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World War II saga: Gail Wiltshire revisits Ilse Aichinger’s novel



Photos: Newscorp Australia


Gail Wiltshire wrote a honours thesis on Ilse Aichinger at the University of Queensland. Picture: Glenn Hunt Source: News Corp Australia

It is a compelling World War II story, as poignant as Woman in Gold: Viennese twins separated as young women during the rise of Nazi Germany and reunited years later, one on the way to becoming a famous actress, the other a bestselling author. It’s a story with all the makings of a Hollywood feature film, and it is being brought to prominence from an unlikely quarter: a Queensland university student.

Late last year, as Gail Wiltshire submitted her honours thesis on Austrian writer Ilse Aichinger’s novel Die Grossere Hoffnung (The Greater Hope) to the University of Queensland’s German department, she wondered: “Who will ever know about this wonderful writer?’’ Without waiting for the grade (which later came through as first-class honours, with marks of 95 and 98 per cent from external, native German-speaking markers), Wiltshire submitted the work to one of Germany’s leading academic publishers, Konigshausen & Neumann. It was accepted within a week.

So began an intrepid journey for Wiltshire, tracking down Aichinger, now 93 and still living in Vienna, and the author’s twin sister Helga Michie, who has lived in London since she left Austria on the last kindertransport in July 1939. Through the twins and their families, including the distinguished British artist Ruth Rix (Helga’s daughter), Wiltshire has assembled a collection of family photographs reproduced in her book. She also has supplemented the original thesis with 40 pages of interviews with Aichinger’s family and others close to her.

The Greater Hope, published in 1948, regularly appears on German lists of the top 100 novels of the 20th century. First-edition copies now sell for about €800 ($1200).

“Ilse has won all of Austria’s main literary prizes. Helga became an actress in London and had a role in The Third Man in 1949 [a famous film set in Vienna] and I wanted to tie their stories together,’’ Wiltshire says.

“I was first introduced to Aichinger’s short stories in the UQ course and thought she was magnificent. She is a difficult writer, very multi-layered, which is maybe why she is rarely translated and little known outside of Germany and Austria.’’

When Helga first arrived in London in 1939, she lived with her aunt Klara, a linguist and translator who had left Vienna a year earlier after being forced out of her job under Nazi employment regulations on account of being Jewish. Ilse and the rest of the family were meant to follow them to London shortly afterwards, but it was too late. The Nazis had closed the borders and the family was trapped and in danger, especially Gisela, the twins’ Jewish grandmother.

The twins’ father, Ludwig, a teacher, was a non-Jewish Austrian. Their mother, Berta (Gisela’s daughter), who was one of Austria’s first female doctors as well as a composer, had been baptised and brought up Catholic. Ironically, decades earlier, Berta’s father, a Hungarian engineer, had built some of the railway lines that later carried other Hungarian Jews on the start of the journey to Auschwitz.

The twins’ uncle Felix, also an engineer, was Catholic, as was his sister Erna, a concert pianist and professor at the Vienna Academy of Music. The twins, too, were baptised and brought up Catholic. The family worshipped regularly at Stephansdom, the 12th-century cathedral that remains one of Vienna’s most prominent landmarks and which features in Ilse’s writing. In the end, however, religion made little difference to the family’s fate.

As children, the girl had met their mother’s colleague Josef Mengele, a keen student of twins who became infamous a few years later for his grotesque experiments at Auschwitz. In the early 1930s, however, when he visited the Aichinger family and asked the twins a few questions, he was “very polite’’, Helga recalls.

Like Franz Kafka, with whom she is often compared, Aichinger’s writing is replete with symbolism and imagery. It also displays distinct signs of Christian mysticism. The Greater Hope is a surrealist account, told from the point of view of a child, Ellen, of life as a mischling (half-Jewish, half-Aryan) under the Nazis in Vienna. The yellow Star of David, a symbol of oppression in that place and time, was also, for Aichinger, the Star of Bethlehem, a symbol of hope, implying redemption and atonement. The star, Wiltshire explains, incorporated for Aichinger “the interface of Jewish and Christian mythologies, ultimately determining her perception and a greater hope’’.

After leaving Vienna’s Sacred Heart secondary school, Aichinger worked at a button factory during the early years of the war. In 1942, tipped off by German friends that the district where her grandmother Gisela lived was due to be raided by the Gestapo, Aichinger ran to the apartment. She was too late. Her grandmother, who was ill with pneumonia, her uncle Felix and her aunt Erna had been taken away. Berta, who had been visiting a neighbour, was in hiding.

Again Aichinger ran and, passing the Schwedenbrucke (Swedish Bridge) near the centre of Vienna, saw her family being driven away in one of a long line of open cattle trucks, heading for a nearby railway station. Aichinger’s niece Rix tells Wiltshire that for decades afterwards, Ilse talked about her memories of that day “every time we met up’’.

“In one of the trucks she saw her grandmother, Gisela, who had her back to her,’’ Rix tells Wiltshire in an interview included in the book. “Erna shouts and Ilse can hear it: ‘Look there’s Ilse!’ Her grandmother doesn’t turn around … A soldier hits Erna for shouting and then it’s gone … All her life she was haunted. It was played and replayed because there was no resolution.’’

