The Ides of March

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[Blogger’s Note: Most of my forthcoming scheduled appearances are now being postponed until further notice.  In my own contribution to “social distancing,” I plan to stay home as much as possible, and write more blogs.]

The 15th of March has had a bad connotation for quite some time—since at least 44 BC to be exact, when Julius Caesar was assassinated.  Shakespeare turned the date into a meme of sorts in his 1599 play about Caesar—as something to “beware of.”

March 15, 1939 was a particularly grim day, all told, in the lives of many.

Odd Nansen

On that day Odd Nansen was in Prague, Czechoslovakia, having just returned on the 13th from a mission in Bratislava.  In both cities he was toiling away at helping refugees.  Nansenhjelpen, the organization he founded and ran, had been fighting an uphill battle since 1936.  By this time Nansen and his wife Kari were pursuing both legal means (visas) and not so legal means (smuggling) in their efforts to assist desperate refugees fleeing persecution.  In fact, a transport of eighty refugees was set to depart Prague for Norway—on March 15.

In the early morning hours of the scheduled departure date Nansen was awakened by a call notifying him that German forces had crossed the Czech border, and would arrive in Prague shortly.  And shortly they did arrive, in force, directing traffic, shutting down all trains, commandeering all local hotels.  The Nansens were summarily ejected from their hotel room/office.  With some inside help, and a bribe to grease things, they soon secured a room in the nearby Hotel Alcron.

With all trains halted, Nansen’s first order of business was securing the release of his eighty trapped refugees.  By a stroke of luck, a German general, Erich Hoepner, was also staying at the Alcron, and Nansen obtained a meeting with him.

According to author Maynard Cohen, writing in his book A Stand Against Tyranny:

“Odd Nansen began with a description of the refugees in the forest outside Prague, how at that moment they lay in the snow beneath the open sky outside Prague, having forsaken their quarters in fear of the Gestapo.  He spoke of the sick and the old, the women and children, who had fled from country to country and city to city to avoid their ever-following pursuers.”

Hoepner relented, and allowed the women and children to depart by train; the men were illegally smuggled across the border into Poland.*

Less than three years later, Nansen would find himself a prisoner of the Nazis.**

Meanwhile, somewhere along the Czech/Polish border, four-year-old Tommy Buergenthal was stuck, along with his parents, was in his own purgatory.

Tom Buergenthal with his parents

Tom’s parents (following an ominous visit to the local police station), had decided that Czechoslovakia was no longer safe for them and they headed out for Poland.  They got as far as the border, where they became trapped in a no-man’s-land, the 50-yd strip that separated the Polish border post from the Czech border post.  As stateless refugees they had no valid travel documents.  Tom relates in his memoir, A Luck Child:

“As soon as we got to the Polish side of the border, the Polish guards would order us back to the Czech side.  The Czechs, in turn, would not allow us to reenter.  And so it went on for days. . . .  Back and forth we went, day and night.  We would sleep in the field adjacent to the road between the border posts or in one of the ditches [which ran alongside the road].”

It was only when heavily armed German troops arrived at the Czech border on March 15th did things change.  When Tom’s parents were able to convince the Germans (“the very people we were trying to escape”) that they were Polish, the German in charge browbeat the Polish guards into admitting the Buergenthals.  “That is how we got into Poland.”  It may have seemed like deliverance at the time, but the Kielce Ghetto, Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Ravensbrück and Sachsenhausen lay ahead.

Ilse Weber

Elsewhere in Prague Ilse and Willi Weber, along with their five-year-old son (also named Tommy), were similarly scrambling to escape.  Willi had applied to the Palestine Office in 1938 for a certificate allowing his family to emigrate to Palestine, and it was granted.  Before he could take advantage of his good luck, however, the Czech government ruled that Jews from the Sudetenland (absorbed into Germany in October, 1938 pursuant to the Munich Pact) should be given first priority.  Willi was assured he would automatically qualify for the next certificates—scheduled to arrive March 15.  When, as Willi later wrote, “Adolf’s hordes arrived” on that fateful day, the Palestine Office in Prague left.  While some certificates ultimately did arrive in Prague a bit later, their price had almost quadrupled, beyond the reach of the Webers.

In 1942 the Webers were deported to Theresienstadt.  There over 30,000 prisoners would perish, most from starvation.  As Willi noted, “most of the dead were old people; the young always figured out how to help themselves in some way, and those who worked received bigger rations.”  Ilse and young Tommy Weber were later sent to Auschwitz, where they were both gassed upon arrival. Willi, also transported to Auschwitz, survived the war.***

Martha Gellhorn, the American journalist and war correspondent, had also been in Prague, arriving in June 1938.  Did she ever meet Odd Nansen? Perhaps: her biographer, Caroline Moorehead, writes that “she found herself drawn . . . into the fate of the refugees: the frightened Jews and dissidents who had recently fled Austria and Germany and now had nowhere to go.”  According to Gellhorn herself, in February 1939, “in the beautiful bolt-hole [hideaway] of Cuba,“ she began to write a short story about the refugees of Prague.  It ultimately grew into a novel, A Stricken Field, published in 1940.

