October 10, 1861: Fridtjof Nansen’s birthday.

Share

The following is an updated version of a blog I first posted in 2018.

Fridtjof Nansen

Today is Fridtjof Nansen’s 160th birthday.  I recently revisited the incredible account of his quest for the North Pole, Farthest North, in anticipation of a lecture I gave on the same subject.  The first time I had read it was back in 2010, soon after I discovered Odd Nansen’s diary and decided to get it re-published.  At the time Fridtjof Nansen’s exploits were totally new to me.

During my years of research on Odd Nansen I was frequently struck by the amazing similarities between Odd Nansen’s use of words and his father’s.  In my introduction to From Day to Day I wrote, “both father and son shared similar ideas and often used eerily similar language to express themselves.”  Throughout the text I highlight those instances of shared expression.

What struck me much more forcefully during this second reading of Farthest North was the growing sense of desperation Fridtjof Nansen experienced during his expedition, especially when he abandoned the safety of his ship, the Fram, and attempted, with only one other companion, some sled dogs, sledges and kayaks, to not only reach the North Pole, but then to return on the much longer trip back to civilization. After traveling for less than one month, Nansen concluded that his slow progress over rough ice and snow meant that he could not reach his goal with the food and daylight remaining, and he turned south.

This is when the real challenge began.  Heading toward “the recently discovered and sketchily mapped” Franz Joseph Land, Nansen and Hjalmar Johansen encountered all sorts of difficulties.   Here’s what Nansen confided to his diary on May 17, 1895 (May 17 being a particularly important date in the Norwegian calendar):

“And here we are in drifting ice, not knowing exactly where we are, uncertain as to our distance from an unknown land, and where we hope to find means of sustaining life and thence carve our way on towards home, with two teams of dogs whose number and strength diminish day by day, with ice and water between us and our goal which may cause us untold trouble, with sledges which now, at any rate, are too heavy for our own powers.  We press laboriously onward mile by mile; and meanwhile, perhaps, the drift of the ice is carrying us westward out to sea, beyond the land we are striving for.”

Almost two months later (July 11, 1895), nothing had improved:

“No sign of land in any direction and no open water, and now we should be in the same latitude as Cape Fligely, or at most a couple of minutes farther north.  We do not know where we are, and we do not know when this will end.  Meanwhile our provisions are dwindling day by day, and the number of our dogs is growing seriously less.  Shall we reach land while we yet have food, or shall we, when all is said, ever reach it?  It will soon be impossible to make any way against this ice and snow.  The latter is only slush; the dogs sink through at every step, and we ourselves splash through it up above our knees when we have to help the dogs or take a turn at the heavy sledges, which happens frequently.  It is hard to go on hoping in such circumstances, but still we do so; though sometimes, perhaps, our hearts fail us when we see the ice lying before us like an impenetrable maze. . . .”

Nansen would ultimately reach land in the Franz Josef archipelago before winter began—but too late to reach civilization.  The setting sun necessitated overwintering for another eight months, enduring sub-zero temperatures in a hastily constructed, primitive hut fashioned of rough stone walls and a roof made of polar bear and walrus hides.

In June 1896, just days before Nansen accidentally stumbled upon Englishman Frederick Jackson, and rescue, he had one final, terrible ordeal—jumping into the frigid waters to retrieve the kayaks which had drifted away from shore.  Nansen wrote: “when the gusts of wind came they seemed to go right through me as I stood there in my thin, wet woolen shirt.  I shivered, my teeth chattered, and I was numb almost all over.”

Forty-seven years later, Odd Nansen stood out on the appellplatz—the roll call square—of Sachsenhausen, observing Christmas Day.  He wrote: “I stood there [in the square] a long, long time; how long I don’t know. . . .  Certainly I shed a few tears, pitiful and lost in my rags, out there in the dark.”

I have often wondered how Odd Nansen kept going when things seemed to be at their bleakest, and the war dragged interminably on.  What resources did he draw upon?  He must have been well aware of his father’s exploits, and undoubtedly knew the story of Farthest North quite well.  When his heart failed, did he recall his own father’s struggles–against doubt, uncertainty, the unknown, the long odds facing him, and find the inspiration he needed, like his father, to prevail?

Farthest North and From Day to Day, both based on diaries, together show how a person can prevail against even the toughest challenges, one created by Mother Nature, the other by the evil nature of man.  They both need to be read, and re-read, for their inspiring lessons.

Wow! A New Play Based on Nansen’s Diary!

Share

No sooner than I had just finished posting a new blog describing my recent article in the Scandinavian Review about Odd Nansen and his art world, featuring fellow Grini prisoner Per Krohg, among others, I learned yesterday about a new play called “The Bøyg,” written by A.J. Ditty.  According to Ditty, the ostensible protagonist in the play is the very same Per Krohg, and the play’s action is derived from diary entries in Odd Nansen’s From Day to Day: One Man’s Diary of Survival in Nazi Concentration Camps.  Ditty calls Nansen’s diary “an extremely important primary text for this play.”

The Bøyg will be performed tomorrow, September 26 at the Stockbridge Theater in Derry, NH at 2pm.

Ditty describes his play as “a lot about making art in isolation.” It focuses on events described by Nansen in his diary in late December, 1942.  At the time the prisoners were preparing to celebrate Christmas—the first Christmas many of them will have ever observed in prison, and they struggle to preserve a sense of home.

The Bøyg is an amorphous character (really, just a voice) in Henrik Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt.  Published by Ibsen in 1867 and first performed in 1876, with musical accompaniment by Edvard Grieg, it remains one of the most widely performed Norwegian plays.

Henrik Ibsen

Ibsen based his verse play loosely on an earlier Norwegian folktale, Per Gynt.  In my article in the Scandinavian Review, I focus on Norway’s “tightly interconnected web of artists.”  That web—and the Lysaker Circle I describe—also included writers as well.  The Per Gynt folktale was first recorded and collected by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen.  Asbjørnsen also collaborated with Jørgen Moe in a collection of Norwegian folktales which became so famous it was simply referred to as “Asbjørnsen and Moe.”  Who illustrated Asbjørnsen and Moe?  None other than Erik Werenskiold, Fridtjof Nansen’s friend and neighbor, and a leading member of the Lysaker Circle.  Tightly interconnected indeed.

