About Flight & metamorphosis
Integration and school project
She was the little lady with the strong poetic voice
Nelly Sachs, Flight and Metamorphosis
About Flight & metamorphosis
Nelly Sachs, Writer, Berlin/Stockholm
Media poem, direction and stage design Pia Forsgren
Curator Aris Fioretos
Exhibition architecture Gewerk design
Lighting design Hans-Åke Sjöquist
DJ and music producer Kornél Kovács.
Dancer Fanny Kivimäki
During the autumn of 2010 The Jewish Theatre presented the poet and Nobel laureate Nelly Sachs’ life and work in a staged exhibition, FLIGHT & METAMORPHOSIS. Nelly Sachs, writer, Berlin/Stockholm.It was an interactive journey through the poetic universe of Nelly Sachs – a media poem of light, sound, images and movement, directed by theatre manager and artistic director Pia Forsgren. The exhibition was curated by writer Aris Fioretos in collaboration with gewerk design.
It was inaugurated at the Jewish Museum in Berlin in the spring of 2010 and then toured around Europe over the next two years. With FLIGHT & METAMORPHOSIS, The Jewish Theatre would like to recall a great poetic oeuvre and a moving human fate, and to invite reflection on the power of language and its significance for democracy.
Nelly Sachs (1891-1970) grew up in Berlin and lived there until she was 49 years old. Because of the Nazi takeover she was forced to flee her homeland, managing to get on the last plane to Stockholm. In her exile from the Holocaust, Nelly Sachs’ poetic language found its voice and in 1966 she won the Nobel Prize in literature.
“Knowledge about Nelly Sachs’ life story can be a good way of creating understanding and knowledge about the situation that many people in Sweden are in today. This is particularly important in a period when alienation and xenophobia are on the rise”, says Pia Forsgren, manager and artistic director of The Jewish Theatre.
In connection to the staged exhibition The Jewish Theatre also run a cooperation programme with secondary and upper secondary schools. This involved thousands of pupils making a journey of discovery through language, inviting them to reflect on language, identity and exile. Another aim was to invite and encourage young people’s own writing. To this end, the theatre arranged a creative writing competition for the Junior Nelly Sachs Prize in the autumn.
FLIGHT & METAMORPHOSIS at The Jewish Theatre in Stockholm was a collaboration between gewerk design, The Jewish Theatre Stockholm, the Jewish Museum Berlin, the National Library of Sweden, the Swedish Embassy in Berlin and Suhrkamp Publishers.
The Junior Nelly Sachs Prize
The poetry competition, for young people aged 13 to 19, was arranged by The Jewish Theatre to stimulate and encourage young people’s own writing.
On December 10 the Junior Nelly Sachs Prize was awarded for the first time. The Prize went to 17-year-old Greta Maria Asgeirsdottir from Trollhättan and her poem Pirater (Pirates). She received the award at The Jewish Theatre exactly on the 44th anniversary of Nelly Sachs receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature.
The jury included Ida Andersen, poet and translator, Marie Augustsson, publisher, Johannes Anyuru, poet, Anna Bengtsson, publisher, and Larry Lempert, head of the International Library.
Integration and school project
The Jewish Theatre has initiated an extensive integration and schools project in which thousands of secondary and upper secondary pupils with different backgrounds and nationalities will reflect on language, identity and exile. Each pupil and teacher will receive materials specially produced by The Jewish Theatre and a guided tour of the exhibition.
Among the schools we are collaborating with are the International School in Sätra, Vasa Real, Nytorpsskolan in Salem, Rinkebyskolan and Viktor Rydbergs Gymnasium in Djursholm.
Intervju med några av eleverna i Judiska Teaterns skolsamarbete.
Interview in swedish from Dagens Nyheter
October 18, 2010
”I samband med Nelly Sachs-utställningen Flykt och förvandling ordnar Judiska teatern ett ambitiöst samarbete med högstadie- och gymnasieskolor. Två elever i klass 8Y från Internationella skolan i Sätra pratar medan de går runt bland modulerna på Judiska teatern:
- Du, vem var hon Nellys idol?
- Hon på tjugan du vet, Selma Lagerlöf.
