Ilse Aichinger, 1948
Lilly Axster
Long version
Short version
Reference text Aichinger
Katherine Klinger
Hannah Arendt, 1950
Hannah Fröhlich
Nicola Lauré al-Samarai
Simone de Beauvoir, 1949
Dagmar Fink
Tom Holert
Billie Holiday, 1939
Jamika Ajalon
Rúbia Salgado
Adrian Piper, 1983
Belinda Kazeem
Anna Kowalska
Yvonne Rainer, 1990
Monika Bernold
Shirley Tate
MwG – My wrong Grandparents
Lilly Axster, 2012

The children in Ilse Aichinger’s novel are playing by the Danube Canal in Vienna. They wish they could save a drowning baby that might come floating past. As a reward for this, they hope to be granted permission to sit on park benches again.

I visit the places in the book. Stroll through Vienna, the city I have been living in for more than twenty years, to the Danube Canal. I rest on a bench. Without thinking. And why should I. “Best regards to your grandparents.” My grandparents were on the opposite side to those of the children in the novel. My grandparents sat on park benches whenever they wanted to. They passed this certainty on to me as a privileged sense of space. In this city. And elsewhere.

“Our grandparents have become our guilt.”

If they were Nazis, I think to myself.
If they participated actively in the murderous system, I think to myself.
If they left us the responsibility of dealing with what they did to others and then kept quiet about after 1945, I think to myself when I read the sentence: “Our grandparents have become our guilt.”

But when Aichinger’s protagonist Ellen and her friends say this sentence, they mean their own grandparents who were persecuted as “Jews,” classified as “half Jews,” and robbed of their jobs, their property, their freedom, and their lives.

As the granddaughter of two sets of German grandparents who were ideologically and directly involved in Nazi crimes, I can choose whether to feel guilty. Or just responsible. Or neither. Whereas Ellen and the other children are automatically declared “guilty” by racist, anti-Semitic laws.

No more sitting on park benches, no more riding the carousel, no longer allowed to do anything.

But Ellen, Georg, Ruth, Bibi, Herbert, Kurt, Hanna, and Leon do it anyway. Sit on park benches, ride the carousel, cross bridges that no longer exist, using the strength of their ideas, their imaginations, and their will to live in order to resist the logic of “right” and “wrong” grandparents, to resist the supposed constraints of Consuls who do or do not issue visas, deciding over life or death. Through long days and sleepless nights, the children claim every space, alter the status quo, reinterpret it, reinvent it. It is not always easy to follow their thinking. But the emotions are clear. Ellen’s resistance is not based on any moral or political or rational decision. Instead, what counts at any given moment is whatever’s most obvious: Seeing what’s there. Saying what’s not being said. Allowing feelings. Screaming and crying when it hurts. Running when things get dangerous. Wanting to have what’s missing. Eating cake when it’s someone’s birthday. Sleeping when you run out of energy. Dreaming when nothing else helps. Quite simple, very clear.

Perhaps that is the most radical form of resistance: Establishing clarity. Naming.

Ilse Aichinger did this as early as 1948. The complexity of each individual character in her novel, of each individual child personality, shows with uncompromising clarity how the political conditions in Nazi-annexed Austria impacted on the protagonists marked as not “Aryan,” right down to their child-like associations, fleeting thoughts, and everyday games. In addition, their exclusion was perfidiously divisive, as children with four “wrong” grandparents were subjected to greater threats and persecution than children like Ellen with “only” two “wrong” grandparents.

I leave the canal behind me, moving from District 2 to District 3, and entering the neighborhood where Aichinger spent her childhood, between the former Aspang Station, from where most of the 65,000 Austrian Jews killed in death camps were deported, the Belvedere Palace, which acquired works for its art collection in irregular ways during the Nazi period, and the Arsenal, which housed a Waffen-SS tank repair workshop.

In her collection of stories Kleist, Moos, Fasane, Aichinger paid tribute to Kleistgasse, Mohsgasse and Fasangasse, three streets in this neighborhood. The cover of the paperback edition published by Fischer features the first letters of the three streets, “Kl M Fa,” on a gray background. Die größere Hoffnung (literally “The Greater Hope”, published in English as Herod’s Children), the title of a novel with a blue cover, is broken down to “dgH,” which could also stand for “all the hate” (“den ganzen Hass” in German) that leads, among other things, to Ellen being torn apart by a grenade. “Un Re” stands for Aichinger’s “Unglaubwürdige Reisen” (Implausible Journeys, 2005). It could also be “Unerträgliche Realitäten” (Unbearable Realities), or “Unbedingt reagieren!” (Whatever Happens, React!). On the cover of a collection of short prose entitled Eliza Eliza stands “E E”: “Ende der Erzählung”? (End of Story?)

“Wie spricht man über den Strick im Haus des Henkers?” (How does one speak about the rope in the house of the Hangman?) was the German title of a paper to be delivered as part of the conference “The Presence of the Absence. International Holocaust Conference for Eyewitnesses and Descendants of ‘both sides’”. Katherine Klinger, who is also writing on Aichinger’s book for Conzepte, organized this event in Vienna in 1999 to discuss the different experiences of descendants of perpetrators and Holocaust survivors. After a speaker from Germany announced this as the title of his paper, Klinger received the following translation from her Austrian co-organizers: “How does one speak about the rope in the house of the hanged?” [1]

Un Re. Unquestioned Restaging?

