by its infestation with hysteria. The infinitive construction followed
by the mute dash in the closing line makes it clear that just as the
moon’s wounds in the opening lines cannot be healed, neither can the
earth regain the good will of the sky. This, I would argue, should be
read less as a reference to conciliating a divinity offended by the evil of
mankind, than as an allusion to the depth of the destruction that the
Holocaust has left in its wake. There is no suggestion of potential release,
since once night’s darkest moment has passed, it is ‘lit up’ afresh by death.
The use of the verb ‘erhellen’ with “Tod” is unsettling. It becomes clear
that contrary to the brighter state expected by the use of this verb and
by virtue of the adverb “wieder,” night for the survivor consists solely
of progressive stages of darkness. Sachs uses language to unsettle her read-
er’s expectations. Just as the mention of the word ‘dawn’ in the previous
poem sets the reader up for reprieve, here too Sachs undermines her read-
er’s presumptions by creating an irreconcilable semantic link between the
terms “Tod” and ‘erhellen.’ The only certainty she provides is that the re-
living of the traumatic event begins anew. There is no suggestion that the
disaster which the Holocaust represents is followed by a new order ; “[t]he
blossoms of solace,” as Lawrence Langer writes, “that once balanced pain
with comfort do not flourish in Sachs’ landscape of death,” its very soil
3.5 Sachs’ Nacht-Metaphorik : Reversing a Traditional Image 109

“resists attempts to find a soothing balm” (Langer 1982 : 220). Sachs re-
fuses to provide such a “balm”; she completely avoids the construction of
a consoling, eschatological resolution.In the poem “Nacht Nacht” ( Sternverdunkelung(1949), sub-cycle
Und reißend ist die Zeit), Sachs makes further use of night imagery,
and performs a step-by-step renunciation of all its traditional connota-
tions :
Nacht, Nacht ,
daß du nicht in Scherben zerspringst,
nun wo die Zeit mit den reißenden Sonnen
des Martyriums
in deiner meergedeckten Tiefe untergeht –
die Monde des Todes
das strzende Erdendach
in deines Schweigens geronnenes Blut ziehn –
Nacht, Nacht,
einmal warst du der Geheimnisse Braut
schattenliliengeschmckt –
In deinem dunklen Glase glitzerte
die Fata Morgana der Sehnschtigen
und die Liebe hatte ihre Morgenrose
dir zum Erblhen hingestellt –
Einmal warst du der Traummalereien
jenseitiger Spiegel und orakelnder Mund –
Nacht, Nacht,
jetzt bist du der Friedhof
fr eines Sternes schrecklichen Schiffbruch geworden –
sprachlos taucht die Zeit in dir unter
mit ihrem Zeichen :
Der strzende Stein
und die Fahne aus Rauch !
(Sachs 1961: 76)
In this poem night imagery is used by Sachs as a framework to describe
the chaos to which the world order has succumbed. The first stanza is re-
plete with an almost incessant series of apocalyptic images, by means of
which Sachs attempts to portray the depth of destruction that the Holo-
caust has left in its wake. Time is described as perishing alongside a ‘rav-
enous’ sun into the ‘sea-covered’ depths of the night. The construct “in
deiner meergedeckten Tiefe” conjures up an image of drowning, indicat-
ing that, in the post-Shoah world, night has become a perpetual state in
which even the sun now ‘drowns.’ The moon no longer exhibits a peace-
ful radiance ; rather, it is directly linked with death. It is ‘dragging’ “das
3 Nelly Sachs’ Poetics of Silence : Poetry at the Limits of Representation 110

strzende Erdendach” – an image that evokes destruction on a monu-
mental scale – into night’s ‘congealed blood of silence,’ the present par-
ticiple ‘strzend’ suggesting a process of continuous collapse. The
moon thus no longer exerts a stabilising gravitational pull on the earth’s
rotational axis ; instead, it causes the earth to crumble. The image of
blood coagulation is, at once, a most disquieting and highly effective con-
struct : disquieting, by virtue of the fact that the reader quickly associates
it with the congealed blood of the victims, and highly effective owing to
the connotations it evokes in terms of permanence : it serves as a reminder
of the impenetrability of the deathly silence that envelops the night. It
may thus by inference also be interpreted as a reference to the impenetra-
bility of the silence that envelops the Shoah.In the second and third stanzas, Sachs creates the familiar ‘before /
after’ time division. She subdivides time into pre- and post-Auschwitz
eras – with Auschwitz functioning as the line of demarcation – thereby
highlighting the fundamental rupture that has occurred. In this instance,
she uses the time division as a means of reflecting on the destruction lan-
guage that has endured. At this juncture in the poem, the reader is con-
fronted with a plethora of images which suggests, as Lehmann comments,
“eine lyrische Artikulationsform, die eine Grenzerfahrung […] mit der
Opulenz der Bilder zu artikulieren sucht” (Lehmann 1999 : 57), or, as
Joan Peterson comments, “a mind […] so burdened that it must spin
out metaphor on top of metaphor” (Peterson 2000 : 197). In the ‘pre-
Auschwitz’ world – as suggested by the adverb “einmal” – night was as-
sociated with the mysterious mirage of the Fata Morganathat sparkled
in the night sky, giving night its mystical character. In the pre-Auschwitz
world, words such as ‘bride,’ ‘lily,’ and ‘rose’ could be mentioned in the
same breath as night. As “orakelnder Mund” and “jenseitiger Spiegel,”
night foresaw and mirrored not the disaster that was to follow, but rather
dreams. Sachs reflects here on some of the associations of night in Ro-
mantic poetry which no longer serve any purpose in a post-Auschwitz
world. In this way, the poetic voice engages in a meta-literary discourse.
In the post-Shoah world, night’s symbolic possibilities are completely al-
tered : night is now a graveyard ; it is associated with the shipwreck of a
star – an unmistakable reference to the destruction that has taken
place. Time, already sinking in the first stanza, now submerges “spra-
chlos” into the ‘sea-covered’ depths of night. Lehmann interprets the sym-
bol of the stone in the closing lines as a symbol of the necessity of “ver-
festigte Erinnerung” (Lehmann 1999 : 57) in the face of this speechless-
ness, as a metaphor for the necessity of bearing witness in spite of the
3.5 Sachs’ Nacht-Metaphorik : Reversing a Traditional Image 111

enormity of the destruction. The symbolic properties of permamence that
the stone image evokes certainly invite such a reading. However, the pres-
ence of the present participle ‘strzend’ allows Lehmann’s reading to be
qualified somewhat : the participle form suggests that the stone is plum-
metingwithinthe space of the poem. “Der strzende Stein” is thus a
somewhat more ambivalent image than Lehmann suggests. It may be
read as despair on the part of the poetic voice that the sheer scale of an-
nihilation has rendered even the ability to remember futile. “Verfestigte
Erinnerung” is certainly the desired objective, but an ultimately unrealis-
able one. A significant aspect of this poem is its anti-redemptory message : the
apocalyptic imagery is not complemented by any suggestion of a redemp-
tive outcome. Sachs refuses to provide a ‘sense-making,’ eschatological in-
terpretation for the Shoah. She refuses the eschatological solution of the
apocalyptic destruction giving way to a messianic age that would promise
a new world and universal salvation. Night itself, after all, as astutely
pointed out by Lehmann, is not swallowed up in the destruction : “Die
Nacht wird nicht in einer vollstndigen Apokalypse selbst zerstçrt, auf
die eine neue Welt und eine universelle Heil folgen.” (Lehmann 1999 :
58) Lehmann proceeds to note the significance of this : “Da die eschato-
logische Hoffnung und Erwartung aufgegeben wird, zeigt sich, daß die
historische Erfahrung des Holocaust fr Nelly Sachs nicht durch den Re-
kurs auf traditionelle, religiçse Matrix sublimierbar ist.” (Lehmann 1999 :
58) Sachs does not hold out on a new world order emerging from the
destruction having ‘learned a lesson’ from the Holocaust. The extermina-
tion of the Jews as merely a ‘lesson learned’ is a thought that is repugnant
to Sachs. The closure of the poem with the image of “die Fahne aus
Rauch,” which can be read as a metaphor for the so-called ‘Final Solu-
tion,’ makes it clear that what follows the destruction is not renewal,
but rather an unremitting reminder of the depths to which mankind
sank during the Holocaust. Sachs thus dissolves the traditional Jewish
connection between apocalypse and messianic salvation. This is enor-
mously significant, since such a fusion would involve attributing some
kind of meaning to what Sachs viewed as a wholly senseless massacre.
The night motif in these poems thus serves a double purpose : firstly, it
acts as a function of Sachs’ self-reflective poetics by facilitating meta-po-
etic mediation on the necessity of engineering traditional imagery to ar-
tistically engage with the catastrophe. Secondly, by making it clear to her
readers, through the employment of apocalyptic imagery, that the de-
struction unleashed by the Nazis can neither be understood nor somehow
3 Nelly Sachs’ Poetics of Silence : Poetry at the Limits of Representation 112

‘made sense of ’ in the framework of traditional eschatology, Sachs – in a
similar vein to Adorno – writes her repugnance at any attempt to make
sense of the eventintoher poetry. By twisting familiar imagery, she en-
courages a particular conjecture in order to undermine it ; words are
used against their original meaning. Whilst the poems dominated by
night imagery provide crucial interpretative capital to demonstrate the
anti-redemptive nature of Sachs’ poetry, her rejection of sense-making in-
terpretations comes perhaps most clearly to the fore in the physical dis-
figuration that characterises so much of her work.
3.6 The Poetics of Disfiguration
The poems analysed thus far have brought to light a poetics of darkness, a
non-redemptive poetics, a poetics threatened by and constantly on the
verge of speechlessness. Many of Sachs’ poems are devoted solely to con-
fronting this threat ; they demonstrate the poet’s refusal to retreat in the
face of the ‘after-Auschwitz aporia’; her resolution to write what cannot
be written, notwithstanding the inevitable inadequacy of all attempts at
articulation. This attempt very often manifests itself in the physicality
of Sachs’ work, resulting in a shattered poetics, a poetics of disfiguration.
A number of critics have interpreted the lack of aestheticisation in Sachs’
work purely in terms of the inappropriateness of aestheticisation in any
representation of Auschwitz in line with Adorno’s concerns examined ear-
lier. Vaerst-Pfarr, for example, writes : “Ihre Gedichte [verzichten] auf ein
vorgeprgtes metrisches oder strophisches Muster sowie auch auf eine Re-
imbindung […] , weil die […] in jedem Gedicht von Nelly Sachs evo-
zierte historische Wirklichkeit des Vçlkermords an den Juden eine solche
sthetisierung nicht vertrge.” (Vaerst-Pfarr 1982 : 41 – 42) In addition
to the perils presented by coherent aesthetic form in terms of aesthetic
pleasure, there is, however, a more urgent rationale behind Nelly Sachs’
abandonment of the mellifluous rhyme and the notions of order, form
and symmetry that characterised her pre-war poetry : the poetic voice is
confronted with the ever-present threat of lapsing into speechlessness,
and many of Sachs’ poems are wholly dedicated to merely avoiding
this peril ; these poems teeter as a result on the very verge of collapse.
We are confronted with what Jeziorkowski calls “eine Artikulations-
und Schweigegrenze,” “eine getriebene Reduktion des Sprechens,” “die
Neigung, die Wçrter wie Hohlformen in sich ausbreitendem Schweigen
erscheinen zu lassen, als immer sparsame Grenzmarken” (Jeziorkowski
3.6 The Poetics of Disfiguration 113

1994 : 155). The result is a fragmented formal structure, which – para-
doxically – can be considered a crucial achievement of her poetry in
terms of the problematics of the literary representation of the Holocaust.
Adorno, as hitherto seen, warns against attributing a semblance of mean-
ing to Auschwitz and against the attainment of pleasure by means of what
he terms ‘the principle of aesthetic stylisation.’ This is of immediate sig-
nificance in the case of Nelly Sachs, since the so-called ‘principle of aes-
thetic stylisation’itselfprohibits these dangers. A crucial and paradoxical
characteristic of the ‘form’ of her poetry is a lackof form. Her distinctive
mode of writing is one not of construction, but of demolition. The poetic
voice is very often gradually reduced to a state of speechlessness : frag-
mented sentences become single words, single words become individual
syllables, individual syllables then culminate in the ultimate moment of
silence represented by the hyphen. By actively employing an at times in-
coherent and utterly fragmented structure, Sachs avoids the risk of subju-
gating a ruptured and shattered language to what Susan Shapiro calls an
“order making medium” (Shapiro 1984 : 6) and attributing in the process
some semblance of meaning to the senseless massacre in terms of formal
or structural coherence. The strategy employed by Sachs was to use this
ruptured language as her very means. Especially significant in this respect
is the fact that the poetic medium itself facilitates this process ; as Dieter
Lamping has noted : “Es [ist] noch am ehesten mit den Mitteln der mod-
ernen Lyrik mçglich, den Holocaust knstlerisch darzustellen.” (Lamping
1997: 111) A brief examination of the characteristics of modernist lyric
poetry will thus firstly serve to demonstrate its intrinsic advantages
when it comes to expressing the horrors of the Holocaust and the attend-
ent rupturing of language and of experience. Modernist lyric poetry is not bound to narrative structure, narrative
or grammatical coherence or narrative closure. This is in direct contrast
to the “metrische Dichtung” of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries
which, as Dieter Lamping points out, was “immer nach Versmaßen […]
geregelt, meist außerdem strophisch gegliedert und gereimt.” Modernist
lyric poetry can be free from such formal coherence, “frei von all den
Bindungen, denen Verse, Versgruppen und Gedichte herkçmmlicherwe-
ise unterworfen sind” (Lamping 1991: 10). As such, it is a fitting genre to
recreate the senselessness of the Holocaust on a formal level by means of
its own dissolution and avoiding in the process the attribution of a sem-
blance of meaning – in aesthetic terms – to the slaughter. Modernist lyric
poetry allows moreover for unorthodox punctuation which can have ex-
pressive value. It also facilitates strong congruency between form and con-
3 Nelly Sachs’ Poetics of Silence : Poetry at the Limits of Representation 114

tent : the formal structure itself can act as a function of literary content. In
the absence of “vorgegebene Bautypen,” as Lamping argues, “kann sich
die Form immer dem Inhalt passen” (Lamping 1991: 55), or, as Arno
Holz writes, “der jedweilige Inhalt schafft sich seine ihm jedesmal ad-
quate Form” (cited in Lamping 1991: 55). This is especially true in
the case of Nelly Sachs’ poetry, since the ‘form’ of her work is very fre-
quently determined, if not created, by what cannot be expressed in con-
tent. Additionally, modernist poetry does not rely on finite syntax – an
indication of logic and reason – which is so essential to the formal coher-
ence of a narrative, for example. It allows instead for complete destabili-
sation and fragmentation of form, and this can have strong expressive
value : the irrationality of the massacre can thus be recreated in the disso-
lution of form, coherence and conventional logic.In much of Sachs’ poetry, such a textuality of rupture and disintegra-
tion of form become clearly manifest. Paul Celan’s oft-cited words are of
relevance in this respect :
Das Gedicht heute – zeigt, und das hat glaube ich […] mit den – nicht zu
unterschtzenden – Schwierigkeiten der Wortwahl, dem rapiden Geflle der
Syntax oder dem wacheren Sinn fr die Ellipse zu tun, – das Gedicht zeigt, das
ist unverkennbar, eine starke Neigung zum Verstummen. […] , das Gedicht
behauptet sich am Rande seiner selbst […] . (Celan 1995 : 79)
Here, Celan outlines some of the main tendencies that are observable in
much of Sachs’ poetry : the rapid reduction of syntax, the tendency to-
wards ellipsis – or, in Sachs’ case, towards hyphenation – and her search
for a suitable vocabulary capable of embracing the profundity of the de-
struction which, as seen thus far, very often results in the distortion of
familiar images and concepts. In fact, in a letter to Carl Seelig in
1946, Sachs commented directly on the fragmented nature of so much
of her work : “Sie […] werden fhlen, daß ich, wenn ich so sagen darf,
nicht rund verwundet bin, sondern einfach durchstochen. Darum kann
ich keine Romane schreiben, es bricht aus mir heraus in den Formen,
die ich Ihnen sandte.” (Sachs 1984 : 67) Here, Sachs attempts to explain
how her own broken and ‘pierced’ state has its correlation in the physical
make-up of her poetry. She refers specifically to the fact that she is unable
to write novels, due to the careful deliberation required on the part of the
author to produce the rounded narrative coherence that is required to ex-
tend the narrative plot. The Holocaust poet does not have the luxury of
such deliberation given the urgency of the task of bearing witness to what
cannot be adequately described. Much of her poetry presents us instead
3.6 The Poetics of Disfiguration 115

with what seem like outbursts in a despairing attempt to avoid the immi-
nent dissipation of the poetic voice. The poem “Szene aus dem Spiel
Nachtwache” (Noch feiert Tod das Leben (1960)) serves as an excellent
point of departure to demonstrate Sachs’ poetics of disfiguration :
Die Augen zu
und dann –
Die Wunde geht auf
und dann –
Man angelt mit Blitzen
Die Geheimnisse des Blutes
fr die Fische
Alles im Grab der Luft
Das Kind malt im Sarg mit Staub
Den Nabel der Welt –
und im Geheg der Zhne hlt
der Henker den letzten Fluch – Was nun ?
(Sachs 1961: 375)
In this poem we get an powerful sense of the struggle surrounding the
attempt to find commensurate words to articulate that which thwarts lan-
guage. Just as the poet closes her eyes, the wound ‘becomes undone’ –
“die Wunde geht auf.” This may be interpreted as a metaphor for the un-
healed conscience of the survivor that is haunted by the memory of the
atrocities. Structural disintegration and severe linguistic reduction appear
in this poem with exceptional clarity. The collapse of language is implicit
in the opening lines of the poem. The poem may be considered a man-
ifestation of what one author calls a “Schrumpfungsprozeß,” defined as
“eine Situation, die von progressiven verbalen Verflchtigungsvorgngen
im Gedicht gekennzeichnet ist” (Krolow 1963 : 133). The first thing
which catches the reader’s attention is the frequent interruption of the
poem by the familiar hyphenation. This formal feature, which has been
encountered on numerous occasions thus far, is highly characteristic of
Sachs’ work. These dashes permeate the very textuality of her poems
and assume important symbolic value ; they represent the aposiopesis of
the poetic voice. Gisela Dischner describes the dashes as “verzweifelte
3 Nelly Sachs’ Poetics of Silence : Poetry at the Limits of Representation 116

Sprachgebrde des Verstummens, einen Abbruch des Gedichteten, weil
Worte fehlen, das Ungeheuerliche, das Unsagbare zu sagen” (Dischner
1970 : 89). As formal features of the poem, they also serve, however, as
afunction of literary content : they present that which is beyond words.
The dashes are thus botha manifestation of the mutilation of language
in the aftermath of the Shoah andan attempt, at the same time, to
make known that behind the dash something is awaiting articulation.
The hyphenation exposes arguably the most paradoxical aspect of
Sachs’ work, namely, “daß die Worte dort ihr ußerstes Gewicht haben,
wo sie aufhçren und allseits von dem umgeben sind, was Nicht-Wort
ist” (Jeziorkowski 1994 : 155). The hyphenation can be considered
such “Nicht-Wort,” it presentsthe fact that the unsayable exists. “Der Ge-
dankenstrich,” Rospert writes, “der so viele Gedichte der Nelly Sachs
beschließt, ohne sie abzuschließen, […] weist ins Weiße des Blattes, in
das die Buchstaben sich verlieren. Er fhrt an die Schwelle zwischen
dem Schwarzen der Schrift und dem Weißen, auf das sie sich eins-
chreibt.” (Rospert 2004 : 38) This process of closing off poems without
actually closing them off is a succinct description of the two-fold, para-
doxical purpose of the ‘Gedankenstrich’ in Sachs’ work : it marks a phys-
ical end to the poem, that is, it marks the point at which the poet enters
the state of ‘Verstummen,’ whilst simultaneously marking just the begin-
ning of the abyss in which the unsayable has drowned. The lack of verbs and punctuation is immediately apparent in the sec-
ond stanza, and by the third, the language has been reduced to single
words. At this point it seems as if the poem is trying breathlessly to ex-
press the totality of its vision before speechlessness sets in, the single
words acting as a kind of severely compressed synecdoche condensing a
whole range of inexpressible images into a series of sharp and panicky
outbursts (Foot 1982 : 149). The repetition gives the impression of retar-
dation ; it is evidence of the poetic voice grappling for words in an effort
not to succumb to silence. The final line of the poem “Was nun ?” is evi-
dence of a despairing poetic voice working with language that is incom-
mensurate with the subject at hand. The lyrical voice thus attests in this
poem to its own futility. Sachs thematises the powerlessness of words, all
the while desperately holding on to them. Maeve Cook has argued that
“Holocaust art must frustrate our attempts to make sense of suffering
by preventing a projection of meaningful totalities” (Cook 2006 : 267).
There is not so much as a hint of such a redemptive or meaningful pro-
jection in this poem for the suffering endured, since the executioner still
lies in wait for his victim and the threat is implicit that evil will ultimately
3.6 The Poetics of Disfiguration 117

triumph : “der Henker [hlt] den letzten Fluch.” Thus, neither in form
nor in content does Sachs attribute any kind of meaning to the senseless
butchery.“Hçlle ist nackt aus Schmerz” ( Glhende Rtsel II(1964)) is another
poem that displays acute structural disintegration of form. This poem
also sees the lyrical persona engaging with the problematics of represen-
tation on a meta-poetic level :
Hçlle ist nackt aus Schmerz –
berfahrt in die Rabennacht
mit allen Sintfluten
und Eiszeitaltern umgrtet
Luft anmalen
mit dem was wchst hinter der Haut
Steuermann gekçpft mit dem Abschiedsmesser
Muschellaut ertrinkt
Su Su Su (Sachs 1971: 57)
This poem is a quintessential portrayal of the inability of the mind to
grapple with the realities of the Holocaust. Once again, the reader is con-
fronted with severe linguistic reduction, and formal structure serves anew
as a function of literary content. We encounter a poetic voice which, de-
spite its desperate search for adequate words to express the naked pain
which the Shoah has left in its wake, is unable to give expression to
the experiences of the survivors. This poem not only thematises the
speechlessness of the lyrical subject, the poem itself borders on speechless-
ness as it teeters on the edge of dissolution. The lyrical self thus uses the
medium of words to express the fruitless search for words which could
capture the experience. The opening line gives the impression of an all-
consuming form of pain that threatens to assimilate the Holocaust survi-
vor. “berfahrt in die Rabennacht” can be read as the mind’s journey
back to the traumatic events of the Holocaust, guided by the horrifying
image of the decapitated helmsman. The ‘travelling mind’ is equipped –
“umgrtet” – with suffering and with ‘a certain something’ which ‘grows
behind the skin.’ “Luft anmalen” can be read as an urgent interruptive
outburst here : the poetic voice needs to ‘paint air’ as a means of breathing
in this suffocating scene. Thus, the something growing behind the skin,
by virtue of the repetition of the preposition “mit,” can be read as a con-
tinuation of the list of ‘items’ with which the traumatised mind en route
3 Nelly Sachs’ Poetics of Silence : Poetry at the Limits of Representation 118

to the “Rabennacht” is equipped. Without this interruptive outburst,
these lines would read as follows : “mit allen Sintfluten / und Eiszeitaltern
umgrtet / mit dem was wchst hinter der Haut.” The ‘something behind
the skin’ could be interpreted as fear ; it grows from within. Thus ‘armed’
with fear, with memories of the disaster that was the Holocaust – “Sint-
flut” – and guided by the beheaded helmsman, the survivor makes the
journey back and relives the event. Birgit Keller-Stocker offers a very in-
teresting alternative reading of the beheaded helmsman within the the-
matics of searching that dominate the poem : “Derjenige […] , der
beim Suchen die Richtung anzugeben htte, wurde durch den Tren-
nungsschmerz ‘gekçpft,’ d. h. also die Wunde des Abschieds hat richtung-
slos gemacht.” (Keller-Stocker 1973 : 141) The chances for success in the
search for appropriate poetic expression are thus declared bleak. The
drowning image in the line “Muschellaut ertrinkt” drives home this
point : it conveys the impossibility of embracing within language the hor-
ror of the event. This is an image that recurs throughout Sachs’ work as a
means of communicating the incommunicability of the victims’ suffering.In the main, and with the exception of the prepositional connection
outlined above, the individual lines do not in any sense complement each
other grammatically. It is as though the poetic voice has urgently – as
evinced by the almost total absence of definite articles preceding the
nouns – gathered together irreconcilable thoughts within the space of
the poem prior to being overcome by speechlessness ; “[d]ie Zeilen,” as
Keller-Stocker writes, “gleiten nicht ineinander, sie stossen sich vielmehr ;
jede Kausalkonjunktion [fllt] weg” (Keller-Stocker 1973 : 126). The
poem quickly dissipates into fragments, from a linguistically reduced
opening sentence ending with the familiar dash, to single words and fi-
nally to individual syllables. We are presented at this juncture with
what William Franke observes in Paul Celan’s poetics, namely, context
overwhelming text, threatening to cancel it out completely, overrunning
it, crushing it, voiding it (Franke 2005 : 626). The physical deconstruc-
tion of language evokes the fragmented mind of the lyrical subject.
This is rendered absolute with the employment of aposiopesis in the
final line : the poetic voice breaks off abruptly, having been overrun by
context. The silence referred to in these poems has a twofold function :
on the one hand, it may be equated with ‘Stummheit’: the poetic voice
is mute and helpless in the face of the horror and heinous nature of
the crimes committed. This silence, in its opacity, suggests that there is
something which is impenetrable. This ‘something’ may be equated
with Adorno’s concept of ‘the extremity that eludes the concept’ (Adorno
3.6 The Poetics of Disfiguration 119

