It is with deep sorrow that I write to inform you that my dear friend, Tom Buergenthal, died on Monday, May 29, 2023. He had just recently turned 89. Tom’s obituary can be found here.
I am currently at a loss for words, but will write more soon.
It is with deep sorrow that I write to inform you that my dear friend, Tom Buergenthal, died on Monday, May 29, 2023. He had just recently turned 89. Tom’s obituary can be found here.
I am currently at a loss for words, but will write more soon.
In Memoriam. Private D. Sutherland killed in Action
in the German Trench, May 16, 1916, and the Others who Died.
By E. A. Mackintosh
So you were David’s father,
And he was your only son,
And the new-cut peats are rotting
And the work is left undone.
Because an old man weeping,
Just an old man in pain,
For David, his son David,
That will not come again.
Oh, the letters he wrote you,
And I can see them still,
Not a word of the fighting,
But just the sheep on the hill
And how you should get the crops in
Ere the year gets stormier,
And the Bosches have got his body,
And I was his officer.
You were only David’s father,
But I had fifty sons
When we went up in the evening
Under the arch of the guns,
And we came back at twilight—
O God! I heard them call
To me for help and pity
That could not help at all.
Oh, never will I forget you,
My men that trusted me,
More my sons than your fathers’
for they could only see
The little helpless babies
And the young men in their pride.
They could not see you dying,
And hold you when you died.
Happy and young and gallant,
They saw their first born go,
But not the strong limbs broken
And the beautiful men brought low,
The piteous writhing bodies,
They screamed “Don’t leave me sir,”
For they were only your fathers
But I was your officer.
Private David Sutherland of the Seaforth Highlanders was killed during a trench raid on May 16, 1916; he has no known burial place. Lt. Ewart Alan Mackintosh received the Military Cross for conspicuous gallantry during the same raid. Macintosh was killed 17 months later, on November 21, 1917, on the second day of the Battle of Cambrai. He is buried in Northern France. He was 24 years old.
When Mary Berg, survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto, died in April 2013 (exact date unknown), it appeared that her desire for lasting anonymity had succeeded. Her former editor, S.L. Shneiderman, had died years before (1996). Susan Pentlin, who—against Mary’s wishes—prepared a reissue of Berg’s diary in 2006 (under the new title Mary Berg’s Diary), never revealed what she knew, and followed Mary into the grave eight months after Mary’s demise, passing away on Christmas Day 2013.
But the story didn’t end there.
Fast forward to early June 2014, over a year after Mary’s death. Apparently, her husband, Bill Pentin, consigned some of Mary’s belongings to an estate sale. Was it a case of decluttering? Was Pentin downsizing? Since he, like Mary, graduated from college in 1947, he was also pushing 90 years old by this time. Did he carefully examine everything that was consigned, or was much of the material consigned precisely because it hadn’t been used/handled/viewed in decades, and therefore couldn’t be very valuable to the family in the first place?
Part of the sale consisted of four of Mary’s photo albums, covering the period from the 1920s to the 1950s, and a 50+ year-old scrapbook. [Perhaps it’s not surprising, given Mary’s later views, that her 12 original notebooks, and the first, Polish, version of the diary are considered “no longer extant.”]
Glen Coghill, a part-time antique/memorabilia dealer, with a specialty in World War II related items, attended the sale and saw, in one of the albums, photos of vintage World War II airplanes. Interested, and confident he could resell such items for a profit, he submitted the highest—and only—bid for it: a whopping $2.00. As the winning bidder, Coghill was then given “bidder’s choice.” That is, the ability to purchase the related albums/scrapbook for the same price. He agreed to purchase everything, upping his total investment for the day to $10.00.
Only when Coghill returned home was he able to examine his new purchases in detail, including all the press coverage of one “Mary Berg.” Doing a Google search, he came across Amy Rosenberg’s 2008 article in Tablet magazine entitled “What Happened to Mary Berg?” It was only then that he realized that Mary Berg was the same person as Mary Pentin, a fellow antiques dealer with whom he was acquainted.
Looking for some guidance regarding his now much more significant purchase, Coghill contacted the staff at Tablet. He expressed a desire to find a good home for this seemingly valuable material—whether it be a museum or a private collector.
This latest twist in the Mary Berg saga was reported in a new article in Tablet, in June 2014, written by Sara Ivry. It is not clear what advice, if any, Sara or anyone at Tablet gave to Coghill at this point. According to a further, November 2014 article in Tablet, Coghill had met with a curator for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC, but in the end decided to place Mary’s items with Doyle, a Manhattan auction house, where the materials were estimated to be worth up to $6,000. Not a bad return on a $10 investment!
News of the pending Doyle auction set off alarms among Holocaust scholars, fearing that Doyle’s sale might fuel a commercial market in Holocaust-related memorabilia, rather than keeping such items in publicly accessible collections. The clincher apparently came when the New York Times reached out to Mary’s relatives, who learned about the auction (and the earlier estate sale) for the first time. They thereupon contacted Doyle. Given Mary’s decades-long quest for invisibility, the call to Doyle could not have been a friendly one.
