Sweden’s Gate

On the Life and Literature of Selma Lagerlöf & Nelly Sachs

Though Selma Lagerlöf and Nelly Sachs were the first two women to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, not much else overlaps in their biographies. Selma Lagerlöf, born in 1858, was thirty-three years older than Nelly Sachs, who was born in 1891. For the entirety of Lagerlöf’s life, the two women lived in separate countries, with Lagerlöf residing in Sweden and Sachs in Germany. Lagerlöf wrote prose, Sachs poetry;

Lagerlöf grew up in a rural setting, Sachs in the capital city of Berlin; Lagerlöf was Christian, Sachs Jewish. Not even the Nobel truly connected the two. Their awards came fifty-seven years apart, with Lagerlöf winning for her neo-Romantic novels in 1909 and Sachs for her post-war poetry in 1966. Yet one day, while Lagerlöf was sitting on her terrace in Sweden, she found herself in a position to save Nelly Sachs’s life. Long considered an interesting tidbit about the two Nobel prizewinners, the story goes that Lagerlöf saved Sachs from deportation during the Holocaust by sponsoring the Jewish writer’s emigration to Stockholm. More than a piece of Nobel trivia, however, the story of Lagerlöf and Sachs is one of a role model and her protégé, two women who saw in each other their past and future selves. Rarely does anyone mention the full extent of their correspondence before the war; the attributes, childhood experiences, and literary tastes they shared. The longer, bumpier version of their tale—the one that only scholars seem to share—acknowledges Lagerlöf’s inconsistent and perplexing relationship with the Nazi party, even challenges the very notion that Lagerlöf responsible for Sachs’s rescue.

Selma Lagerlöf was born in 1858 on a rural Swedish estate called Mårbacka. Her family belonged to an upper-middle class group of entrepreneurs who had lived in the region since at least the 1600s, when the prosperity of Värmland started to grow thanks to its mines of mineral ore. Her father, a gentleman farmer, had a reputation for gaiety and charisma, and his birthday parties each August grew into legitimate festivals for the whole district. Young Selma adored her father and wrote puppet shows and plays for these parties, which featured pageants, feasting, dancing, and performances.

As a girl, Lagerlöf distinguished herself from her siblings by staying inside with her books as they ran around the family farm at Mårbacka Manor in Värmland, a region in western Sweden. The estate at Mårbacka and its surrounding area became fertile soil for Selma’s imagination. Lagerlöf dreamt of becoming a poet, staying up late in her bed to think of rhymes for her verses. As she recounts in her autobiographically inspired short story collection, The Girl from Marsh Croft, “She went about at home on the quiet farm, filling every scrap of paper she could lay her hands on with verse and prose, with plays and romances.”

She put these dreams on hold to attend teacher’s college in Stockholm. One day, walking back from a lecture at her teacher’s college, she got the idea for the character of Gösta, later describing the event as one in which the ground seemed to rock. First, she tried writing the story as poetry, then as a drama, and finally as prose. The tales follow the protagonist Gösta as he evolves from a dismissed, drunken priest to an infamous pensioner in Värmland. Lagerlöf sent the manuscript to a contest; she had such low confidence in its quality, that she assumed the editors counted her submission among the couple they disqualified for being “unreadable.” A few months later, she received a telegram with congratulations, then saw the announcement in the Stockholm papers. She had won. In 1891, when Lagerlöf was thirty-three years old, Gösta Berlings Saga was published, and her public career as an author began.

During the same year that Swedish readers met Gösta Berling, the William and Margarete Sachs met their daughter Nelly. Born in December 1891, Nelly (full name Leonie) was their first and only child. Determined to shield their little girl from the trials of everyday life, the family of three moved to a large, ground floor apartment in Berlin’s wealthy Tiergarten district. Surrounding the Sachs family in their neighborhood were other upwardly mobile Jewish families, most of whom were assimilated into German society. The defining feature of Nelly’s upper-middle class existence was the private garden in her home. Her love for this Edenic plot of land would, years later, link her to her hero Selma Lagerlöf’s Heimatliteratur: the Germanic literature of those who long for home, whether that home exists in the form of a Berlin garden or a Swedish farmstead. Sachs received a copy of Gösta Berlings Saga for her 15th birthday; the Swedish author’s Romantic landscapes and fairytale motifs presumably spoke to Sachs’s burgeoning sense of identity, which included a deep, almost mystical connection to nature.

