Among the 800 or so German Jews accepted by New Zealand in the lead-up to World War II were some of international standing.

One was Karl Wolfskehl, a poet prominent enough for his arrival in August 1938 to be noted in the New Zealand Herald.

He had left behind his wife Hanna and two daughters.

He would spend the last 10 years of his life in New Zealand, much of the time living with his much-younger lover and secretary Margot Ruben (whom he introduced as his niece) but longing to return to Europe.

Wolfskehl was part of a circle of intellectuals gathered around the poet Stefan George in Munich. He had met Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann and Rainer Maria Rilke, writes Freya Klier in Promised New Zealand.

His poems were existential and often religious, but many Jews had a copy of Die Stimme Spricht (The Voice Speaks), about the emotional pain and suffering of the German Jews.

In 1933 when the Nazis began to target the Jews, he moved to Italy. A few years later, Italy was no longer safe.

Wolfskehl had never left the northern hemisphere; he arrived in New Zealand in his late 60s and felt "alone, remote, shunned," Klier's book records.

To obtain a long-term visa for Ruben and himself, he paid twice the average New Zealand wage.

Gerti Blumenfeld (then Gerti Stern) met him in January 1944 when she left Opotiki to attend teacher's training college in Mt Eden, staying with the Blumenfeld family in Grange Rd. Wolfskehl, his health deteriorating and near-blind, would call there to collect his mail.

"He made an immense impression on me," says Blumenfeld, now 84, who became a tutor in German at Auckland University. "He was quite an overpowering man - very tall, with long hair and thick glasses. It was a wonderful experience to have met him. He knew everybody and would tell stories about them. He had a sense of humour - he could play with words.

"But I found his works very difficult - he was very esoteric and highbrow." Nevertheless, she keeps many of his works in her bookcase. "I think he was a genius - you can't compare him with anyone else."

Despite his ennui, the self-described "poet in exile" continued to write. He would scour Dominion Rd's secondhand bookshops for inspiration and to learn about New Zealand's history. Virtually unknown here, he would talk to anyone - from bus conductors and shopkeepers to a circle of Jewish friends.

After the Third Reich collapsed and many of its supporters carried on their careers, he wrote:

God is called Success. What is noble rank worth: What about character?

A clear viewpoint? Nothing is more tasteless! - Let world history take its course:

Froth, scum, cork always swims to the top!

He travelled to the South Island, meeting academics in Dunedin and the poet and publisher Denis Glover in Christchurch. Glover put him in touch with the Auckland literary set including Ron Holloway, Phoebe Meikle, R.A.K. Mason and Frank Sargeson.

Sargeson tried to help Wolfskehl who, as his health and sight deteriorated, was forced into less and less suitable accommodation. In the end, he became too demanding for Sargeson, and Ruben stopped living with him.

After the war, Wolfskehl exchanged letters with his wife and made plans to return home. But with his health failing he hesitated, only for Hanna to die. One of his daughters, a nurse, then tried to emigrate here but authorities were slow to arrange a visa.

Though friends organised a better home for him, his heart problems worsened and he died in hospital in 1948, aged 78. His death was barely noted by the local media but news reverberated through Germany, Switzerland, Israel and New York.

On his tombstone at the Waikumete Cemetery is a simple depiction in Latin: Exul Poeta.