An Anniversary; A Year-End Report

Share

“At half-past seven the district sheriff of East Gausdal came up to the cottage with two Germans.”

So begins From Day to Day, which Odd Nansen, in his usual self-deprecating way, describes thusly in his Foreword: “This book is a diary and makes no claim to be anything else.”

The above opening lines were penned 79 years ago tonight, in a single cell in the Lillehammer county jail, marking Odd Nansen’s arrest and the start of his fateful 40-month journey through Nazi concentration camps.

What more appropriate time to provide a report to my subscribers on all that happened this past year.

COVID is what happened this past year.  And that threw everyone’s plans for 2020, mine included, into a cocked hat.  It was difficult to make any plans as the pandemic unfolded, and scheduling, rescheduling, delays and uncertainty were the order of the day, dominating everyone’s thinking.  For five months, stretching from February to July, I lived in a state of suspended animation. Would the pandemic abate?  Was it better to wait things out?  And how exactly did Zoom work?

The new year has brought some clarity:  Yes, Zoom works just fine—millions now use it (and other technologies) like they were born to it.  A vaccine is on the way.  And yet uncertainty still persists.  When will herd immunity be achieved?  When will life return to “normal”?

Looking back, I can see that 2020 represented progress, just not as much progress as I had envisioned a year ago at this time. Here are some the 2020 vital stats:

19 presentations (all but 4 virtual)

36 blogs posted

1770 event attendees

4580 website visitors

$1,996.02. Last year’s share of royalties and speaking fees distributed to each of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and HL Senteret, the Norwegian Center for Holocaust and Minority Studies

$19,296.32. Combined to-date distributions of royalties and speaking fees to the above two organizations

Notwithstanding the uncertainty mentioned above, 2021 promises to be an improvement over last year.  Already, two weeks into the new year, I have 19 presentations scheduled, with the prospect for more opportunities on the horizon.  And plenty more blog topics beckon.

So I am optimistic for 2021, and hope you are too.  Here’s wishing you all the best for a safe, healthy, and happy New Year!

Children: Lost and Found

Share

Among the manifold tragedies of the Holocaust, one of the greatest was the destruction of Jewish families.  Worried parents were often faced with agonizing choices regarding the fate of their children: keep the family intact and hope for the best, or send them away rather than risk their futures to an increasingly dark future.  Sometimes this required packing them off to foreign lands, into the hands of strangers, for indefinite periods.  Other times it meant sending them into hiding, or giving their children new (non-Jewish) identifies to ensure their safety.  Ilse Weber sent her 7-year-old son off on the Kindertransport to England, and later Sweden.  Ruth Maier went off alone from Vienna to Norway, age 18.

Of course, once in the maw of the concentration camp, family separation was all but assured.  Anne Frank, age 15, was separated from her father Otto when she was sent on to Bergen-Belsen and he remained in Auschwitz. Elie Wiesel, age 15, separated from his mother and sisters when the family was arrested in Hungary in 1944.

Tom Buergenthal was no exception.  Upon arriving in Auschwitz in August 1944, Tom, age 10, was immediately separated from his mother, who was placed in a women’s subcamp.  Thereafter he had only one, fleeting, glimpse of her through the wire, a few months later, before she was transported to Ravensbrück in Germany. Around the same time, Tom’s father was also sent away—first to Sachsenhausen and later to Buchenwald—where he would succumb to pneumonia in January 1945.  All Tom knew was that both his parents were gone, destination and fate unknown, and he was alone.

At least Tom’s story had a somewhat happy ending.  After the war, a clerk in the Jewish Agency in Palestine somehow miraculously noticed Tom’s name on a list of those wishing to emigrate to Palestine and the same name on a list of missing persons.  Absent this discovery, who knows whether Tom would ever have been located by his mother, despite the fact that she, like so many parents, had never stopped searching for him.  After all, had he not been labeled ein Glückskind—a lucky child—by the fortuneteller?

Once located, Tom embarked on yet another transport—a happy one—from Otwock, Poland to Göttingen, Germany where his mother eagerly awaited him.  Seventy-four years ago today—December 29, 1946—Tom arrived by train at Göttingen station.  By now the war had been over for nineteen months, and it had been almost two and a half years since mother and child had been together.

“I could not contain my excitement. I spotted my mother even before the train came to a stop.  As I try to describe the emotions of that moment, I realize that I am incapable of putting into words what I felt.  And even now, so many years later, tears well up in my eyes as I see her standing there, nervously scanning the slowing railroad cars for a glimpse of me.  While the train was still moving, I jumped out and raced over to her.  We fell into each other’s arms and stood there long after the train had moved out of the station, hugging each other and trying in just a few minutes to recount all that had happened to us since that August day in 1944 when we were separated in Auschwitz.”

The meeting was also bittersweet:

Und Papa?” I finally asked.  She did not answer right away but kept shaking her head as tears ran down her cheeks.  Right then I knew that my father had not survived the war that was now finally over for my mother and me.

A Young Thomas Buergenthal

While so many Nazis and their helpers were trying to destroy families, Odd Nansen was trying to save them.

In 1938, following the Anschluss, Odd Nansen’s relief organization, Nansenhjelpen, helped Jewish children travel from Vienna to attend summer camp in Norway. As conditions in Austria worsened, the children were allowed, reluctantly, to stay in Norway, at a Jewish Children’s Home headed by one Nina Hasvoll,* herself a refugee from Russia and Germany.  The following year Nansenhjelpen brought children from Czechoslovakia to the children’s home in Oslo as well.  Nina continued to look out for her young charges in Oslo for several years, until late 1942, when conditions for Jews in Norway worsened.  On the morning of November 26, 1942, acting on a tip, Nina was able to spirit all of her 14 children away from the home a mere two hours before the Norwegian police arrived to round them up for deportation. [Virtually all the Jewish children who were rounded up were ultimately murdered in Auschwitz.] She helped the children escape to safety in Sweden with the help of several friends, a taxi driver and two border pilots, all of whom were later recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem.

