Herod's Children (Die Größere Hoffnung)

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HEROD'S CHILDREN (Die größere Hoffnung)

Novel by Ilse Aichinger, 1948

Ilse Aichinger's first work, the novel Herod's Children (1963; Die größere Hoffnung, 1948), established her as a major figure in postwar German literature. Although the book deals with the atrocities of the war and the Holocaust, its symbolism (often surreal in character), its imagery (often drawn from dreams), and its use of parable set it apart from works by such contemporary writers as Wolfgang Borchert (Draussen vor der Tür, 1947; The Man Outside ) and Heinrich Boll (Wo warst du Adam?, 1951; Adam, Where Art Thou? ), who approached these topics more directly.

Aichinger's protagonists in Herod's Children are a group of Jewish children living in Vienna during World War II. Ellen, who plays a leading role in the novel, is half Jewish and shares a number of autobiographical similarities with Aichinger. When she is denied a visa to the United States, she joins the other children and shares in their games, hopes, and fears. Except for the painful death by suicide of Ellen's grandmother and the beating of the child Bibi by a Nazi police guard, Aichinger does not overtly point at the horrors of the Holocaust. Indeed, the chapter "Das grosse Spiel" ("The Great Play") is a parable not only about the persecution of the Jewish people, forever in search of a homeland, but also about Christians (the play depicts the Nativity story) who are persecuted because of their stand against evil. Aspects of the Holocaust are presented in many details that chillingly depict the brutal Nazi ideology that turns children without the "right grandparents"—they are Jews—into victims destined to die in concentration camps. Aichinger is impressive in her depiction of the children's naïveté. They still hope for a better future—dreaming about life as a dancer, soccer player, artistic director, and a housewife with seven children—and they fantasize that if they save a child from drowning they will again be permitted "to sit on benches" with non-Jews. Ironically, Ellen does rescue a child from drowning but nothing changes for the children. Inexorably they are confronted with the bleak reality threatening them: Ellen's grandmother forces her to help her commit suicide so that she will not fall into the hands of the Nazis; when Ellen proudly displays the Star of David, which she believes to be a symbol of life, not death, she is scorned by the non-Jewish; furthermore, she is rejected by her Gentile Nazi father. Not knowing where to hide or escape since the borders are closed to them, the children make the cemetery their playground; it is a grim symbol of their future. Despite their fear and despair, the children continue to nurture their dreams and act them out in their plays, but at the novel's end Ellen is killed by a grenade and most of the other children are deported to a concentration camp.

The last chapter of Herod's Children, "Die groessere Hoffnung" ("The Greater Hope"), is also the German title of the book. It contrasts with the first chapter "Die grosse Hoffnung" ("The Great Hope"), which is mainly concerned with Ellen's hope for a visa allowing her to emigrate to the United States. In the last chapter the symbol of the building of a new bridge to reach across to other people and the symbols of light—especially of the morning star—seemingly reinforce Aichinger's message that while the body dies the soul survives. Despite the Christian aspect of the ending, however, Herod's Children is in fact a deeply sad and pessimistic novel about the Holocaust and the human condition. Not only are Jewish people killed, but Jan, a young foreign soldier and a friend of Ellen, is mortally wounded in one of the last battles of the war that takes on aspects of Armageddon. Furthermore, the novel's pessimism is deepened by the fact that Ellen and the other children die in the last days of the war when the Nazis are losing power. In Herod's Children Aichinger may be seen as trying to find a reason to explain the Holocaust, but the senselessness and brutality of the children's death echoes the novel's ultimate failure to find any satisfactory explanation.

—Renate Benson