Only in her teenage years did a darkness start to define her moods. She secretly longed to be a writer but was put into a women’s school that trained housewives, then sent to boarding school in 1905. The defining event of her adolescence occurred when she fell in love. The circumstances remain ambiguous, but it’s thought that her suitor was an older, non-Jewish, divorced man, whom her parents forbade her from marrying. Sachs considered this misfortune one of the defining traumas of her life. Anguished, she refused to eat and was eventually admitted to a private clinic in Grünewald run by a psychiatrist and Sachs family friend. She stayed for over two years. Fearing that she would die of anorexia, her doctor advised she continue writing poems, hoping that the practice might prove healing for Nelly.

By the time Nelly Sachs was recovering from her illness at the clinic, the now 51-year-old Selma Lagerlöf had already published the several of her most famous works: Gösta Berlings Saga, Jerusalem, and a children’s book called The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, in which a young boy rides a goose over the Swedish landscape. Her neo-Romantic voice and willingness to indulge idealism set her apart from the Swedish realists of her day. When she received her Nobel Prize on December 10, 1909—the date, it so happens, of Sachs’s eighteenth birthday—the committee praised her for “the noble realism, the wealth of imagination, the soulful quality of style, which characterize her works.” In her novels, people who act righteously are rewarded, while bad behavior is punished.

This is not to oversimplify the interplay of good and evil in Lagerlöf’s work, or to suggest that her textual world precludes moral complexity. The first chapter of Jerusalem, for example, sees a young Swedish man named Ingmar Ingmarsson conferring with his dead father. In their imagined conversation in heaven, Ingmar asks his father to guide him through the hardest trial he has ever faced. It’s revealed that Ingmar betrothed and impregnated a woman against her will. She killed their newborn in revenge, and now her three-year imprisonment is drawing to an end. Ingmar is distraught over his next steps. Should he proceed to marry her, abandon her, or allow her father to exile her to America?

Quandaries of morality like these infuse Lagerlöf’s texts. Even characters that fall into a moral gray space—most notably Gösta Berling, but also Ingmar—still face redemption or punishment in all the appropriate places. In Ingmar’s case, he repents for his actions, as does his wife, and to both their and contemporary readers’ surprise, they remain contentedly married in Sweden. Barbarism is righted, and in its place emerges an ethical universe.

In her Nobel banquet speech, Lagerlöf shared an internal dialogue she held with her late father while on the train to receive her award in Stockholm—one that is quite reminiscent of her character Ingmar Ingmarrson’s, at least in form. In her imagination, Lagerlöf travels up to heaven to ask her father how she can repay her enormous debt of influence to the writers who taught her “to love fairy tales and sagas of heroes, the land we live in and all of our human life,” those who have “formed and moulded our language into the good instrument that it is.” Her father, so overcome with joy at her receiving the Nobel prize, admits he is unable to advise her. She toasts the Academy with this simple confession of her joy.

For years, Lagerlöf had hoped to re-purchase her childhood home at Mårbacka, which her family had been forced to sell after her father’s death in 1888. Though she had already re-purchased the house at Mårbacka shortly before she received the Nobel, her prize money enabled her to secure the entire estate and become its proprietor. Lagerlöf took on numerous improvement projects on the estate and renovated the house, which afterwards gleamed dazzling white at the end of an avenue of birches.” Her symbolic return home was, she told Berendsohn, among the most important events of her adult life.

