A Surfeit of Books

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

Well, we all know how that turned out.

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

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

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

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

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

9/1/39: WWII Starts in Gleiwitz

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As the long, hot, summer of 1939 drew to a close, Adolf Hitler, Chancellor of Germany, was determined to have his war.

True, he had accomplished his previous exploits—the re-militarization of the Rhineland; the annexation of Austria; the absorption of the Sudetenland; and the occupation of Czechoslovakia—all without firing a single shot.

But Poland, Hitler’s next target, backed by France and Great Britain (which had pledged their support), had by now learned that Hitler’s promises were worthless.  Poland resisted his demands for concessions and ignored his professed desire for “peaceful coexistence.”

For his part, Hitler was not daunted by the prospect of war. In fact, far from it; he welcomed the chance to show what his army, navy and air force, built with so much national effort and sacrifice, could do.

Hitler had just one scruple, however.  He could not simply invade Poland without a casus belli—a justification. [By the following year even this scruple disappeared when Germany, without cause, invaded Norway, Belgium and the Netherlands, all of which were neutral, as well as Denmark, with which Germany had recently signed a nonaggression pact.]

Hitler had already ordered his armed forces to be ready to invade Poland by September 1, but Poland was stubbornly refusing to play along.  Accordingly, Hitler decided to manufacture his own casus belli.  As he told his generals on August 22: “The victor will not be asked whether he told the truth.”  The SS were instructed to make it appear that Poland was attacking Germany.  Not taking any chances, the SS planned more than one provocation.  For example, SS men, dressed in Polish uniforms, attacked a German customs post, firing shots in the air and leaving behind six corpses—all prisoners taken from Dachau—also dressed in Polish uniforms.

Another provocation was chosen for Gleiwitz, a German town located four miles from the Polish border.  Gleiwitz did not have much going for it, except good railroad connections, and a 365-foot wooden radio transmitting tower—the tallest wooden structure in all of Europe.

Gleiwitz Tower

At 8:00pm on Thursday, August 31, the SS struck.  As historian Roger Moorhouse writes in his latest work, Poland 1939, the time had been chosen 1) to provide the cover of darkness, and 2) because many people would be listening to their radios at that hour. The SS team quickly overran the radio station, herded everyone into the basement, seized the microphone, and broadcast the following message in Polish:

Uwaga!  Tu Gliwice!  Radiostacja Znajduje Się W Polskich Rękach!” [Attention!  This is Gleiwitz!  The radio station is in Polish hands!]

To add verisimilitude to their “attack” the SS had the day before picked up Franciszek Honiok, an ethnic Pole who was nevertheless a German citizen.  Not only was Honiok ethnically Polish, he was widely known for his Polish sympathies.  The unsuspecting Honiok was brought to Gleiwitz, and on the evening of August 31, his drugged body was delivered to the radio station, and there he was executed in cold blood and left behind as “evidence.”

For unknown reasons, a much longer message was not broadcast as planned that evening, and even what was announced could barely be heard over the radio.

Nevertheless, the German press, which was no longer free and independent, no longer able or willing to speak truth to power, but merely served as a propaganda arm of the Nazis, was already primed to flood German streets the morning of September 1 with headlines castigating Poland for its dastardly acts.  In a 5:45am proclamation to his troops as they headed east, Hitler concluded: “there remains no other recourse for me but to meet force with force.”

Poland invaded

Hitler now had his war, or more precisely, as William L. Shirer noted, his “counter-attack.” And what a counter-attack it was, involving 1.5—2 million men, over 2,000 planes, and nearly 3,000 tanks.  Jan Karski, a Polish Mounted Artillery officer (and future professor of mine at Georgetown), recounts in his memoir: “[On that first morning] the extent of the death, destruction and disorganization this combined fire caused in three short hours was incredible.  By the time our wits were sufficiently collected to even survey the situation, it was apparent that we were in no position to offer any serious resistance.”

On that same hot sunny morning of September 1, Thomas Buergenthal and his parents were less than 20 miles away from Gleiwitz, having just boarded a train in Katowice, Poland en route to England.  But as Moorhouse notes, the Luftwaffe launched over 2,000 sorties on the first day alone, “strafing . . . at will.”  Tommy’s train was attacked and disabled, and his family’s dreams of freedom were, in his words, “not to be.”