1973 : 358). On the other hand,presentingto the reader the existenceof
this ‘extremity’ is of utmost importance in terms of the representational
value of silence in Sachs’ work. This ‘extremity’ is the ‘something’ that
cannot be said, but the existence of which must be made known. Silence
thus also has a constructive purpose ; the way in which language collapses
in Sachs’ work is itself a telling process : the breakdown of both the formal
and linguistic structure makes manifest the “limits of representation,” to
borrow Berel Lang’s formulation, but simultaneously succeeds in repre-
senting these very limits (Lang 1992 : 300). The disintegration of form
succeeds paradoxically in giving silence itself form. This “language of si-
lence” – to borrow the title of Ernestine Schlant’s monograph (1999) – is
constitutive of Sachs’ poetry :
Silence is not a uniform, monolithic emptiness. Literature […] reveals even
where it is silent ; its blind spots and absences speak a language […] . Silence
is not a semantic void […] . Silence is constituted by the absence of words,
but is therefore and simultaneously the presence of their absence. (Schlant
1999 : 1,7)
This is directly applicable to Sachs’ work. Her poetry paradoxically
‘speaks’ most in those empty spaces that permeate her work and in the
abysses behind the dashes ; her work ‘speaks’ most where it is silent. In the poem “Im Meer aus Minuten” ( Glhende Rtsel II(1964)), the
crisis of language is presented not only in formal structure by virtue of
linguistic reduction, but also on the meta-poetic level as Sachs engages
with the problematics of writing the unwriteable :
Im Meer aus Minuten
jede einzelne verlangt Untergang
Rettung – Hilfe haushoch verschlungene Worte
nicht mehr Luft
nur Untergang
nur Untergang
Hoffnung wurde kein Schmetterling
Tod erschaffen so mhsam
Was den Gott verhllt
auflçsen in Sand
dieses Erstlingswort
das in die Nacht strmt
3 Nelly Sachs’ Poetics of Silence : Poetry at the Limits of Representation 120

Trne unter den Gestirnen –
ich sinke in deinen berfluß –(Sachs 1971: 48)
This poem portrays a poetic voice despairing at the expressive capacity of
language. The lyrical self wavers on the verge of sinking and is accompa-
nied throughout by the threat of dissolution : “jede einzelne [Minute] ver-
langt Untergang.” There is no longer any air to breathe, and the poetic
voice begins to drown as words are ‘engulfed’ in this claustrophobic
3The construct “raumlos” creates the image of the lyrical subject
drowning in a bottomless pit. The poem’s verbal structure gradually dis-
sipates as the poem progresses, and the paucity of words in the severely
condensed lines “raumlos” / “nur Untergang” / “rettungslos” signify a po-
etic voice gasping for air. The threefold repetition of “Untergang,” apart
from reinforcing the asphyxiation of the poetic voice, also gives the im-
pression of inhibition and retardation. The poem is then further perme-
ated by the familiar hyphenation which compounds the fragmentary sen-
tence structure. The lines “Tod erschaffen so mhsam / was den Gott ver-
hllt” may be read as a reference to the meticulous planning that went
into the industrial-like death machine which shrouded the existence of
a divinity. The culmination of the first stanza in the declarative outburst
“rettungslos” signifies that the poet’s initial cry for help in rescuing words
which have been devoured by the sheer scale of the slaughter will remain
unanswered : words have lost their expressive capabilities. Once again the
3 Elsewhere, Sachs also uses the oceanic image in reference to the destruction of words : “O – A – O – A – / Ein wiegendes Meer der Vokale / Worte sind alle
abgestrzt –” (Sachs 1971: 53). By declaring that words have come ‘crashing
down,’ Sachs communicates her loss of faith in the expressive capacity of
words, while the permeation of these lines by mute dashes and the poem’s dissi-
pation into mere syllables serve to accentuate the magnitude of this loss. A sim-
ilar sense of claustrophia makes an appearance in a poem from one of Sachs’ later
cycles : “Vor den Wnden der Worte – Schweigen – / Hinter den Wnden der
Worte – Schweigen –” (Sachs 1971: 112). Sachs sets up an opposition here to
portray the impasse confronting the poet charged with the task of bearing wit-
ness, but continually threatened with speechlessness. The phrase “Wnde der
Worte” expresses a negative evaluation of words as inhibitive and constrictive,
while notions of separation are also evoked by the use of the prepositions
“vor” and “hinter.” It is a separation between words and that which wishes to
be expressed. There is a complete lack of verbal structure in these two lines,
while the hyphenation compounds the silence described in the actual content :
yet again formal features become a function of literary content.
3.6 The Poetics of Disfiguration 121

poem ends, not with a new ‘enlightened’ order emerging from the disas-
ter, but rather with the poetic voice sinking into the ‘gigantic tear among
the planets’ that the earth has become. The poem then trails off into the
nothingness of the hyphen which functions once again as an indicator of
limits. The muteness that threatens the poetic voice from the opening line
is thus rendered absolute at this point.The aesthetic strategy employed by Sachs in these poems is something
of a paradox ; she uses form to enact a breakdown of form and, in so
doing, she renders the sense of the unrepresentable strongly perceptible.
In addition to presenting the ‘extremity’ in terms of formal disintegration,
Sachs also thematises the ‘extremity’ by calling on the reader to play an
active role in perceiving the reality behind the lines ; in perceiving that
which has been consigned to silence.
3.7 Adorno’s Extremity in Sachs’ Poetics
“[D]as ußerste, das dem Begriff entflieht” lies at the heart of the aporia
upon which Adorno’s reflections on post-Shoah art hinge : the ‘some-
thing’ in the experience of Auschwitz that does not lend itself to mean-
ingful articulation, but which nonetheless conditions reflection on the
meaning of thought in the post-Auschwitz world. In several of the
poems thus far examined, the sense of this ‘something,’ of the ‘un-said’
has been clearly perceptible. In a number of poems, however, Sachs di-
rectly thematises the existence of this ‘extremity,’ and she succeeds in
bringing to the fore the aporia between the indispensability of bearing
witness and the impossibility of doing so adequately. The poem “Verzeiht
ihr meine Schwestern” ( Glhende Rtsel I(1963)) is an example of Ador-
no’s extremity at work in Sachs’ poetics :
Verzeiht ihr meine Schwestern
ich habe euer Schweigen in mein Herz genommen
Dort wohnt es und leidet die Perlen eures Leides
klopft Herzweh
so laut so zerreißend schrill
Es reitet eine Lçwin auf den Wogen Oceanas
eine Lçwin der Schmerzen
die ihre Trnen lngst dem Meer gab – (Sachs 1971: 27)
In this poem Sachs addresses the dead and pleads that her failure to voice
their sufferings be forgiven. She has adopted the silence of the victims in
3 Nelly Sachs’ Poetics of Silence : Poetry at the Limits of Representation 122

the face of her inability to bear adequate witness to their suffering ; the
poetic voice has been rendered ‘stumm’ as a result of the silence that en-
velops the crimes of the Shoah. This silence, however, is an aporetic one :
it is described as “laut” and “zerreißend schrill”; it is a silence that de-
mands articulation – “[es] klopft Herzweh” – yet simultaneously thwarts
speech. In this poem we encounter the menacing and lingering presence
of the absent dead collective ; their silence ‘lives’ inside the poet. There is
not even momentary reprieve because this silence – as evinced by Sachs’
use of the present tense – continuously ‘knocks,’ demanding expression.
This is an exemplary instance of the aporia upon which Adorno reflected.
The silence into which many of Sachs’ poems evaporate is therefore not
always to be equated with muteness. Sachs consistently attempts to lift
the veil of silence surrounding the Holocaust atrocities, and whilst all at-
tempts at satisfactorily performing this task were destined to fail, this did
not warrant lapsing into further silence. Instead, Sachs confronts the re-
ality that “jedes Holocaust-Gedicht zu einem bestimmten Grade an sei-
nem Thema scheitern [muß] ,” to draw again on Lehmann’s concept of
a ‘poetics of failure’ (Lehmann 1999 : xvvv). The poetic voice has the re-
sponsibility ofpresentingthe reality behind the silence : the ‘extremity’ in-
herent in the Shoah that evades description but the existence of which the
poet is acutely conscious. This aporetic ‘absent presence,’ this ‘extremity’
in Sachs’ poetics, prevents any kind of closure from occurring ; laying the
dead to rest, as Jennifer Hoyer writes, is not, after all, what Sachs’ poems
aim for. (Hoyer 2009 : 39) In the closing lines of the poem, Sachs uses the
oceanic trope to convey the magnitude of the suffering endured. We are
presented with the image of the victims’ pain undulating in concert with
the never-ending ebb and flow of the oceanic tide. The dative form “dem
Meer” in conjunction with the verb “geben” is significant here ; the “hard-
ened pain of the tormented,” as Bower writes, “can only join with but not
be washed away by the salt waters of the sea” (Bower 2000 : 77).
Another instance of this ‘absent presence’ is the immensely distressing
poem “Sie schreien nicht mehr” ( Teile dich Nacht(1966)). In this poem
Sachs confronts what Lawrence Langer describes as “a major challenge of
Holocaust art,” namely, “to project from the very spaces between words
(and images) a resounding silence that engages the reader” (Langer
1982 : 218):
Sie schreien nicht mehr
wenn es weh tut
Einer steigt auf die Wunden des anderen
aber es sind nur Wolken
3.7 Adorno’s Extremity in Sachs’ Poetics 123

auf die sie treten
die tropfen denn geisterhaft –(Sachs 1971: 126)
In this poem Nelly Sachs confronts this very challenge ; she projects a si-
lence that engages the reader, as she attempts to portray the ‘scene’ in the
gas chamber. We are confronted with the victims fighting for their last
breath and trampling upon each other in the process ; as Ruth Klger
writes in her textweiter leben :“In der letzten Agonie sind die Starken
auf die Schwachen getreten und so waren die Leichen der Mnner stets
oben, die der Kinder ganz unten.” (Klger 1992 : 34) The use of the sim-
ple verb ‘wehtun’ may be read as a disquieting allusion to the presence of
children in this uncanny death scene. The temporal phrase “nicht mehr”
is a reference to that point in time in the gassing process at which the
screams that accompany the terror of being trampled upon become si-
lent : the droplets of ‘geisterhaft tropfende’ Cyclone B quickly stifle the
victims’ screams. The poem then abruptly ends in a resounding silence,
represented by the dash. It is at this point that Sachs attempts to afford
the victims the dignity of which they had been robbed, from the time
of deportation, through to their dehumanisation in the camps, through
to the ultimate space of reification : the gas chambers. Such dignity can
only be afforded the victims in silence. The dash thus brings to the
fore the inadequacy of language in achieving this aim. The dash thus
marks a constructive silence, since the reader is now confronted with
the task of apprehending that which has been consigned to silence, that
which has thwarted language. The silence that interrupts these poems is not a semantic void, and
this is an important consideration to bear in mind when reading Sachs’
poetry. The reader is compelled to apprehend the silence produced by
the failure of words and confront that which is notsaid. It is difficult
for the reader to become anaesthetised to the realities of the camps, be-
cause it is the absences in Sachs’ poems that are the source of quintessen-
tial horror. The dashes that punctuate her poetry visually mark a caesura
in speech ; they highlight the ‘extremity’ that has slain the poetic breath
and, in so doing, they leave to the reader the uncomfortable task of per-
ceiving the horror behind the ‘non-words.’ Structural disfiguration, lapses
into silence and presentationof the fact that so much has eluded represen-
tation are thus poetic devices used by Sachs to remind her readers of the
‘excess’ in the Holocaust that defies conceptualisation ; they are devices
employed with the objective of confronting this ‘excess.’
3 Nelly Sachs’ Poetics of Silence : Poetry at the Limits of Representation 124

3.8 Writing the Inability to Write : Sachs’ Self-Reflective Poetics
One of Nelly Sachs’ greatest achievements is undoubtedly the fact that
she weaves her reflections on the aporetics of post-Auschwitz writing
intoher medium : her poetry engages self-referentially with the problem-
atics of representation. The aporia facing the post-Shoah writer – the in-
dispensability and impossibility of appropriate representation – is a con-
stant theme running through her work. Much critical discourse on Sachs’
work has highlighted her flight into the mystical and transcendental
realms as a means of bearing the horrific realities of the Holocaust.
This flight into the transcendental is viewed as her means of confronting
the language crisis in the wake of Auschwitz. Albrecht Holschuh, for ex-
ample, argues : “Die Sprache der Nelly Sachs ist noch heil […] und […]
trgt den Leser aus der schwierigen Gegenwart in eine schlichtere meta-
physische Vorwelt.” (Holschuh 1973 : 344) Such a claim, in the light of
the poems thus far examined, is questionable at best. Along with under-
taking the ultimately unrealisable task of transporting the reader to the
heart of the horrors of Auschwitz, as opposed to transporting him/her
“aus der schwierigen Gegenwart” as suggested by critics like Holschuh,
Sachs also reflects on the ‘unwriteability’ of the Holocaust whilst remain-
ing very much within the earthly, non-transcendental realm – in effect she
‘writes’ the aporia that is preventing her from writing. In other words,
while she desperately attempts to representthe unrepresentable, she is
also faced with the simultaneous task of presentingthe reality of its ‘un-
representability.’ The poem “Und du gingst ber den Tod” (Glhende
Rtsel III (1965)) serves as an excellent case in point :
Und du gingst ber den Tod
wie der Vogel im Schnee
immer schwarz siegelnd das Ende –
Die Zeit schluckte
was du ihr gabst an Abschied
bis auf das ußerste Verlassen
die Fingerspitzen entlang
Kçrperlos werden
Die Luft umsplte – eine Ellipse –
die Straße der Schmerzen –
(Sachs 1971: 65)
In the opening sentence of this poem, a “du” subject is charged with hav-
ing crossed a boundary : “Du gingstberden Tod.” [my emphasis] Pre-
cisely what this boundary is and the identity of the “du” subject remain,
3.8 Writing the Inability to Write : Sachs’ Self-Reflective Poetics 125

initially at least, unclear. The simile “wie der Vogel im Schnee” draws the
reader into a false sense of security by the apparent pleasantness of the
resulting image : the reader pictures a bird treading softly in the snow.
This sense of security, this initial pleasantness, is then usurped in the en-
suing line – a characteristic technique in Sachs’ poetry. The bird walking
lightly in the white snow, leaving tiny imprints in its wake, is transfigured
into the distorted image of the bird leaving black ‘seals’ upon the white
background. The temporal phrase “immer,” combined with the present
participle construction “siegelnd,” creates the sense of an unremitting
‘sealing’ process. Christine Rospert argues that this image of repetitive
‘sealing’ may be a reference to the writing process itself : “der Vogelschritt
ist […] eine wiederholende, mechanische Bewegung, die an das gleichfçr-
mige Trippeln der Schreibmaschinenschrif t erinnert.” (Rospert 2004 :
178) These black seals may also, however, be read as a reference to the
author’s attempt to communicate the events of the Shoah, the snow func-
tioning as a metaphor for the blank page and the writer repeatedly at-
tempting with each individual ‘seal’ to communicate adequately whilst
never actually achieving this : “immer Schwarz siegelnd das Ende –”.
The hyphenation at the end of this sentence once again serves as a refer-
ence to the ‘extremity’ inherent in the reality of Auschwitz that does not
lend itself to articulation. Within this interpretative framework, the open-
ing line of the poem is now more open to clarification ; the “du” subject
may be read as a reference to the writing process itself, while “Tod” may
be interpreted as the boundary of what is ‘representable’: the writer has
attempted to overstep the boundary of death, continually attempting to
broach “das Ende” – adequate expression – but time has ‘swallowed’
the horrors that writing has attempted to describe. These horrors are al-
luded to by Sachs’ use of the word “Abschied,” the resonances of which
are now familiar from the poems examined earlier : “Abschied” may be
read as an allusion to the ‘selection’ process on the ramps of the death
camps, functioning very often in Sachs’ work aspars pro totofor the an-
nihilation process itself. By line eight, the poem’s initial narrative-like style is suddenly inter-
rupted by a series of syntactical fragments. We are unexpectedly confront-
ed with the single word “Augennacht.” This unsettling neologism evokes
the image of the eyes of the dead staring from the night sky. The inter-
locking of physical detail – “Abschied” – with semiotically oriented im-
ages such as gazing and staring imbues the poem with an effective visceral
import. The dead are now “kçrperlos,” and within the thematic con-
straints of the poem, namely, the inability to express the horrors of
3 Nelly Sachs’ Poetics of Silence : Poetry at the Limits of Representation 126

Auschwitz, this can be read as a concrete reference to the manner in
which the victims died in the camps – their bodies dissolved to smoke
as they left the chimneys of the crematoria. The final two lines of the
poem may be read as a sustained commentary on the writing process
or, more specifically, the difficulties thereof. The air, paradoxically,
takes on the characteristics of water ; it ‘washes around’ the streets of
pain. This indirect action of ‘washingaround’may be examined in con-
junction with both the image of “Fingerspitzen” that appears three lines
previously and the image suggested in the present participle “siegel nd
das Ende” in the opening lines, since all three imply a process of grap-
pling whilst never actually reaching ; grappling, that is, with the realities
of the Holocaust, but never actually achieving artistic expression com-
mensurate with those realities. The employment of the hyperbaton
“eine Ellipse” complicates the tenth line ; as Rospert points out : “Der ap-
positionelle Einschub ‘ – eine Ellipse –’ ist selber elliptisch”; “[e]s handelt
sich um die paradoxe Gleichzeitigkeit einer Einfgung inmitten des Satz-
es, die mit einer Auslassung einhergeht” (Rospert 2004 : 183). The hyper-
baton thus serves a paradoxical function : it ‘says’ the unsayable (by virtue
of denoting an omission and thus presentingthe fact that something has
not been said), and it does not ‘say’ the unsayable (by virtue of standing in
place of the unsayable). The hyphenation either side of this hyperbaton
serves to further intensify the ‘Verstummen’ confronting the writer when
attempting to articulate the horrors of the Shoah. Sachs thus reflects on
and writes the inability to write intothe poem itself ; her reflections per-
meate the very texture of the poem and serve as a means of avoiding the
forbidden alternative – a resignation to silence. Another poem in which this inability to write is written into actual
texture and in which the motif of the bird imprints reappears is “Diese
Felder aus Schweigen” ( Teile dich Nacht(1966)):
Diese Felder aus Schweigen
Gebete mssen Umwege machen
lassen schon Spuren
wie Vogelfße
noch verankert im Fleisch
Nichts nichts
Der Atem wußte noch von Liebe
Tod wohnt zu nahe
Hier sagt die Welt : – Es geschehe – Amen
(Sachs 1971: 159)
3.8 Writing the Inability to Write : Sachs’ Self-Reflective Poetics 127