In 1921, Lagerlöf received a manuscript from a young woman in Berlin named Leonie Sachs. On the dedication page was an inscription (translated here from the German by Jenny Watson, Associate Professor of German and Scandinavian Studies at Marquette University): “This book brings a warm greeting from Germany to Selma Lagerlöf on her birthday. It is written by a young German who honors the great Swedish author as her shining role model.” Inside the book, titled Legunden & Erzählungen (Stories & Legends in English), Sachs had recast fairytales from Lagerlöf’s work of the same name, giving each a spin that was truly her own. As Jenny Watson writes in “Sachs’s Early Prose: A Tribute to Lagerlöf,”

Sachs did not simply adapt or borrow motifs from a single Lagerlöf work; rather, she responded to Lagerlöf’s romantic style and material… All of Sachs’s legends and stories—to one extent or another—respond, serve as a reaction, to a work in Lagerlöf’s collection, thereby creating a private dialogue between the two authors.

Dark undercurrents pervade Sachs’s recasting of Lagerlöf’s legends. Characters who are young and beautiful women in Lagerlöf’s stories become ugly old women in Sachs; characters who must perform good deeds in order to live in Lagerlöf’s book must do so in order to be allowed to die in Sachs.

Lagerlöf’s response to Nelly’s manuscript marked delighted the young woman. Lagerlöf, addressing the postcard to “Schriftstellerin” (German for “writer”), told Sachs that she couldn’t have done it better herself, an epistolary wink to Sachs’s emulation. So began the correspondence that would continue periodically for the next fifteen years.

When Sachs struck up her correspondence with Lagerlöf, she was already thirty-three years old. She had long since left the psychiatric institute of her teenage years, but she still left an impression of being delicate; her friend Gudrun Dähnert described her as “Snow White,” according to Sachs biographer Aris Fioretos. After her initial outreach, Sachs sent several poems to Lagerlöf over the years. The next major prose manuscript she mailed to Lagerlöf was called Chelion, an autobiographical novel inspired by Lagerlöf’s Childhood at Mårbacka (Lagerlöf had once gifted Sachs a copy). Chelion was similar to Lagerlöf’s childhood memoirs both conceptually and syntactically. Simple vocabulary, short sentences, and basic grammatical structure were among the commonalities, as Jenny Watson notes in her essay Sachs’s Early Prose: A Tribute to Lagerlöf. When Sachs sent the “Chelion” manuscripts to Lagerlöf in July 1935, she included the following note:

I often dream about what everything is really like there (in Mårbacka) and your childhood memories Mårbacka help my fantasy. Today I sent to you via mail a manuscript “Chelion,” a childhood story. I had such a great longing for your kind eye to rest on it, and thus that you might consecrate this little story, behind which your great genius stood. (translated from the German by Jenny Watson)

In some ways, Chelion represented a return to the garden of Sachs’s youth—both because she and her mother moved out of her childhood home in the early 1930s, upon her father’s death, and because the political climate in Germany was rapidly worsening. As Sachs was working on Chelion, Nazi laws were going into effect, banning Jews from publishing in most newspapers (rendering Chelion’s publication impossible) and restricting their ability to obtain and travel with passports.

As German anti-Semitism grew stronger, life became more unbearable for Sachs. She and her mother were forced out of their apartment and into a one-room flat. The move was traumatic for Nelly; their old apartment was looted, and when she attempted to claim damages, she and her mother were blackmailed by “Aryan” tenants who wanted them deported. The threat of deportation rendered Sachs’s mother ill and Sachs herself speechless, unable to use her voice for three days.

Nelly’s first appeal to Lagerlöf came on November 26, 1938—a few weeks after Kristallnacht, when German Nazis had smashed Jewish synagogues and storefronts overnight. Her letter to Lagerlöf, translated from German, reads:

Dear, dear Selma Lagerlöf!

I am sending you my Bible verses and putting them into your heart.
It’s been almost 20 years since I wrote to you for the first time and sent you my first book, Stories and Legends.
Whenever a greeting came from you over the years it was a feast for my soul. Whenever I immersed yourself in your radiantly beautiful poetry, my soul recovered, no matter how sad it was.
How one loves something so truly and dearly—that is how I love you.
So now, trembling, I dare make a request: Can my mother and I come to rest on your kindest heart? I would be grateful with every fiber of my being for the tiniest chance to live.
Forgive me for writing to you like this and for having to put my fate in your hands. I kiss them with tears.