Doyle then elected to cancel the proposed auction and released a statement that it was “working with all involved parties toward the goal of finding an appropriate permanent home for the archive.” Ultimately Doyle brokered a sale to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum for an undisclosed sum (although presumably more than $10.00). The photo albums and scrapbook can now be viewed on the Museum’s website: Mary Berg collection – Collections Search – United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (ushmm.org)
A local AP reporter who also covered all the twists and turns in the story noted that the handler of the estate sale had been informed by Bill Pentin to throw out whatever items didn’t sell. He concludes:
“Had Coghill not bought that scrapbook—he was the sole bidder—it would have been sent to the York County Solid Waste Authority’s incinerator.
And we would never have known that Mary Berg had lived among us all these years.
Worse, we would have never known who she was.”
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy, The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien imbues the ring of power, on which the fate of Middle-Earth depends, with agency. As the wizard Gandalf explains to young Frodo Baggins, the long-missing ring ended up being “found” by Bilbo Baggins precisely because it was trying to get back to its master—it wanted to be found.
Maybe Mary’s photos and scrapbook—despite all her efforts—just wanted to be found. Whatever the reason—dumb luck, serendipity, or a careless oversight by Mary’s husband, we are nevertheless richer for having this material. As one scholar noted, the material sheds light on the period when public memory of the Holocaust was still being formed.
Even Mary’s relatives ultimately reconciled themselves to this final chapter in Mary’s life. As a nephew, Steven Powell, concluded: “All the players in this drama are deceased, so it is a part of history now.”
End of a Series.
Note: On this date in 1943 the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was considered officially ended. The Ghetto’s final 50,000+ inhabitants had either been killed or captured; those captured were in almost all cases later sent to extermination camps. The largest single revolt by Jews during World War II was over.
I have previously sketched the history of the Warsaw Ghetto: its formation in 1940 (here); the mass deportations of its inhabitants to death camps in 1942 (here); and the desperate uprising of its remaining inhabitants in 1943 (here); all as seen through the eyes of diarist Mary Berg.
Berg was one of the very few who survived the Warsaw Ghetto, initially because her relatively wealthy family could afford more and better food, etc., and ultimately because of her American-born mother’s U.S. citizenship.
On March 1, 1944, as part of a prisoner exchange with Germany, Mary and her family began their voyage to freedom, first by train from their internment camp in Vittel, France, to Lisbon, Portugal, and then by boat to New York City. Mary carried with her few personal possessions, but among these were 12 small, spiral notebooks, written in her own cryptic shorthand (in case they fell into the wrong hands) which described “the most important facts” of her four-year stay in the Ghetto. In her head she also carried “all the most important dates and names” which she had memorized.
Mary also had a mission, as she related in the very last entry of her diary:
“I shall do everything I can to save those who can still be saved, and to avenge those who were so bitterly humiliated in their last moments. And those who were ground into ash, I shall always see them alive. I will tell, I will tell everything, about our sufferings and our struggles and the slaughter of our dearest, and I will demand punishment for the German murderers . . . who enjoyed the fruits of murder, and are still wearing the clothes and shoes of our martyrized people.”
Mary had just landed in New York on March 15, 1944, when she met Samuel L. Shneiderman, a Polish journalist who had escaped Europe in 1940. When Shneiderman learned of her shorthand diary, he offered to work with her to transcribe and complete her narrative, adding explanatory context where necessary, etc.
Mary’s diary, originally published as Warsaw Ghetto: A Diary, was among the earliest personal accounts of the Holocaust. It was first translated from Polish into Yiddish, and serialized in mid-1944 and appeared in English, in book form, in February, 1945. Mary’s surname was shortened from Wattenberg to Berg to protect family members who might still be at risk in Poland. The book was eventually translated into seven other languages. It immediately garnered glowing reviews. The New York Times Book Review recommended Warsaw Ghetto to everybody “without qualification.” The New Yorker called it “one of the most heartbreaking documents to come out of the war. . . a brave and inspiring book.” Accolades poured in from the Chicago Tribune, Dallas News, Cleveland Plain Dealer, and the Book of the Month Club News, among others.
By turns poignant, searing, tender, eloquent, and wise beyond its teenage author’s years, Mary’s diary is every bit as moving in its way as Anne Frank’s, with which it shares many similarities. Mary Berg has even been called “Anne Frank before there was an Anne Frank.”
Meanwhile, Mary was focusing on fulfilling her earlier vow. Little more than a month following her arrival in New York City, she was leading a crowd of thousands in a march to City Hall to commemorate the first anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Her book’s publication in early 1945 only increased Mary’s profile, and soon she was doing everything, everywhere, all the time (as attested by her voluminous scrapbook, of which more later):
In other words, Mary had become “widely enough known that she was considered a New York celebrity” according to Amy Rosenberg, writing in Tablet Magazine.
