Norway’s Constitution Day: In Praise of Heroes

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Happy Constitution Day, Norway!

I’ve written about this day, known as Syttende Mai, before, focusing on Norway’s experiences in World War II (here and here).  I’ve also written in the past about some of the heroes of World War II (here) and some of its tragic victims (here).  Today I would like to focus on a small, and sometimes overlooked, segment of the resistance movement in Norway during World War II.

When people join an armed resistance movement, or any organized military group, as many Norwegians did during the war, joining Milorg in country, or escaping to England to fight with British forces or the SOE (Special Operations Executive), they accepted the possibility of a premature, violent, death.  But each such person usually held, deep inside themselves, the somewhat contradictory belief that, while death might come to some of their comrades, it would somehow spare them.  And in truth, no situation, no matter how dismal, no matter how hopeless, guarantees certain death.  Stories are legion of soldiers charging into the face of death and yet somehow miraculously surviving unhurt.  It’s that belief—that miracles can and do occur—that allows many such heroic feats to occur at all.

But there is a smaller group of people touched by war—those who choose to die by suicide.

Not long ago I finished reading a recently published book, Secret Alliances: Special Operations and Intelligence in Norway 1944-1945, by Tony Insall.  I wish I could recommend the book, but that’s not possible.  It is overly dry, repetitive, stuffed with acronyms, and rather disorganized.  Nevertheless, what jumped out at me from the book were the number of stories that ended with a resistance fighter taking their own life.  “[Karl Rasmussen] was taken to Gestapo headquarters in Tromsø, and committed suicide by jumping out of a third floor window.”  “In an exchange of shots when the Gestapo tried to arrest them, [Gregers] Gram was killed and [Edvard] Tallaksen injured.  He committed suicide in prison.”  “[Bjorn] Eriksen, [a student leader in XU, a clandestine intelligence organization] was arrested. . . and committed suicide by jumping out of a fourth floor window.”  Åsmund Færoy parachuted into Norway in early April 1945 to help protect Norway’s harbors against possible destruction by the retreating Germans.  He was apprehended April 9, 1945 and “unsuccessfully tried to hang himself.”

Even Odd Nansen was aware of the number of such deaths.  On August 21, 1943, he relates the story of a fellow cellmate, Knut Eliassen, a navy lieutenant, who had slit his wrists.  “Knut’s attempt at suicide was—as was so many others’—not successful.”*

Why did these men choose to end their own life by suicide?  Certainly, and quite reasonably, they feared torture.  Torture of course could be avoided by telling all they knew.  And yet it was precisely this fear—of talking—and thus harming others, that led each of them to end their own lives, in the knowledge that death was the only sure-fire method of keeping their secrets safe.

And the fear of torture was well placed.  One witness, housed with a resistance fighter, reported on the experience:

“He [the resistance fighter] found great difficulty in talking. . . .  I had to feed and wash him.  The policemen had broken four of his fingers and had pulled out the nails from two of them.  Afterward they had hit him with sticks wrapped in cloth until he collapsed.  Then they turned him on his back and jumped on his stomach.  He stated that he had asked his tormentors to shoot him.  I myself saw that he was bleeding through the mouth and the rectum and that four fingers had been broken and were bent backwards.”

As Odd Nansen observed of the frightful activities at Grini Prison, and at Victoria Terrace, the Gestapo headquarters in Oslo: “People have been beaten up and tortured and tormented beyond all bounds.  Some held, others cracked.  No one dare sit in judgement.  One man cracked and had the death of others on his conscience.” (March 12, 1942).

This conscience, this realization of their own possible weakness, this concern for the lives of others above their own, was what motivated Rasmussen, Tallaksen, Eriksen, Færoy, and many others, known and still unknown, to try and take their own life instead.

It takes a high degree of courage to go into battle, knowing full well there’s a chance of imminent death.  It takes an even higher degree of courage to face the certainty of death for the sake of one’s cause.

So on this day of celebration on behalf of Norway’s constitution—the second oldest in the world—let us honor those who selflessly and willingly made the ultimate sacrifice to protect that constitution.

Jeg hilser deg,** Messrs. Rasmussen, Tallaksen, Eriksen, Færoy, and the many who preceded you, and those that followed in your wake.

[* = This passage is found only in the newly edited 2016 version of Odd Nansen’s diary.]

[** = “I salute you”]

May 13, 1930: Fridtjof Nansen Dies

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Fridtjof Nansen

Fridtjof Nansen, polar explorer, statesman, and humanitarian, died 91 years ago today, age 68.

Those of you who are watching the PBS series Atlantic Crossing (and, if not, you should be, even if it is only “inspired by true events”) are well acquainted with King Haakon VII (played by Oscar nominated Danish actor Søren Pilmark).  Haakon comes across in the series as politically savvy, and the very embodiment of Norwegian resistance to Germany’s occupation of Norway.

Those of you who have heard my lectures are aware that Haakon VII was not even Norwegian, being born and raised in Denmark.  Nevertheless, the man who was christened Christian Frederick Carl Georg Valdemar Axel of the House of Oldenburg, or Prince Carl for short, had some rather close dynastic ties to Norway: his maternal grandfather had once been King of both Norway and Sweden, and his great granduncle Christian Frederick was also (briefly) King of Norway in 1814.

The person sent by Norway in 1905 to convince Prince Carl to become the King of Norway was none other than Fridtjof Nansen, beginning a reign that would last for nearly 55 years.