Ditty was recently interviewed by New Hampshire Public Radio about his play, which interview can be heard in full here.

Serendipity strikes again!

Odd Nansen’s Art World

Share

Those of you who have read From Day to Day know full well Odd Nansen’s artistry.  In 41 illustrations Nansen depicts in great detail the squalid, dangerous life of a concentration camp prisoner.

Where did Nansen develop his artistic ideas and technique?

Recently I was approached by the Scandinavian Review to write an article about Nansen for their Spring/Summer issue.  I chose to write about Nansen’s many connections to the art and artists of his day.  Norway was (and still is) a small country—when Nansen moved to the U.S. in 1927, New York City alone had a population more than twice that of all Norway.  So it is not surprising that Nansen was closely connected to many artists through his family, his neighbors, his friends, and even his fellow prisoners.

Below is the link to my Scandinavian Review article—I hope you enjoy learning a bit more about a different aspect of Odd Nansen.

Pages from SR 2021 SPRING_Grini_Circle_Artists

Postscript(s)

Share

My recent blogs about Jan Karski and Otto Frank generated an unusual amount of feedback from my readers, and I appreciate hearing from so many of you.

It has been a while since I mentioned serendipity, but it seems that it has been hard at work again!

Bep Voskuijl 

No sooner had I posted my blog about Otto Frank and his desperate attempts to learn the fates of his wife and daughters than I came across, in the August 16, 2021 issue of Publishers Weekly, a news item about Simon & Schuster purchasing the English rights to a forthcoming book called The Last Secret of the Secret Annex.  It is written by Belgian journalist Jeroen De Bruyn and Joop van Wijk-Voskuijl.  Joop is the son of Elisabeth “Bep” Voskuijl, who was one of Anne Frank’s friends and protectors.  Bep, given the pseudonym “Elli Vossen” by Anne in the diary, was eighteen years-old when she was hired by Otto Frank in 1937 to work for his business, Opekta.  Later Bep’s father also worked in the Opekta warehouse, and built the famous bookcase which concealed the entrance to the secret annex.  Along with Miep Gies and a few other trusted employees, Bep helped the occupants of the Secret Annex by supplying food, clothing, etc. According to the website of the Anne Frank House, “For the next two years her life was completely governed by her care for the people in hiding.”  Anne even once convinced her to spend an overnight in the Annex, and shared with Bep some of her writings.

Bep remained in close touch with Otto Frank throughout her life, visiting him in Switzerland, and he in turn helped her financially when he could.  In a letter she once wrote Otto she observed: “I would do everything in my power to uphold the idealized Anne, which for me . . .  is combined with always thinking about what has happened, what I witnessed.  This great pain never leaves my heart.”

Bep married in May 1946 and had three sons and one daughter, which she named after Anne.  She died in 1983, age 63.

The book, for which no release date has been set, purportedly reveals “insights on who may have betrayed the Frank family to the Germans.”

Front row, left to right: Miep Gies, Otto Frank, Bep Voskuijl

Lien Brilleslijper

Within days of reading about Bep, I came across a book review in the New York Times of The Sisters of Auschwitz, written by Roxane van Iperen.  It is a biography of two Dutch sisters who aided dozens of people during World War II.  Those two sisters: Lien Brilleslijper and Janny Brilleslijper.  As mentioned in my earlier blog, the Brilleslijper sisters were among the last to see Anne and Margot Frank alive in Bergen-Belsen, and it was Lien who filed the report of Anne’s death that first alerted Otto Frank.

In 2012, van Iperen, like me an attorney by profession, moved into ‘T Hoog Nest (the High Nest), the very house occupied by the Brilleslijper sisters during the war.  She soon discovered secret hiding places, trap doors, old candle stubs, etc.  Intrigued, she began to delve into the history of the High Nest and its occupants.  The Sisters of Auschwitz is the result.  Another case of serendipity!

Like the Frank family, the occupants of the High Nest, including the Brilleslijper sisters, were betrayed in 1944.  Like the Frank family, the residents were sent, first, to Westerbork, then to Auschwitz, and finally to Bergen-Belsen. Unlike the Frank sisters, Lien and Janny were able to stay alive until April 15, 1945, when Bergen-Belsen was liberated.  Lien died in 1988, age 75; Janny in 2003, age 86.

The full review can be read here.

Janny and Lien Brilleslijper

Jan Karski

For those of you lucky enough to live in either the greater DC area or the greater Chicago area, the Shakespeare Theater Company of DC (October 6—17) and the Chicago Shakespeare Theater (November 3-14) are hosting a one-man review of Jan Karski’s life, starring David Strathairn.

Appropriately titled “Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski” the play is described as follows:

“In a tour-de-force solo performance, Academy Award nominee David Strathairn (Good Night and Good Luck; Nomadland) portrays World War II hero and Holocaust witness Jan Karski, a messenger of truth who risked his life to carry his harrowing report from war-torn Poland to the Oval Office only to be disbelieved.  Standing tall in the halls of power, Strathairn captures the remarkable life of the self-described “insignificant, little man” whose forgotten story of moral courage can still shake the conscience of the world.”

I have seen a small snippet from an earlier production, as well as an interview with Christiane  Amanpour, and Strathairn amazingly channels Karski’s mannerisms and spirit in a performance that is utterly compelling.  Do not pass up this opportunity if you have a chance to see it.  You will not regret your decision.

The Many Agonies of Otto Frank

Share

Millions of people worldwide have read the diary of Anne Frank.  By now it has been translated into 70 languages, and regularly appears on many schools’ reading lists.  Millions more, without having ever read the book, know many of the basic facts of her life story.  How Anne received a diary on her 13th birthday, June 12, 1942, while living in Amsterdam, where her family had fled from Frankfurt, Germany to escape Hitler’s persecutions.  How Germany had earlier [May, 1940] overrun the Netherlands, effectively trapping refugee families like the Franks. How the Franks, fearing the worst, prepared a secret living space above the business owned by Anne’s father.  How the Frank family moved into the Secret Annex on July 6, 1942 in response to a summons delivered to Anne’s older sister to report to a labor camp.  How Anne recorded all of her secret thoughts and feelings in her diary for over two years, until August 4, 1944, when the family was betrayed (by whom remains a mystery).  How Anne eventually perished in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in northern Germany in February or March 1945.  How her diary became an international bestseller.