In a February 23, 1945 guest column Mary, writing for Outlook, the school newspaper of Monmouth Junior College, dwelt on the importance of freedom:
“[W]e should always remember that wonderful American privilege of freedom. Let us teach it all over the world. Let us show everybody how wonderful it is to have it. Let us, America, be the best example. That is how we can prevent future wars, and it depends entirely on us.”
Then something unexpected happened.
By the early 1950s Mary’s diary had gone out of print and she had disappeared from public life.
What is more, Mary disassociated herself from anything having to do with her diary or her past life. She resolutely refused to participate in Holocaust-related events. She refused to speak with researchers. Soon she disappeared from view altogether, and on occasion denied being Mary Berg. There was even concern that she might label her own diary a fabrication.
Ultimately, Mary, who was now married and went by the name Mary Pentin, ended up living and working as an antiques dealer in York, PA. Variously described as “eccentric,” “quirky,” “difficult,” and “prickly,” she disclosed to no one her past, and not only showed no interest in reissuing her diary, she actively discouraged it. Her location and status were so completely concealed that Amy Rosenberg’s July, 2008 article in Tablet Magazine was entitled “What Happened to Mary Berg?”
As early as 1959, Berg was arguing with her old collaborator, Samuel Shneiderman, trying to prevent the publication of a Polish language version. After expressing his disappointment over her attitude (“You have not shown the slightest consideration for me personally and the tremendous effort I put into this book”), Shneiderman nevertheless elected to proceed without her blessing (which he was permitted to do under his contract with her), explaining: “I feel it is my moral obligation to make this book available for the . . . reader, as a book of highly educational value concerning anti-Semitism.” Berg later broke off all contact with Shneiderman and his family.
In 1995, Susan Pentlin—the similarity in surnames is entirely coincidental—a professor at Central Missouri State University, and teacher of Holocaust courses, composed a note to Mary, again seeking her approval of a reissue of the English language version, which she planned to annotate in much same the way I annotated From Day to Day. (The publishing rights were held by Shneiderman’s heirs, who were amenable.) Pentlin knew from Shneiderman that her quest was an uphill battle. She assured Mary that she would respect Mary’s wish to remain private. “You can trust me not to divulge any information you prefer me not to. . .. I will not give your present name and address to anyone. . .. Please believe me, I would never want to do anything that might cause you pain,” Pentlin wrote.
Mary Berg’s handwritten reply in full:
“Your participation in all those Holocaust conferences to satisfy your ego and feelings of self-serving importance is pathetic. Instead of continuing to milk the Jewish Holocaust to its limits, do go and make a difference in all those Holocausts taking place right now in Bosnia or Chechnia [sic] or have you no sympathy for Moslems being slaughtered? Why don’t you organize conferences in memory of the Armenians or Kurds or Rwandans? By teaching about the Holocaust you’ll stop its occurrence in the future, right? But the future is now. When the Jews were victimized, they wanted the world to save them. Are the Israelis dropping bombs on the Serbs to save Bosnian Moslems? Don’t tell me this is different.
So bug off and stop invading my privacy.
Your request is denied. M.P.”
What had happened to the vow Mary made in her final diary entry (“I will tell everything”)?
What had happened to her college exhortation (“It depends entirely on us”)?
What had happened to the person who maintained a scrapbook of all her achievements that was so voluminous she engaged the services of a clipping agency?
What prompted such a cynical response to Susan Pentlin?
The precise reason for this volte-face will probably never be known.
Was it a case of survivor’s guilt? While at the Vittel internment camp she had written: “We, who have been rescued from the ghetto, are ashamed to look at each other. Had we the right to save ourselves? Here everything smells of sun and flowers and there—there is only blood, the blood of my own people.”
Was it dejection that, despite her avowed mission to “save those who still can be saved,” her diary and her appearances had failed to alter the fate of a single Hungarian Jew, thousands of whom were murdered even after her diary’s publication?
Was it disillusionment that, despite her demand for “punishment for the German murderers,” so many Nazis were let off scot-free as the Cold War with the Soviets heated up?
Perhaps she simply lost faith in mankind.
Perhaps her obsessive secrecy and angry responses were a case of delayed PTSD. Perhaps the flurry of activity following her arrival in the U.S. was merely an attempt to keep her demons at bay, and they finally got the better of her. Perhaps, as Amy Rosenberg suggests, “even those who escaped were never free.” In her final diary entry Mary mentions the unique feeling of freedom, now that New York City was in sight, which almost took her breath away, a feeling that was nevertheless still very tenuous:
“In the last four years I have not known this feeling. Four years of the black swastika, of barbed wire, ghetto walls, executions, and, above all, terror—terror by day and terror by night. After four years of that nightmare I found it hard to enjoy my freedom at first. I constantly imagined that it was only a dream, that at any moment I would awaken in the Pawiak [prison] and once again see the aged men with gray beards, the blooming young girls and proud young men, driven like cattle to the Umschlagplatz on Stawki Street to their deaths.”
