The first writer after World War II to use Konzentrationslager — “concentration camp” — in German-language literature, Ilse Aichinger was a major voice in the work of memory of the holocaust.

Black and white photo of Isle Aichinger at Tulane in 1967
Visiting author Ilse Aichinger greets a guest at a Tulane Department of German reading on Nov. 15, 1967. Aichinger is credited as the first writer to use the phrase “concentration camp.”

(Photographs provided by Dietmar Felber and the Department of German and Slavic studies)

Last November, Germany and Austria celebrated the 100th birthday of Ilse Aichinger, one of the greatest writers after World War II and a major voice in the literature of the Holocaust. Although no one remembers it now, this voice spoke at Tulane University once, on Nov. 15, 1967. On that day, Aichinger read from her work at the Alumni House on Willow Street, according to an entry in the monthly calendar Docket, whose discovery we owe to University Archivist Ann Case.

We also have a snapshot of the visiting author in conversation with an unknown faculty member. The picture was likely taken at the Alumni House or in the Department of German and shows a jovial and smiling Aichinger with a couple of books in her hand.

Finally, we have a thank-you note from Aichinger, written across the back of a postcard and dated Feb. 6, 1968. The note is her reply to a letter the Department of German had sent her around Christmas.

front of postcard with Paul Klee’s “Landscape Wagon No. 14", November 1968
Note on back of postcard from Isle Aichinger, November 1968
On a postcard depicting Paul Klee’s Landscape Wagon No. 14, Aichinger wrote a thank-you note to the German department on Feb. 6, 1968.

In polite yet enthusiastic words, Aichinger conveys her thanks for a wonderful visit and for the follow-up letter with photographs. The front of her postcard shows Paul Klee’s Landscape Wagon No. 14.

Klee’s dream-like construction is at once house, field, vegetation and vehicle on wheels. In her note, Aichinger explicitly refers to this bizarre chariot: “I would like to return to New Orleans in this or any other vehicle.” Her reference to Klee’s “wagon” adds a dash of whimsical humor to her customary thank-you note, while her selection of art by Klee slips a sly anti-Nazi connotation into it.

How did Ilse Aichinger become the writer who went on an American reading tour that included Tulane University? Which of her works might she have read at the Alumni House on Nov. 15, 1967? She and her twin sister, Helga, were born to a Jewish mother and a Catholic father in Vienna in 1921. While Helga fled Nazi Germany on a child transport to London in 1939, Ilse and their mother, Berta, stayed behind. They survived the Holocaust, but Berta’s mother, Gisela, and siblings Erna and Felix did not. They were deported and murdered in 1942.

Initially, Aichinger merely wanted to report on the Nazi persecution of children, but she gradually turned toward imaginative literature. Her first publication, “The Fourth Gate,” appeared in a newspaper on Sept. 1, 1945. It focuses on a group of Jewish children who play in Vienna’s Jewish Cemetery because they are barred from City Park. Asked what would happen if they went to the Park, a little boy “throws his ball into the radiant sky” and replies calmly: “Concentration camp.”

In this exchange, the word Konzentrationslager appeared for the first time in German-language literature. “The Fourth Gate” also referred to “the urns of Buchenwald.” Françoise Rétif and other scholars therefore suggest that Aichinger was “one of the first, if not the very first to fight against collective suppression and to call for the work of memory.”

After the war and the Holocaust, Germanophone writers had to find a language that could speak to the historical catastrophe they had experienced; destroy the language of the Third Reich; express the inexpressible in words; and inscribe in memory the people and the places that had been lost.

Most likely, Aichinger did not read “The Fourth Gate” at Tulane, but she may have read from the novel that grew from that seed: The Greater Hope (1948). The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum characterizes this novel as a “highly symbolic and dreamlike work that describes the fate of a group of Jewish children in Vienna during World War II and how the realities of life under Nazi occupation gradually overwhelm childhood dreams.” In chapter 6, we find out what happened to the children from the cemetery: as they playfully enact the Nativity scene at home, they are unwittingly detained by a Gestapo agent, taken to a camp and murdered.

Or maybe Aichinger read Mirror Story at the Alumni House, the work that made her famous in Germany in 1952. Mirror Story relates the life of a woman dying after an abortion, but mirrors time so that it runs backwards to her birth: death is birth. For Aichinger, the recognition of death jolts life into more intense living: “Everything is for the last time. If we comprehended that, love would reveal itself to us. Repetition only sets the rhythm.”

Maybe she chose neither of these two works but instead read “The Bound Man,” a story about a man who attains an unheard-of grace of movement that depends on being fettered with rope all over his body. Aichinger’s stories undermine conventional language and understanding by means of surreal, dream-like events, ambivalent symbols, baffling paradoxes and confounding parables that ask for interpretation but deny any definitive resolution of meaning. When she retells fairy tales like Grimm’s The Wolf and the Seven Young Goats, as she later did in the 1970s, they turn into prose poems about mass murder.

Whatever Aichinger read at Tulane, we know that she read in German. After the war and the Holocaust, Germanophone writers had to find a language that could speak to the historical catastrophe they had experienced; destroy the language of the Third Reich; express the inexpressible in words; and inscribe in memory the people and the places that had been lost. Aichinger’s defamiliarizing, disorienting, shocking image-language was one of many responses to this dilemma. The faculty and students at the Alumni House thus heard post-Holocaust literary German from the mouth of its creator — as did audiences in Boston, Montreal, San Francisco, Houston, Washington, D.C., New York City and other cities. Along with other institutions, Tulane played a role in disseminating in America Ilse Aichinger’s answer to German literature’s dilemma. Moreover, by means of its foreign language teaching, Tulane enabled its students to become listening participants in this post-war German and American language history. 

Dietmar Felber is a PhD candidate and language instructor in the Tulane Department of German and Slavic Studies.