Nina Hasvoll

One of the young children in Hasvoll’s care was Berthold Grünfeld, who had arrived from Czechoslovakia as a 7-year-old in 1939 through the efforts of Odd Nansen.  As a result of Nina Hasvoll’s care, attention, and quick action during the Jewish roundup, Grünfeld survived and later became a prominent psychiatrist in postwar Norway.  In 2005 he was appointed to the Royal Norwegian Order of St. Olav in recognition for his “distinguished services rendered to Norway and mankind.” Berthold never forgot Nina Hasvoll, and named one of his daughters Nina in her honor.

Berthold Grünfeld

That daughter, Nina Grünfeld, has in turn produced a wonderful film about Nina Hasvoll and the Jewish Children’s Home.  Called “Nina’s Children,” it is available to rent on Vimeo.  Here is the link.  I highly recommend it.  If you watch and listen closely, you will see and hear references to Nansenhjelpen in the movie.

So, as we celebrate Tom Buergenthal’s’ good fortune in being miraculously reunited with his mother 74 years ago this day, let us honor the actions of Odd Nansen, Nina Hasvoll, and others like them during the Holocaust.  But let us also remember the loss of Tom’s father, as well as tragic fates of the Frank family, the Wiesel family, the Weber family, the Maier family, and all those countless other families that would never again be made whole—a lasting, indelible tragedy of the Holocaust, and a tragedy which is still being perpetrated today.

*Nina married after the war and is often referred to as Nina Hasvoll Meyer.  She had no children of her own.

Boxing Day 1941

Share

Boxing Day, observed on the day after Christmas, traces its roots back to medieval England, when boxes of gifts, money and food (including sometimes, leftovers) were given as tokens of appreciation to servants, and as alms to the less fortunate.

Boxing Day 1941 did not find many people focused on gift- or alms-giving.  After more than two years of war, Great Britain continued to suffer one humiliating defeat after another: Dunkirk; Crete; Hong Kong; Malaya.  The U.S., which had until only recently been awash in isolationist sentiment, was still mentally adjusting to a state of war with not one, but two, aggressor nations.  Norway had just finished its first full calendar year of increasingly heavy-handed occupation.

Least of all was Boxing Day foremost on the minds of those British and Norwegian commandos who were secretly steaming through stormy weather toward the Norwegian coast on Christmas Day.  The first task force—Operation Anklet—was aimed at the Lofoten Islands on the northwestern coast of Norway.  Like Washington’s attack on the Hessians in Trenton, NJ on December 26, 1776, the attackers hoped to catch their adversaries still recovering from too much holiday cheer. The landing force of 300 men planned to dig in on the islands and disrupt communications with German forces in northern Norway.

Lofoten Islands

The second task force—Operation Archery—was intended as something of a diversionary tactic.  Equipment problems delayed the start of Archery by a day, until December 27th.  The immediate goal of its 500 troops was the destruction of fish-oil production plants located on and around the island of Vågsøy which had been repurposed by the Germans for the manufacture of explosives.  Another aim of both Anklet and Archery was to force Germany to increase its military presence in Norway.  This would siphon off forces otherwise earmarked for the fighting then raging on the Eastern Front.

British soldiers during Operation Archery

The Anklet task force realized almost immediately that without air cover their position was hopeless.  Leaving almost as quickly as they had appeared, by the evening of the 27th both attacking forces began their withdrawal.  What had they accomplished?

  • Several fish-oil factories destroyed.
  • Over 100 defenders killed and over 100 prisoners (Germans and Quislings) captured.
  • 270 loyal Norwegians returned to England to serve in the Free Norwegian Forces.
  • Hitler diverted 30,000 additional troops to Norway, as well as material resources to beef up coastal and inland defenses. By 1944, 370,000 German troops were engaged in garrison duty in Norway: roughly 1 soldier for every 10 Norwegians.  By way of comparison, a similar occupation force in today’s America would require 31 million soldiers.
  • Although a subsidiary consideration, the raiders also hoped to capture German code books. Most important of all, both task forces were providentially able to seize an Enigma coding machine, with associated wheels and settings, from German patrol boats captured in the operation.  Historian Hugh Sebag-Montefiore writes: “The captures made during Operations Archery and Anklet helped to usher in a golden period for the Bletchley Park code-breakers. . . .   It was a code-breaking feat which was to save countless lives.”

There was one other far-reaching consequence of Operations Anklet and Archery.  Odd Nansen, listening to BBC broadcasts while enjoying a Christmas holiday in the mountains, had no doubt learned about the raids.  But he could not possibly have connected the actions taken by these commandos with his own personal fate.  After all, he was in no way connected with military decisions arrived at in far-off England.  How could these raids possibly impact his life?

Josef Terboven thought otherwise.

Terboven was Norway’s Reichskommissar, Hitler’s hand-picked representative in Norway.  No respecter of international law himself, Terboven was shocked—shocked—at the brazen actions of the commandos; he condemned “the kidnapping of eight members of the Nasjonal Samling party [Quisling’s fascist party] by Englishmen in violation of international law.”

In reprisal, Terboven ordered the arrest of twenty former high court officials, as well as friends of the now exiled royal family.

Seventeen days after the last commando departed Norway’s shores, on January 13, 1942, Odd Nansen, still on holiday, was arrested as a hostage per Terboven’s edict.  That in turn would set off a chain of events that would lead to me writing this blog on another Boxing Day, seventy-nine years later……………..

December 6, 1901: Odd Nansen’s Birthday

Share

Odd Nansen

Today is the 119th anniversary of Odd Nansen’s birth.

“What is it in the human character that gives some individuals the moral strength not to sacrifice their decency and dignity, regardless of the costs to themselves, whereas others become murderously ruthless in the hope of ensuring their own survival?”  Thomas Buergenthal, A Lucky Child.