De har precis sett teaterchefen Pia Forsgrens mediapoem om Nelly Sachs; ett fragmentariskt konststycke som blandar film och dans i ett intrikat ljus- och ljudspel. Där nämns Sachs författaridol Selma Lagerlöf, som i egen hög person hjälpte till att få den framtida Nobelpristagaren Sachs ombord på ett av de sista planen från Tyskland - och från förintelselägren.
När berättarrösten läser dikten ́Kommer det någon ́ faller eleverna in, de kan den utantill och reciterar och rappar om vartannat. Frasen ́En främling bär alltid sitt hemland på armen ́ får ny kraft i munnen på 25 elever som tillsammans talar 20 språk.
Elevernas recensioner av föreställningen bekräftar Pia Forsgrens övertygelse att teatern inte behöver sänka nivån på verket för att ungdomsanpassa den:
- Det kändes så levande, väldigt häftigt, säger Hamza Karrani.
- Det var skrämmande och ändå så vackert, man blev helt tagen, fyller klasskompisen Nikisa Saghezchi i.
Halima Khattar å sin sida funderar över om Nelly Sachs verkligen kände sig hemma i Sverige, och projektet väcker nygamla tankar om hur deras egna föräldrar mådde när de först kom till Sverige.
- Men de kände nog en trygghet eftersom de redan hade släktingar här, Nelly Sachs hade inte den tryggheten, säger Meron Molla, med rötter i Etiopien.
Internationella skolan i Sätra har förberett sitt besök noga; eleverna har skrivit brev till Judiska teatern, läst Sachs dikter och diskuterat exil och tvåspråkighet. Projektet har dessutom sporrat deras eget skrivande, flera elever är ivriga att vinna Lilla Nelly Sachs-priset, teaterns nyinstiftade dikttävling.
- Det är bra att skriva dikter när man är ensam och inte har något att göra. Eller om man är ledsen, säger Nikisa Saghezchi, det är ett sätt att släppa ut det.”
By Lisa Boda
Nelly Sachs — Flight and Metamorphosis
This richly illustrated biography is the first book in English to chronicle the life of Nelly Sachs (1891–1970), recipient of the 1966 Nobel Prize in Literature. The book follows Sachs from her secluded years in Berlin as the only child of assimilated German Jews, through her last-minute flight from the Nazis in 1940, to her exile in “peaceful Sweden” — a time of poverty and isolation, but also of growing fame.
Enriched by over 300 images of Sachs’s manuscripts, photographs, and possessions, Nelly Sachs, Flight and Metamorphosis not only offers detailed insights into the contexts of Sachs’s formation as a writer, but also looks at themes of trauma and testimony in her central works.
Fioretos draws upon previously unknown manuscripts, documents, medical records, and photos to produce the first reliably detailed narrative of Sachs’s foundational experiences: her teenage years when she experienced the unrequited love later designated as the source for her entire œuvre; her involvement with the Jewish Cultural League—seven years marked by mounting terror but also by her first public recognition as a writer; and her exposure to the radical Modernism of Swedish poetry in the 1940s.
The book further describes the years of public recognition, addresses the paranoia that marked Sachs’s final decade, and scrutinizes her close but complicated friendship with Paul Celan. An interview with Sachs’s close friend Margaretha Holmqvist provides touching insights into both her life in the 1960s and the events leading up to the Nobel Prize. Throughout, the book emphasizes the singularity of Sachs’s achievement as a writer and the exemplarity of her existential situation — as a woman, as an exile, and — as she herself said — “a battleground.”
Aris Fioretos is Professor of Aesthetics at Södertörn University in Stockholm, Sweden. The recipient of numerous prizes and fellowships, he has published several novels and book-length essays and is a translator of of Auster, Hölderlin, and Nabokov into Swedish. His latest novel is the internationally acclaimed The Last Greek (2009). Fioretos is also the general editor of the complete works of Nelly Sachs in German.