King Haakon VII

And how close were Haakon and Fridtjof Nansen?

According to Odd Nansen’s older sister, Liv, who wrote Nansen: A Family Portrait, “our King and Queen . . . accounted Father one of their closest friends in the country and liked to see him often.”  In fact, when World War I broke out in the summer of 1914, Liv writes, “the telephone was always ringing, either friends wanting to hear [Nansen’s] views, the Press asking questions, or, as it often was, the King . . . wishing to speak with him.”

When Fridtjof Nansen took ill in early 1930, “the King often came and sat long by his bed.”  On the 13th of May Nansen was sitting on the balcony of Polhøgda enjoying the early signs of spring with Odd Nansen’s wife Kari when he “stopped in the middle of the sentence, and his head fell forward.  Kari hurried to him, but he was already dead.”

Accolades poured in from all corners.  Two Cambridge University professors of geography wrote: “For scientific achievements and perfection of methods of polar travel, Dr. Nansen takes first place among the explorers of his generation.”  The President of the Council of the League of Nations called Nansen “one of the greatest figures in the ten-year history of the League.”

The funeral was set for May 17th, the day Norway normally celebrates the adoption of its constitution.  The year 1930 was doubly special—the 25th anniversary of its independence from Sweden (also facilitated by Nansen).  According to the New York Times, “This year, however, thousands will march in the solemn procession to University Square, where the King and Queen and all members of the government will gather around the coffin.”

At the burial, Liv happened to look over at the King:

“Tears were running down his cheeks.  Yes, for many, many of us, Father had meant something special, something no one else in the world could replace.”

Fridtjof Nansen’s grave

May 10th in History

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Some dates in history just seem to be more fraught with meaning than others. Take, for instance, May 10.

So many things happened on May 10 relating to World War II that it’s difficult to describe them all.  Here’s a brief rundown:

May 10, 1933: On the 101st day of Hitler’s new Nazi regime, Nazi-dominated university groups undertake an “Action Against the Un-German Spirit.” That is, they draw up a blacklist of all authors whose books are “anti-patriotic,” including prominent Jewish, liberal and leftist writers.  On the night of May 10, those books are consigned to bonfires.

The students were ecumenical in the targets of their rage.  Authors ranged from Erich Maria Remarque to Ernest Hemingway to Sigmund Freud to James Joyce to Leo Tolstoy to Albert Einstein to F. Scott Fitzgerald to Joseph Conrad to Herman Hesse to Victor Hugo to H.G. Wells to Jack London.  Even Helen Keller was deemed a threat to the Nazi regime.

One eyewitness, the French Ambassador to Germany, Andre Francois-Poncet, described the scene: “a fleet of trucks made for University Place, the student chauffeurs singing to band music as they crossed [Berlin]; 20,000 volumes were heaped upon the pyre, their titles proclaimed as fast as the books were tossed into the fire; firemen poured gasoline on the flames while Goebbels, presiding over the assembly, orated.”

Time magazine referred to a “Bibliocaust” and Newsweek termed the event a “Holocaust.”  According to historian Peter Fritzsche, this is believed to be the first use of the term “Holocaust” in the context of the Third Reich.  Perhaps unwittingly, the editors at Newsweek were on to something.  They may have been aware of 19th Century German poet Heinrich Heine, but may not have been aware of what he wrote back in 1820-21: “Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen.” [Where you burn books, you will end up burning people.”]

I leave the final word on this episode to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who observed this about book burning:

“Books cannot be killed by fire.  People die, but books never die.  No man and no force can put thought in a concentration camp forever.  No man and no force can take from the world the books that embody man’s eternal fight against tyranny.  In this war, we know, books are weapons.”

Book Burning

May 10, 1940: Germany attacks Belgium, Netherlands, and France, the beginning of their offensive to subdue their western front as a prelude to attacking the Soviet Union. Simultaneously, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain resigns and is replaced by Winston Churchill.  Churchill retains his portfolio as Minister of Defense as well. Three days later, in his first address to the House of Commons as Prime Minister, Churchill informs the beleaguered British people “I have nothing to offer you but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

Winston Churchill

May 10, 1941: On the date Hitler had originally planned to invade Russia, Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess flies to Scotland and parachutes down near the home of the Duke of Hamilton in an attempt to negotiate a peace deal with Britain.  In retaliation, Hitler sends one of Hess’s assistants, who had supplied him with astrological predictions (which Hess was fond of), to Sachsenhausen (he was released in March 1943, months before Odd Nansen would arrive).

May 10, 1945: Two days after the official end of World War II, German forces in northern Norway court-martial and execute four German soldiers for mutiny.  When the war ended on May 8, members of the 4th Battery of the 118 Artillery Regiment of the 6th Mountain Division greeted the news with relief.  After all, they had survived a conflict which had killed millions of their compatriots.  The commanding officer of the 118th, however, ordered the soldiers to continue fighting.  The soldiers decided to mutiny instead and escape to Sweden, only 10 miles away.  In the course of the mutiny a rogue NCO shot and killed two officers.  The mutineers broke into two groups, of 48 and 11 men, respectively, and headed for the border.  The group of 11 was intercepted by other German troops, and immediately tried.  Five soldiers were given prison sentences, two acquitted, and four blindfolded, tied to stakes, and executed.   The commanding general, Ferdinand Jodl, personally ordered the execution of the offending soldiers.  Jodl’s older brother, Alfred Jodl, would later be convicted at Nuremburg of crimes against humanity, and executed in 1946.

