Yom HaShoah: Holocaust Remembrance Day

Share

Today marks Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day.  We vow never to forget, and never to let it happen again.

Today also happens to be the 77th anniversary of the final entry in Odd Nansen’s diary, From Day to Day:

“What on earth am I to write?  It’s as impossible today as on all the other days that have passed in one long whirl of unreality and fairy tale.  I am no longer in Germany!  I am in Denmark, at a country house; Møgelkær is its name, outside Hortens, and I’ve already been here more than a week!  It’s unbelievable.  And what have I not experienced in that week? Only it seems so hopelessly impossible to describe.  Where am I to begin, where am I to stop, what am I to write?”

Only a week earlier Tom Buergenthal experienced his own liberation, although he approached it much more cautiously:

“I saw some soldiers get off a military vehicle and walk towards the center of the Appellplatz [roll call plaza] in the direction of the big gong.  They did not look like the SS and wore uniforms I had never seen before.  But I was still afraid to move.  Then I heard the sound of the camp’s gong.  One of the soldiers was striking it as hard as he could, while another was yelling: ‘Hitler kaput! Hitler kaput!’ They threw their caps in the air and performed what looked like a wild dance.

…..

“The Soviet soldiers who first entered Sachsenhausen had told us that we were free, that we had been liberated.  I could not quite grasp what that meant.  I had never really thought of liberation as such.  My sole concern had been to survive from one day to the next.

….

“After the Russians had left, all of us who had greeted them around the camp gong started for the SS kitchen.  I followed very slowly, some fifteen or twenty yards behind, always ready to take cover. I still could not believe this supposed liberation was real and not some trick concocted by the SS.  They probably staged this liberation in order to draw us out of our hiding places.

….

“Maybe we really have been liberated, I thought as I climbed on the desk and pulled down Hitler’s picture.  I threw it on the floor, shattering the glass and the frame.  I spat on it and stepped on his face so hard that my feet began to hurt, but still I went on until the picture was torn to pieces.”

For both Odd Nansen and Tom Buergenthal the last week of April marked the start of yet another journey before liberation would mean anything.  In Nansen’s case, it would still be several weeks before he was reunited with his family in Oslo (June 9, 1945).  Tommy’s purgatory would last much longer: more than 18 months before he was miraculously reunited with his mother (December 6, 1946).

Recently I was laid up for a while with a (thankfully mild) case of COVID.  I decided to spend the time curled up with a good history book, and I chose Armageddon: The Battle for Germany 1944-1945 by one of my favorite authors, Max Hastings.  If there is one theme that runs throughout the book, it was the German people’s collective belief, until the very final days of the war, and despite all evidence to the contrary, that Germany would still somehow emerge victorious.  As Hastings writes:

“At the summit of the Nazi leadership, fantasy still held sway.  At one of Hitler’s conferences in February [1945], [Albert] Speer drew [Admiral] Dönitz aside and sought to persuade him that the military situation was now hopeless, that steps must be taken to mitigate the catastrophe facing Germany.  ‘I am here to represent the Navy,’ responded the Grand-Admiral curtly. ‘All the rest is not my business.  The Führer knows what he is doing.’  Even at a much humbler level in the nation’s hierarchy, fantastic delusions persisted.  After Cologne fell [early March 1945], Sergeant Otto Cranz . . . was surprised to hear one of his comrades insist mechanically, yet with utter conviction: ‘My Führer must have a plan.  Defeat is impossible!’”

Indeed, Hastings is at something of a loss to explain how Josef Goebbels’s propaganda could “pervert[ ] the reasoning processes of one of the best-educated societies on earth.”  As of 1939 German doctors, chemists and physicists had garnered far more Nobel Prizes in their respective fields than any other country in the world. German culture was the envy of the world.

And yet, lest we scoff at the insanity described by Hastings, let us remember that people today deny the Holocaust—I’ve met them; that people deny the Sandy Hook school shootings—I’ve met them (and Alex Jones has yet to face the consequences of his actions almost 10 years later); people deny the efficacy of vaccines (my wife and I, fully vaccinated and boosted, recovered quickly.  A friend in our town—educated, successful—who was militantly anti-mask and anti-vaccine, was found dead in his home last fall, Ivermectin by his bedside); and the list goes on.

As Primo Levi was at pains to remind us:

“It happened.  Therefore, it can happen again.”

But it can only happen if we, like the majority of Germans in 1945, lose sight of the truth.