“For some years the time has been ripe for a literary biography of Nelly Sachs. Now these thorough, thoughtful, deeply studied pages, enlivened by remarkable images, should become a definitive source. Along with her close comrade Paul Celan, though not wholly like him, Sachs draws us into a molten history we forget at our peril.” — John Felstiner, author ofTranslating Neruda: The Way to Macchu Picchu, Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew, and Can Poetry Save the Earth? A Field Guide to Nature Poems.
How to approach a writer who spoke of tragic events in her past, but avoided concrete circumstances? A writer who, in the first epitaphs to her “dead brothers and sisters,” preferred to use initials rather than full names? Who, early as well as later in life, burned poems and letters she felt were too frank, too private? In short, a writer who wished to disappear behind her work?
For Nelly Sachs, texts had to speak for themselves. No knowledge about the person behind the work was necessary; in fact, it could be threatening. Although she understood writing as an act of devotion which ultimately left no other mark than the traces of passion, her considerable correspondence — around 4,000 extant letters — shows how concerned she was that details of her private life should remain private. There are usually good reasons for respecting a writer’s wishes regarding such matters, and rarely any bad ones. Yet at the same time as Sachs withheld facts about the background to her work, she said that she was doing so. With one hand she pointed to what the other hand was hiding. This double gesture is significant. Perhaps it says something about how she viewed the interplay of life and letters.
In her correspondence with the Germanist Walter A. Berendsohn, Sachs repeatedly urged caution regarding information imparted in confidence. In order to underline the urgency of her request she used a drastic turn of phrase: if her friend were really going to write the proposed study of her life as a writer, he must understand that she wanted to be “extinguished” as a person. Sachs could hardly have been unaware that the German verb ausschalten sounded as if it came straight out of the Nazis’ vocabulary — that “diction of the Third Reich” or “lexicon of inhumanity” of which Victor Klemperer, Dolf Sternberger, and others amassed evidence after the war. Why did she use such a charged term? Was it in order to state emphatically the limits of what Berendsohn could include in his book? A demand that he concentrate on the work and leave everything else to “the reporters from the celebrity press,” as she also wrote? Or was it in fact a straightforward declaration of a more general problem: how to give expression to the defenseless without risking new exposure? Did she fear that the inclusion of biographical data would obscure the import of the poem and, paradoxically, cause more pain to be inflicted? “The heartrending tragedy of our destiny will not and must not [. . .] be diminished by the many items of information which are wholly unnecessary in this context.”.
No doubt such considerations, and others, played a part. Still — “extinguished”? Despite its metaphorical proximity to the chimneys of the crematorium ovens, and despite its kinship with a verb such as gleichschalten (“equalize”), ausschalten may have suggested something else as well…
During the first year of their Swedish exile, Sachs and her mother lived at temporary addresses. In October 1941 they were able to move to an apartment of their own, in a building in Bergsundsstrand on the south side of Stockholm. Located on the ground floor, it consisted of one room and a kitchen, and was dark and cold. According to notes made later, it was occasionally filled with the stench of sewers. After seven years without sunlight, in August 1948, the pair were able to change to a one-room apartment measuring 41 square meters, with a kitchen and dining alcove, a couple of floors higher up in the same building. Here Sachs would spend the rest of her life. Until her mother’s death in February 1950, she devoted most of her time to caring for her. What small income she earned came from translations of Swedish literature, mostly poetry. Only at night could she write her own work — in the dark, as her mother would otherwise wake up.
This is the prototypical setting for Sachs’ poetry: alone with the alphabet at night. She felt literally “thrown into an ‘Outside,’” as she put it to the literary critic Margit Abenius. Although she may have been in a world governed by social conventions, she wasn’t part of it. Paradoxically situated, hers was an eerie sphere, bound up with the dead and the sorrow in their wake. Much later, in a letter to her French translator, Lionel Richard, Sachs would term this her “Nightly Dimension.” Ausschalten meant this, too: with the light extinguished, the person behind the work was no longer visible. Yet she was there all the same. The night was illuminated by the one thing that mattered: the writing. Whatever else there was, it should remain in the dark.
This study is devoted to the interplay between life and letters, inside and outside in a body of work neglected by critics in recent years. Hence it is also concerned with Sachs’ self-image. Her development as a poet is remarkable not least because she began the memorable part of her œuvre when she was over fifty years old. During the quarter-century that followed, her poems became ever more convincing from a critical point of view. Literary history boasts few such examples, if any. How was this development made possible?