May 10, 2012: Gunnar Sønsteby, Norway’s most highly decorated resistance fighter of the Second World War, dies at age 94.

Gunnar Sønsteby

Sønsteby, who would receive Norway’s highest military decoration for his resistance work (the War Cross with Three Swords), almost wasn’t accepted into the SOE (Special Operations Executive).  Even without any military training, he had played an important early role in the Norwegian resistance, but when he escaped to Britain to develop his skills further, he failed to excel and was nearly rejected as unsuitable.  It took the personal intervention of John S. Wilson, the head of the Scandinavian section of the SOE, to prevent him from being dropped.  Later, the SOE’s Norwegian section history would describe him as “the most intelligent, most efficient and most productive agent in all Norway.”  The group he headed, the “Oslo Gang,” which included Max Manus, was considered the best team of saboteurs in Europe.

On May 2, 1945, just days before the War ended, Sønsteby carried out the most important—and brazen—operation of all.  Eleven members of the Oslo Gang bluffed their way into the Ministry of Justice and the police headquarters and made off with two and a half tons of files, which would prove invaluable after the War in bringing Vidkun Quisling and his collaborators to justice.

For those of you watching Atlantic Crossing on PBS, you might be interested to know that Sønsteby led the cortege when Crown Prince Olav, the first member of the Royal Family to return from exile, arrived in Oslo on May 13, 1945.  A month later he served as the Crown Prince’s bodyguard when King Haakon VII and the remainder of the Royal Family returned to Oslo as well.

On a trip to Oslo in early 2012, just months prior to Sønsteby’s death, I visited Norway’s Resistance Museum (Norges Hjemmefrontmuseet) in Oslo.  While in their gift shop I saw a newly published biography of Sonsteby, in Norwegian, signed by him.  I was contemplating purchasing the book, even if unreadable to me, just for the signature alone, when the museum clerk asked if perhaps I would like to meet Mr. Sønsteby in person; he was visiting upstairs in the archives that very day.  [Serendipity again!].  My wife, son, and I had a delightful conversation with Sønsteby, very erect and perfectly attired in a suit and tie, together with his charming wife.

At one point toward the end of our conversation, Sønsteby asked me if I had read his own memoir, Report From # 24, which had long been available in an English translation.  I informed him that indeed I had.

In response, he leaned over, closer to me, and confided in a conspiratorial whisper: “I loved every minute of it.”

Memorial statue of Sønsteby in downtown Oslo. Unveiled by King Harald on 13 May 2007

From Day to Day Celebrates Fifth Anniversary  

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This week marks the fifth anniversary of the republication of From Day to Day: One Man’s Diary of Survival in Nazi Concentration Camps.

What a fantastic five years it has been—and that’s even including the last 12 months!  Little could I have imagined the many wonderful people I would meet along the way, each with their own story, often touching upon World War II experiences—theirs, their family’s, their relative’s, or their friend’s.  Some of these stories I have shared in the 170+ blogs I’ve written since 2016.  (A few are here, here, here, and here).  Not to mention the many wonderful friendships I formed along the way, with Tom Buergenthal, Marit Greve, Sten Vermund, and many, many, others

Looking back, I still marvel at how a six-line footnote included by Tom Buergenthal in his 2010 memoir, A Lucky Child, and read by me the same year, could so unalterably change the direction of my life, for it introduced me to an unknown Norwegian named Odd Nansen, and to a diary he had written years before I was born.

A while ago I came across this passage in a book review written by Robert Darnton, Director Emeritus of the Harvard University Library:

“We commonly think of books as containers of ideas or wrapping for literature, but they can be understood in other ways—as if they were blood cells carrying oxygen through a body politic or data points as infinite as the stars in the sky.  Books lead lives of their own, and they intersect with our lives in ways we have only begun to understand.”

Years ago, I might have scoffed at this notion, dismissing it as pure fantasy, but now I’m not so sure. The number of coincidences—serendipity I call it for lack of a better term—that seem to attend everything about Odd Nansen’s diary is simply uncanny.  Maybe the diary does have a life of its own?  Maybe it was just waiting for someone to come along and bring it back to life—when the time was right.  I’ve written about serendipity a number of times: here, here, here and here.

Here is the latest example of serendipity.

Earlier this year I received a purchase order for a copy of Nansen’s diary through my website.  It was notable in that it was the first and only purchase order I’ve received over the past five years from someone outside the U.S.  The buyer was located in Austria.  I did a Google search of the address and learned that the buyer, Christiane P., lived near Vienna. In confirming the order, I wrote Christiane and happened to mention that I had visited Vienna in December 2018, and had had a wonderful time in the Austrian capital.  Christiane replied that the next time I visited Vienna I needed to let her know, as she gave tours there, focusing on its experience in World War II, with an emphasis on the rise of Hitler and Hitlerism.

Well, I responded, when in Vienna my wife and I had indeed taken a tour much like the one Christiane was describing.  In fact, I still had a photo on my camera of our tour guide—could Christiane be one and the same person?  Her response: Yes–it was her! Now, I had not mentioned my book to Christiane during our tour, and she could not have possibly have remembered my name after the passage of over two years, and yet she, of the many millions in Europe, reached out to me based on her interest in learning about a Norwegian named Odd Nansen and his World War II diary.