“There are things worse than war.”

Share

So wrote Odd Nansen in his diary entry dated April 3, 1942, eighty years ago today.

Nansen had just finished describing in his dairy an episode where 50 men, ordered to report in their civilian clothes, think they are about to be released (as an Easter gift), only to learn at the last moment that they are all instead being sent to a place that is “ten times worse than Grini, for the very homestead of evil, for Germany, for a concentration camp in Germany.”*  Here’s the full context of his observation:

“Out in the world, movement is obviously slow but certainly in the right direction.  It’s just the damnable time it takes, days, weeks, months, years! and fateful days, weeks, months, years!  Many will succumb.  Each day costs hundreds of lives.   But one must harden oneself and not think like that. There are things that are more important than that the individual should live through it.  There are things worse than war.”

As I point out in my annotations, Nansen used very similar language in a speech he once made in Appleton, Wisconsin, during a 1939 speaking tour of America to generate support for Finland in its war with Russia: “There are things in this world worse than war, fates worse than being victims of war.”

Martha Gellhorn

Interestingly, American journalist Martha Gellhorn was actually in Finland at the same time as Nansen’s speech, reporting for Collier’s.  Simultaneously, her first novel, A Stricken Field, had just been published in the United States.  It is a thinly disguised recounting of her earlier, 1938 reporting experience for Collier’s in Prague, Czechoslovakia.  The novel’s heroine, a reporter named Mary Douglas, witnesses the betrayal of Czechoslovakia by the British and the French at the Munich Conference.  There, Germany, Italy, France and Great Britain all agreed (without consulting Czechoslovakia) to allow Germany to annex certain areas of Czechoslovakia.  In the novel, Mary is drawn (in the words of Gellhorn’s biographer, Caroline Moorehead) to “the fate of the refugees: the frightened Jews and the dissidents who had recently fled Austria and Germany and now had nowhere to go,** the Czech soldiers who had never had a chance to fight the Germans, and the other Czech nationalists about to be destroyed by the Gestapo and the Sudeten Nazis.”

Facing these dismal, demoralizing prospects, Mary asks herself, “why didn’t they fight?”  There is no shame “to be brave and too few.”  Sure, war is stupid, something to be loathed, “and from what I have seen of war I cannot recommend it, but if it were my country, I would want to fight or wait in my house for the bombs, or take it however it came to me.  She thought: they can destroy men other ways than with high explosive. When they have destroyed the men, with this peace, they have destroyed the women too.  There are worse things than war.”

And what, in the eyes of Odd Nansen and Martha Gellhorn, could be worse than war?

On the very same day, April 3, 1942, that Nansen recorded those words in his diary, a deportation of German Jews to the newly established death camp at Belzec took place.  The almost 1,000 deportees, all of whom would be murdered, included 129 Jews from Augsburg, in Bavaria.  According to British historian Martin Gilbert:

“With that deportation from Augsburg, the once one-thousand-strong Jewish community came to an end.  It had been founded more than seven hundred years earlier, in 1212, and in the fifteenth century had been a centre [sic] of Jewish culture.”

There were some things worse than war in the 1940s; there are some things worse than war today.

 

* Almost exactly eighteen months later, on October 6, 1943, Odd Nansen would also find himself in Sachsenhausen, a German concentration camp.

** Like Tom Buergenthal and his family.

Two Holocaust Survivors Reunite 79 Years Later

Share

It isn’t often that one gets to write the words “heart-warming” and “Sachsenhausen” in the same sentence, but here’s a rare occasion: a reunion by two 97-year-old Holocaust survivors who lost track of each other back in 1943, but reunited for the first time–by accident no less–recently.  Click here for the full story.

A heart-warming tale indeed.

In Memoriam: Marit Greve (11/8/28–3/26/21)

Share

One year ago today I lost a dear friend when Marit Greve, Odd Nansen’s eldest child, passed away in her sleep, age 92.  Marit was a such a delightful person.  Quite apart from the immense help she provided me while I was editing Odd Nansen’s WWII concentration camp diary, the Marit I came to know was smart and funny, low-key about her famous father and grandfather, diplomatic at times, and at others unafraid to say exactly what was on her mind.

