restricted access 3. Nelly Sachs and the Myth of the “German-Jewish Symbiosis”
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3 Nelly Sachs and theMyth of the “German-Jewish Symbiosis” Of the authors discussed in this study, Nelly Sachs is the one who most explicitly and unequivocally drew on Jewish religious concepts as an interpretative frame of her own dislocation. Coming from an assimilated German Jewish background, Sachs was suddenly forced to confront a Jewish label as a result of Nazi persecution. After her last-minute escape from Germany to Sweden in May 1940, she turned this imposed Jewish identity into a deliberate one, first by empathetically identifying with the victims of the Holocaust, then also by reconnecting to Jewish cultural and religious traditions, particularly to its mystical strains as mediated by Martin Buber and Gershom Scholem. Sachs, who stayed for the rest of her life in Sweden, is best known for her early Holocaust poetry, written in the first postwar years and collected in a volume titled In den Wohnungen des Todes [In the Habitations of Death]. In 1966, she received the Nobel Prize for Literature together with the Hebrew writer Shmuel Yosef Agnon, an award that treated both of them, due to the inevitable political subtext of the Nobel Prize awards, as representatives of the Jewish people. The fact that the Israeli author in this constellation is male and the diaspora author female is itself noteworthy . There is some irony in the fact that despite, or rather because of, her Jewish identification, Sachs was appropriated by sectors of the West 95 CHAPTER 3 96 German public as a symbol of reconciliation between Germans and Jews after the Holocaust. This reception reached its first climax in May 1960 when she returned to Germany for the first time after the war to receive the Annette von Droste-Hülshoff-Preis für Dichterinnen in Meersburg. The fact that Sachs suffered from persecution fears leading to a nervous breakdown and repeated hospitalization after this visit, however, indicates that she was ultimately unable to inhabit the position assigned to her by the German public. In fact, she experienced the events related to her reception in Germany as a return of history. An outbreak of persecution fears, recorded in 1962 shortly after a delegation from the city of Dortmund visited Sachs in Stockholm to discuss plans to establish a Nelly Sachs prize hints at this connection: In the past week, the climax approached; the moment when the German men from Dortmund arrived. Everywhere I encountered the red Hieronymus Bosch color: blood, blood, every car, every motorcycle, garden tools. . . everything red. . . . I ask you one thing: It can’t be that these were all bloodthirsty avengers for Eichmann who made the day red (and before and after)—why this lynch-mob atmosphere against me? Must I leave this country? But where can I go? Can I still be saved? 1 In this chapter I analyze the way in which Sachs’s personal crisis reveals her discomfort with the public persona created by and for a German audience, and I take this discomfort as the point of departure for an analysis of the relation between diaspora and cultural mediation. More precisely, I confront Sachs’s reception as a conciliatory figure in Germany with her own complicated attempt to locate an interstitial space for Jews in postwar German culture. I first offer a critique of the mechanisms at work in Sachs’s initial reception in West Germany, such as the use of gender stereotypes and Christian religious language, and the invocation of continuity between the historic “German-Jewish symbiosis ” and post-Holocaust German-Jewish relations. Sachs’s own definition of exile as a privileged place of mediation is in some ways compatible with such readings. In her early Holocaust poems words like heimatlos come to describe the state of the world after the Holocaust, projecting the suffering of the survivors onto landscapes of mourning. In her poetry of the 1950s, Sachs transforms exile into a metaphor for NELLY SACHS AND THE MYTH 97 a special metaphysical disposition, an interpretation that is consistent with her overall aspiration to recuperate hope in the midst of destruction . One of her most frequently discussed poems, “In der Flucht” [“Fleeing”], uses images from the Bible and Jewish legends to depict the drivenness and restlessness of a refugee, and yet dissociates these images from their original context to describe a human predicament beyond cultural and ethnic particularities. The final line suggests that the shelter of home might be replaced by a special sensibility for transformative processes: “An Stelle von Heimat / halte ich...