Refugees on the move

Young Tommy would ultimately have another, closer, encounter with Gleiwitz nearly five and a half years later.  In late January, 1945, Tom and his column of prisoners marched—shuffled really—out of the front gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau and onto the backroads of Poland.  Their goal: Gleiwitz, 42 miles away.  Even now, it is impossible to adequately describe the agony of that three-day trek.  According to Odd Nansen, the temperatures hovered around 10° F. and many froze to death along the way, or were shot if unable to continue.

Somehow, Tom made it to Gleiwitz, but that merely meant that the second stage of his terrible odyssey was to about begin: ten more days in an open cattle car headed for Sachsenhausen.

History offers many unexpected twists and turns, often heavily laden with irony.  But perhaps none so ironic as this: Germany’s Gleiwitz is today Poland’s Gliwice.  Millions of deaths later, at the Potsdam Conference of 1945, the postwar boundaries of eastern Europe were redrawn, and Gliwice found itself for the first time located within Poland.

Truly, Radiostacja Znajduje Się W Polskich Rękach; the radio station is in Polish hands.

Happy Anniversary

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. . . and with the baby on her arm and the other children round her [Kari] was more beautiful than anything I know of on earth.”  Odd Nansen, July 29, 1943

Nansen would next see his wife Kari when she visited him in Grini prison a few weeks later, on August 20, 1943.  Soon thereafter, he quickly found himself in hot water with the camp commandant, and just as quickly found himself on the next transport to Sachsenhausen.  He would not see Kari again for almost two years, until June 9, 1945.

In the years since I first started writing blogs, I have of course written extensively of Odd Nansen and his diary. What I have not done, however, is write about his wife Kari.

This is quite an oversight.  After all, Nansen makes clear in his Foreword that “I was writing [the diary] for my wife, to let her know what was happening and how I was getting on.”  Fully 135 entries mention her by name, more than anyone else in the diary.  As Nansen confesses: “[A] prisoner thinks a very great deal about his wife.. . . “  Those 135 entries represent over one-fifth of all the entries Nansen wrote, at least in the English version.  Another 100 or so entries were cut out when the diary was translated from Norwegian.  And even in the Norwegian version, Nansen admits, about two-thirds of what he wrote was never published: “most of the private matter has been cut out.”  One can only guess, therefore, at the full extent of Kari’s presence in the diary.

Whatever the extent, it’s clear that Odd Nansen did think a great deal about his wife.  Not only was Nansen writing for Kari, her was writing to her.  He addresses her directly, often signing off with a “Good-night, Kari.”  But even when not addressing her directly, everything he wrote was for an audience of one.  While imprisoned in Norway (Jan. 1942—Oct. 1943) the pages of the diary were periodically smuggled out to her—once Nansen even bribed a German driver to deliver an installment to her!

As Nansen’s daughter Marit has explained, upon receipt Kari would often gather wives of other prisoners and read passages aloud for their benefit as well.  Kari was savvy enough to realize that the pages of the diary were incendiary—their discovery could lead to vengeful punishment for many parties, most especially Nansen himself.  Accordingly, she cleverly hid the pages in the false bottom of a bedroom nightstand.  Shockingly (and providentially) the one time the Gestapo searched the house (after Nansen had had his run-in with the commandant) the agents, in their single-minded search for something hidden, overlooked an underground (and therefore illegal) newspaper lying in full view on top of the nightstand.

Once in Sachsenhausen, all of Nansen’s communications were limited to short, highly censored, letters.  This was just as well.  As Nansen quickly notes, “I’m glad they know nothing of this at home—or of anything that goes on in German concentration camps.”

Nansen didn’t hide his psychological need for Kari: “I can’t do anything without you, not even be in prison.” If the diary was his outreach to her, far more important to him, of course, was what he received from her: letters and (while still in Grini) occasional visits.  There is no question but that those letters and visits sustained him.

A letter was “a living breath of home,” and a visit a “radiant moment,” where Nansen “could have sat for hours and just looked at her, and held her hand. . . and been in heaven.”

The Visit

It’s hard to imagine that Nansen could have made it through his long incarceration without the emotional anchor provided by Kari.