The self-image that Sachs created from an experience of loss and parting, flight and metamorphosis was predicated on the notion that the poems came to her, that they were dictated by horrific circumstances which forced her to speak. “The words came and broke forth in me — to the edge of annihilation,” she reported in an interview on Swiss television in 1965. This image fits in with the vision of a poet with an Orphic mission. It is furthermore easy to identify traits which are traditionally perceived as feminine. Sachs is less active than passive. She does not compose poems, but rather is overwhelmed by them. She is more receiver than sender.
Sachs’ literary estate shows that she rarely rewrote or edited her texts. Many of them were printed in versions nearly identical — bar the odd word or comma — to the original. Yet must that mean she was a mere medium without intent — a handful of strings moved by the divine wind? At the same time as the circumstances following her escape from Nazi Germany were far from comfortable, she conscientiously worked in the service of poetry. She had submitted texts to newspapers and periodicals already in her youth. After her flight she contacted Swedish writers and critics and began almost immediately to translate their work into German. Despite her isolation she built, over time, a wide-ranging “network of words” with coordinates near and far, among the living and the dead, exiled writers and representatives of the younger generation. And during the difficult years of the 1960s, scarred by the effects of persecution during the Nazi years, she was periodically committed to psychiatric clinics in whose protected setting she wrote what are perhaps her most powerful works, the “glowing enigmas” and the late dramatic poetry.
This study dwells upon such contradictions and upon other ones. Even if Sachs saw herself as a “battleground,” it was in her that the words broke forth — and they did so “to the edge of annihilation.” The same convulsions with which she was born as a poet also extinguished her as a private individual. In the end the words glowed from the inside. Like enigmas, they illuminated without explanation. Thus implying that a different sort of reading was required: one that doesn’t assume the meaning of a poem is a treasure to be unearthed and exported. Inaccessibility was part of its appearance. As was obscurity.
May the following pages contain enough of the latter for Sachs’ poems to gleam as only they can.
By Aris Fioretos and Stanford University Press, 2012
She was the Little Lady with the Strong Poetic Voice
Nelly Sachs, Noble Prize laureate and literary innovator, is interpreted in an exhibition and a multimedia poetry performance at the Jewish Theatre in Stockholm.
“When it became too difficult to breathe I scribbled down a few lines”. So wrote Nelly Sachs herself. Gunilla Röör and Philip Zandén recite her letters and poems in a poignant performance of words, images and dance, directed and choreographed by Pia Forsgren, artistic director of the Jewish Theatre in Stockholm.
“I want to do away with this image of her as a frail little lady. Take a look at the photograph of her with Ekelöf and the others. She was the one who translated them into German, which shows how gifted she was,” Pia Forsgren says.
The Jewish Theatre is simultaneously showing FLIGHT & METAMORPHOSIS, an unconventional exhibition by Aris Fioretos and German design duo gewerk about Nelly Sachs and her work which drew large crowds to the Jewish Museum in Berlin last spring. Fioretos has also written a biography of Sachs. As counsellor for cultural affairs at the Swedish Embassy in Berlin he noted how Sachs, despite writing in German throughout her life, had been all but forgotten in Germany.
“She’s fallen a bit between two stools – in Germany she’s regarded as a Swede and above all as a Jew. I think there’s been a cringe element too – you can’t get away from the fact that Nelly during the 40s wrote in a high-flown style, with passion and pathos. And Germans have dealt with their heritage precisely by downplaying passion and pathos, since they disable the critical instinct and it was precisely that instinct which was lost in the propaganda years of the 1940s.”
It was at night, in a humble one-bedroom flat in Bergsunds strand in Stockholm during the 1950s and 60s, that Nelly Sachs wrote the poems which would give her the Nobel Prize. She had turned 50, and following her acquaintance with Swedish modernists such as Erik Lindegren and Gunnar Ekelöf had developed the voice that would make her experiences universal and exalted. Off and on she was interned at Beckomberga mental hospital, where she caught up on years of lost sleep and was given a respite from the Nazi threat which hung over her all her life. She invited her doctor from the hospital to the Nobel festivities.