Coincidence? Serendipity? You tell me.  Whatever is at work here, I only hope it keeps up for the next five years!

And to you, my readers, I offer my thanks for all your past and future support, whether by way of word of mouth, reviews on Amazon, suggestions for presentations, and the like.  Without your help, the continued high level of interest in Odd Nansen’s diary after five years would be impossible.  In 1949, despite rave reviews in all the major U.S. papers, the book went to a second printing before going out of print. Today, we are on our fifth printing, and demand remains strong. All thanks to you.

April 22, 1945: Sachsenhausen Liberated

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Today marks the 76th anniversary of the liberation of Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp.  I can’t think of a better way to observe it than to republish the post I wrote one year ago:

April 22, 1945: Thomas Buergenthal Liberated

Seventy-five years ago today, Polish and Russian armed forces liberated Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, and with it, Thomas Buergenthal.

Tom was nineteen days shy of his 11th birthday.  He had been a captive, in one form or another, of the Nazis since early 1940, when he and his family were herded into the Kielce Ghetto in Poland.  Tom was then just over five and a half years of age, meaning that, by April 1945, he had spent approximately half of his entire existence on earth as a prisoner.

And Tom had known fear even before the war began.  He sensed his mother’s trepidation when the two of them were ordered to the local police station in Zilina, Czechoslovakia in early 1939.  The family had fled to Zilina from their home in Ľubochňa, having been dispossessed of the hotel Tom’s father owned and ran there.  The family now fled Zilina as well, and Tom had to sleep in a ditch when trapped in the no-man’s-land between the Czech and Polish borders. He was not yet five years old.

And now Tom was free.

But what did freedom mean to a ten-year-old child?

Where were his parents?  He had last seen his father, Mundek, in October 1944, when he and Mundek were separated while in Auschwitz, and his father sent off to other camps (including, for a short time, Sachsenhausen), before succumbing to pneumonia in Buchenwald in January 1945.  He had seen his mother, Gerda, only once in Auschwitz, around the same time as his father was taken away.  Tom spotted her through the wire—thin, her hair shorn, tear covered—before she too was sent away to another camp: Ravensbrück.

How would Tom find them?  Where would he look?  How could he even begin?  Another year and a half would pass before Tom and his mother were miraculously reunited (movingly told in his memoir, A Lucky Child).

On April 22, 1945, then, what were Tom’s prospects?  Almost eleven, and yet still illiterate, Tom had had only one type of schooling—the school of survival.  He had done well in that school, a necessary experience for what lay ahead, but hardly sufficient.

What could Tom possibly aspire to?

Meanwhile, on the exact same date—April 22, 1945—but a world away, delegates from 46 countries began gathering in San Francisco to commence, in the words of William L. Shirer, “the difficult job of setting up the machinery of peace,” the United Nations.  And for all its shortcomings, the delegates did get some things right.  “[I]t will give us a better world organization than was the old League at Geneva,” wrote Shirer, “[T]here is to be an International Court of Justice, functioning as the judicial organ of the United Nations.”

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” is a phrase that goes back to an anti-slavery sermon in 1853, and has been used by many since, including Martin Luther King and Barack Obama.

Who could have known, back in that chaotic, uncertain world of April 1945—certainly not the delegates, and least of all Tom Buergenthal—that one day, six and a half decades later, this newly freed child prisoner would become a distinguished member of that same International Court of Justice.

I salute you, my dear friend Tom, and the wonderful new life of yours that began, however fitfully, 75 years ago today.

Thomas Buergenthal

Marit (Nansen) Greve 11/8/28–3/26/21

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It is with great sadness that I inform you of the death of my dear friend Marit Greve, eldest child of Odd and Kari Nansen, and granddaughter of Fridtjof Nansen, on Friday, March 26.  Marit was 92 years old.

Marit was born November 8, 1928, in Brooklyn, NY. (I would often kid her that, beneath her Norwegian lilt, I could still detect a trace of a Brooklyn accent.)  She was 13 years-old when her father was arrested in 1942, old enough to remember vividly the night he was taken away.

She was also old enough to remember well the hardships that followed—like learning to make and eat dandelion salad and soup.  But there were also moments of humor.  Like many families, the Nansens raised animals during the war for food.  At one point they were down to a single rabbit, which they then kept with the chickens.  According to Marit the rabbit soon began to think it was a hen: “It climbed the perch . . . in the evenings like the hens, [and] had a siesta in the sitting box  . . . every day.  Astonishingly, it did not produce an egg.”

Marit admiring a Tryon, NC pumpkin,  September 2016.

Odd Nansen of course worried about his family while he was incarcerated, and what effect his long separation might have on his children.  On March 3, 1943, he wrote: “Marit looked very fit, but I noticed that she’s almost grown a bit shy of me, and it went right through me like a stab.  Have I been away so long already? . . . I can’t stand for my children to drift away.”  Five months later (Aug. 5, 1943), when Marit was temporarily denied access to her dad, and cried in despair over the thought, Nansen was overjoyed: “Oh, how it warmed my heart; I do believe she cares a little for her daddy, and now I’m not afraid she may have grown away from me and forgotten me in this time.”  On Marit’s 16th birthday Nansen once again fretted in his diary that he was losing his little girl, who was now becoming a woman, despite her protestations to the contrary in a letter she sent him.  “Poor little Marit, she can’t help it.  And besides it’s not to oblige their parents that children live their lives.  But all the same I miss you badly, my little “fishergirl,” and if you sometimes miss your daddy too, my wish is only that it may be a blessing for both of us.”