The ‘fields of silence’ in this poem are described as “unbetretbar” – im-
penetrable. The word “Felder” gives the impression that this silence is
ubiquitous : it is the all-pervading silence of the dead. Rospert has inter-
preted “Felder” as an image containing physical borders and as such an
attempt by Sachs to convey to the reader that this silence has limits :
“‘Felder’: Offene Flchen die das ‘Schweigen’ nicht als grenzloses Nichts
erscheinen lassen, sondern es vielmehr […] als abgegrenzte Bereiche vis-
ualisieren” (Rospert 2004 : 186). While the text certainly invites such an
interpretation, I read these lines somewhat differently. Firstly, the descrip-
tion of these never-ending “Felder aus Schweigen” as “unbetretbar” is too
strong a word to interpret these ‘fields’ as “abgegrenzte Bereiche.” “Unbe-
tretbar” clearly suggests that the silence they represent is a totalising one.
Secondly, the very phenomenon of borders lends itself to the question of
traversion ; borders may be understood as both structures that facilitate
enclosure butalsoas connectors. If interpreted in this latter vein, the bor-
ders of the “Felder aus Schweigen” can thus be seen as connecting the
fields of silence, one field leading into the next. This interpretation serves
to add to rather than take from the pervasiveness of the silence that Sachs
is attempting to describe. Additionally, Sachs’ employment of the plural
“Felder” serves to further convey a message of unbroken ubiquity. This poem is similar in may ways to the poem “Und du gingst ber
den Tod.” There, the “du” subject – the writing process – attempts to
cross an uncrossable frontier, namely, Auschwitz. In this poem Sachs sim-
ilarly thematises the Holocaust as an uncrossable boundary. But of course
the silence, the uncrossable boundary that lies at the heart of this poem
has, paradoxically, already been both broken and crossed respectively by
the fact that its existence is being presented.The phrase “Umwege ma-
chen” is reminiscent of the ‘grappling whilst never actually reaching’ im-
ages examined above : the author continually attempts to portray the hor-
ror but can only do so in an extremely tentative manner, never actually
entering the ‘fields of silence.’ This “Umwege machen” process does,
however, leave traces behind. Indeed, the image of “Vogelfße” in this
poem may once again be read as a reference to the characters put on
the blank page by the act of typing. As such, this poem may be interpret-
ed as a commentary on the limits of the writing process : traces are left
behind, but never anything remotely close to a complete picture of the
suffering endured. Once again Sachs’ initial pleasant image of the “Vçgelfuße” is distort-
ed into the violent, vulture-like image of bird claws “noch verankert im
Fleisch.” Christine Rospert points out the possible reference here to the
3 Nelly Sachs’ Poetics of Silence : Poetry at the Limits of Representation 128

anguish of Prometheus : “[D]iese Metapher [evoziert] die Qualen eines
Prometheus, dem sich Nacht fr Nacht der Schnabel, aber auch die
Klauen eines Geiers in die Eingeweide graben.” (Rospert 2004 : 188)
This is a significant association. Firstly, the violent image of the claws
anchored in the flesh may be read as the unabating and desperate attempt
by the poetic voice to express the inexpressible pain that the Shoah has
left in its aftermath. The association with Prometheus could have a fur-
ther significant function that Rospert overlooks, however. Destined to
eternal punishment, Prometheus is chained to a rock with a vulture feed-
ing on his liver every night, and his liver then regenerates itself anew each
passing day. This motif of daily regeneration could be read as an attempt
to express the perpetual character of the pain that permeates the post-
Shoah world, a form of unremitting psychological pain. This motif of un-
relenting pain repudiates, moreover, any kind of eschatological conclu-
sion. In lines nine and ten, Sachs juxtaposes “Atem” and “Tod”: whatever
little “der Atem” still knew of love is rendered meaningless by the con-
stant immediacy of death. ‘Breath’ here may be interpreted as the poetic
breath ; it is silenced by the suspended presence of death. This poetic
‘breath’ in turn appears to be gasping in the two seemingly rushed declar-
ative outbursts : “Der Atem wußte noch von Liebe / Tod wohnt zu nahe.”
At this juncture, the reader senses an urgency in the poetic voice ; it is
being threatened by the close proximity of death and hence ‘Verstum-
men.’ The use of the verb ‘wohnen’ and the choice of the present tense
serves to reinforce the ubiquity of the threat of death lingering in the
mind of the traumatised survivor. The final line of the poem could be
considered a further example of meta-poetic reflection being integrated
into the poem itself : “Es geschehe – Amen” may be a reference to tradi-
tional forms such as the prayer which must be abandoned in order to
present what defies representation. Prayers, as Sachs declares in line
three – which could be read as a synecdoche for traditional forms – are
forced to take ‘indirect routes.’ Lines four to nine represent this indirect
route ; the entire poem can thus be interpreted in terms of reflection on
traditional forms and, by extension, on the writing process. The only part
of the ‘prayer’ that remains intact is its conclusion – “Amen,” the part that
denotes finality ; this serves thus to compound the image of impenetrabil-
ity present in the initial description of the “Felder aus Schweigen”; they
were “unbetretbar” at the beginning of the poem and they remain “unbe-
tretbar” at the end.A self-reflective poetic voice is evident throughout the entire develop-
ment of Sachs’ work, from her earliest post-war cycles, right up until her
3.8 Writing the Inability to Write : Sachs’ Self-Reflective Poetics 129

last volume. An example from her late poetry is the poem “Hier nehme
ich euch gefangen” (Teile dich Nacht(1966)):
Hier nehme ich euch gefangen
ihr Worte
wie ihr mich buchstabierend bis aufs Blut
gefangen nehmt
ihr seid meine Herzschlge
zhlt meine Zeit
diese mit Namen bezeichnete Leere
Laßt mich den Vogel sehen
der singt
sonst glaube ich die Liebe gleicht dem Tod –
(Sachs 1971: 136)
In this poem Sachs presents an outright, almost violent struggle between
the lyrical self and its medium – words. The verb ‘gefangennehmen’ has
connotations of force : the poetic voice attempts to take hold of and cap-
ture words. Words, in return, take hold of the poetic voice : “der Umgang
mit Sprache,” as Stefan Kçhler writes, “bewirkt eine wechselseitige Inbe-
sitznahme, die Dichterin bedient sich der Worte, diese ihrerseits nehmen
die Dichterin in Beschlag” (Kçhler 2004 : 58). The line “wie ihr mich
buchstabierend bis aufs Blut gefangen nehmt” expresses a self-reflective
discoursewhilstthe poem is being written : as the poet attempts to cap-
ture words, they simultaneously take hold of her, letter by letter. The
term “aufs Blut” suggests that words are winning this struggle. In spite
of this, Sachs makes a defiant attempt to reclaim the act of writing in
the face of its destruction ; the poetic voice declares through the medium
of words that it is taking hold of them – “Hier nehme ich euch gefan-
gen.” The underlying inability to do just that, however, is clear in having
to make such a defiant declaration in the first instance. Sachs describes
words as her “Herzschlge,” they count time. “Diese mit Namen bezeich-
nete Leere” is a likely reference to the countless jumbled names that Sachs
envisions in the empty space before her – names of the victims which she
tries in vain to untangle. This is similar to the poem “Aber in der Nacht,”
where the poet’s nightly ‘trek’ to recover the dead is continuously inter-
rupted by her inability to picture individual faces amid the mass collective
of dead victims.
The desperation of the poetic voice comes to the fore in the imper-
ative employed in the final lines : the poetic voice demands to see a bird
capable of producing a harmonious sound ; the longer this harmonious
sound is withheld, the more life begins to resemble death for the lyrical
3 Nelly Sachs’ Poetics of Silence : Poetry at the Limits of Representation 130

subject. The image of the singing bird brings to mind the throat meta-
phor so common in Sachs’ poetry. Sachs continuously renders this
organ useless. In the poem “Landschaft aus Schreien,” for example,
which will be examined below, the survivor’s throat releases hellish
screams as a reflex action to a mentally re-lived scene of horror. More
often than not, however, the throats in Sachs’ work generate no sound
at all : they are trapped in a state of ‘Verstummen.’ The nothingness
into which this poem trails with the familiar “Gedankenstrich des Ver-
stummens,” to borrow Dischner’s description once again, suggests that
the poetic persona’s hopes for expressive capacity, as symbolised by the
lyrical subject yearning for the image of the singing bird, will not be re-
alised. These poems call into doubt those hitherto mentioned assessments
which view Sachs’ engagement with the crisis of language purely in terms
of a flight into the transcendental. So too do the poems in cycleGrabs-
chriften in die Luft geschrieben , where her self-reflective poetics comes
to the fore.
3.9 ‘Grabschriften in die Luft’: Keeping Memory Open
In the sub-cycle Grabschriften in die Luft geschrieben (1947), Nelly Sachs
once again reflects on literary expression as a form of memorialising the
dead in the aftermath of Auschwitz. She does this, moreover, whilst re-
maining very much in the earthly, non-transcendental realm. Her trans-
figuration of the epitaphic genre, an ancient tradition used to remember
the dead, can be considered a significant device in her work in this re-
spect. In Sachs’ poetry, however, this tradition undergoes a substantial al-
teration in accordance with her conviction of the futility of yesterday’s lit-
erary tools to render the realities of Auschwitz. (Sachs 1984 : 83 – 84) Her
alteration of the epitaph becomes apparent on four levels. Firstly, and per-
haps most importantly, whilst the traditional epitaph was an attempt to
commemorate the individual, Sachs’ epitaphs perform precisely the oppo-
site function : such a luxury, after all, is not available to the writer who is
attempting to recover a collective of six million people ; as Jennifer Hoyer
writes : “the notion of the artist as immortaliser of the fallen, as the guard-
ian of memory through […] textual memorial, is complicated in the post-
Second World War context, first by the mass of dead, and then by the
Nazi method of dealing with that mass : the crematoria.” (Hoyer 2009 :
24) The traditional epitaph was, in other words, rendered inept by the
industrial manner in which the slaughter was carried out. Sachs’ epitaphs
3.9 ‘Grabschriften in die Luft’: Keeping Memory Open 131

display not the recovery of the individual, but rather the dissolution of
the mass collective which, given the scale of the slaughter, is beyond rep-
resentation.Secondly, the point of departure of the traditional epitaph is the ab-
sence of the deceased individual who the epitaph attempts to recover.
Sachs’ epitaphs reverse this traditional point of departure. Sachs, as Wil-
liam West points out, “begins with a problem that reverses the one usu-
ally proposed by epitaphic writings […] , the dead are not absent in her
work, but all too present.” (West 1995 : 79) A paradox becomes percep-
tible : the dead are pervasive and yet are beyond recovery, and this highly
troubling paradox is maintained throughout the entire cycle. A third facet of the traditional epitaph is also altered substantially by
Sachs ; epitaphs normally gesture explicitly at recovering a specific indi-
vidual. Sachs alters this gesture by her use of initials in place of complete
names, “Die Malerin (M.Z),” for example, and “Die Alles Vergessende
(A.R)” are among the titles in this cycle. The result is that while the epi-
taph might initially seem to refer to an individual, the initials remind the
reader that the individual in question is in fact unrecoverable. Hoyer
points out the significance of this :
The dead are present in Sachs’s work – but their names are not. Sachs pur-
posely does not name their names, and takes care to point out that she is not
naming their names ; in so doing, she draws on the not infrequent literary
practice of obscuring names, but this is a convention that, in the wake of
the Holocaust, strikes the reader as troubling. (Hoyer 2009 : 27)
The initials thus not only gesture towards an absence, they physically pres-
ent it. A shortfall, in other words, is not just revealed but directly declared
in the poem, and once again the reader is charged with apprehending this
absence. The reader is presented with an explicit and deliberate absence
that requires ‘filling in,’ but one which resists this very process. The pres-
ence of initials and the absence of actual names is not only troubling for
the reader, it is, I would argue, a significant literary device in the context
of Sachs’ attempt to present the ‘unrepresentable.’ The technique is
mindful of that aspect of the Shoah that concerned Adorno and Sachs
so deeply, namely, the obliteration of the concept of the individual in
the industrialised extermination process. Any attempt to render the Hol-
ocaust in artistic form must take this fact into account. The presence of
initials in the titles foreshadows the futility of any attempt to recover the
desecrated individual in the main body of the poem ; the unrecoverability
3 Nelly Sachs’ Poetics of Silence : Poetry at the Limits of Representation 132

of the individuality of the victims, in other words, is declared before the
reader has read a single line.The fourth and final facet of the traditional epitaph that Sachs alters
is the closure afforded by the inscription itself : the traditional epigraph is
engraved onto stone. Sachs’ epigraphs, however, are written intothe air –
Grabschriften in dieLuft – thereby avoiding any possibility of static clo-
sure. There is, as Hoyer writes, “a false security in an epitaph or Holo-
caust memorial in which the inscription relieves the reader of the work
of remembering” (Hoyer 2009 : 27). Conversely, Sachs’ epitaphs, which
are so saturated with the paradoxical absent presence of the dead collec-
tive, ensure that the tasks of remembering and of ‘filling in’ the absences
are the tasks of the reader alone. These poems demand the active partic-
ipation of the reader. It is precisely in respect of this active engagement
demanded of the reader that the accusative in the cycle’s title acquires
meaning. As an allusion to the physical trail of smoke writing epigraphs
for the victims as they pass through the chimneys of the crematoria, the
title can be considered a mimetic reference to the actual method of anni-
hilation : it serves as a chilling reminder once again of the total desecra-
tion of the human person in the death camps. The accusative has the ef-
fect of rendering the image of the trailing smoke acutely present, almost
tangible for the reader ; it eliminates the possibility of forgetting ; it sug-
gests a process of keeping memory open and present, as opposed to the
closure afforded by a memorial set in stone. This elusive impermanence is
a way of avoiding what Dominick LaCapra views as the danger inherent
in the proliferation of museums, monuments, and memorials dedicated
to the Holocaust, namely, the “covering over of wounds,” since this cre-
ates the impression that “nothing really disruptive has occurred” and ren-
ders impossible “a critical engagement with the past” (LaCapra 1994 :
23). Sachs was thus (presciently, it might be argued) aware of the prob-
lematic relationship between memory and oblivion that would later find
such a presence in Holocaust studies in the form of discussions on the
questions of institutionalising, ritualising, exhibiting, publicising, cele-
brating and idolising memory. Sachs’ work demands active commitment
on behalf of the reader to prevent the danger inherent in closure, namely,
oblivion. Her epitaphs are inscriptions beingwritten intothe sky to me-
morialise, with acute actuality, the countless victims who maintain a pres-
ence there in the form of smoke from the crematoria. The poem “Die Malerin [M.Z]” is an example of Sachs’ employment
of the epitaphic tradition as part of a process of meta-poetic reflection on
3.9 ‘Grabschriften in die Luft’: Keeping Memory Open 133

the possibilities and limitations of Holocaust memory and the role played
by the writing process :
So gingst du, eine Bettlerin, und çffnetest die Tr :
Tod, Tod wo bist du –
Unterm Fuß du –
Zum Schlafmeer mich fhr –
Ich wollte die Liebsten malen
Sie fangen schon an zu fahlen
Wie ich den Finger rhr.
Der Sand in meinem lçchrigen Schuh
Das warst du – du – du –
Male ich Sand der einmal Fleisch war –
Oder Goldhaar – oder Schwarzhaar –
Oder die Ksse und deine schmeichelnde Hand
Sand male ich, Sand – Sand – Sand – (Sachs 1961: 42)
In the opening line the poetic persona addresses a “du” subject, presum-
ably “die Malerin” of the title. She is described as a begger, searching for
death, as though death were a person – “Tod, Tod wo bist du –”. The
image of “die Malerin” opening the door may be a reference to the artist
embarking on the process of representation. Sachs then outlines the prob-
lematics of this process by transposing the “du” subject and the lyrical self
in the fifth line : the lyrical voice becomes a lyrical “ich,” having addressed
the second person up until that point. This suggests that the issues that
affect the “du,” that is, “die Malerin,” also affect the poet ; indeed, as
Hoyer writes, “perhaps more so, since the poet is alive and performing
the very occupation she ponders, in the present tense” (Hoyer 2009 :
29). Sachs attempts to communicate to her reader what happens when
the artist attempts to paint or when the writer attempts to ‘write’ the
dead – be it onto a canvas or onto a blank page, or indeed in the form
of an epitaph : “Ich wollte die Liebsten malen / Sie fangen schon an zu
fahlen / Wie ich den Finger rhr”: the moment the artist or poet begins
to paint or ‘write’ the victims, they begin to fade – the countless faces of
the dead victims of the annihilation become a blurred and undifferenti-
ated mass collective.
In the second stanza the poet attempts to paint ‘sand that was once
flesh.’ Aside from being a probable reference to the remains of the vic-
tims, the sand motif also carries an additional level of meaning in this
poem, a feature so typical of Sachs’ reference fields. The physical consis-
tency of sand as an unstable substance assumes significance within the
3 Nelly Sachs’ Poetics of Silence : Poetry at the Limits of Representation 134

context of writing the inability to write : as the poet tries to ‘write’ the
dead victims, their faces begin to elude her, like sand running through
her fingers. The reader conjures up the image of the poetic persona trying
desperately to grasp at this sand despite the futility of doing so. The sheer
magnitude of the massacre that has occurred – “de[r] riesige[.] Tod” as
she calls it in another poem in this cycle (Sachs 1961: 35) – means
that the poetic voice is unable to capture anything approaching whole-
ness. At this juncture, it is possible to interpret the possessive pronoun
“deine” in the closing lines as related to the “Du” of the second line of
the first stanza, namely, “Tod.” All the artist can see before her is the
“Goldhaar” and “Schwarzhaar” of the undiffrentiated mass collective of
dead victims and the ‘flattering hand’ of death. The poem then acquires
a despairing overtone as it reaches its peak in the final line with the three-
fold repetition of sand, each repetition truncated by the hyphen of mute-
ness. At this point the sand image assumes yet another level of meaning.
As a uniform, undiffrentiated, featureless substance in terms of appear-
ance, its repitition can be read as an allusion to the poet’s failure to recov-
er the individual from the similarly undiffrentiated annihilated collective.
The mute dashes serve to compound this sense of poetic despair by re-
minding the reader that in addition to this failure, much of the victims’
suffering has also been confined to silence. Her epitaph leaves much un-
said, it demands that the reader engage with these silences ; a Holocaust
memorial that affords closure is not the kind of memorial that Sachs aims
for. Rather, her epitaphs smother the air in the post-Shoah world. In
terms of poetic meta-reflection on the problematics of representation,
the presence of rhyme and refrain in this poem, so uncharacteristic of
Sachs’ poetry, are significant : they may be viewed as bitterly ironic devi-
ces, since they attribute an almost ‘sing-song’ character to the poem. As
simplistic, trivial devices, their employment here could be seen as a com-
mentary by Sachs on the dangers of simple, uniform rituals of memory
which have an inherent danger of trivialising the Holocaust. Sachs de-
mands instead that the reader be made uncomfortable, that expectations
be undermined, that closure be avoided at all costs.Another poem in this cycle, “Die Alles Vergessende [A.R] ,” can be
considered exemplary of Sachs’ attempt to convey the futility of the epi-
taphic tradition. This poem negates any hope of the epitaph recovering
the victims from the obscurity into which they dissipated through the
chimneys of the crematoria :
3.9 ‘Grabschriften in die Luft’: Keeping Memory Open 135

Aber im Alterist alles ein großes Verschwimmen.
Die kleinen Dinge fliegen fort wie die Immen.
Alle Worte vergaßt du und auch den Gegenstand ;
Und reichtest deinem Feind ber Rosen und Nesseln die Hand.
(Sachs 1961: 46)
This epitaph contains at its core an irresolvable paradox : the epitaphic
genre is charged with remembering ; Sachs’ epitaph, however, is a remind-
er of the impossibility of remembering. Her use of the participle con-
struction in the title indicates a process of forgetting that is underway
in the poem itself, a forgetting of words and objects, of reference and ref-
erent. Everything has become an indistinguishable haze ; the faces of the
countless victims fill the air like a swarm of undifferentiated bees. The
woman who is forgetting has tried in vain to recover the victims’ faces,
but they progressively elude her. Sachs reverses the familiar image of
the bee as a gathering creature ; as West writes : “It is like bees that the
things of the world elude her rather than her being like a bee to gather
them. Her relation to the world is one of loss rather than collection.”
(West 1995 : 97) The imagery that this poem conjures up is powerful :
the reader can picture the ‘forgetting woman’ trying to recover the indi-
vidual faces of the murdered victims, but these faces move further and
further from her into an unintelligible, obscure haze. The form of this
entire poem, in particular its simplistic rhyming scheme, may be read
again as an ironic reference to the sombreness of form that characterises
the epitaphic tradition. Indeed, Sachs’ adoption of and critical engage-
ment with convention could almost be regarded as playful – were it
not for content and context. She ironises traditional form as a valid con-
veyor of meaning.
4Once again her engagement with form is meta-poetic
and self-reflexive. The final line suggests that Sachs views reconciliation
in the post-Holocaust world as neither an assured nor uncomplicated
process : the tension between a future-orientated, reconcilatory gesture,
4 In the poem “Ich male die ganze Nacht” (1942), Sachs similarly ironises rhyme as a conveyor of meaning in the post-Shoah world by employing the painting motif.
“Ich male die ganze Nacht, / Und habe keine Farben. / Da habe ich die Farbe der
Sehnsucht erdacht / und male wie sie darben. / Ich male die ganze Nacht, / Und
habe keine Farben. / Da habe ich die Farbe der Liebe erdacht / Und male die
Wunden als Narben. / Ich male die ganze Nacht / und habe keine Farben. /
Da habe ich die Farbe der Tod erdacht / Und male wie sie starben.” (Sachs
2010 : 106) This poem is a despairing account of the lack of tools at the artist’s
or writer’s disposal when it comes to ‘painting’ or ‘writing’ the dead. The rhyming
scheme can be considered a bitterly ironic device.
3 Nelly Sachs’ Poetics of Silence : Poetry at the Limits of Representation 136

represented by the rose image, and the shadow of the past, represented by
the nettles, is left unresolved.3.9.1 The Open Wound
Sachs’ epitaphs, as just seen, are soaked with the presence of the dead, and
yet the reader is charged with the unsettling task of making good their
simultaneous, paradoxical absence. Involving and engaging the reader is
Sachs’ method of keeping memory open, a means of preventing the Hol-
ocaust becoming an historical, ‘closed chapter.’ The poem “Zwischen,”
published for the first time in a recent new edition of her work, is devot-
ed entirely to this question of closure. This poem, composed, Aris Fior-
etos suggests, sometime before 1943 (cf. Sachs 2010 : 292), is an austere
caution to the post-Shoah world that the wound which the Holocaust has
left in its wake must be kept open at all costs :
Gestern und Morgen
geht ein Hohlweg.
sie haben ihn gegraben,
Ihn ausgefllt
Mit ihrer Zeit. Mit dem Blut der Toten,
Den ausgewanderten Schreien der Wahnsinnigen,
Den hilflosen Blicken
Der Greise und Kinder.
Jetzt, wo der Abend einfllt,
Versuche keine staubgebildete Hand
Eine Brcke zu schlagen
Zwischen Gestern und Morgen !
Ein Heilkraut zu pflanzen
Von Gestern nach Morgen.
Der Salbei
Hat abgeblht. Rosmarin
Seinen Duft verloren –
Und selbst der Wermut
War bitter nur fr Gestern.
Die Blten des Trostes sind zu kurz
Reichen nicht an die Qual
Einer Abschiedstrne. Neuer
Same wird vielleicht
Bei einem gçttlichen Grtner gezogen –
Du sollst auch nicht singen
3.9 ‘Grabschriften in die Luft’: Keeping Memory Open 137