Aichinger’s 1953 volume of short stories Der Gefesselte (The Bound Man) initially appeared in 1952 under the title Rede unter dem Galgen (Speech Under The Gallows). Was this title, too, not bearable for the reading public of the early 1950s?

MwG, My wrong Grandparents. [2] I am writing this text as a descendant of the perpetrator side, taking my lead from Ilse Aichinger’s book about excluded, persecuted, and murdered children, and as the Conzepte counterpart to Katherine Klinger, whose conference planned to announce a paper with a title that could not even be conceived of in Austria. Un Re. Unmögliches Reden? (Impossible Speech?)

Eventually I end up back at the Danube Canal. The children who want to save a drowning baby abandon this plan when the chance of a ride on the carousel presents itself, in spite of the ban. Ellen, not affected by the ban on account of having “only” two “wrong” grandparents, stays at the canal. A baby really does fall into water, having been placed in a lurching rowboat by a young sibling. Ellen jumps in and saves the infant from drowning. When her friends return from their ride on the carousel and realize what has happened, Ellen cries out despairingly “I couldn’t help it […], I couldn’t help it! I wanted to call you, but you were too far away, I wanted–” The children are dumbfounded, frozen deep inside. Their hope is gone. A feeling of betrayal.

“I couldn’t help it!” But these children are stronger than the Nazi logic of ethnicity designed to turn them against one another. Before long, Georg, Ruth, Bibi, Herbert, Kurt, Hanna, and Leon, who are strictly forbidden from doing so, demonstratively sit down on a bench, with Ellen.

Across the canal, I can see the Ferris wheel. I consider making a detour via the Prater to ride the carousel, in homage to Aichinger and her literary children. “They flew [on the carousel, L.A.] against the law of their heavy shoes and against the law of the secret police. […] Far below them, his arms crossed, stood the owner of the booth. He closed his eyes. For that moment he had exchanged his shooting gallery for the whole world.”

My “wrong grandparents” were not shooting gallery or carousel owners who might have offered persecuted children the whole world, even for a second. They wanted the world for their own children and their children’s children only, me for example, and the “Aryan” idea. I think of my encounter last summer with two women visiting Vienna from the United States and England who wanted to visit the Prater. Sitting on a bench in the park was something they said they owed to their mother, who had to be rescued from Vienna by the Refugee Children Movement. And to their grandparents who were deported from Vienna and murdered. They asked if I wanted to come with them, an invitation I turned down. Because I couldn’t picture it at all. Neither sitting with the two of them on a bench in the Prater. Nor standing beside the bench, or behind it. Nor sitting on a different bench. No picture was possible.

Not the Prater, then.
I stay beside the Danube Canal.
Children on bicycles, on the grass, on benches, but presumably none of them waiting to be able to save a drowning infant in order to present it to the Mayor with the prospect of regaining all their natural rights as children. Children’s rights today should be extended to include the right to clarity. In a quest for clarifying speech about what was. Back then. And what is, today. In this city. Beside the Danube Canal. In Vienna. And elsewhere. Perhaps that is the most radical form of dealing with “one’s own house” as “the house of the hangman”:

Demanding clarity. Naming. Seeing what there is to see. Saying what is not being said. DgH.
Das genaue Hinschauen. (“Looking very carefully,” i.e., the exact opposite of “turning a blind eye.”)

Then the greater hope would be that children decide for themselves what their differences are and whether they wish to maintain their ties of friendship over and above these differences. Then the greater hope would be that any talk of wrong grandparents would refer to those who wanted to rule over all of the world’s park benches. And who still want this. The greater hope would be that children like Ellen no longer need a visa to travel to a place where they are safe. The greater hope would be that voices like Ilse Aichinger’s can be heard:

“Who is stranger, you or I? The hater is stranger than the hated, and strangest of all are those who feel entirely at home.” Aichinger, Herod’s Children (literally “The Greater Hope”)

Thanks to Helga Hofbauer, Felix Axster, and Renée Winter.


Lilly Axster is a writer and theater director living in Vienna.

Edited by: Sabine Rohlf & Jo Schmeiser

Translation from the German: Nicholas Grindell

This text was published (in German) on September 13, 2012, in the Viennese magazine MALMOE.


1) Katherine Klinger in: Things. Places. Years, documentary film by Klub Zwei: Simone Bader & Jo Schmeiser, 70 min, color, Beta Digital, produced by Gabriele Kranzelbinder & Alexander Ivanceanu: London & Vienna 2004.

2) The original title is “MfG – meine falschen Großeltern“. The German text plays on the abbreviation for “mit freundlichen Grüßen,” a standard closing phrase in letters, equivalent to “yours sincerely” – which also echoes the imagined greeting from the Mayor to the children’s grandparents in the novel. (Translator’s note)