Odd Nansen and Marit, 1930s

Based on everything I learned from Marit, Nansen needn’t have worried at all.

I first met Marit in August of 2011.  Having decided to republish Nansen’s diary, I first arranged a meeting in Washington, DC, to introduce myself to Tom Buergenthal.  Tom, gracious as ever, offered during the meeting to write to Marit and introduce me so that I could start a correspondence with her.  After all, by that time, Tom and Marit had been friends for over 60 years.  In Tom’s Preface, he writes of his first trip to Norway in 1948: “Kari Nansen, Odd Nansen’s wife, and their four children—Marit, Eigil, Siri, and Odd Erik—treated me almost from the beginning like a member of the family.” Tom further indicated to me that Marit was the “keeper of the flame” and was the best resource to answer all my questions about her father.

Oslo, October 2015

Several months later my wife Tara and I were invited to a wedding in Stockholm, Sweden, and I arranged ahead of time to stop over in Oslo on our way home and meet with Marit.  We agreed to rendezvous at Polhøgda, the house built by Fridtjof Nansen that Marit had grown up in as a child.  (When Marit married she moved into a new house a mere five-minute walk away.)  We sat outside on the lawn on a gorgeous afternoon and Marit patiently answered all the questions I could think of.  Tara (who was furiously taking notes on my behalf) and I had been warned about Norwegians’ habitual reserve, and so we were pleasantly surprised when Marit then invited us to her home.  There we chatted further, and she showed me a framed photo of the Nansen family on the day her father returned from captivity (the same photo appears on page 567 of From Day to Day).  I couldn’t stop staring at this photo, at which point Marit removed it from the frame and handed it to me! A typical example of her graciousness and generosity.

Hotel Grande, October 2014. Me; Marit; Anne Ellingsen (Odd Nansen’s biographer); Anne Greve, Marit’s daughter; Robert Bjorka (last living Norwegian survivor of Sachsenhausen)

And thus began a wonderful friendship and collaboration. Marit visited the U.S. as our houseguest twice, in 2013 and 2016, and I followed up on my 2011 visit with trips to Norway in 2014, 2015, 2018 and 2019.  Had COVID not intervened, I would have travelled to Norway last April for another presentation, and Marit had even agreed to attend a Kristallnacht commemoration set for November 2020 in New Haven, CT.

Marit in Tryon, NC, September 2016

My many favorite memories include: her visits to America; sharing the podium with Marit at the Nobel Institute in Oslo, where we spoke in the same room Fridtjof Nansen gave his own Nobel Peace Prize address decades earlier; speaking at the Norwegian Center for Holocaust and Minority Studies; and most importantly, sharing in Marit’s special 90th birthday party in 2018, held on the deck of the Fram, the ship Fridtjof Nansen built for his expedition to the North Pole (1893—1896).

Marit’s Birthday. She is wearing the apron I gave her, which states “I just turned 90. What did you do today.”

When From Day to Day was re-published in 2016, I acknowledged the critically important contributions of three individuals: Tom Buergenthal, for introducing me to Odd Nansen in the first place via his memoir; Sten Vermund, for introducing me to Vanderbilt University Press, my eventual publisher, and most importantly, Marit Greve.  At the time I wrote: “Many of the insights into Nansen’s diary entries would have remained impossible without her knowledge of the events of 1942-1945.  Marit is a wonderful friend, self-effacing to a fault, and the inheritor of her father’s wit and humor.  To come to know Marit as I have is truly one of the unexpected, but deeply cherished, joys of this undertaking.”

My last image of Marit, holding a US Senate Commendation for Odd Nansen’s work on behalf of refugees, received January, 2021.

Skål, Marit, and may your memory be a blessing.  I shall miss you terribly.

Lay down
Your sweet and weary head.
Night is falling;
You have come to journey’s end.
Sleep now,
And dream of the ones
Who came before.
They are calling
From across the distant shore.

Castles in the Air . . . and also on Earth

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Norminde

Odd Nansen’s diary for Wednesday, November 1, 1944:

“. . . I have actually been busy.  I’ve begun drawings for our cottage on the scale of 1:50, after thinking and dreaming of it for years.  I am dreaming myself so intensely into this cottage with all its details and rooms that I actually long to get to ‘work’ every day.  I feel as if I had time for nothing else.”

The Norwegian word for cottage is hytte (pl. hytter), pronounced hoota. It is most likely derived from the same root that brings us the English word hut.  Hytter are a very big deal in Norway, seemingly the more primitive and inaccessible they are, the better.  In fact, Odd Nansen was enjoying a holiday with his family in a hytte owned by his business partner on the night he was arrested in January 13, 1942.

Dreaming about and planning his own hytte was undoubtedly one of the few mental escapes available to Nansen while a prisoner, and he refers to this pastime in several of his entries.  Nine months’ earlier (January 26, 1944): “I’m well off just now.  Designing a cottage for myself. . ..“  As early as February 24, 1942, less than two months into his captivity, Nansen notes that more and more of his fellow prisoners are asking for house and hytte designs.  Unfortunately, he resignedly complains, many of these prisoners are self-styled amateur architects who insist on “enforce[ing] their views on architecture, so that the problems gradually become comprehensive and downright wearing.”

Anyone reading From Day to Day already knows that Odd Nansen was a talented artist, portraitist, caricaturist, and wood carver.  But was he an equally good architect?

