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October 21, 2017

Auden, Anne Frank, War

On this day in 1939 Germany invaded Poland, starting WWII. This gave moment to W. H. Auden's "September 1, 1939," one of his most famous poems, and one of many attempts to figure how "the windiest militant trash" could so easily have us all "Lost in a haunted wood." On this day two years later, the yellow star was made obligatory for Jews in Germany; and this day three years after that would be Anne Frank's last before learning her fate: the last train out of Holland for Auschwitz.

Auden left England for America at the beginning of 1939, eventually becoming a citizen in 1946. At the end of August, 1939, he was travelling back to New York from the West Coast by bus, and like the rest of the world, he was holding his breath: "There is a radio in this coach," he wrote in a letter back to England, "so that every hour or so, one has a violent pain in one's stomach as the news comes on. By the time you get this, I suppose, we shall know one way or the other...." His poem begins with a similar tension, the place of huddled despair now not a bus but a New York bar:
    I sit in one of the dives
    On Fifty-second Street
    Uncertain and afraid
    As the clever hopes expire
    Of a low dishonest decade:
    Waves of anger and fear
    Circulate over the bright
    And darkened lands of the earth,
    Obsessing our private lives;
    The unmentionable odour of death
    Offends the September night.
The night of September 1st five years later must have been Anne Frank's last one of hope. The Franks and the others in hiding with them had been betrayed and discovered a month earlier, on August 1, 1944. They had spent the interim in the Westerbork detention center, where news of the liberation of Paris and large areas of France had spread waves of euphoria through the camp. But the evening roll call on September 2nd revealed that the cattle cars which had been waiting empty for several days were indeed to be filled once again, and that the Franks would be among the 1,019 to go on what was the sixty-eighth and last train to Auschwitz. Half of the prisoners aboard were killed or sent for medical experimentation immediately upon their arrival, but all of those in the Frank group survived the initial sorting; Anne hung on at Auschwitz for two months, and then for four months more at Bergen-Belsen. She died there just a few weeks before the camp was liberated -- British troops now advancing into Poland, on the trail of "the unmentionable odour of death."

Auden's "September 1, 1939" could not have predicted the full horror, but it warned that "the error bred in the bone / Of each woman and each man" is to want "Not universal love / But to be loved alone." Anne Frank's diary, ten months before her death, points a finger in the same direction: "The little man is just as guilty, otherwise the peoples of the world would have risen in revolt long ago! There's in people simply an urge to destroy, an urge to kill, to murder and rage." Anne Frank also seemed to know what Auden knew, and "What all schoolchildren learn, / Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return." One diary entry in the last year makes her pledge: "If God lets me live, I shall attain more than Mummy ever has done, I shall not remain insignificant, I shall work in the world for mankind." Auden's poem concludes with a hope that he too may join those who have found a way to rise above:
    May I, composed like them
    Of Eros and of dust,
    Beleaguered by the same
    Negation and despair,
    Show an affirming flame.

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