Why this book, why now, and why me?

Todeszone: the death zone perimeter of Sachsenhausen Camp.

Todeszone: the death zone perimeter of Sachsenhausen Camp.

The scene: A German concentration camp
The date: Early 1945
The action: A prisoner saves the life of a young Jewish boy in the camp; boy later comes to America and becomes a world-renowned authority on international human rights.

Sound like a movie script? The plot of a novel?

It’s a true story.

The boy is Thomas Buergenthal.  His many accomplishments include serving as a Justice on the International Court of Justice at The Hague from 2000 to 2010.

Tom’s incredible life is recounted in his memoir,  A Lucky Child, published in 2009, including his almost six-year incarceration (beginning at age 5) in various Jewish ghettos, work camps and concentration camps, including Auschwitz.  From there Tom was evacuated in late January 1945 to Sachsenhausen—an event now known as the Auschwitz Death March.  He arrived with badly frostbitten feet, requiring the amputation of several toes. While he was recovering in the infirmary Odd Nansen, a Norwegian prisoner on a visit to a sick friend, stopped and struck up a conversation.  In an act of singular generosity, Nansen thereafter used his food rations to bribe the infirmary orderlies to look out for young Tommy, and most importantly, keep his name off the periodic “selection lists” of those destined for the gas chambers.

Buergenthal’s memoir (which I purchased in 2010 for the simple reason that it looked intriguing) mentioned, in a footnote, that Nansen had kept a secret diary while a prisoner, and that an English translation of the diary had been published in 1949 under the title From Day to Day.

On nothing more than a whim, and curious to know more about the subject, I located a copy of Nansen’s book on the Internet (rather surprised at how few extant copies–five in all–that I could even find).

When From Day to Day finally arrived, I was busy with other books, so I decided to read no more than one diary entry per day—much as the author wrote it.  Within two weeks I had upped that to two entries per day; not much later, it became three diary entries per day.

And by then I was hooked.

Eventually I was devoting every waking minute to the book—it was as powerful and as compelling as anything I had ever read.

At the same time, the feeling grew in me—how could such a magnificent book be so scarce, and out of print for over 60 years?  More importantly, what a travesty that such a book could be so totally forgotten, with almost no one aware of its existence?

What to do?

The answer actually came quite easily—I would get the book back into print.  Naively, foolishly perhaps, and without a clue as to how to make this all happen, I embarked on a six-year odyssey that resulted in the re-publication of a deluxe, fully-annotated edition of Nansen’s diary in April 2016 from Vanderbilt University Press.  Thomas Buergenthal, now 87, has written a Preface for the new edition, which also contains sketches by Nansen and diary entries never before available in English.

More details, updates, information I have learned along the way, and even some random thoughts, will continue to be posted on my blog “Odds and Ends.”  Please join me on this inspiring journey.