Certainly, Nansen showed early promise.  At the tender age of 29, while living and working in America, Nansen entered a contest to design the prototypical airport of the future.  Of the 257 entries submitted, Nansen’s design was awarded third place—an impressive achievement for someone so young and new in his profession.

So far as I know, there is only one structure in the U.S. that bears Nansen’s design: a hytte (naturally) located on a small island lying off the coast of Maine.  Known as Norminde (meaning “memory of the north”) it was designed by Nansen in the mid-1950s for the then U.S. Ambassador to Norway, L. Corrin Strong.  One of Strong’s sons married a local Norwegian girl, whose family owned a hytte designed by Nansen before the war.  Strong senior and his wife Alice were so impressed by what they saw, they commissioned Nansen to design a hytte for themselves as well.

Ambassador Strong, who was apparently independently wealthy, went one unusual step further: he had the hytte initially constructed in Norway, allowed it to season for a year, whereupon it was disassembled—piece by piece—and shipped to the family property off the coast of Maine.  There it was reassembled—piece by piece.  It remains in the Strong family to this day.

Recently, the magazine Old House Journal ran a feature story on Norminde.  While the author of the article manages to get just about every fact concerning Odd Nansen and Tom Buergenthal wrong, the value of the piece lies in the sumptuous photos of the cottage’s exterior and interior.  A link to the full Old House article is here.

Norminde

The photos reveal an incredible attention to detail—Norwegian detail—in the use of wood, paint, and stone.  Nothing is commonplace; Nansen must have thoroughly enjoyed the commission.  The result is a gorgeous piece of authentic Norway come to America.  The cottage’s unique features lend it to periodic laudatory articles in various design journals, of which Old House Journal is but the latest.

So, now, are you envious?  Interested in adding a bit of Norwegian flair to the old homestead?  Hoping to increase your supply of that elusive Hygge? Well, then I suggest you get started by measuring your roof for how much sod it will need.  And, while you are at it, pick up a good scythe……

[A special shout-out to my friend Frank Schaberg, who first called my attention to this article.  Thanks Frank!]

Tom and Odd and Frodo and Sam: Fact Meets Fiction and Fiction Meets Fact

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“Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.”  The Lord of the Rings

I have a confession to make: I am a big fan of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (LOTR to the uninitiated).  If I had to spend the rest of my days on a deserted island, or in total social isolation, a copy of From Day to Day and a copy of The Lord of the Rings would more than satisfy all my nonfiction and fiction needs.  Indeed, the only book I have read more times than From Day to Day, is LOTR—and in that I had a head start of several decades, having first read Tolkien’s fantasy classic while in the eighth grade.

For those of you familiar with the story (and if you are not familiar, you may want to skip this part—or better yet—get your own copy today and start reading!), the climax focuses on Frodo and his faithful servant Sam on “the last desperate stage” of their journey. Having passed through many perils and trials, Frodo and Sam are so close to success—the destruction of the ring of power—but are also so much more likely to fail than ever before.  After all, these two “haflings” as they are called, are not brave and skilled fighters, they have no special talents, and arrayed against them are innumerable obstacles.

The nightmarish land they must now cross is not unlike a concentration camp—a nasty, brutish land where “ideals have vanished; [and] . . . kindness has turned to ice in many a heart,” to use Nansen’s own words.  Like camp prisoners, the inhabitants of the dark lord’s realm likewise have no names: “Up you get and fall in, or I’ll have your numbers and report you,” a character threatens Sam and Frodo at one point, mistaking them for orcs.  The pair, disguised, are forced into a gang, and, under the threat of the lash, the two are driven to their physical limits, in scenes that could be found in any concentration camp:

“It was hard enough for poor Sam, tired as he was; but for Frodo it was a torment, and soon a nightmare.  He set his teeth and tried to stop his mind from thinking, and he struggled on.  The stench . . . was stifling, and he began to gasp with thirst.  On, on they went, and he bent all his will to draw his breath and to make his legs keep going; and yet to what evil end he toiled and endured he did not dare to think.”

Even Sam begins to lose all hope:

“Never for long had hope died in his staunch heart, and always until now he had taken some thought for their return.  But the bitter truth came home to him at last: at best their provisions would take them to their goal; and when the task was done, there they would come to an end, alone, houseless, foodless in the midst of a terrible desert.  There could be no return.”

It is this imagery—of two desperate souls fighting against hopeless odds—that comes to my mind as I reflect on the terrible days 76 years ago.  Everyone had surely recognized by February 1945 that Germany would lose the war.  But what did that mean for the inmates of KZ Sachsenhausen? If anything, the war was even then reaching new, unimaginable, heights of ferocity.  Fully 60% of all Allied bombs dropped during the war fell in its final 10 months; during those same final 10 months German military forces would suffer 2.6 million deaths, nearly one-half of their total war-related deaths incurred in the entire span of  World War II.

Beginning on February 13, 1945, the Allies firebombed Dresden. As many as 25,000 Germans, including  many civilians, died within hours of the attack, either incinerated or suffocated as the intense fires sucked out all available oxygen.  Thousands more were left homeless.

