Prepare to Leave

All of you everywhere, prepare to leave.
We have found the new map.
Slough your skin of stars, and
gather up the blue sheaves of the sea.
Carry them away on your back.
Climb the fire-rooted mountain
up to its crown of smoking hair.
Your heaviest sorrows packed
in the bundle you bear–
let great wings unfurl.
Celebrate beginning.


Nelly Sachs

When German-born poet and playwright Nelly Leonie Sachs (1891-1970) was awarded the 1966 Nobel Prize for Literature, she observed that co-winner Shmuel Yosef Agnon represented Israel, whereas "I represent the tragedy of the Jewish people." The wide arc of her life from the fashionale Tiergarten section of Berlin to exile in Sweden began when she was born on December 10, 1891, the daughter of a prosperous manufacturer.

Growing up in the fashionable Tiergarten section of Berlin, she studied dance and music with private tutors, and began to write poetry at age 17. Sachs became renowned in Germany for her expressionist lyrics, but her life darkened with the persecution of the Jews as Hitler rose to power. Her fascination with Christian mysticism, in a collection of legends from the Middle Ages, published in 1921, led to her finding comfort in the mystical elements in ancient Jewish writings found in Orthodox Hasidism.

When she learned, in 1940, that she was destined for a forced-labor camp, a German friend, at great risk, journeyed to Sweden to meet with Swedish poet and 1909 Nobel Laureate Selma Lagerlof, who had been a friendly correspondent of Sachs for many years. Jews were not permitted to leave Germany, but, from her death bed, Lagerlof persuaded Prince Eugene of the Swedish Royal House to intercede. He arranged a visa for Nelly Sachs and her mother. Selma Lagerlof died before their arrival. Settled in Stockholm at almost fifty years old, Sachs made a modest living by translating Swedish poetry into German. With the exception of her mother, every member of her family was killed in the concentration camps.

Her first collections of poetry, But Even the Sun Has No Home (1948) and Eclipse of the Stars (1951), dealt with the annihilation of six million Jews under the Third Reich. They did not receive as much attention as Eli: A Miracle Play of the Suffering Israel, which became a widely acclaimed radio play in Germany.

Before she became the first Jewish woman to win the Nobel Prize, on her 75th birthday, she received the 1965 Peace Prize of German Publishers. In accepting the award from the land she had fled, she said (in the spirit of concord and forgiveness that are among the themes in her poems), "In spite of all the horrors of the past, I believe in you.... Let us remember the victims and then let us walk together into the future to seek again a new beginning."

Nelly Sachs died in Stockholm on May 12, 1970.

James McColley Eilers

James McColley Eilers has published verses, essays, and photographs in various literary magazines, including San Francisco Reader, Haight Ashbury Literary Journal, and Mouth of the Dragon. Five translations of Baudelaire were published in the April 2010 edition of InTranslation. Another Baudelaire translation was published in the June 2009 issue of Subtropics. A verse was included in the book How to Bury a Goldfish (2000, 2008). A nature journal was printed in the Point Reyes, CA perodical, Estero. A photo essay was included in the May/June 2008 issue of The Gay & Lesbian Review. His one-act play, Turning, was performed in San Francisco in 2001. Four of his photographs were published in the 2005 and 2006 editions of Modern Words. He may be reached at [email protected] and

Copyright (c) Nelly Sachs, 1961. English translation copyright (c) James McColley Eilers, 2010.