But many of those millions would be hard pressed to remember the names of Anne’s sister (Margot), her mother (Edith) or father (Otto), let alone recall their fates.  And yet they, along with the van Pels family—Hermann, Auguste, and son Peter (given the pseudonym van Daan in the diary) and Fritz Pfeffer (given the name Albert Düssel by Anne) all lived together in the close quarters of the Secret Annex, and have their own stories.

Otto Frank and Family

The agony of all eight occupants of the Secret Annex began with their arrest in August 4.  [I have previously written how, once everyone was arrested, but before the Nazis could seize all the contents of the Annex, employee and family friend Miep Gies swept up Anne’s diary and the papers she found strewn on the floor for safekeeping until Anne returned.]  Within days all eight were moved to Westerbork, a nearby transit camp.  Similarly, all eight were put on the same transport to Auschwitz (it was in fact the last transport ever sent from Westerbork to Auschwitz), a three-day journey in sealed boxcars that arrived September 6, 1944.  Although all survived the selection at the ramp, the entire experience, coming so soon on the heels of their sudden arrest, must have been terrifying.  There Otto was separated from Anne and the rest of his family.

When Anne later discovered that those considered unfit for hard labor were sent directly to the gas chambers, she concluded that her father, whom she considered to be in less than the best of health, must have been killed.  Ironically, as we shall see, Otto was the only person of the eight occupants of the Secret Annex to ultimately survive.

But it took a took a great deal of luck (something Tom Buergenthal would fully understand) on Otto’s part to make it.  As he explained in a letter written June 8, 1945: “In November 44 I was so weak from work and lack of food that with the help of a Dutch doctor I was admitted to the hospital, and I regained my strength there until the Russians liberated us on January 27, 1945.”

In an earlier letter Otto, who stood 6’ 1’’ tall, provided additional detail: “If I hadn’t been taken to a hospital—I was weak and weighed [less than 115 lbs.]—there is no way I would still be alive.  I was lucky & had good friends.  Peter van Pels . . . was like a son to me and did everything to help me.  Every day he brought me extra food.”

As liberation approached, there was one further stroke of luck: “On the 26th [of January 1945] we were taken out [of the infirmary] by the S.S. to be killed, but someone called the S.S. away before they could do that—it was a miracle!”

Now, Otto’s next agony began.  Where was his family?

In his very first letter following liberation [February 23, 1945] and while still in Auschwitz, Otto wrote his mother, “I don’t know where Edith and the children are, we were separated on September 5, ’44.  I only heard that they were transported to Germany.  We have to hope that we’ll get them back healthy.”  [By this time Anne and Margot were likely victims of a typhus epidemic that was raging through the overcrowded and unsanitary conditions prevalent in Bergen-Belsen.  The actual date and cause of their deaths remains unknown.]

All the while Otto was trying to return home.  His circuitous journey—similar to many displaced persons—ran from Auschwitz to Kattowitz (now Katowice, Poland) to Czernowitz (now Chernivtsi, Ukraine), to Odessa, then by steamship through the Dardanelles to Marseille, and then finally overland to Amsterdam.  While in Kattowitz he again wrote his mother: “You will understand how much it tortures me not to know where Edith and the children are.  But I still hope to see them all safe and sound.”

But soon the first shoe dropped.  In Otto’s second letter from Kattowitz he confided what he had learned from a woman he just met: “I just got the news of Edith’s death on 1/6/45, and it has hit me so hard that I am not entirely my old self.  Only the thought of the children keeps me going. . . . .  If she could have held out only two more weeks then the Russians would have liberated her too and it would have turned out differently.”

In a letter to his mother dated May 15, 1945, Otto continued: “All my hopes are for the children. I cling to the firm belief that they are still alive and that we will be together soon.”

Less than a month later [June 8] he lamented, “I don’t know where [the children] are and I never stop thinking about them.”

By July Otto had arrived in Amsterdam and quickly learned the worst: a Red Cross listing of the dead included “Annelies Marie Frank” and “Margot Betti Frank.”  He tracked down the name and address of Lien Brilleslijper, the woman who had filed the report of their deaths.  Brillesjper and her sister had been in Bergen-Belsen with Anne and Margot.  She described to him the charnel house conditions that prevailed there as the war drew to a close: more than 35,000 prisoners died of disease, sickness and malnutrition in the three and a half months between January 1945 and the camp’s liberation on April 15.

In his May 15, 1945 letter, Otto had also commiserated: “All our possessions are gone. There won’t be a pin left, the Germans stole everything—not a photo, letter or document remains.”  But this was not entirely true.  On August 19, 1945 (76 years ago today), Otto observed for the first time “I don’t have any pictures from the last few years of course, but Miep was somehow able to save an album and also Anne’s diary.  I still don’t have the strength to read it.”

Eventually Otto worked up the courage to read what his dead daughter had written while in the Secret Annex.  He was astounded:

“What I read is indescribably upsetting, but still I read it.  I can’t describe it to you, I’m not done reading it yet and want to finish reading through the whole thing before I make any excerpts or translations. Among other things she describes her feelings in puberty with unbelievable self-awareness and self-criticism.  Even if it wasn’t Anne who had written it, it would still be so moving.  What a terrible shame that this life was snuffed out!”

Now, instead of avoiding the diary, Otto couldn’t leave it alone.  In a later letter he wrote, “I can’t stay away from Anne’s diaries and they are so unbelievably moving. . . .  I can’t let the diaries out of my hands, there is too much in them that is not intended for anyone else.”   And again, in a subsequent letter:

“You can’t even imagine everything that is in it. . . .   It’s about everything that happens in a group of people while they are in hiding, all the fears and conflicts, all the arguments, the food, politics, the Jewish question, the weather, moods, education, birthdays, memories: everything.”