Always yours,
Nelly Sachs

Sachs received no reply. The reason for her silence is a mystery, even to scholars. The most common explanation remains that Lagerlöf’s old age and ill health rendered her unable to manage her affairs. According to Jennifer Hoyer, an Associate Professor of German at the University of Arkansas whose research focuses on Nelly Sachs, “No one seems to have a clear answer, and it is definitely a question that has perplexed a lot of us.” She adds, “I’ve never encountered an interpretation of this other than Lagerlöf’s age and health concerns.”

Another layer of the narrative is the complicated way in which Lagerlöf’s literature was used by Nazis, both before and after Sachs’s letter requesting her help. Lagerlöf’s denounced the Nazis publicly in 1933 and began funding Jewish intellectuals trying to leave Germany. Yet the author had too many German fans for the Nazi party to ever justify banning her books. In Watson’s words, Lagerlöf’s stories were “a staple of German youth.” Gösta Berlings Saga was often assigned reading for schoolchildren, many of whom also adored The Adventures of Nils Holgersson. The Nazis did not go out of their way to popularize her literature, but they did allow her books to remain in circulation, deciding that her Heimatliteratur was even useful insofar as it stoked “Aryan” children’s yearning for a Germanic homeland.

Perhaps realizing the risk in losing her German readership, Lagerlöf’s attitude towards the Nazis seemed to soften as time went on. In Watson’s article “Scandinavian Literature in Nazi Germany: Selma Lagerlöf as One Example,” the scholar notes:

Although she expressed anti-fascist opinions, she also appeared—at times—supportive of the regime. Files from the time indicate that the Reichsregierung (Nazi government) received a letter from her on March 10, 1933. In this letter, it appears as if Lagerlöf was in full support of the new regime.

The letter in question contains lines such as, “Adolf Hitler has come, as if sent from the Lord God, in order to gather the noblest forces of your great nation for one common goal: the saving of the oppressed Fatherland.” It’s been proven that Lagerlöf herself did not write the letter herself, as Watson quickly clarifies, although the Nazi party was unaware of its inauthenticity and sent Lagerlöf an earnest reply. More troubling than this anomalous letter, however, is that Lagerlöf allowing the Nazi’s Swedish arm to publish one of her books as “winter relief for the German people” in 1936.

To Sachs, Lagerlöf was still a hero, and the only person who might hold enough sway to keep Sweden’s borders open for two German-Jewish refugees. In early 1939, she wrote again to her literary idol, begging for a reference that would enable her to seek Swedish residency:

And if I may repeat my diffident supplication, which to you may seem to be on bended knees: Would you, who have been a symbol of love and goodness all my life, would you help my mother and myself to open the gate to Sweden, a land to which we so fervently long, by allowing me to put your ever-valued name as a reference on the question form at the Swedish consulate here? This is our only hope of obtaining a residence permit in Sweden.

Summer 1939 came around, and still Lagerlöf hadn’t replied. The desperate situation called for immediate action. Sachs’s dear friend Gudrun Dähnert, a non-Jew, traveled to Sweden to ask Lagerlöf for her help in person. Fioretos describes the Dähnert-Lagerlöf meeting thusly: “Unfortunately the meeting did not go as hoped. Hard of hearing, Lagerlöf sat on her terrace with a shawl around her head. Hammering workmen were in the process of relaying the roof.” Dähnert was unable to communicate with Lagerlöf, and it was only the next day, when she returned to Mårbacka for a quieter meeting in Lagerlöf’s study, that the Swedish author agreed to write a brief recommendation to the government.