Three generations of Nansens. Fridtjof Nansen holds Marit, while father Odd Nansen looks on. I believe the woman on the right is Odd Nansen’s sister-in-law Signe Hirsch

I still cherish my visits to Norway, beginning in 2011, and her two trips to America as my houseguest.  Our very first meeting was at Polhøgda, the home built by Fridtjof Nansen.  It was later occupied by Odd Nansen and his family until after WWII, when Odd constructed his own home nearby (which I’ve written about here).  After a tour of Fridtjof’s famous home, my wife Tara and I sat outside with Marit and I quizzed her with countless questions.  We had been told that Norwegians could be very formal and reserved, especially with strangers, so we were surprised when Marit then invited us back to her own home, located close by.  She showed me a photo taken of the Nansen family upon her father’s return from captivity in the summer of 1945.  When I gushed over it, Marit simply removed it from the frame it was in and handed the picture to me—she was that kind of person. [The photo can be found on page 567 of From Day to Day].  Each succeeding trip to Norway showcased her hospitality, her patience (with my unending questions) and her charm.  Each one was a delight.

During my research on all things Nansen, I once came across a passage that Fridtjof Nansen had written while aboard the Fram during his polar expedition, on the subject of death.  Here is how he envisioned it:

“It will come one day vast and silent, opening the heavy portal of Nirvana, and you will be washed away on the sea of eternity.”

It is comforting to think that your grandfather’s vision is correct, Marit.  Until I too am washed away on the sea of eternity I will continue to miss you.

Marit at First Edition Farm, July 2016

All’s Welles That Ends Welles

Share

Writing blogs about World War II (or even current events for that matter) can be a dispiriting enterprise at times. So much fear, anger, hate and death.  And for what?  I’ve tried on occasion to keep things a bit lighter by writing about such topics as oatmeal raisin cookies, cinnamon crullers, fish, and even Minnesota.

But every once and a while history itself provides some levity.  And so it was with the “peace mission” undertaken by Sumner Welles in March 1940 at the behest of his boss, President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Born Benjamin Sumner Welles in 1892, Sumner, as he preferred to be called (after his famous relative, Senator Charles Sumner of Civil War fame) came from the bluest of blue-bloods.  Like President Roosevelt, who was ten years his senior, he was a product of Groton and Harvard.  His second wife was painted by John Singer Sargent.  And his personal connections to the Roosevelts went deep: at Groton he roomed with Hall Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt’s younger brother.  He even served as a page in Franklin and Eleanor’s 1905 wedding.

Heeding FDR’s advice, young Welles joined the U.S. Foreign Service out of Harvard in 1914, and remained there until forced out by President Coolidge in the 1920s.  With Roosevelt’s election he returned to government service in 1933 as Assistant Secretary of State for Latin American Affairs, and was promoted in 1937 to Under Secretary of State.

Sumner Welles

Welles set off on his peace mission with no concrete proposals, no fixed agenda.  Rather, with all of Europe on the precipice of a wider conflagration, he was to listen to all the major players, in Italy, Germany, France and Great Britain, to see if Armageddon could somehow be averted.

He departed for Europe by ocean liner, leaving on February 17, 1940 and arriving in Italy eight days later.  His itinerary would take him to Rome, Berlin, Paris, London, and back to Rome (to meet the Pope) from whence he departed by ship 82 years ago today—March 20, 1940.

His mission was a failure—Germany was already too far down the road to war to turn back. Hitler had wanted war, and by God, he was going to get one.  He had first instructed his generals as early as September 27, 1939 (before Poland had even been fully subdued), to prepare for an assault on France to begin less than two months later.  (This date was subsequently pushed back several times; the attack was finally launched on May 10, 1940.)

As William L. Shirer explains, Welles’s mission was doomed from the start.  The ambassador, Shirer writes in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, “must have got the impression [while in Berlin] that he had landed in a lunatic asylum—if he could believe his ears.  Each of the Big Three Nazis [Ribbentrop, Göring and Hitler] bombarded Welles with the most grotesque perversions of history, in which facts were twisted and even the simplest words lost all meaning.” As evidence, Shirer points out that during his March 2 audience with Welles, Hitler emphasized his aim was only peace, whereas just one day earlier he had given final orders for the invasion of neutral Norway and Denmark.

As part of Welles’s mission, he met with as many senior political figures as possible, including Mussolini, Chamberlain, and Churchill in addition to Hitler and his Nazi cronies.  In France that included President Albert Lebrun, Prime Minister Édouard Daladier, Senate President Jules Jeanneney, and President of the Chamber of Deputies Édouard Herriot.

