Poetry collection: My Shadow in Dachau

In 2010 the Department of German, Russian and Slavonic Studies at Leeds University welcomed Dorothea Heiser to speak to us about the collection of poems from Dachau concentration camp that she published in 1994, Mein Schatten in Dachau.

Dorothea spent a decade from the mid-1980s collecting poems written by inmates of Dachau of all different nationalities – Russian, Polish, German, Czech, French, Italian, English, and many others besides – and interviewing survivors in order to reconstruct biographies.

Final-year undergraduates from Russian, German, French, and Italian – polished translations of some of the poems prepared in advance by MA in Advanced Translation students. Afterwards, as Dorothea talked about the collection of poems, and the Dachau inmates who wrote them during and after their imprisonment in Dachau, she invited the students to read out their translated versions. The result was extremely moving, as the voices of prisoners of all nationalities were heard along with their stories told by Dorothea.

Stuart Taberner and Frau Heiser have been working since late 2011 to release an English-language edition of Mein Schatten in Dachau. Professor Taberner has also contributed a new preface that draws on his work on Holocaust memory and its transnational circulation. The English-language edition, My Shadow in Dachau, is now available from Camden House.

An extract from the collection is published below.

 

Nevio Vitelli, 1928-1948

La mia ombra a Dachau

Mamma, non torno,

me l’ha detto Iddio.

L’inferno,

senza sensi d’anima

l’ho visto così,

come tocco il corpo che mi duole;

né parole,

mamma, ti so dire,

perché non so ridere

il marchio del terrore.

 

Io penso che tu senti

oltre il filo pungente e velenoso

di queste baracche,

e penso che mi vedi

con la testa senza peli

e la cornice fosca

delle occhiaie nere,

insanguinato e sporco

e il cuore al tocco

d’una campana a morto.

 

Che cosa ho fatto, mamma?

Tu lo sai? Dimmelo

e baciami nel sonno,

appena lievemente,

che non mi venga in mente

di ricambiarti il bacio

come quando tu piangevi

di me, il ragazzaccio.

Non voglio spenti i tuoi occhi,

Mamma, mi capisci?

 

Quando la sera, il tuo nome

canto singhiozzando,

inconcludente e vano

il gioco del mio labbro

si dischiude: tu non rispondi

 

… E’ l’ora della sera

ed i pensieri del giorno

non tornano più

come i primi giorni d’ormeggio

a ridestarmi.

E’ l’ora della sera

ed i pensieri sono di domani.

 

Dachau!

 

Ora, soltanto ora,

sento una musica che irrora

l’aria di palpiti di stelle,

ma forse no, son palpiti di cuori

e di sangue,

di sangue che guizza nelle vene

dei viventi

ricoprendoli di polvere di sole.

maggio 1945

 

Nevio Vitelli, Italy

My Shadow in Dachau

Mum, I am not coming back,

God told me so.

Hell,

without a sense of soul,

I have seen it like this

as I touch my painful body

not even in words,

Mum, can I tell you

because I cannot repeat

the mark of terror.

 

I think that you feel

beyond the poisonous barbed wire

of these barracks,

and I think that you see me

with my hairless head

and the dark frame

of the black circles around my eyes,

bloody and dirty

and my heart knelling

a death bell

 

What have I done, Mum?

Do you know? Tell me

and kiss me in my sleep,

so lightly,

that I wouldn’t even dare

to kiss you back

like when you used to cry

about me, the naughty boy,

I do not want your eyes to be empty

Mum, do you understand me?

 

When in the evening,

I sing your name, sobbing,

unfinished and in vain

the trick of my lip

reveals: you don’t reply

 

…It’s the evening hour

and the thoughts of the day

no longer return

like the first days of mooring

to revive me.

It’s the evening hour

and thoughts turn to tomorrow.

 

Dachau!

Now, only now,

I hear a music that sprinkles

the air with beats of stars,

or not, perhaps they are beats of hearts

and of blood,

of the blood that surges through the veins

of the living

covering them with sun dust.

 

May 1945

 (Translated by Louise Heritage)