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Nelly Sachs

Und Niemand weiß weiter


Eight years separate And No One Knows The Way Onward (Und Niemand weiß weiter), published in 1957, from Sachs’s immediately previous collection Star Eclipse (Sternverdunkelung).

Da du unter dem Fuß dir

Written in 1957. Here Sachs first addresses herself; then the divine Word.

Wurzeln schlagen die verlassenen Dinge

Written some time before November 1956.

Das ist der Flüchtlinge Planetenstunde

Written before 27th March 1953.

Einen Akkord spielen Ebbe und Flut

Written before 27th March 1953.

Gebogen durch Jahrtausende

Written in 1954.

   Here we have a rather quirky sequence of figures representing the history of Israel.

   The ‘tumbled porticos of dust’ recall the pillars of dust that accompanied the people of Israel under the leadership of Moses, on their long trek through Sinai, to the Promised Land.

The ‘giant’ is Sachs’s invention: simply representing the magnitude of the moral burden originally undertaken by Abraham, and hence by his people as a whole.

Rizpah, on the other hand, represents a dissident female contribution to Israelite tradition. See 2 Samuel 3: 6—11; 21: 1—14. She was a concubine of King Saul, mother of two of his sons. We first hear of her when Saul’s general, Abner is accused by the king’s son Ishbaal of having illicitly slept with her. This marks a key moment in the collapse of Saul’s power. But the second passage concerns her response to the death of her two sons: handed over, by David, to the Gibeonites; who executed them in retribution for Saul’s having previously attacked them, thereby breaking an historic covenant between them and Israel. The two sons were impaled upon a mountainside.

Then Rizpah the daughter of Aiah took sackcloth, and spread it on a rock for herself, from the beginning of harvest until rain fell on them from the heavens; she did not allow the birds of the air to come on the bodies by day, or the wild animals by night.

She was not able actually to give them burial, as, in Greek legend, Antigone buried her rebel brother, defying the orders of King Creon. But otherwise Rizpah’s action appears to be a comparable act of protest against officially endorsed cruelty.

For the story of Balaam’s ass, see Numbers 22—24. It represents a still more marginal form of heroic dissent. The Syrian prophet Balaam has been hired by the king of Moab to curse the people of Israel. But his way is blocked by an angel, which appears at first not to the prophet himself but only to the ass, who therefore refuses to go any further; and then, by a miracle, acquires the gift of speech, to argue with the prophet.

After these two stories of resistance to authority, however, comes the story of Israel’s eventual experience of foreign invasion, first by the Babylonians, then by the Romans; the successive destruction of both the first and second temples; and the whole history of exile and persecution following.

Auswanderer-Schritte Pulsreise-Schritte

Written in the winter of 1951; as were all the poems of this cycle, which shares the title of the collection as a whole.

‘Baal Shem eyes’: the Baal Shem Tov, ‘master of the good name’, Israel Ben Elieser (c. 1700—60), the founder of modern Hasidism; to whom legend attributed the power to see from one end of the world to the other.

With regard to the final stanza: Sachs herself, in commentary on these lines, refers to the fact that the Spartans are said to have thrown weaklings into the sea. As, metaphorically, did Hitler. See ‘Einige Antwort-Versuche’ (Nelly Sachs, Werke IV).

Wer weiß, wo die Sterne stehn

‘The tragic symbol of the fish’: consistently, in Sachs’s work, a symbol for innocent suffering in general.

Ein schwarzer Jochanaan

The title is the German first line. ‘Jochanaan’ is another name for John the Baptist; as, for instance, in Richard Strauss’s opera ‘Salome’. In ‘Einige Antwort-Versuche’, Sachs remarks that what she has in mind is ‘a cosmic John the Baptist who prepares the way for all who are spiritually homesick’.

In der blauen Ferne

‘A rambling row of apple trees’: in the Zohar the Shekhinah is, in a number of places, referred to as a ‘field of holy apple trees’. And this idea then becomes an element in Kabbalist Sabbath ritual. The Shekhinah is the most earthly of the Sefirot, the ten modes of divine revelation. She is divinity in female form, indwelling the people of Israel and participating in their exile. The image represents her as a principle of spiritual fertility: she is a field, the other Sefirot are the trees within that field. One might say, this poem speaks of the inspiration which it, along with all Sachs’ work, enacts.

Wenn nicht dein Brunnen, Melusine

Melusine is a figure of ancient, originally French, folklore: a mermaid who marries a human husband. He does not know she is a mermaid; but discovers the fact when, despite having promised not to, he spies on her in her bath. Whereupon, she returns to the sea.

This poem, like the others in the cycle, dates from 1951—3, although the underlying theme is one she had explored in work written many years earlier, which she subsequently destroyed. Melusine here is, on the one hand, a poetic muse; on the other hand, a spirit associated with springs and wells. She represents the inspiration for a form of art as far as possible removed from major power-interests. In such art we see our faces reflected, as it were, in the waters of a well.

Immer hinter den Rändern der Welt

Here, Melusine is associated with two other figures. First: Genoveva of Brabant, Duchess of Trier. And then: the Shekhinah.