For her part, Kari had to manage her fourth pregnancy and delivery alone, and then raise and protect her four children (oldest not yet 15), again alone.  Food and heat were hard to come by. Daughter Marit recounts eating dandelion greens, and raising rabbits for food.  And any encounter with the German occupiers (and there was approximately 1 German for every 10 inhabitants) could lead to trouble.  Instead of shying away from danger, young Marit courted it, assisting prisoners—who often worked unloading rail cars at the nearby station—to smuggle notes to their loved ones.

It all made for a long list of worries.

But Kari, like so many other wives (and occasionally, husbands) of the roughly 40,000+ Norwegian prisoners arrested at some point during the occupation, kept the family intact through the dark days of 1942—1945.

As I mention in my Introduction, I believe it was quite intentional, when Nansen was once asked by an inquisitive official in Sachsenhausen what he was writing so secretively, that Nansen responded: “I’m writing a love story.”  And indeed he was.  The diary, where he poured his heart out to his own Kari, was, in a sense, one long love letter to her.

Odd Nansen and Kari Hirsch were married 93 years ago today.  Writing about their wedding anniversary on August 27, 1944, Nansen observed, “The wealth [our marriage] has given us . . . no one can take from us.  It is of eternity and will never die. . . .”  That’s something worth commemorating.

 

V-J Day Postscript: A Dog Named Gus

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Ever since I wrote my first blog, back on September 3, 2015, I have encouraged my readers to provide feedback.  I appreciate the words of encouragement I’ve received, as well as the (thankfully, minor) criticism.  I’ve also enjoyed hearing from readers whose own memories or stories, some happy, some sad, some bittersweet, are prompted by something I’ve written.

In response to my most recent post, regarding the end of World War II, one of my readers sent me the following reply, which I thought particularly deserved to be shared with all of you.  With the reader’s permission, here it is, in full:

“V-J Day is etched on my memory.  I was twelve years old.  My cousin Jacky and I were crossing Riverside Street in front of her house along with our two dogs.  Suddenly, a hot rod bearing a group of screaming, celebrating teen boys, roared over the hill out of Monterey Park.  Jacky and I jumped to the side of the street; our dogs did not.  Both were killed.

Even at twelve, I knew there was a reason for the boys, who were in my cousin Bob’s graduating class, to celebrate.  They had been facing the prospect of wading ashore in Japan to the type of reception American boys had faced at Iwo Jima.

The reprieve was not to endure: within five years, most of the guys would experience being overrun by the Chinese in Korea.

Although I understood it then and now, I still miss that little dog.”

August 14, 1945: World War II Ends

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Seventy-five years ago today, World War II ended with the surrender of Imperial Japan.  The following day, the Japanese Emperor’s voice, heard by the country’s inhabitants for the first time, concluded that “the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage.”  Therefore, “we have resolved to pave the way for a grand peace for all the generations to come by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is insufferable.”  The formal surrender occurred on September 2, 1945 aboard the USS Missouri.

Thus did the deadliest conflict in human history finally conclude.  Over 70 million dead, countless millions more injured, damaged, haunted.

With the hindsight of 75 years, it all seems somewhat predictable.  After all, how did Germany, Japan, Italy and their lesser allies ever think they could defeat the combined might of the United States, the Soviet Union and Great Britain?

And, in a very real sense, every history book written since August 1945 (and there have been many—more ink has been spilled about World War II than probably any other subject) is predictable. Of the trillions of facts to sift, and the billions of causal events to examine, even the best historian, knowing how the final chapter ends, consciously or unconsciously chooses those facts and events that point to and support the inevitable conclusion.  Thus we get narratives such as: “Although the Allies went down to defeat in the Battle of XXXX, they learned valuable lessons that would help turn the tables in their next encounter.”  Or: “Although it looked as if the Nazi war machine would triumph, a closer look at these five factors reveals that they were in fact ultimately doomed.”

The only way to really experience the war as it occurred is to study the words of its participants as it occurred.  This is why diaries—of Odd Nansen, Anne Frank, William L. Shirer, and many others, are so critical.  They didn’t, and couldn’t, know how or when or in what way the war would end.  [Another great resource is the Library of America’s two-volume Reporting World War II, which chronologically arranges reports by journalists such as Pyle, Morrow, Hersey, Shirer, et al, as the war unfolds.]