Ultimately, Otto overcame his initial reluctance, mindful of Anne’s expressed desire to become an author, and decided he needed to share Anne’s story—suitably edited—with the wider world.  The Dutch version appeared in 1947, followed by translations in Germany, where it sold moderately well, France, and Great Britain.  It finally appeared in the United States in 1952, published by Doubleday after approximately ten other publishers had passed on it.  Eleanor Roosevelt, in her Introduction, wrote that it was “one of the wisest and most moving commentaries on war and its impact on human beings that I have ever read.”

However, it was only after the theatrical version (in 1955) and especially, the movie version (in 1959) that the diary became a permanent bestseller worldwide.  With acclaim, however, came a backlash, and Otto Frank spent much of the succeeding years seeking redress from the many Holocaust deniers and extremists who claimed that the diary was a fraud, a fake, a forgery.  [At a bookfair in central New Jersey a few years ago I even had someone approach me, asking me if Odd Nansen’s diary was anything like “the so-called diary of Anne Frank.”]

Although Otto Frank eventually remarried, and lived to see Anne’s diary become a worldwide phenomenon, with millions of visitors to the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam, he never really recovered from the trauma of the Holocaust.  How could he? The agony of uprooting to flee persecution; the agony of a life in hiding, fearing discovery; the agony of trying to survive in Auschwitz; the agony of losing his entire family; the agony of discovering Anne’s genius—posthumously; the agony of confronting naysayers.

In a very real sense Otto Frank’s agony only ended with his death, forty-five years ago today, on August 19, 1980. He was 91 years old.

Otto Frank in 1961

Postscript:  The fate of the remaining occupants of the Secret Annex:

Auguste van Pels was sent from Auschwitz to a subcamp of Buchenwald and later died in transit from Buchenwald to Theresienstadt in March or April, 1945, most likely of typhus.  She was 44 years old.

Hermann van Pels was murdered in Auschwitz’s gas chambers in October, 1944, age 46.

Peter van Pels took part in the Auschwitz Death March to Mauthausen, where he fell ill and died on May 5, 1945, five days after Mauthausen was liberated.  He was 18.

Fritz Pfeffer was sent from Auschwitz to Sachsenhausen in late October 1944, and from there to Neuengamme, where he died on December 20, 1944, age 55, most likely of dysentery or cholera. 

In The Beginning…..

Share

…….was the word.  Actually, many of them.  About 300,000 to be accurate.

While still in high school I adopted a practice I learned from the father of one of my school friends: writing on the front endpaper of one’s book one’s name and the date they started reading said book.  I later began to add the location where I started reading a book as well.  Thus, at a quick glance I can be transported back to the place and time associated with my memory of the book itself.  (Invariably, the actual date is further in the past than I would have otherwise guessed.)

Eleven years ago today I started reading an old diary written by an unknown (to me) Norwegian.  The book had been hard to come by—there was only one offered for sale that I could find anywhere in the United States; five in the entire globe.  I purchased one of those five from a book dealer in New Zealand.  The name of the book was From Day to Day.  Indeed, my only familiarity with the book came from a brief, footnoted mention of it in a memoir written by Thomas Buergenthal, A Lucky Child, that I had read earlier that year.

With no preconception of what might lie within, and a bit put off by the diary’s length—over 500 pages—I made an initial decision to proceed rather deliberately.  I would read only one diary entry per day—sort of like a daily devotional—and thereby walk in the footsteps of the diarist as he recorded his experiences each day.  Soon that discipline gave way to two diary entries per day, and then three, and then more.

By that time, as I inform my audiences, I was hooked.

And the rest is history.  Exactly when I made the fateful decision to edit and republish Nansen’s diary is now a bit fuzzy, but clearly it occurred by year-end.   In early 2011 I visited Washington, DC to research the book’s copyright status at the Library of Congress, and to meet Tom Buergenthal for the first time.  After we discussed Tom’s memoir, and he showed me his shelf full of the many different translations of his book (17 at the time I recall), I tentatively mentioned my plans to get Nansen’s diary back into print.  Tom could not have been more supportive and encouraging, even writing a letter of introduction to Odd Nansen’s daughter Marit, thereby facilitating what became another wonderful friendship. With Tom’s blessing I was ready to tackle the project that would change my life in so many rewarding and delightful ways.

And it all began on August 8, 2010.

My Notation

August 2, 1944: Tom Buergenthal Enters Auschwitz

Share

Auschwitz

 

Seventy-seven years ago today Thomas Buergenthal, age 10, entered Auschwitz-Birkenau along with his parents.  Originally the site of a Polish army barracks (inhabited briefly by Jan Karski), Auschwitz was developed by the Nazis into the largest and deadliest concentration/extermination camp ever.  Approximately 1.1 million people—the population of Salt Lake City or Memphis—were murdered there.  Of this number, almost 1 million were Jews.

In Buergenthal’s memoir, A Lucky Child, he writes that he was “lucky” to get into Auschwitz.  This is not meant to be facetious.  In many respects the worst day at Auschwitz was the first, for that typically meant a so-called selection at the railroad disembarkation ramp.  Here, those who could not be expected to work under grueling camp conditions—children, the aged, invalids—were separated from the rest and sent directly to the gas chambers.

Often times, if the camp was approaching full capacity (an elastic concept), even the able-bodied were sent directly to be gassed.  While I have done no study of the survival rate at the ramp, a few anecdotal examples provide some guidance.  In Martin Gilbert’s book Kristallnacht, he writes about the aftermath of the pogrom which occurred on November 9-10, 1938: “[I]n February [1943] . . . a thousand [German Jews] . . . were deported to Auschwitz . . . from Breslau, of whom 994 were sent straight to the gas chambers.”  Later he notes: “On 2 March 1943 one of the largest single deportations to Auschwitz took place: 1,500 Jewish men, women and children from Berlin.  Of them, 1,350 were sent to the gas chambers on arrival.”

Thus, just getting into Auschwitz was something of a victory.  “Had there been a selection, I would have been killed before ever making it into the camp,” Tom admits.

How did he escape the dreaded section?  We’ll never know the exact reason, but Tom’s surmise is no doubt correct: “The SS officers . . . probably assumed, since our transport came from a labor camp, that children and others had already been eliminated in those camps.”  Perhaps also the small size of Tom’s transport did not warrant a full-blown selection process.

