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.

June 24, 1893: Fridtjof Nansen sets out for the North Pole

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“The most important thing is not to reach your goal, but always to be on your way—always on your way.”  Fridtjof Nansen

Fridtjof Nansen

On this day in 1893, on the heels of the summer solstice and the all-important midsummer celebration, Fridtjof Nansen, Odd Nansen’s father, departed Oslo (or Christiania, as it was then called) on board his ship Fram.   His objective: the North Pole.

Nansen (1861—1930) had already earned his spurs by becoming the first man to cross Greenland’s forbidding terrain, in 1888.  But reaching the North Pole would be a significantly more formidable undertaking, something many had tried, and all had failed, usually with disastrous consequences.  Nansen’s approach would also be unique: he purposely planned to embed his ship into the polar ice cap and allow the ice cap’s drift to carry the ship north, without it being crushed.

To do this Nansen had to design a new ship, one “as enduring and as strong as possible; it shall be just big enough to carry supplies of coal and provisions for 12 men for 4 years.”  Many of the best polar experts thought the plan nothing short of madness.  Adolphus Greely, the dean of American polar explorers (and once the holder of the farthest north record), called it “an illogical scheme of self-destruction,” and found it “almost incredible that the plan here advanced by Dr. Nansen should receive encouragement or support.”

Fram and its crew

But in the end Nansen proved all the naysayers wrong. Although he never reached his ultimate goal—the Pole—he ventured farther north than any man had ever gone, and in the process proved his theory of arctic drift.

The entire trip lasted 3 years, 2 months and 16 days.

Today we complain about quarantining safe at home, with every creature comfort.  Imagine, if you will, spending any length of time—to say nothing of 3+ years—aboard a cramped ship with 11 strangers, where almost 6 months of every year are in total darkness, and where the outside temperatures are often well below zero.  Now, that’s hardship.

As an adventure story alone, Fridtjof Nansen’s feat has few peers.  But, more importantly, it would have a direct bearing on the life of his yet-to-be-born fourth child, Odd Nansen.

Odd Nansen

As Fridtjof Nansen’s biographer, Roland Huntford, observes about his trip, “This combination of achievement and publicity [abetted by Nansen’s striking looks and the advent of the telegraph] gave Nansen the fame that lasted a lifetime.”  All of Nansen’s later accomplishments—playing a key role in Norway’s independence; facilitating the introduction of a new royal dynasty; first ambassador to Great Britain; humanitarian work for the League of Nations; Nobel Peace Prize—all grew out of the international reputation Nansen earned from his polar adventure.  As Huntford concludes, “Without the Fram there would be no Nansen as we know him.”

This fame also attached to his son Odd Nansen, making him a prime target when the Nazis went looking for suitable hostages in early 1942.  Thus, it is not too much of a stretch to say that, without the Fram, there might never have been Odd Nansen, Häftling (Prisoner) Number 1380.

There was another equally important inheritance running from father to son.  As Fridtjof’s granddaughter, and Odd’s daughter, Marit (Nansen) Greve, has written about Fridtjof’s polar trip: “Here was courage, strength and endurance in abundance—a man who could undoubtedly meet the challenges and conquer the strongest forces around him.”

Odd Nansen did not have to conquer long nights, the cold, isolation, and polar bears.  The forces arrayed against him during his captivity were nonetheless no less daunting: spiritual darkness; fear; doubt; hate.  But reading Odd Nansen’s diary, From Day to Day, it is easy to conclude that, like his father, Odd Nansen had “courage, strength and endurance in abundance . . . [to] meet the challenges and conquer the strongest forces around him.”

Today is Anne Frank’s Birthday

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Anne Frank

Today is Anne Frank’s birthday.  Had she lived, she would be 91 years old, the same age as Odd Nansen’s eldest child, my dear friend Marit Greve.  The exact date and cause of her death are unknown, although it is now believed that she succumbed in late February, 1945, probably to a disease such as typhus.

Anne, her family, and the other inhabitants of the secret annex in Amsterdam were discovered and arrested on August 4, 1944.  Thereafter she was sent to Westerbork, then Auschwitz (sharing the camp with Thomas Buergenthal who was also there at the time) and finally, in October 1944, to Bergen-Belsen.

Despite considerable differences in age and experience, there are numerous parallels between Odd Nansen and Anne Frank.  Most obviously, they were both famous diarists. Moreover, their diaries were not a mere afterthought, they were central to their respective lives.  When the Frank family received a call-up notice and decided to go into hiding, “I began to pack some of our most vital belongings into a school satchel [and] the first thing I put in was this diary,” wrote Anne.  Similarly, Nansen writes in his Foreword “Paper and writing materials were the last things I put in my knapsack before going off with the district sheriff and his henchmen.”  Anne describes as one of her “worst moments” the time her family discussed burning the diary, lest it fall into the wrong hands and implicate their helpers; Nansen called his diary “such a blessed help to me, such a comfort.”