Wie du gesungen hast –
Ein Feuer brach aus nach der
Musik von Gestern –
O der Wolkengambe Urnachtton –
Die zerrissen Saiten der Blitze –
Die Flçte des Totengebeins –
Und des Regens Grabgesang.
Still, still
Hier hat der Engel das Wort !
Vielleicht, das dein kleines Amen
Aufgenommen wird zu Gnaden
Wenn du Sand bist in den Schuhen
Kommender !In
Der Tiefe des Hohlwegs
Gestern und Morgen
Steht der Cherub, mahlt mit seinen Flgeln
Goldene Blitze –
Seine Hnde aber halten die Felsen auseinander
Von Gestern und Morgen –
Wie die Rnder einer Wunde, die
Offen bleiben soll, die
Noch nicht heilen darf…
(Sachs 2010 : 134)
In the opening lines the poetic voice declares that the worlds of yesterday
and today, that is, the pre- and post-Holocaust worlds, are divided by an
unbridgeable ravine. Form immediately becomes a function of literary
content : the positioning of the preposition “Zwischen” draws the reader’s
attention and formally stands in the stead of the unspeakable that has oc-
casioned this gorge. The subsequent lines are an attempt to address this
unspeakable. The accusative pronoun “ihn” in line four is connected to
the “Hohlweg” of the previous line. A ‘they’ collective – an unmistakable
reference to the perpetrators – is charged with having firstly ‘excavated’
and then ‘filled up’ this ravine with the blood, demented screams and
helpless gazes of the murdered victims. This can be interpreted as an al-
lusion to how the murderous annihilation machinery was first carefully
devised before being put ‘into practice’; it can be read, in other words,
as abhorrence on the part of the poetic persona at the careful deliberation
that went into drawing up the plans of the so-called ‘Final Solution.’ The
curious reference to the perpetrators having filled up this gorge “mit ihrer
Zeit” may be an allusion to the period of the so-called ‘Third Reich’; it
has divided time. Sachs then cautions that in the post-Holocaust world,
3 Nelly Sachs’ Poetics of Silence : Poetry at the Limits of Representation 138

represented by the adverb “jetzt,” no hand should attempt to bridge this
divide. She introduces herbal imagery into these cautionary lines. The
healing properties of sage, rosemary, and wormwood, which may have
been of use in the pre-Shoah world, have been rendered inept : the sage
plant has faded, the rosemary plant has lost its scent, the wormwood
has lost its natural bitterness. Nature itself is irreparably wounded ; its
‘blossoms of consolation’ no longer console : they are declared insufficient
to cope with the anguish of the “Abschiedstrne.” Sachs then momentar-
ily renews a sense of hope in the image of the ‘divine gardener’ planting
new seeds. This hope is tempered, however, by the employment of the
modifying modal adverb “vielleicht.” This (already tempered) hopeful re-
prieve itself lasts but a fleeting moment : the notion of renewal is reversed
as the line dissolves in the bottomless void of the dash.The second half of the poem sees Sachs issuing an unambiguous di-
rective to the post-Shoah world : “Du sollst auch nicht singen / Wie du
gesungen hast –”. The adverb “auch” connects this directive with Sachs’
earlier demand in lines eleven and twelve : just as the hand should not at-
tempt to bridge the gorge and thereby soothe the Holocaust wound,
Sachs warns that art after Auschwitz (“Singen” can be read as an umbrella
term for artistic expression generally) ought to be a different form of art.
Keeping the memory of the Holocaust open cannot, after all, be served
by writing what she calls “schçne Gedichte[.]” (Sachs 1984 : 83 – 84).
The use of the modal verb “sollen” is significant here : Sachs is appealing
to the reader’s sense of moral obligation. Just as Adorno is concerned with
the ethical implications of the ‘principle of aesthetic stylisation, which can
only ‘soften’ the horror and thus do an injustice to the victims’ suffering,
Sachs also sees a continuation with artistic tradition morally questionable.
The breach in time needs to be reflected in artistic expression, since the
‘music of yesterday’ has been rendered inept by the fires of the cremato-
ria. This reference to “[die] Musik von Gestern,” to torn bows and to the
silencing of ancient viols and tones may be a commentary on culture’s
failure to act as a bulwark against the barbarity that was unleashed.
The only musical instruments that function in the post-Auschwitz
world are the flutes of the dead – “die Flçte des Totengebeins,” while
the only song to be heard is that from the grave. By the final lines, the gorge of the opening lines has grown deeper.
Sachs now speaks of its ‘depths.’ The isolated positioning of the preposi-
tions “In” and “Zwischen” attract renewed attention ; once again formal
structure becomes a function of literary content. “In” suggests that the
post-Shoah world is engulfed in the depths of the Holocaust gorge,
3.9 ‘Grabschriften in die Luft’: Keeping Memory Open 139

while the position of “Zwischen” reinforces this divide. This is followed
by a description of the cherub painting “Blitze” with his wings. However,
this future-oriented image is held in suspension by the cherub’s hands si-
multaneously holding apart the divide between the pre- and post- Holo-
caust worlds. This image is a quintessential instance of what Langer refers
to as Sachs’ “paradoxical and exasperating version of survival,” which “en-
courages the spirit” in its leap towards heaven whilst simultaneously
drawing it “steadily backward into the vast anonymous grave of Jewish
doom” (Langer 1982 : 250). The painting cherub represents this leap to-
wards the divine ; his hands, however, simultaneously pull back by hold-
ing apart the Auschwitz gorge. The permanence and solidity evoked by
the image of “Felsen” remind the reader here that even with the passage
of time, there can be no such thing as an unequivocal reconnection with
the divine. The final lines of the poem see a final directive issued by the
poetic persona using the wound motif. Just as the gap between yesterday
and today should not be bridged and just as the song of today, that is,
artistic expression, should differ to that of yesterday, so too must the
wound that the Holocaust represents remain open. The changeover
from ‘sollen’ to ‘drfen’ in the final line is important, since it is here
that the poem’s directive reaches its peak ; this verb delivers a message
of warning to the reader against the dangers inherent in forgetting. For
those who managed escape the slaughter, the consequences of this un-
healed wound are, of course, of an entirely different nature, and Sachs de-
votes a significant selection of poems to those who dwell within this Hol-
ocaust wound – “die Todentrissenen”.
3.10 The ‘Death of Death’: ‘Die Todentrissenen’
Those who survived the Nazi slaughter experienced little in terms of what
might be considered life in its aftermath. The devastating consequences
of having endured the death camps meant that Sachs was forced to invent
a new vocabulary to encapsulate survivor trauma. “Die Todentrissenen” is
one term that Sachs uses to describe this group of victims. (Sachs 1961:
114) This is a powerful linguistic construct which says a great deal about
the scale of the Nazi terror : the few inmates who did not perish are de-
scribed having been ‘snatched from death,’ an unmistakable reference to
the industrialised nature of the extermination process. What is noticable
in those poems which explicitly address the question of survival is, firstly,
their unexpected domination by the theme of death : “Welt, frage nicht
3 Nelly Sachs’ Poetics of Silence : Poetry at the Limits of Representation 140

die Todentrissenen / wohin sie gehen, / sie gehen immer ihren Graben zu”
(Sachs 1961: 114), “Wir ben schon heute den Tod von Morgen / wo
noch das alte Sterben in uns welkt –” (Sachs 1961: 154), “O Zeit, die
nur nach Sterben rechnet / Wie leicht wird Tod nach dieser langen
bung sein” (Sachs 1961: 28). What these brief initial examples suggest
is that the ‘survivors’ of the camps who have narrowly escaped death do
not experience life after Auschwitz ; instead, life for them is merely a
steady progression towards the grave. The reason for this lies in the man-
ner in which the extermination process was carried out, namely, the liq-
uidation not only of the million-fold collective, but of the very concept of
the individual subject. The second conspicuous feature of the poems that
deal with the question of survival is the prominence of speech in the plu-
ral. As a determining feature of Sachs’ work in general, the frequent ab-
sence of a lyrical ‘ich’ carries mimetic significance in respect of historical
fact. The absence of the lyrical subject can be read “als Hinweis auf die
konkreten Auswirkungen der nationalsozialistischen Rassenpolitik : Es
erinnert an den massenhaften Tod, die Shoah, die, wenngleich sie ein
millionfaches individuelles Sterben war, aus kulturhistorischer Sicht den
individuellen Tod und somit auch den Status des Subjekts mitvernichtet
hat” (Kranz-Lçber 2001: 68). This ‘ichlosigkeit’ thus assumes a mimetic
quality. “Dieses pluralische Sprechen,” as Dieter Lamping writes, “das fr
die Holocaust-Lyrik insgesamt durchaus typisch ist, […] ist untrennbar
verbunden […] mit kollektivem Tod […] . Der massenhafte Tod und
die Anonymitt der Opfer verweisen auf das Ende der individuellen Hu-
manitt, die keine personale Identitt mehr zu erlauben scheint, auch
nicht im Gedicht” (Lamping 1998 : 103). Indeed, it is precisely in this
respect that the poetic genre has a distinct advantage in the process of rep-
resentation : not bound to the narration of individual characters, poetry
can reflect the extermination process for what it was – “the unceremoni-
ous mass-production of death” (Ezrahi 1980 : 83).In the poem “Chor der Wolken” ( In den Wohnungen des Todes(1947),
sub-cycle Chçre nach der Mitternacht ), this prominence of speech in the
plural comes to the fore. Sachs attempts to portray what ‘life’ after Ausch-
witz means for “die Todentrissenen”:
Wir sind voller Seufzer , voller Blicke
Wir sind voller Lachen
Und zuweilen tragen wir eure Gesichter.
Wir sind euch nicht fern.
Wer weiß, wieviel von eurem Blute aufstieg
Und uns frbte ?
3.10 The ‘Death of Death’: ‘Die Todentrissenen’ 141

Wer weiß, wieviel Trnen ihr durch unser Weinen
Vergossen habt ? Wieviel Sehnsucht uns formte ?
Sterbespieler sind wir
Gewçhnen euch sanft an den Tod.
Ihr Ungebten, die in den Nchten nichts lernen.
Viele Engel sind euch gegeben
Aber ihr seht sie nicht.(Sachs 1961: 63)
In this poem the “wir” in the main body of the poem can be equated with
the “Wolken” in the title : Sachs anthropomorphises the clouds, equip-
ping them with a voice to perform their ‘chorus.’ In the opening lines,
Sachs arouses the reader’s expectations in order to subsequently thwart
them with a radical alteration of customary imagery. The initial image
of the smiling clouds is transfigured into the contorted image of
blood-drenched clouds being ‘formed’ by the blood of the victims ‘rising’
in the form of smoke from the chimneys of the crematoria. Sachs’ use of
the verb ‘aufsteigen’ in connection with blood is very troubling here. At
this point the three plural nouns of the opening lines, namely, “Seufzer,”
“Blicke” and “Lachen” exhibit their disconcerting effect within the frame-
work of ‘rising blood’ motif. Sachs presents a muddled field of association
here : the smiles of the victims – possibly children – are mentioned along-
side the sighs of the dead and the empty, listless gazes – almost certainly –
of the Muselmnner. The image of the raindrop carrying the faces of
countless victims, each face in turn stained with this ‘rising blood,’ may
be considered a stylistic device, the function of which is to portray the
presence of the dead victims in the minds of the survivors. The raindrops
form a multiple poetic function : firstly, they can be viewed as represent-
ing the tears of the concentration camp victims. Secondly, they serve as a
way of keeping memory open, since they are filled, Sachs tells us, with
the ‘sighs,’ ‘gazes,’ and ‘laughter’ of the victims. Thirdly, by being stained
with the ‘ascending blood’ of the victims, these bloodied raindrops can be
linked to the desecration of the individual in the camps : in Auschwitz,
one did not die as an individual in the manner associated with death
in previous times. Rather, the blood of millions ‘rose up’ in the form
of smoke through the crematoria chimneys.
In the line “wir sind euch nicht fern,” the reader senses the uncanny
presence of the Holocaust victims saturating the survivors’ existence ; their
omnipresence means that the survivors become ‘acustomed’ not to life in
the post-Shoah world, but rather to death. The line “Gewçhnen euch
sanft an den Tod” can moreover be read as an ironic reference to the
3 Nelly Sachs’ Poetics of Silence : Poetry at the Limits of Representation 142

fact that the process of the survivors becoming ‘accustomed’ to death, by
virtue of their being surrounded by death, is anything but “sanft.” In the
closing lines the clouds address the survivors. The survivors do not see the
divine, as represented by the angel image, at work in the world. This can
be read as an allusion to the fact that a meaningful relationship with the
divine cannot be simply reignited after Auschwitz. In this respect “Ihr
Ungebten” could be read as a reference to the survivors who are ‘out
of practice’ in respect of matters pertaining to the divine, and with the
resonances of Sachs’ night imagery now familiar, it is also clear why
night does not reveal or ‘teach’ the survivor anything in this respect. By
means of the profusion of ominous images, Sachs makes clear the
abyss that divides the pre- and post-Shoah worlds ; she shows that
death, in its traditional sense, can no longer be assumed by the survivor :
“Hçchster Wunsch auf Erden,” she wrote in her prose textLeben unter
Bedrohung , “Sterben, ohne gemordert zu werden” (Sachs 1974 : 9).
With the concept of the mass annihilation of a specific group having be-
come a reality, the greatest thing the survivor can now wish for is to die a
natural death. By declaring a natural death the yardstick in a post-Ausch-
witz world, Sachs underlines the irreparable rupture that the Shoah has
occasioned. As Lagercranz writes : “Sie hatte […] keine Angst vor dem
Tod, sondern davor gemordert zu werden,” in the face of “diese[s] ma-
schinengefertigte[n] Massentod der Neuzeit” (Lagercrantz 1966 : 43).
She does not present the reader with any illusory sense of death as a re-
lease from suffering. Rather, ‘life’ for the survivor is merely one step away
from death. Although ‘die Todentrissenen’ may have survived physical an-
nihilation, death is now ubiquitous ; it has become a haunting spectre that
permeates life itself. The poem “Chor der Geretteten” ( In den Wohnungen des Todes
(1947), sub-cycle Chçre nach der Mitternacht ) is perhaps Sachs’ most di-
rect portrayal of the atmosphere of terror that envelops the survivor :
Wir Geretteten
Aus deren hohlem Gebein der Tod schon seine Flçten schnitt
An deren Sehnen der Tod schon seinen Bogen strich –
Unsere Leiber klagen noch nach
Mit ihrer verstmmelten Musik.
Wir Geretteten,
Immer noch hngen die Schlingen fr unsere Hlse gedreht
Vor uns in der blauen Luft –
Immer noch fllen sich die Stundenuhren mit unserem tropfenden Blut.
3.10 The ‘Death of Death’: ‘Die Todentrissenen’ 143

Wir Geretteten,
Immer noch essen an uns die Wrmer der Angst.
Unser Gestirn ist vergraben im Staub.
Wir Geretteten
Bitten euch :
Zeigt uns langsam eure Sonne,
Fhrt uns von Stern zu Stern im Schritt.
Laßt uns das Leben leise wieder lernen.
Es kçnnte sonst eines Vogels Lied,
Das Fllen des Eimers am Brunnen
Unseren schlecht versiegelten Schmerz aufbrechen lassen
Und uns wegschumen –
Wir bitten euch :
Zeigt uns noch nicht einen beißenden Hund –
Es kçnnte sein, es kçnnte sein
Daß wir zu Staub zerfallen –
Vor euren Augen zerfallen zu Staub.
Was hlt denn unsere Webe zusammen ?
Wir odemlos gewordene,
Deren Seele zu Ihm floh aus der Mitternacht
Lange bevor man unseren Leib rettete
In die Arche des Augenblicks.
Wir Geretteten,
Wir drcken eure Hand,
Wir erkennen euer Auge –
Aber zusammen hlt uns nur noch der Abschied,
Der Abschied im Staub
Hlt uns mit euch zusammen.(Sachs 1961: 50)
This poem thematises some of the formidable repercussions of Holocaust
survival. Sachs encapsulates the never-ending effects of trauma for the
survivor, as summed up by Cathy Caruth :
The story of trauma […] , far from telling of an escape from […] death […]
– rather attests to its endless impact on a life. […] From this perspective, the
survival of trauma is not the fortunate passage beyond a violent event, a pas-
sage that is accidentally interrupted by reminders of it, but rather the endless
[…] repetition which may lead to destruction. (Caruth 1996 : 7)
This endless impact of trauma comes to the fore in this poem, as Sachs
presents the scenario of perpetrator and victim as all-pervasive. With dis-
turbing clarity, she portrays the image of the survivor haunted by the
presence of death. Nooses dangle from the sky, worms of fear feed on
the survivors, the hourglass drips blood instead of sand.
5The image of
5 A similar image to the rope dangling in the sky appears in Leben unter Bedro-
3 Nelly Sachs’ Poetics of Silence : Poetry at the Limits of Representation 144

the blood dripping from the hourglass attracts the reader’s attention by
virtue of its unusual positioning : its isolated location makes its dripping
sound audible to the reader’s ear. This image is another example of the
distortion of routine imagery. The hourglass is now a menacing reminder
of human transitoriness : it is human blood instead of sand that drips with
each unit of time. This can be read as the traumatised perspective of the
Holocaust survivor on life, since life is now constantly accompanied by
the threat of violent death. The image of death ‘stroking its bow’ on
the sinews of the survivors is almost certainly a play on the absurd
scene at the entrance gates to the death camps, where inmates were forced
to play classical music to ‘soothe’ the incoming prisoners and thereby
avoid rioting, while its conflation with the image of death as fiddler
from the ‘Totentanz’ could be read as a reference to the inevitability of
death. This poem does not contain a hint of redemptive release ; death
has become omnipresent, determining life itself, while the frequent hy-
phenation expresses the muteness to which the poetic voice has succum-
bed in its attempt to portray the agonised trauma of those who survived
the slaughter.The imagined threat of death that the traumitised survivor continues
to experience comes to the fore in the mutilated sentence structure ; the
survivors attempt in vain three times to make a plea – “Wir bitten
euch” – finally succeeding in lines fourteen and fifteen : “Wir Geretteten
/ Bitten euch : / Zeigt uns langsam eure Sonne.” Even though the subject
up until this point was followed by either a sub- or main clause, each with
its own subject or predicate, the whole sentence itself (lines one to thir-
teen can be considered a fragmented but nonetheless sustained attempt to
formulate this one sentence) remains mutilated. The repetition of the op-
posite temporal phrases “schon” and “immer noch” is significant : these
phrases act as reminders of the continual presence in the survivor’s life
of the menacing presence of death. The lines “Es kçnnte sonst eines Vo-
gels Lied, / […] / Unseren schlecht versiegelten Schmerz aufbrechen las-
sen” are a reminder that the wounds of the Shoah are only ever superfi-
cially healed ; they are liable to burst open at any time. These lines high-
light the precariousness of life in a post-Auschwitz world. This volatility
hung : “Eine Nachricht kam. Und die Nachricht verschluckte ich. Das war mein
Angelhaken. Aufgehngt an der Luft.” (Sachs 1974 : 11) The “Nachricht” to
which Sachs is referring is when she was ordered to the Gestapo headquarters.
Although she was allowed to return home, the SA men later forced themselves
into her home plundering everything before her and her mother’s eyes.
3.10 The ‘Death of Death’: ‘Die Todentrissenen’ 145

became real for Sachs herself upon her visit to Meersburg to accept the
Meersburger Drostepreisin 1960, in the aftermath of which she suffered
a severe nervous breakdown. This, her first visit to Germany after twenty
years, proved catastrophic. It signalled the start of Sachs’ struggle with the
‘Verfolgungsangst’ that would plague her for the next decade, during
which time she believed herself to be surrounded by Nazi spies above
her Stockholm apartment. In a letter to Hilde Domin in July 1960,
her increasingly acute paranoia comes to the fore. This very short letter,
which reads as if Sachs was utterly breathless whilst writing it, is perme-
ated with the hyphens that are so characteristic of her poetry : “Liebes Du
– Hilde – / muß Dir doch schnell antworten, trotz dieser endlosen M-
digkeit, verursacht durch diesen schrecklichen Radiotelegraphistenbetrieb
oberhalb meiner Wohnung – grausig.” (Sachs 1984 : 251) The inscrip-
tion of the image of the biting dog in the second half of the poem can be
read as a further reference to survivor trauma. The survivors plead that
they never again be shown “einen beißenden Hund.” Such a sight
could be a reminder of the terrorising bloodhounds used by the SS ;
the biting dog may thus be interpreted as a symbol of Nazi brutality.
In the final lines, Sachs reminds the world that the sole link between
the survivors of the Shoah and those untouched by the terror is merely
mortality. She does this to express the abyss that exists in terms of expe-
rience between the two groups and to remind the reader of the incommu-
nicability of the suffering endured by ‘those snatched from death.’ The poem “Auf daß die Verfolgten nicht Verfolger werden” ( Sternver-
dunkelung (1949), sub-cycle Und reißend ist die Zeit) is another attempt
by Sachs to recreate the sense of urgency and continual state of anxiety
that envelops the life of the Holocaust survivor. An analysis of this
poem is especially significant given the exploitation of the poem’s title
during the years of the ‘Nelly Sachs cult’ in West Germany. Representa-
tive of general press trends are claims such as the following 1966 report :
“Ihre Dichtung […] gilt dem Frieden und der Versçhnung, damit, wie sie
sagt, ‘die Verfolgten nicht Verfolger werden.’” (Wallmann 1966) The
poem itself, however, when examined in its entirety, paints quite a differ-
ent picture :
Schritte –
In welchen Grotten der Echos
seid ihr bewahrt,
die ihr den Ohren einst weissagtet
kommenden Tod ?
3 Nelly Sachs’ Poetics of Silence : Poetry at the Limits of Representation 146

Schritte –
Nicht Vogelflug, noch Schau der Eingeweide,
noch der blutschwitzenden Mars
gab des Orakels Todesauskunft mehr –
nur Schritte –
Schritte –
Urzeitspiel von Henker und Opfer,
Verfolger und Verfolgten,
Jger und Gejagt –
die die Zeit reißend machen
die Stunde mit Wçlfen behngen,
dem Flchtling die Flucht auslçschen
im Blute.
die Zeit zhlend mit Schreien, Seufzern,
Austritt des Blutes bis es gerinnt,
Todesschweiß zu Stunden hufend –
Schritte der Henker
ber Schritte der Opfer,
Sekundenzeiger im Gang der Erde,
von welchem Schwarzmond schrecklich gezogen ?
In der Musik der Sphren
wo schrillt euer Ton ?(Sachs 1961: 77)
In the first stanza, the use of the verb ‘bewahren’ in relation to the sound
of the Nazi henchmen’s steps may be an allusion to the fact that these
steps have not faded for the survivor. The echo motif imbues the steps
with acoustic value : the survivor continually hears them approaching.
The steps evoke a sense of foreboding in the survivor ; as Dischner writes :
“[d]ie Grotten der Echoes […] bewahren die ‘Schritte’ als eine Form der
Todesweissagung” (Dischner 1997: 22). The title of this poem “Auf daß
die Verfolgten nicht Verfolger werden” should be understood in this vein,
as a warning to future generations, and not in terms of forgiveness.
In the second stanza, Sachs describes how the millions who were mas-
sacred in the death camps were made aware of their impending slaughter :
the message came not through the examination of entrails or the flight of
birds as in olden times, but rather through the ominous sound of the
Nazi henchmen’s steps. As the poem progresses, hours are described as
being ‘draped’ in wolves, a likely symbol of Nazi brutality, while time
is measured not by seconds, but by the screams and sighs of the victims ;
3.10 The ‘Death of Death’: ‘Die Todentrissenen’ 147

their blood seeps to the point of coagulation, while their ‘deathly sweat’
piles up.The reference to the ‘steps of the hangman over the steps of the vic-
tims’ creates a distortion of scale in terms of the physicality of the hench-
men’s steps ; the reader is left with an image of these enormous steps
trampling upon the victims. Lawrence Langer sees Sachs’ use of the neo-
logism “Schwarzmond” in the next line as an attempt to fuse what were
once polarities into a single image. (Langer 1976/77: 322) The construct
‘black moon’ may be considered such an attempt, similar to the genitive
construct “die Monde des Todes” seen earlier in the poem “Nacht,
Nacht.” The moon, traditionally a source of light amidst the dark, is
black in the post-Auschwitz world, while its gravitational pull is now a
pull of terror. The anaphoric use of “Schritte” throughout lends the
poem an urgent overtone : the reader can hear the reverberation of
these death-pronouncing footsteps. These “Schritte” continually haunt
the traumatised survivor ; they represent a death-announcing omen.
The motif of the Nazi footsteps is also used by Sachs in Leben unter Bed-
rohung to describe her own experience of the sound of the SS boots as
they plundered her home : “Es kamen Schritte. Starke Schritte, Schritte,
in denen das Recht sich huslich niedergelassen hatte. Schritte stießen
an die Tr. […] Die Tr war die erste Haut, die aufgerissen wurde.
Die Haut des Heims.” (Sachs 1974 : 10) The terror she endured that
night is encapsulated in this prose text by means of images like “Ang-
stschweiß,” a similar construct to the “Todesschweiß” in the poem exam-
ined above :
Unter Bedrohung leben : im offenen Grab verwesen ohne Tod. Das Gehirn
faßt nicht mehr. Die letzten Gedanken kreisen um den schwarzgefrbten
Handschuh, der die Eintrittsnummer zur Gestapo verdunkelte und fast das
Leben kostete. Angstschweiß hatte unsichtbar zu bleiben.“ (Sachs 1974 : 10 –
Whilst awaiting interrogation by the Gestapo her card registration num-
ber becomes smeared by the ‘sweat of fear’ that literally seeps through her
gloves. In the poem “Greise” ( Sternverdunkelung(1949), sub-cycleber-
lebende ), Sachs recreates a similar atmosphere of the terror :
in den Falten dieses Sterns,
zugedeckt mit einem Fetzen Nacht,
stehen sie, und warten Gott ab.
Ihr Mund hat ein Dorn verschlossen.
ihre Sprache ist an ihre Augen verlorengegangen,
3 Nelly Sachs’ Poetics of Silence : Poetry at the Limits of Representation 148

die reden wie Brunnen
darin ein Leichnam ertrunken ist.
O die Alten,
die ihre verbrannte Nachfolge in den Augen tragen
als einzigen Besitz.(Sachs 1961: 111)
In this poem Sachs portrays the elderly survivors of the Holocaust. The
old people are described as covered with ‘shreds of night,’ the image of
“Fetzen” suggesting to the reader that this night does not cover the sur-
vivors in a sheltering and protective way. The use of the verb ‘abwarten’
in the fourth line creates a sense of unease in the reader ; “the verb ‘ab-
warten ,’ as Ursula Rudnick writes, “irritates German readers because it
is not ordinarily used with people or with God. […] ‘Abwarten’implies
passivity. […] It is a waiting for nothing in particular.” (Rudnick 1995 :
83 – 84, 90) The reader conjures up the image of an endless number of
elderly survivors with gaunt, listless and empty faces lining up and wait-
ing around for God ; a God who did not intervene to stop the suffering
and who is not about to reveal himself in its aftermath. A ‘thorn’ has
‘sealed’ the survivors’ mouths shut, their language is ‘lost to their eyes,’
these eyes in turn ‘speak’ like a well into which a corpse has drowned.
The survivor’s state of speechlessness is encapsulated very effectively
here. The horrors of the death camps have forcefully – as suggested by
the prefix ‘ver’ in the verb ‘verschließen’ – sealed shut the mouths of
the survivors ; the eyes attempt instead to perform the function of the
voice, but this also fails. The only thing visible in the eyes of each survivor
are the emaciated faces of those who perished in the death camps – sim-
ilar to a corpse floating in a well. The well, traditionally a life-sustaining
image, now polluted by the corpse reminds the reader that nothing in the
post-Shoah world can sustain the inmate who ‘survives’ Auschwitz. The
construct “verbrannte Nachfolge” in the closing lines is a likely allusion
to the countless children who were murdered. It points to the fact that
“the natural order of life has been destroyed” (Rudnick 1995 : 87). The
few parents who did manage to survive the slaughter carry the spectre
of their murdered offspring as their ‘sole possession’; there is no redemp-
tive release from the camp memories.
Sachs’ portrayal of the effects of survivor trauma serves as a means of
ensuring that the memory of the Holocaust remains open. The survivors,
to draw on Terence des Pres once more, are, after all, “disturbers of the
peace”; “runners of the blockade men erect against unspeakable things”
(Des Pres 1980 : 42 – 43). Whilst alive, their very existence was a remind-
3.10 The ‘Death of Death’: ‘Die Todentrissenen’ 149

er of the atrocities ; their existence kept memory open. Their physical
presence in the post-Shoah world, however, had a time limit. Sachs’ po-
etry can thus be viewed as preparation for the eventuality of their passing ;
as her contribution to ensuring that the Holocaust did not fall concur-
rently into oblivion. Her poetry undertakes the urgent task of keeping
open the wounds of Auschwitz, to avoid any comfortable notions of clo-
sure. Unease, apprehension, agitation, insecurity, undermining and disap-
pointing the reader’s expectations are the intended effects. Setting the
reader on insecure ground plays a particularly important role in those
poems where Sachs employs familiar, theologically comforting Biblical ar-
chetypes, only to subsequently thwart their original consolatory function
as part of her project of representing the unrepresentable.
3.11 Archetypes as Representational Devices
“To think about, to remember, and to express the events of the Holo-
caust,” James Young argues, “is either to do so archetypically or not at
all” (J. E. Young 1988 : 89). What Young means is that, short of creating
a new vocabulary not imbued with previous meaning and without asso-
ciations and assonances, we are only capable of interpreting the past with-
in the paradigms of historical precedent, in relation, that is, to other
events and in familiar terms of reference. In much of her early poetry,
Nelly Sachs draws on the pool of Biblical archetypes available to her in
her attempt to represent the Holocaust in literary form. She uses them,
that is to say, as representational devices.
6What is significant about her
method, however, is the fact that she employs them to highlight not
their efficacy, but rather to expose their vulnerabilityas analogues for
an understanding of the suffering. Her work demonstrates what James
Young refers to as a “self-reflexive questioning of the available arche-
types […] , retaining the shell of the archetype while disposing of its
meaning” (J. E. Young 1988 : 95 – 96). Previous Sachs scholarship has
taken quite a different interpretative approach. That approach has inter-
preted her employment of Biblical archetypes within the framework of
the supposed redemptive nature of her poetry. Horst Bienek, for example,
commenting on Sachs’ use of the Biblical figure Job, writes :
6 Aspects related to Sachs’ use of Biblical archetypes were developed in Martin (2011).
3 Nelly Sachs’ Poetics of Silence : Poetry at the Limits of Representation 150