So, I will now let William L. Shirer have the last words on August 14, 1945, drawn from his book End of a Berlin Diary.  The eloquence, uncertainty, hope (there’s that word again), and poignancy of his thoughts written on that day are particularly compelling:

“World War II is over!

In the excitement of our victory tonight, in the joy and relief, it was difficult to remember the dark days when defeat stared us in the face and catastrophe was staved off by only the narrowest of margins.  It was utterly impossible for more than a handful this night to recall, as I had done a time or two in Germany when the triumph of the Nazi barbarians seemed so certain, what the awful consequences would have been for us had victory not come in the end. . . .

Now the desperate and the heroic days are over.  Peace will be sweet, yes; but the adjustment to it will take some time, and no doubt it will bring much disillusionment as imperfect little men try to repair the unspeakable damage—physical, moral, spiritual.  There will have to be adjustment too for those of us who have lived little else the last ten years but the tense fight against the barbarism of the Nazi and Fascist world.  The tensions of that epic struggle have been in my blood for so long, conditioning whatever I did or thought or was, that it will take time and effort and great relaxation to get them out of my system so I can begin anew. . . .

We kept on broadcasting until about two thirty a.m., weary and exhausted and yet, deep down, exhilarated by this immense day.  Afterward there were drinks and food in the back room of the little pub below with those who had toiled both here and in the war’s midst to bring to our fellow men the facts and the background and the smell and the sound and the fury of this gruesome holocaust which had come to its bloody end this night.  God, how long and wretched and inhuman it has been!

When I stumbled down Fifty-first Street toward home, the summer’s sun was coming up beyond the East River, rising on this first day of peace.”

Peace!

[Like Shirer and his contemporaries during the war, we don’t yet know when or how our current battle with a deadly and mysterious virus will end.  Let’s hope we can soon feel the way Shirer did on that bright new morning 75 years ago.]

August 1-2, 1944: Hope and Despair

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As dates go, the first two days of August 1944 seem to me unusually fraught.  Many things changed irrevocably—most for the worse, only a few for the better.

ANNE

On Tuesday, August 1, 1944, Anne Frank wrote in her diary to her imaginary friend Kitty.  To Kitty, and only to Kitty, could Anne confide all of her thoughts, longings, and emotions without fear of being judged.

On that day Anne tried to explain to Kitty about the “bundle of contradictions” that made up her nature.  She felt her exterior of exuberant cheerfulness, flippancy even, hid an interior self: “much purer, deeper, finer.”  This “deeper” Anne, however, shrank from exposing itself to others.  The real Anne could only be herself when she was alone.  She wanted to show this inner self—the quiet and serious Anne—but could not yet overcome this difficulty.  Her diary entry ends: [I will] keep trying to find a way to become what I’d like to be and what I could be . . . if only there were no other people in the world.”

Unknown to Anne, this was to be her final entry.  Three days later, on August 4, Anne, her family, and their friends were betrayed and arrested by the Gestapo.

No doubt hope sustained Anne during her ordeal, first in a transit camp, then in Auschwitz, and finally in Bergen-Belsen.  No doubt she hoped that she would one day be reunited with her precious diary.  Nevertheless, within six months Anne would perish, age 15.  Only her diary survived to reveal to the world her “purer, deeper, finer” self.

Anne Frank

Tom

On Wednesday, August 2, 1944, as the ink dried on Anne’s final diary entry, Thomas Buergenthal and his parents arrived by train in Auschwitz, the largest and deadliest camp the Nazis ever built.  Approximately 1.3 million people were murdered there, of whom approximately 1.1 million were Jews.

It’s doubtful if either Tom or his parents grasped at that moment the true horror of Auschwitz, the industrial scale of its gas chambers and crematoriums.  Prior to arrival, “I could not quite imagine what Auschwitz was really like,” Tom admits in his memoir, although he knew it was a place of dread.

Tom soon learned that his experience in Auschwitz would be very different.  Unlike his previous life in the Kielce Ghetto and in various work camps outside Kielce, his family would no longer remain intact.  Upon arrival he was immediately torn from his mother.  Except for a single brief glimpse of her through the wire—hair shorn, tear-stained, but alive—ten-year old Tommy would not see his mother Gerda for almost two and a half years.  Then, less than three months after arrival, Tom was also separated from his father.  Mundek was sent, first, to Sachsenhausen and later to Buchenwald.  There he died of pneumonia on January 15, 1945, less than 90 days before the camp was liberated.

