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Ilse Aichinger
Austrian writer

Ilse Aichinger

Ilse Aichinger
The basics

Quick Facts

Intro Austrian writer
Was Writer
From Austria Austria Germany
Field Literature
Gender female
Birth 1 November 1921, Vienna, Austria
Death 11 November 2016, Vienna, Austria (aged 95 years)
Star sign Scorpio
Spouse: Günter Eich
The details (from wikipedia)


Ilse Aichinger (1 November 1921 – 11 November 2016) was an Austrian writer known for her accounts of her persecution by the Nazis because of her Jewish ancestry. She wrote poems, short stories and radio plays, and won multiple European literary prizes.

Early life

Aichinger was born on 1 November 1921 in Vienna, Austria. She and her twin sister Helga were born to their mother, Berta, who was a Jewish physician and their father, Ludwig, who was a Catholic teacher. Because of the difference in her parents' religions, it made Aichinger to be considered half Jewish, and she was identified by the National Socialists as a "first degree half-breed". Ultimately, Aichinger was raised Catholic as her mother's family was assimilated. Aichinger spent most of her childhood in Linz, but she moved to Vienna with her mother and sister after the divorce of her parents and attended a Catholic secondary school. This is where she and her family was subjected to Nazi persecution starting in 1933 and especially after the Anschluss in 1938.

Because she was part Jewish during the time of World War II, her education was put on hold and was forced to work as a slave laborer in a factory. Aichinger's sister was able to escape Nazism through Kindertransport in July 1939 and travelled from Austria to Britain – where she eventually gave birth to a daughter, who became English artist Ruth Rix – but Aichinger herself was unable to follow. Aichinger along with her mother both survived the war after they hid in a hiding-place near the Gestapo headquarters in Vienna, Hotel Metropol. Unfortunately, her grandmother, aunt, and uncle were forced to be "resettled" to the Maly Trostenets extermination camp near Minsk where they were killed. The sight of seeing her grandmother, Gisela, being taken away had an intense emotional effect on Aichinger because of their shared fondness.

At an early age, Aichinger displayed an interest in studying medicine. She was unable to do so, however, because of the Nuremberg Laws. At the end of World War II, in 1945, she started to pursue her interest in studying medicine. Simultaneously, Aichinger wrote in her spare time. She completed her first novel, Das vierte Tor (“The Fourth Gate”). In 1948, after five semesters, she dropped out of university and abandoned her studies in medicine in order to concentrate on writing and finish her second novel, Die größere Hoffnung (“The Greater Hope”). After 1950, she was employed as a reader at the S. Fischer publishing house. In the 1950s, Aichinger was repeatedly invited to attend a meeting of Gruppe 47 (Groupe 47), a postwar group of German-speaking writers. Through her participation in Gruppe 47, she met the German writer and poet Günther Eich at a conference where she received an award for her Spiegelgeschichte (“Mirror Story” or “Story in a Mirror”). She married Eich in 1953. Her radio play debut Knöpfe (“Buttons”) was broadcast in the year of their wedding and they both traveled together until they settled down and lived in Bavaria and Austria's Salzburg region. She bore two children, Clemens Eich in 1954, and Mirjam Eich in 1958.

Later Years

Aichinger continued to write and she received acclaimed prizes. After her husband died in 1972, and after the death of her mother, Aichinger fell silent as a writer for several years and moved to a secluded town on the Austrian-Bavarian border. Eventually, in the late 1990s, after a fourteen year break, Aichinger resumed writing her short works and again regularly won prizes. Aichinger wrote for more than sixty years, and wrote a wide range of genres including: poems, short stories, radio plays, aphorisms, articles. However, only three of her books appeared in the United States of America under her own name, specifically, The Bound Man and Other Stories translated by Eric Mosbacher, Herod's Children translated by Cornelia Schaeffer and Selected Poetry and Prose translated by Allen H. Chappel. Some of her works were never reprinted, and Aichinger would only be recognized for her shorter fictions because those works had been repeatedly published in various editions and anthologies. Throughout the majority of her life, Aichinger was troubled by her past. In an attempt to forget, she attended up to four cinema screenings in a single day. Aichinger died shortly after her ninety-fifth birthday on 11 November 2016 in Vienna, Austria.