Martha Gellhorn

In an afterword to her novel, Gellhorn quotes from a letter she wrote on March 19, 1939—four days after Odd Nansen’s heroic act; four days after Tom Buergenthal’s family’s escape from no-man’s-land into an even darker future; four days after the hopes and dreams of the Weber family were so terribly dashed:

“We live in a world unlike any other at any time.  A world so cruel and mad that one cannot believe it will survive. . . I think, no doubt selfishly, that right now there is nothing to do about it except help one’s friends.”

Right now we are all concerned with the coronavirus.  So much is unknown: how fast will it spread; who will it infect; will hospitals be prepared; who will die?  All of this is truly unnerving.  But would any of us trade our world, with all the promise it holds, for the far more difficult and uncertain one inhabited by the Nansens, the Buergenthals, the Webers, or the refugees of Prague? Of course not.

And if they could face their unknown futures resolutely, perhaps we can take some courage from their example, and focus on “help[ing] one’s friends.”

* Hoepner was hanged on August 8, 1944, for his part in the July 1944 assassination plot against Hitler.  As further punishment, his wife and daughter were sent to Ravensbrück, and his son was sent to Buchenwald.

** Odd Nansen was arrested on the Ides of January, 1942, as I have written about here.

*** I have previously written about Ilse Weber here.

Civilian Lives in War: The Role of Luck

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Civilian casualties in war have existed for as long as war itself—it is happening today in Syria and elsewhere as we speak. World War II, the most violent cataclysm ever, took civilian deaths to new heights.

For example, 77 years ago today, Great Britain experienced what would prove to be the worst single loss of civilian life in the war.  At 8:17 pm on March 3, 1943, air-raid sirens sounded in London.  By now Londoners were well acquainted with such air raids, and dutifully headed to their closest underground station, which also functioned as an air-raid shelter.  At Bethnal Green, one such station, a large crowd was heading down the unlit stairs when a woman with a small child tripped and fell near the bottom.  Others behind her fell over, and soon nearly 300 people were trapped in a tangled mass of squirming bodies.  Before it was over, 173 people (including the young child) were dead, crushed or asphyxiated; another 60 needed hospital attention.    

Meanwhile, 600 miles away, Odd Nansen was writing about another event that occurred closer to home on March 3 that had implications for Norway’s civilians.  [Nansen did not—and could not—write about the Bethnal Green disaster, as British authorities suppressed the news, fearing it would incentivize the Germans to continue air attacks and cause similar panics.]

Here’s what Nansen wrote in his diary, three days later, on March 6:

“The news is excellent—but still with no essential points. . . .  The Knaben molybdenum mines bombed to pieces the other day.  Yes, there are a few things going on—that one must admit.”

In my diary annotations I explain that the Knaben mines were of vital strategic importance to the war.  Knaben was the only molybdenum mine still operating in Europe and molybdenum is a critical alloy used in hardening steel.  It was only natural that the Allies would seek to deny Germany use of the site.

At the 2019 Norsk Høstfest, a gentleman approached my table, and introduced himself as Knut Gjovik.  Turns out that Knut’s father, Leiv Gjovik, was the foreman of the Knaben mine.  In fact, working at the mine was something of a family affair: Leiv’s brother, also named Knut Gjovik, was an interpreter for Russian POWs working there, and young Knut’s maternal uncle, Lars Knaben, was the mine’s assayer.

Young Leiv Gjovik and his wife Anna before the war.

Given the mine’s strategic importance, it didn’t take much imagination to figure that it was on the Allies’ hit list.  But how would the Allies strike?  Sabotage?  Aerial bombing?  And when?

Ultimately, the British Special Operations Executive (S.O.E.) ruled out sabotage; bombing it would have to be.  On March 3, 1943, ten British de Havilland Mosquito bombers, manned by Norwegian crews, attacked.  The British after-action report concluded the raid was a success: the mines “were completely put out of action,” the damages estimated to be between “two and three million kroner.”   The New York Times cited officials who considered Knaben “of greater economic and industrial importance . . . than any other target in Norway.”

The attack on Knaben, Marc

The bombing of Knaben

The after-action summary included an additional fact: “It is reported that the German mine manager and 17 Norwegians were killed.”  Where was Leiv Gjovik? On the morning of the attack, Leiv, who apparently hadn’t missed a day of work in over two years, didn’t feel right and so called in sick.  He was thus was spared, while his entire crew was wiped out.  Did he know something?  Was he in fact in the Resistance?  Was it divine intervention, as Anna believed?  Or was he just plain lucky?  To this day even his son is not totally sure.  Leiv was subsequently interrogated at length by the Germans, but nothing ever came of it.