Mary Wattenberg died ten years ago this month (the exact date is unknown), age 88. There was no official obituary, and it was only following her death that her friends and neighbors in York learned for the first time that she was even Jewish, let alone a Holocaust survivor, and the author of a famous diary.
Perhaps the Warsaw Ghetto had claimed its final victim.
Mary’s diary was reissued in 2006 as The Diary of Mary Berg, and is still available. It is both an eye-witness record of an immense tragedy, and, despite Mary’s personal misgivings, a way of “educating future generations about the past [that] will empower them to build a new world without hate,” in the words of Susan Pentlin.
Soon: Part V: How Mary’s secret life was finally uncovered.
“God, why do we have to suffer all this?” Diary of Mary Berg, June 15, 1943
I have previously written about the Warsaw Ghetto several times already—primarily as seen through the eyes of teenage diarist Mary Berg.
Part I described the establishment of the Ghetto in September 1940; the lethal living conditions which consigned thousands of inhabitants to death by disease or slow starvation; the start of Grossaktion Warschau on July 25, 1942, sending many inhabitants to their death at Treblinka, a Vernichtungslager (death camp), a process that murdered 250,000 to 300,000 Jews within the space of 60 days.
The deportations to Treblinka from the Warsaw Ghetto were suspended for a brief time (September 21, 1942 – January 18, 1943).
Part II explained how the resumption of deportations was met for the first time with concerted resistance on the part of the Ghetto’s remaining inhabitants, now numbering approximately 63,000 men, women, and children. Unlike the initial wave of deportations, where the Germans promised—and the inhabitants believed—”resettlement” to labor camps “in the East,” by 1943 the existence, and purpose, of Treblinka was well known. According to Berg, “Many Jews barricaded themselves in their houses and fired at the manhunters.” Others deliberately infiltrated columns of rounded-up Jews, and, at a signal, stepped out and attacked the Nazis. After a few days, the Germans had only been able to collect 5,000—6,000 Ghetto dwellers for transport, at considerable cost to their own forces, and the Germans elected to withdraw from the Ghetto.
The Ghetto’s remaining population now engaged in feverish activity in anticipation of renewed German efforts to collect and deport the remaining inhabitants. These survivors had no illusions. According to Berg, “They knew that their fate was sealed, that the Nazis had decided to exterminate the Jewish population completely.” Water, food, and medicines were stockpiled; bunkers prepared; arms smuggled in from the outside. It was only a question of time before the Germans would return, more determined than ever.
That day arrived 80 years ago today, April 19, 1943, a date chosen by the Nazis because it was the eve of the start of the Jewish holiday of Passover.
The Germans came with tanks, heavy artillery, flamethrowers. They employed members of the police, Wehrmacht, Gestapo, and Waffen-SS, among others. When the defenders refused to surrender, the German’s commander, Jürgen Stroop* ordered all structures in the Ghetto to be systematically burned and/or destroyed, block by block. Berg observes that, “For many nights, the fire of the ghetto could be seen for miles around Warsaw.” The suppression of the uprising officially ended May 16, 1943, although sporadic skirmishes with holdouts continued as late as June 5, 1943. In the end, all but eight buildings in the Warsaw Ghetto were destroyed. Approximately 7,000 Jews were killed during the uprising, many via suffocation from smoke inhalation or from being burned alive. The remaining population (50,000) were captured and deported to the death camps of Treblinka and Majdanek.
Today, with the memory of Yom HaShoah fresh in our minds, it is fitting to reflect on those who fought and died for the honor of the Jewish people. As eloquently commemorated by Mary Berg:
“The Battle of the Ghetto lasted for five weeks. Its starved, exhausted defenders fought heroically against the powerful Nazi war machine. They did not wear uniforms, they had no ranks, they received no medals for their superhuman exploits. There only distinction was death in the flames. All of them are Unknown Soldiers, heroes who have no equals. How horrible it is to think of all this—so many relatives and friends among them. . . . I have been standing at my window for the last few days [in an internment camp in France] talking with the newly arrived internees [from the Ghetto]. I drank in their words avidly, and my thoughts carried me over there, to the burning houses of the ghetto where I had lived for three years with all these heroes. Every now and then I felt faint, as if my very heart had withered. . . . “
Diary of Mary Berg, June 15, 1943
The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was the largest single revolt by Jews during World War II.
TO BE CONTINUED
* Stroop was hanged for his crimes in Warsaw’s Mokotów Prison on March 6, 1952.
If you were a Norwegian going to bed on the evening of April 8, 1940, you fell asleep in a country at peace with the world, and with the reasonable expectation that you would wake up the following morning in a country still at peace.
After all, Norway was officially neutral in World War II, which had begun seven months earlier, with the German invasion of Poland. Norway had no quarrel with either the Allies or the Axis powers. It had previously safeguarded its neutrality through the long and bitter years of the First World War. [Although it did send a mission to the U.S. to negotiate some relief from the Allied blockade, a mission headed by none other than Fridtjof Nansen.] Norway saw no reason why it could not sit out the Second World War as well.