What kept Tom going through all this?  True, he was ein Glückskind—a lucky child—helped by many, even in Auschwitz.  But what thoughts kept him from despair as he struggled to survive, alone?  As he explains in his memoir, while living in an orphanage after the war, and despite all indications to the contrary, “I continued to believe, without telling anyone, that my parents were alive and would find me one day soon.”  Hope kept despair at bay.

Tom Buergenthal with his parents

Warsaw

Finally, on August 1, as Anne Frank penned her final diary entry, and as Tom was about to enter Auschwitz, the Polish underground in Warsaw staged a revolt.  The insurgents hoped to both drive the Germans from the city, and establish control over Poland’s capital before the Soviet-backed Polish Committee of National Liberation arrived.  Initially, the underground succeeded in establishing control over much of central Warsaw.  Nevertheless, the Soviet army, which occupied the eastern bank of the Vistula River, and thus Warsaw’s eastern suburbs, rendered no assistance. This cold-blooded decision by Stalin has since been called “one of the major infamies of th[e] war.”

Ultimately, the outgunned and outmanned uprising was brutally crushed.  Over 16,000 resistance fighters were killed, as were between 150,000—200,000 Polish civilians.  Many were victims of mass executions by the German Army.  Most of the remaining population was sent off to concentration camps, including Sachsenhausen, as witnessed by Odd Nansen on August 15, 1944 and December 13, 1944.  The city was not liberated until January 17, 1945.

Warsaw Uprising 1944

In sum, in the first days of August, 1944, an unsuspecting Anne Frank poured her heart out to her diary, which would survive even if she did not.  Tom Buergenthal passed through the gates of hell, but inexplicably survived.  The Polish underground was crushed, but its tormentor, Nazi Germany, ultimately went down to total, ignominious defeat.  Poland did not see real freedom for decades.

All of these participants faced despair in early August, but all were motivated by hope.  Indeed, hope may have been the most powerful weapon they could wield.  For some it was enough; for others it fell short.  Memories of August 1-2 will always remain bittersweet.

In Praise of Books

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My readers, you know that I sometimes depart from my usual mission to write about lighter (but no less interesting!) subjects.

You also know that I am a fan of, and have written about, Kurt Vonnegut (here)

Vonnegut

Well, forty-five years ago today (July 28), Vonnegut’s uncle Alex died, age 86.  Described as “a Harvard-educated insurance salesman and bon vivant,” Alex Vonnegut encouraged young Kurt to read.  When Kurt was in high school, he and Alex formed a book club for two, and Alex’s suggestions introduced the future writer to Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw, Thorstein Veblen, H.L. Mencken, H.G. Wells, and Robert Louis Stevenson, among other notable authors.

So it was only natural that, upon his uncle’s death, Vonnegut penned the following tribute:

“I am eternally grateful to him for my knack of finding in great books reason enough to feel honored to be alive, no matter what else might be going on.”

With the coronavirus pandemic raging about, these seem like pretty good words to live by.  Good luck finding your next great book. (And let me know what it is when you find it.)

I wouldn’t mind hanging out here for a while

Are Fortunetellers Any Good?

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The following is one of the most fascinating passages in Odd Nansen’s diary, penned while in Sachsenhausen on Monday, June 19, 1944:

“This community within the walls contains everything, even a fortuneteller—or astrologer, as he calls himself, though he reads hands. He read mine yesterday.  Predicted that on the 21st or possibly the 20th of July a terrible disaster would befall Germany, which would bring the war to a close.  The armistice would come immediately afterward. . . . .  I should be home in July or August, he said.” (emphasis mine)

True to the astrologer’s word, on July 20, 1944, Adolf Hitler was the subject of an assassination attempt that came perilously close to ending his life.  The plot, known as Operation Valkyrie, required Claus von Stauffenberg to place a bomb-laden briefcase in Hitler’s briefing bunker located in Wolfsschanze, his military headquarters in Rastenburg, East Prussia.  Von Stauffenberg and other high-ranking officers in the German military had become convinced that Hitler was a disaster for the country.  Only his death, they concluded, by releasing the armed forces from their personal oath to the Führer, would allow the military to wrest control of Germany away from the Nazi Party and the SS. The plan almost succeeded.  Shortly after noon on July 20th, von Stauffenberg placed the briefcase under the briefing table near Hitler.  Then, as pre-arranged, he left the briefing to fly to Berlin and set the Valkyrie plan into motion.