One thing is certain: had Leiv Gjovik reported for work as usual, he, too, would likely have been added to the swelling ranks of World War II’s civilian dead, and I never would have been able to calmly discuss Odd Nansen, or the Knaben raid, with his son.  Such are the vagaries of war.

Following the war, a monument was erected to the victims of the Knaben raid.

*March 3 continued to be an ill-omened date for civilians.  Two years later, on March 3, 1945, fifty British bombers attacked a V-2 launch site located near The Hague in Holland.  They missed the target and instead dropped their loads in a residential area more than a mile away.  The result: over 500 Dutch civilians dead and 20,000 homeless—including the Dutch resistance fighter who had provided the tip.

**Photos of Leiv Gjovik and of the Knaben Memorial generously supplied by Knut Gjovik.

Schlachthof Fünf and the Bombing of Dresden

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On this day, 75 years ago, the firebombing of Dresden began.

Dresden was Germany’s seventh largest city, and until the raid, the largest city to escape any serious Allied bombing.  All that changed in a series of raids which began on the evening of the 13th and lasted for two days.  Over 1,000 British and American bombers, escorted by another 700+ American fighters, attacked the city, destroying over 1,600 acres in the city center, and killing an estimated 25,000 people.

Dresden post bombing

At least one American POW in Dresden that night survived the attack, and witnessed firsthand the aftermath.

Infantry scout Kurt Vonnegut, age 22, of the 106th Infantry Division,* was captured, along with another 6,000 Americans in the division, in mid-December 1944, during the height of the Battle of the Bulge.  He was taken to Dresden and housed in a Schlachthof [slaughterhouse].  Vonnegut survived the attack by hiding in a meat locker three levels between the street.

Vonnegut not only survived the attack, he was eventually liberated and repatriated to the United States.  He married, started a family, and began a conventional career with GE.  But we wanted to write—he had been the editor of his high school and college newspapers, and felt writing came easy to him.  His first magazine article appeared in February 1950, and less than a year later he quit his day job and took up writing full time. Despite publishing a number of novels, and many magazine articles, in the ensuing years, Vonnegut met with neither commercial nor critical success; his writing income barely kept the family afloat.

What haunted Vonnegut was his war experience.  He tried and tried—by his own admission he had written five thousand pages about Dresden—and thrown them all away.  He seemed unable to find an appropriate means to express himself.

Finally, in 1969, Vonnegut published his sixth novel: Slaughterhouse Five, or the Children’s Crusade.  The book skyrocketed to the top of the New York Times bestseller list, turning Vonnegut into an icon overnight, a status that he never lost for the rest of his life.  The book has remained on numerous “100 best books” lists ever since.  Vonnegut died in 2007, age 84.

Slaughterhouse Five tells the story of a hapless GI named Billy Pilgrim, who likewise ends up in Dresden and survives the bombing.  Portions of the novel are clearly autobiographical (although it is doubtful that Vonnegut could time-travel, or that he currently resides on the planet Tralfamadore in the company of Hollywood starlet Montana Wildhack, as Billy does).

Vonnegut’s book is unusual in many respects, including his fascination with Tralfamadore.  For example, he describes quite early (p. 5) an actual wartime event which he plans to write about: “I think the climax of the book will be the execution of Edgar Derby. . . .  The irony is so great.  A whole city gets burned down, and thousands and thousands of people are killed.  And then this one American footsoldier is arrested in the ruins for taking a teapot. . . .   [A]nd then he’s shot by a firing squad.”

It is not known whether Odd Nansen, who died in 1973, ever had the chance to read Slaughterhouse Five in the remaining four years of his life.  It is unlikely, but not impossible: the number of literary and biblical allusions that pepper Nansen’s WWII diary attest to a broad and well-read mind.

If Odd Nansen had read Vonnegut’s work, he might well have identified with Vonnegut’s experience—he witnessed an event much like the fate of Billy Pilgrim’s friend, Edgar Derby, himself.

Writing on March 23, 1944, almost a full year before Dresden, Nansen describes the ever-increasing Allied bombing campaign against Germany.  Oranienburg, the city where Sachsenhausen was located, was also an administrative headquarters of the Schutzstaffel (SS), and the site of many its workshops, and thus the camp was hardly immune from stray Allied bombs landing in its midst.

Here’s what Nansen writes, continuing an earlier entry that describes the results of one such bombing:

“Bombs also fell on the prison camp.  Half of one hut was burned down, otherwise only minor damage.  They say that one man was killed and four taken to the Revier [infirmary] with serious injuries.  What is certain is that a prisoner was shot for stealing from the ruins.  He was caught in the act and shot then and there.  No one sees anything strange in that.  Served him right, is all they say, with a shrug of the shoulders.  The SS and the prisoners appear to be of one mind on this form of justice.  I think however that most Norwegians still react against such things.  The man shot was a wretched, starving Ukrainian, who saw a loaf that would have burnt up in any case.”