Norway should have realized, however, that Adolf Hitler was no respecter of neutrality. As William L. Shirer noted in a radio broadcast from Berlin as early as December 7, 1939: “[T]onight we have a semi-official statement severely taking the Scandinavian states to task and telling them in effect that they must choose between friendship with Britain and friendship with Germany. In the German view, so far as I can make it out, a neutral country hasn’t the right to be friendly with both.”
Heck, Hitler wasn’t even a respecter of nonaggression treaties he had previously signed. Examples: Poland (1934); Denmark (1939); and the Soviet Union (1939). In mid-December 1939, just days after Shirer’s broadcast, arch-traitor Vidkun Quisling secured two meetings with Hitler, where he convinced the dictator that if Germany did not soon seize control of Norway, Great Britain was surely planning to, a move that would imperil Germany’s access to Sweden’s iron ore and once again allow the Allies to blockade and slowly strangle the Axis powers. Apparently, Hitler saw no ulterior, self-interested, motive in Quisling’s warning—such as a desire to rule Norway as Hitler’s puppet—behind Quisling’s urgent warning.
So, unbeknownst to you on the evening of April 8, 1940, six German naval task forces, which had been launched at sea five days earlier, were now poised to strike, and occupy, all the key coastal ports of Norway: Narvik, Trondheim, Bergen, Stavanger, Kristiansand, and Oslo. Oslo was by far the biggest prize of all: home to the Royal Family, all government ministers, the Storting (Norway’s parliament), and last, but by no means least, Norway’s central bank and the nation’s gold reserves, all 54 tons of it.
Five of the six task forces performed flawlessly, and seized their objectives at dawn on April 9 in a coup de main. The most important task force—Gruppe V—aimed at Oslo, failed miserably, allowing the King and his family, government ministers, the members of the Storting, and the all-important gold supply, to escape to the north.
All this was due to the courageous actions of one man: Col. Birger Ericksen, who commanded an antiquated fort—Oscarsborg—which sat at, and guarded, a bottleneck in the Oslofjord about 20 miles south of Oslo. Firing antediluvian weapons and fielding a force of raw recruits and trainees, Ericksen nevertheless turned back the German spearhead.
Much of this story, and the Norwegian efforts to keep their gold supply out of the grasp of the invading Germans for thirty frenetic days, is recounted in an article I recently published in the Spring issue of World War II Magazine, entitled “Rescuing Norway’s Gold.” Here is a link to the article (you may need to increase your screen size to 100% to read it):WW2P-230400-NORWAY-final (1) (1) (1)
Video Tip: The movie “The King’s Choice,” a 2016 Norwegian film with English subtitles (available on Amazon Prime), opens with the dramatic events at Oscarsborg Fortress on the morning of April 9. The movie is an excellent depiction of the agonizing dilemma faced by King Haakon VII: whether to capitulate and spare his country from destruction, or resist and face the mighty Wehrmacht. He chose resistance, and exile, and the eternal gratitude of his nation.
On this date in 1945, the Ohrdruf concentration camp was liberated. This is notable for three reasons:
FIRST: Thomas Buergenthal’s father Mundek died in Ohrdruf just weeks earlier, on January 15, 1945. Tom and Mundek were separated in Auschwitz in late October, 1944, when Mundek was moved to Sachsenhausen, arriving there on October 26, 1944. [Did Odd Nansen and Mundek Buergenthal ever cross paths in Sachsenhausen? That’s the subject for another post.] Three weeks later Mundek was moved yet again, to Ohrdruf, a subcamp of Buchenwald, arriving November 13, 1944. Two months later he was dead.
Mundek had displayed great resilience, courage, and resourcefulness in meeting, and overcoming, every challenge the Nazis presented him with for almost five and a half years—ever since September 1, 1939. That was when the train he, Tommy, and Tommy’s mother Gerda were riding on through Poland, on their way to freedom, was strafed by the invading Nazis. Mundek managed to keep his family alive in the Kielce Ghetto (which was later liquidated), and in two work camps outside Kielce (which were also later liquidated). If he had only been able to hold on for another 79 days, he, too, might have been liberated, and Tommy’s life utterly changed. His unfortunate death is yet one more of the countless tragedies of the Holocaust.
SECOND: Ohrdruf has the distinction of being the very first Nazi concentration camp liberated by the U.S. Army—units of the 602nd Tank Destroyer Battalion, the 4th Armored Division, and the 89th Infantry Division all participated.
The camp had only been established in November 1944, initially as an independent site, and later as a subcamp of Buchenwald, located 30 miles to the east. It was established to supply forced labor to construct a rail line to a proposed communications center. (Neither the communications center nor the rail line was ever completed.)