On the very same day—February 13—Odd Nansen reported on the madness occurring within the walls of Sachsenhausen:

“From the Tub[erculosis] section of the Revier men are constantly being picked out who go direct to the crematorium.  Yes, direct!  Not into the gas chamber first. They get a knock on the head, that’s usually enough. . . .   A big, strong Pole who has been in the Tub four years and is by no means mortally ill was to be taken the other day.  He got word of it, jumped out through the window and hid in the camp.  The Blockältester took another patient, a Pole or Ukrainian, out of one of the beds and sent him instead. The quota had to be filled to avoid a fuss.”

Life Frodo and Sam, Tom Buergenthal and Odd Nansen may have been closer to liberation 76 years ago today, but they were also beset by more dangers than ever before.  The heightened Allied bombing campaign held its own unique terrors: stray bombs could, and did, occasionally land inside the camp, killing helpless prisoners.  Allied interdiction of almost all daylight surface transport meant that Red Cross food parcels might or might not continue to arrive, reducing even the Norwegians to starvation levels.

Moreover, Tom and Odd each nursed their own private fears.  Tom worried about a possible evacuation of Sachsenhausen.  A veteran of one death march, Tom was all too well aware that his injured feet would spell disaster on a long march, and being left behind was even worse.  In his memoir he writes: “Camp evacuations meant long marches and overcrowded trains, like those that brought me to Sachsenhausen.  But it also meant that people who could not walk would be shot wherever they were found—on the roadside or in their beds. I imagined seeing SS guards with their big boots walking from bed to bed in the infirmary, shooting everyone left behind.”

For his part, Odd Nansen was keenly aware that a German surrender, or the imminent capture of Sachsenhausen, might easily be preceded by a massacre of all the camp’s inhabitants.  In fact, Heinrich Himmler had already issued orders to all camp commandants that “not a single prisoner must fall alive into enemy hands.” (emphasis mine)

And in this hellish milieu, 76 years ago today, Tom and Odd first met—quite accidentally—when Nansen stumbled upon young Tommy recovering in Revier III.

Like Frodo and Sam, Tom and Odd were close to losing hope.

Like Frodo and Sam, Tom and Odd undoubtedly would have given anything to be delivered from all this madness.  As Frodo had once complained to the wizard Gandalf: “I wish it [the war for the ring] need not have happened in my time.”  “So do I,” answers Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times.  But that is not for them to decide.  All that we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

Odd Nansen could not have known of Gandalf’s wise counsel—LOTR was not published until 1954-55—but he lived by its precept.  He knew what to do with the time that had been given him.  And these two forlorn individuals [curiously, the German word for prisoner is Häftling] found succor in each other.  As Nansen wrote, “For the very first time [I] saw you, you went straight to [my] heart.”  And thereafter Nansen saved Tommy by bribing the orderlies in the Revier to protect the young boy.  Tom, in turn, saved Odd: “Without suspecting it, Tommy accomplished with us a work of salvation. He touched something in us which was about to disappear.  He called to life again human feelings, which were painful to have, but which nevertheless meant salvation for us all.”

And, like Frodo and Sam, against all odds, Nansen and Tom prevailed in the end as well.

Now do you see why Tom and Odd, Frodo and Sam seem alike to me in so many ways, and why From Day to Day and The Lord of the Rings are my two favorite books?

Remembering the 76th anniversary of your very first meeting, Odd Nansen and Tom Buergenthal.

February 6, 1949: Shirer Reviews Nansen

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“It is a moving record of a man who, though he seems to be unconscious of it, is one of the noble and heroic spirits of our . . . times.”

So ends William L. Shirer’s review of From Day to Day, first published on this day 72 years ago.

1949 Edition

Shirer was already a best-selling author by 1949.  His Berlin Diary and End of a Berlin Diary had earned him that distinction.  It would be another ten years before he achieved even more lasting fame with the publication of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

William L. Shirer

Shirer’s review, accompanied by some of Nansen’s illustrations, appeared in the New York Herald Tribune Book Review.  [Those of you who have heard my lecture on Fridtjof Nansen may recall that it was James Gordon Bennett, the owner of the New York Herald, who organized and financed the ill-fated Jeannette Expedition (1879-81). The loss of the Jeannette helped Nansen plan his own approach to the North Pole in 1893.  The New York Herald and the New York Tribune merged in 1924.  The New York Herald Tribune ceased operation in 1966.]

Shirer begins his review in a defensive mood:

“This poignant record of a Norwegian’s three years of captivity under the master race may get a mixed reception in a land of short memory that happily escaped the horrors of a Nazi occupation.”

Writing in End of a Berlin Diary, published in 1947, Shirer claimed to have been told “by a British and an American publisher that the people in Great Britain and America are sick to death of books about German atrocities.” He repeats the same claim in this review. But, Shirer pleads, “This book is different from all the others [I have] read.”  Sure, it also contains unspeakable barbarities.  “But [Nansen’s diary] rises above them and reminds us in never-to-be-forgotten pages how noble and generous the human spirit can be in the face of terrible adversity.”

Although it is not known if Shirer and Nansen ever met, Shirer had been continuously reporting from Europe since 1925, and knew Odd Nansen’s father, Fridtjof, well:

“Fridtjof Nansen  . . . dedicated the last years of his life to helping the refugees–the displaced persons, as we call them now—of the first world war.  This reviewer still remembers the old gentleman, with his thick white hair and his lively eyes, stamping around the palace of the League of Nations in Geneva and forcing the harried statesmen of the world to heed him and his endeavors to find homes for the world’s homeless.  Hundreds of thousands were saved by ‘Nansen passports.’”

