Jan Karski: Hero of the Holocaust (Part II)

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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)

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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

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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.

Atlantic Crossing: An Idiosyncratic Miscellany*

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[* If you haven’t yet seen Atlantic Crossing, please stop reading this, and watch it.  Do not pass Go, and do not collect $200.]

June 7 is an important date in Norway’s World War II history.  On June 7, 1940, King Haakon VII, Crown Prince Olav, and many Norwegian government officials, fled to Great Britain aboard the British destroyer HMS Devonshire.  On June 7, 1945, after exactly five years in exile, King Haakon returned to a free Norway, and to a rapturous welcome from the Norwegian people.

Both of these events—the King’s flight and his subsequent return—are recounted in the new, eight-part PBS Masterpiece series Atlantic Crossing.  I recently finished watching it with great interest.  Even if its central focus, the relationship between President Franklin Roosevelt and Crown Princess Märtha, is largely fictional (but “inspired by true events”), there is still a great deal of interesting overlap between matters I’ve previously written about here and the events depicted in the show.  I thought it might be fun to recount some of those connections.

I’ve already written (here) about the close connection between King Haakon VII and Fridtjof Nansen; how Nansen was instrumental in convincing Haakon, then a 33-year-old Danish prince, to become the king of the newly independent Norway in 1905, and how the two remained close personal friends until Fridtjof’s death in 1930.

Not only were Haakon and Fridtjof close, Crown Prince Olav was also good friends with Odd Nansen.  Nansen’s older sister Liv wrote a family biography where relates: “In the springtime they [the King and Queen] brought the Crown Prince, little Olav, out to Pølhogda so that our three small ones and he could play.”  Odd Nansen and Olav also attended the same school in Oslo together (although Odd was one grade ahead).  Olav was equally close to Odd Nansen’s wife Kari, and, following Nansen’s death in 1973, King Olav continued to visit her and play bridge with her and her friends.

Episode 2 depicts the German efforts to kill Haakon and Olav, once driving them and the cabinet ministers into the snowy woods during a bombing raid.  Although not stated in the show, this bombing raid followed on the heels of the government’s decision to fight on, rather than surrender to Germany’s demands.  Thereafter, Haakon and Olav were under constant German attack.  A similar bombing raid in Molde, Norway, in late April 1940 gave rise to a fish(y) tale, as I’ve previously related (here).

King Haakon VII and Crown Prince Olaf, Molde, Norway

Florence (“Daisy”) Harriman (referred to as “Madame Ambassador” in the series) was America’s Minister to Norway in 1940.  She was only the second woman in U.S. history to be appointed to such a post.  Norway was an appropriate choice for such a pioneering appointment: it was the fourth country in the world to grant female suffrage (years before the U.S.).  According to her memoir, Mission to the North, it was Harriman who, at FDR’s request, personally conveyed upon her arrival in Oslo an invitation to Märtha and Olav to visit the U.S. in 1939, the event with which Atlantic Crossing begins.

Mission to the North describes the incredible chaos following the surprise German invasion of April 9, 1940, as well as the scramble by the American legation and the Norwegian government to stay one step ahead of the German invaders.

Harriman’s driver, Capt. Robert M. Losey (seen briefly in the opening scene of Episode 2), was killed in a German bombing raid in Dombås, Norway on April 21, 1940, becoming the first U.S. serviceman killed in World War II (see here). For her efforts in arranging the safe passage of Crown Princess Märtha and her children to the U.S. aboard the USAT American Legion, which sailed from Petsamo, Finland on August 16, 1940, she was awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of St. Olav by King Haakon in 1942.

Capt. Losey and Ambassador Florence Harriman

Harriman’s counterpart, Wilhelm Morgenstierne, was Norway’s minister and later ambassador to the U.S. from 1934 to 1958.  He was also a close friend of Fridtjof Nansen, having served as an assistant to Nansen during World War I, when Nansen headed a Norwegian mission to the U.S. to secure relief from the Allied naval blockade.  According to Nansen’s sister Liv, Morgenstierne was even skiing with Fridtjof Nansen in early 1930 when Nansen began to feel unwell; Nansen died a few months later, having never fully recovered.