While Welles was in Paris, Jean Giraudoux, the Commissioner General for Information in the Ministry of Information, expressed major reservations about the American’s visit.  Giraudoux, a well-respected poet and playwright, had been appointed to this important post in the Ministry of Information by Prime Minister Daladier in July 1939.

Jean Giraudoux

One would think that one of the primary missions of the Ministry of Information, indeed, its raison d’etre (to borrow a French phrase) was to provide its government with up-to-date, accurate and relevant information.  Such information would permit French authorities to navigate in a dangerous, rapidly-changing world with maximum care and insight.

One would think.

But according to Clare Boothe Luce’s memoir, Europe in the Spring, the Ministry was “a vast place of labyrinthine confusions, organized, or rather disorganized, under . . . Giraudoux. . . .   It now seems that no one person in France in a position of authority . . . really knew all the true facts about the state of French armament.”

As noted, this M. Giraudoux had strong reservations about the very character of Sumner Welles, the man President Roosevelt had sent to promote peace in Europe.  Here’s how he expressed his concern to a friend:

“How very odd of America to send on a peace mission the man who had terrified the whole world by broadcasting a Martian invasion.” (Emphasis in original).

Is it any wonder, then, that France, with one of the largest armies in Europe, fell in only 45 days??

Whether the Welleses—Sumner or Orson—ever learned of this case of mistaken identity, and whether either ever got a chuckle out of it, remains unknown.

[With tip of the hat to that other Wells fellow, H.G., who started this whole imbroglio by writing about a Martian invasion in the first place.]

The Moon Is Down Turns 80 Years Young

Share

On this date in 1942, John Steinbeck’s short wartime novel The Moon Is Down, was published.

Composed quickly in late 1941, the work is set in an unnamed foreign country—one that looks an awful lot like Norway, that is suddenly invaded by an unnamed army—one that looks an awful lot like Germany’s.  Steinbeck’s purpose was to write about “the experiences of the occupied,” and in so doing, provide “a blueprint, setting forth . . .  what could be done” to resist, to fight back. In this Steinbeck succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.  One scholar later wrote that Steinbeck’s novel was

“the most powerful piece of propaganda ever written to help a small democratic country resist totalitarian aggression and occupation.”

An article I have written about Steinbeck and The Moon Is Down will be published in the Summer 2022 issue of MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History.  It is not my intent here to revisit or describe all the details of the forthcoming article—for that you’ll just have to read the piece when it comes out! (I promise to make it available to you as soon as it is published.)

Rather, here I would like to discuss a number of interesting parallels between Odd Nansen and John Steinbeck, beyond the novel’s obvious setting in Norway.

To begin with, Odd Nansen and John Steinbeck were contemporaries.  Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California on February 27, 1902—less than three months after Nansen’s birth on December 6, 1901.

Both men were extraordinarily generous.  According to Tom Buergenthal, Nansen donated the proceeds of the German translation of his diary to a fund set up to help German refugees.  Steinbeck likewise signed over the prize money from his 1940 Pulitzer Prize (for The Grapes of Wrath) to a friend to allow him to quit his day job and complete a novel he was working on (unfortunately, the novel was never published).  Even earlier, Steinbeck had agreed to the re-publication of a series of articles on migrant workers in California’s Central Valley on the condition that all proceeds go to migrant-worker relief. Finally, in 1942 he gave all royalties from Bombs Away: The Story of a Bomber Team, a book he wrote about the U.S. Army Air Force, to the Air Forces Aid Society Trust Fund. The movie rights alone fetched $250,000. (Steinbeck did not feel he should profit from the war effort.)

A key plot development in The Moon Is Down is the delivery, via miniature parachutes, of explosives to the local inhabitants.  This sets off a wave of sabotage throughout the countryside.  The resulting chaos in turn leads to the arrest of the local magistrate, one Mayor Orden, the hero of the novel, as a “hostage.”  Similarly, it was in retaliation for British commando raids in late December 1941 (Operations Anklet and Archery) that Odd Nansen was arrested as a “hostage” on January 13, 1942.  Fortunately for us, Odd Nansen did not meet the fate of Orden, who is executed in the closing pages of the novel as a sacrifice to the ongoing sabotage.