Yes, Odd Nansen would have been right at home with Slaughterhouse Five.

*I have previously written about another important member of the 106th Infantry Division who was captured around the same time as Vonnegut—Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds (here).

International Holocaust Remembrance Day

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Today, January 27, marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.  The anniversary has been designated by the United Nations as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Auschwitz Gate

As the number of Holocaust survivors dwindles, as does the number of contemporary witnesses, and as antisemitism appears resurgent everywhere, even and especially here in the U.S., one is forced to ask: “How does one remember?” “What, specifically, does remembering the events of the Holocaust do?”  “Why remember at all? Why not consign the event to the dustbin of history, and simply move on?”

I submit that we always need to remember, not so much to prevent others from committing atrocities, but rather to remind ourselves that no one is immune from the blandishments—and coercive power—of evil.  Laurence Rees, writing in The Holocaust: A New History, about the Wannsee Conference which institutionalized the Holocaust, observes this about its participants: “[T]his meeting seems to represent what sophisticated, elegant and knowing human beings are capable of.  Not many of them, perhaps, could kill a Jew personally—Eichmann claimed he had a ‘sensitive nature’ and was ‘revolted’ at the sight of blood—but they could enthusiastically endorse a policy to remove 11 million people from this world.  If human beings can do this, what else can they do?”

If, as Rees writes, this is what sophisticated people are capable of doing, and if, as Primo Levi has warned, “It happened, therefore it can happen again, . . . it can happen everywhere,” what is our antidote, and the antidote for future generations?

In answer, I submit another quotation, from Lawrence Langer, writing in Admitting the Holocaust (emphasis mine):

“[E]very future generation will have to be educated anew in how to face the historical period we call the Holocaust.  This must be done not through abstract formulas like ‘the murder of 6 million,’ but in graphic detail, so that the destruction of an entire people and its culture—what was done, how it was done, and by whom—makes an indelible and subversive impression on their moral, political, philosophical, and psychological assumptions about individual behavior, the nature of reality, and the process of history.  The implications of the Holocaust are so bleak that we continue to wrestle with the desperate issue of how best to represent it.  That problem still needs to be solved.  Literature, history, testimony, commentary, theological speculation—many avenues exist for entering its vestibule, but no two approaches offer identical visions to those who cross the threshold into the landscape of the Holocaust itself.”

To me, Odd Nansen’s diary offers first-hand testimony, in graphic detail, of the Holocaust, but, more importantly, offers a standard of moral clarity as well, and thereby arms each of us to better resist evil whenever and wherever it inevitably arises. That’s my takeaway from International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Another Lost Treasure Resurfaces

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Not long ago I wrote about a book that was only recently rediscovered and republished—dealing with an Arctic expedition (here).

I have just finished reading another treasure that lay dormant for many years: A Bookshop in Berlin, a memoir written by Françoise Frenkel.  Frenkel, born Frymeta Idesa Frenkel, was a Polish Jew who studied at the Sorbonne in Paris.  As a young woman she decided to combine her two greatest loves—that of books and that of all things French, and open a French bookstore.

Originally, Frenkel hoped to open her new bookshop catering to French literature in her native Poland.  Unfortunately, the Polish cities she visited all already had a French bookstore.  Dejectedly returning to France, she stopped en route in Berlin and discovered, to her amazement, that Germany’s capital city was devoid of virtually anything French (the ink on the Treaty of Versailles, ending WWI, was still barely dry at the time).

Frenkel’s bet paid off —the bookstore, called La Maison du Livre, flourished.

Then came Hitler.

Following Kristallnacht (her shop was miraculously spared) Frenkel could see the writing on the wall.  Months later she fled Berlin for the safety of Paris, abandoning all she had worked for for decades.

Frenkel’s reprieve was short-lived.  Less than a year later (May, 1940) Germany invaded, and quickly conquered, France. Frenkel fled south, to the unoccupied zone.

Here the memoir really picks up speed, as Frenkel recounts the increasingly draconian measures Vichy France imposed on refugees in general, and Jewish refugees in particular.  Emigration is virtually impossible.  Roundups become ever more frequent and brutal. “Police and gendarmes were on the hunt, displaying inexhaustible levels of skill and energy.” Frenkel barely escapes each roundup, witnessing horrifying scenes of cruelty in the process.  It seems like it is only a matter of time before she will be caught in the dragnet.  Escape to Switzerland is the only option.

After two escape attempts fail (one of which lands her in prison for a spell), Frenkel finally succeeded, in June, 1943.  She immediately began writing her memoir, which she titled Rien où Poser sa Tête [No Place to Lay One’s Head.] It was published in Geneva in 1945, but thereafter languished in obscurity until an old copy was discovered at a charity rummage sale.  The memoir was reissued in France in 2015, 70 years after its first appearance, and translated into English two years after that.

Of Frenkel’s postwar life virtually nothing is known.  She died, in Nice, on January 18, 1975, age 85, apparently without heirs.