Conditions at Ohrdruf were particularly brutal: 14-hour workdays, strenuous physical labor, insufficient food, clothing, and medical supplies. It is estimated that 3,000 of the camp’s roughly 10,000 prisoners died of exhaustion or disease during its short existence.
The camp was evacuated on April 1, 1945, just ahead of the advancing Allied armies, when SS guards initiated a death march of the remaining prisoners to Buchenwald. Those deemed too ill or too weak to undertake the trip were murdered and their bodies burned in a giant pyre.
THIRD: The conditions in Ohrdruf which greeted the liberating U.S. forces were so appalling that General Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of all Allied Forces in Europe, personally visited the camp on April 12, 1945, accompanied by Generals George Patton and Omar Bradley. In his postwar memoir, Crusade in Europe, Eisenhower wrote: “[On April 12] I saw my first horror camp. I have never felt able to describe my emotional reactions when I first came face to face with indisputable evidence of Nazi brutality and ruthless disregard of every shred of decency. Up to that time I had known about it only generally or through secondary sources. I am certain, however, that I have never at any other time experienced an equal sense of shock.”
In a subsequent cable to General George Marshall, Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, Eisenhower further elaborated: “The things I saw beggar description. . . . The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were so overpowering as to leave me a bit sick. In one room . . . George Patton would not even enter. He said he would get sick if he did so. I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to ‘propaganda.’” (emphasis added)
Is it any wonder that Mundek Buergenthal, who had survived the Kielce Ghetto, the Arbeitslager, the Henryków factory complex, Auschwitz, and Sachsenhausen, was unable to survive Ohrdruf?
In a practice that was to be repeated in subsequent camp liberations, German citizens from the nearby town of Ohrdruf were forced to view the camp and help bury the dead. Following the tour, the town’s mayor and his wife both hanged themselves.
It has been reported that, after seeing Ohrdruf, Eisenhower was heard to remark:
“We are told the American soldier does not know what he is fighting for. Now, at least, we know what he is fighting against.”
Fiskerjente (fishergirl): That’s the pet name Odd Nansen gave to his firstborn child Marit. Odd was an avid fisherman, and Marit often accompanied him on his outings. That’s how Odd refers to her in his diary entry of November 8, 1944 (Marit’s birthday) while a prisoner in Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp.
My dear friend Marit passed away peacefully in her sleep two years ago today, age 92. Here is what I wrote about Marit in 2021 when I first learned of her death:
“It is with great sadness that I inform you of the death of my dear friend Marit Greve, eldest child of Odd and Kari Nansen, and granddaughter of Fridtjof Nansen, on Friday, March 26. Marit was 92 years old.
Marit was born November 8, 1928, in Brooklyn, NY. (I would often kid her that, beneath her Norwegian lilt, I could still detect a trace of a Brooklyn accent.) She was 13 years-old when her father was arrested in 1942, old enough to remember vividly the night he was taken away.
She was also old enough to remember well the hardships that followed—like learning to make and eat dandelion salad and soup. But there were also moments of humor. Like many families, the Nansens raised animals during the war for food. At one point they were down to a single rabbit, which they then kept with the chickens. According to Marit the rabbit soon began to think it was a hen: “It climbed the perch . . . in the evenings like the hens, [and] had a siesta in the sitting box . . . every day. Astonishingly, it did not produce an egg.”
Odd Nansen of course worried about his family while he was incarcerated, and what effect his long separation might have on his children. On March 3, 1943, he wrote: “Marit looked very fit, but I noticed that she’s almost grown a bit shy of me, and it went right through me like a stab. Have I been away so long already? . . . I can’t stand for my children to drift away.” Five months later (Aug. 5, 1943), when Marit was temporarily denied access to her dad, and cried in despair over the thought, Nansen was overjoyed: “Oh, how it warmed my heart; I do believe she cares a little for her daddy, and now I’m not afraid she may have grown away from me and forgotten me in this time.” On Marit’s 16th birthday Nansen once again fretted in his diary that he was losing his little girl, who was now becoming a woman, despite her protestations to the contrary in a letter she sent him. “Poor little Marit, she can’t help it. And besides it’s not to oblige their parents that children live their lives. But all the same I miss you badly, my little “fishergirl,” and if you sometimes miss your daddy too, my wish is only that it may be a blessing for both of us.”
Based on everything I learned from Marit, Nansen needn’t have worried at all.
I first met Marit in August of 2011. Having decided to republish Nansen’s diary, I first arranged a meeting in Washington, DC, to introduce myself to Tom Buergenthal. Tom, gracious as ever, offered during the meeting to write to Marit and introduce me so that I could start a correspondence with her. After all, by that time, Tom and Marit had been friends for over 60 years. In Tom’s Preface, he writes of his first trip to Norway in 1948: “Kari Nansen, Odd Nansen’s wife, and their four children—Marit, Eigil, Siri, and Odd Erik—treated me almost from the beginning like a member of the family.” Tom further indicated to me that Marit was the “keeper of the flame” and was the best resource to answer all my questions about her father.