Finally, Odd Nansen and John Steinbeck seemed to share the same personal philosophy.  Just before being led to his execution, Mayor Orden reflects back on his school days with his close friend, Dr.  Winter.  At his graduation Orden had recited an excerpt from Plato’s Apology, an account of Socrates’s trial in 399 B.C. for heresy.  At one point Socrates, who is also facing imminent death, remarks:

“Someone will say, ‘And are you not ashamed, Socrates, of a course of life which is likely to bring you to an untimely end?’  To him I may fairly answer: ‘There you are mistaken: a man who is good for anything ought not to calculate the chance of living or dying; he ought only to consider whether what he is doing is right or wrong.’”

Eighty years later, Steinbeck’s novel is as relevant today as when it was first written.

Dedicated to the courageous Ukrainians in their fight to “resist totalitarian aggression and occupation.”

The Vemork Raid: February 27/28, 1943

Share

Odd Nansen’s Diary, March 6, 1943:

“The news was excellent—but still with no essential points.  There has been sabotage in Vemork.  The heavy-water works are destroyed.  Four Norwegian-speaking men in English uniform got away. . . .   Yes, there are a few things going on—that one must admit.”

Seventy-nine years ago tonight, eleven British-trained Norwegian saboteurs descended upon the heavily guarded Vemork hydroelectric plant.  Their mission: to destroy all extant stocks of heavy water, as well as the accompanying electrolysis machinery used in heavy water production.

Vemork Hydroelectric Plant

Did the members of Operation Gunnerside understand the importance of their mission?  Probably not.  To do so would have required an advanced degree in nuclear physics.  They were simply told that their mission was critical to the war, and, if successful, would be written about long afterward.

The Vemork hydroelectric plant—the world’s largest when it came on line in 1911, was originally dedicated to the production of fertilizer.  Only years later was it discovered that Vemork’s abundance of both water and electric power could be employed in the production of “heavy-water,” so-called due to the presence of an additional neutron in the H2O molecule.

Even then, heavy water was something of a mystery: what was it any good for?  No one really knew.  It was only when nuclear physicists discovered that heavy water made an excellent “moderator,” controlling the process of nuclear fission—and thus enabling the construction of a nuclear reactor and, ultimately, an atomic bomb, that the true value of Vemork’s unique heavy water plant was recognized.

With their invasion of Norway on April 9, 1940, control of Vemork passed into German hands.  Soon, it was apparent that German demands for ever increasing amounts of heavy water from Vemork signaled that they were pursuing their own research on an atomic bomb.  To the Allied Powers this possibility was unacceptable.

The first British Special Operation Executive (SOE) attempt to sabotage Vemork (Operation Freshman), which took place on November 19, 1942, was a total  failure, resulting in the loss of 41 men.  Equally concerning, Operation Freshman alerted the Nazi occupiers of the Allies’ intentions, leading to increased security at the plant: additional guards, searchlights, mine fields, etc.

Nevertheless, faced with such daunting obstacles, the Gunnerside team successfully scaled down a sheer, 660 ft. ravine, crossed a narrow river, and scaled back up the opposite side, to reach the remote ledge where the plant was located.  Entering the plant without detection, the demolition squad set delay fuses to allow time for escape.  All told, over 1,000lbs of heavy water, as well as associated equipment, were destroyed.  There were no casualties.

Recreation of the heavy water sabotage

Despite a search effort involving 3,000 German soldiers, none of the Norwegian saboteurs were caught, even though five members skied—in uniform—200 miles to safety in Sweden (two escaped to Oslo and four remained in the area for additional resistance work).

The SOE later considered Operation Gunnerside the most successful act of sabotage in WWII, and the German military commander of Norway, General von Falkenhorst, called it “The finest coup I have seen in this war.”

Joachim Rønneberg, the last surviving member of the Gunnerside operation, passed away on October 12, 2018, age 99.  I have previously written about Rønneberg here.  With Norway’s medal performance in the Winter Olympics still fresh in our minds, it is worth noting how Rønneberg described his 200-mile ski escape to Sweden: “The best skiing weekend I ever had.”

Operation Gunnerside members being congratulated by King Haakon VII. Rønneberg is on the far left.

Winter Olympic Trivia (Cont.)

Share

Last week’s blog produced so many responses I’ve decided to do it again!

Q: Did Germany participate in the 1952 Winter Olympics?

A: Yes

The question of Germany’s participation in the 1952 Games, so soon after the end of the worst conflagration in history, generated strong feelings, both pro and con.  According to Tom Buergenthal, one of those advocating for inclusion was Odd Nansen.  In a speech Nansen delivered in late 1951, he stated: “It is unjust and senseless to punish the children for the sins of their fathers.  But that is what is being sought to be done when Germany’s young people are kept out of associations [designed to promote] international cooperation.”

