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Nelly Sachs (Sweden, 1891-1970)

The following biographical excerpt and poem are from After Every War, Twentieth-Century Women Poets published in 2004:

“Nelly (Leonie) Sachs was born in 1891 into a comfortable Jewish home in the fashionable Tiergarten suburb of Berlin. . . . As a young girl of fifteen she began a correspondence with Selma Lagerlof, the Swedish writer, a connection that would prove crucial to her survival when the war years began in Germany.

Sachs continued to live in Berlin with her mother after the death of her father in 1930. But as the Nazi grip tightened in the city and Jews became more vulnerable to the new laws of exclusion and persecution, she and her mother determined to escape. Through the intervention of Selma Lagerlof, Sachs and her mother were granted asylum in Sweden in 1940. There they lived in a two-bedroom apartment while Nelly Sachs made a modest living translating Swedish poets into German.

During this time she also worked on new poems which were first seen in the volume In Den Wohnungen des Todes (In the Habitations of Death) which was published in Berlin in 1947. . . . [In her poems] elements of Hasidic mysticism were crafted together with German Romanticism and echoes of the Psalms into signature elegies. Describing her own project Nelly Sachs said it was ‘in this night of nights to give some idea of the holy darkness.’

After the war, and following the death of her mother in 1950, she remained in Stockholm. Although she had several breakdowns, she continued to write and publish.

If I Only Knew
(translated by Eavan Boland)

If I only knew
where you put that last look.
Was it on a stone,
a blind stone,
which had taken in so many last looks
that they fell blindly on its blindness?

Or was it on a shoeful of earth?
Already black
with so many partings,
so many killings?

Or was it on your last road
saying farewell to you from all the other roads
you once walked?

A puddle? A glitter of metal?
The buckle of your enemy?
Some other spirit-augury
of the world to come?

Or did this earth which lets
no one depart without its love
send you the sign
of a bird in the air,
reminding your soul
that it flinched just so
in it charred and tortured body?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Shmuel Yosef Agnon (Israel, 1888-1970)

Here are the opening paragraphs from chapter two of Agnon’s book In The Heart of the Seas, published in 1948 and translated by I.M. Lask:

“The greater part of Adar had already passed. The clouds which had been obscuring the sun’s course began to shrink, while the sun grew gradually larger. What only yesterday had been the time for the Evening Prayer became the time for Afternoon Prayer today; while yesterday’s getting-up time became the time to start saying the Morning Prayer today.

The snow warmed up and began to melt, and the trees of the field grew black. One day they were black as earth; the next, they would be putting forth leaves and blossoming like the Lebanon. The pools and marshes were covered by a film, and the birds began to chirp. Every day a different kind of bird would come around and there began a cheeping on every roof. Our men of good heart started going out and asking when the road would be fit for travel; they meant the month, of course, when the road would be fit for wayfarers.

Never in all their lives had these good folks so feared death as at that particular period. How great is the sanctity of the Land of Israel though it be in ruins! And what is the body’s strength even at its height? For after all, suppose a man wishes to go up to the Land of Israel and does not go up, what if his soul should suddenly depart from his body and he be left lying like a dumb stone without having gone up. What would become of all his hopes?”

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