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Critical Essay by Eleonore K. Cervantes
SOURCE: "A Woman's View of the Holocaust: The Poetry of Nelly Sachs," in Rendezvous, Vol. XXI, No. 2, Spring, 1986, pp. 47-50.
In the following essay, Cervantes discusses Sachs's role as the "voice of the silenced victims" of the Holocaust.
In her exhaustive study, Accounting for Genocide, Helen Fein takes note of the historical fact underlying her social history: Two thirds of European Jews alive in 1930—in the territories later to experience the dominance of Nazi terror—had been killed by 1945. And the majority of the victims were women and children. All of poet Nelly Sachs' published oeuvre is indelibly marked by the nightmarish experience of the Nazis' extermination policies and practices against Jewish people, what we have come to know as the Holocaust. Earlier in the twentieth century Jewish writers, such as Franz Kafka, had turned visionary nightmares into masterful prose. In the 1940's, when Sachs began writing about her people's fate, the nightmare had become a physical reality that the Jewish writer could no longer ignore and had to grapple with for understanding.
Sachs' point of view is that of the victim facing her end in the isolation of "l'univers concentrationnaire." Though she herself managed to escape to the Swedish exile of her later life in 1940, she had previously experienced the welling up of terror during a Nazi interrogation. It is this intense fear, experienced while confronting the inevitability of a violent death, that renders Sachs' victims speechless, forcing them to swallow their last screams while breathing in death with locked throats. In her short prose piece, "Living under a Threat," Sachs declares that it is her "greatest wish on earth: to die without being murdered" and recalls her own inarticulate terror. "For five days I lived without speech in a witches' trial. My voice fled to the fish. Fled without caring about the remaining limbs fixed in the salt of terror."
With metaphorical precision Sachs labels all extermination camp murder as the "Golem Death," the false manufactured death of mass proportion that inspires the utmost horror. [The author adds in a footnote: "The golem, in Jewish folklore, is an artificially created being endowed with supernatural strength."]
A scaffold is prepared
and the carpenters have come
and like a pack of hounds
they track your shadow-spiral.
Navel of the world,
your skeleton spreads its arms
in false blessing!
You lay your ribs along earth's latitudes
Sachs understands her function as poet to be the voice of the silenced victims, to provide their common existence with some measure of permanence. "Forgive me my sisters / I have taken your silence into my heart / There it lives and suffers the pearls of your suffering" (Chimneys). She writes epitaphs for individuals—many women among them—who are simply identified by a common trait and their initials, such as "The Market Woman (B.M.)". "You fingers, touching the bleeding mystery and red with leaving-taking, / Carried the little deaths into one gigantic death." (Seeker). Other examples are "The Imbecile Woman (B.H.)," "The Adventuress (A.N.)": "But your last adventure— / Hush; a soul left the fire," (Seeker) and "The Woman Who Forgot Everything (A.R.)."
But in old age all drifts in blurred immensities.
The little things fly away like the bees.
You forgot all the words and forgot the object too;
And gave your enemy your hand where roses and
Sachs' feminine perspective is evident here in the nurturing care she takes to retrieve bits of memory of simple women who became nameless victims of the "Golem Death." Else-where in her poetry it expresses itself in a number of recurrent motifs of which the mother who mourns the loss of her child is both common and poignant. Here we find the poet's conviction that love is the pervasive creative force, that love beyond death constitutes an act of re-creation, and that life and death are ultimately one in the mystic's conception.
Already embraced by the arm of heavenly solace
The mad mother stands
With the tatters of her torn mind
With the charred tinders of her burnt mind
Burying her dead child,
Burying her lost light,
Twisting her hands into urns,
Filling them with the body of her child from the air,
Filling them with his eyes, his hair from the air,
And with his fluttering heart—
Then she kisses the air-born being
Laboring at the edge of insanity the poet herself enters the poems as its female persona. Her mental torment at facing the enormity of her task imbues these poems with the tension of her struggle to find the appropriate metaphors for the unspeakable horror that has overtaken her existence.
My hands belong to the wingbeat stolen and carried off
With them I am sewing around a hole
but they sigh before this open abyss—
The guilt and resultant pain of the survivor permeates these poems with existential dread and ultimately with a longing for her own death, not a false death but a natural one that is mysterious and incomprehensible to the living yet full of mystical potential.
The contorted line of suffering
retracing the supernally ignited geometry
of the cosmos
always on the gleaming tracer path to you
and obscured again in the epilepsy
of this impatience to reach the end—
And in these four walls here nothing
but the painting hand of time
with primordial light on the brow
and the heart the shackled fugitive
leaping out of its calling: to be a wound—
Such poetry is neither pleasant nor elevating. The poet is shaping the inexpressible into contorted language, trying to make concrete the mysteries of arbitrary suffering that she cannot comprehend. Such irony defines the essence of Sachs' poetry.
This internalized, self-destructive struggle, this exhausting labor to bring back to life the countless dead and instilling them, the survivors, the impassive witnesses of the gargantuan crime, and the executioners with human qualities might be considered an almost heroic effort. Perhaps it is this consideration that prompted the statement that writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. And George Steiner, who continued the debate, emphatically declares, "Auschwitz lies outside speech as it lies outside reason." Taking the reality, the atrocities; and transferring them to the realm of aesthetics may be seen as an act of trivializing the horror and of minimizing the dread in the face of unfeeling human brutality by means of stylization. But one cannot accuse Sachs of exploiting or manipulating the garrish historical reality for aesthetic ends. In all of her writing she is motivated by the need to find meaning in the snuffed-out lives of her people, in the eternal and universal game between hunter and hunted, hangman and victim.
The irony of German Jewish poets using the language of the "master race," the murderers, to distill the essence of the infernal world of the Holocaust from the victims' perspective into works of art was not lost on Sachs. There is an element of schizoid pathology in the poetry's imagery. On the one hand she relies on the concrete metaphors of the earthly realm to focus clearly the dreadful victimization, on the other she insists on the existence of a spiritual realm, her cosmos, which tends to provide a haven for the souls of those released from their material selves and earthly torture. But Sachs does not dogmatically stipulate a religious answer; it is the mystic's search for answers that is her central theme. She is the "seeker" in her poetry who knows that finding is always "elsewhere," and she tries to express this by use of paradox, the "language of silence."
Steiner's dictum concerning Auschwitz may not be the entire truth after all. Fein's reversal of Steiner's categorization presents the justification for her social history of twentieth century genocide. "Although one may be able to grasp the essence and entirety of the Holocaust only through art, there is no intrinsic reason to assume that what we do not yet understand cannot be understood by reason." Sachs is most sincerely trying to grasp this essence in her poetry, all the time imploring her readers to make use of all their faculties in their search for an answer.
This section contains 1,316 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)