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Book and exhibition in the Archives of Contemporary History: Lajser Ajchenrand
A survivor’s word imagery

Published: 05.10.2006 06:00
Modified: 04.10.2006 23:09

(nst) He had one of those dramatic fates punctuated with happy coincidences – and which enabled him to survive through the Holocaust: Lajser Ajchenrand, born into a traditional Jewish family in Demblin, Poland, in 1911, was one of the 20th century’s most important poets in the Yiddish language. Last week the Ammann Verlag released a new publication by Ajchenrand in the ETH Archives of Contemporary History (AfZ) (“Aus der Tiefe. Gedichte, jiddisch und deutsch” (1) ). This is a revised edition of a work already published in 1953, Ajchenrand’s entire collected works up to that time.

A small exhibition has also been arranged to mark the new edition. The poet’s widow, Claire Ajchenrand, recently donated his unpublished works to the Archives. Uriel Gast, Head of the Jewish Contemporary History Documentation Centre, a central part of the AfZ, says that “The correspondence with his refugee and author colleagues such as Jo Mihaly, Carl Seelig, Max Brod, Hermann Hesse and Max Frisch handed down in his legacy is particularly valuable for research.” He says that Ajchenrand’s exchange of letters with poets such as Abraham Suzkever or Baruch Hager, who wrote in Yiddish and Hebrew, is equally exciting for experts.

A precarious existence, even in Switzerland

Ajchenrand did a tailor’s apprenticeship, started to write, and emigrated to Paris two years before the outbreak of World War II. He became a victim of persecution nevertheless: at first he served in a French volunteer battalion. He had a bout of high fever shortly before a deployment against the Germans – his first escape from certain death, because none of his comrades returned. What followed was an odyssey with imprisonment in a French internment camp and a subsequent escape that might almost have ended in a catastrophe at the Swiss frontier in September 1942: Lajser Ajchenrand only succeeded in crossing the green border because a border guard’s wife strongly advised him to flee into the interior of the country. His mother and sister were murdered in Treblinka.

His precarious existence continued even in this supposedly safe harbour. The Jewish welfare service did not “discover” the poet, who had no support from anyone, until two years after he entered Switzerland, when he was in a refugee camp in Zurich where he worked as a tailor under extremely difficult conditions. He was also helped particularly by Hermann Hesse in his struggle for permanent asylum in Switzerland, which extended until the late forties.

Late recognition

After a few years in Argentina and Israel he settled permanently in Zurich, but was denied Swiss citizenship. His later volumes of poetry were all published in Israel. Gradually Lajser Ajchenrand’s importance also achieved public recognition. He received the Salomon Steinberg Prize in Zurich in 1968 and the Itzik Manger Prize, the “Yiddish Nobel Prize”, in Tel Aviv in 1976. Lajser Ajchenrand died in the Männedorf community on the Lake of Zurich in November 1985.

Web site of the ETH Archives of Contemporary History: (

(1) For information about this book, visit: (

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