Words that Burn Within Me brings together the life story of Hilda Stern Cohen (1927-1997) and the remarkable German poetry she wrote over four years of imprisonment in the Lodz Ghetto, where her parents and grandparents died, and in Auschwitz. After a final death march that ended in prison near Berlin, Hilda and her fellow prisoners were liberated by the American army. Living in a displaced person's camp in Austria, she wrote down much of the poetry that had, of course, been lost, while writing new work about life as a refugee. Hilda emigrated to the United States in July 1946 and two years later married Werner Cohen. Her life as a wife and mother of three daughters, her avocation as a teacher of Jewish religion, and her abandonment of the German language kept Hilda from realizing her youthful ambition to become a professional writer.

Though she recorded extensive interviews with story-teller Gail Rosen in 1996, she did not reveal the existence of the German poetry and prose she had written 50 years earlier. Only after her death did her husband discover his wife's faded notebooks with more than 150 poems and prose texts, which he then meticulously transcribed and brought to the attention of the Goethe Institut. Werner Cohen, Rosen, and William Gilcher of the Goethe Institute have brought together Elborg Forster's masterly translations of Hilda's works, together with some of the German originals, and edited Hilda's 1996 interviews with Rosen.

Gail Rosen has given performances of Hilda's work and life throughout the U.S. as well as in Germany, Austria, Poland, and Israel. Read more about these performances. In addition, the Goethe-Institut has developed a comprehensive website about Hilda's life and work that includes translations of a number of poems by different poets.

The Blankets

  I shake out the blankets, the sad, sad blankets,
  Filled with misery, dust, and pain,
  And bury beneath them my longing,
      a searing longing
  For sensuous pleasure and warmth.

  I caress the mirror, the time-stained mirror,
  And as I cover its cracked old face
  My lips, starved and blue,
  Kiss the memory of eyes once reflected there.

  I smooth out my hair, my dry, straggly hair,
  As if to smooth out my poor heart's confusion.
  Alas, between torn shirt and ribs
  Longing is covered with dust.

  A small bowl of water - it just licks my hands
  And misery freezes my pulse.
  I shake out the blankets, the sad, sad blankets,
  And bury beneath them my longing for warmth.

      Trans. Elborg Forster

Do Not Forgive Them

  Well now, Jesus up there on the cross:
  Carved like this in rough, dirty stone,
  I have seen you a hundred, a thousand times.
  Listen Jesus, you, up there, there on the cross,
  Do you hear, do you hear?
  What do you make of that gallows,
  That gallows for your brother, your brother!
  The one who will hang there, you know,
  He is not that poor thief whose sin
  You had to take away by your love.
  No, no, Jew Jesus, the one they'll hang there
  He is your brother, your brother in spirit and flesh.
  But Father, do not forgive them,
  For they know very well what they do!

      Trans. Elborg Forster

Words that Burn Within Me
Hilda Stern Cohen

Edited by Werner V. Cohen, Gail Rosen, William Gilcher

German translations by
Elborg Forster

130 pp. 8-1/2 x 8-1/2

Paperback, $18.00

ISBN: 978-1-029855-10-4

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