Escaping a selection, however, while critical, was only half the story.  Now Tom had to find a way to navigate the crucible of Auschwitz—“the last place on earth many of the prisoners sent there were destined to see.”  Disease, starvation, exhaustion, and murder were just some of the dangers every prisoner faced every day.

Tom Buergenthal with his parents in happier days

Tom was instantly separated from his mother at the ramp, and, but for one brief glance through the wire, he was not to see or be reunited with her for almost two and a half years.  Tom’s father was also sent away in late October 1944, first to Sachsenhausen, and later to Buchenwald, where he would perish in January 1945.  Now Tom was all alone.

How did he manage?

For several years leading up to August 1944, in the Kielce Ghetto and elsewhere, Tom was getting an education of sorts from his parents: “the essentials of survival.” In Auschwitz and later in Sachsenhausen, Tom continued to learn “the tricks I needed to survive.”  Many other prisoners, by contrast, were thrust into Auschwitz directly from normal, middle-class environments without the benefit of such “training.”  They could hardly be expected to adapt overnight to brutal camp conditions.  One thinks of Anne Frank, whose final diary entry (August 1, 1944) was one day prior to Tom’s arrival.  She went from living in the comparative safety of her annex on the date of her arrest (August 4, 1944) to the maelstrom of Auschwitz a few short weeks later (September 6, 1944).  She, her sister Margot, and her mother Edith were all dead less than six months later.

Whatever the combination of factors—bureaucratic oversight by the Nazis, the innate or inculcated survival skills of a young child, or some other favorable alignment of the stars, on August 2, 1944, Thomas Buergenthal proved once again to be ein Glückskind—a lucky child.

Jan Karski: Hero of the Holocaust (Part II)

Share

Jan Karski

After Jan Karski escaped from the hospital in Poland in mid-1941, he spent the next seven months recuperating and in “quarantine” in a remote country estate.  In the cat and mouse moves of the Gestapo and the Underground, the Underground had no way of knowing if Karski’s escape was indeed legitimate, or had been “staged” by the Gestapo in hopes that he would lead them to more Underground members.  Only enforced isolation until the trail went cold could ensure that that did not happen.  Karski’s successful escape came at a steep price, however.  Thirty-two Poles, some connected with the getaway, others wholly innocent, were executed by the Gestapo in retribution.

By mid-1942 Karski was well enough to resume his role as courier.  In late August, prior to his next departure, prominent Jewish leaders, living outside the Warsaw Ghetto and passing as Gentiles, learned of Karski’s impending mission.  They implored him to carry their story—the story of the Jewish genocide—to the Polish government-in-exile as well.

Both Karski and these leaders had no illusions that stories based on mere hearsay would have any impact on skeptical minds.  Only as an eyewitness could Karski hope to be a convincing messenger.  Accordingly, they offered to smuggle him, first, into the Warsaw Ghetto, and then smuggle him into a death camp as well.  But they offered two warnings.  First, he would be risking his life in these attempts.  Second, and equally important, he was warned that, as long as he lived, he “would be haunted by the memory of the ghastly scenes [he] would witness.” Karski agreed without hesitation: “Unless I had first-hand acquaintance with what I had to report I did not feel equal to the task.”

Karski and his Jewish guide entered the Warsaw Ghetto—the largest Jewish ghetto in occupied Europe—via a secret tunnel.   What Karski saw there unnerved him.  “These were still living people, if you could call them such.  For apart from their skin, eyes and voice there was nothing human left in these palpitating figures.  Everywhere there was hunger, misery, and the atrocious stench of decomposing bodies, the pitiful moans of dying children, the desperate cries and gasps of a people struggling for life against impossible odds.”

As Karski’s guide pointed out atrocity after atrocity, he would intone over and over: “Remember this.  Remember this.”

Warsaw Ghetto

On Karski’s second, and more dangerous, trip, he dressed in the uniform of a Ukrainian guard (in his memoir Karski calls it an Estonian uniform; because the memoir was published while the war was still ongoing, he chose to alter certain facts).  Thus disguised, Karski brazenly walked into what he believed was a death camp.  Instead, it was “merely” a holding/transit camp located near Bełżec.  This is to say the camp was “merely” the Eighth Circle of Hell, rather than the Ninth and final circle of Dante’s Inferno.

“We passed an old Jew, a man of about sixty, sitting on the ground without a stitch of clothing on him. . . .  Silent, motionless, he sat on the ground, no one paying him the slightest attention. . . .  He might have been dead or petrified except for his preternaturally animated eyes, which blinked rapidly and incessantly. Not far from him a small child, clad in a few rags, was lying on the ground.  He was all alone and crouched quivering on the ground, staring up with the large, frightened eyes of a rabbit.  No one paid any attention to him, either.

The Jewish mass vibrated, trembled, and moved to and fro as if united in a single, insane, rhythmic trance. . . . Hunger, thirst, fear and exhaustion had driven them all insane.  I had been told that they were usually left in the camp for three or four days without a drop of water or food.”

Karski watched as the entire population of the camp—thousands of men, women and children—were herded into boxcars—up to 130 per car, goaded along with shouts, clubs, bayonets, and gunshots where necessary.  Soon, “all that was left was the stench of excrement and rotting straw and a queer, sickening, acidulous odor which, I thought, may have come from the quantities of blood that had been let, and with which the ground was stained.”

By early October 1942, Karski was ready to leave on his mission to the government-in-exile in London.  He fully expected to give his report, including his explosive first-hand testimony, and return for another mission.  In fact, he would not return to his native land for another 32 years.

After debriefing his fellow Poles, Karski shared his story with British officialdom and intelligentsia, including Foreign Minister Anthony Eden and writers H.G. Wells and Arthur Koestler.  Then General Sikorski, head of the government-in-exile, unexpectedly ordered him to the United States, to share his experience yet again.

When Karski arrived in New York City on June 16, 1943, his ultimate goal was an audience with President Franklin Roosevelt.  But getting the attention of the world’s most powerful man and the Commander-in-Chief of all U.S. forces in the midst of a global war seemed almost impossible for a lowly courier. Karski had one important asset at his disposal however—Poland’s Ambassador to the U.S., Jan Ciechanowski.  Well-connected, Ciechanowski was able line up crucial meetings with people close to and influential with the President.