Claus von Stauffenberg

Von Stauffenberg had originally planned to arm two bombs, but was able to prime only one explosive in time.  (A decorated war veteran, von Stauffenberg had lost an eye, his right hand, and two fingers from his left hand in combat.)  Also unbeknownst to von Stauffenberg, after he left the meeting another attendee pushed the inoffensive looking briefcase behind a leg of the heavy, wooden conference table.

The resulting blast killed four of the meeting occupants (including the officer who had moved the briefcase out of the way) and injured everyone else in the room to some degree.  Hitler’s trousers were singed and tattered, and his eardrums punctured, but he survived. Almost 5,000 Germans accused of supporting the plot, including von Stauffenberg, were ultimately executed in reprisal.

Hitler’s bunker following the bombing

How could a fortuneteller, imprisoned in the bowels of a concentration camp, possibly have advance knowledge of the conspirator’s plans?  On June 19, 1944, the date of Nansen’s diary entry, even the conspirators didn’t know the date of the attack—it all depended on when von Stauffenberg or another plotter could gain access to Hitler.  In fact, assassination attempts were also scheduled for July 7 (using General Helmuth Stieff as the bomber), as well as July 14 and 15 (involving von Stauffenberg).  In each case some glitch caused the conspirators to pull back on their plan.

If the conspirators had succeeded on the 20th—if the bomb had not been moved, or if both bombs had been primed—and Hitler killed, would the war have ended?  This remains one of history’s tantalizing puzzles.  The probable answer: most likely not.  The conspirators were certainly anti-Nazi, but just as certainly German nationalists unlikely to give up their territorial gains, and in any event England the U.S. were unlikely to agree to a separate peace which the conspirators ardently hoped for.

So what did the fortuneteller know and how did he know it?  Was it just a lucky guess? An amazing coincidence?  Something else?

Before you discount completely the powers of astrology, or palm reading, or fortunetelling, consider that Thomas Buergenthal’s mother also visited a fortuneteller, in 1939, while the family was staying in Katowice, Poland, waiting for action on their visa application to England.  Even though she took off her wedding ring before entering, the fortuneteller “proclaimed that [Tom’s] mother was married and had one child.” Moreover, the fortuneteller told Tom’s mother “that her son was ‘ein Glückskind’—a lucky child—and that he would emerge unscathed from the future that awaited” the Buergenthal family.

Given Tom Buergenthal’s amazing accomplishments and his many contributions to humanity, we can all be truly grateful that the Katowice fortuneteller was 100% correct: Tom was indeed ein Glückskind.

Tom Buergenthal’s memoir

The Power of Conscience: Hiltgunt Zassenhaus

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Today is Hiltgunt Zassenhaus’s birthday. Were she still alive, she would be 104.

Hiltgunt Zassenhaus

Never heard of Hiltgunt Zassenhaus? Then read on:

In his diary entry for Saturday, April 7, 1945, Odd Nansen writes about how the Swedish Red Cross has been collecting all the Norwegian prisoners in Europe at Neuengamme, a concentration camp located near the Danish border. One such prisoner, a friend of Nansen’s named Leif Poulsson, has just arrived, in terrible physical shape. Nansen describes Poulsson’s harrowing journey: “Since [being at Natzweiler, a notorious camp] he had been in several camps and suffered with others, until at last he landed in a camp south of Stuttgart. . . . This was the worst of all the camps he had been in. There everyone was starving. The camp was so tucked away that the Swedes would scarcely have found it if the Norwegian seamen’s pastor in Hamburg hadn’t been so indefatigable in tracing the Norwegians who were hidden away there. At last he found it out, and the Swedish relief commission came at the eleventh hour.”

Now, how did the Norwegian Seamen’s pastor in Hamburg possibly know where Poulsson and other Norwegians were being kept? Enter Hiltgunt Zassenhaus.