Genoveva is the heroine of a mediaeval legend, loosely based on the real-life fate of Marie of Brabant, who was falsely accused of adultery and then beheaded on the order of her husband Louis II, Duke of Bavaria, in 1256. When her actual innocence was subsequently proved, the Duke was famously obliged to do penance. Just as in the legend Marie becomes Genoveva (or Genofeva, or Genevieve), so her husband becomes the Palatine Duke Siegfried of Trier. The story features in the Grimm brothers’ Sagas, no. 538. In this version the Duke goes off on crusade. Whilst he is away, his steward Golo attempts to seduce the Duchess, but is rebuffed. When the Duke returns, Golo, intent on revenge, nevertheless accuses her. The Duke orders her execution by drowning; but the servants who are given the task decide to spare her. She escapes with her infant son, and for six years lives in a forest cave, cared for by a roe-deer. Finally, all is revealed when the Duke, out hunting, pursues the roe-deer all the way to the cave. In the 19th century, Ludwig Tieck and Friedrich Hebbel both wrote notable dramatic versions of this tale. And Richard Schumann composed an opera, Genoveva.

   On the Shekhinah: see above, note on In der blauen Ferne.

   See the discussion of this poem by Kathrin M. Bower, ‘Searching for the (M)Other: The Rhetoric of Longing in Post-Holocaust Poems by Nelly Sachs and Rose Ausländer’, WIG Yearbook 12 (1996).

Chassidim tanzen

This poem, or at least a first version of it, dates from 1943. It records a moment when Sachs, looking across the courtyard in Stockholm where she was then living, saw a Hasidic liturgy underway in someone’s kitchen opposite.

Nicht nur Land ist Israel!

Like all the remaining poems of the ‘Wings of Prophecy’ sequence, this one dates from the autumn or winter of 1951.

Abraham der Engel!

‘Abraham the Angel’ is not the patriarch Abraham. But he was an eighteenth century Hasidic rabbi, the son of the great Maggid (or sage) of Mezeritch, the Baal Shem’s leading original follower. The epigraph to the poem refers to the legend of his birth, which Sachs will have found in Martin Buber’s collection, Tales of the Hasidim. When the Maggid was still a young man, his wife went, late one winter evening, to the bath house for her monthly ritual ablutions. But the bath house keeper refused to open to her, saying it was too late, and he was sleeping. It started to snow. And still she was knocking, but in vain; when, all of a sudden, she heard a great tinkling of bells and other rattling sounds in the dark. A great carriage appeared, with four richly dressed women in it. The newcomers approached the door of the bath house, and insisted on being let in. Startled, the keeper gave way, letting the Maggid’s wife in with them. All the women shared the mikvah, or ritual bath, together. And, as they did so, Abraham the Angel was magically conceived.

Whilst Abraham the Angel is largely a figure of legend, he is also here associated with the glory of his patriarchal namesake; and, specifically, with the story of the Akedah, in Genesis 22, when Abraham is ordered to offer up his beloved son Isaac as a ritual human sacrifice to God, and obeys the commandment; although Isaac is eventually spared. The image of the catapult refers to this: associated as it is with ‘God’s terrible intransigence’ (in the original, a ‘schrecklicher Befehl’).  And so does the contrast between the merely silver adornments of domestic life and the gold of Abraham’s eternal calling. But the whole theme of ‘extremity’ clearly echoes the story of the Akedah.

Immer noch Mitternacht auf diesem Stern

See 1 Kings 19: 4—5: Elijah, fleeing for his life, travels out into the wilderness and settles under a solitary tree. In Luther’s original German-language version, and hence in Sachs’s poem, this is ein Wacholder, ‘a juniper’; although the ‘juniper trees’ of the Bible are not actually true junipers, but white broom trees. The dream-image of whole ripped-up forests surging out from under this one solitary little bush is Sachs’s own weird invention: a dynamic picture of biblical evangelism as a momentously deracinating power.

Daniel mit der Sternenzeichnung

For the story of Daniel interpreting the mysterious writing that appears upon the wall, on the occasion of the Persian Emperor Belshazzar’s feast, see Daniel 5.


This is the prologue for Sachs’s theatrical piece, combining text, mime and music: Abram im Salz, ‘Abram in the salt / Abram in a mess’. Begun in 1946, this piece was not finally completed until 1952. It focuses on Abram as a youth in the city of Ur, before he has received the covenant and so become Abraham.

Da schrieb der Schreiber des Sohar

Written before 2nd April 1952; as were all the poems in this sequence.

The Zohar is the most important single literary classic of mediaeval Kabbalah; written in Spain at some point in the latter years of the thirteenth century. Sachs possessed two copies of Gershom Scholem’s translation of the commentary, in the Zohar, on the opening chapter of Genesis (Berlin, 1935); with extensive handwritten annotations. On the 25th October 1950 she had discovered Ernst Müller’s commentary, Der Sohar und seine Lehre (Vienna and Berlin, 1920) in the library of the Jewish congregation in Stockholm. And for her the anonymous author of the Zohar (historically, most likely rabbi Moses de Leon) became a symbol for all authentic poetic-religious inspiration.