That, indeed, is the question.  Religion, philosophy, psychology, political science, among other disciplines, have all wrestled, unsuccessfully, to answer this conundrum.  Perhaps the answer is insoluble.  As historian Barbara Tuchman wrote, in Practicing History: “Whole philosophies have evolved over the question whether the human species is predominately good or evil.  I only know that it is mixed, that you cannot separate good from bad, that wisdom, courage and benevolence exist alongside knavery, greed and stupidity; heroism and fortitude alongside vainglory, cruelty and corruption.”

So, if humankind is inherently flawed—good existing beside evil at all times, what steps can we humans take to insure that good gains the upper hand in our ongoing struggle to do the right thing?

My friend, the writer Samuel Hynes, once observed about one of his favorite subjects—war—that it is ultimately a human struggle against human enemies: evil, fear, and death itself.  Further, stories of war are witnesses to acts of great courage and self-sacrifice.  Equally important, in Hynes’s view, those acts of great bravery—which we recognize as humanly valuable—are “not performed by heroes but by people like us. . . .   They are ourselves, elsewhere; and their actions are our extreme possibilities.”

Thus, we may never be able to fully solve Tom Buergenthal’s riddle, and must recognize, like Tuchman, that the capacity for both good and evil exists within all of us.  But as long as stories like Odd Nansen’s matchless diary exist and are read, we can nevertheless recognize that Nansen’s actions point the way to our own “extreme possibilities” —extremes of courage and self-sacrifice—and try to conduct our lives accordingly.

Happy Birthday, Odd Nansen.

The Meaning of November 26

Share

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, the day set aside for Americans to give thanks for their manifold blessings.  Although celebrated in America in one form or another since 1619, it was not until President Franklin Roosevelt signed a joint resolution of Congress on December 26, 1941, that the date for Thanksgiving was finally set as the fourth Thursday of November.  This year that day falls on November 26.

Unfortunately, for some, November 26 evokes memories of pain and loss and suffering.  On that day in 1942, German soldiers and Norwegian policemen rounded up all remaining Jewish women and children in Norway and delivered them to two ships awaiting in Oslo harbor: the SS Donau and the MS Monte Rosa.  There they were joined by Jewish men and boys, aged 16 and older, who had already been rounded up exactly one month prior—October 26.

SS Donau about to depart Oslo harbor

The Donau (with 532 Jewish prisoners) and the Monte Rosa (with 28) sailed for the German port city of Stettin, where the prisoners were forced onto railcars headed for Auschwitz.  Of the 532 Donau prisoners, 345 were murdered within hours of their arrival in Auschwitz; the remainder were to be used as slave labor in Birkenau.  A final transport of another 158 Jewish prisoners departed Norway on February 24, 1943.  Some of these prisoners had been incarcerated in Grini, the same detention camp holding Odd Nansen.  Here’s what he wrote on that date about their departure:

Wednesday, February 24, 1943.  Mild weather and misery.  Last night the Jews were given notice to parade in mufti at eight o’clock this morning.  They went off later in the morning.  No doubt for Poland.  It was a melancholy band. Dr. [Wulff] Becker’s face shone out among them. A splendid fellow. ‘Well, good-bye, Nansen; thanks for everything and au revoir!’ No doubt he had his suspicions of what awaited him, but he had evidently made up his mind not to show it.  [Dr. Leonard] Levin’s good-bye was more somber, but he smiled, too.  The others were in a worse state.  It hurt to see them going off.”

All told, approximately 772 Jews were deported from Norway during World War II; only 34 of those deported survived until the end of the war.

Another approximately 1000 Jews and others escaped from Norway—many just hours prior to the roundup.  Most were smuggled to Sweden, and a smaller number made it to England.  [One of the earliest escapees was the Nobel Prize laureate in Literature, Sigrid Undset, who ultimately found sanctuary in America.]

Last month I was honored to moderate a film discussion as part of the 23rd Annual Milwaukee Jewish Film Festival.  The film—perhaps not surprisingly—was a Norwegian film about Jewish refugees trying to escape to Sweden.  It is called “Flukten over Grensen” [literally, “Escape over the Border,” or more colloquially, “The Crossing”]

“The Crossing,” which was produced in Norway, focuses on two sets of siblings: Gerda (age 9) and her older brother Otto (age 14?), and Daniel (age 14-15?) and his younger sister Sarah (age 7-8?).  Daniel and Sarah have been hiding with Gerda and Otto’s parents ever since their own father fled the October 1942 roundup of Jews.  However, when Gerda and Otto’s parents are arrested on Christmas Eve, and Gerda’s father meaningfully explains to her that “the Christmas presents” are in the basement and need to go to their aunt (who lives close by the Swedish border), it’s up to Gerda and Otto to uncover the hidden children and safely see Daniel and Sarah to freedom in Sweden.  It’s a wonderful film, replete with helpful adults, fascist sympathizers (including one who reenacts a scene right out of Hansel and Gretel), chases, near misses, as well as Otto’s dawning realization that the two young Jews in his care are not the “other” to be feared and despised, but human beings just like him.

If you ever get a chance to see “The Crossing,” please do—it’s well made, meaningful on multiple levels, and heartwarming.  Young Gerda is sure to steal your heart. My commentary as part of the film discussion can be found here.

As noted above, not all Jews in Norway were as fortunate as Daniel and Sarah.  One of those Jews on the Donau was Ruth Maier. Ruth was born in Vienna, Austria in 1920.   Until 1938 Ruth led a typical, happy life in Vienna.  But on March 12, 1938, the Anschluss occurred: Germany annexed Austria and German forces quickly moved in and took control.  Just as suddenly, Ruth and her family were social pariahs.  Through the international connections made by her father (who had died in 1933) Ruth and her younger sister Judith were ultimately able to escape Austria: Ruth to Norway; Judith to England.

Ruth Maier

For a time, Ruth thrived in Norway.   She soon became fluent in Norwegian, and attracted the attention of some leading artists: she modeled for painter Åsmund Esval, as well as the famous sculptor Gustav Vigeland.  His sculpture of her, titled “Surprised,” is permanently displayed in Vigeland Park in central Oslo.