In 1945, Aichinger began to study medicine at the University of Vienna, while writing in her spare time. In her first publication, Das vierte Tor (The Fourth Gate), she wrote about her experience under Nazism. In 1947 she and her mother Berta were able to travel to London and visit Aichinger's twin Helga and her daughter Ruth. The visit was the inspiration for a short story, "Dover".

She gave up her studies in 1948 in order to finish her novel, Die größere Hoffnung ("The greater hope", translated as Herod's Children). The book went on to become one of the top German-language novels of the twentieth century. It is a surrealist account of a child's persecution by the Nazis in Vienna.

In 1949, Aichinger wrote the short story "Spiegelgeschichte" (English: "Mirror Story" or "Story in a mirror"). It was published in four parts in an Austrian newspaper, and is well known in Austria because it is part of the set of books taught in schools. The story is written backwards, beginning with the end of the biography of the unnamed woman, and ending with her early childhood.

In 1949, Aichinger became a reader for publishing houses in Vienna and Frankfurt, and worked with Inge Scholl to found an Institute of Creative Writing in Ulm, Germany.

In 1951, Aichinger was invited to join the writers' group Gruppe 47, a group which aimed to spread democratic ideas in post-war Austria. She read her story "Spiegelgeschichte" aloud at a meeting of the group, and leading group members such as Hans Werner Richter were impressed with the unusual narrative construction. The following year, she won the group's prize for best text, becoming the first female recipient. In 1956, she joined the Academy of Arts, Berlin. She was also a guest lecturer at the German Institute at the University of Vienna, teaching on literature and psychoanalysis.

Reviewing a 1957 volume of her short works in translation, The Bound Man and Other Stories, Anthony Boucher describes Aichinger as "a sort of concise Kafka," praising the title story, "Der gefesselte Mann" ("The Bound Man"), for its "narrative use of multi-valued symbolism", The similarity to Kafka's work has been frequently commented on, however other critics state that Aichinger's work goes beyond Kafka's in her emphasis on the emotional side of human suffering.

After the death of her husband, the German poet Günter Eich, in 1972, Aichinger and others edited his works and published them as Collected Works of Gunter Eich. In 1996, at the age of 75, she was the host of a German radio series Studio LCB for the Literary Colloquium Berlin.

Aichinger died on 11 November 2016, aged 95.


  • Group 47 Literature Prize (1952)
  • Immermann-Preis (1955)
  • Literaturpreis der Stadt Bremen (1957)
  • Großer Literaturpreis der Bayerischen Akademie der Schönen Künste (1961, 1991)
  • Anton Wildgans Prize (1968)
  • Nelly Sachs Prize (1971)
  • Roswitha Prize (1975)
  • Petrarca-Preis (1982)
  • Europalia Literature Prize (1987)
  • Grand Austrian State Prize (1995)
  • Austrian State Prize for European Literature (1996)
  • Joseph-Breitbach-Preis, co-recipient with W. G. Sebald and Markus Werner (2000)


  • 1945: Das vierte Tor (The Fourth Gate), essay
  • 1948: Die größere Hoffnung (The Greater Hope), novel, adapted to a stage play in 2015
  • 1949: "Spiegelgeschichte", short story
  • 1951: Rede unter dem Galgen (Speech under the Gallows), short stories
  • 1953: Der Gefesselte (The Bound Man), short stories
  • 1953: Knöpfe (Buttons), radio play, adapted to stage play in 1957
  • 1954: Plätze und Strassen (Squares and streets), short stories
  • 1957: Zu keiner Stunde. Szenen und Dialoge (Not at Any Time. Scenes and dialogues), radio plays, dramatised in 1996 at the Volkstheater, Vienna
  • 1963: Wo ich wohne (Where I Live), short stories
  • 1965: Eliza, Eliza, short stories
  • 1968: Meine Sprache und ich, short stories
  • 1969: Auckland, radio plays
  • 1970: Nachricht vom Tag (News of the Day), short stories
  • 1973: Zweifel an Balkonen (Doubts about Balconies), short story
  • 1974: Gare maritime, radio play
  • 1976: Schlechte Wörter (Inferior Words), short stories;
  • 1978: Verschenkter Rat, poems
  • 1996: Kleist, Moos, Fasane, collection of short works
  • 2001: Film und Verhängnis. Blitzlichter auf ein Leben (Film and fate. Flashlights on a life), autobiography
  • 2005: Unglaubwürdige Reisen, short stories
  • 2006: Subtexte, essay