Though Lagerlöf certainly played a role in guaranteeing Sachs’s eligibility for Swedish immigration, most of the help came from others, with Gudrun Dähnert playing a lead role. After visiting Lagerlöf twice, Dähnert connected with the Swedish king’s brother, Prince Eugen, who in turn provided a second recommendation on behalf of Sachs. Dähnert also ensured Sachs would receive an income of at least 200 Swedish kronor per month upon her arrival; this entry regulation was especially difficult to fulfill, as refugees were not granted work permits. It took several contributors pledging monthly sums (the lawyer Wilhelm Michaeli, a schoolteacher named Enar Sahlin, the publisher named Karl Otto Bonnier, and Lagerlöf herself), but eventually Dähnert was able guarantee the required income for Sachs.

These preparations all took precious time. While waiting for the necessary signatures and affidavits to complete her emigration, Sachs received a deportation notice. She ripped it up at the advice of a Gestapo official who had once promised to keep her safe. When she obtained her visa shortly afterward and bought train tickets headed north, the same man forewarned her that her train would be stopped at the border. He suggested she take a flight immediately.

Sachs and her mother arrived for their flight at Tempelhof Airport on May 16, 1940, boarding the last plane to leave Germany with Jews on board. They brought hardly any possessions with them. Among those objects Sachs did take on to the plane were her books from Selma Lagerlöf. Lagerlöf herself had died exactly two months earlier.

Sachs treated her departure to Sweden as a clean break with her prior literary style. The dividing line in Sachs’s life begot a split in her literary style, too. While Lagerlöf’s oeuvre reads as continual, Sachs’s is broken into two bodies: the “before” of her Romantic-style, early texts, and the “after” of her mournful, post-emigration poetry. She never wanted her early work published, and her change in voice after reaching Sweden was drastic. In some ways, Lagerlöf’s influence on Sachs could be said to have died along with Lagerlöf herself. Rather than the Romantic verse that Sachs produced in Germany, she began in Sweden to write poetry so spare and brittle it seems it might break into pieces. (One good comparison point for Sachs’s poetry is Paul Celan, a fellow Holocaust survivor and German-language poet, and a friend of Sachs’s.)

Even despite Sachs’s departure of voice, many describe Lagerlöf’s work and Sachs’s later oeuvre in similar terms, especially on the subjects simplicity and speechlessness. In his introduction to Lagerlöf’s English edition of “Jerusalem,” Henry Goddard Leach writes, “Her style maybe be described as prose rhapsody held in restraint, at times passionately breaking its bonds.” Through this dance of restraint and passion—an alternation of pensive passages and emotive exclamations—Lagerlöf builds the rhythms of her stories. Take her opening description of the landscape in Gösta Berlings Saga, which offers paragraphs of observations at a remove, sometimes in the passive voice (“Where the plain came down to the lake, churches and villages were built…”), only to break into an effusive plea in its final lines: “May everything go will with those who live far away by the long like and the blue mountains!” Lagerlöf’s love for her Swedish homeland seems to spill over beyond the container of description.

Sachs demonstrates her own version of restraint and “bond breaking” in her poetry, though in a more tragic sense. She is always on the verge of speechlessness, always saying just enough in the space of a line or a poem to step up and look over the precipice of the unknown, without falling into the crevice. As scholar Robert Foot notes in his analysis of Sachs’s poem “Szene aus dem Spiel Nachtwache” (“Scene from the Play Nightwatch”): “The poem reaches a point where its language hovers on the brink of disintegration as a result of not being able to express its overwhelming subject matter…It is as if the poem is trying breathlessly to express the totality of its vision before the possibility of speechlessness arises again.”

Szene aus dem Spiel Nachtwache / Scene from the Play Nightwatch (1961)

Eyes shut
and then —
the wound opens
and then —
Fishing with flashes of lightning
the mysteries of blood
for the fish
all in the grave in the sky
The child draws with dust in the coffin
the navel of the world —
and the hangman holds the final curse
in the stockade of teeth —
What now?

The bond-breaking of Lagerlöf is borne of passion, then; Sachs’s is borne of panic. The work of each woman represents something of a moral reckoning—Lagerlöf’s, through the quotidian Christian predicaments faced by her characters, and Sachs’s, through grappling with the extermination of the Jews and the war that killed 75 million people.

