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  • W. H. Auden and the Jews
  • Beth Ellen Roberts (bio)

In his 1941 Christmas Day letter to his lover Chester Kallman, W. H. Auden announced:

Because it is in you, a Jew, that I, a Gentile, inheriting an O-so-genteel anti-semitism, have found my happiness:

As this morning I think of Bethlehem I think of you.

(Farnan 65)

Auden's rejection of his inherited anti-Semitism progressed over the years to an extraordinarily active philo-Semitism not limited to his relationship with Kallman, whom he met after his emigration to America in 1939. From the early 1940s on, Auden engaged intensely with Judaism on intellectual, emotional, and social levels, to the extent that during a conversation with Alan Ansen, he announced, "I've been increasingly interested in the Jews," and after describing a book he had been reading about Hasidism, he mused, "I wonder what would happen if I converted to Judaism" (32).1 In addition to studying Jewish religion and culture, Auden actively supported Jewish causes—he pulled a flier for the United Jewish Appeal out of his pocket during one of his conversations with Ansen (59)—and during his service as a member of the postwar bombing survey team in Germany he met with concentration camp survivors, asking a friend to wire him a hundred dollars for a woman who had been in Dachau (Carpenter 336). In response to questions about his famous opinion that "poetry makes nothing happen," he frequently cited the failure of his work to "save a single Jew" (Carpenter 413). If his poetry saved no Jews, his work with various groups to raise money and provide placements for Jewish refugees likely did (Mendelson, LA 38).

In their book Philosemitism: Admiration and Support in the English-Speaking World for Jews, 1840–1939, William D. and Hillary L. Rubinstein describe four different categories of philo-Semitism. Auden's attitude toward Jews in [End Page 87] the 1930s corresponds to the Rubinsteins' description of the "liberal" type, common among British socialists at the time. These "liberals" were prone to regard Jews as prototypical victims of oppression, an attitude that tended to more of an "anti-anti-semitism" than true philo-Semitism (123). Auden might have inherited his "O-so-genteel anti-semitism" from his middle-class family,2 but by the 1930s he had rejected his bourgeois upbringing and embraced the political left, including its attitude toward the Jews. For the left, anti-Semitism was synonymous with fascism, and when Auden wrote T. S. Eliot in 1934, thanking him for a copy of After Strange Gods—in which Eliot notoriously denigrated "free-thinking Jews"—his response contained not a word in defense of the Jews, only concern for the political repression represented by such an attitude: "Some of the general remarks, if you will forgive my saying so, rather shocked me, because if they are put into practice, and it seems quite likely [they will be], would produce a world in which neither I nor you I think would like to live" (qtd. in Mendelson, 150n). He went on to use Eliot's phrase to indicate the fascism of the narrator in For the Time Being, a character Anthony Hecht describes as "a shameless jingoistic spokesman for imperial policy and totalitarian power" (269), who announces that "the recent restrictions / Upon aliens and free-thinking Jews are beginning / To have a salutary effect upon public morale" (289). Auden had also used anti-Semitism as a general indicator of fascism in his 1933 play The Dance of Death, a criticism of the bourgeoisie that features the Dancer and Announcer encouraging an anti-Semitic mob. His most personal statement against Nazi persecution of the Jews came in 1935 when he married Thomas Mann's daughter Erika, who was part Jewish, solely in order to provide her with a British passport.

Throughout the 1930s and into the early 1940s, Auden's poetry and prose demonstrate a one-dimensional understanding of Jews as victims of persecution, as an oppressed race. In his biography of Auden, Humphrey Carpenter reproduces a song written for a 1934 play at the Downs School, where Auden was teaching, that illustrates his association of Jews with...


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