  • The Bound Man and Other Stories. Translated by Eric Mosbacher. Secker & Warburg, London 1955
  • Herod's Children. Translated by Cornelia Schaeffer. Atheneum, New York 1963
  • Selected Stories and Dialogs. Ed. by James C. Alldridge. Pergamon Press, Oxford, New York 1966
  • Selected Poetry and Prose. Ed. and translated by Allen H. Chappel. With an introduction by Lawrence L. Langer. Logbridge-Rhodes, Durango, Colorado 1983

Themes in Works

Most of Aichinger's works were often surreal and presented in the form of parables, reflects her preoccupation with the Nazi persecution of the Jews during World War II. In her first novel, The Greater Hope, and Herod's Children, she delves into the anxieties and hopes Jewish children faced during World War II and explores the angst and suffering of both the Jews and their pursuers during the Third Reich. The text reflects Aichinger's commitment to the weak and skepticism about the German language. Aichinger's collection of narratives Rede unter dem Galgen was published in 1953. In these narratives, she explores and exemplifies a range of human emotions including angst, alienation, paradox, and ambivalence. Aichinger's lyric and narrative texts increasingly show the reduction of linguistic means focusing on subjectivity, thereby blending reality and dream, inner and outer world. Examples of these themes can be found in Eliza Eliza (1965), Schlechte Woerter (1976), Verschenkter Rat (1978) and Kleist, Moos, Fasane (1984). Aichinger also published a number of radio plays, including Knoepfe (1953), Besuch im Pfarrhaus (1962), Auckland (1970), and the radio dialog Belvedere (1995). These radio plays illustrate existential borderline experiences between assimilation and resistance. A later publication is Film und Verhaengnis: Blitzlichter auf ein Leben (2001), notes on films and photography which turn a spotlight on the cultural life of Vienna between 1921 and 1945. Aichinger repeatedly creates an intimate relationship between subject and place, as this subject observes, remembers, or imagines each place. Person and place open up to each other. It is not a simple process by which memory entails recall of the familiar, but a dynamic process in which both place and subject may be transformed. She transforms her environment through her writing, stripping this reality of expected and customary meanings by replacing them with abstractions and highly personal references that rarely produce instant recognition in the reader or a singular, definitive line of interpretation.


The new and unexpected topics brought forth and discussed by Aichinger caught many off guard at first because of how Jews were depicted, treated, and ultimately alienated in Austria and after the war. Ilse Aichinger's poetic language underwent substantial changes throughout her long career. From her earliest publications, however, she established herself as an avant-garde writer who would for decades remain profoundly – yet highly productively – out of step with the times. Austrian, German, and American specialists began to recognize Aichinger's astonishing talent and she became appreciated as one of the most influential writers in Austria, and she held a distinct place in German-language postwar literature. Because she was the first Austrian author to write about the concentration camps during World War II, literary critics and others have claimed that Aichinger was the beginning of postwar Austrian literature. Since her recognition, many people have examined her different works to analyze Aichinger's different perspectives on language, the war, her life, and memory.

If Aichinger was a forerunner of subsequent generations of post-Holocaust writers, she was an outsider in the early postwar period, not only with respect to mainstream Austrian society, but even among other writers. In light of the different experience of war in Austria and Germany, Austrian postwar literature exhibited a set of characteristics that differed from the literary developments of either of the two Germanies. Austrian literature tended to reflect the trauma of the final years of the war, the common feeling of having suffered disproportionately the hardships and deprivations of war. Aichinger, of course, had direct personal experience with National Socialist persecution. Yet her early work reflects a surprising degree of optimism, giving her a critical, yet hopeful, stance that set her apart from other Austrian writers. Her approach to language separates her from the general tendencies of German postwar writing as well, as she favored a richly expressive figurative language rather than the sparing linguistic minimalism of writers like Heinrich Böll and Wolfgang Borchert. Aichinger's political engagement from such writers as well, as she rejected participation in any particular political movement and expressed her political concerns only obliquely in her writing.

Personal life

Aichinger met the poet and radio play author Günter Eich through the Group 47 and they were married in 1953; they had a son Clemens (de) (1954–1998), and in 1958 a daughter, Mirjam.

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