Helga Grimm and Her Poetry


In June 2011 I was rummaging around in my mind for memories from my childhood, and the name Helga Grimm came to the surface.


Helga was a poet and a friend of my mother’s in the 1950s. How they met I have no idea, but I do know that they had an active correspondence, and I remember my mother remarking whenever one of Helga’s poems was printed in a local newspaper. And in 1955 and 1956, when I was shipped off to Camp Seneca Hunt, in the Poconos (we lived in Philadelphia), my mother shipped her Plymouth off to the tiny village of Georgenborn, Germany, where she spent the summers with Helga and her partner Ingeborg Pott.


That Plymouth was the object of some wonderment in the village, where young boys practicing their English decided it was pronounced “ply mouth.” One of those boys, my mother told me, was killed when he stepped on an unexploded landmine in the woods. Ingeborg was a masseuse in the nearby spa of Schlangenbad.


I met Helga and Ingeborg several times. Once, I think, was in 1951-52, when my parents returned to Germany to press their case for reparations (I would have been about five), and then later when I must have been 11 or 12. They had two dogs, Jockel (a dachshund) and Jeppo (of indeterminate breed). Ingeborg had an Isetta, and I drove with her once to Schlangenbad. Their tiny house was on the main road; it was the first place I ever saw those records by Bach in the sleeve that read Das alte Werk. There was a little garden behind the house that always smelled of growing things and good dirt. They were probably just scraping by, because I know that my mother prevailed on my father to pay for their coal over several winters.


Beyond that I knew nothing, and so I had no idea what to expect when I went looking for Helga on the Internet: “helga grimmgedichte. One of the hits that came up -- there weren’t many -- was to an anthology of poems called Neue deutsche Gedichte, and intriguingly subtitled “Band III der Dokumente des anderen Deutschland” – Volume III of documents of the Other Germany. It was published in 1946 by Verlag Friedrich Krause, in New York, undoubtedly an exile press. I requested it through interlibrary loan. The Other Germany indeed! What I found when the book arrived left me stunned.


Written in the rhythms and rhymes of folk songs, Helga’s poems lure you in innocently enough – until you realize that under the sometimes child-like singsong their subject is violence and murder. She used well-worn German literary conventions against themselves. The nine poems document Helga's experiences and observations of daily life under Nazism. They were her form of resistance, and in some respects they are more successful as witnessings than as poetry. From what I read in Renate Wiggershaus’s Frauen unterm Nationalsozialismus [Women under National Socialism], she actively helped Jews where she could.


Below is a section of the foreword to Helga’s poems by the anthologist Hellmut Lehmann-Haupt. On the next page are her poems along with my inadequate literal translations. Whatever my skill as a translator, it does not extend to emulating rhythms and rhyme patterns. I will continue to refine the translations as I can.


The beauty of Helga Grimm’s poems is of a completely different order. It is much simpler and of a more common touch; I would almost say ballad-like. Here we find expressions of everyday life in the immediate description of the events and fates of individual human beings. We should not, however, be fooled by the simplicity and ingenuousness of her story-telling. There is far more experience and understanding of poetic effect in these poems than one might think on first reading. But more important is the honesty of the poems’ compassion and the power of their rage at the violation of innocent victims. The poems of Helga Grimm are genuine documents of experience; they were created as an immediate response of a feeling human being to the ruthless brutality of daily life in the Third Reich. They are diary entries in the form of poems. Some of the people in these poems were friends whose fate she witnessed and whom she tried to help bear their lot. Others were probably nameless victims whose sufferings she witnessed purely by chance.

Helga Grimm is a young person who lives quietly and withdrawn in Schlangenbad, in the Taunus, from where she brought her poems to us, in Wiesbaden. The selection printed in this volume is taken from a larger collection that she hopes to have published by a licensed German publisher in the American Zone. Perhaps by the time these lines appear in print, her plan will have been realized. The poems deserve to be read both in Germany and abroad.


It is my intention to make that possible.


I would be grateful for any further information about Helga Grimm (especially from relatives or people who might have known her), the other poems mentioned in the foreword above, and about her work in general. The little that I do know about her comes from a brief bio in An den Wind geschrieben (1961, ed. Manfred Schlösser): Helga was born in Münster, on May 11, 1914. She attended acting school in Münster and Berlin. During the war she was sentenced to forced labor, presumably for helping others. The nine poems included here were apparently her first published work.

Nine poems by Helga Grimm