In the end, both East and West Germany were invited to participate.  West Germany sent a team; East Germany did not.

Q: How did the Triple Axel gets its name?

A: The Axel jump is named after Axel Paulsen, a Norwegian figure skating and speed skating phenomenon (1855—1938). 

Axel Paulsen

At the 1882 World Championships (there being no Winter Olympics until 1924), Axel won the speed skating competition, and was awarded a special prize for the new jump he introduced to the figure skating competition (all while wearing speed skates). Thereafter the jump was called the Axel in his honor.  The Axel is figure skating’s oldest and most difficult jump; it is the only competitive jump that begins with a forward takeoff.

Paulsen went on to win multiple skating competitions, including in 1885 when he captured both the figure skating and speed skating championship.

(A shout-out to my friend R.A. for calling this to my attention.)

Q: Have there been other Norwegian speed skating prodigies?

A: Yes: Fridtjof Nansen

At age 15, Nansen won the boys’ 5K speed skating race in Christiana; at age 17 he won Norway’s distance speed skating championship; and at age 18 he broke the world record for the one-mile skate.  At that point Nansen decided to improve his skiing, and went on to win multiple cross-country skiing championships as well.

Fridtjof Nansen

Q: Who is leading in the medal count for the 2022 Games.

A: As of this writing, Norway is way ahead on the medals.

See my earlier comment about Norway’s size relative to its nearest competitors.

Q: Did the torch relay instituted in the 1952 Olympic Games continue in later games?

A: Yes, and No

Norway hoped the torch relay it began in Morgedal would continue as a regular part of all subsequent Winter Olympics, and it was repeated for the 1960 Squaw Valley Games.  However, the Greek delegation to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had other ideas, and began to lobby for the torch relay to originate in Olympia, Greece, as was already the case with the Summer Olympics.  They succeeded at the Innsbruck Winter Games in 1964.

This development did not present any particular difficulties until Lillehammer, Norway, was chosen to host the 1994 Winter Olympic Games.  The Norwegians wanted to recreate their Morgedal torch relay; the Greek delegation wanted the flame to come from Greece.  Neither side was inclined to compromise.  The Norwegians suggested merging the flame from the Morgedal torch with that of the Olympia torch.  No dice said the Greeks.  There was no way the “pure” flame from Olympia was going to be sullied by a “dirty” flame from a simple Norwegian hearth (notwithstanding that no ancient Greek competitor would have known what to do with a ski, a skate, or a bobsled, and would have been most uncomfortable competing in the nude, as was the custom in all historical games).

After much verbal jousting, a compromise was finally reached—the two torches would be carried to the opening side by side.  The Olympia flame would be used to light the Olympic cauldron; the Morgedal flame would be used to start the Paralympic Games.  However, when it came time for Norway’s Crown Prince Haakon to light the Olympic flame, there was only one torch.  Gerhard Heiberg, Norway’s member on the IOC and chairman of the Lillehammer committee, professed to know nothing about what happened to the second flame.  Petter Ronningen, chief operating officer for the Lillehammer Games, could only recall how “two flames entered the forest above the town, but only one came out.”

Lesson: When it comes to Olympic torches, don’t mess with Norway!

Winter Olympics (and Other) Trivia. Did You Know. . . .?

Share

Q: Who lit the Olympic Torch to start the 1952 Winter Olympics?

A: Eigil Nansen, Odd Nansen’s eldest son, lit the Olympic Torch.

Eigil Nansen lighting the Olympic Flame

Eigil, then 20 years old, was “ordered” to carry the torch “by my father” he once confessed in an interview.  In fact, he was chosen by the Oslo Olympic Organizing Committee.  In their preparation for the event, they had made it clear that “The skier [lighting the flame] must . . . represent the qualities that Norwegian sports associates with their athletes and their character.”  In lighting the torch, a symbol of international cooperation, Eigil was honoring his grandfather—polar explorer and humanitarian Fridtjof Nansen, who died the year before Eigil was born.  To build suspense, Eigil was also enjoined by his father from telling anyone about his forthcoming role, not even his closest friends.

The Norwegians hosting the Olympic Games were anxious to show the world that their country had recovered from World War II, and five long years of Nazi occupation.  With the world’s attention focused on their country, the organizers devised an event, rich in cultural associations, which would highlight their own unique contributions to winter sports.  How?  By introducing the first Olympic torch relay to the Winter Olympics. [A torch relay, from Olympia, Greece, had been instituted for the 1936 Summer Olympics, and followed thereafter for the Summer Games].

