Hilde Domin

English translations by Meg Taylor and Elke Heckel

Idiosyncratic Introduction to the Translations

Hilde Domin, 1909-2006, was one of the most referred to and quoted German poets of the 20th century.

She was born Hilde Loewenstein to well educated Jewish parents: her father was a lawyer. She left Germany in 1932, returned briefly in the early fifties and settled permanently in Heidelberg in the early seventies. For a Jew to survive the Third Reich exile was a necessity. But I think there are aspects of Hilde Domin's trajectory of exile which are unusual.

She was highly educated. She completed her Gymnasium education in 1929 and between 1929 and 1932 she studied law, economics, sociology and philosophy in Heidelberg, Cologne, Bonn and Berlin. Her tutors included the philosopher Karl Jaspers. I'm not sure to what extent this level of education was unusual. My mother, born in north London in 1913, passed her scholarship to grammar school but her parents could not afford to send her and she remained in elementary school until leaving to start work at the age of 14. Marion Milner, born in 1900, was educated to university level and was one of the first occupational psychologists in this country. Virginia Woolf, a child of cultured parents, notoriously (cf Three Guineas) did not go to university.

What follows is based on surmise. I take full responsibility for errors of conjecture.

When she left Germany in 1932 it was not to escape the impending rise of Nazism: that would have required almost telepathic prescience. It was to pursue her education. She left for Italy to research for a doctoral thesis on medieval Italian politics. She left Italy in 1939 for Britain and left Britain in 1941, according to one source after a doctor had prescribed a lethal dose of the sedative Veronal to take in the case of German invasion. (Leonard and Virginia Woolf also had a lethal dose of poison to escape similar circumstances.) Hilde Domin moved with her husband to the Dominican Republic.

During her years in exile she taught and she started to write poetry after her mother's death in 1951. I misinterpreted the reasons for this, assuming on the basis of my own experience that she needed her mother's death to create the circumstances for creative freedom. It didn't occur to me that her grief was such that it required -- and gave -- poetic form. She adopted the name Domin as a nom de plume in honour of her place of refuge. She became a full-time freelance writer in 1961.

I learnt of her when a friend send me a postcard of the poem 'Bitte' and Elke discovered five more of her poems in an anthology of German poetry. We started to translate them for fun and found out that she had died on the 22nd February 2006. Neither of us had heard of her before my friend's postcard. She wasn't featured in my 1963 Penguin edition of 20th century German verse. And Elke, although well read, had not read those five poems beforehand. So on consulting the Sudwestrundfunk website after her death we were astounded to learn of her eminence. She had received many literary prizes evoking the names of eminent poets including Heine, Rilke and Zuckmeyer and a civil award which I think must be the equivalent of a British DBE. Her poem Abel steh' auf is one of the most quoted German poems of the 20th century. By any standards this is considerable and well founded renown.

Her poems include descriptions of exile, references to love and redemption and empathy with the suffering of those who did not escape.

Yet she spent seven years in fascist Italy. Italian fascism was not anti-Semitic in the same way as Nazism and she has written that she was often frightened during those years but I find her choosing to remain there in those circumstances somewhat odd. It gives me an impression of someone simultaneously highly educated and politically naive. Or of someone so ruthless in the pursuit of her own academic ends that she would not allow herself to apprehend political reality. It may be that it is easy for me to make these judgments. Maybe the political reality of the times was in many ways incomprehensible to those not involved. Nevertheless I felt uneasy.

There was a time when I found myself feeling increasingly uneasy. What illustrated this was the poem 'Breaking out from here - for Paul Celan, Peter Szondi, Jean Amery who didn't want to live any more'. I was comparatively familiar with the life and some of the poetry of Paul Celan. I knew that he had survived a concentration camp and been trying to do what was said to be impossible: to create poetry out of the Holocaust. I knew that he had killed himself in the early sixties. I had not heard of either of the other two and looking up Jean Amery and learning of the circumstances of his life and the fearsome lethality of contingency I was left with the sense that Hilde Domin could afford to write about love and reconciliation because she had had it soft.