Fridtjof Nansen, daughter Liv, and Wilhelm Morgenstierne

As shown in the series, Morgenstierne had little success getting access to Roosevelt to plead Norway’s case.  Odd Nansen had much the same experience when he traveled to DC in the fall of 1939 to plead for more aid to Finland, which was then at war with the Soviet Union.  Here’s what Nansen wrote in his diary on January 21, 1940, about his efforts: “Sought an audience with Roosevelt today, but have not yet heard anything.  Everything is so damn slow and difficult.  I wonder if I should just go over to the White House and ring the bell.”

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt also had connections with the Nansens.  From 1935 to 1962, Eleanor wrote a six-day-a-week syndicated column called “My Day” which reached a readership of over 4 million in 90 newspapers at its height.  In her August 12, 1939, My Day column, Eleanor wrote:

“I remember meeting Mr. [Fridtjof] Nansen on various occasions.  You felt that he was suited to an outdoor life of adventure. . . .   Yet he spent years of his life at a desk interminably talking in diplomatic terms to people who diplomatically desired to do little or nothing.  It was a big sacrifice to ask of any man, and yet thousands of people who do not even know his name, have blessed the work he did on their behalf.”

In a December 1961 column, Eleanor revisited the topic of Fridtjof Nansen on the centennial anniversary of his birth, where she was even more effusive: “Nansen’s work has been discussed and commemorated all over this country.  The character of this man, I think, is one that every child in our schools should study and know.”

Also, in 1954, Eleanor Roosevelt became the inaugural recipient of the Nansen Refugee Award from the United Nations, in recognition of “outstanding service to the cause of refugees, displaced or stateless people.” (In 1961, the same Nansen Refugee Award was bestowed upon King Olav V of Norway.)

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

General Carl Gustav Fleischer was the hero of the Battle of Narvik, the first major Allied victory of World War II.  When Norway capitulated to the Germans, Fleischer was ordered to follow King Haakon and the cabinet into exile in Great Britain.  He left Norway June 8, 1940 aboard patrol vessel Fridtjof Nansen.  What’s Fleischer’s connection with the Nansens?  I haven’t found any—yet.  But I do know that Fleischer’s chief of staff during the Battle of Narvik was Odd Lindbäck-Larsen.  Lindbäck-Larsen did not go into exile with his general—he was imprisoned in Polizeihaftlager Grini and Kazettenlager Sachsenhausen along with Odd Nansen until the end of the war, and is mentioned several times in Nansen’s diary.

As noted, the final scene of Episode 8 shows Haakon, Märtha and her children all being cheered on by a crowd of delirious Norwegians in Oslo harbor.  Today, a statue of Roosevelt sits at that same harbor, a testament to Norway’s gratitude and high regard for his services on behalf of Norway during the war.  The scene in Episode 7, where the newly commissioned HRoMS Haakon VII is delivered to Norway, was the subject of my blog (here). And, as I wrote just last month, Haakon’s bodyguard upon his June 1945 return (as well as Olav’s earlier return on May 13, 1945) was none other than Gunnar Sonsteby.

Statue of FDR in Oslo Harbor

In the series Harry Hopkins is shown so often in FDR’s White House that it seems like he must live there.  Well, in fact he did – for over three and a half years.  For a time Hopkins was Roosevelt’s closest aide and confidant, fulfilling many important roles during World War II.

Now, most of my readers know that I am something of a book collector.  Years ago I purchased a book inscribed to Harry Hopkins by its author, James Norman Hall (of the literary partnership Nordhoff and Hall, authors of the Mutiny on the Bounty trilogy—still one of my all-time favorites).  Not only is the book inscribed to Hopkins, Hopkins himself signed it while in the White House in February 1942—when much of the action of Atlantic Crossing was taking place.

Norm Hall’s inscription to Harry Hopkins

Harry Hopkins signature, the White House, February 1942

Hopefully, this miscellany has provided some additional color on the many characters depicted in Atlantic Crossing, and will make your next viewing (undoubtedly soon) all that much more meaningful.  Enjoy!