Spricht nicht aus diesen Gedichten der eschatologische Glaube der prophe-
tischen Bilder ? Und ist nicht mitten unter uns Hiob […] alle Fhrnisse und
Prfungen in unerschtterlichem Glauben bestehend ? In den Gedichten der
Nelly Sachs stoßen wir auf das Wort ‘durchschmerzen.’ In diesem Sinne hat sie
ihre Gedichte ‘durchschmerzt’ […] , ohne im Erlebnis steckengeblieben zu
sein. Die Zeit der Mçrder, die Zeit der Verfolgung ist […] berwunden […] ,
in der Anrufung der Gestalten aus dem alten Testament [findet sie] […] Kraft.
(Bienek 1966 : 86)
Such a view of Sachs’ use of this Biblical figure is very problematic, given
that Sachs expresses only despair at the inadequacy of this archetype to
encapsulate the Holocaust. Sachs’ Job certainly does not ‘pass’ the test
of suffering “in unerschtterlichem Glauben.” Bienek’s is just one of a
large number of critical voices which commend the larger redemptive
strategy of Sachs’ work and which see her utilisation of Biblical arche-
types as evidence of a supposed religious ‘sense-making’ paradigm. This
commendation is questionable. Sachs certainly appropriates Biblical fig-
ures, but she takes great liberties in subtracting from, adding to and in-
deed, on occasion, even reverses the original text. This manipulation of
Biblical archetypes may be viewed as the author’s prescient engagement
with an overarching issue at the heart of the contentious debate on Hol-
ocaust representation that later came to dominate Holocaust literary stud-
ies, namely, the question as to whether it is ethically permissible for Hol-
ocaust art to redeem in terms of encouraging the reader to see the event as
part of some larger meaningful plan ; whether it is permissible, that is, to
make sense of suffering by projecting what Maeve Cook terms “meaning-
ful totalities” (237). Through her employment of Biblical archetypes
Sachs engages with this very question : she employs familiar archetypes
as representational devices with the aim of initiallyencouraginga redemp-
tive trajectory, a ‘meaningful totality,’ which is subsequently thwarted.
She disrupts, in other words, the facile linear progression of the Biblical
narratives upon which she draws and circumvents their redemptive affir-
mations. She thereby avoids the dangers of trivialisation inherent in what
Saul Friedlnder describes as “simplistic and self-assured historical narra-
tions and closures” (Friedlnder 1992 : 52 – 53). A number of critics
alongside Friedlnder have expressed discomfort at the notion of recon-
ciling the concept of redemption with the realities of the Holocaust.
Geoffrey Hartmann, for example, is perturbed by the notion that the im-
measurable human suffering during the Holocaust can be somehow
‘made good’ in terms of the lesson learned ; the Holocaust for Hartmann
has challenged the very “credibility of redemptive thinking” (326). Cyn-
3.11 Archetypes as Representational Devices 151

thia Ozick has also expressed concern. She comments on the tendency in
the post-Shoah world, in its urgent struggle towards what she calls “the
veil of redemption,” to extract “redeeming meaning” from the Holocaust.
She argues that the Holocaust is “incapable of any hint or aura of re-
demptiveness” and that nothing can be pulled “out of the abyss” (278,
284). Lawrence Langer has similarly noted how comforting it would be
to say that Nelly Sachs makes of Israel’s anguish a similar legend to
Dante’s arrival in Paradise, namely, “ a descent into night, a period of suf-
fering, and a return – a reascent – into light and firmer spiritual purity.”
For Sachs, however, there can be “no simple turning from despair to
hope” (Langer 1982 : 244).The Holocaust for Sachs, as Lawrence Langer points out, was about
“a kind of dying unimagined by her poetic predecessors” ( Langer 1982 :
217) ; it represented a suffering “so far in excess of comprehensible cause
that it was simply incompatible with any viewof existence hitherto avail-
able to the human imagination” (Langer 1976/77: 315). Sachs was none-
theless faced with the task of locating images in an attempt to communi-
cate this incommunicable suffering, “um das Unsgliche in unzulngliche
Sprache zu bringen,” as the author put it in a letter to Carl Seelig (Sachs
1984 : 83). Her employment of archetypes is, I would argue, extremely
significant in the framework of her endeavour to present the ‘unrepre-
sentable,’ in view of the fact that she undermines their original function.
She engages in a process referred to by one critic as “figuration”; a process
whereby Biblical character types are appropriated and transformed into
new types that reflect the experiences and accommodate the needs of
the present (Jacobson 1987: 4). She maintains the shell of the archetype,
to borrow Young’s words again, whilst disposing of its meaning (J. E.
Young 1988 : 95 – 96). Sachs’ use of the Job story from the Old Testament
is a particularly good example of the poet’s engagement in this “figura-
tion” process.
3.11.1 Sachs’ ‘Anti-Job’
For Sachs, the Job story was ineluctable material in her attempt to present
the suffering of the Jewish people during the Shoah. In a 1966 radio in-
terview with ‘Radio Israel,’ she spoke of the significance of Biblical arche-
types in enabling her to broach the task of portraying the horror : “In den
ersten Gedichtsammlungen, In Wohnungen des Todes, Sternverdunke-
lung […] haben biblische Texte strkend und ermutigend eingewirkt,
3 Nelly Sachs’ Poetics of Silence : Poetry at the Limits of Representation 152

daß ich berhaupt versuchte, das Unsgliche auszusprechen.” (cited in
Bahr 1980 : 63) Biblical texts did not embolden her in the sense of pro-
viding her with an explanatory framework for the suffering. On the con-
trary ; by exposing their deficiencies as explanatory paradigms, Sachs finds
a means of portraying the unintelligibility, the enormity and the incom-
municability of the suffering. The employment of the Job archetype in
one of Sachs’ best known poems “O die Schornsteine” (In den Wohnun-
gen des Todes (1947), sub-cycle Dein Leib in Rauch durch die Luft )isan
exemplary instance of Sachs’ method :
Und wenn diese meine Haut zerschlagen sein wird,
so werde ich ohne mein Fleisch Gott schauen (Hiob)
O die Schornsteine
Auf den sinnreich erdachten Wohnungen des Todes,
Als Israels Leib zog aufgelçst in Rauch
Durch die Luft –
Als Essenkehrer ihn ein Stern empfing
Der schwarz wurde
Oder war es ein Sonnenstrahl ?
O die Schornsteine !
Freiheitswege fr Jeremias und Hiobs Staub –
Wer erdachte euch und baute Stein auf Stein
Den Weg fr Flchtlinge aus Rauch ?
O die Wohnungen des Todes,
Einladend hergerichtet
Fr den Wirt des Hauses, der sonst Gast war –
O ihr Finger,
Die Eingangsschwelle legend
Wie ein Messer zwischen Leben und Tod –
O ihr Schornsteine,
O ihr Finger,
Und Israels Leib im Rauch durch die Luft !
(Sachs 1961: 8)
Bruno Bollinger who, it will be noted, was writing at the peak of the
‘Nelly Sachs cult,’ has claimed that this poem was written “ohne das lei-
seste Ressentiment” (Bolliger 1966 : 144). This is a curious claim in light
of the fact that Sachs portrays the horrors of the death camps here with
imagery that is more visually evocative than in any other poem. The fre-
quency with which the epigraph from the Book of Job which accompa-
nies this poem is overlooked in the research literature – indeed some crit-
ics have even reproduced the poem on its own without its attendant epi-
graph – is surprising, not least given the fact that it is one of the most
3.11 Archetypes as Representational Devices 153

widely disseminated of Sachs’ works. The epigraph provides the reader
with an immediate insight into the thematic context of the poem, name-
ly, the question of a presumably just God who permits human suffering.
As the motto for the opening poem of her first post-Auschwitz volume –
and as such a leitmotif for the entire volume – Sachs chooses the most
controversial lines from the Biblical narrative, namely, Job’s endurance
of the calamities which befall him without reproaching divine providence
–“sowerde ich ohne mein Fleisch Gott schauen” [my emphasis] . By se-
lecting the traditional redemptory ending as the opening motto, Sachs
draws her readers into a false expectation of a similarly redemptive mes-
sage with respect to the suffering endured during the Holocaust in the
main body of the poem. In this way, the motto can be viewed as having
very definite repercussions for the remainder of the poem in terms of en-
couraging presumptions that are subsequently thwarted. In place of the
redemptive message expected on the part of the reader, however, Sachs
presents us instead with a series of highly disturbing images relating di-
rectly to the death camps. The first stanza introduces the chimneys of
the crematoria “auf den sinnreich erdachten Wohnungen des Todes”; al-
most immediately that which was familiar has undergone total perver-
sion : a dwelling is traditionally a place to live, during the Holocaust,
however, ‘habitations’ were ‘purposefully built’ for the sole purpose of
death. The next image in the series sees Israel’s ‘body,’ a reference to
the millions of Jewish victims, dissolving to smoke through these chim-
neys. A star welcomes “Israels Leib” – suggested by the accusative person-
al pronoun “ihn” – as a ‘chimney sweep’: ‘Ein Stern, der schwarz wurde,
empfing ihn (Israels Leib) als Essenkehrer.’ This can be interpreted as an
allusion to the victims’ remains lining the chimneys of the crematoria.
These charred remains cause this ‘welcoming’ star to subsequently turn
black. The question “Oder war es ein Sonnenstrahl ?” is grammatically
connected to the relative clause “der schwarz wurde” in line six. Such a
reading is supported by the masculine nominative relative pronoun
“der” which, grammatically, could govern both “Stern” and “Sonnen-
strahl.” Such a reading adds to the general blackness that permeates
this poem : the poetic person asks whether it was in fact less a mere
star than an actual ray of sun that ‘welcomed’ the remains of the Jewish
victims and turned black. Thus, whilst an initial reading might suggest
that the ray of sun is a positive one, close examination reveals that it is
in fact a profoundly anti-redemptive gesture ; “the groping dead,” as
Langer comments, “constantly darken the horizon of hope” (Langer
1982 : 242).
3 Nelly Sachs’ Poetics of Silence : Poetry at the Limits of Representation 154

In the second stanza, Sachs reminds her readers of the meticulous
planning that went into constructing the camps. The verb ‘erdenken’ de-
notes creativity, thought and design : these ‘dwellings’ were carefully de-
vised for murderous purposes. The employment of this verb, along
with the ironic reference to the “einladend hergerichtet[e]” dwellings in
the third stanza, perform a similar function to the attribute ‘sinnreich er-
dacht’ in the second line of the poem. Commenting on its purpose, there
Kranz-Lçber writes : “Die Perfedie des durchorganisierten Massenmor-
dens spiegelt das Attribut ‘sinnreich erdachten’ wider, das den Wohnun-
gen vorangestellt ist. Es ist eine fast sarkastische Anspielung auf den br-
okratischen und organisatorischen Aufwand des Mordens.” (Kranz-Lçber
2001: 21) These references function as chilling reminders that these ‘abo-
des’ were technologically planned and scientifically administered entirely
for the purposes of annihilation.
The third stanza leads the reader into a parodying of the perpetrator’s
perspective. That which was once guest – death – is now “Wirt” and, in a
horrifying irony, this former ‘guest’ now welcomes its new ‘guests’ – the
Jewish victims. The notion of death as ‘host’ serves as a reminder of the
omnipresence of death in Auschwitz. Sachs then proceeds to describe the
fingers of the Nazi henchmen “wie ein Messer zwischen Leben und Tod,”
a probable allusion to the selection process on the ramps. Each thought in
this third stanza culminates in the silence of the dash, at which point the
poetic voice has reached the limit of what is representable.
In the final stanza, Sachs proceeds to thwart the redemptive expect-
ation still held at that point in the poem by the reader. Job’s resolved em-
brace of his faith in the motto – analogous with hope – is abandoned in
the face of the corpses of the dead dissolving to smoke. In place of res-
titution for Job, Sachs’ Job perishes : the reader is presented with his vio-
lated body – “Hiobs Staub.” His ashes are scattered in the air as he leaves
the chimneys of the crematorium. By letting Job perish, Sachs makes
clear her position in relation to ‘Wiedergutmachung.’ Restituting Job
would be a problematical gesture in the face of a million-fold, state-led
annihilation programme ; “Wiedergutmachung,” as Guy Stern comments,
“even if it came from a divine source, could not undo the evil” (Stern
1990 : 204).
7By selecting the redemptory message as the poem’s motto,
7 The problematic notion of restitution for the crimes of the Shoah has been com- mented on, perhaps most poignantly, by the Hebrew poet Ka-tzetnik 135633
[pseud. of Yehiel Dinur] (‘Ka-tzetnik’ meaning ‘Konzentrationslager,’ 135633
the camp number that was tattooed on his arm). In the poem “Star Eternal,”
3.11 Archetypes as Representational Devices 155

and subsequently reversing it, Sachs engages in the above-mentioned
process of “figuration”: she employs the available Biblical imagery but
turns it on its head. Job, as the embodiment of the Jewish people as a
whole, no longer carries a message of hope. Lured into a false sense of
religious ‘sense-making’ by means of the affirmations present in the epi-
graph, the reader finds instead that Sachs deceives all comfortable expect-
ations. The Biblical story is divested of its sanguine message. Kuschel has
remarked on another noteworthy aspect of this poem in respect of its
physical direction :
Obwohl […] die Bewegung in allen Strophen eine Bewegung von unten nach
oben ist – der Leib zieht als Rauch durch die Luft […] – versagt sich Nelly
Sachs in ihrem Text jede Identifizierung dieses ‘oben’ mit dem ‘Ort’ einer
Transzendenz im religiçsen Sinn. ‘Luft’ und ‘Stern’ sind hier gerade nicht von
vornherein Transzendenzsymbole, sondern konkrete Details des Raumes.
Wohin Israel, aufgelçst in Rauch, geht, bleibt gerade offen, bleibt unbe-
sprochen. (Kuschel 1994 : 206)
In terms of the anti-redemptory message that “O die Schornsteine” car-
ries, this movement from below to above is significant, since Sachs resists
the transcendental interpretation expected on the part of the reader : a star
welcomes Israel’s body as a ‘chimney sweep’ – an uncomfortably direct
allusion as hitherto seen to the remains of the victims lining the chimneys
of the crematoria – and subsequently turns black. Meanwhile the smoke
from the crematoria is drifting nowhere in particular, merely “durch die
Luft.”A number of critics have interpreted Sachs’ use of the Job archetype
in this poem rather differently. Georg Langenhorst, in a similar vein to
Bruno Bollinger, claims that in the figure of Hiob Sachs sees “ein[en] un-
ausrottbare[n] und lebensnotwendige[n] Restfunken von Hoffnung,” and
he asserts “es bleibt im Gedicht ‘O die Schornsteine’ eine […] lebenser-
in which Dinur deals with the question of accepting German reparations, he rid-
icules the very concept of ‘Wiedergutmachung’ in a sarcastic and bitter tone of
derision : “Mother, now they want to give me money to make up for you. / I
still can’t figure out how many German marks a burnt mother comes to.”
(Ka-tzetnik 1971: 120 – 126) As Efraim Sicher writes, Ka-tzetnik gave the last
chapter of his 1971 collection Star Eternalthe ironic title of ‘Wiedergutma-
chung,’ because when he considered the shoes taken from his father, his mother’s
hair recycled for clothing, and his sister’s body used for prostitution, to take
‘compensation,’ would make him a pimp. The poet Dan Pagis similarly ridiculed
the concept as if – as he put it in his poem “Draft of a reparations agreement” –
the scream could be returned to the throat and the gold teeth back to the gums
(cf. Sicher 1998 : 52 – 53).
3 Nelly Sachs’ Poetics of Silence : Poetry at the Limits of Representation 156

haltende Hoffnung auf Versçhnung und Erlçsung gerade im […] Zei-
chen Hiobs” (Langenhorst 1994 : 184, 89). Birgit Lerman argues that,
through her use of the Job figure, Sachs holds on to the hope of some
kind of religious explanation for the events : “Hiob [ist] nicht nur der Lei-
dende, sondern der durch seine Leiden Erhçrte, und eine letzte Hoffnung
auf Sinn [wird] nicht aufgegeben” (Braun and Lerman 1998 : 185), while
Horst Bienek has gone so far as to claim that Sachs’ Job “[wird] zum Trost
der berlebenden” (Bienek 1966 : 85). These are questionable claims.
The final image Sachs leaves us with, after all, is Job’s ‘body,’ representing
the millions of victims, drifting as smoke from the chimneys of the cre-
matoria – there is little in the way of “Hoffnung,” “Erlçsung,” “Sinn,” or
“Trost” here. Gwenith Young has argued that by mentioning Jeremiah
and Job, Sachs places the Shoah “within a continuity of Jewish calamity
and a tested Jewish paradigm of response” (G. Young 2006 : 210). This
interpretation is very difficult to uphold given that the “paradigm of re-
sponse” – in this case Job’s affirmation of God despite his earthly suffer-
ing – is refuted as he perishes in the poem. Anita Riede has put forth per-
haps the most problematic argument : “das KZ,” she argues, “[wird] als
eine in der Heilgeschichte verankerte Prfung Gottes gesehen, die von
der religiçsen Hoffnung auf ein erlçstes jenseitiges Leben, wie es sich
im Motto ausdrckt, ertragen […] wird” (Riede 2001: 66). The claim
that the concentration camps are presented by Sachs “als eine Prfung
Gottes” is highly problematic. While the Biblical Job may very well
have endured the various tests “in unerschtterlichem Glauben,” to
draw on Bienek’s words once again, Sachs’ Job, the embodiment of the
murdered Jewish collective, does not undergo any such ‘test’ of faith,
nor does he accept his fate with a supposed unshaken trust in the divine.
In fact, Sachs completely avoids the Biblical construct of Job’s suffering as
a test of his faith. For Sachs, the crimes of the Shoah were crimes com-
mitted by man onto man and not a test of supposed Jewish ‘chosenness.’
The critic Bengt Holmqvist shares this view : “Viele fromme Juden haben
noch auf dem Weg zur Gaskammer ihr Los als eine ‘Prfung’ verstanden.
Nelly Sachs blieb eine solche Deutung unannehmbar. Das maßlose Ver-
brechen war nichts als ein maßloses Verbrechen.” (Holmqvist 1979 : 39)
It should also be noted that Sachs does not touch upon the guilt aspect of
the Biblical text, the idea that Job was somehow ‘deserving’ of his punish-
ment. In the face of the attempted mass extermination of the Jewish pop-
ulation of Europe, such a line of enquiry would be absurd.The lines “O die Schornsteine ! / Freiheitswege fr Hiobs Staub –”
have received much criticism for their supposed conciliatory message. Er-
3.11 Archetypes as Representational Devices 157

hard Bahr, to take one example, writes : “Die Antwort wird nicht aus-
drcklich gegeben, aber ist implizit […] . Der Erdenker und Erbauer
der Freiheitswege ist der Gott Israels, der Gott des Jeremias und
Hiob.” (Bahr 1980 : 81) Michael Hofmann has expressed similar discom-
fort. He describes these lines as “das Skandalon des Gedichts” and ex-
plains his stance thus : “Wenn dieses [das Gedicht] von ‘Freiheitswegen’
fr Israels Volk spricht, so liegt der Gedanke nahe, das der Rauch ein Op-
ferfeuer darstellt und damit erscheint das Undenkbare vorstellbar : dass
die Vernichtung der europischen Juden einen Sinn haben kçnnte,
einen religiçsen Sinn.” (Hofmann 2003 : 121) I disagree with these read-
ings of the lines in question. A literal interpretation of “Freiheit” fails to
acknowledge Sachs’ probable cynical use of the term. To suggest, as Bahr
does, that Sachs views the death camps as some kind of ‘divine creation’
and that, as such, the Holocaust served some kind of greater purpose
known only to God, can be disputed on the grounds that her entire po-
etic project is dedicated to exposing the senselessness of the mass extermi-
nation. What these three critics overlook is the fact that Sachs employs a
deep cynicism of bitter anguish in the line in question ; “the ‘road for ref-
ugees of smoke,’” as William West writes is, ironically, itselfsmoke, and so
the escape of the dead relies on their being infused into the very air that
the living still breathe” (West 1995 : 92). That ‘infusion’ is the extent of
the ‘freedom’ of which Sachs speaks. The irony in the reference to the
chimneys as “Freiheitswege” is in fact quite explicit : the chimneys are cer-
tainly ‘freedomways’ – but in the narrowest possible sense in that the vic-
tims’ smoke physically ‘escapes’ through them. There is no explicit sugges-
tion, however, that this smoke is en routeto God. There can be, Lawrence
Langer argues, “no easy reconciliation between the smoke of Israel’s body
and the mysterious cosmos into whose regions that smoke slowly drifts.”
Sachs’ crematorium chimneys, he argues, “are not signposts to the divine”
(Langer 1982 : 218). Georg Langenhorst argues that an interpretation
supposing the use of irony is untenable : “Die Schornsteine der Kremator-
ien von Birkenau werden allerletzte ‘Freiheitswege’ genannt, und das ist
aus dem Kontext heraus ganz sicherlich nicht ironisch gemeint.” (Langen-
horst 1994 : 184) Why “ganz sicherlich nicht” in the framework of the
“Kontext” in question ? Irony is, after all, most certainly not an alien de-
vice in Sachs’ work. At an earlier juncture in this poem Sachs employed
irony in her description of the death camps as “einladend hergerichtet.”
In her poem “Ihr Zuschauenden” she ironises the onlookers’ claim of ig-
norance through her highly effective employment of the passive voice,
and does so in direct reference to the killing in the death camps – pre-
3 Nelly Sachs’ Poetics of Silence : Poetry at the Limits of Representation 158

sumably the same ‘context’ to which Langenhorst refers. Irony, albeit an
infrequent occurrence, has enormous representational value in her work
and indeed in Holocaust literature in general. Ka-tzetnik’s use of this de-
vice in the poem cited above, for example, can be considered a sharp
commentary of the concept of ‘Wiedergutmachung.’ Johanna Bossinade,
to take one last example, contends that the reference to the chimneys as
“Freiheitswege” “deutet […] eine letzthin doch noch ‘sinnvolle’ Aufheb-
barkeit […] der Judenvernichtung an. […] Es hat den Anschein, als sei
in diesem Fall das sprechende Ich vom Verlangen nach Rckkehr in
eine errinerte (‘mystische’) Geborgenheit […] berwltigt worden, als
kçnne oder wolle es der ‘Realittsprfung’ nicht mehr standhalten” (Bos-
sinade 1985 : 151). This line of argumentation is especially problematic,
since it supposes a transfiguration of the events of the Shoah into the
mythical realm as a way of avoiding reality. This argument does not
hold up very well, however, given that in this poem the death camps
and their ‘factory-like’ operation are not merely alluded to, but are, rath-
er, directly and unreservedly delineated.Sachs’ employment of the Job archetype can be considered a signifi-
cant literary device in the context of her attempt to represent the Shoah.
She refutes the redemptive closure offered by the book of Job and, in so
doing, thwarts any secure, redemptory expectations on the part of the
reader. This refutation is significant in terms of assessing the scope and
limitations of Sachs’ engagement with the Holocaust since, by refuting
the terms offered by the Biblical account, she simultaneously avoids at-
tributing any kind of sense to the senseless massacre. She does not
place the Shoah within a continuity of Jewish calamity ; rather, she brings
to expression the rupture that has occurred. In the poem “Hiob” ( Sternverdunkelung(1949), sub-cycleDie Mu-
schel saust), Sachs directly addresses the Biblical figure and penetrates
the very core of the Job story :
O du Windrose der Qualen !
Von Urzeitstrmen
in immer andere Richtungen der Unwetter gerissen ;
noch dein Sden heißt Einsamkeit.
Wo du stehst, ist der Nabel der Schmerzen.
Deine Augen sind tief in deinen Schdel gesunken
wie Hçhlentauben in der Nacht
die der Jger blind herausholt.
3.11 Archetypes as Representational Devices 159