“Surprised” by Gustav Vigeland

Ruth’s idyll ended on November 26 when she was arrested by two Norwegian policemen.  Upon arrival in Auschwitz on December 1, 1942, she was immediately murdered in the gas chambers.  Ruth was 22.

From 1933 to 1942 Ruth kept a diary, which fortunately survived in the possession of her close friend Gunvor Hofmo (whose uncle, Rolf Hofmo, was with Nansen in Grini and Sachsenhausen).  Hofmo tried to get Ruth’s diaries published in 1953, but was rebuffed.  Following Hofmo’s death in 1995, Norwegian poet Jan Erik Vold went through her papers and discovered the diaries.  After editing them, Vold was able to publish the diaries 2007; they were translated into English in 2009.  Ruth Maier’s diaries have been well received; she is now sometimes referred to as “Norway’s Anne Frank.”

According to the English version of her diary, Ruth Maier’s last words come from a letter she wrote to Hofmo that was somehow smuggled off the Donau before the ship departed.  The letter includes these lines:

“I think it’s just as well that it happened this way.  Why shouldn’t we suffer when there’s so much suffering?  Don’t worry about me.  Perhaps I wouldn’t even change places with you.”

Happy Birthday Marit!

Share

[You have a unique chance to meet Marit (virtually).  See below for details.]

Today marks the 92nd birthday of my dear friend, Marit (Nansen) Greve, Odd Nansen’s eldest child.

Marit was actually born here in America—in Brooklyn, NY, to be exact, while her father was working in New York City (1927—1930) in architecture/urban planning.  Although many people refuse to believe this, I maintain that I can still detect a slight Brooklyn accent beneath her Norwegian lilt.  She was only one and a half when the Nansen family returned to Norway in the spring of 1930, a move precipitated by the illness of her famous grandfather, Fridtjof Nansen (who died May 13, 1930).

Marit’s childhood was anything but ordinary.  When she was but eleven and a half, Germany invaded and occupied Norway (April 9, 1940). Now German soldiers were ubiquitous.  Danger lurked everywhere.  Conditions were tough.  Even children were affected: the Nazis tried to control the school curriculum, all organized sports, and even the church liturgy—all of which aroused vehement pushback from the Norwegians.

In early January 1942, Marit, her parents, and her two younger siblings, Eigil (age 10) and Siri (age 8) were enjoying a respite from the cares and concerns brought about by almost two years of occupation.  They were on holiday near Lillehammer, enjoying a rustic mountain getaway in a hytte (cabin) owned by Odd Nansen’s business partner, Ernst Holmboe.

It was a quiet Tuesday evening, and the family was gathered around to hear the nightly BBC Norwegian broadcast when they saw three men with flashlights approaching the hytte.  The radio was hurriedly hidden away (owning a radio was illegal, as was listening to the BBC).  The three strangers (two Germans and the local sheriff) announced only that Nansen was being summoned to Oslo for “questioning.”  Nansen writes in his very first diary entry the following: “Kari [his wife] was calm, Marit, Eigil and Siri cried, poor things, but were smiling bravely through their tears before I left.”

Marit had just recently turned thirteen.

She was old enough to begin to imagine what might happen to her father.  But probably neither she nor her father could imagine how horrifying his next three and a half years would actually be.

While Nansen was imprisoned in Grini, a police detention camp outside Oslo, Marit was occasionally able to visit her father, accompanied by her mother and sometimes her siblings.  One memorable visit occurred on Thursday, August 5, 1943.  This time Marit arrived with Nansen’s partner Holmboe, who was there on a business visit.  Initially Marit was refused access by an overly punctilious interpreter, but tragedy was averted when a sympathetic German guard, on his own initiative, pleaded Marit’s case.  Result: Marit was allowed into her father’s presence.

“Marit came rushing over, crying bitterly; she had been in such despair because they wouldn’t let her see me, poor child.  Oh, how it warmed my heart; I do believe she cares a little for her daddy, and now I am not afraid she may have grown away from me and forgotten me in this time.”

It was a good thing Marit and Nansen saw each other then; within weeks Nansen would run afoul of Grini’s commandant, resulting in the Einzelhaft (solitary confinement) followed by transport to Sachsenhausen.  Nansen would need to rely on that bittersweet memory for the next two years, as Marit matured into a young woman.  And Marit would have to help keep her family going without their father for two more years.

The Nansen Family greeting their father upon his return home from captivity. Marit on the right.

My first encounter with Marit occurred in August 2010.  Following an introduction provided by Tom Buergenthal, I arranged a stopover in Oslo en route home from attending a wedding in Stockholm.  As befitted a first meeting, the interview was rather formal and proper. Marit graciously answered all my questions, as she was to do, again and again, over the next six years, as I edited, annotated and wrote the introduction to Nansen’s diary.

What evolved from that first meeting was an immensely enjoyable and rewarding friendship—including visits to Norway and vice versa (which I have written about here).  As I mention in my Acknowledgements, “To come to know Marit as I have is truly one of the unexpected, but deeply cherished, joys of this undertaking.”

SKÅL, Marit, on your wonderful achievement, and many more birthdays to come!

Me and Marit celebrating her 90th birthday in Oslo.

[Note: Dear readers, you have a wonderful chance to meet Marit (virtually).  Here’s how.  On Sunday, November 15, at 9:00 am (ET) I will be the guest speaker at the 14th Annual Kristallnacht Commemoration sponsored by The Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven and Congregation Or Shalom. The highlight of the event will be the presentation (virtually) by Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut to Marit and her family of a U.S. Senate Resolution commending Odd Nansen for his courageous humanitarian work prior to World War II—via Nansenhjelpen—and his inspirational World War II concentration camp diary, From Day to Day.  Register for the free event via the following link: us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_8X2vn1cTSYqUFrLXFeUYvQ.  I hope you will be able to join me when Marit accepts her father’s well-deserved commendation!]