Several months later my wife Tara and I were invited to a wedding in Stockholm, Sweden, and I arranged ahead of time to stop over in Oslo on our way home and meet with Marit. We agreed to rendezvous at Polhøgda, the house built by Fridtjof Nansen that Marit had grown up in as a child. (When Marit married she moved into a new house a mere five-minute walk away.) We sat outside on the lawn on a gorgeous afternoon and Marit patiently answered all the questions I could think of. Tara (who was furiously taking notes on my behalf) and I had been warned about Norwegians’ habitual reserve, and so we were pleasantly surprised when Marit then invited us to her home. There we chatted further, and she showed me a framed photo of the Nansen family on the day her father returned from captivity (the same photo appears on page 567 of From Day to Day). I couldn’t stop staring at this photo, at which point Marit removed it from the frame and handed it to me! A typical example of her graciousness and generosity.
And thus began a wonderful friendship and collaboration. Marit visited the U.S. as our houseguest twice, in 2013 and 2016, and I followed up on my 2011 visit with trips to Norway in 2014, 2015, 2018 and 2019. Had COVID not intervened, I would have travelled to Norway last April for another presentation, and Marit had even agreed to attend a Kristallnacht commemoration set for November 2020 in New Haven, CT.
My many favorite memories include: her visits to America; sharing the podium with Marit at the Nobel Institute in Oslo, where we spoke in the same room Fridtjof Nansen gave his own Nobel Peace Prize address decades earlier; speaking at the Norwegian Center for Holocaust and Minority Studies; and most importantly, sharing in Marit’s special 90th birthday party in 2018, held on the deck of the Fram, the ship Fridtjof Nansen built for his expedition to the North Pole (1893—1896).
When From Day to Day was re-published in 2016, I acknowledged the critically important contributions of three individuals: Tom Buergenthal, for introducing me to Odd Nansen in the first place via his memoir; Sten Vermund, for introducing me to Vanderbilt University Press, my eventual publisher, and most importantly, Marit Greve. At the time I wrote: “Many of the insights into Nansen’s diary entries would have remained impossible without her knowledge of the events of 1942-1945. Marit is a wonderful friend, self-effacing to a fault, and the inheritor of her father’s wit and humor. To come to know Marit as I have is truly one of the unexpected, but deeply cherished, joys of this undertaking.”
Skål, Marit, and may your memory be a blessing. I shall miss you terribly.
Your sweet and weary head.
Night is falling;
You have come to journey’s end.
And dream of the ones
Who came before.
They are calling
From across the distant shore.
On this date in 1922 the Permanent Court of International Justice, a/k/a the World Court, officially opened. The need for a supranational body to resolve disputes between nations had been recognized—and proposed—as long ago as 1305. Nevertheless, it took the carnage of the First World War to provide the impetus for actually establishing such a body. Article 14 of the Covenant of the League of Nations allowed the League to set up just such an international tribunal in an attempt to resolve future disputes short of war.
Who took note of this important event? Certainly not Tom Buergenthal, who wouldn’t be born for another 12 years. Probably not Tom’s parents either. His mother, Gerda, was only 10 years-old at the time, living with her parents in Göttingen, Germany. His father, Mundek, 20-years old, was just embarking on a promising career as a banker in Berlin. Odd Nansen, the same age as Mundek (they were born only 15 days apart in 1901) was a mere student in 1922 as well. The Permanent Court of Justice may nevertheless have come up as a topic of conversation at the Nansen dinner table. After all, Odd’s father Fridtjof Nansen was an ardent supporter of the League of Nations, serving as a delegate to the General Assembly and as its first High Commissioner for Refugees. William L. Shirer once recalled seeing “the old gentleman, with his thick white hair and his lively eyes, stamping around the palace of the League of Nations in Geneva and forcing the harried statesmen of the world to heed him and his endeavors to find homes for the world’s homeless.” Much of Fridtjof’s work for the League of Nations would result in his receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize ten months later, in December 1922.
Now, fast forward exactly 23 years, to February 15, 1945. Tom Buergenthal has arrived in Sachsenhausen after a hellish death march from Auschwitz, and has had several of his frostbitten toes amputated as a consequence. Odd Nansen is in the 38th month of captivity. On February 16, 1945, Nansen notes the following in his diary:
“A little Jewish boy, not ten years old, is in the Revier. He comes from Auschwitz. His legs were frostbitten and several toes have been amputated. At Auschwitz he was errand boy in the crematorium. He relates that among other things that the most they could take in the gas chamber at a time was two thousand, and then they used two boxes, he said. ‘But how do you know that?’ ‘Why, because I got the boxes,’ said the child.”
Whether Odd Nansen and Tom Buergenthal met on the 16th, the date of Nansen’s diary entry, or whether he was recording what had occurred the previous day, February 15, is unclear. What is clear is that, following that first meeting, according to Tom’s memoir A Lucky Child, “Mr. Nansen. . . probably saved my life by periodically bribing the orderly in charge of our barracks with cigarettes and tobacco to keep my name off the lists of ‘terminally ill’ patients which the SS guards demanded every few weeks ‘to make room for other inmates.’”