Deine Stimme ist stumm geworden,
denn sie hat zuvielWarumgefragt.
Zu den Wrmern und Fischen ist deine Stimme eingegangen.
Hiob, du hast alle Nachtwachen durchweint
aber einmal wird das Sternbild deines Blutes
alle aufgehenden Sonnen erbleichen lassen. (Sachs 1961: 95)
In this poem the process of “figuration” plays an important role. Sachs
presents the reader with what one critic refers to as an ‘anti-Job’, since
neither Job’s former happiness nor his eventual redemption make an ap-
pearance : “der Sachssche Hiob wird zu einem genau kalkulierten Gegen-
Hiob , prziser : zu einem Hiob radikaler Reduktion.” (Kuschel 1994 :
207) In the first stanza, Sachs utilises the image of the wind rose, a graph-
ic tool used in meteorology to depict wind frequencies from different di-
rections at various locations. Job is subject to artistic manipulation as the
wind rose is subject to the wind. In the opening line, Job is described as
this wind rose ; what is being measured are not wind frequencies, howev-
er, but suffering. The wind rose is continually swept in new directions of
agony and suffering, while the spot upon which it – Job – stands is de-
scribed as the ‘navel of pain.’ Significantly, as noted by Langenhorst, the
image of the wind rose is taken from the book of Job itself :
In der Metapher der Windrose wird ein Bild aus dem biblischen Hiobbuch
selbst aufgenommen. Dort heißt es : ‘Geh ich nach Osten, so ist er nicht da, /
nach Westen, so merk ich ihn nicht, / nach Norden, sein Tun erblicke ich
nicht ; / bieg ich nach Sden, sehe ich ihn nicht.’ (Langenhorst 1994 : 186)
The image of Job being swept in all directions presents the Biblical figure
as exposed, deserted, and without orientation. Just as Job was deserted by
God in the Biblical story, Sachs sees the Jewish people as a whole as hav-
ing been abandoned by God during the Shoah. However, in contrast to
the Biblical narrative the temporal phrase “noch” in the line “noch dein
Sden heißt Einsamkeit” indicates that the redemption offered by the
Biblical text is not on offer for the recent suffering. Job does not embody
the pious man who is untiringly engaged in dialogue with God. Rather,
Sachs’ Job has become “stumm”; his ‘whys’ as to the reasons for the Jewish
suffering during the Holocaust remain unanswered. Crucially, the theo-
phany offered in the Biblical text is withheld, and Sachs thereby avoids
the redemptory expectation on the part of the reader. As Kuschel writes :
“Der Sachssche Hiob [ist] vçllig verstummt. Der Grund ? Er kann […]
nur darin liegen, daß ein Leiden solchen Ausmaßes selbst jeden Hader
3 Nelly Sachs’ Poetics of Silence : Poetry at the Limits of Representation 160

mit Gott abwrgt, weil Hadern noch eine Erwartung an Gott impli-
zierte.” (Kuschel 1994 : 209) Sachs’ Job is without any such expectation ;
his dialogue with God has been silenced ; he does not vent his rage at
God, because doing so would mean searching for some kind of meaning
or explanation. As Christian Wiese writes : “[D]as Suchen nach Gott, das
Hadern […] mit Gott, die Hoffnung auf transzendente Erlçsung [fehlen]
vçllig – was bleibt ist die Klage, die nirgends im Werk der Dichterin auf-
gelçst wird, die Erfahrung der Abwesenheit […] Gottes. Worte, die wir-
klichen Trost und Sinn bergen kçnnten, gibt es nicht, sie sind unwider-
ruflich zerbrochen.” (Wiese 2003 : 55 – 56) Sachs thus intensifies the
senselessness of the million-fold massacre ; its unimaginable scale has
even stifled the ‘whys’ as to its occurrence. Job’s eyes are sunk deep
into his skull ; this disquieting image conjures up the countless emaciated
faces of the death camp inmates ; his eyes have been blinded and his voice
has been rendered mute after so many unanswered ‘whys.’ This state of
muteness is then heightened in the final stanza : Job’s voice has ‘joined
the worms and the fish,’ both of which can be considered “Sinnbilder
eines schrecklichen Verstummens.” (Braun and Lerman 1998 : 189)
Commenting on the worm motif in the Job story Erika Schweizer writes :
“Wurmist als Bildwort mehrmals im Buch Hiob belegt, um die Schmach
Hiobs, seine Entwrdigung, seine Nhe zu Gruftreich und Verwesung
vor Augen zu fhren.” (Schweizer 2005 : 229) It could be argued that
each of Schweizer’s descriptions apply as much to the death camp inmates
as they do to Job : the inmates experienced complete humiliation and deg-
radation ; they lived in continual proximity to death and they underwent
gradual physical putrefaction whilst remaining nominally alive. The use
of the worm motif thus assumes even greater significance within the the-
matic constraints of the poem. The fish motif also has interpretative im-
port, since the process of being rendered “stumm” is transferable to the
poetic voice in its desperate and ultimately futile attempt to find answers
to the ‘whys’ of the Holocaust. The verb ‘durchweinen’ in the last stanza
is connected to the blinded eyes of the second ; we are now given the rea-
son for this state of blindness : grief at the scale of the suffering endured
has rendered the witness blind. This state of blindness calls to mind the
Job motto that precedes “O die Schornsteine,” in which Job claims that
even though his skin may have been destroyed by worms, he willnone-
theless seeGod. This redemptory vision of God was then refuted by Sachs
in the main body of the poem. This refutation was unexpected and at
odds with the certainty of the vision contained in the motto. This
3.11 Archetypes as Representational Devices 161

poem is a similar refutation of this redemptory message ; the only certain-
ty here is muteness and blindness.The final lines of the poem – “aber einmal wird das Sternbild deines
Blutes / alle aufgehenden Sonnen erbleichen lassen” – deserve particular
attention, given their frequent interpretation in religious ‘sense-making’
terms. Georg Langenhorst has provided a questionable reading of these
lines. He initially makes the following very valid point : “die negativen be-
setzten Wçrter ‘Blut’ und ‘erbleichen’ entlarven jede allzu optimistische
Interpretation dieser Schlußverse als Wunschdenken.” He then proceeds,
however, to argue that Sachs nonetheless provides a future-orientated es-
chatological outlook :
Hier ist nun die Rede von einem alles berstrahlenden ‘Sternbild,’ das einmal
‘alle aufgehenden Sonnen erbleichen lassen’ wird. […] Es handelt sich
hier […] um eine eschatologische Zukunf tsvision, die […] einen unzwei-
deutigen Umschwung zum Guten andeutet. […] Der derzeitigen ‘Sternver-
dunkelung’ wird […] eine zuknftige ‘Sternerstrahlung’ entgegengesetzt.“
(Langenhorst 1994 : 188) [emphasis in original]
Langenhorst reads the final two lines of the poem as suggestive of an ‘un-
ambiguous’ redemptive ‘turnaround’ of humanity “zum Guten”; he ar-
gues that Sachs presents her reader with the victory of a “Sternerstrah-
lung” over the “Sternverdunkelung” that was the Holocaust, thereby con-
juring up an image of a grand future radiance. This is a problematic read-
ing, however, when one takes into account the crucial genitive qualifica-
tion of the “Sternbild” metaphor in question, which Langenhorst over-
looks – “das Sternbild deines Blutes”[my emphasis] . An alternative read-
ing is that “alle aufgehenden Sonnen” – as symbols of hope – will be
paled by a constellation of Job’s blood, that is, the blood shed by millions
of Jews during the Shoah. Thus the ‘redness’ of each single rising sun will
be blanched by the ‘redness’ of a constellationcomposed of the blood of
the victims. This cannot be interpreted as “eine eschatologische Zu-
kunftsvision.” Erika Schweizer has suggested that Sachs leaves open the
possibility of a theodicy in this poem (Schweizer 2005 : 230). Such a
view is similarly disputable if one carefully considers the definition of the-
odicy – a justification of God that is concerned with reconciling the
goodness and justice of God with the observable facts of evil and suffering
in the world. The last two lines of the poem rule out the applicability of
Schweizer’s reading, since the genitive metaphor suggests that Sachs does
not attempt to provide a vindication of divine justice in the face of evil in
this poem. Her recourse to traditional Jewish imagery, can as Lehmann
comments, only ever be partial : “Aufgrund der erlittenen Geschichte
3 Nelly Sachs’ Poetics of Silence : Poetry at the Limits of Representation 162

kann auf jdisch-religiçse Vorstellungen nur gebrochen Bezug genom-
men werden. Eine Rckbindung an die religiçse Tradition im Sinne
eines alle Gegenstze versçhenden und erlçsenden Paradigmas wird ne-
giert.” (Lehmann 1999 : 69) For Sachs, there can be no direct renewal
of a connection to religious transcendence. She makes this very clear in
the poem “Und aus der dunklen Glut” where she states : “es kehrt auch
niemand heil zu seinem Gott zurck –” (Sachs 1961: 213). The prefix
“zurck” is significant here : it makes clear a time division, with Ausch-
witz being the line of demarcation. In another poem, Sachs openly chal-
lenges the value of religion in terms of providing an explanatory frame-
work : “dein Feind mit dem Rauch / deines verbrannten Leibes / [schrieb]
deine Todverlassenheit / an die Stirn des Himmels” (Sachs 1961: 101). In
a tone of deep cynicism Sachs, whilst not denying the existence of heaven,
certainly exhibits a cynical attitude towards the concept : on heaven’s brow
the smoke from the crematoria has ‘written’ the abandonment of the Jews
by God during their mass slaughter ; the only thing that reaches heaven is
the smoke from the incinerated bodies. This could be read as an accusa-
tion : the smoke reaches heaven as if to accuse.The poem “Vertriebene” ( Flucht und Verwandlung(1959)), in which
Job makes an important appearance, has also been interpreted by critics
in terms of a renewed and untroubled relationship with the divine :
aus Wohnungen
mit der Sterbeader hinter dem Ohr
die Sonne erschlagend –
Aus verlorenen Sitten geworfen
dem Gang der Gewsser folgend
dem weinenden Gelnder des Todes
halten oft noch in der Hçhle
des Mundes
ein Wort versteckt
aus Angst vor Dieben
sagen : Rosmarin
und kauen eine Wurzel
aus dem Acker gezogen
schmecken nchtelang : Abschied
sagen :
Die Zeit ist um
wenn eine neue Wunde aufbrach
im Fuß.
3.11 Archetypes as Representational Devices 163

Reißend wird ihr Leib
im Salz der Marter fortgefressen.
hat Hiob Gott gebildet.(Sachs 1961: 282 – 83)
“Vertriebene” may be interpreted as a reference to those who were expel-
led from their homes prior to their extermination. The apo koinoucon-
struction between lines four and five, connecting what are in fact two in-
dependent syntactic units, has the effect of drawing the reader’s attention
to the unsettling neologism “Sterbeader”: yet again Sachs creates an effect
of disruption by distorting familiar imagery. Veins, normally associated
with life, are now ‘veins of death.’ This ‘vein of death’ ‘slays’ the sun –
this English rendering does not do justice, however, to the phonetics of
the German term “erschlagend” which has a percussive, intensive, almost
violent effect. The result is a menacing sense throughout the first stanza
of the omnipresence of death under the Nazi dictatorship which has even
eliminated the light of the sun. The hyphenation after “erschlagend” par-
adoxically, as is always the case with Sachs’ “Sprachgebrde des Verstum-
mens,” makes present a terrifying absence : with any light from the sun
now blocked by the ubiquity of death, the stanza trails into nothingness.
Sachs opens the second stanza with a phrase carrying more semantic
weight than it might initially suggest to the reader. “Verlorene Sitten” can
of course be interpreted as a reference to the destruction of Jewish culture
in Eastern Europe : the Holocaust attempted to destroy a whole popula-
tion and, along with it, its culture. The term “Sitten” carries an extra se-
mantic layer, however, since it also connotes morals : it could be read as a
reference to the complete loss of dignity and the attendant loss of moral
awareness that the inmates of the camps suffered in the morally conflicted
space of the “grey zone.” Such an interpretation also assists the reader in
understanding Sachs’ choice of the verb ‘werfen’ which has connotations
of force : the inmates, after all, did not choose to abandon their previously
intact moral framework ; rather, work, exhaustion, disease, starvation and
an hourly sense of impending death made the adherence to any such
framework impossible. The initially pleasant reference to “Gang der Ge-
wsser” that follows is then distorted as the reader learns that these ‘wa-
ters’ are in fact weeping “Gelnder des Todes.” The connection of the ab-
stract term ‘death’ with the concrete object ‘Gelnder’ reinforces the ubiq-
uity of death in the reader’s mind : the camp is presented as an ‘enclosure’
of death. The expellees (by this stage of the poem they are the survivors of
3 Nelly Sachs’ Poetics of Silence : Poetry at the Limits of Representation 164

the death camps) hide words in what are described as ‘hollow mouths’: it
is only at this point that the main clause, which was initiated in the open-
ing line, is continued. This ‘hiding of words’ can be read as a reference to
the impossibility of adequate testimony. It could also be an allusion to the
fear so prevalent among the survivors that their testimony, so utterly in-
assimilable as it was, simply wouldn’t be believed. Alternatively, it may be
a reference to the fact that some survivors chose not to speak, since they
did not consider themselves what Primo-Levi calls “the true witnesses,”
“those who touched bottom” (Levi 1989 : 83 – 84).In the third stanza, “Abschied,” a term carrying some of the most sin-
ister connotations in Sachs’ lexicon, reappears : the survivor’s can ‘taste’ it
“nchtelang.” This seemingly permanent presence of death has the at-
tendant result of opening up new wounds. The use of the participle con-
struction “reißend” in conjunction with the prefix “fort” in “fortgefres-
sen,” intensifies this sense of permanence : the survivors’ wounded bodies
continue to be ‘fed on’ in the ‘salt of torture.’ As a caustic substance, on
the one hand, salt corrodes their bodies. As a preservative, on the other
hand, the salt image serves to compound survivor trauma, presenting it
as an enduring condition. Ursula Rudnick contends that this line portrays
an “uncharacteristically violent image” (Rudnick 1995 : 97) [my empha-
sis] . This is difficult statement to uphold, given that this line can in
fact be considered rather tame in light of some of the imagery that has
been encountered thus far. At first glance, the final verse of this poem would seem to suggest that
in his state of suffering, Job formed an image of God. Accordingly, these
lines have been interpreted by critics as positing a redemptive conclusion.
(cf. Kuschel 1994 and Bohnheim 2002) Gwynith Young similarly views
these lines as an affirmation of the divine (cf. Young 2006). A poem that
concludes with Job apparently successfully forming an image of God, in
spite of the trials endured in the preceding stanzas, certainly provides
these critics with convincing interpretative capital. The first difficulty,
however, with such an interpretation is that redemption in relation to
the divine does not appear anywhere in any of the poems discussed
thus far. Sachs’ Job, in the poems hitherto examined, was described exclu-
sively in terms of smoke from the crematoria and as having been rendered
mute. Sachs’ Job is certainly not a redemptive Job ; hers is a Job who has
been rendered speechless, who has literally gone up in smoke and thus
powerless to ‘form’ anything. Aside from Sachs’ general non-redemptive
treatment of the Job theme in her work, there is also a grammatical am-
biguity in the final stanza of this poem that must be considered. While
3.11 Archetypes as Representational Devices 165

the final line cannot be translated as anything other than “Job formed
God” or as “Job created God,” the German original can be read quite dif-
ferently. Grammatically speaking “Gott” can be considered the subject of
the final sentence. Gesine Schauerte is one of the few critics who ac-
knowledeges this. Her subsequent interpretation, however, then falls
back on the problematic redemptive argument. Having acknowledged
the grammatical ambiguity, she proceeds to argue that Sachs’ treatment
of Job in the preceding lines represents Hiob’s “Gottesbedrftigkeit”
and that the final lines represent an invocation of God :
Da sowohl ‘Gott’ als auch ‘Hiob’ als Subjekt des Satzes […] angesehen werden
kçnnen und dadurch der jeweils andere zum Objekt der Schçpfung wird, muss
das verzweifelte Fragen des biblischen Hiobs nach Gott im Lichte dieser
Zeilen […] als Ausdruck […] seiner Gottesbedrftigkeit angesehen wer-
den […] , als Selbstbehauptung Hiobs, der sich Gottes in der Anrufung ver-
gewissert, ihn […] ins Leben ruft. (Schauerte 2007: 80)
I interpret this ambiguity differently. The closing lines arguably embody
the unresolved tension in Sachs’ paradoxical “version of survival” (Langer
1982 : 250) which, as mentioned earlier, encourages the spirit towards
heaven whilst simultaneously drawing it back to the realities of the Hol-
ocaust. The image of God represents this spiritual journey, whilst the
image of an eyeless and skinless Job represents the consequences that
“the vast anonymous grave of Jewish doom” (Langer 1982 : 250) now
holds for religious belief. Kuschel argues that reading God as the subject
is invalid on the basis that it would represent
eine noch unerhçrtere Aussage, ohne Parallele im sonstigen Werk der Nelly
Sachs, weil dies die Verantwortung Gottes fr das schreckliche Leidens-
schicksal Hiobs direkt benennen wrde. Die Frage nach der Schuld Gottes
wre damit unmißverstndlich aufgeworfen, was aber im sonstigen autobio-
graphischen oder lyrischen Werk der Nelly Sachs nicht vorkommt. (Kuschel
1994 : 213)
Kuschel’s reasoning is unsound, however. Sachs’ thematisation of the Job
archetype can be seen – chronologically speaking – as steadily radical ; at
no point does she temper her refutation of the redemptory terms offered
by the Biblical account. Indeed, the chronological presentation of these
three poems was intentionally chosen to demonstrate Sachs’ unabated
radical position in relation to the Job archetype. In the first poem exam-
ined, Job trailed as smoke from the chimney of the crematorium ; in the
poem “Hiob,” composed two years later, Sachs describes a constellation
of stars composed of Job’s blood that will one day pale even the sun,
while in this poem Sachs performs perhaps her most radical reversal of
3 Nelly Sachs’ Poetics of Silence : Poetry at the Limits of Representation 166

the Biblical story : by declaring that God formed Job eyeless, Sachs makes
it clear that there wasneverany hope of ‘seeing’ God. Furthermore, Ku-
schel’s claim that a direct thematisation of divine guilt does not appear
anywhere in Sachs’ work is untrue. The most poignant poem in this re-
spect, “Landschaft aus Schreien” will later provide evidence to counter
Kuschel’s claim. Alongside Job, another recurrent Old Testament arche-
type in Sachs’ work, namely, the Biblical figure Abraham, has led to
just as much misinterpretation and perhaps even greater controversy.
3.11.2 Abraham : Refuting the Martyrdom Thesis
It is easy to appreciate the value of the Job story when it comes to the
representation of Auschwitz : depending on the writer’s stance, he/she
can either apply Job’s unwavering embrace of faith in the divine despite
his earthly suffering to the Holocaust experience or, as in the case of Nelly
Sachs, dismiss this redemptive outcome and expose the inadequacy of
biblical paradigms. It is much more difficult, however, to comprehend
how the story of the binding of Isaac, the Akedah, has found such a
strong presence in post-Shoah literary, philosophical and theological dis-
course. Before examining Sachs’ employment of this archetype, the ques-
tion must be addressed as to how a Biblical story which, according to
some critics, thematises martyrdom could be mentioned in the same
breath as Auschwitz. The martyrdom message that the tale supposedly
carries has in fact been attributedto the original Biblical account. I use
the word ‘attributed’ here, because in fact the Biblical account, strictly
speaking, has nothing to do with martyrdom.
8The Akedah, as an ode
to martyrdom, was disseminated by the midrashim, that is, by commen-
tators on the story, according to whom Isaac did in fact die, but was res-
urrected. (cf. Berman 1997: 89) Most contemporary Jewish scholars,
however, insist that the Akedah does not convey the theme of martyrdom,
since the glorification of martyrdom in traditional Judaism is in fact a
grave breach of halakha– the collective body of Jewish religious law.
Elie Wiesel, for example, takes an intransigent stance in this respect.
“[I]n the Jewish tradition,” he argues “one cannot use death as a means
8 This discussion of martyrdom is not intended as an authoritative investigation into the complexities of the development of this problematic concept, but
aims, rather, to highlight those aspects which are most relevant within the context
of this study.
3.11 Archetypes as Representational Devices 167

of glorifying God” and he adds : “the idea that suffering is good for the
Jews is one that owes its popularity to our enemies” (Wiesel 1976 : 79).
Haym Soloveitchik, a leading contemporary historian ofHalakha,
takes a similar stance :
Jewish law has very stringent regulations regarding rules of martyrdom. In a
few extreme cases, martyrdom is absolutely mandatory. In those cases in
which it is not mandatory it is forbidden, and […] one who suffers voluntary
martyrdom should be viewed as having committed suicide. Life is not op-
tional in Judaism. And one knows of no allowance for committing suicide
to avoid forced conversion. (Soloveitchik 1987: 207 – 08)
In his article “Halakhah, hermeneutics, and martyrdom in medieval Ash-
kenaz.” Soloveitchik outlines further his position of martyrdom in Juda-
ism :
Jewish law recognizes two types of coercion : absolute and relative. ‘Absolute
coercion’ means that someone throws me down in front of an idol ; ‘relative
coercion’ means I choose to bow down to the idol because I fear otherwise
being murdered. In the former, the individual’s body is the object of anoth-
er’s action ; in the latter, the person’s will is the object of coercion, for in rel-
ative coercion the individual must freely choose to actively abjure his religion
to avoid death. This distinction is maintained in the martyr imperative,
where the victim is given a choice between compliance and death. Compli-
ance involving absolute coercion does not require martyrdom ; one involving
relative coercion, where action is demanded of the individual, does. For ex-
ample, should someone say, ‘Stand still so I can throw you down in front of
the idol otherwise I will kill you’ there is no imperative of martyrdom. A
statement of ‘Bow down orI will kill you’ demands a martyr’s response. In
other words, Jewish law demands martyrdom only in the case of coercion
of the will where the victim must act upon a choice he has made, not in
cases of coercion of the passive body.
9(Soloveitchik 2004 : 80 – 81) [my em-
9 Soloveitchik describes the massacre of Ashkenazi Jews in 1096 and the slaughter
of children by their parents to prevent them falling into Christian hands, not as
martyrdom, but rather as an enormous breach of halakha(cf. Soloveitchik 2004
and Berman 1997: 93). It is important to note that the Book of Maccabees –
essentially a panegyric to the concept of martyrdom – was embraced by the
Christian Church long before it was embraced by rabbinic literature. At the
time the Book appeared the Church was being persecuted by Rome and martyr-
dom was soon adopted as an important Christian concept. It would not be for
another one thousand years that the Books of the Maccabees would be translated
into Hebrew, since the Greek eulogy of martyrdom was regarded as having no
place in Judaism. The glorification of martyrdom, as Berman writes, was consid-
ered “too Hellenistic” in spirit (Berman 1997: 91 – 92).
3 Nelly Sachs’ Poetics of Silence : Poetry at the Limits of Representation 168