On July 5, Karski met with several prominent Jews in the Roosevelt Administration, including Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter.  This meeting produced a memorable exchange that highlights Karski’s dilemma.  Lingering at a dinner which lasted until 1:00 am, and after the other guests had departed, Frankfurter asked Karski: “Please tell me exactly what you have seen.”  Karski spent the next 30 minutes telling all.  Finally, Frankfurter replied: “Mr. Karski, a man like me talking to a man like you must be totally frank.  So I must say: I am unable to believe you.”  The Polish Ambassador, astonished, asked how Frankfurter could call Karski a liar to his face? “Mr. Ambassador,” Frankfurter replied, “I did not say this young man is lying.  I said I am unable to believe him.  There is a difference.”

Karski continued to meet with prominent government and academic figures, including a Jesuit priest, Fr. Edmund Walsh.  Walsh had helped found Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in 1919.  Another government official was William Bullitt, former U.S. Ambassador to both France and the Soviet Union.  Bullitt encouraged FDR to meet the unknown courier with “bloodcurdling” stories to tell.

Seventy-eight years ago today, on July 28, 1943, Ambassador Ciechanowski received a call at 8:00 am, informing him that President Roosevelt expected to see him and Karski at the White House at 10:30 am.

What followed was a 75-minute meeting with the President.  According to Karski, “He was amazingly well-informed about Poland and wanted still more information.  His questions were minute, detailed, and directed squarely at important points.”  What Karski did not get, however, was a promise—to aid the Jews, to alter policy, to end the Holocaust.  The Allied position at the time can be summarized thus: 1) the best way to help the Jews was to defeat Germany as quickly as possible; 2) in the meantime, threats of future retribution against the perpetrators would have to suffice.  [The Moscow Declaration on Atrocities, warning the Nazis that their war crimes would not go unpunished, was finally issued on November 1, 1943.]

Accordingly, Karski concluded that his mission to save the Jews was a failure.  “I wanted to save millions, and I was not able to save one man,” he once lamented.  On the other hand, Karski’s biographers cite John Pehle, the head of the War Refugee Board, to the contrary—that Karski had made a difference, that Roosevelt’s encounter with Karski had moved the President deeply, deeply enough to set up the War Refugee Board in early 1944.

Karski returned to London in November 1943, only to be informed that he had been unmasked by the Nazis, and was now a marked man in Poland.  Even London was too dangerous.  Accordingly, Karski was ordered back to the U.S. in February 1944, where he remained for the duration of the war.  He used the time to write his memoir, Story of a Secret State.  The book was published in November 1944 to favorable reviews (it was Book of the Month Club’s primary selection for January 1945), and a print run of 400,000 copies.

When the war ended, Karski was “consumed with bitterness over the futility of his wartime efforts.”  Not only had he not saved a single life, Poland, which had suffered so much at the hands of the Germans, simply switched totalitarian masters, with Stalin’s communists now in charge.  “I imposed on myself a pledge never to mention the war to anybody,” Karski stated—a promise, as we know, he kept for many years.

When possible careers at the U.S. State Department and the United Nations proved unavailable, Karski once again contacted Fr. Walsh at Georgetown University.  Walsh offered him a full scholarship to pursue a PhD.  Once it was awarded, in 1953, Karski was offered a teaching post at Georgetown, a position he would hold for more than 40 years.

Karski’s vow of silence lasted until 1978, when he finally agreed to a series of interviews totaling eight hours with Claude Lanzmann for Lanzmann’s documentary film about the Holocaust, Shoah.  Three years later, in 1981, but before Shoah had been released, Karski accepted Eli Wiesel’s invitation to attend the International Liberators’ Conference in DC.  There he spoke publicly for the first time since the end of the war of his experiences.  The following year he was recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations for his work.

These events were the cracks in the dike which soon became a flood of remembrance and public speaking, and a long-deferred public recognition.  Honorary degrees (including one from Georgetown), awards, and citations all followed.  Among the more notable:

  • Order Virtuti Militari, Poland’s highest military award (twice)
  • Order of the White Eagle, Poland’s highest civilian honor
  • Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor
  • Honorary citizenship from the State of Israel (Karski called it “the proudest and most meaningful day in my life”)

But it was a triumph mixed with tragedy.  Jan’s eldest brother, Marian, who was a major figure in the Underground and whom Karski had once helped emigrate to America, died by suicide in Washington, DC in 1964, a victim of the same bitterness over Poland’s fate that Karski shared. Karski’s wife of 27 years, Pola, who lost most of her brothers and sisters in the Holocaust, also died by suicide, in 1992.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of Karski’s life, however, were the memories he could never forget, and was fated to be haunted by, as long as he lived.  In his memoir he wrote:

“The images of what I saw in the death camp are, I am afraid, my permanent possessions.  I would like nothing better than to purge my mind of these memories. For one thing, the recollection of those events invariably brings on a recurrence of the nausea [I felt that day].  But more than that, I would like simply to be free of them, to obliterate the very thought that such things ever occurred.”

Anyone who has seen the tears on Karski’s face during his Lanzmann interview understands the pain these memories caused.

When Karski’s courier mission finally reached London in late 1942, he was quickly summoned to meet with General Sikorski.  At their meeting Sikorski asked to see Karski’s wrists. He remarked: “I see that the Gestapo gave you a decoration too.  You have things to remember.”  Karski responded: “I shall never forget . . . nor will my children and their children.” Professor Karski never had any biological children.  But the generations of his students, together with the students of his life, are, in a sense, his spiritual children so long as they adhere to his admonition: Never Forget.

_______________________________________________________

Postscript.  Years ago while vacationing on Cape Cod I happened upon a sidewalk book sale.  Never one to pass something like this by, I waded through the offerings, finding little of interest, until I came across a biography of Karski entitled Karski: How One Man Tried to Stop the Holocaust.  I was excited to discover that Karski had personally inscribed the copy.  As a young undergraduate I knew little about how special Jan Karski was.  With the aid of his 1944 memoir and this 1994 biography, that deficiency has been rectified.  And what is more, I sense Karski’s inspiring presence every time I look upon his inscription. 