November 1, 1943: Moscow Declaration Issued–and Ignored

Share

The Moscow Conference of Foreign Secretaries (10/19/43—11/1/43) was the first high level meeting of the three major allies during World War II, and formed the prelude to the first in-person meeting of Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin in Teheran less than one month later.

The ministers dealt with a variety of issues: reaffirming the principle of unconditional surrender, and expressing a unified desire to establish an international organization for the preservation of the forthcoming peace.  Another topic was the treatment of German war criminals. By the fall of 1943 the genocidal aims of the Nazis were clear beyond a doubt.  Jan Karski, a member of the Polish resistance, had been smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto and a subcamp of Belzec, and personally relayed his findings to British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, and, on July 28, 1943, to President Roosevelt.  Even Odd Nansen knew what was happening.  On December 6, 1942, he noted in his diary: “Himmler has decided that all Jews are to be wiped out.”

Moscow Conference

Prior to the start of the conference, Churchill drafted a proposed declaration on the subject of war crimes, and it was adopted at the Conference and publicly issued over the names of the three leaders on November 1, 1943.

The text of what became known as the Moscow Declaration on German Atrocities is worth quoting in full:

“The United Kingdom, the United States and the Soviet Union have received from many quarters evidence of atrocities, massacres and cold-blooded mass executions which are being perpetrated by the Hitlerite forces in the many countries they have overrun and from which they are now being expelled.  The brutalities of Hitlerite domination are no new thing and all the peoples or territories in their grip have suffered from the worst form of government by terror.  What is new is that many of these territories are now being redeemed by the advancing armies of the liberating Powers and that in their desperation, the recoiling Hitlerite Huns are redoubling their ruthless cruelties. This is now evidenced with particular clearness by monstrous crimes of the Hitlerites on the territory of the Soviet Union which is being liberated from the Hitlerites, and on French and Italian territory.

Accordingly, the aforesaid three allied Powers, speaking in the interests of the thirty-two United Nations, hereby solemnly declare and give full warning of their declaration as follows:

At the time of the granting of any armistice to any government which may be set up in Germany, those German officers and men and members of the Nazi party who have been responsible for, or have taken a consenting part in the above atrocities, massacres and executions, will be sent back to the countries in which their abominable deeds were done in order that they may be judged and punished according to the laws of those liberated countries and of the free governments which will be created therein.  Lists will be compiled in all possible detail from these countries having regard especially to the invaded parts of the Soviet Union, to Poland and Czechoslovakia, to Yugoslavia and Greece, including Crete and other islands, to Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg, France and Italy.

Thus, the Germans who take part in wholesale shootings of Italian officers or in the execution of French, Dutch, Belgium or Norwegian hostages or of Cretan peasants, or who have shared in the slaughters inflicted on the people of Poland or in the territories of the Soviet Union which are being swept clear of the enemy, will know that they will be brought back to the scene of their crimes and judged on the spot by the peoples whom they have outraged.  Let those who have hitherto not imbrued their hands with innocent blood beware lest they join the ranks of the guilty, for most assuredly the three allied Powers will pursue them to the uttermost ends of the earth and will deliver them in order that justice may be done.

The above declaration is without prejudice to the case of the major criminals, whose offenses have no particular geographical localisation (sic) and who will be punished by the joint decision of the Governments of the Allies.”  (my emphasis added)

Churchill was hopeful that such an unmistakable declaration would “make some of these villains shy of being mixed up in the butcheries now that they know they are going to be beat. . . .   Lots of Germans may develop moral scruples if they know they are going to be brought back and judged in the country, and perhaps the very place, where their cruel deeds we done.”

The Moscow Conference and its deliberations were no secret.  Even newly arrived Sachsenhausen prisoner no. 72060 (Odd Nansen), could record in his diary as soon as November 4, 1943: “The news is still brilliant.  The Moscow Conference is over, and according to report they’ve ‘decided’ that the war is to be finished this year.  Goodness—if only that could happen!”

So, did the Nazis develop moral scruples? Did they shy away from their butcheries when the writing was on the wall for all to see? Hardly.  In fact, the same developments that Churchill alluded to led the Nazis to exactly the opposite conclusion.

According to historian Martin Gilbert, “the spectre (sic) of defeat, and the reality of daily losses of territory in the east, led to an intensification of the murder of Jews, in order to ensure the completion of the ‘final solution.’” Around this time Heinrich Himmler ordered Aktion Erntefest (Operation Harvest Festival), targeting Jews in the Lublin, Poland district, many of them survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

Starting at 5:00AM on November 3, 1943, a mere 48 hours after the issuance of the Moscow Declaration, Jews in Majdanek Concentration Camp were led in groups of 100 to trenches (which they had previously dug), and ordered to strip and lie down, where they were shot.  Loudspeakers played music to drown out the gunfire and the cries of the victims.  By 5:00PM the shooting was over, and 18,400 Jews were dead—the largest single-day killing of the Holocaust.

Majdanek Concentration Camp–only Auschwitz was larger

But Operation Harvest Festival wasn’t over.  Also on November 3, over 6,000 Jews were shot at Trawniki, a nearby forced labor camp.  German SS and police units involved in the Majdanek killings moved on to nearby Poniatowa, another forced labor camp, and shot an additional 14,000 Jewish prisoners on November 4.

With at least 39,000, and possibly up to 43,000 victims murdered in two days, Harvest Festival was the largest single massacre of Jews by German forces during World War II.

So much for the development of moral scruples.

One of the ongoing controversies of World War II is whether the Allies could have and should have done more to prevent the full extent of the Holocaust.  Specifically, should the Allies have bombed the rail lines leading to camps such as Auschwitz.  The attitude of Roosevelt, and the U.S. Government in general, was that ending the war as quickly as possible offered the best hope for the Jews, and thus all decisions were based on that criteria alone.  Others have since argued that interdicting the rail lines might have saved lives otherwise lost, with negligible impact on the overall war effort.

