How do people heal the scars of persecution? This question arose for us when visiting Dachau, where a relative spent about a month in late 1938. Unlike many others, he was fortunate in being released, promising to leave Germany. In fact he had been trying to get his family out for some time, but being over 40 made it difficult to get entry anywhere (New Zealand had turned him down earlier in 1938). Acceptance came—for about 800 Jewish refugees—from the Dominican Republic, where the dictator, Trujillo, accepted immigrants while at the same time treating Haitians ruthlessly. Trujillo’s dictatorship is brilliantly depicted by the Peruvian novelist, Mario Vargas Llosa, in The Feast of the Goat.
In the Dachau information office, I learned of Hilde Domin, a German poet who adopted her surname from the city (Santo Domingo) that gave her refuge. Born to a well-off secular Jewish Cologne family in 1909, Hilde Löwenstein had an excellent education, studying law, economics, sociology and philosophy in Heidelberg, Cologne, Bonn and Berlin.[i] Like Hannah Arendt, she was taught Philosophy by Karl Jaspers. She completed her doctoral thesis on Renaissance politics in Florence in 1935 and taught in Rome until 1939 when she and her husband, Erwin Walter Palm, immigrated to England (where her parents had already relocated). Fear of a possible German invasion led the couple to frantically seek refuge in the United States, Mexico, Argentina or Brazil, but the only place that accepted them was the Dominican Republic. There Hilde Palm worked as a translator and architectural photographer, eventually becoming a lecturer in German at the University of San Domingo from 1947 until the couple returned to Germany in 1952.
From then on Hilde wrote under the pseudonym Hilde Domin. Her work has received numerous awards. She lived to 96, dying on 22 February 2006. Here is her answer to the question of how to heal the scars of persecution:
We were deluged
and washed with the waters of Noah’s flood
we were soaked through
to the skin of our hearts
Longing for a landscape
this side of the border of tears
longing to hold on to spring blossom
longing to remain unscathed
What works is to ask
that at sunrise the dove
will bring the olive branch
that the fruit will be as colourful
as the blossom
that even the rose petals on the ground
can become a shining crown
And that we, out of the flood
out of the lion’s den and the
will be released
even more wounded and even more healed.
Translation by Meg Taylor and Elke Heckel. For more poems by Hilde Domin in translation visit this Hilde Domin website.
Barbara Brookes is co-editor of Corpus.
Biographical details about Hilde Domin