Both diaries survived by the slimmest of margins.  Nansen faced the constant threat of detection in prison, and relied on all sorts of channels while in Norway to smuggle the diary pages to his wife, including, at one point, a Wehrmacht driver that even he called “ungovernable [and] frankly dangerous.”  Anne’s diary, seemingly safely hidden in a briefcase, was unceremoniously and unwittingly dumped on the floor of the annex on the day of her arrest by a Gestapo official who wanted to use the briefcase to collect any family jewelry and cash he could find in the apartment. After the Gestapo left, Miep Gies collected everything she could find on the floor for safekeeping.  As a result, as Francine Prose has pointed out in Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife, “There is no way of knowing if any, or how much, of Anne’s writing was lost.”

This was not the only danger both diaries faced.  Upon his evacuation from Germany (along with his secret diary) at the hands of the Swedish Red Cross, Nansen heard, to his dismay, that the prisoners’ every possession, without exception, was burned upon arrival in Denmark, presumably to prevent the spread of disease.  Miep Gies, holding Anne’s diary until her return, later wrote that, had she read the diaries “she might have felt compelled to burn them, out of concern for her colleagues.”

Once the war was over, both diaries had difficulty getting into print.  Nansen’s diary was rejected by the first publisher it was submitted to, before being taken up by Dreyers Forlag.  Similarly, the manuscript collated and prepared by Anne’s father Otto Frank was rejected by every Dutch editor to whom it was submitted.

Once finally published, Nansen’s work was faster out of the gate, becoming a bestseller in Norway when it appeared in 1947; that same year Anne’s book had a small initial print run (1500 copies) in Holland, and was out of print by 1950.  Nansen also had an easier time breaking into the U.S. market; by 1949 an English translation was available through G.P. Putnam’s Sons.  Anne’s diary received a skeptical reception.  One major publishing house called it “a dreary record of typical family bickering, petty annoyances and adolescent emotions.”  The book was already on Doubleday’s reject pile when an assistant to the director of its Paris bureau picked it up in 1952, started reading, couldn’t stop, and thus rescued it.

When both diaries ultimately appeared in America, they each met with an enthusiastic response.  Meyer Levin, writing in the New York Times Book Review, was smitten by Anne’s writing; it “simply bubbles with amusement, love [and] discovery” he wrote.  The New Yorker said of Nansen’s diary: “[I]t will surely rank among the most compelling documents to come out of the recent [war].”

Even the moneys generated by the books have followed a similar course.  According to Prose, Otto Frank decided to channel some the book’s profits into human rights causes.  Odd Nansen chose to give all the proceeds of the German edition of From Day to Day to German refugees.  And one hundred percent of the speaking fees and royalties from the sale of the new edition of From Day to Day are earmarked for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Norwegian Center for Holocaust and Minority Studies .

Of course, the post-publication trajectories of The Diary of Anne Frank and From Day to Day have been much different.  Millions of copies of The Diary of Anne Frank are now in print.  As Prose explains, “Good fortune and serendipity appeared, at every stage, to arrange Anne’s diary’s American success.”  Out of print, and all but forgotten in America for over 65 years, perhaps good fortune and serendipity will now smile equally on Nansen’s diary, and it will someday join the ranks of seminal works on the Holocaust, along with Anne’s diary, Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz and Elie Wiesel’s Night.

Most importantly, now that From Day to Day is back in print, perhaps it will also provide the same inspiration that Francine Prose attributes to Anne’s eloquent diary: “Anne Frank’s strong and unique and beautiful voice is still being heard by readers who may someday be called upon to decide between cruelty and compassion.  Guided by a conscience awakened by [the diary] one . . .  may yet opt for humanity and choose life over death.”

The above is a revised and updated version of a blog which first appeared on June 12, 2016.

D-Day: June 6, 1944

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Seventy-six years ago today, the largest amphibious assault ever undertaken, Operation Overlord, began.

In retrospect, events like D-Day increasingly to take on an aura of historical inevitability.  It seems inevitable that the massive Allied landings would succeed, inevitable that the second front would be established, inevitable that Germany’s demise would ultimately follow.  It had to be “the beginning of the end.”

Success certainly didn’t seem so assured at the time.  General Dwight Eisenhower, supreme commander of all Allied forces, wrote two announcements in the hours before D-Day began: one, announcing success, and crediting the troops, and a second, accepting sole responsibility for Overlord’s failure.

One thing which remains all the more astounding in hindsight is the secrecy which was successfully maintained right up to the launch of the invasion—an undertaking massive in scope: involving 156,000 men and almost 7,000 naval vessels.  Nevertheless, the timing and the location of the invasion caught almost everyone—including the Germans—by surprise.

Odd Nansen

For Odd Nansen, news of the Allied landings “came like thunder from a clear sky,” he wrote in his diary on June 6.  “I’d almost given up the idea of that everlasting invasion, that second front that had been haunting our minds for almost three years, and now it’s really started!”  Despite Nansen’s excitement, it would be another ten months—the worst ten months of his prison experience—before he would finally see freedom.