And of course we know that Tom’s life was indeed saved in Sachsenhausen through Nansen’s efforts, and in that time Tom would become one of the very few jurists to ever serve on the International Court of Justice at the Hague, the tribunal established in April 1946 by the United Nations to succeed the Permanent Court of International Justice. I’ve written about another uncanny coincidence in dates regarding Tom’s ultimate career on the World Court here. Whether all these developments are simply coincidences, or something more, we’ll never know, but it certainly appears that Tom’s future service on the World Court was just meant to be.
Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day—a time to commemorate the memory of the victims of the Holocaust.
What better way to commemorate their memory than to celebrate one of the heroes of the Holocaust, who risked their lives to save the Jews and others.
Question: How does an 18-year-old boy, whose formal education ended at age 13, a boy whose life experiences were limited to: 1) selling hosiery, 2) working in an aircraft factory, 3) working for a clothes dyer and dry cleaner, and 4) working at a dairy, have the skills to save a life during the Holocaust? And not just one life, but thousands of lives—by some estimates up to 14,000—most of them Jewish?
Answer: By becoming a forger.
Adolfo Kaminsky was born October 1, 1925 in Argentina, a member of a nomadic family that saw his Russian-Jewish parents initially flee the Tsarist’s pogroms in late 19th-Century, landing in France. In 1917 France expelled the family, suspecting they sympathized with the Bolshevik Revolution, whereupon they fled to Argentina. There, Adolfo, the second of four children, was born. In 1932, armed with Argentinian passports, the family returned to France (following a stay in Turkey), ultimately settling in with relatives Vire, Normandy.
Adolfo quit school at age 13 to help his struggling family financially. He first tried selling hosiery with his uncle, who was too overbearing, so he began working in an aircraft factory instead. When France fell to the Germans in the summer of 1940, the factory was seized and all the Jewish workers summarily fired.
Not yet even 15 years-old, Adolfo answered a want-ad to become an apprentice to a clothes dyer. Soon the apprentice—through trial and error, experiments at home, and reading chemistry textbooks—was handling the most difficult cases for his master, making even stubborn stains magically disappear. Thoroughly smitten with chemistry and the world of color (he had set up his own lab at home) Adolfo took a weekend job to work with a chemist at a local dairy. There he learned how to test the fat content of butter as follows: he would add methylene blue to the cream and measure how quickly the lactic acid dissolved the color. In that way he learned that lactic acid could erase Waterman blue ink, the kind used on French identity cards.
In 1943, Kaminsky’s family was arrested and detained for three months in Drancy, France, a transit camp for Jews slated to be sent to death camps, primarily Auschwitz. Fortunately, the Nazis still respected the family’s Argentinian passports, and they were released after three months, but prudence dictated that they get false identity papers.
Adolfo was tasked with obtaining the necessary forged papers from the French Resistance. In the process the Resistance learned about Adolfo’s facility with chemicals, leading to this colloquy:
“You know how to remove ink stains?”
“Yes,” Adolfo answered, “That’s even my specialty.”
“But what about indelible ink?”
“There’s no such thing.”
Soon, young Adolfo was spending all his time heading a secret laboratory located in an apartment building in Paris’ Latin Quarter, dissolving Jewish names on existing identity documents and substituting new, Gentile-sounding names. (The lab’s occupants posed as artists to explain away the chemical odors emanating from the apartment.)
As Adolfo’s skill increased, so did the demand for his services. He learned how to “age” paper; to make letterheads; to create type fonts and watermarks; and to fashion his own official looking rubber stamps. No request was refused. One time Kaminsky and his fellow forgers received an emergency request. Three hundred Jewish children needed new 1) birth certificates, 2) baptismal certificates and 3) ration cards—900 documents in all. As Kaminsky explained: “The math was simple. In one hour, I made 30 fake documents. If I slept for one hour, 30 people would die. . . . So I worked and worked until I passed out. When I woke up, I kept working. We couldn’t sleep. We finished the documents just in time.”
The work was mentally demanding—one lapse or error could result in the holder’s imprisonment or death, and physically demanding—Kaminsky would eventually go blind in one eye from always peering through a magnifying glass or microscope. Nor was there any glory in his work—no one could know the forger’s own identity. Hanging over all his work was the constant risk of detection—and certain death—if caught. Above all he was haunted by “the people I couldn’t save.”
Kaminsky continued forging documents for a variety of causes—some controversial—for many years after the war ended. But he never questioned the value of his work during World War II. In one interview he stated:
“When you have the chance to save even one human life, you must. It’s elemental.”
Adolfo Kaminsky died January 9, 2023, at his home in Paris, aged 97.
Perhaps Kaminsky’s final words are the most important lesson we should remember on Holocaust Remembrance Day: “Of course, everything I did was illegal. But when something legal is against humanity, you have to fight.”