If nothing else, Operation Harvest Festival underscores that so long as the Nazis had an adequate supply of bullets, they could and would remain murderously effective in single-mindedly carrying out their cruel butcheries.

If the Nazis failed to develop any moral scruples in response to the Moscow Declaration, did the Allies pursue their quarry to the uttermost ends of the earth in order that justice might be done?

>Heinrich Himmler committed suicide following his capture by British troops on May 21, 1945.

>SS Obergruppenführer Friedrich-Wilhelm Krüger, entrusted by Himmler with carrying out Harvest Festival, committed suicide on May 10, 1945.

>SS and Police Leader Jakob Sporrenberg, who directed Harvest Festival (and who observed the killings from a plane overhead) was captured in Norway, tried by a Polish court after the war, convicted and executed in 1952.

>Martin Gottfried Weiss, Commandant of Majdanek at the time of Harvest Festival, was tried and executed in 1946.

>The Commander of Poniatowa, Gottlieb Hering, died on October 9, 1945 under mysterious circumstances.

>The Commander of Trawniki, Karl Streiber, was tried in 1975 and acquitted.

According to legal scholars Michael Bazyler and Frank Turkheimer, “Over the past seventy years, tens of thousands of individuals who were part of the German regime and their local collaborators . . . have been prosecuted for crimes committed during the years of German rule . . . .  In somewhat sporadic and unorganized fashion, many of these trials dealt either directly or indirectly with the genocide of the Jews.”

Tens of thousands prosecuted (not convicted) for the deaths of millions of Jews and others, leaving millions more families destroyed.

Has justice truly been served? Can it ever be?

Remains of the mass graves/trenches at Majdanek (Source: Bronislaw Wesolowski)

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich turns 60

Share

In his book, End of a Berlin Diary, William L. Shirer includes an entry for November 14, 1945, describing the meticulous records kept by the Nazis, which were then being used as evidence against them in the Nuremburg trials.  “Students of the war will want to pore over these papers and examine them in detail,” he noted.

What seemed like an invitation to others was in fact a subliminal message to Shirer’s future self.

Fired by CBS in 1947 despite his exemplary work as one of “Murrow’s Boys” during World War II, Shirer found himself in the wilderness for years.  Unemployed and blacklisted during the McCarthy era for his left-leaning views, Shirer struggled to support his family by writing books and lecturing.  The books did not sell well, and the speaking opportunities, dealing with his experiences in Nazi Germany, began to dry up.

William L. Shirer

On January 24, 1954, Shirer wrote in his diary, “To Do: A book to be called ‘The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.’”  Shirer certainly had advantages very few journalists or historians possessed.  He had lived in Nazi Germany for years, until he was expelled in December 1940.  He could speak and read German.  He had even returned home from Nuremburg with a duffel bag stuffed with copies of the Nazi papers introduced during the trial as evidence. As he confessed in his memoir, A Native’s Return, 1945—1988, “I had been tossing around in my mind the idea of doing such a book ever since covering the Nuremberg trial . . . nearly nine years before, in the late fall of 1945.”

Shirer’s big problem: money.  His years in the wilderness had exhausted his savings; he had no ongoing income.  A secondary concern of Shirer’s was that he was primarily a broadcast journalist, not a historian.  Even his previous publishing successes had been his diaries. Could Shirer devote years to research and writing with no financial support, and could he apply “the discipline and know-how to write a historical work whose subject and the materials to support it were so vast?”  Shirer hesitated, and waited for academic historians to undertake the “unique opportunity” to delve into the “avalanche of new material.”

No one did.

“Nine years after the end of the war and the fall of Hitler, I decided to take the plunge—since no one else would.  I would not write around the subject.  I would tackle it head-on.  I would try to write for the first time a fully documented and complete history of the rise and fall of the Third Reich.  Somehow I would find the time to do it and still support my family.”

Most publishers turned Shirer down flat, and those who were interested gagged at the $10,000 advance Shirer calculated he needed to cover his expenses for the two years he figured it would take to bring the book to completion. Finally, a close friend at Simon & Schuster convinced the right people to take a flyer on Shirer’s brainchild.  Shirer was shocked to find how little attention had been paid to the vast treasure of captured Nazi documents held in U.S. archives.  “[The librarians at the Library of Congress] trundled out a whole hand-truck full of Hitler’s personal papers.  I was astonished that they had not been opened since being catalogued.  We took to untying the ribbons that bound them.  Out fell what were to me priceless objects: among others, scores of paintings Hitler had done in his vagabond youth in Vienna.”

So Shirer labored on—500 pages by the fall of 1957; 805 pages by the spring of 1958.  By then the $10,000 advance was long gone, and Simon & Schuster had no interest in advancing more.  Foundations and magazines turned him down.  The prospect of laying the book aside and getting a job loomed.  Finally, at the eleventh hour, a small foundation stepped in with just enough funds to get Shirer over the finish line.  “This saved my life and my book.  We quickly paid what we owed on our grocery bills, assured the girls that they could remain in school . . . and I settled back to fourteen hours a day writing.”

Shirer finally completed the book—all 1,795 typed pages—on August 24, 1959.  He felt good about the result: “it was the best I had ever written.”

But would anyone want to read it?  “I had no illusions that it would sell.  Everyone connected with it—my publisher, my editor, my agent, my close friends . . . had assured me that it would not.  And I had no reason to doubt them.”  Shirer was not unmindful that his lecturing on Hitler and Nazi Germany had fallen off precisely because, as his agent explained, “there was no longer any interest in America in either.” Moreover, not only was Rise and Fall a massive book to read, it’s $10 price tag all but guaranteed a small sale.  “No book that price, I was told, had ever done well.”

The initial U.S. print run of 12,500 copies was released on October 17, 1960.

The book attracted mostly favorable reviews, and was chosen to be the featured  November 1960 selection by Book of the Month Club.  It soon climbed on to the bestseller lists.  Thereafter Simon & Schuster could barely keep up with demand; sales exceeded everyone’s wildest expectations.