Abel steh' auf, the most quoted and most redemptive poem, is asking for the impossible: a rewriting of the relationship between Cain and Abel in which Abel does not die and Cain does not kill. I feel a conflict about this. History is written by the victors. Sometimes history is rewritten by subsequent victors. History changes in a more subtle sense with the passage of time and changing values. I remember when the election of Willy Brandt to the German chancellorship caused disapproval in Germany. His having left to go to Norway to fight the Nazis, a choice which I admired for its political integrity, elicited condemnation amongst certain established critics who felt it disloyal even while they ostensibly condemned Nazism. I remember when the word 'black' to describe people of African and Caribbean origin was considered an insult on a par with 'nigger'. I remember when the word 'woman' was considered an insult. I have internalised aspects of the feminist rewriting of history: for me Friday the 13th is considered problematic not because Jesus was crucified on a Friday and thirteen people sat around the table for the Last Supper but because there is a subliminal fear of the power of the feminine and Friday is the day of the goddess (Freya as in Friday or Freitag or Venus as in vendredi or viernes), there are thirteen lunar months in the year and the moon in western symbolism is associated with the feminine. That this is considered problematic is a testament to the power of feminine. I want to reclaim this power in the same way as black people have reclaimed the word 'black'.

Yet history cannot be forcibly rewritten. Fundamentalist believers of the religions of The Book would not allow any rewriting. I don't know whether this poem's popularity in Germany does indicate an attempt at rewriting history or if it marks the passage of time. There must be some letting go of the pleasures of vengeance if there is to be forgiveness. Britain allows itself the luxury of what I hope it is a false animosity against Germany. It seems to me that Germany in this respect may be more mature.

Stephen Frosch in his book The Politics of Psychoanalysis describes the process of splitting and projection as theorised by Melanie Klein not in terms of a 'primitive' defence mechanism which needs to be repudiated but as a necessity. It is necessary to split off and deny the bad in order to create goodness of sufficient substance to be reintrojected as the basis of a healthy sense of self. I wondered if the comparative softness of Hilde Domin's experience was analogous to this process of splitting and projection. Maybe the three writers to whom she had dedicated 'Breaking out from Here' were unable to experience ever again sufficient goodness to make them feel themselves worthy to live. Her having had it soft enabled her to articulate middle ground. Hilde Domin could write:

Autumn Eyes

Press yourself close
to the ground.

The earth
still smells of summer
and your body
still smells of love.

But the grass
is already yellowed above you.
The wind is cold
and full of thistledown.

And the dream which waylays you
your dream
has autumn eyes.


Etiquette for Everywhere

They spit in your face
wrap a cloud around you
say it's raining.

A rain wet face
is publicly acceptable
even a tear soaked one.

The abused
make light of it
so they may be forgiven.

Certainly this was known to every
in the Third Reich.

Only the hanged
hung there
bothersome to look at

and were thrashed
while dying
for their dying.

I identify with those who have been abused and know that they must not offend their abusers. I write this as someone severely disabled by multiple sclerosis conscious that many disabled people adopt a placatory smile to mitigate the fact that they remind the able-bodied of what they don't want to see. I refuse to do this. And I would like to see some way in which the experiences of Paul Celan, Jean Amery and Peter Szondi can be expressed plainly and artistically and not be considered unacceptable. I should like the painful not to be eclipsed by the beautiful. I don't know whether the popularity of Abel steh auf in Germany reflects the maturity of the depressive position, the acceptance of humans ability both to appreciate the smell of love and punish the abused for their temerity in being victims. Or maybe it is wishful thinking.

But I felt that Hilde Domin had placed me on the European mainland and I was clearly conscious of the fact that Britain had not been invaded during the Second World War. The British could continue complacently to believe that no one would have collaborated. British civilians didn't need painfully to come to terms with division between family members and neighbours, with the familiarity of random slaughter at close quarters. So the English speaking world, largely ignorant of Hilde Domin, had also had it soft.

She had also been described as one of the most translated German poets of the 20th century but we could find no substantial English translations of her work. I have heard that she has been translated into Polish and I know that she has been translated into Spanish. This set me musing further on the insularity of the English-speaking world. The UK sits uneasily on the edge of Europe preferring to align itself culturally and politically with the United States if it can. This has serious political implications. In May 2006 more than 5000 civilians were killed in Iraq. While EU countries were condemning the Israeli response in Lebanon in July 2006 the UK remained silent for a week. Maybe the enlargement of the European Union may cause the British gaze to swivel eastwards. I have two Polish carers in their mid thirties whose parents' generation was scarred to an extent which I have never needed to take on board. What stories need retelling here? Can we learn the wisdom of the poem 'Bitte' and accept that wholeness implies both woundedness as well as healing?