There was, however, no such ‘or’ option in the Holocaust, since there was
no option of conversion ; every Jew on European soil was to die regard-
less, and thus the concept of martyrdom, by definition, cannot apply
here. Moreover, the issue of voluntariness is crucial. During and after
the Holocaust, the termkiddush ha-shem– ‘the sanctification of God’s
Holy name,’ a process which involves Jews voluntarily accepting martyr-
dom rather than betraying their religion – ceased to make any sense. The
concept of voluntariness, so central to the concept of martyrdom, was,
after all, completely absent in the Holocaust. Judaism, as Jonathan
Sacks points out, had had its chronicles filled with martyrs before. But
death in past times had retained at least the dignity of choice : throughout
the religious persecutions of the past, Jews could escape death by re-
nouncing Judaism. What makes the Holocaust different is that for the
first time Jews had no such choice. (Sacks 1992 : 43) Kiddush ha-shem
was thus replaced by the term kiddush ha-hayyim, a term coined by
Rabbi Yitzhak Nissenbaum in the Warsaw ghetto. The term translates
as ‘the sanctification of life,’ and describes Jewish resistance attempts
that glorified Jewish life, rather than supposed Jewish ‘martyrdom.’ The intrepration of the Akedah as a story of martyrdom and the ap-
plication of this Biblical tale to Auschwitz as an explanatory framework
has led to some very problematic theological analyses of the Holocaust.
Jacob Neusner, for example, has attempted to ‘explain’ the Shoah in
terms of the redemption offered by the Biblical account. In his view,
the slaughter at Auschwitz was ‘redeemed’ by the birth of the state of Is-
rael ; the Holocaust is seen by him as God’s ‘mysterious way’ of bringing
the state of Israel into being :
In this rebirth of the Jewish state we see […] the resurrection of Israel […]
out of the gas chambers of Europe. The binding of Isaac today stands for the
renewal of Israel in its life as a state […] . It is as though we have died and
been reborn, for if truth be told, we have died and we have been reborn. No
wonder then that we find in the details of the binding of Isaac as our sages
read it an account of what has happened to us […] . (Neusner 1990 : 114)
Commenting on Neusner’s interpretation, Louis Berman writes : “‘We
have died and have been reborn.’ With these words, Neusner comes
close to saying the Akedah and the Holocaust are both events of martyr-
dom.” (Berman 1997: 87) Emil Fackenheim has denounced any attempt
to view the coming into being of the state of Israel as having somehow
‘redeemed’ the Holocaust as blasphemous. He argues that whilst “to see
a causal connection is possible […] to see a purpose is intolerable”(Facken-
heim 1987: 163) [my emphasis] . Yehuda Bauer has outlined the prob-
3.11 Archetypes as Representational Devices 169

lematics of the martyrdom thesis put forward by the orthodox line of
thought which has “appropriated not only the victims of the Holocaust,
but increasingly all the Jews who died in it, considering them all believing
Jews who supposedly died inKiddush Hashem”:
For an orthodox Jew, sanctif ying the name of God ( Kiddush Hashem)
through martyrdom is the highest degree of religious observance, and the
martyr will thank the Almighty for having been given the privilege of
being a sacrifice. However, in the Holocaust Jews were not killed for what
they did or did not believe, and they could not escape death by conversion,
apostasy, or change of ideology. They were murdered for being Jews […] .
There was absolutely no element of personal decision in their fate : they
were murdered for having been born. […] Traditional Jewish martyrdom
had an important moral element – voluntariness – which was absent in
the Holocaust. […] All martyrdom is voluntary by definition. A person
who does not want to be a martyr but is killed anyway is the victim of mur-
der not martyrdom. (Bauer 2001: 206)
Bauer’s astute analysis is significant ; while the orthodox Jew might ‘thank
the Almighty’ for having been given the privilege of being ‘chosen’ as a
sacrifice, the vast majority of those murdered most certainly did not
see their annihilation as a sacrifice, let alone ‘thank’ God for the supposed
‘privilege.’ In addition to Neusner’s views, the martyrdom thesis has given
rise to a number of other morally questionable analyses in post-Shoah
theology. Ignatz Maybaum, for example, has interpreted the Shoah as
the vicarious suffering of the Jews in terms of their supposed ‘atonement’
for the sins of the gentiles. (Maybaum 1965 : 32) Another thesis that has
found a presence in post-Shoah theology, albeit a minimal presence in
contemporary Jewish thought, is the ‘punishment’ thesis expounded by
the orthodox Jewish thinker Menachem Imanuel Hartom. Hartom has
interpreted the Shoah as the supposed ‘punishment’ for the sins of the
Jews themselves – “Unserer Snden wegen,” as he titled his essay. Having
embraced emancipation and the attendant freedom from the Torah that
accompanied it, and having abandoned Zionism, the Jews were, in his
view, ‘deserving’ of their ‘punishment’ at Auschwitz. (cf. Hartom 1982)
In the light of such views, Emil Fackenheim has called for a “total and
uncompromising sweep” of all explanations purporting to give purpose
to Auschwitz. “No purpose,” he writes, “religious or non religious, will
ever be found in Auschwitz. The very attempt to find one is blasphe-
mous” (Fackenheim 1987: 163).
Nelly Sachs unquestionably refutes both the theological attempts at
explaining Auschwitz and the ‘sense-making,’ redemptive messages that
have been attributed to the Akedah as in any way applicable to the Hol-
3 Nelly Sachs’ Poetics of Silence : Poetry at the Limits of Representation 170

ocaust. She draws upon this story, not to exploit its message of divine sac-
rifice as a way of somehow ‘explaining’ Auschwitz, nor to use the martyr-
dom message that has been attributed to it as a means of somehow trans-
forming the million-fold slaughter into some kind of martyrdom act.
Rather, she draws on it to do precisely the opposite : to repudiate any
such suggestions. “Ein Totes Kind spricht” (In den Wohnungen des
Todes (1947), sub-cycle Dein Leib in Rauch durch die Luft ) serves as a
case in point. In this poem the reversal of the Akedah story occupies a
pivotal role, both in terms of reversing its sacrificial message and its al-
leged martyrdom message :
Die Mutter hielt mich an der Hand
Dann hob jemand das Abschiedsmesser :
Die Mutter lçste ihre Hand aus der meinen,
Damit es mich nicht trfe.
Sie aber berhrte noch einmal leise meine Hfte –
Und da blutete ihre Hand –
Von da ab schnitt mir das Abschiedsmesser
Den Bissen in der Kehle entzwei –
Es fuhr in der Morgendmmerung mit der Sonne hervor
Und begann sich in meinen Augen zu schrfen –
In meinem Ohr schliffen sich Winde und Wasser,
Und jede Troststimme stach in mein Herz –
Als man mich zum Tod fhrte,
Fhlte ich im letzten Augenblick noch
Das Herausziehen des großen Abschiedsmessers.
(Sachs 1961: 13)
In this poem Sachs provides the reader with a taste of the ineffable terror
that reigned in the death camps. She opens the poem with the seemingly
innocent image of a mother holding her child’s hand which, in terms of
Sachs’ poetics, is immediate cause for suspicion. This innocence duly lasts
but a fleeting moment, undergoing immediate distortion in the second
line with the introduction of the brutal image of the “Abschiedsmesser.”
In this poem the “Abschied” motif, standing once again aspars pro totofor
the annihilation process, reaches its fullest expression. The image of this
knife being raised serves a double purpose. Firstly, it functions as a refer-
ence to the violent selection process on the ramps of the death camps as
children were forced from their mothers for immediate extermination. In
the eyes of the Nazis, Jewish children were to be ‘disposed of ’ immedi-
ately, since they were considered ‘worthless’ on all counts : they could
not even serve the temporary purpose of slave labour. Secondly, the
3.11 Archetypes as Representational Devices 171

image calls to mind Abraham raising the knife to kill his son. The reader
is thus drawn into a clear allegorical field : Sachs has chosen one of the
most redemptive stories from the Old Testament, and the reader is led
to expect that like Isaac, the child will be saved by divine intervention.
This allegorical field allows the poem to be read as a maternal reconfigu-
ration of the binding of Isaac in Genesis. The child, as Joan Peterson
comments, “transposes Isaac of the Akedah while Abraham’s role is re-
versed by that of the mother” (Peterson 2000 : 202). In the Biblical ac-
count, Abraham concedes to God’s demand to offer his son as a sacrifice
to test his faith. The imposition of any such interpretative framework on
Auschwitz is, of course, wholly inappropriate. In her attempt to demon-
strate the futility of available paradigms to deal with the slaughter, Sachs
proceeds instead to reverse the Biblical story on all fronts ; she reverses it,
she distorts it and she dismembers it : there is certainly no ‘offering’ of the
child on the part of the mother, while the celestial voice audible from
‘above’ and the provision of the ram in place of Isaac for the slaughter
in the original story are also absent. Instead, both mother and child are
slaughtered at the hands of the perpetrator’s “Abschiedsmesser.” The
mother, in her attempt tosaveher child, as opposed to offeringher
child, releases the child’s hand, but her own hand is then bloodied in
the process – a metaphor for the mother’s death. This is a further glaring
inversion of the Biblical account in which the paternal figure is rewarded
for his willto sacrifice his son, with God promising to bless Abraham’s
descendents. The child is also subsequently slaughtered – “als man
mich zum Tode fhrte” – a clear inversion of the provision of the ram
as Isaac’s replacement in the Biblical account. In Auschwitz and Treblin-
ka, after all, there was certainly no last-minute divine substitute for the
slaughtered victims. Just like Sachs’ refutation of the redemptory terms
offered by the book of Job, the reversal of the sacrificial message of
this Biblical story is similarly significant in terms of refuting any kind
of religious ‘sense-making’ interpretation. Annette Jael Lehmann, claim-
ing that Sachs makes use of the traditional concept of martyrdom in her
work, argues that martyrdom for the camp inmates offers them one final
opportunity to practice their religion : “Das dem jdischen Volk zuge-
fgte Leid,” she continues, “verbrgt seine Auserwhlung und Berufung.
Das Leiden ist […] ein Verdienst, mit dem der Leidende in einer anderen
Welt erhçht werden soll.” Lehmann concludes : “Das Martyrium des j-
dischen Volkes bildet die unabdingbare Voraussetzung fr seine Erlç-
sung.” (Lehmann 1999 : 85) This is an extremely problematic assessment
in light of this poem. At no point does Sachs deliver the message that the
3 Nelly Sachs’ Poetics of Silence : Poetry at the Limits of Representation 172

million-fold slaughter somehow ‘vouched for’ the ‘chosenness’ of the Jew-
ish people, let alone declare this slaughter an inevitable prerequisite for
their “Erlçsung.”The temporal phrase “Von da an” signifies the ‘before-after’ division
so common in Sachs’ work ; her poetry is consistently punctuated by the
pre- and post-Auschwitz time division, symbolic of the irreversible “Zivi-
lisationsbruch,” to borrow Diner’s term, that Auschwitz has occasioned.
The ‘Verstummen’ into which the poem begins to drown with the slaugh-
ter of both mother and child, is a resounding one, rendered absulute by
the dash. This silence is broken only by the unsettling image of the knife
sharpening itself within the child’s own eyes. This conveys not only a
sense of terror on the part of the child, it also attributes animate proper-
ties to the “Abschiedsmesser,” indicating the way in which the Nazi anni-
hilation machinery took on an uncontrollable life of its own. The line “als
man mich zum Tode fhrte” carries clearly perceptible accusatory over-
tones : it is evidently a reference to the Nazi henchmen who ‘led’ the
Jews to their death. The Akedah is thus not used by Sachs as an affirmation of God’s sav-
ing benevolence, nor as a test of Abraham’s – and by extension the Jewish
people’s – faith. Nor is there any saving gesture comparable with the Bib-
lical account. Sachs presents her reader instead with a subversion of the
archetype as a way of communicating the challenge to accepted religious
paradigms in the face of the extremity of the atrocity to which she is at-
tempting to bear witness. Subverting established myths and, in the proc-
ess, exposing their vulnerability as explanatory paradigms, is thus a very
effective tool in Sachs’ attempt to present the unrepresentable. In the poem “Landschaft aus Schreien” ( Und niemand weiß weiter
(1957), sub-cycle Die Stunde zu Endor ), Sachs’ most acoustically evocative
work, Sachs brings together both Abraham and Hiob. This is one of the
longest and most tortuous of all of Sachs’ works. She uses apocalyptic im-
agery to describe a nightmare landscape of horror, a post-Auschwitz land-
scape that resembles a “Hçllengemlde” (Schweizer 2005 : 231), in which
the survivor’s existential world is composed of nothing but screams.
“Landschaft aus Schreien” is a poem that attempts to portray the “agon-
ised conscious and unconscious mind” of the one who witnesses evil, a
poem in which Sachs constructs “a nightmare, blood-drenched world
of madness and of pain” (G. Young 2006 : 211). “Landschaft aus
Schreien” is an attempt by Sachs to portray the physical and psychological
effects of survivor trauma, and a sense of hysteria pervades each line to
the point that it seems to affect the poem’s very texture. The name of
3.11 Archetypes as Representational Devices 173

the cycle alone from which this poem is takenUnd niemand weiß weiter,
provides the reader with a taste of the despair that characterises the poem :
In der Nacht, wo Sterben Genhtes zu trennen beginnt,
reißt die Landschaft aus Schreien
den schwarzen Verband auf,
ber Moria, dem Klippenabsturz zu Gott,
schwebt des Opfermessers Fahne
Abrahams Herz-Sohn Schrei,
am großen Ohr der Bibel liegt er bewahrt.
O die Hieroglyphen aus Schreien,
an die Tod-Eingangstr gezeichnet.
Wundkorallen aus zerbrochenen Kehlenf lçten.
O, o Hnde mit Angstpflanzenfingern,
eingegraben in wildbumende Mhnen Opferblutes –
Schreie, mit zerfetzten Kiefern der Fische verschlossen,
Weheranke der kleinsten Kinder
und der schluckenden Atemschleppe der Greise,
eingerissen in versengtes Azur mit brennenden Schweifen.
Zellen der Gefangenen, der Heiligen,
mit Albtraummuster der Kehlen tapezierte,
fiebernde Hçlle in der Hundehtte des Wahnsinns
aus gefesselten Sprngen –
Dies ist die Landschaft aus Schreien !
Himmelfahrt aus Schreien,
Empor aus des Leibes Knochengittern,
Pfeile aus Schreien, erlçste
aus blutigen Kçchern.
Hiobs Vier-Winde-Schrei
und der Schrei verborgen im lberg
wie ein von Ohnmacht bermanntes Insekt im Kristall.
O Messer aus Abendrot, in die Kehlen geworfen,
wo die Schlafbume blutleckend aus der Erde fahren,
wo die Zeit wegfllt
an den Gerippen in Maidanek und Hiroshima.
Ascheschrei aus blindgequltem Seherauge –
O du blutendes Auge
in der zerfetzten Sonnenfinsternis
zum Gott-Trocknen aufgehngt
im Weltall – (Sachs 1961: 221 – 23)
3 Nelly Sachs’ Poetics of Silence : Poetry at the Limits of Representation 174

In this poem the poetic voice frantically proceeds from one image to an-
other, creating in the process a nightmarish, blood-drenched post-Holo-
caust montage. The poem’s frantic pace exemplifies what Bosmajian de-
scribes as the ability of the confined space of the lyric to “crowd the
rhythms and associations of images to such a degree that their inherent
energies are driven to a pitch and maintained at a point of balance
whence they might break forth creatively or destructively” (Bosmajian
1979 : 183). The first stanza introduces the sense of chaos that permeates
the entire poem. That chaos is the recurrent night-time terror experienced
by those who have survived the Shoah. In a letter to Walter Berendsohn,
Sachs herself described how her mother relived the terror every night :
“Wir waren zu Tode gehetzt hier angekommen. Mein Mttchen erlebte
jede Nacht noch den Schrecken.” (Sachs 1984 : 157) Night, synonymous
with death in Sachs’ lexicon, tears open all seams of apparent healing and
closure ; it rips open the daytime ‘bandage’ which by nightfall is black
with blood. This bandage has been interpreted by Bossanide as a “Zei-
chen fr das falsche Vergessen, das, was das Unverheilte oder Unverheil-
bare nur vordergrndig berdeckend zusammenhlt” (Bossinade 1985 :
149). The wound that the Holocaust has inflicted is thus only ever super-
ficially healed.Sachs proceeds to construct what Young describes as a “nightmare
montage” (G. Young 2006 : 215). The topography of the remainder of
the poem is an ominous one. Sachs compresses a series of blood-drenched
images ranging from the binding of Isaac, to Job’s suffering, to the Nazi
death camp at Maidanek, and eliminates in the process any prospect of
10 Mount Moriah, the location of the binding of Isaac, is
named as the first landscape of screams. Any redemptive expectations
which the reader might harbour upon encountering this quintessential lo-
cation of divine deliverance are, however, quickly shattered. Sachs pro-
vides no such reprieve. If anything, her imagery in relation to the Akedah
becomes increasingly radical in this poem. Her focus is on Abraham’s
scream. She frantically proceeds from this image to the next picture in
the montage – hieroglyphs of screams at the “Tod-Eingangstr,” and
then leaves the reader with the most disquieting image of a sinister
‘flag’ bearing the illustration of the “Opfermesser” hovering heraldically
10 The reference to Hiroshima is evidence of the gradual movement in Sachs’ poetry towards the universal concept of victimhood that characterised her work from the
mid-1950s until her death in 1970. The Holocaust remained, however, “a per-
petual theme” (Langer 1982 : 218).
3.11 Archetypes as Representational Devices 175

above Mount Moria. This hovering image can be read as Sachs’ repudi-
ation of the redemptive aspect of the Biblical tale, while the description
of Abraham’s scream as a resounding silent scream preserved “am großen
Ohr der Bibel” brings the aporia of Holocaust testimony to the fore.The image of “Klippenabsturz zu Gott” – Mount Moria plunging
downward, as opposed to ascending to God – is significant. Gwynith
Young argues that Sachs reverses the traditional metaphor of ascent to
God that characterises the original scriptural narrative, in which Abra-
ham, carrying a knife and fire, begins to ascend Mount Moriah with
his son Isaac, who carries the wood for his sacrifice. By contrast, Young
argues, the mountain becomes for Sachs “the falling off of cliffs to
God,” since the scriptural metaphor of steady ascent is replaced by a vio-
lent fall (G. Young 2006 : 216 – 17). Young interprets this image of col-
lapse, however, in a highly problematic way. She argues that “because it
is linked with the statement that the fall is towards God, the change of
direction in this poem collapses together concepts of heaven and hell ;
in this way, Sachs insists on the presence of the Divine in the hell of Hol-
ocaust suffering” (G. Young 2006 : 217). Young essentially argues that in
this poem Sachs is attempting to deliver the message that God was pres-
ent in Auschwitz. Her argument has the unintended effect of presenting
the Holocaust as somehow divinely ordained, that the Jews were ‘sacri-
ficed’ for some greater purpose only known to God. Such an interpreta-
tion is, however, at odds Sachs’ refusal in this poem to frame the Holo-
caust within a meaningful religious narrative, since this would have the
attendant result of attributing some kind of sense to a wholly senseless
massacre. She refuses the comforting notion that meaning can somehow
be reclaimed by wrestling a redeeming message from the slaughter. The
collapse of this paradigmatic location of divine deliverance can be inter-
preted as precisely this refusal to impose any such framework on the mil-
lion-fold annihilation. After all, at no point in this poem is the profusion
of apocalyptic imagery complemented by any suggestion of a redemptive
outcome. The demonic imagery in the lines “O die Hieroglyphen aus
Schreien / an die Tod-Eingangstr gezeichnet” immediately conjures up
the inscription above the ‘gate of death’ at Auschwitz, namely, “Arbeit
macht frei”; these words have become hieroglyphic screams due to
their absolute unintelligibility. Hamida Bosmajin’s concept of “constriction” is helpful in analysing
this poem, since the screams contained in this landscape of horror are
in fact screams of entrapment. (Bosmajian 1979 : 183) I would argue
that these images of constriction become apparent to the reader precisely
3 Nelly Sachs’ Poetics of Silence : Poetry at the Limits of Representation 176

because they are the antithesis of the ‘aufreißenden’ images contained in
the first stanza. Images of entrapment and constriction abound from the
second verse onwards : Abraham’s scream isheld preserved, screams are
‘sealed’ tight in the shredded mandibles of fish and in the “schluckende[n]
Atemschleppe” of the old. Both of these images describe a state of con-
striction in terms of the entrapment of words within impenetrable
walls of silence, as the survivor attempts to bear witness to the horrors
endured. Saints and prisoners are now trappedin cells, these cells in
turn are tapestried – another image of covering over – with the ‘nightmare
pattern of throats’: rendered useless, the throat has become a mere pattern
on a tapestry. The entrapped spirit – possibly the poetic voice – of the
“Hunde httedes Wahnsinns” – itself an enclosed space – attempts to es-
cape this space of madness, but is capable only of shackledleaps ; Job’s
scream to the four winds is trapped“wie ein von Ohnmacht bermanntes
Insekt im Kristall”; this image of the trapped insect in solid crystal is rem-
iniscent of the trapped moth examined earlier and may be read as an al-
lusion to the aporia of Holocaust testimony. All of these images point to
the claustrophobia, the “constriction” and the hysteria of the lyrical sub-
ject in its attempt to describe the horrors of Auschwitz. The image of the
“zerbrochene[n] Kehlenflçten” is quite possibly connected to the asphyx-
iation of the poetic breath ; deprived of the necessary air, the flute, as a
wind instrument, becomes choked and releases a hellish scream in
place of harmonious sound. Further intertextual references come to
mind here : the throat motif in the neologism “Kehlenflçte[.]” is reminis-
cent of the demand made by Sachs in the poem “Hier nehme ich euch
gefangen” to hear a harmonious sound. Just as any hope of such a
sound was dashed in that poem, here too it is clear that the post-Ausch-
witz guttural flutes are capable only of screams. The ‘landscape of screams’ is then described as emerging from “des
Leibes Knochengittern,” while screams are released from ‘bloody quivers.’
At this point, Sachs presents the reader with a chaos so total that, in parts,
it resists analysis. The significance of many of the images in the poem
may be seen in terms of their unambiguous Holocaust connotations.
The poem, as Bosmajian writes, “reveals a chain of fragmented images,
each reinforcing a variable of the same idea, just as documentary photos
of mountains of glasses, shoes, or hair say finally the same thing and
point to something beyond their ‘thingness’” (Bosmajian 1979 : 203).
The scream, representing the most primal human response to terror,
has been silenced ; it has been dispossessed of its power of expression.
What remains is a nightmare terrain devoid of any meaning. This ‘silent
3.11 Archetypes as Representational Devices 177

