Nelly Sachs was born in Berlin, Germany, in 1891, the only child of upper-middle class Jewish parents. As a child, she was partly educated at home because of weak health, and for the same reason her parents discouraged her from a career in dancing, in which she had begun to excel.
In 1906, she first encountered a novel by Swedish author Selma Lagerlöf, with whom she began a correspondence and friendship a year later. Lagerlöf would later help save the lives of Sachs and her mother: the two women escaped on the last plane out of Berlin to Stockholm in May 1940. Sachs lived the rest of her life in Stockholm, most of it in a small apartment shared with her mother, supporting the two of them by translating between Swedish and German.
Sachs’s first book was in prose, Legends and Stories (1921). She began publishing poems in 1929, although much of her early poetic oeuvre was lost as a result of her emigration. The first of her numerous books of poetry, In the Dwelling Places of Death, was published in Berlin in 1947. After her mother’s death in 1950, Sachs was institutionalized for mental illness, and though she recovered, continued to suffer periods of paranoia, delusions of Nazi persecution, and hallucinations. Her close friendship with Paul Celan exacerbated their common experience of paranoia.
Her poems, early influenced by German Romanticism, became more mystical, surreal. Sachs also came to speak for the many who had died, stating in her 1966 Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “I represent the tragedy of the Jewish people.”