If you’ve Googled anything today, you may have been struck by a harrowing black-and-white Google Doodle featuring a typewriter. It honors Nelly Sachs, an incredible German Jewish poet and Holocaust survivor.
Sachs was born to a well-to-do Jewish family in Berlin 127 years ago, on December 10, 1891. As a teen, Sachs was inspired by the writing Swedish author Selma Lagerlöf, to whom she wrote admiring letters.
Much of her early published work was inspired by Lagerlöf’s romantic style. As Hitler rose to power, Sachs was only permitted to write for Jewish papers. It was then that she learned about Kaballah and Jewish mysticism, which greatly impacted her work.
As it happens, Sachs’ correspondence with Lagerlöf eventually saved her life. In 1940, when Sachs learned that she and her mother were about to be sent to a forced-labor camp, the Swedish author intervened in their behalf and helped the two of them escape to Sweden.
In Sweden, Sachs and her mother lived in a one-bedroom apartment, and Sachs worked, translating Swedish poetry to German. She soon learned that all of her family and many of her friends had perished during the Holocaust. Not surprisingly, much of her later writing was marked by that tragedy.
In 1966, Sachs won a Nobel Prize for Literature, jointly with famed Israeli writer Shai Agnon. Upon receiving the prize, she noted that while Agnon and his fiction represented Israel, “I represent the tragedy of the Jewish people,” she said.
Sachs died of cancer in 1970 and is buried in Stockholm’s Jewish cemetery.
The Google Doodle — drawn by Daniel Stolle, himself of mixed German and Scandinavian heritage — beautifully encapsulates Sachs’ story, and features a bit of Berlin’s and Stockholm’s skyline.
It also alludes to her poem, “O die Schornsteine” (“O the Chimneys”), which alludes to smoke rising from extermination camp crematoriums. Here is the full text of that poem:
O the chimneys
on the carefully planned dwellings of death
When Israel’s body rose dissolved in smoke
through the air –
To be welcomed by a chimney sweep star
Or was it a ray of the sun?
O the chimneys!
Paths of freedom for the dust of Jeremiah and Job –
Who dreamed you up and built stone upon stone
The path of smoke for their flight?
O dwellings of death
Set out so enticingly
For the host of the house, who used to be the guest –
O you fingers
Laying the stone of the threshold
Like a knife between life and death –
O you chimneys
O you fingers
And Israel’s body dissolves in smoke through the air!