The memoir is well worth reading (you won’t miss much if your skip the preface written by Patrick Modiano).

Is there a Nansen connection?

Of course there is!

Frenkel’s husband, Simon Raichenstein, who was born in Russia in the late Nineteenth Century, fled Berlin in 1933 for Paris, using a Nansen Passport (you can read more about the Nansen Passport here).*

But there is even a deeper connection with Nansen—a spiritual connection.  Following one particularly harrowing episode, Frenkel finds some temporary safety with close friends. She writes:

“At the sight of these two [friends], and their evident loyalty, I dissolved into tears. My disappointments, my bitterness, all of it vanished, erased by an immense feeling of gratitude.  They too seemed moved, for however great the joy of being saved, even greater must be the joy of those noble souls who come to the aid of a human being in distress.”

Today, January 13, marks the 78th anniversary of Odd Nansen’s arrest.  Three and one-half years of suffering—physical and mental—lay ahead.  But Odd Nansen never let that prevent him from nobly aiding other human beings in distress whenever he could.

Without knowing it, Francoise Frenkel’s observation paints a precise and accurate picture of a man she had never met and would never meet.

______________________________________________________________

*For reasons which will likely remain forever a mystery, Frenkel never once mentions her husband in her memoir.  Raichenstein was rounded up in Paris in July 1942, and died one month later in Auschwitz-Birkenau.

In Memory of Konrad Kaplan; An Occasional Series

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As part of an occasional series focused on individual lives, and in anticipation of International Holocaust Remembrance Day (January 27), I dedicate today’s blog to the memory of Konrad Kaplan (aka Conrad Caplan), a Norwegian Jew, and an unsung hero of WWII, who died 75 years ago this day, on January 10, 1945.

Odd Nansen makes only a few, brief mentions of Kaplan in his diary.  On November 11, 1943, Nansen learns that Kaplan is the only member of his entire family still alive in Auschwitz: “He had been spared for some reason, probably because he is in a kommando [work squad] where they needed him.“

Nansen was right—Kaplan had an important job.

On the ramp.

Where the unsuspecting passengers of the continuously-arriving transports were sorted: “All the healthy and able-bodied were picked out; the rest were for the ‘baths’.”

Almost exactly one year later (November 16, 1944) Nansen, who describes Kaplan as “full of heart and the urge to help others,” learns of the unbearable moral dilemma Kaplan faced every day:

“All the small children went into the ‘bath.’ Every woman with a child in her arms went the same way, and all the old and feeble. This was known to all who worked on the ramp, but the poor creatures who arrived with the transport had no suspicion of it. Therefore it might well seem brutal and incomprehensible to a young, strong woman when Konrad Kaplan came and took the child out of her arms and gave it to an old woman instead. Konrad wanted to save the young woman, and he had to do it like that, with no words or explanations, but peremptorily. For in any case the child and the old woman were going to die.”

Nansen elaborated on Kaplan’s role at the ramp in a book he wrote shortly after the war, but did not publish until 1973, Tommy-en sannferdig fortelling [Tommy: A True Story].  Here I quote his description of Kaplan’s final actions as Auschwitz begins to be evacuated in the face of Soviet Army advances:

“When the Auschwitz camp was later evacuated, the boy still stood on the ramp.  Then he had to deal with convoys which were taking the prisoners away.  The only thing he could do for his fellow captives was to get them better clothes than the rags they had.  The last I know about him was that he stood half naked and starvation thin and waved to a convoy that rolled away.  He had given away his own clothes to those who needed them.  It was mid-winter, minus fifteen degrees centigrade [5˚F.].  He stayed at his post, like a captain on a sinking ship.  Unknown and as quietly as he did his deed in life, he took his place among the martyrs in the death columns of genocide.”

Konrad Kaplan had just turned 22.

Year-End Report; 4th Distribution; A Plea

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As we bid adieu to an old year, and welcome in a new year, it is always worth doing a bit of stock-taking.

Happily, 2019 was the best year yet for sales of From Day to Day.  Rather than trailing off, sales are still trending upward three- and one-half years since Odd Nansen’s diary was first republished in April 2016.

This was certainly a group effort.  Thanks to all who helped (and this is but a partial list—please forgive me if I inadvertently forgot to include you): Morgan Jordan (again!); Jeanne Addison (again!); Shay Pilnik; Gail Gold; Dan Haumschild; Frank and Monica Schaberg; Eve Gelfand; Michelle Dunn; Kathy Wielk; John and Aelish Clifford; Oliver and Patty Bourgeois; Andy Lubin; Lise Lunge Larsen; Judy Campbell; Jack and Peggy Sheehan; Judy Clickner; Billie Emmerich; Michael Mathews and Mea Kaemmerlen; David Sheinkopf; Sudie Wheatle (again!); Judy Cohen; Pam Belyea; Sherrie Polsky; Bob Copenhaver; Kathy Ales and Richard Levine (again!); and last but certainly not least, my dear friend Marit (Nansen) Greve.