Jan Karski: Hero of the Holocaust (Part I)

Share

Jan Karski as a young man

There are some people whose experiences during World War II are so fantastical, so filled with drama and danger, that one wonders how they managed to simply keep going.  Jan Karski is one such man.

Karski, described by British historian Michael Burleigh as “one of the bravest men of the war,” and whose life was summarized by Elie Wiesel as “a masterpiece of courage, integrity and humanism,” died twenty-one years ago today, age 86.

Born Jan Kozielewski in 1914 in the city of Łódź, in what was then part of the Russian Empire, Karski (an alias he adopted during the war and kept thereafter) was the youngest of eight children from an educated, upper middle class Polish Catholic family.  A scholastic standout, he trained in his youth to serve in the diplomatic corps. Like all Poles, he performed mandatory military service, and was a reserve lieutenant in the mounted artillery.

In late August 1939, as Hitler’s agitation over the Danzig Corridor escalated, Karski’s unit was mobilized and ordered to a military installation in Oświęcim on the Polish-German border.  Oświęcim is better known by the name the Germans later gave it: Auschwitz, the very symbol of the Holocaust.

The Poles were quite confident they could handle the Germans.  “England and France are not needed this time.  We can finish this alone,” Karski’s commanding officer confided.  In fact, they had no answer for Germany’s blitzkrieg tactics.  Within hours on September 1, Karski’s unit was overwhelmed, leading to a long, disorganized and demoralized retreat.  The retreat lasted for weeks, until Karski reached Tarnopol.  There he and his comrades surrendered—to the invading Russians, who previously agreed to partition Poland pursuant to a secret protocol with Germany.

Karski, who hadn’t even fired a single shot in anger, soon found himself on a cattle car headed to a Soviet POW camp in what is now Ukraine.  The camp was highly stratified, but not in the way one might expect. It was the common soldier who had the best accommodations (such as they were), and the officers, considered by the Soviets to be the oppressors of the proletariat, who had the worst housing and the hardest tasks.

Looking to escape, but resigned to the fact that any escape under the circumstances was well nigh impossible, Karski was thrilled to learn of a proposed prisoner swap with the Germans.  Polish POWs in German custody would be exchanged for Poles held in Soviet custody of Germanic descent and Poles born in the territories now incorporated into the Reich.  There was only one catch: the Russians were only willing to exchange Polish soldiers of the rank of private—no officers need apply.

Karski convinced a Polish private with no desire to participate in the exchange to switch uniforms with him (the Russians weren’t paying particularly close attention anyway).  Karski’s decision was prescient.  The world would later learn that shortly after the swap, Polish officers remaining in Soviet custody were segregated.  Stalin, desirous of eliminating any possible future source of resistance among the intelligentsia and officer corps, personally ordered the slaughter of 22,000 Polish officers and government officials in the Katyn Forest in April and May 1940.

Once the POW swap was effected, Karski found himself out of the frying pan, but now in the proverbial fire.  The Germans promised their captives “work” and “food” but it was all a ruse, Karski suspected, and he wasn’t about to give the Germans a chance to prove him right.  En route to Germany, Karski jumped from a moving train at night, notwithstanding guards posted on the train with machine guns.

World War II was not even three months old and Karski had effected not one but two daring escapes.  His sole focus: to join the Underground and continue the fight for Poland’s freedom.  His goal was Warsaw, and the first stop on his trek was the city of Kielce.  [About this same time Tom Buergenthal and his parents were living as refugees in the part of Kielce which would shortly become the Kielce Ghetto.]

In a memoir Karski published in 1944, Story of the Secret State, Karski details his life in the Polish resistance. It was a choice fraught with danger.  Perhaps no country, with the possible exception of Russia, suffered so much at the hands of its German occupiers.  The country simply ceased to exist as a sovereign state—part absorbed into Germany, part absorbed into Russia, and the rest—the Generalgouvernement—treated as occupied territory. Karski is at pains throughout his memoir to explain that there was no Quisling, no serious collaboration with the Nazis on any level at any time.

Karski’s memoir graphically depicts the incredibly dangerous life of a resistance fighter.  In Chapter 5 he describes how his close friend Dziepatowski initiated him into the Underground.  Dziepatowski’s fate: “[H]e was caught and subjected to appalling tortures, but did not reveal a single secret.  Finally he was executed.”  Three chapters later Karski meets with Marian Borzeçki (called Borecki in the memoir), a former high ranking government official.  His fate: “Toward the end of February, 1940, Borecki was caught by the Gestapo. . . .  He was dragged off to jail and submitted to the most atrocious Nazi tortures.  He was beaten for days on end.  Nearly every bone in his body was systematically and scientifically broken. . . .   In the end he was shot.”  Karski describes in detail the elaborate mechanisms the Underground employed to prevent a betrayal or arrest from jeopardizing the larger operation.  “Liaison women” had the task of connecting one Underground member with another; since members were constantly adopting new identities and new domiciles, only the appropriate liaison woman knew how to reach the appropriate person and arrange a meeting.  Karski observes: “The average ‘life’ of a liaison woman did not exceed a few months.”

Even for those who had no involvement with the Underground, life in occupied Poland was one of privation.  The diet of those who fared worst consisted “exclusively of black bread mixed with sawdust.  A plate of cereal a day was considered a luxury.”  During all of 1942, Karski never once tasted butter or sugar.

Karski’s own brush with the Gestapo wasn’t long in coming.  Because of his language skills, extensive travels across Europe and retentive memory, Karski was chosen to be a courier—carrying vital information (in his head) from the Underground’s various factions to the Polish government-in-exile in France.

Karski’s first courier mission, over the Tatra Mountains into Slovakia with the help of an experienced mountain guide, then to Hungary, Yugoslavia, Italy and France, went without a hitch.