What better place to light the Olympic torch and start the relay than in the hearth of a simple cabin in Telemark, Norway that once was the home of Sondre Norheim (1825—1897), considered the father of modern skiing.  Skiing was already popular in Morgedal, a tiny hamlet in Telemark, and Norheim soon distinguished himself as a master skier.  He won Norway’s first national skiing competition in Oslo (then still called Christiana) in 1868.  [Not surprisingly, when Norheim was invited to the competition, he and two friends for Morgedal skied the entire 140 miles to Christiana just to enter.]  Norheim also developed the Telemark ski, and introduced many technical innovations (different bindings, shorter skis, curved edges, etc.).

Statue of Sondre Norheim

Q: Who was the first to cross Greenland, using skis?

A: Fridtjof Nansen and his team were the first to cross Greenland, using skis.

Even Fridtjof Nansen recognized the skiing prowess of the Telemark skiers: “Telemark is the rightful home of skiing.  The people of Telemark are unquestionably our country’s best skiers, and if they are the best in our country, I can doubtless say, without fear of exaggeration, that they are also the world’s best.”  We can thank Sondre Norheim, who eventually emigrated to the United States and is buried in North Dakota, for introducing the wider world to the words ski and slalom.

Who would have the honor of actually lighting the torch in Norheim’s hearth?

The Norwegians chose Olav Bjaaland (1873—1961).  Bjaaland was also from tiny Morgedal, and like Norheim an excellent skier, winning the Nordic combined at the 1902 Holmenkollen Ski Festival.  More importantly, however, in 1952 he was one of the last living survivors of the five-man team, led by Roald Amundsen, that first reached the South Pole on December 14, 1911.  It was on a trip to Chamonix, France in 1909 for an international ski competition that Bjaaland met Amundsen purely by chance, which led to Amundsen’s invitation to join the expedition (Bjaaland also won the race).

Olav Bjaaland at the South Pole

Q: How did Bjaaland and Amundsen’s expedition sail to Antarctica in 1910?

A: Aboard the Fram, the ship specially designed by and built for Fridtjof Nansen for his expedition to the North Pole (1893—1896).

So, the stage was set: A hero of Amundsen’s expedition would ignite the pine torch in the fireplace belonging to the father of modern skiing, perched high in the mountains of Telemark, Norway.  The authorities naturally wanted to capture this historic event on film.  Only one element seemed lacking: a young child, to symbolize Norway’s future as well.

Here’s where the story takes on a number of comic overtones.  First, the filmmakers needed a young child.  The ultimate ‘winner” of this honor, a young boy named Olav Tveiten, once described in an interview how all this came to be:

“My teacher, whose name was also Olav Bjaaland, and there were a lot of Olavs in Morgedal, asked the class which one of us would go up to Sondre Norheim’s cabin.  No one held up their hand, and so he looked at me and said ‘you go.’  I think it was because I was a good skier, better than most.”

Next came the actual filming.  Although Olav Bjaaland was a near-mythic figure in Norway, by February 1952 he was just shy of his 79th birthday, and at his age following even simple stage directions presented a real challenge.  Bjaaland was supposed to light the pine torch in the hearth, with young Tveiten looking on, turn to his right, and exit the cabin.  Once outside, he would in turn light the torch to be carried by the first of 94 relay skiers.  They would carry it all the way to Bislett Stadium, 140 miles away in Oslo, following roughly the same path used by Sondre Norheim 84 years earlier.

Q: Who designed Bislett Stadium?

A: Odd Nansen’s close friend, and fellow prisoner in Grini and Sachsenhausen, Frode Rinnan, designed Bislett, and oversaw the renovations undertaken to prepare for the 1952 Games.

Unfortunately, there was one minor glitch in this film script, as described by Tveiten almost 60 years later: Instead of turning right “every time Bjaaland had lit the torch, he’d turn left and run into the wall and we would have to start all over again.” It wouldn’t have been so bad, Tveiten explained, except that it was bitterly cold (-18 F) and the film crew had to keep the cabin door open for the light.  Ultimately it took a day and a half for Bjaaland to get it right, and turn right, and the relay began, on February 13, 1952.