Year-end also means doing a bit of accounting work.  This year’s royalties and speaking fees totaled $4,630.10, which, following custom, are being distributed 50% to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC and 50% to HL Senteret, the Norwegian Center for Study of Holocaust and Religious Minorities in Oslo.  To date such distributions now total $15,364.28.

Here’s another brief scorecard for the year:

70 presentations to over 3,000 attendees in 13 states, the District of Columbia and Oslo, Norway.

29,000+ miles traveled.

10,000+ website visitors (cumulative since 2016).

So, all in all, it was a very good year.

But our work it not yet done.  As I write this blog, five Jews were recently stabbed (one critically) in Monsey, NY, in the midst of a Hanukkah celebration (one of 13 anti-Semitic crimes reported in New York State since December 8, according to Governor Andrew Cuomo). Nationally and internationally there has been an upsurge in anti-Semitic incidents over the past several years.

One antidote to such behavior are the inspiring words and actions of people like Odd Nansen.  His diary depicts how just one courageous person can change things for the better, even in the midst of a concentration camp. Thomas Buergenthal is a living testament to Nansen’s humanity.

Seventy presentations in 2019 kept me plenty busy.  Unfortunately, I can only be in one place at a time, and I’ll probably never get to all the venues I would like to reach.

The solution: publicity.  That can come about by word of mouth (i.e., you, my readers) or it can come via social media.  This blog will get posted on my website, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. But an equally powerful social media engine for a book like From Day to Day is Amazon.

And that is why book reviews are essential.

There has been plenty of press lately about retailers who are gaming the system, paying people for positive reviews, or ordering employees to post reviews under various aliases, etc.  This phenomenon has even spawned a new cottage industry, which offers to “authenticate” reviews, and weed out the obvious fakes.

The important takeaway is this: companies go to such great (and sometimes dishonest) lengths because they understand only too well the power of positive product reviews.  So, as I often mention at the close of my presentations, a book review on Amazon is literally priceless.  Please help me make sure Nansen’s words are never again forgotten.  Please, my readers, post a review—of any length—on Amazon.

You’ll be glad you started 2020 off on the right foot.  I thank you, and I know Odd Nansen would have thanked you as well.

I wish you peace, good health and happiness in 2020.  And here’s a proposed resolution: If we all tried acting just a bit more like Odd Nansen, the world undoubtedly would be a better place. Let’s give it a try.

Odd Nansen’s Birthday

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Today marks the 118th anniversary of Odd Nansen’s birth, on December 6, 1901.

Odd Nansen

Recently I gave a lecture on Odd Nansen’s father, Fridtjof Nansen (whom I’ve written about here).  Afterward, a gentleman in the audience recommended reading a book called In the Land of White Death by Valerian Albanov.  Albanov, a Russian, joined the Saint Anna expedition in 1912 which aimed to sail 7,000 miles, from Murmansk to Vladivostok, via the treacherous arctic waters north of Siberia—the so-called Northeast Passage.  Like many such expeditions, it ended in utter disaster, with only Albanov and one other crew member (out of an original complement of 24) surviving.  In 1917, Valerian published an account of his experience based on a diary he kept along the way.  It was translated into French in 1928, but thereafter languished for some seventy years, until it was “re-discovered” in 1998 and republished in a new French version.  In this way it came to the attention of American adventure writer David Roberts, who brought out an English translation in 2000.  It is an incredible adventure story.*

What particularly struck me was the Preface written by noted adventure author Jon Krakauer.  Tell me whether Krakauer’s description reminds you of any other book:

“[W]hy is Valerian Ivanovich Albanov all but unknown to the world?

. . .

Albanov . . . turned out to be a gifted writer and an uncommonly honest diarist.  He wrote a spare, astounding, utterly compelling book that — thanks to bad luck and the vagaries of history—vanished into the recesses of twentieth century letters.

But it remains in the shadows no longer. . . .  More than eighty years after Albanov wrote this tour de force, there is reason to hope that he might finally receive the recognition he deserves.”

Let us hope this is indeed the fate of Valerian Albanov, as well as that other “uncommonly honest” diarist of an “utterly compelling book,” Odd Nansen, whose birthday we commemorate today.

______________________

*There are multiple threads connecting Albanov with the great Fridtjof Nansen.  Albanov considered Nansen’s account of his 1893—1896 polar expedition, Farthest North, to be “a precious treasure” which he had read so many times he could “cite entire passages from memory.”  Moreover, when the Saint Anna went missing, several search and rescue missions were launched, including one by Otto Sverdrup.  Sverdrup accompanied Fridtjof Nansen on his Greenland crossing in 1888, and captained Nansen’s ship Fram during Nansen’s expedition to the North Pole.  No trace of the missing Saint Anna, or the remaining 22 crew members, was ever found until 2010, when explorers discovered a skeleton and other artifacts on Franz Josef Land (the arctic archipelago where Fridtjof Nansen overwintered, and where he later met up with his rescuer, Frederick Jackson).