   The ‘alphabet-mysticism’ of this poem is directly derived from the Zohar itself.

Und wickelt aus, als wärens Linnentücher

Sachs here pictures her poems as Torah scrolls; chrysalises; infants. ‘Multicoloured fire’: a more literal rendering of the original would be ‘green, red, white obscurity’. The allusion is to the Zohar, 52, a passage highlighted by Sachs in her own copy: ‘“Darkness” is a black fire, strong in colour, a red fire, strong in luminosity, a green fire, strong in form, a white fire, which is the colour that includes all others’.

Und klopfte mit dem Hammer seines Herzens

In the original the protagonist is masculine: the writer of the Zohar. But I have taken the liberty of changing the gender, so that it refers more directly to Sachs herself.

Und Metatron, der höchste aller Engel

On the monstrous figure of the angel Metatron: see the Zohar, 86; again, a marked passage in Sachs’s own copy.

Und aus der dunklen Glut ward Jakob angeschlagen

On Jacob’s wrestling-bout with an angel, which left him with a dislocated hip: see Genesis 32: 22—32. See also the Zohar, 90: in another passage marked by Sachs, this story is directly linked to the Creation story.

Die Stunde zu Endor

Written before 14th June 1954. For the biblical story of King Saul’s visit to the Witch of Endor, see 1 Samuel 28. Saul himself has banned by law all practice of witchcraft in Israel. Nevertheless, in the final crisis of his reign, as he finds himself under great threat from his Philistine enemies, he resorts to a medium. And he commands her to summon up the spirit of the prophet Samuel, who has recently died. She does so. Samuel appears. But he offers Saul no comfort. On the contrary, he foretells his imminent death in battle. David (‘the boy who sang of things beyond’) is to be king in his place.

The translation of the opening lines is fairly free. Sachs begins with an image of rosebud lips surrounding a hole in the air: I take this to be a rather camp image of King Saul, pouting. The literal meaning of strophe 2 is: ‘To what does our reality depart? / Whither the storms of blood / seeking their astral veins?’ I understand the ‘circulation of the stars’, here, to be an image of eternal truth, religious truth, as this is illustrated, dramatized, and so brought to life, by stories such as that of Saul, envisaged as an enactment of divine judgement.

The poem concludes by opening to a broader panorama: the reference to Noah’s Ark evokes the immemorial past, God’s oldest covenant with humanity; the reference to Saul’s son Jonathan and his great friendship with David (I Samuel 18—20) evokes the covenantal future. And the whole history thereby evoked serves to illustrate the workings of the ‘Wind der Erlösung’, God’s Spirit which blows where it will (John 3: 8). As for the problem of evil, that is, the problematic demand of faith that we accept whatever befalls without resentment: the final stanza offers a comic image of human rebellion against that demand, perhaps representing Sachs herself, yet with maximum irony. Thus, here – as throughout her work – she affirms a radically paradoxical faith, ideally without either consolation or bitterness.

Landschaft aus Schreien

Written in 1955. Moriah (with the stress on the second syllable) is the desert setting for the story of Abraham and Isaac, the Akedah. Majdanek (in Polish, pronounced ‘Muh-DON-ek) was a Nazi death camp, on the edge of Lublin, where Sachs’s aunt, her father’s sister, perished in 1941. About 80,000 people were gassed there, always in full view of numerous passers-by. The allusion to the ‘dry bones’ of Ezekiel 37: 1—14 is my introduction, as translator. A literal rendering of the original would be: ‘O knife of evening red, thrown in the throat, / where the sleep-trees lick blood and sprout from the earth, / where time falls away / on the ribs in Majdanek and Hiroshima’.

Mit Wildhonig die Hinterbliebenden

Sachs’s mother, with whom she originally shared her exile in Sweden, died in February 1950. The poems in this sequence are largely poems of bereavement. This one was written in 1956.

Nachdem du aufbrachst

Written, along with the three following poems, in February 1957.

Wie aber, wenn Eines schon hier

Written in 1956.

Alles weißt du unendlich nun

Written before 21st September 1956. ‘Esau’s unkempt grief’: see Genesis 27: 38; after Esau, the elder son, has been tricked out of his father Isaac’s blessing by his sibling Jacob. So Esau represents all who appear to be deprived of a blessing they might have regarded as their birthright. ‘As Rachel sings for evermore’: Jacob’s wife Rachel died giving birth to Benjamin (Genesis 35: 16—20) and was buried at Ramah, north of Jerusalem. See also Jeremiah 31: 15:

  A voice is heard in Ramah,

     lamentation and bitter weeping.

  Rachel is weeping for her children;

     she refuses to be comforted for her children,

     because they are no more.

In Matthew 2: 18 this is quoted as a prediction of the Massacre of the Innocents.

Hieronymus Bosch

Written before November 1956. The Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch (originally Jheronimus B. van Aken) lived c. 1450—1516; and specialized in phantasmagoric nightmare images.

O Schwester wo zeltest du?

Written in February 1957. Again: Bosch-like imagery.

Hinterm Augenlid blaue Adern

All the poems of this last sequence were written in May or June 1953, whilst Sachs was convalescing after an operation to remove a tumour from her abdomen.