For two days the torch was carried—entirely on skis—by 93 renowned skiers or their descendants.  Their identities, like Eigil’s, had been kept secret until they began their leg of the journey.  Waiting patiently inside Bislett Stadium at the appointed hour on February 15 was the 94th, and final torchbearer, Eigil Nansen.  The 20,000-seat stadium was packed with dignitaries, all eager to start the games.  All Eigil needed to do was accept the torch, ski from the entrance to the steps leading to the cauldron, ascend and light the flame, ski around the rest of the inside track, and depart.

What could go wrong?  According to Eigil, “The track I was supposed to use had been wrecked by the photographers, so when I got in there it was all ice.  I was afraid I would capsize like a turtle, in front of all these people.”  Nevertheless, the sequence went off without a hitch, although again, not without its humorous side.  Once Eigil had lit the cauldron, “I skied out the end of the stadium and the doors closed behind me.  One moment everyone was cheering and clapping, and the next I was on the outside of the stadium, all alone with this torch in my hand and not knowing what to do.”

I had the pleasure of meeting Eigil several times before he passed away on February 17, 2017, age 85.  He once explained to me what happened next: “I simply threw the torch in the snow,” he said.

So much for Olympic tradition!

All of the above was indeed captured on film, which can be found here.  The film runs for well over an hour, but the good stuff can be watched in the first 10 minutes (with English subtitles to help understand the narrator).  We see old Bjaaland finally getting his directions correct, although he does seem in a bit of a daze, looked on by a rather bored Olav Tveiten.  Shortly after, a strikingly handsome Eigil Nansen accepts the torch, navigates with intense concentration the uneven snow and ice, and in true Olympic spirit, solemnly ignites the caldron. (The rest of the film makes for great viewing as well–winter sports have come a long way.)

Q: Which country has won the most medals in the Winter Olympics?

A: Norway.  Before the start of the 2022 Games, Norway had won a total of 368 medals, followed by the United States in distant second place, with 305.  [Note: the population of the U.S. in 2020 was 331 million; Norway’s was 5.5 million.]

Lesson: When it comes to Nordic sports events, don’t mess with Norway!

International Holocaust Remembrance Day

Share

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It is appropriate for each of us to remember the millions of innocent men, women and children slaughtered in pursuit of a crackpot racial idea.

The Nazi’s murderous scheme did not originate full blown from Adolf Hitler’s fevered imagination. The history of anti-Semitism is long and tortuous, nor was it exorcized with the utter destruction of the Nazis more than seventy years ago. As Primo Levi once observed:

It happened,
Therefore it can happen again. . .
It can happen everywhere.

So, as we remember the dead, let us all dedicate ourselves to insuring that it never does happen again, confronting injustice and intolerance wherever we see it.

The final paragraph of Odd Nansen’s Postscript to his diary reads: “The worst crime you can commit today, against yourself and society, is to forget what happened and sink back into indifference. What happened was worse than you have any idea of–and it was the indifference of mankind that let it take place!”

As true today as when wrote the Postscript in 1946.

The foregoing first appeared in a slightly different form in January 2016

Upcoming Events

Share

Book Signings

  • May 18, 2022: North Oaks Senior Living, Baltimore, MD
  • May 19, 2022: Bat Shalom Hadassah, Jackson, NJ
  • June 14, 2022: Polk County Historical Society, Columbus, NC
  • June 23, 2022: Carolina Preserve, Cary, NC
  • June 30, 2022: Sons of Norway Book Club*
  • October 7, 2022: Sons of Norway, Boston, MA*
  • October 18, 2022: Shalom Club, Great Notch, NJ
  • November 15, 2022: Institute for Learning, New Haven, CT*
  • * = Virtual

People are talking


"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

For more posts please see our archives.

Archives

On This Date

< 2022 >
May
  • 07

    All day
    May 07, 2022-Apr 30, 2023
    Germany surrenders to Allies
  • 08

    All day
    May 08, 2022-May 01, 2023
    V-E Day. Allied military mission arrives in Norway to coordinate German capitulation.
  • 09

    All day
    May 09, 2022-May 02, 2023
    Vidkun Quisling arrested
  • 11

    11:03 AM
    May 11, 2022-May 03, 2023
    Thomas Buergenthal born in Ĺubochňa, Czechoslovakia
  • 13

    All day
    May 13, 2022-May 05, 2023
    Odd Nansen’s father Fridtjof Nansen dies at Polhøgda (age 68)
Legend
  Previous/Upcoming Engagements
  This day in history