When Nazi war criminals were released from prison in the 1960s her paranoia had grown stronger. She wrote to her friend the poet Paul Celan that she was being pursued by a “Nazi spiritualist gang” that plagued her “awfully sophisticatedly with a radio telegraph”. Celan sent her a piece of bark to hold between her fingers when things got really bad, he comforted her and encouraged her to write indefatigably on.
“The Holocaust was not something that was over after the 1940s, it continued to haunt her for the rest of her life”, Aris Fioretos points out.
Erica Josefsson, TT Spektra, Published October 2nd 2010.
Translated to English by Tomas Tranaeus.
“Lifelike Nelly Sachs exudes fear”
Flight and Metamorphosis
– Nelly Sachs, writer, - Berlin/Stockholm
The Jewish Theatre
Translated to English by Tomas Tranaeus.
A worn suitcase catches the eye and the imagination. It held everything that Nelly Sachs and her mother were able to take when they fled Berlin on board one of the last passenger aircraft in 1940. 26 years later, on her 75th birthday (December 10), Nelly Sachs received the Nobel Prize in literature from the hand of king Gustav IV Adolf. The silver necklace she wore on the occasion is also on view in the spatially small, but rich and moving life journey now taking shape at the Jewish Theatre.
The title, Flight and Metamorphosis, is taken from one of Sachs’ collections of poetry. The exhibition, curated by Aris Fioretos, opened at the Jewish Museum in Berlin last spring. In it, Sachs’ life is expounded by means of thorough archive research, objects and photos. The launch in Stockholm of its two-year European tour is almost uncannily well timed.
The Sweden Democrats gained seats in the Swedish parliament at the recent election, and alienation manifests itself in various ways in Sweden, a country which until now had been regarded as reasonably decent to strangers.
It is therefore a wise choice by the Jewish Theatre not just to present the eight exhibition modules from Berlin, but to involve Stockholm’s schoolchildren in an extensive integration project involving language, exile and identity – and also to create a suggestive scenic framework for the exhibition in the form of a media poem directed by the theatre’s artistic director, Pia Forsgren.
It is a bold piece, mixing sound, light, music, images and movement into a associative web of childhood, flight and fantasy. The idea ties in with Nelly Sachs’ visionary dramas for puppet theatre, but also with the poet’s sense of the dramatic nuances of words and their near enough physical charge. It is hardly surprising in this context to learn that dance was an early passion of Sachs’.
The audience is seated on a stand with Nelly Sachs’ life at their feet. A little family of puppets hovers above the “cuddy”, the room in Bergsundsstrand which became the hub of her universe. Beams of light cut threateningly through the darkness, and suddenly the dancer Fanny Kivimäki rushes past – a lifelike rendering of Nelly Sachs, exuding fear. Cut-off strands of hair dangle in front of us. The feeling of losing one’s footing is palpable.
Actors Philip Zandén and Gunilla Röör give voice to Sachs’ texts in which loneliness, longing and woundedness go hand in hand with intensity. “O the chimneys / On the cleverly devised dwellings of death / When Israel’s body dispersed in smoke / Drifted through the air…”
The pain of the 1947 poem is accompanied by newsreel footage from Nazi Germany’s Berlin: book burnings, officers with swastikas and a proudly posing Hitler. Like a figure of light in this cultural twilight, Nils Holgersson hovers incarnate. For Nelly Sachs, Selma Lagerlöf’s fairy-tale figure became a symbol of the flight to the new country. But in order to understand the connection you have to have browsed the substantial programme booklet.
Nelly Sachs became, like so many in her situation, aware of her Jewish identity only in exile and alienation. She wrote in order to be able to breathe. Her highly personal story lends fresh life to the hackneyed saying that language is power. Sachs’ life story awakens a desire to read more of her. And to quell that desire there is now a new volume of hitherto unknown texts by her, selected by Aris Fioretos and entitled The Great Anonymous.
Performances on Saturdays and Sundays at 2 pm and 4 pm.