Born in 1916 into an educated Hamburg family, Zassenhaus made a fateful decision early in life: to study Scandinavian languages in college. This initially led to a cushy job—official interpreter to the Court of Hamburg. But when World War II began, Hiltgunt was pressed into service of a much different character: to read—and censor—letters from the Jewish inhabitants of Polish ghettos to their friends and relatives in Scandinavia. Rather than ripping up letters pleading for food (as per her Gestapo instructions), she often added her own requests in the margins of the letters, for food and/or clothing, and smuggled them out of the country through a friend.

Later, Zassenhaus decided she could be of greater benefit as a physician, and began to study medicine. And yet again she was reluctantly pressed into service by the German Justice Department, this time to accompany clergy from the Norwegian Seamen’s Church, who were permitted to visit prisoners. Her task was once again to censor each meeting, and especially to ensure that no prayers or sermons were uttered during the visit. Again, rather than follow orders, Zassenhaus soon began to secretly smuggle food, medicines, and writing materials into the prisons—right under the jailers’ noses. Risking certain death with each visit, yet laden with a bulging suitcase, Hiltgunt bluffed her way past suspicious prison authorities who were even more fearful that she might well be a secret Gestapo agent herself, sent to spy on them.

As helpful as Hiltgunt’s actions were, she had one additional, even more critical, role to play. As Scandinavian prisoners were shunted from prison to prison, Zassenhaus, having developed personal relationships with many of them, insisted on visiting her charges wherever they were relocated. To keep track of all these movements (involving 52 different prisons), Zassenhaus developed a detailed card system for each prisoner, tracking their every move.

In the spring of 1945, Count Folke Bernadotte, head of the Swedish Red Cross (and a personal friend of Odd Nansen’s) personally negotiated permission from Heinrich Himmler to assemble all Scandinavian prisoners into one camp—Neuengamme—with the ultimate goal of repatriating them safely home as soon as possible. This effort, dubbed the “White Buses” operation for the white-painted Red Cross buses involved, suffered from one serious obstacle—no one in the Swedish Red Cross knew where all the Scandinavian prisoners were located, and if Himmler knew, he wasn’t talking.

White Buses

The key to this dilemma could be found in Zassenhaus’s card tracking system. As she later wrote: “[W]henever a prisoner could not be located, my file gave the answer.” Her incredible story is fully told in her memoir, published in English in 1974: Walls: Resisting the Third Reich—One Woman’s Story (more about the book here).

Zassenhaus is the only German ever to be awarded Norway’s highest civilian honor, the Order of St. Olav, bestowed as “a reward for distinguished services rendered to Norway and mankind.” (In this she shares something in common with Odd Nansen, who also received the award, in 1970.) In 1974 Norway went even further—its government nominated Zassenhaus for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Despite all the dangers Hiltgunt faced in providing aid and comfort to her prisoners, she never flinched, and never wavered from her conviction that her cause was just. She once remarked: “[E]ven in the most desperate circumstances we as individuals can make choices. This is what humanity is about: we must never cease to listen to our conscience. It guides us toward serving life, then we are on the right course.”

I think that is a sentiment that Odd Nansen would have wholeheartedly supported.

After the war, Zassenhaus completed her medical studies, emigrated to the U.S., and in 1952 opened a medical practice in Baltimore. Hiltgunt Margret Zassenhaus died on November 20, 2004, age 88. On her grave is inscribed (from I Corinthians): Die Liebe gibt nicht auf [Love never fails].

Zassenhaus grave

Portions of this blog first appeared on November 20, 2016.

Remembering Odd Nansen: Dec. 6, 1901–Jun. 27, 1973

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Odd Nansen

Odd Nansen died on June 27, 1973, age 71.  Each year on his anniversary I try to highlight some aspect of his character (here, here, here, and here).  Although I never met the man, by studying his diary, and through numerous conversations with his daughter and my dear friend Marit Greve, I feel I know a bit about the man.

In my Introduction to From Day to Day, I discuss what, to me, is in many ways the emotional heart of the diary, which I also describe as “one of the most vivid and wrenching episodes Nansen ever wrote about.”

The place: Sachsenhausen.  The date: Monday, February 12, 1945.  The end of the war is less than three months away.  But the Nazi persecution of the Jews is still in full swing.  Nansen visits an isolation area in the camp filled with Jews newly arrived from another camp.

Here is how Nansen begins his narrative: “There are no words left to describe the horrors I’ve seen with my own eyes. . . .   Dante’s inferno couldn’t be worse.”

