I was reminded of that monstrous dilemma while reading Marion Tauschwitz's biography of Hilde Domin (see my review). In 1988 Domin was to be the first recipient of the Elisabeth-Langgässer-Literaturpreis awarded by the city of Alzey. Domin turned down the award ostensibly because she would have to pay tribute to Elisabeth Langgässer in her acceptance speech and she felt she knew too little about the writer to do so. Much later she revealed the true reason for rejecting the prize:
Doch 1995, als Hilde Domin mit dem Konrad-Adenauer-Preis ausgezeichnet wurde, verschwieg sie nicht länger ihre damaligen tatsächlicen Beweggründe: Elisabeth Langässer habe ihre Tochter Cordelia so schäbig behandelt, dass sie sich nicht in der Lage sai, den Preis anzunehmen. Er ging 1988 stattdessen an Luise Rinser.
(But in 1995, when she was honored with he Konrad-Adenauer Prize, she could no longer remain silent about her true motivations: Elisabeth Langgässer had treated her daughter Cordelia so shabbily that she was simply not able to accept the prize. Instead, it went to Luise Rinser.)
So what was Hilde Domin referring to?
Cordelia Edvardson is Elisabeth Langgässer's oldest daughter, the illegitimate child of Langgässer and Heinrich Heller, a married Jewish magistrate. Langgässer was a devout Catholic, but under the Nazi race laws was considered a "half Jew" and her daughter Cordelia a "full Jew". In an effort to protect her daughter from deportation, Langgässer obtained a Spanish passport for Cordelia. This triggered an investigation by the authorities, and finally in 1943 Langgässer and the fourteen year-old Cordeila were summoned to the Gestapo headquarters in Berlin. What happened there is more chilling than anything William Styron could have imagined.
Cordelia described the scene in her 1984 memoir Gebranntes Kind sucht das Feuer (Burned Child Seeks the Fire - see my review here). The girl was presented with a document for signature that would confirm her German nationality - making her subject to the Nuremberg Race laws and certain transport to Auschwitz. Failure to sign would subject her mother to charges of high treason - and certain execution - for attempting to subvert German laws. (Note: in the book, Cordelia refers to herself in the third person):
Wieder sah das Mädchen die Mutter an und begegnete dem Blick der schönen, braunen Augen, Augen, die vor Intensität strahlen, das Mädchen verzaubern konnten, die aber randvoll waren von stummem, hilflosem Schmerz. Niemand sagte etwas, nichts brauchte gesagt zu werden, es gab keine Wahl, hatte nie eine gegeben, sie war Cordelia, die ihr Treuegelöbnis hielt, sie war auch Proserpina, sie war die Auserwählte, und nie hatte sie dem Herzen ihrer Mutter nähergestanden. Die Kehle schnürte sich ihr zu, aber schließlich brachte sie es heraus: „Ja, ich unterschreibe.“
(Once again the girl looked at her mother and was met with the gaze the beautiful, brown eyes, eyes that shone with intensity, eyes that could cast a spell on the girl but which were filled with a silent, helpless pain. No one said anything, nothing needed to be said there was no choice, had never given one, it was Cordelia, who kept her vow of fidelity, she was Proserpina, she was the chosen one, and she had never been closer to the heart of her mother. Her throat constricted , but she finally choked out the words. "Yes, I will sign.")
Cordelia miraculously survived Auschwitz - you can read her incredible story. And she later defended her mother against accusations, such as Hilde Domin's:
Zum Vorwurf bez. Cordelia, E.L. hätte sich ihr eigenes Leben mit der Lebensgefährdung ihrer Tochter erkauft, äußert sich Cordelia Edvardson dezidiert wie folgt:
„Nicht ihre Mutter habe das Kind ins Konzentrationslager verschleppt, sondern schuldig seien diejenigen, die eine Mutter in eine derart ausweglose Situation gebracht hätten.“
(Against the charge that her mother saved her own life by endangering her daughter's Cordelia Edvardson emphatically responds:
(It wasn't her mother that dragged the child into the concentration camp. The guilty ones are those that put a mother in such a hopeless situation.)