Shirer recounts the degradations Odd Nansen experienced in prison, and the even worse examples he saw but luckily personally escaped.  And in “dreaded Sachsenhausen . . . he had to steel himself to see much worse.”  Yet Shirer concludes that what makes Nansen’s diary—written “magnificently free of bitterness or hate or revenge”—so unique is this:

“Nansen never gave up nor did he lose his faith in mankind, in men’s courage, their integrity and their capacity to love.”

Words true 72 years ago, words true today.

Odd Nansen with Eleanor Roosevelt at the UN. Roosevelt was accepting the first UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award (1954)

The Meaning of Cold: Redux

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With much of the U.S. once again facing a winter onslaught, I thought it might be worth revisiting and republishing a blog I wrote three years ago during a similar case of winter’s fury: the Bomb Cyclone of 2018.  Sadly, my fears of antisemitism have only grown stronger in the interval.  Here it is.

So the Bomb Cyclone has come and gone, leaving a Polar Vortex in its wake.  Did you survive it?  Unborn generations will be asking us in future years how we coped.  At the very least, the storm stranded thousands of passengers, shut down government services along the East Coast, provided a few days off from school, and probably froze enough pipes to keep the plumbing industry in America afloat (apologies for the pun) for quite some time.

Even here in western North Carolina, the so-called Isothermal Belt, where temperatures are expected to be, well, temperate, things got pretty nippy.  The barn was drained, heaters were installed in the horses’ water buckets against freezing, the light bulb was kept on in the well house, and the fireplace well stocked.  I am a veteran of almost 50 Connecticut winters, and even I felt a bit uncomfortable during my daily dog walk.  And I had my polar fleece ski cap, insulated and padded LL Bean coat, cashmere scarf, and sturdy boots (again courtesy of LL Bean).

Today, as I attempted (unsuccessfully) to hasten along my dogs’ perambulations, I couldn’t help but reflect on an event that occurred two weeks shy of 72 years ago: the evacuation of Auschwitz, otherwise known as the Auschwitz Death March.  Clad in cotton prison uniforms, some with blankets, some without, some with boots, some with wooden clogs, some with rags tied round their feet, approximately 56,000 prisoners set out on January 18, 1945, into the Polish winter.  According to Professor Daniel Blatman, an authority on the death marches, temperatures in the area “dropp[ed] to -10 to -15°C,” or 5 to 14° F.

One of those 56,000 prisoners was ten year-old Tom Buergenthal.  As Tom relates in his memoir, A Lucky Child, over the next three days he walked 70 kilometers (42 miles), sleeping on the frozen ground at night.  By the time he reached Gliwice on the third day, Tom could no longer feel his toes.  There, he ate his remaining bread and licked a few handfuls of snow.  “Oh, what would I have given for even a few spoonfuls of that terrible Auschwitz turnip soup or, for that matter, anything warm!” he writes.

Auschwitz in winter

At Gliwice Tom was packed onto an open cattle car.  At first the warmth of the crowded car was an asset, but as prisoners died and their bodies were thrown over the side, even that advantage faded.  “The snow and wind seemed never to let up, and we could feel the cold more now than before because there were fewer warm bodies pressing against us.” With his bread gone, Tom was reduced to eating snow, imagining it tasted like ice cream, “although I doubt that we remembered what ice cream tasted like.”

How such cruelty could be visited upon a ten year-old boy, for no other reason than his Jewish birth, is a question that both perplexes me (no matter how much I read up on the subject), but also frightens me, as the disease of anti-Semitism once again gains virulence, even here in America.

Was there any saving grace, or silver lining, to be extracted from the experience of the Death March?  Hardly.  Thousands of prisoners died in the process, a mere 100 days before the war’s end.  After ten days on the cattle car, Tom had several of his frostbitten toes amputated when he finally arrived in Sachsenhausen.  But in a strange twist of fate, his injury placed him in Sachsenhausen’s Revier III (Infirmary No. 3), which also housed one of Odd Nansen’s Norwegian friends.  It was while visiting his friend that Odd first encountered young Tommy, so young and so innocent that Nansen called him “one of Raphael’s angels.”  Otherwise, the chances that Tom and Odd would ever have crossed paths in a camp as large as Sachsenhausen were almost negligible.  And that improbable meeting proved a boon to both Nansen and Buergenthal.

Even in the darkest hours there were a few other gleams of light.  Saul Friedländer, in his book Nazi Germany and the Jews, Volume II (The Years of Extermination), recounts the experience of another Death March participant, Paul Steinberg, who had “’a precise, detailed, overwhelming memory.’”  When Steinberg’s train approached Prague, Czechoslovakia, it passed under bridges where Czechs were marching overhead on their way to work.

“’As one man,’ Steinberg recalls, ‘the Czechs opened their satchels and tossed their lunches down to us without a moment’s hesitation. . . .  We were showered with rolls, slices of bread. . . .’”

Tom Buergenthal had a similar experience:

“Just when I was sure that it would only be a matter of a day or two before I too would die and be thrown out of the car, a miracle occurred.  As the train moved slowly through Czechoslovakia, . . . men, women and children standing on the bridges we passed under [began tossing bread loaves into the cars]  . . . . Had it not been for that Czech bread, we would not have survived.  I never learned how this magnificent campaign had been mounted, but as long as I live, I will not forget these angels—for to me they seemed to be angels—who provided us bread as if from heaven.”

Think about that the next time you reach for your fur-lined gloves.

[Originally published January 7, 2018.]

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