According to Ken Cuthbertson, Shirer’s biographer, “American readers have bought an estimated ten million copies of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” and it has been translated into German, French, Chinese and Russian.  According to another academic, the book “has become more than just another work of history.  A singular literary institution, it has achieved a reputation as ‘the best-selling historical work ever written in modern times.’”

A much younger me in front of Shirer’s home, Lennox, MA (Feb. 1990)

I have had a soft spot for William L. Shirer ever since I spent practically the entire summer of 1970, at the tender age of 15, reading Rise and Fall.  Much of it went over my head, but it did hit home as a cautionary tale about the dangers of following an unprincipled demagogue. What is more, it was Shirer, in his 1949 review of From Day to Day for the New York Herald Tribune, who called Odd Nansen “one of the noble and heroic spirits” whose diary “reminds us in never-to-be-forgotten pages how noble and generous the human spirit can be in the face of terrible adversity.”

So today is the 60th anniversary of the appearance of Shirer’s “singular literary institution.” Here’s an interesting thought experiment: Imagine if, in spite of the many positive reviews, Rise and Fall had quickly slipped into oblivion in 1960, and was only rescued today, and republished by a family member, or an academic, or by a journalist.  Generations would have missed out on Shirer’s monumental work.  Of course, that is exactly what happened to Odd Nansen’s diary, where the gap was even longer—67 years between publications.  That time can never be recaptured, but we can commit to ensuring that Nansen’s singular, monumental, work is never forgotten again.

Happy 60th Birthday to The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

My autographed copy of Rise and Fall. That’s another story for another day.

A Profile in Courage: Louisa Gould

Share

The Date: September 23, 1942

The Place: The island of Jersey, the largest of the so-called Channel Islands.  For centuries the Channel Islands were contested by England and France.  Ultimately, they became part of the Duchy of Normandy—which makes sense—Jersey is but a stone’s throw from the Normandy Coast.  Nevertheless, by the 1259 Treaty of Paris, the Channel Islands were ceded to the British Crown, and to this day they remain a “Crown dependency.” French and British cultural influences are equally strong.

With the fall of France on June 22, 1940, the British government concluded it was impractical to defend the Channel Islands, and German forces occupied Jersey—unopposed—eight days later (June 30, 1940), the only British territory to be occupied by Germany during World War II.

The People: Feodor (or Fyodor) Polycarpovitch Buryi (sometimes spelled Burriy), a 23-year-old Russian pilot shot down on the Eastern Front in October 1941 and sent, along with hundreds of other Russian POWs, to one of many slave-labor camps established by the Germans on the Channel Islands.  As Odd Nansen makes clear in his diary, the life of a typical Russian POW in German hands was nasty, brutish and usually short.  “This [place] is a hell for Russian prisoners.  About fifteen thousand of them have marched through the gate [of Sachsenhausen] from time to time, and there are only eight or nine hundred left in the camp.  The rest have been starved to death, beaten to death or otherwise done away with,” Nansen recorded on Monday, October 11, 1943.

Louisa Gould, a 50-year-old widow.  Louisa ran a small grocery store from her home in St. Ouen, located in the remote northwest corner of Jersey.  Her two grown sons, Ralph and Edward, enlisted in the British armed forces at the start of the war.  In July, 1941 Louisa learned that Edward, an officer in the Royal Navy, had been killed in action when his ship was torpedoed in the Mediterranean.

Louisa Gould

The Action: On September 23, Buryi made good his escape from his slave labor camp; it was his third attempt.  Desperate, filthy, knowing no English or French, Buryi first stopped at the farm of René Le Mottée, who took him home and sheltered him for three months.  Buryi remained hidden with Le Mottée, whose children gave him the nickname “Bill,” until an informer tipped off the German Security Police.  Bill escaped just ahead of his captors, and next headed for the nearby home of Louisa Gould.

Knowing full well the severe punishments meted out for harboring prisoners, Gould nevertheless agreed to take Bill in, observing “I have to do something for another mother’s son.”  For the next 18 months Louisa hid Bill from the Germans, teaching him English as well (although with a French accent to disguise his Russian pronunciation).  In time Bill even began to help out at the grocery store, and his presence became something of an open secret in the local community of St. Ouen.

Louisa clearly was something of a risk taker: In June 1942 German authorities ordered the surrender of all home radios (much like in Nansen’s Norway) — an order Louisa (like Nansen) chose to ignore.   Each night Gould (like Nansen) tuned into the BBC broadcast—inviting her siblings, friends and Bill to listen in as well.  Louisa’s position as a shopkeeper allowed her to pass along pertinent news to her customers.

 Much like the family of Anne Frank, Louisa was ultimately betrayed—most likely by a neighbor driven by jealousy, envy, or a desire for better rations or a cash bonus.

Again, miraculously tipped off prior to the arrival of the police, Bill fled to the home of Louisa’s sister, Ivy Forster, and from there another member of the underground, Bob Le Sueur, soon took him to another safe house.  Louisa tried to hide all evidence of Bill’s presence for the previous 18 months, as well as her illegal radio.  Unfortunately, a search of her home turned up the radio as well as a Russian-English dictionary and a gift tag addressed from Louisa to Bill.

The Aftermath: Gould was arrested May 25, 1944 (less than two weeks before the D-Day invasion), and sentenced on June 22, 1944 to two years imprisonment for “failing to surrender a wireless receiving apparatus, prohibited reception of wireless transmission, and abetting breach of the working peace and unauthorized removal [of a Russian POW].” Louisa’s sister Ivy and brother Harold Le Druillenec, along with three friends, were also sentenced to various terms in prison, primarily for listening to the BBC.

Louisa, Harold and a friend named Berthe Pitolet were deported to prisons on the European mainland.  Harold passed through Neuengamme (this was almost a full year before Odd Nansen would arrive), ultimately ending up in Bergen-Belsen.  He would have shared the camp with Anne Frank and Anne’s sister Margot, but unlike them, he survived—but just barely.  Harold was one of only two British survivors in the entire camp.  He would later testify at the Nuremburg trials about the conditions in Bergen-Belsen.

