Helge Domp was a talented singer with excellent prospects for a successful singing career. Yet she was forced to discontinue her vocal studies in Germany after Hitler came to power. She fled to the Netherlands in 1933. She says, "Right up to the beginning of the war, I thought, ‘Maybe sometime I’ll manage to pick up my singing career again. Maybe Hitler will just disappear one day.'"
Music was an integral part of life for Helge, her brother Joachim, and their sister Lissy. On January 30, 1933, the day Hitler came to power in Germany, Joachim obtained his doctorate in musicology at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland. Five years younger, Helge was a first-year vocal student in Münster, where their parents owned one of the biggest music stores in Rhineland-Westphalia. “My father was a very professional businessman,” she says. “Only the best brands were good enough for him. Our music, sheet music, and record sections were massive. Our clients included conservatories, universities, music schools, musicians, and music lovers.”
Ban on the Sale of Music by Jews
On April 1, 1933, Hitler declared the first major boycott: All Jewish shops and companies in Germany had to close their doors that very day. “Soon after that, the Reichsmusikkammer was established. Jews were banned from becoming members, which meant a loss of profit for our business, since only members were allowed to sell sheet music. Then came the ban on the sale of gramophone records. Soon afterwards, pianos were also forbidden. Our income dropped dramatically, while our costs remained the same. My parents were no longer able to pay the rent, so they were forced to give up that big building and make do with much smaller accommodations.
A piano dealer was interested in buying our business. He said he had the money in French francs because his wife was French. That sounded good! But when my parents left Germany, he refused to pay and threatened to go to the Gestapo. So my father never got a single cent for his wonderful store! Upon their departure, my parents were allowed to take their personal belongings with them, which was rare at the time. Even more surprising was the fact that they were given written permission to take thirty-six second-hand pianos with them to the Netherlands. The document also bore the words ‘zum Aufbau einer neuen Existenz’ ["to build a new life"] and was signed by a member of the SS, if you can believe it!”
Shortly after the boycott, Helge was forced to stop studying because she was Jewish. “The boycott made me realize that I couldn’t go on living in that country. I simply had no future there. I had to get out of there. I couldn’t believe that such a thing was possible in a country like Germany, a country of thinkers and poets.”
The Netherlands: A Sanctuary
In 1933, the Netherlands seemed like a haven of refuge. Helge ended up cleaning houses there. She went on to work for a year in Great Britain until her brother bought an old piano store in Enschede in 1937. She then returned to the Netherlands, to Enschede. She already spoke the language. Their parents and sister quickly followed. “Even then we were afraid that Hitler would invade the Netherlands, although the Dutch couldn’t imagine that they would get involved in a war. They would say, ‘We were neutral in the last one, weren’t we?’ But the mood was far from upbeat in the Netherlands. We spent at least two years pondering what we would have to do to save ourselves if it came to that. We had no illusions about our chances of survival. There were two options: flee to a free country - possibly Switzerland - or go into hiding, which was a new concept.”
Making Music with Joachim in Enschede
Helge learned much about music and business from her very gifted brother. They continued to expand the business in Enschede with their parents. “We turned it into a successful shop and were competing with well-known Dutch music stores. We worked long hours but often made music until after ten o’clock at night. My brother was an extremely talented pianist and had the entire classical repertoire at his fingertips. He played everything. My playing was very mediocre, though. My talent lay in singing! Joachim often accompanied me. I sang a lot of Robert Franz. There were many skilled musicians in Enschede who quickly became regular customers of ours. We would make music together when we had time.”
Back in Germany, the Domp family had been a major Steinway customer and always had a grand piano at their disposal. After establishing themselves in the Netherlands, Helge’s parents got in touch with the company again. Before they knew it, the Steinways paid them a visit in Enschede. “In 1938, there was a beautiful Steinway concert grand for every concert given in Enschede - it was a great asset to the city!”
House Concerts in Enschede During the War
In 1941, the Domps organized house concerts at their store after moving the year before to new premises, where they also lived. The house concerts were a direct result of the restrictive measures for Jews introduced progressively in the Netherlands starting in October 1940 as part of Aryanization (or Arisierung). “Because Jews were no longer allowed to attend public concerts, we started giving house concerts. Anyone who was interested was welcome—this included often musically talented textile manufacturers, as well as professional musicians. Soloists from all over the country performed, such as Alice Heksche, Nap de Kleijn, Iskar Aribo, and Guusje Goldschmid. Jewish musicians, who were no longer permitted to give public performances, were grateful for the opportunity.”
To make room for the concerts, they would move the instruments from the showroom to the workplace, leaving only the Steinway concert grand. “About thirty or forty people would attend - that’s all we could accommodate in the showroom! The acoustics were excellent. We used blackouts to cover the windows—after all, it was war.”
The Domps continued giving house concerts until the end of 1941, when they were forced to stop because of a succession of anti-Jewish laws. “Our store had already been assigned a Verwalter, a person who supposedly managed the business. He was a German piano tuner who lived in Enschede. He was a rather foolish man, but he did us no harm.”
Music Lessons with Composer Leo Smit
From 1939 to 1941, Helge took lessons in music theory with Leo Smit, a Jewish musician, composer, and conductor based in Amsterdam. She had studied music for only one year and wanted to catch up on the time she had lost. She met Smit through the mezzo-soprano and voice teacher Jo Immink, with whom she was also studying at the time. "After we were no longer allowed to travel, the lessons came to an end. By the end of 1940, travel was already difficult. We were forbidden to travel in 1941 without a travel permit, which I was unable to obtain as a Jew.” Smit was arrested in 1942 and killed in Sobibor in 1943. It was not until the 1990s that Helge was introduced to his compositions, which she holds in high regard.
Joachim Flees, Mini House Concerts While in Hiding
Joachim fled to Switzerland in February 1942. Several months later, Helge was arrested by the Gestapo but was released a few hours later. That same evening, she went into hiding; her father, mother, and sister followed a few days later. “All we could do was eat and sleep, staying as quiet as we possibly could. Making music was out of the question with the first family we stayed with. That first family referred us on to another, but the second family was no good. They were only in it for the money, asking 1,000 guilders per person! There was never enough food. The first family informed on us, but we were saved when the man of the house unexpec tedly acted courageously and sensibly. To be on the safe side, we moved to his sister’s house next door. One of their daughters played the piano and was engaged to a professional pianist. They also had a good piano. In the evenings, I would often sing there, accompanied by the pianist. The whole family would come and listen. It was like giving a little house concert!”
Joachim was refused a residence permit in Switzerland and was expelled. After spending time in various camps, he ended up in Auschwitz and died in early 1945 during the infamous death march.
After the War: Opportunities for Young Musicians and Murdered Composers
Helge survived the war, as did her parents and sister, who was three years older. But once the war was over, it was too late for her to pick up her singing career again. She married in 1946 and had two children. A successful businesswoman, she helped develop the Yamaha pianos for Europe in Japan, going on to become the first importer of Yamaha uprights and grand pianos in Europe.
Several years after retiring in 1985, she established the Helge Domp Foundation for Music, which provides young, talented musicians with opportunities to give recitals and raise their profiles—opportunities she herself did not have. Contemporary music is a primary focus, but the foundation also has a strong interest in music written during the war by banned or murdered composers like Leo Smit. “I want to give these composers another chance to have their names and talent be heard again. Some of them are truly wonderful composers. At performances, we talk a little bit about the history of the work, what people should listen for, and what’s interesting. After all, these composers thought, “One day, our pieces will be performed, and hopefully, we’ll be alive to hear them.”
Author: Nicole Janssen