Starved, half-mad Jewish prisoners are fighting over scraps of garbage while being set upon by ex-German soldiers who are themselves prisoners in Sachsenhausen, but who have been supplied with rubber truncheons and given free rein to wreak havoc.

A Jew “who had been struck ten or twenty times” totters and falls at Nansen’s feet.  His lips are cleft, his teeth knocked out, his feet frostbit, and he bleeds from mouth and ear.  Nansen lifts him (“he was as light as a child”), props him against a wall, straightens his clothes and dries the blood from his face.

“[T]hen he raised his arm with an effort, as though mustering all his failing strength; his hand reached the level of my head; there he let it sink, and slowly that bony hand of his slid down over my face.  It was his last caress, and he gurgled something that his friend translated with, ‘He says you are a decent man.’ Then he collapsed along the wall and onto the ground, and I think he died then and there, but I don’t know, for I was hurrying off with my face burning. ‘A decent man!’ I who hadn’t even dared to try and stop his tormentor.  I who hadn’t even cared to risk my own skin by going out into the camp and collecting food for those starving skeletons!  ‘A decent man!’ If only I could ever raise myself up again from this shadow life in this sink of degradation, and be ‘a decent man!’”

I have always been struck by this passage, and especially Nansen’s own reaction.  Although he might well have been among the most decent, most selfless, most humane people in all of Sachsenhausen, Nansen could only lacerate himself for how little his had done to help this suffering man.

Recently I came across the following passage in Stalingrad, a novel written by Vasily Grossman, and first published in 1952.  Grossman was a Soviet Jewish war correspondent who had covered the battle.  To me, it sums up Nansen perfectly:

“Good men and bad men alike are capable of weakness.  The difference is simply that a bad man will be proud all his life of one good deed—while an honest man is hardly aware of his good acts, but remembers a single sin for years on end.”

Rest in Peace, Odd Nansen.

Upcoming Events

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Book Signings

  • September 18, 2020: VASA/Lodge Linne, New Providence, NJ (Virtual)
  • September 24, 2020: Norwegian-American Chamber of Commerce, Chicago, IL (Virtual)
  • October 7, 2020: The Adult School, New Jersey (Virtual)
  • October 27, 2020: Osher Life Long Learning, Clemson University, Clemson, SC (Virtual)
  • November 4, 2020: Sun City Huntley, Huntley, IL
  • November 4, 2020: Shorewood Glen, Shorewood, IL
  • November 5, 2020: Admiral on the Lake, Chicago, IL
  • November 9, 2020: Kristallnacht Observance, Chapman University, Orange, CA (Virtual)
  • November 10, 2020: Osher Life Long Learning, Clemson University, Clemson, SC (Virtual)
  • November 15, 2020: Kristallnacht Commemoration, Congregation Or Shalom, Orange, CT
  • November 18, 2020: The Adult School, New Jersey (Virtual)
  • December 1, 2020: JCC of Central New Jersey, Scotch Plains, NJ (Virtual)
  • February 12, 2021: Osher Life Long Learning, Furman University, Greenville, SC
  • February 15, 2021: Osher Life Long Learning, NC State, Raleigh, NC
  • February 22, 2021: Osher Life Long Learning, NC State, Raleigh, NC
  • May 13, 2021: Sons of Norway, Grand Forks, ND
  • May 14, 2021: Norwegian Heritage Week, Thief River Falls, MN
  • SPRING 2021: Notre Dame H.S. Alumni Club of DC, Washington, DC,
  • SPRING 2021: Sons of Norway, Fargo, ND (Kringen Lodge)
  • SPRING 2021: Sons of Norway, St. Cloud, MN (Trollheim Lodge)
  • SPRING 2021: Tuesday Open House, Mindekirken, Minneapolis, MN
  • SPRING 2021:  Georgetown University Bookstore, Washington, DC
  • June 9, 2021: Bet Shalom Hadassah, Jackson, NJ
  • October 19, 2021: Shalom Club, Great Notch, NJ

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"Your presentation was outstanding, and the audience was captivated by your deep and touching involvement in this amazing web of World War history, intrigue, and tragedy. Your deep understanding of the Nansen/Buergenthal connection really helped to bring history alive for our members."

Thomas Huber, President
Life Long Learning at Sun City Carolina Lakes

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