Thomas Buergenthal: Track Star?

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Those of you who have attended my presentations on From Day to Day know of the spectacularly successful career enjoyed by Thomas Buergenthal: Justice, International Court of Justice at The Hague; Judge, Inter-American Court of Human Rights; United Nations Human Rights Committee; United Nations Truth Commission for El Salvador; Dean, Washington College of Law, American University; Elie Wiesel Award, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (the Museum’s highest honor).

Did you also know he was once a track star?

I have written (here, here, here and here) about the role of serendipity/coincidence in my journey with Odd Nansen’s diary.  Recently, while on a book tour, I gave a presentation in Somerset, NJ.  In the middle of my talk a gentleman in the rear of the audience stood and raised his hand.  I asked if he could hold his question until the end of my talk, when I would be happy to entertain it.  When my talk ended, I saw the hand go up again and immediately called upon him.

The gentleman did not have a question at all, but rather some information to share: he had attended the same high school in the early 1950s as Tom Buergenthal—Paterson East High School.  In fact, the two were classmates together.

Dr. Don Zimmerman, a retired dentist, then offered to retrieve his old high school yearbook.  Sure enough, there was Don’s picture in the yearbook—the Senior Mirror 1953—along with Tom’s.

Don Zimmerman, Then

And Now

As can be seen, each photo was accompanied by a short write-up, containing answers that each student must have been asked to complete.  The first, undoubtedly, was: “What do you want to do after leaving Paterson High School?”  Tom certainly fulfilled his goal: “To be a lawyer and travel.”  Another of the questionnaire’s inquiries must have been: “What is your pet peeve?”  Tom’s simple answer: “Questionnaires.”  We also learn that Tom was “well-liked” and “from Germany.”  Here’s Tom’s graduation photo.  Pay particular attention to the final entry in his write-up—none other than “From Day to Day.

Tom’s Yearbook Photo

In our post-presentation conversation, Don Zimmerman also remembered being on the track team with Tom.  When I later called Tom to relay my meeting with an old classmate, I asked him about his track experience.  Yes, Tom admitted, he was on the school’s track team for a bit—as a sprinter no less—but soon realized that there were other more talented runners in the student body.

Nevertheless, he admitted, he did once win third place—in the 100-yard dash—in a school track meet.

Then Tom chuckled, and rather wryly observed, “Imagine what I might have been able to do if I had had all my toes.”

A Tale of Two Offices

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In my previous blog about my recent trip to Norway, I described my visit to the former home of Vidkun Quisling, where I viewed his private office while he was Minister-President (1942-45).

What I didn’t mention was that I had a much more enjoyable visit to Odd Nansen’s private home and office as well.  After the war, Nansen designed a new home for his growing family, located just a stone’s throw from Fridtjof Nansen’s home, Polhøgda, where he had previously lived following his father’s death.

Odd Nansen’s home

The house has long since passed out of the Nansen family and into private hands, but Preben Johannessen, son-in-law of my dear friend Marit, offered to approach the current owner and neighbor (Preben and Marit’s daughter Anne live almost adjacent to the house) and explain that a visitor from America was very desirous of seeing Odd Nansen’s handiwork.  The neighbor kindly agreed, and the day following my presentation in Oslo, Marit, Anne, Preben and I were given a guided tour of the home.

It was fascinating to view the architectural details Odd Nansen built into his new home, many of which remain unchanged over 70 years later.  These include a cozy, wood-fired sauna near the master bedroom, and ceiling panels in the dining room hand painted by Nansen himself.

Dining Room ceiling painted by Odd Nansen

The pièce de résistance was of course Odd Nansen’s study, occupying the highest room in the entire house, complete with specially built drawers to hold his architectural drawings.  The original, hand-drawn architectural renderings of his home were still there, available for viewing.  As Nansen completed his house plans around the same time as he published From Day to Day, he must have been a very busy man indeed.

Odd Nansen’s architectural plans

Seeing the offices of Odd Nansen and Vidkun Quisling on back-to-back days got me to thinking about the two men.

Quisling and Nansen were near contemporaries of each other (Quisling was 14 years Nansen’s senior).  Both men had close relationships with the great Fridtjof Nansen—Odd as his son, and Quisling as his key assistant, coordinating famine relief for Fridtjof in Soviet Russia in the early 1920s, as well as later projects in Armenia.

Both men showed considerable talent early in their careers.  Odd Nansen entered an architectural contest in 1930 (age 29) and placed third among 254 submissions, many by the leading U.S. architects of the day, including the son of Frank Lloyd Wright.  Quisling graduated first in his class from Norway’s military academy with the highest grades ever awarded up to that time.

By the 1930s, both men began to make important career decisions which would shape the future direction of their lives.