Sachs’s poetry returns to the impulse to break free from Earth, to float upwards into the sky. Whether Sachs is depicting a body’s ashes drifting like smoke though the air, as in “O the chimneys” (an elegy gesturing at the destruction of the gas chambers, and containing the line “When Israel’s body drifted as smoke / Through the air—”), or the resurrection of language (“But only the word lashed bloody / breaks into resurrection / the soul on its wing—,” from Glowing Engimas: III), her lines carry readers up into a higher realm. The resulting sense for the reader of being lifted off the ground is not so far away from the effect of Ingmar Ingmarsson’s conference with his father in heaven, as seen in Jerusalem, or from Selma Lagerlöf’s conference with her father in heaven, as seen in her Nobel Prize speech.

Commonalities can also be found between Sachs and Lagerlöf’s treatment of “the stranger” as an archetype. One example is Sachs’s poem “Someone Comes,” from her collection Flight & Metamorphoses: “Someone comes / from afar / who moves like a dog / or / perhaps a rat / and it is winter / so clothe him warmly.” These lines also recall the opening pages of Gösta Berlings Saga, in which Gösta arrives destitute in a new parish in the wintertime. “One cold December day a beggar came wandering up the slopes of Broby. He was dressed in the most miserable rags, and his shoes were so worn that the old snow wet his feet.”

Of course, they also bring to mind Sachs’s own experience as refugee entering a foreign land. Though Sachs settled into life in Sweden, their transition was difficult. She and her mother moved into a dark, dank one-bedroom apartment in a building filled with other refugees. Her friend Johannes Edfeldt recalls finding her one day writing at her kitchen table under lines of dripping laundry, so as not to wake her mother in the bedroom. As a result of that visit, Edfeldt and Sachs began to translate each other’s poems, and eventually, Sachs started earning money as a translator of Swedish poetry.

Long after the war, Sachs continued to suffer psychically. Her stature as a poet continued to grow, but her adulthood also featured multiple hospitalizations and electroshock treatment. Two incidents in particular pushed her to the brink. One was the death of her mother in 1950, and the other was her dread of returning to Germany to accept a poetry award she won in the early 1960s. Not even her poetry could heal the wounds of the past.

In 1966, when Nelly Sachs stepped up to the stage to receive her Nobel Prize, the now 75-year-old spoke of Lagerlöf in her first sentence: “In the summer of 1939 a German girlfriend of mine went to Sweden to visit Selma Lagerlöf, to ask her to secure a sanctuary for my mother and myself in that country.” She also, as Lagerlöf had fifty-seven years earlier, made reference to her late father: “Today, after twenty-six years, I think of what my father used to say on every tenth of December, back in my home town, Berlin: ‘Now they celebrate the Nobel ceremony in Stockholm.’” There could have been no more fitting capstone to the Lagerlöf-Sachs relationship than Nelly’s speech, which, in the span of a few paragraphs, named Lagerlöf as a savior, emulated Lagerlöf’s own banquet speech’s inclusion of her late father.

Yet Sachs ended her acceptance speech by reciting on of her poems called “In Der Flucht” (“In Flight”). The final lines: “I hold instead of a homeland / the metamorphoses of the world—”. With this gesture, Sachs also reminds her audience that was never able to repossess her childhood—geographically, or in sentiment—the way Lagerlöf recaptured hers at Mårbacka. Here, standing in Stockholm, was an elderly woman who initially embraced the idealism of Lagerlöf—yet was forced to flea her home as a Jew during World War II, confined to a tiny refugee apartment in Stockholm with her mother, and committed to psychiatric institutions multiple times from ages seventeen to seventy. The older Sachs got, the farther her life veered away from the idyllic world she treasured in Lagerlöf’s writing. And nonetheless, like an archetypal protagonist finally returning to some semblance of home, Sachs still ended up right where she once hoped to be: stepping into her hero Lagerlöf’s empty shoes.

Stephanie Newman