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September 1, 1939-Anne Frank, W. H. Auden

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  • Marcia Sauchella
    September 1, 1939 Anne Frank, W. H. Auden Auden, Anne Frank, War by Steve King print tell a friend comment On this day in 1939 Germany invaded Poland,
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 1, 2004
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      September 1, 1939 Anne Frank, W. H. Auden Auden, Anne
      Frank, War by Steve King

      print tell a friend comment

      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

      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.

      - SK

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