The family had no idea what had happened to the three prisoners, other than they were taken 1200km northeast by train to Minsk, then part of the Soviet Union but overrun by the Nazis a year earlier. The invasion of Minsk had destroyed nine out of 10 buildings and left 20 per cent of the city’s population dead, including 100,000 Jews. Four years earlier, Stalin had ordered the murder of 250,000 residents, including Jews, in the Kurapaty forest near the city.

In contrast to Gisela’s unknown fate, the beloved grandmother of Ellen, Ilse’s main character in The Greater Hope, died in the course of the story. Christine Ivanovic, a specialist in German literature at the University of Vienna, tells Wiltshire: “She had to kill the grandmother in the story to establish that the grandmother was killed, and she is standing there together with her dead. It was symbolic of that.’’

After the deportations, Aichinger kept her head down in occupied Vienna, which she came to regard as a prison space, and longed for the company of her twin. The sisters kept in touch through messages relayed by the Red Cross. As twins, they had shared their own codes and verbal shorthand for years, which came in useful in their 15-word wartime communications. “Ilse and Helga had a sort of code whereby if a street was mentioned, the other knew what was meant by that,’’ Rix tells Wiltshire.

Like Aichinger, her character Ellen also dreams of escaping to freedom on a kindertransport. The first chapter of the novel records:

Ellen was freezing. She tore the map from the wall and spread it out on the floor. And she folded her tram ticket to make a white paper boat with a broad sail in the middle.

The boat set sail from Hamburg. The boat was carrying children. Children who had something or other wrong with them. The boat was fully laden. It sailed along the west coast, picking up children all the time. Children with long coats and very small knapsacks, children who had to flee. Not one of them was permitted to stay and not one of them was permitted to go.

Children with the wrong grandparents, children with neither a passport nor a visa, children who had no-one left to lodge security for them. That’s why they were leaving at night. No one knew about it. They avoided the lighthouses and made great detours around the ocean-going liners. When they encountered fishing boats, they asked for bread. They didn’t ask anyone for sympathy …

Tall and bright and unreachable, the Statue of Liberty arose from amid the fear. For the first and for the last time Ellen screamed in her sleep.

In the novel, Ellen frequents Stephansdom, especially its statue of Saint Francis Xavier, the Jesuit missionary. Helga tells Wiltshire that she and Ilse had loved it as girls. And like Ellen, one of the few safe places where she and her family could sit outdoors was the Jewish cemetery, where some of her relatives were buried.

The twins were so close, Rix tells Wiltshire, that they found the “severance and isolation’’ of being apart during the war, and for two years afterwards, “unbearable’’. In London, she says, “Klara had brought clothes for the planned arrival of Gisela and Erna, clothes which she kept til her death.’’

In London, Helga and Klara suspected trouble from 1942 onwards when the names of her grandmother, aunt and uncle were no longer mentioned in Aichinger’s Red Cross dispatches. “Aunty and I knew something was dreadfully wrong. I couldn’t believe what happened. No news can mean the worst.’’

The twins were finally reunited at Christmas 1947, at London’s Waterloo Station. Postwar travel restrictions and lack of money had made an earlier reunion impossible. It was the first of many visits by Ilse to England. “Ilse and Berta sailed into Dover, a place Ilse always equated with freedom and goodness,’’ Wiltshire says.

In a story titled Dover, Aichinger describes it as “incorruptible and quiet between the pitfalls and inaccuracies, doesn’t call attention to itself. Chalk cliffs and one or two lullabies from one or two wars: you can’t be more modest.’’ Whoever “would like to chat with Marlowe, step on Wilde’s lyre, or make a life-size sketch of a house in Tudor style, should instantly focus on Dover.’’

At the end of 1947, Aichinger and her mother travelled up to Waterloo by train, where they were greeted by Helga and met Ruth, then five, for the first time. Ruth, rated by Britain’s Latest Art magazine as one of “the most exciting and groundbreaking female artists in the world’’, became interested in visual art as a seven year-old as she watched the light and shadows in a London film studio where Helga had a role in The Third Man. Ruth later studied art in Vienna.

Following in her mother’s footsteps, Ilse had begun studying medicine in Vienna in 1945 but abandoned it after five semesters to write full time. The Greater Hope was published in 1948. After its publication she switched to poetry, short stories and radio plays, winning 20 major European literary awards. She married German author Gunter Eich in 1953. They had a son and a daughter.

At the request of Aichinger’s family, The Greater Hope is being translated into English, also to be published by Konigshausen & Neumann. The translator is UQ German scholar Geoff Wilkes, who has completed the first and last chapters and hopes to have a full translation by September.

Wiltshire, the owner of Brisbane’s Twelfth Night independent theatre, has also written a play based on The Greater Hope. She will direct it in London and Vienna early next year, working with actors from the Vienna Children’s Theatre Company.

A Spatial Reading of Ilse Aichinger’s novel Die Grossere Hoffnung, by Gail Wiltshire, is available from Folio Books, Brisbane, and

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