Louisa and Berthe were sent to various transit camps in France before Louisa ultimately arrived in Ravensbrück.  It’s possible that Louisa even crossed paths with Tom Buergenthal’s mother, Gerda, who also was sent to Ravensbrück in the fall of 1944.

Ravensbrück

I’ve often written about the role of serendipity—pure luck—in my interactions with Nansen’s diary, and in the lives of many of whom I write (here, here and here).  In the summer of 1944, Louisa and Berthe were held for a short time in a prison in Rennes, France.  During a post-D-Day Allied bombing attack on a nearby rail station, the camp was badly hit as well.  In the ensuing confusion Berthe (who was French) escaped, but was unable to convince Louisa to join her.  Berthe ended up hiding in a nearby town until it was liberated by American soldiers less than one week later; Louisa continued on to Ravensbrück.

In all of my talks about Odd Nansen’s diary, I mention the dangers of entering the camp infirmary, or Revier.  On Monday, October 25, 1943, Nansen wrote: “[W]e’re all of us in constant . . . dread of swelling up in the legs and getting . . . dysentery or some other horror, which will land us in the Revier.  That’s the first step to the crematorium.”  

Gould took ill in early 1945 and was taken to the Revier.  She was gassed to death on February 13, 1945, age 53.  Ravensbrück was liberated eight weeks later.

In 2010, Louisa, Ivy and Harold were posthumously named British Heroes of the Holocaust, along with such other notables as Sir Nicholas Winton.  Her story (with typical artistic license) is now the subject of a 2017 film, “Another Mother’s Son,” written by Gould’s great-niece (available on Netflix).

In 1995, on the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, a memorial plaque in Louisa’s honor was unveiled in St. Ouen.

In attendance at the unveiling was “Bill” Buryi, then age 76.  Bill had remained successfully hidden in Jersey until the end of the war, following which he was repatriated to his native Russia.

On the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, I salute the bravery of Louisa Gould, René Le Mottée, Ivy Forster, Harold Le Druillenec, Bob Le Sueur, and all the members of Jersey’s underground who, at incalculable risk, saved the lives—not of fellow islanders, or of fellow countrymen, or of co-religionists, but of fellow human beings.

A Surfeit of Books

Share

Back in the good old days (surely you remember, like February last), I was looking forward to a robust 2020 speaking schedule, with events ranging from DC to New Jersey to Chicago to Minnesota to the Dakotas, and even Norway.  Accordingly, I stocked up on a healthy supply of  Odd Nansen’s From Day to Day to handle the expected demand.

Well, we all know how that turned out.

I am slowly ramping up my virtual speaking schedule, and have my fingers crossed that by 2021 we’ll have a workable vaccine and may be able to resume in-person events.  In the meantime, I keep staring at my stack of books.

Recently, I realized that I was looking at the situation entirely the wrong way. I was reading Richard Hofstadter’s 1964 Pulitzer Prize-winning classic, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, and came across Hofstadter’s discussion of Henry David Thoreau, and a problem Thoreau ran into when faced with an overstock of one of his own books:

“Thoreau remarked on the seven-hundred-odd unsold copies of an edition of a thousand of his A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers which were stacked in his room: ‘I now have a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself.  Is it not well that the author should behold the fruits of his labor?’”

My website currently boasts that I have “almost 5,000 books” at home.  I may need to revise it to read: “Tim’s library now exceeds 5,000 books, a good many of which he has personally edited, annotated, and written introductions for.”

Yes, it is well and good that an author can behold the fruits of his labor!

Upcoming Events

Share

Book Signings

  • January 21, 2021: Lifelong Learning at Wofford College (Virtual)
  • January 21, 2021: Norwegian-American Chamber of Commerce, Chicago, IL (Virtual)
  • January 27, 2021: JCC of Northern NJ/JCC MetroWest, New Jersey (Virtual)
  • February 4, 2021: JCC of Milwaukee, WI (Virtual)
  • February 12, 2021: Osher Life Long Learning, Furman University, Greenville, SC (Virtual)
  • February 15, 2021: Osher Life Long Learning, NC State, Raleigh, NC (Virtual)
  • February 16, 2021: Osher Life Long Learning, Duke University, Durham, NC (Virtual)
  • February 22, 2021: Osher Life Long Learning, NC State, Raleigh, NC (Virtual)
  • February 23, 2021: Osher Life Long Learning, Duke University, Durham, NC (Virtual)
  • April 1, 2021: The Jewish Federation of the Berkshires (Virtual)
  • April 9, 2021: Osher Life Long Learning, Furman University, Greenville, SC (Virtual)
  • May 6, 2021: Notre Dame H.S. Alumni Club of DC, Washington, DC
  • May 13, 2021: Sons of Norway, Grand Forks, ND
  • May 14, 2021: Norwegian Heritage Week, Thief River Falls, MN
  • SPRING 2021: Sons of Norway, Fargo, ND (Kringen Lodge)
  • SPRING 2021: Sons of Norway, St. Cloud, MN (Trollheim Lodge)
  • SPRING 2021: Tuesday Open House, Mindekirken, Minneapolis, MN
  • SPRING 2021:  Georgetown University Bookstore, Washington, DC
  • June 9, 2021: Bet Shalom Hadassah, Jackson, NJ
  • October 19, 2021: Shalom Club, Great Notch, NJ

People are talking


“Thank you so much for making the visit to Guilford [College] and presenting the honorable life of Odd Nansen. . . . Without your effort, we would never have been able to know Odd Nansen. With it, we have a history to rely upon as a moral compass for acting with integrity in the face of human rights violations. May we live up to it!”

– Jane K. Fernandes
President, Guilford College
Greensboro, NC

For more posts please see our archives.

Archives

On This Date

< 2020 >
December
SMTWHFS
  12345
6789101112
13141516171819
20212223242526
2728293031  
Legend
  Previous/Upcoming Engagements
  This day in history