A subsequent courier trip was less successful.  Unbeknownst to Karski on this mission, a previous mountain guide had fallen into the hands of the Gestapo, and told everything he knew—the routes used, the safe houses along the way, etc.  It was only a matter of time before Karski fell into a trap.  Captured, along with his guide, in Slovakia, he was quickly subjected to harsh interrogations.  Fearing, after one particularly brutal session that resulted in four lost teeth and several broken ribs, that he would be unable to hold in his secrets much longer, Karski decided to kill himself with a razor he had surreptitiously stolen from the washroom.

Waiting until the watchman completed his rounds, Karski slashed both his wrists.  (I have previously written about incredible courage it takes to end one’s life just to protect the lives of others here).  As the blood poured out of his arms,

“I thought of my mother.  My childhood, my career, my hopes.  I felt a bottomless sorrow that I had to die a wretched, inglorious death, like a crushed insect, miserable and anonymous.  Neither my family nor my friends would ever learn what had happened to me and where my body would lie.  I had assumed so many aliases that even if the Nazis wished to inform anyone of my death they probably could not track down my real identity.”

Ironically, it was the very act of trying to kill himself that ultimately saved his life.  Remaining in the Gestapo prison—with or without revealing any of the secrets he held—would have undoubtedly ended with his execution.  Instead, the night watchman heard his groans, and Karski was rushed to a nearby hospital.  There sympathetic Slovakian doctors and nurses protected him.  Later he was inexplicably transferred to another hospital just over the border, in Poland. (Karski speculates that he was brought there to give away the Underground in the vicinity.)

Once in Poland, word of Karski’s predicament was communicated to the local Underground.  With a well-placed bribe to the hospital guard, Karski was able to make good an escape into the arms of the local resistance fighters.  Responding to his gushing expressions of gratitude, his saviors were a bit more business-like: “Don’t be too grateful to us.  We had two orders about you.  The first was to do everything in our power to help you escape.  The second was to shoot you if we failed.”

Karski’s tale, while remarkable, is hardly unique.  Millions of such escapes, captures, and tortures occurred throughout occupied Europe during the war.  What makes the story special for me, however, is first, the fact that Jan Karski was my professor as an undergraduate at Georgetown University, and second, that I never knew anything about his incredible experiences while I was his student.  In fact, it was not until his death in 2000 that I learned for the first time in an alumni magazine about Karski’s earlier life.  I wondered: had I been so obtuse that I missed any references—direct or oblique—to these matters during his classes?  Was I really that clueless at the time?

It was not until I later read his biography that I was comforted to learn that “most of Professor Karski’s students probably knew little or nothing about his past.  Story of a Secret State was out of print, he would not voluntarily bring up his wartime exploits, and even his faculty colleagues generally had only a dim knowledge of what he had done during the war.”

The Professor Karski I did meet in the fall of 1973 was still the “tall . . . man of striking appearance” noted by the Polish Ambassador to the U.S., Jan Ciechanowski, in 1943, whose “burning eyes reflected a keen intelligence.”  He was still “too thin” as Martha Gellhorn (Hemingway) once observed when she interviewed him around the same time.  He always did have “his omnipresent cigarette” in the words of his biographers (even in class—that was a different era after all).  Add it all up, and Professor Karski was one intimidating presence.  Even if I had known something of his background, I’m sure I would never have been able to bring myself to ask him about it.

Only now do I wish I could travel back in time and engage Professor Karski in person and learn what a truly inspiring human being he really was.  And this is only the beginning of Karski’s remarkable story.

Karski as I remember him

[Coming in Part II: Karski sees Hell up close and personal; a meeting with President Roosevelt; years of triumph and tragedy.]

June 27, 1973: Odd Nansen Dies

Share

Odd Nansen

Forty-eight years ago today Odd Nansen died, age 71.

Each year on the anniversary of his death, I try to find a fitting quote or example that typifies his life (see, for example, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016).

I have now spent years studying Odd Nansen, years writing blogs about various aspects of his life and diary, years giving presentations about him, his family, his work with refugees, etc.  I have a new article due out next month about Nansen and his connections to the Norwegian art world of his time.

Some might well conclude from all this effort that I suffer from a case of hero worship.

However, I spent enough time in the company of my late dear friend Marit (Nansen’s eldest child) to have learned from her that Nansen wasn’t perfect, just human like the rest of us.  There were rough patches in his marriage to his wife Kari, there were times when his commitments kept him away from his children.  There were even times in prison when he clashed with his fellow inmates.

For example, on December 21, 1943, Nansen records in his diary: “The Christmas committee fell by the ears yesterday.  It’s B. who is on the warpath against Frode [Rinnan] and me; we bite back, and the whole thing is like a nursery.  B. staked his position on my not making the Christmas speech, Frode left, and I proposed to the committee to get rid of B.  I lost and also left.  B. irritates me to the marrow, that I won’t deny, but I’m a little dismayed at its going so far.  Well, well, Merry Christmas.”  [NB: I have not been able to identify who B. was.]

Which brings me to this year’s quotation.  W.E.B. Du Bois once said the following of Abraham Lincoln, which is equally true of my regard for Nansen:

“I love him not because he was perfect, but because he was not, and yet triumphed.”

Rest in peace, Odd Nansen.

Upcoming Events

Share

Book Signings

  • October 26, 2021: The Adult School, Madison, NJ (Virtual)
  • November 9, 2021: Israel Congregation of Manchester, VT (Virtual)
  • December 9, 2021: The Adult School, Madison, NJ (Virtual)
  • January 13, 2022: Our World Lecture Series, Kiawah Island, SC
  • January 25, 2022: Temple Akiba of Culver City, CA (Virtual)
  • May 19, 2022: Bat Shalom Hadassah, Jackson, NJ
  • October 18, 2022: Shalom Club, Great Notch, NJ

People are talking


"You were a big hit last night--not only was your subject compelling and informative, but your presentation was engaging and accessible. I learned a lot from you."

- Rabbi Niles Goldstein Congregation Beth Shalom Napa, CA

For more posts please see our archives.

Archives

On This Date

< 2021 >
October
SMTWHFS
     12
3456789
10111213141516
171819202122
  • A border pilot attempting to help 9 Jews escape to Sweden kills policeman; Jews are blamed
23
24252627282930
31      
Legend
  Previous/Upcoming Engagements
  This day in history