Black September

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade….

—the opening lines of W. H Auden’s “September 1, 1939”

On this day in 1939 Germany invaded Poland, starting WWII; 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 traveling 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, the stomach pain turned to a stench: “The unmentionable odour of death / Offends the September night….”

On the night of September 1st five years later, Anne Frank’s hopes must have been at their highest, and then all but expired on the following day. 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, although 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.