In 1933, Quisling, motivated by a mystic ideology called Universism, hatred of Communism, and perhaps most importantly, impressed by Adolf Hitler’s recent meteoric rise to Chancellor of Germany, formed the Nasjonal Samling (National Unity) Party, known by its initials, NSNS was a fascist knock-off of the Nazi Party, complete with its own Nordic flags, an SA-like paramilitary equivalent (the Hirden), etc.  It garnered little popular support, and never attracted more than 2% of Norway’s voters. Nevertheless, by 1942 Quisling was riding high in Nazi-occupied Norway, having just been appointed its Minister-President.

In 1936, Odd Nansen, on the other hand, formed Nansenhjelpen at the behest of several prominent Norwegians.  At significant cost to his career and family, he helped stateless refugees in central Europe obtain visas to Norway.  He was, a contemporary wrote, “mindful of the fact that he was the bearer of the Nansen name.” Despite daunting obstacles, Nansenhjelpen succeeded in bringing approximately 260 such refugees to Norway before the outbreak of World War II.

These choices put Nansen and Quisling on a collision course that resulted in Nansen’s arrest in January 1942.  In his diary entry for July 24, 1942, Nansen writes: “That confirms what I have believed all the time . . .  Quisling is behind my arrest.”  It looked for all the world that Quisling had made the better choice, Nansen the wrong one.

I am currently working on an article about The Moon is Down, a novel written by John Steinbeck in 1942.  The action is located in a small town in an unnamed country (that looks suspiciously like Norway) which is occupied by an unnamed foreign army (that looks suspiciously like the German Army).  At the novel’s climax, the town’s mayor, held (like Nansen) as a hostage, realizes he is to be executed in retaliation for ongoing sabotage.  He reminisces with his closest friend, the town doctor, about their school days, when together they studied SocratesApology.  The mayor recalls a particularly pertinent part of Socrates’ speech while he was on trial for his life, when Socrates recalls a question directed to him, and his answer:

“Do you feel no compunction, Socrates, at having followed a line of action which puts you in danger of the death penalty?’

I might fairly reply to him, ‘You are mistaken, my friend, if you think that a man who is worth anything ought to spend his time weighing up the prospects of life and death. He has only one thing to consider in performing any action–that is, whether he is acting rightly or wrongly, like a good man or a bad one.”

Odd Nansen lived beyond the biblical three-score and ten years, earning the respect and admiration of his many friends and diary readers.  He died of natural causes on June 26, 1973, age 71.

Vidkun Quisling was executed by firing squad, following a trial for treason, on October 24, 1945, age 58.

Upcoming Events

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Book Signings

  • March 12, 2020: Renaissance Institute, Notre Dame of Maryland University, Baltimore, MD [POSTPONED]
  • March 13, 2020: Sage Academy of Lifelong Learning, Goucher Collge, Baltimore, MD [POSTPONED]
  • March 26, 2020: The Standard Club, Chicago, IL [POSTPONED]
  • March 26, 2020: Illinois Holocaust Museum, Skokie, IL [POSTPONED]
  • April 16, 2020: Polhogda, Lysaker, Norway [POSTPONED]
  • April 26, 2020: Chicago Sinai Congregation, Chicago, IL
  • April 26, 2020: Hidden Children, Chicago, IL
  • April 27, 2020: Shorewood Glen, Shorewood, IL
  • April 28, 2020: Admiral on the Lake, Chicago, IL
  • April 29, 2020: Sun City Huntley, Huntley, IL [POSTPONED]
  • May 7, 2020: Notre Dame H.S. Alumni Club of DC, Washington, DC
  • May 14, 2020: Sons of Norway, Grand Forks, ND (Gyda-Varden Lodge)
  • May 15, 2020: Norwegian Heritage Week, Thief River Falls, MN
  • May 16, 2020: Sons of Norway, Red Wing, MN (Lauris Norstad Lodge)
  • May 17, 2002: Sons of Norway, Fargo, ND (Kringen Lodge)
  • May 18, 2020: Sons of Norway, St. Cloud, MN (Trollheim Lodge)
  • May 19, 2020: Tuesday Open House, Mindekirken, Minneapolis, MN
  • May 19, 2020: The Waters of Plymouth, Plymouth, MN
  • May 19, 2020: Sons of Norway, Austin, MN (Storting Lodge)
  • May 28, 2020: Augsburg Lutheran, Baltimore, MD
  • May 29-31, 2020: Georgetown University Bookstore, Washington, DC
  • June 2, 2020: JCC of Central New Jersey, Scotch Plains, NJ
  • June 3, 2020: Bet Shalom Hadassah, Jackson, NJ
  • June 4, 2020: The Adult School, Bernardsville, NJ
  • June 7, 2020: Regency Hadassah, Monroe, NJ
  • November 15, 2020: Kristallnacht Commemoration, Congregation Or Shalom, Organge, CT
  • October 19, 2021: Shalom Club, Great Notch, NJ

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