Ilse Aichinger, 1948
Lilly Axster
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Reference text Aichinger
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Herod’s Children
Ilse Aichinger, 1948

Ellen pushed her sailor cap up off her face and wrinkled her brow. Suddenly she laid a small, hot hand over the Mediterranean. But it was no use. Darkness had settled on the ports of Europe.
Thick shadows fell through the white window frames. A fountain spattered in the courtyard. Somewhere a laugh ebbed away. A fly crept from Dover to Calais.
Ellen froze. She ripped the map from the wall and spread it out on the floor. Then she folded her ticket into a white paper ship with a wide sail down the middle.
The ship hove out to sea from Hamburg. The ship carried children. Children that had something wrong with them. The ship was loaded to capacity, yet it sailed up the west coast taking on more and more children. These children wore long coats and carried very small knapsacks, and they were fleeing. None of them had permission to stay and none had permission to go.
They were children with the wrong grandparents, children without a passport or visa, children for whom nobody could vouch, now. That was why they sailed by night.

When Ellen woke up, she noticed instantly that the map was gone. No piece of chocolate accompanied by a sleeping Consul could comfort her for its loss. She wrinkled her brow and drew up her legs. Then she climbed over the chair arm and shook the Consul by the shoulders.
“What have you done with the map?”
“What map?” asked the Consul in confusion. He straightened his tie and rubbed his eyes. “Who are you?”
“Where’s the map?” repeated Ellen threateningly.
“I don’t know,” said the Consul angrily. “Do you think I’ve hidden it?”
“Maybe,” muttered Ellen.
“How can you think that?” asked the Consul, stretching. “Who would want to hide the whole world?”
“It’s clear you don’t know much about grownups!” Ellen replied indulgently. “Are you the Consul?”
“I am.”
“Then…” said Ellen, “then…” Her lips trembled.
“Then what?”
“Then you have hidden the map!”
“What’s all this nonsense?” demanded the Consul.
“You could make up for it.” Ellen started to dig in her schoolbag. “I’ve brought along my drawing pad and a pen. In case your desk is locked up.”
“Yes… and what am I supposed to do with them?”
Ellen smiled anxiously. “The visa. Please, would you write me a visa? My grandmother says it’s all up to you. All you have to do is sign. My grandmother knows a lot of things! She really does.”

“Would it be possible that you’ve dreamed all this?” he asked carefully.
“Dreamed it?” Ellen cried. “Of course not! If that’s so, then I’ve dreamed that the other children don’t want to play with me any more. Then I’ve dreamed that my mother’s going away and I’m being left alone. Then I’ve dreamed that nobody’ll vouch for me. Then I’ve only dreamed that you’ve hidden the map and refused my visa!”
“All the other children are asleep,” the Consul said slowly. “Why not you?”
“There aren’t so many people at the consulate at night,” Ellen explained. “At night you don’t need to have a number; at night everything goes much faster because there aren’t any business hours.”
“A very good idea!”
“Oh yes!” Ellen laughed.

If you can’t show an identity card you are lost. If you can’t show an identity card you are given up. Where shall we go? Who will find us our real identity? Who will help us to ourselves? Our grandparents have failed us. Our grandparents don’t vouch for us. Our grandparents have become our guilt. It’s their fault we’re here; their fault that we grow from night to night. […] The blame lies with those who came before us and with those who came before them, and so to the eldest of all. Isn’t it like a path to the horizon? Where will it end, this trail of guilt? Where does it stop? Do you know?
Where is the walking-place of those who have been? Where will they lift their heads from their graves and bear witness for us? When will they shake the earth from their bodies and swear who we are? Where does the scornful laughter stop?
A hundred, two hundred, three hundred years back? Is that what you call an identity? Count on! A thousand, two thousand, three thousand years? To where Cain will vouch for Abel, and Abel for Cain? To where your head starts to swim? To where you begin to kill because you, too, are unvouched for? […] Since you have forbidden us to play in the parks, we will play in the graveyards. Since you have forbidden us to rest on benches, we will rest on gravestones. You have forbidden us to expect a future—but we do it still!

“Let me play with you!”
“Go away!”
“Let me play with you!”
“Go on, go!”
“Let me play with you!”
“We’re not playing.”
“What are you doing?”
“We’re waiting.”
“For what?”
“We’re waiting for a child to drown.”
“We’re going to save it.”
“And then?”
“Then we’ll have made good.”
“Have you done something bad?”
“Our grandparents. It’s our grandparents’ fault.”
“Oh. Have you been waiting long?”
“Seven weeks.”
“Do a lot of children drown here?”
“And you want to wait till a baby comes floating down the canal?”
“Why not? We’ll dry it off and bring it to the Mayor. And the Mayor’ll say: Good, very good! Beginning tomorrow you may sit on any benches you want. We won’t mention that matter about your grandparents any more. And we’ll say: thank you, Mr. Mayor.”
“Not at all, nice to have seen you. My best regards to your grandparents!”


Ilse Aichinger, Die größere Hoffnung (literally “The Greater Hope”) first published in German in 1948 by Bermann-Fischer Verlag NV, Amsterdam. All rights reserved by S. Fischer Verlag GmbH, Frankfurt am Main. These quotations (with minor corrections) from the English edition, entitled Herod’s Children, copyright © 1963 by Atheneum House, Inc., New York. Translated from the German by Cornelia Schaeffer. The gaps between the selected passages mark large cuts. Quotes from pages 4, 8-9, 10, 44-45, 26-27.