The Pact of Steel: Hubris

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On May 22, 1939, Germany and Italy signed the Pact of Steel, or more formally, the Pact of Friendship and Alliance between Germany and Italy, thereby converting the Rome-Berlin Axis into a military alliance.  The Pact was executed by Foreign Ministers Galeazzo Ciano and Joachim von Ribbentrop at the Reich Chancellery in Berlin.

Ciano is on the left; Ribbentrop on the right; Hitler in the middle

Both parties agreed that if either “contrary to the[ir] wishes and hopes,” should find themselves at war, the other party “would immediately come to its assistance as an ally and support it with all its military forces on land, the sea and in the air.”  Furthermore, neither party would conclude an armistice or separate peace without the agreement of the other.

Notwithstanding the expressed “wishes and hopes” to avoid war, the agreement was clearly aggressive in nature.  Hitler insisted that the Preamble declare the two countries “united by the inner affinity of their ideologies . . . are resolved to act side by side and with united forces to secure living space.”  To Winston Churchill, the Pact was “the challenging answer to the flimsy British network of guarantees in Eastern Europe.”

In a single stroke, Hitler secured his southern flank (Italy had fought against Germany in the First World War), gained a bellicose ally who had been consistently courted by the western powers, and signaled his determination to impose his will on Europe. In fact, the very next day, May 23, 1939, Hitler secretly convened his top military brass and informed them that war was inevitable.  “We are left with the decision to attack Poland at the first suitable opportunity.  We cannot expect a repetition of the Czech affair.  There will be war.”  Mussolini in turn gained an ally that was the ascendant military power in Europe.

In the meantime, the western democratic powers, France and Great Britain, remained divided, uncertain, and committed to appeasement. They had capitulated to the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia in the Munich Agreement of September 1938.  They had stood by when the Nazis seized the rest of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 (witnessed first-hand by Odd Nansen). And they would temporize again when Germany invaded Poland in September 1939.

To all appearances, then, the Pact of Steel seemed like yet another brilliant strategic move by Hitler and Mussolini.

Sometimes, however, appearances can be deceiving.  As William L. Shirer noted in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, “This was one of the first signs that the Italian dictator, like the German, was beginning to lose that iron self-control which up to this year of 1939 had enabled them both to pursue their own national interests with ice-cold clarity.”

In hindsight, perhaps a most acute and accurate summary of the consequences that flowed from the Pact of Steel comes from Andre Francois-Poncet, French Ambassador to both Germany (1931—1938) and Italy (1938—1940):

“Their [Hitler and Mussolini’s] friendship proved equally fatal to both.  Without Mussolini, Hitler could never have carried out his plans for conquest and his ambition for hegemony. Without Hitler, Mussolini, contenting himself with making speeches, would never have yielded to his most dangerous temptations.  Separately they might have lived; their union caused their destruction, and in the last analysis each died through the agency of the other.”

And what of the signatories to the Pact of Steel, and their principals, in their gaudy uniforms, surrounded by their staffs and the considerable pomp of the Reich Chancellery?

Von Ribbentrop became the first of the Nazis convicted at Nuremburg to be hanged, on October 16, 1946.  Hitler had committed suicide eighteen months earlier, on April 30, 1945.

Ciano was executed by firing squad on January 11, 1944, on orders from his own father-in-law, Benito Mussolini; Mussolini would be killed by Italian partisans two days before Hitler’s suicide, on May 28, 1945.

Hubris indeed.

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

Upcoming Events

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Book Signings

  • August 4, 2021: The Village at Augsburg, Baltimore, MD
  • October 25, 2021: Regency Hadassah, Monroe, NJ
  • October 26, 2021: The Adult School, Madison, NJ
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  • January 13, 2022: Our World Lecture Series, Kiawah Island, SC
  • May 19, 2022: Bat Shalom Hadassah, Jackson, NJ
  • October 18, 2022: Shalom Club, Great Notch, NJ

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