I should like to see Britain move closer culturally and psychologically to the European mainland. I should like to see its insularity reduced. Perhaps an appreciation of the poems of Hilde Domin and the circumstances which begat them might help.

I cannot speak for Elke but I find the expression of deep suffering comforting. It is like a reflection of a large part of my daily experience which I can find nowhere else. I'm not sure if this comfort is legitimate. In 'Breaking out from Here' I felt uneasy that Hilde Domin was empathising too easily with a despair she had never known. She may have wept on bedsheets but she did not form them into a noose. I imagine that the families of those from mainland Europe, both Jew and Gentile, who have been deeply scarred may be deriding me for having had it soft. Perhaps my doubts on this are my equivalent of the placatory smile?

Elke and I are not academics. Our translation work gives us pleasure. We frequently do it accompanied by coffee and cakes. We aim to do more than translate the literal content of the poems; we aim to produce poems in English. Because of the strict rules in German regarding word order we have sometimes taken liberties with verse form and line spacing in order to try to reproduce emphasis. I tend to lead on the liberty taking. It gives me a sense of pleasure and creativity.

When we first started we seldom used a dictionary. There seemed to be no need: one of us was a well read native speaker. But as time has gone by we have found ourselves using my 1973 edition of the Langenscheidt Concise German dictionary more and more. It may consider itself concise but is in fact comprehensive and offers us a range of synonyms. We will discuss the appropriate nuances in an attempt to find the mot juste.


Elke read the above and corrected a factual error. Hilde Domin settled in Heidelberg in 1961.

She felt that I had been far too harsh in making judgments about the traumatic effects of the experience of exile. I accept this. This is an idiosyncratic introduction written by someone who lives in circumstances which are very differently proportioned from those which are considered normal in the affluent world. And it may be that I was not clear. But I am concerned that Hilde Domin's popularity in Germany may reflect sentimentality rather than redemption. And it is difficult for me to assess this because my circumstances are so strangely proportioned. I do not know whether redemption is possible in a secular context. I feel we are living in times which evoke echoes of the thirties: the isolation and scapegoating of people of a particular ethnic and religious group; changes to the law compromising long held principles of justice for the accused. Secular humanism is vulnerable in a context of fundamentalism. One particular political ethos, that of global monopoly capitalism, dominates discourse such that certain alternatives are inexpressible.

On the 6th September 2006 Elke and I started a second volume of selected poems. It included the following:

Grey Times


It must be kept
as it came out of grey times

people like us, we amongst them
sailed on ships to and fro
and could land nowhere

people like us, we amongst them
forbidden to stay
and unable to go

people like us, we amongst them
didn't greet our friends
and were not greeted

people like us, we amongst them
stood on foreign shores
begging forgiveness for being

people like us, we amongst them
were saved

people like us, we amongst them
people like you, you amongst them

can be stripped
and made nude
the nude doll people

more nude than animal bodies
beneath the clothes
the body of the victim

those who still have their shell around them in the morning
white bodies

lucky were those only
from pole to pole

The grey times
I speak of the grey times
when I was younger than you are now


The grey times
from which nothing separates us but
twenty years

The tops of the newspapers
red and black
under the word 'German'

I saw it once before
twenty years:

on Monday a lot on Tuesday nothing

us and the grey times


Sometimes I see you

torn apart by wild animals
by human animals

We laugh perhaps

Your fear that I never saw
this fear
I see you


and him
and her
people like you
you amongst them
people like us
we amongst them
nude doll people
who still have their shell around them today


The tops of the newspapers
red and black
under the word 'German'
The dead stand by kiosks
and look at the tops of the newspapers
with big eyes
black and red printed hatred
under the word 'German'
The dead are afraid

This is a land
in which the dead are afraid


This poem made me feel much better. I am appreciative of the fact that she carries through the understanding born of exile and oppression into times considered obstensively peaceful and affluent. I remember the frustration felt in Germany that the coalition government admitted no opposition. I remember the inanities of the Springer press. I am glad that she remembered her anger.