scream’ which, to the reader’s ear, is anything but silent, also has a con-
structive purpose, however, in terms of Sachs’ attempt to present the ‘un-
representable.’ As Lehmann writes : “Der Schrei ist das auf dem schmals-
ten Grad zwischen Sprechen und Verstummen angesiedelte Zeichen […] .
[Der Schrei] macht auf die Kluft zwischen Zeichen und damit zu Be-
zeichnendem aufmerksam, da die im Schrei erreichte Ausdrucksgrenze
neuerlich beweist, daß es ein Undarstellbares gibt.” (Lehmann 1999 :
31 – 32) The scream replaces words ; it points to ‘the extremity that eludes
the concept.’ In Sachs’ poetry, the scream may thus be considered another
device of ‘Verstummen’: it expresses nothing but, at the same time, it
presents the fact that there is an ‘excess’ in the Holocaust that defies ar-
ticulation.The images of hands and fingers, so frequent in Sachs’ work, appear
once again with a distorted physicality ; they are now “Hnde mit Ang-
stpflanzenfingern.” This image immediately calls to mind the “Hnde
der Todesgrtner” and the “schrecklicke Wrterinnen” sowing “de[n] fal-
sche[n] Tod” in the poem “O der weinenden Kinder Nacht”: just as death
was ‘sown’ in those poems, fear is being ‘sown’ in this “Landschaft aus
Schreien.” The verb ‘pflanzen,’ traditionally carrying connotations of
growth and blossom, is now associated with terror. The line “Ascheschrei
aus blindgequltem Seherauge” carries a significant synesthetic metaphor.
Defined in linguistic terms as “a description of something one experiences
by a definite sense organ by using adjectives whose referent is another”
(Cacciari 1998 : 128), the term “Ascheschrei” fuses together the intensities
of two disparate concepts from two incongruous sensory spheres, thereby
creating an effect of disorientation and distress. The image of the “Se-
herauge” that follows may be interpreted as an allusion to the collective
eye of those who have witnessed the Shoah. This ‘visionary eye’ has
been ‘tortured blind’ by the evil it has seen. The paradoxical concept of
blind clairvoyance contained in this image brings to mind the mytholog-
ical blind seer Teiresias whose prophetic ability was gained at the high
price of physical blindness. The eye of Sachs’ seer, however, is not only
blinded, it is a disembodied bleeding eye, deprived of prophetic vision ;
it has been ‘hung out to dry’ like a tattered, ‘eclipsing sun’ – the term
“Sonnenfinsternis” conjuring up an all-enveloping, ominous and sinister
darkness. The line “zum Gott-Trocknen aufgehngt” is used here by a re-
signed poetic voice as an unmistakable allusion a Divinity indifferent to
the fate of the suffering of the Jewish people during the Shoah. Once
again Sachs does not provide any form of redemptive release. Gwynith
Young’s claims that “in the Akedah passage […] Sachs […] brings to
3 Nelly Sachs’ Poetics of Silence : Poetry at the Limits of Representation 178

awareness traces of God’s covenantal promises” and that she “never wav-
ers in her faith in Israel’s God” (G. Young 2006 : 219 – 20) are difficult to
uphold in the face of such a poem. Far from a reaffirmation of her faith
in divine covenantal promise, Sachs expresses instead her despair, not at a
divinity that was merely temporarily veiled from human perception given
the scale of the evil, but at an absent divinity. Sachs’ use of the Abraham
motif, like Sachs’ distortion of the Job archetype, can thus be viewed as a
clear example of the process of “figuration” which she exploits in her
work. She chooses those aspects of the Akedah that are useful in terms
of the connotative imagery they evoke – the “Abschiedsmesser” and
Isaac’s scream being exemplary in this respect – whilst refuting the orig-
inal consolatory endings of the Biblical tale. In the poem “Daniel Dan-
iel,” Sachs engages in a similar process, as she draws on another redemp-
tive Biblical tale from the Old Testament.3.11.3 Daniel : Interpreter of Nightmares
Despite the fact that Sachs devotes a complete poem to Daniel, this ar-
chetypal figure has been largely overlooked in critical contributions to
her work. The poem in question, “Daniel Daniel,” from the cycle Stern-
verdunkelung (1949) (sub-cycle Die Muschel saust), may be read as a de-
spairing address at this Biblical figure :
Daniel, Daniel –
die Orte ihres Sterbens
sind in meinem Schlaf erwacht –
dort, wo ihre Qual mit dem Welken der Haut verging
haben die Steine die Wunde
ihrer abgebrochenen Zeit gewiesen –
haben sich die Bume ausgerissen
die mit ihren Wurzeln
die Verwandlung des Staubes
zwischen Heute und Morgen fassen
Sind die Verliese mit ihren erstickten Schreien
die mit ihrer stummen Gewalt
den neuen Stern gebren helfen –
ist der Weg mit den Hieroglyphen ihrer Fußspuren
in meine Ohren gerieselt,
wie in Stundenuhren,
die der Tod erst wendet.
3.11 Archetypes as Representational Devices 179

O die grberlosen Seufzer in der Luft,
die sich in unseren Atem schleichen –
Daniel, Daniel,
wo bist du schreckliches Traumlicht ?
Die ungedeuteten Zeichen sind zu viele geworden –
O wir Quellenlose,
die wir keine Mndung mehr verstehen,
wenn sich das Samenkorn im Tode
des Lebens erinnert –
Daniel Daniel,
vielleicht stehst du zwischen Leben und Tod
in der Kche, wo in deinem Schein
auf dem Tische liegt
der Fisch mit den ausgerissenen Purpurkiemen,
ein Kçnig des Schmerzes ?(Sachs 1961: 96)
In the opening line of this poem, the poetic voice addresses Daniel, the
archetype of wisdom and righteousness. Just like the redemptory message
anticipated by the reader when confronted with the Job and Abraham ref-
erences in the various poems discussed thus far, so too here, the reader is
confronted with one of the Bible’s most redemptory figures and enter-
tains accordingly the prospect of a redemptive ending. Sachs once
again begets a conjecture with the objective of thwarting it. The first stan-
za provides a terrifying insight into the psychological effects of survivor
trauma. The lyrical subject is haunted by nightmares of the dead victims
of the Holocaust, and we are confronted with a tangible sense of de-
spondency and anguish. During the tormented hours of night, “die
Orte ihres Sterbens” – an unambiguous reference to the Nazi death
camps – come alive in the mind of the survivor. The possessive pronoun
in the line “dort, wo ihre Qual mit dem Welken der Haut verging” may
be read as allusion to theMuselmnner, the camp figures that haunt both
Adorno’s and Sachs’ post-war writing. Their emaciation was so acute that
they were reduced to wretched victims of gradual disintegration, who had
endured disease, starvation and exhaustion to such a degree that they ex-
hibited a horrifying apathetic listlessness regarding their impending
death. The wounds their deaths represent are reflected in stones in the
post-Auschwitz world. As paradigmatic symbols of solidity and perma-
nence, these stones are a probable reference to the unlikely prospect of
these wounds ever being healed. In the immediate aftermath of having
addressed arguably the most redemptive figure of the Old Testament,
Sachs has already overthrown the reader’s suppositions by providing a
3 Nelly Sachs’ Poetics of Silence : Poetry at the Limits of Representation 180

set of images of the kind that, after the liberation of the camps in 1945,
imprinted themselves on to the collective imagination as the ‘emblems’ of
Auschwitz. The reference to the victims’ “abgebrochene[.] Zeit” is a re-
newed reminder of the premature and unnatural truncation of their
lives – “der falsche Tod,” as Sachs writes in the poem “O der weinenden
Kinder Nacht.” The description of these images ‘waking up’ while the
survivors sleep demonstrates the permeation of the survivors’ lives by
the past realities of the camps and the attendant physical and psycholog-
ical anguish ; sleep no longer provides respite.In the second stanza the imagery becomes increasingly distressing.
Sachs describes the breaking open of dungeons – a possible reference
to the gas chambers – by the victims’ ‘suffocated screams.’ The message
of renewal momentarily expected by the reader with the mention of
the birth of a new star is immediately refuted : the relative pronoun
“die” makes it clear that it is these same suffocated screams with their vi-
olent, mute force which bear this very star. The next image in this litany is
the footprints of the victims. Sachs describes these footprints as ‘trickling’
into the ear of the lyrical subject and compares this trickling to that of the
hourglass. But, of course, it is not sand that trickles through Sachs’ hour-
glass. Just as blood was the dripping substance in the poem “Wir Geret-
teten,” here time is measured not by sand, but by death. The use of the
verb ‘rieseln’ in relation to the sound of these footsteps of countless vic-
tims reinforces the sense of a gradual agonisation of the survivor’s mind,
to the point of madness. In the third stanza, the tormented mind of the lyrical subject is fur-
ther intensified. Sachs describes how the sighs of the dead ‘creep into the
breath’ of those who survived the massacre. Like the verb ‘rieseln,’ ‘schlei-
chen’ suggests the gradual invasion of the mind by traumatic memories,
while the term “grberlos” reminds the reader that the victims have not
found a resting place. It is at this point in the poem that Sachs calls
upon Daniel, and the reader’s initial redemptory expectations are – tem-
porarily at least – renewed. She chooses the tale of Daniel recounting and
interpreting King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, a Biblical narrative of divine
affirmation. Having experienced a recurrent, unfathomable dream, King
Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon issues the decree that unless one of his wise
men can interpret this dream (having first recounted it to ensure the le-
gitimacy of their interpretation), execution would follow. Daniel, having
been appointed to the King’s court, prays to God and asks Him to reveal
the King’s dream. His prayer is answered. Daniel duly recounts the dream
to the King and interprets it as a message of the coming-to-be of God’s
3.11 Archetypes as Representational Devices 181

kingdom on earth. The King’s wise men are spared and, viewing Daniel’s
interpretation as a direct message from God, the story concludes with
King Nebuchadnezzar proclaming of the greatness of Daniel’s God. In
the poem Sachs calls on Daniel to similarly interpret “die ungedeuteten
Zeichen,” that is, the litany of horrific images which have dominated
the poem up until this point and which have slain the poetic voice to
such an extent that there is a trail into nothingness, represented once
again by the dash. It becomes clear, however, that it is not Daniel’sability
to interpret dreamsthat we are presented with, but rather the futilityand
indeed repugnancy of any attempt at interpreting the nightmaresthat per-
meate the poem and imposing on them some kind of meaning or explan-
atory framework in the process. Daniel is called upon, not as an interpret-
er of dreams that prophesy some futureevent, as in the Biblical account,
but rather as an interpreter of nightmares that already have their basis in
past reality. Sachs thus – as suggested by “schreckliches Traumlicht” – does
not summon Daniel in the hope that he can provide a meaningful, re-
demptory interpretation of the suffering. In the final stanzas Sachs proceeds to compound the refutation of any
kind of redemptory or explanatory framework. Those who survived the
slaughter are described as “Quellenlose”: they have no meaningful source
to which to turn. Biblical archetypes are thereby denounced as deficient
paradigms. We are then presented with the most anti-redemptory lines to
be found anywhere in Sachs’ entire body of poetry. She states that Dan-
iel’s light exposes only a fish with ‘ripped-out purple gills,’ that quintes-
sential creature of ‘Verstummen’ that permeates her work. Daniel’s inter-
pretative capabilities have been rendered entirely inept in the face of the
recent suffering. Unlike his interpretation of the dream and his prophe-
cies in the Biblical text, any attempt to ‘read’ the significance of or any
attempt to attribute some kind of ‘meaning’ to the nightmarish images
from Auschwitz is refuted by Sachs. All that remains are the asphyxiated
and disembodied fish gills which represent the mute poetic voice. The
reader’s initial expectations, encouraged by the poem’s title, are complete-
ly thwarted by this point. Sachs has refuted the terms of the Daniel tale,
and in so doing, has highlighted the inefficacy of this archetype as a re-
flective foil for the horrors of the present.
3 Nelly Sachs’ Poetics of Silence : Poetry at the Limits of Representation 182

At the award ceremony for theLiteraturpreis der Freien Hansestadt Bremen
in 1958, Paul Celan summarised the arduous journey which language had
to endure in the aftermath of its defilement under National Socialism :
Sie, die Sprache, blieb unverloren, ja, trotz allem. Aber sie mußte nun hin-
durchgehen durch ihre eigenen Antwortlosigkeiten, hindurchgehen durch
furchtbares Verstummen, hindurchgehen durch die tausend Finsternisse
todbringender Rede. Sie ging hindurch und gab keine Worte her fr das, was
geschah ; aber sie ging durch dieses Geschehen. (Celan 1983 : 185-186)
This book has been an attempt to expose such ‘answerlessness,’ such ‘ter-
rifying muteness,’ and such ‘darkness of death-bringing speech’ in the po-
etry of Nelly Sachs. Her work can be viewed as an exemplary case study
of the aporia facing the post-Shoah writer : she succeeds in addressing this
antinomy by inscribing it intoboth the content and form of her poems.
Sachs is thus not only a test-case for Adorno, she is engaged in the same
debate as Adorno : her writing is a reflection on the act of writing. One of the questions posed at the beginning of this study was wheth-
er Sachs’ poetry, in spite of the fact that it thematises the impossibility of
adequate representation, has representational value, or whether her work
is bereft of concrete, representational meaning as a result of its often frag-
mented nature. The answer is something of a paradox. Although the lan-
guage and the formal structure of her poetry are often characterised by
destabilisation, condensation, indeterminacy and absence, and even
though words are very often engulfed as she writes, her poems nonethe-
less ‘speak’ a language. Her poetry is evidence that language still has rep-
resentational power – albeit severely compromised. The potential for
pleasure when reading her poetry is drastically reduced, given its perme-
ation by despair, pain and relentlessly distorted imagery. In its moments
of clarity, her poetry is unsettling, while in its more prevalent moments of
opacity – the quintessential manifestation of which is the ‘unsaid’ that lies
behind the dash – it is profoundly distressing. The source of this distress
lies in the knowledge that behind the imagery, which in itself seems to
provide such a tangible sense of the Nazi terror, the reader is left with
the perturbing realisation that so much has also been consigned to si-

lence : behind words, between words and in the bottomless void of the
‘Gedankenstrich.’ It is during these moments that the reader is compelled
to confront Adorno’s ‘extremity’; it is also during such moments that
thought is denied closure. These voids and the nothingness into which
so much of her work threatens to disintegrate thus have representational
value : they point to what has been left unspoken. Sachs’ dashes are mute
indicators, they are devices of ‘Verstummen’ which, paradoxically, speak
volumes.Sachs’ poetry is evidence that its author was plagued by doubt at the
expressive capacity of language and plagued by the knowledge of her pre-
destined failure in achieving her desired aims : the suffering evades lan-
guage and thus language necessarily betrays the experience of the victims.
Simultaneously, however, as her poems gravitate towards silence, the po-
etic voice attempts to extricate itself from this dilemma, to defend itself
against the threat of disintegration and to preserve the value of words
with full knowledge of their impotence. Those poems which are ‘struc-
tured’ around acute linguistic disintegration and violation of grammatical
norms bear witness to the immensity of this threat and the urgency of
this defence, whilst the foundering of words also indicates a representa-
tional limit. Sachs’ topography is a landscape of the dead, the airways
of the lyrical ‘ich’ are blocked by the smoke of corpses, while the frequent
compression of imagery represents the chaos and frustration of a mind
struggling to communicate. This struggle – marked by her poetry’s self-
referential scepticism about its own means of representation – makes
Sachs’ work troubling both in form and in content. This self-referential scepticism is perhaps most evident in Sachs’ ma-
nipulation of traditional archetypes : she forges what might be called an
anti-redemptive aesthetic. She presents her readers with decidedly re-
demptive Biblical archetypes followed by a display of the impropriety
of any redemptive exposition with regard to the Shoah. She falls back,
in other words, on the archetypes available to her, whilst at the same
time making it clear that the Holocaust resists understanding through tra-
ditional theological categories. She attempts to communicate the futility
of Judaism’s traditional theological interpretations of Jewish suffering
using the very archetypes that form the foundations of these time-hon-
oured explanations. Setting the reader on insecure ground is a crucial el-
ement in her method : she employs familiar, theologically comforting Bib-
lical archetypes, generating in the process certain expectations on the part
of the reader, only to subsequently thwart and deconstruct their original
consolatory function. For Sachs, the Holocaust cannot be incorporated
Conclusion 184

into the traditional narrative of Jewish history ; it cannot be seen as mere-
ly another ‘chapter’ in the chronicle of destructions, inquisitions and pog-
roms of the past or as a mere temporary suspension of the commonly ac-
cepted values of humanity. By bringing traditional Biblical narratives into
conversation with the legacy of the Holocaust, Sachs wrestles with the
themes of divine abdication, rendering the Biblical tales entirely vulner-
able in the process. She allows her poems to argue with the Biblical
text and thereby brings the weight of Auschwitz to bear on the meaning
of the traditional narrative. Her work is a critique of both the inadequacy
of these time-honoured interpretative paradigms and of her own work’s
inherent inadequacy at representing the ineffable.Sachs’s work is a call for activememory. It is only by keeping memory
open, by having Auschwitz accompany all thought, that any possibility of
its repetition can be avoided. It is through active forms of memorialising
the dead that Adorno’s new categorical imperative can be realised, namely,
“[das] Denken und Handeln so ein[zu]richten, daß sich Auschwitz nicht
wiederhole, nichts hnliches geschehe” (Adorno 1973 : 358). The image
of the wound that permeates her work represents the breach that the Hol-
ocaust has left in its wake ; this breach must remain open with the passing
of time, since closing it over is just one step removed from forgetting and
forgetting restores the possibility of repitition : “aus Vergessenheit,” as
Sachs writes, “graut der Tod” (Sachs 1961: 141). Sachs’ poetry is an at-
tempt to keep open this wound. The voids that punctuate the linguisti-
cally condensed sentences of her work bear witness to an incommunicable
anguish ; they are a source of disconcertion and anxiety. Sachs calls on her
readers to explore these silent voids as a means of instilling in the reader
recognition of this anguish which lies beyond the confines of poetic ar-
ticulation. Sachs’ poetics of silence is thus as much an attempt to artisti-
cally represent the Holocaust as it is an attempt to describe a poetic pre-
dicament. Sachs’ poetry attempts to present the abyss that Auschwitz represents
by questioning the value of the tools that served the writer in pre-Holo-
caust times. She reveals the irrelevance of traditional poetic modes by ex-
posing the unbridgeable gulf between the time-honoured poetic ideal of
mellifluous rhyme, stanzaic patterns and formal and syntactical structure
and the reality of the Holocaust which cannot be contained within the
constraints of this ideal. While her use of devices like prosopopoeia
and chiasmus may suggest continuity in terms of poetic technique, the
totality of Sachs’ method may nonetheless be described as novel : this to-
tality is a complex constellation of fragmented sentences, hyphens, neo-
Conclusion 185

logisms, reversed archetypes, reversed epitaphic forms and distorted tradi-
tional imagery. In the process of dealing with the questions of poetic form
and method, Sachs reveals Auschwitz as an irreversible breach of the
human, cultural and literary spheres.The urgency that Sachs’ work continues to hold is demonstrated best
perhaps in an article published in Die Zeitin 1991, on the 100th anni-
versary of Sachs’ birth :
Wie gut, daß sie [Nelly Sachs] nicht mehr unter uns ist […] , wie gut, daß sie
nicht miterleben muß, wie die Handlanger des Schreckens von einst schon
salon- und feuilletonfhig geworden sind, allen voran jener teuflische Carl
Schmidt, der 1947 – ich wiederhole : 1947 – geschrieben hat : ‘Juden bleiben
immer Juden, whrend der Kommunist sich bessern und ndern kann […] .
Gerade der assimilierte Jude ist der wahre Feind.’ Wie gut auch, daß sie nicht
Zuschauerin jenes schlimmen Schauspiels sein mußte, das bis vor kurzem
unter dem harmlosen Titel ‘Historikerstreit’ ablief und das sie als furchtbare
Verhçhnung der Opfer htte empfinden mssen, wurden dort deren Qual
relativiert bis zu dem Punkt, an dem sie nur noch das unvermeidliche Resultat
einer angeblich ‘asiatischen Tat’ waren. Der Erfinder dieser Entlastungser-
klrung, Ernst Nolte, schreibt in seinem jngsten Buch das Wort Judenver-
nichtung konstant in Anfhrungszeichen.(Hamm 1991)
Ernst Nolte advanced the view that the crimes of the Nazis were merely a
‘defensive reaction’ against the crimes of the Soviet Union, and that it was
an ‘understandable, if ‘excessive,’ response on the part of Adolf Hitler to
the Soviet threat. In June 1987, Nolte went so far as to make the highly
contentious statement that the Jews would eventually come to ‘appreciate’
Adolf Hitler as the individual who contributed more than anyone else to
the creation of the state of Israel. Such a viewpoint, promoted by a re-
nowned authority on nineteenth- and twentieth-century history, makes
engagement with authors such as Nelly Sachs all the more pressing. In a letter written to Paul Celan in 1960, Sachs conveys the sense of
unremitting entrapment which was experienced by so many survivors of
the Nazi terror. This letter also conveys the claustrophobic sense of fear
which enveloped Sachs’ being until her death in 1970 and the torment
endured as she undertook the task of producing an artistic portrayal of
the greatest human catastrophe of the twentieth century : “Noch bin
ich nicht im Freien Paul, noch ist das Netz aus Angst und Schrecken,
was sie ber mich geworfen haben, nicht gelftet.” (Sachs and Celan
1993 : 57)
Conclusion 186

Sachs’ Works
Sachs, Nelly (1961),Fahrt ins Staublose. Die Gedichte der Nelly Sachs (Frankfurt
am Main : Suhrkamp) [contains the cycles In den Wohnungen des Todes, Stern-
verdunkelung, Und niemand weiß weiter, Flucht und Verwandlung, Fahrt ins
Staublose andNoch feiert Tod das Leben ].
– (1971), Suche nach Lebenden. Die Gedichte der Nelly Sachs (Frankfurt am Main :
Suhrkamp) [contains the cycles Glhende Rtsel, Die SuchendeandTeile dich
Nacht ].
– (1974), ‘Leben unter Bedrohung’, in Nelly Sachs. Einfhrung in das Werk der
Dichterin Jdischen Schicksals mit unverçffentlichten Briefen aus den Jahren
1946 – 1958 (Quellen und Interpretationen zu Literatur, Kunst und Musik
1), ed. by Walter A. Berendsohn (Frankfurt am Main : Agora).
– (2010), Nelly Sachs Werke. Kommentierte Ausgabe Band 1. Gedichte 1940 – 1950
(Kommentierte Ausgabe in vier Bnden), ed. by Aris Fioretos (Frankfurt am
Main : Suhrkamp).
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