Victor Klemperer

Another diarist, Victor Klemperer, was not nearly so enthusiastic.  Klemperer, a German Jew, had managed (just barely) to avoid deportation to a concentration camp solely because he was married to a non-Jew.   His diary, begun in 1933 with the accession of the Nazis, relates, in excruciating detail, his ever more harrowing existence at the hands of his German tormentors: primarily the Gestapo, but also neighbors and colleagues who shunned him after years of (apparent) friendship.

On the evening of June 6, Klemperer was giving a private tutoring lesson (having long since been deposed from his university teaching position) when, as he confided in his secret diary: “Eva [his wife] brought the news that the invasion had begun last night (from June 5-6). Eva was very excited, her knees were trembling.  I myself remained quite cold, I am no longer or not yet able to hope.” Even days later, when it was apparent that the landings had succeeded, Klemperer admitted, “I can no longer hope for anything, I can hardly imagine living to see the end of this torture, of these years of slavery.”

Klemperer nevertheless miraculously survived the war, dying in 1960, age 78.

Anne Frank

Perhaps the most enthusiastic of all diarists was Anne Frank.  On June 6 she was almost two-years into her enforced, hidden existence in the secret “annex” above her father’s shop, along with seven other people.  At first, she records, everyone in the annex concluded the event was merely a trial run, much like the Dieppe landing two years earlier.  By 10 am, however, with BBC broadcasts in German, Dutch, French and other languages, they all realized this was the “real” event.  “Is this really the beginning of the long-awaited liberation?  The liberation we’ve all talked so much about, which still seems too good, too much of a fairy tale, ever to come true?  Will this year, 1944, bring us victory?  We don’t know yet.  But where’s there’s hope, there’s life. It fills us with fresh courage and makes us strong again.  We’ll need to be brave to endure the many fears and hardships and suffering yet to come.”

What young Anne Frank did not, could not, know, was that she was fated to record only eleven more entries in her diary.  On the morning of August 4, 1944 (only a week before the Battle of the Falaise Pocket, the decisive engagement of the Battle of Normandy) several security police arrived at 263 Prinsengracht, Amsterdam, and arrested all eight people in hiding—the victims of an apparent betrayal, although the culprit has never been definitively established. Of the eight people rounded up that morning, only Anne’s father Otto survived the war.

Excitement, despair, hopefulness—the feelings generated by the D-Day invasion.  Although Anne Frank never experienced the fruits of the Allies’ sacrifice on that day, millions of other Europeans did, finally freed from the yoke of Nazi oppression.  Anne, not yet fifteen years old on D-Day, yet had the wisdom to recognize one thing: where there’s hope, there’s life.

National Oatmeal Day

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I’ve written about some important topics lately: Sachsenhausen, V-E Day, war diaries, etc.  And there are plenty of other matters I could be writing about: the announcement of the capture of Adolf Eichmann on May 23, 1960, or the arrival of Josef Mengele at Auschwitz on May 24, 1943, or the tragic voyage of the passenger ship MS St. Louis and its Jewish refugees, turned away from Cuba on May 27, 1939.

But this week, while sheltering-in-place, I made myself a batch of one of my favorite cookies: oatmeal raisin.  And that got me thinking about oatmeal.

We all know that oatmeal is good for us. But many, like me I suspect, prefer their oatmeal in cookie form rather than as a breakfast meal.

Odd Nansen wasn’t too keen on oatmeal, or porridge as it is sometimes called, either.  It didn’t help that his father, Fridtjof Nansen, was a big believer in the efficacy of porridge.  In fact, he thought so highly of porridge that he made his children eat it—not simply every day—but twice every day.  Can you imagine having only one free meal per day that is not oatmeal? I understand from Odd’s daughter Marit that this wasn’t instant oatmeal either—it required hours and  hours of cooking just to make it palatable.

Fridtjof’s children devised their own coping mechanisms.  As Odd’s older sister Liv later wrote, “[A]s soon as Father was out of the door . . . having had his breakfast, we rushed to the window and emptied our plates out of it.”

Sometimes Odd Nansen resorted to even more extreme defensive measures.  In a letter written in 1906 to Fridtjof, away in London while serving as Norway’s Ambassador to Great Britain, Odd’s mother Eva wrote about Odd’s civil disobedience.  “Yesterday he yelled incessantly and said he would not have it [the porridge], but then I came in and said that in that case I should have to write Father, and surely he would not like Father to hear that he had become so fastidious.  He at once controlled himself and took his spoon and ate it all up without a grumble.  The boy certainly has character.”

One can well imagine a five-year-old Odd Nansen backing down in the face of his mother’s threat.  Perhaps he feared that Fridtjof would make him eat porridge three times a day as punishment.  [For a man who subsisted on polar bear meat and walrus blubber for months while in the Arctic, perhaps oatmeal seemed like a delicacy.]

But tastes change, and circumstances change, and by December 24, 1942, while in prison in Grini, even Odd Nansen looked forward to a special Christmas Eve treat: “At five o’clock there was to be a common dinner table for each hut, and Christmas porridge. It was rather behind time, but when it did arrive toward seven it was good, really good, and we got two big plate­fuls each, with sugar, cinnamon and a lump of butter. In our hut we all ate out in the lobby. It was very cozy and successful.”

I recently finished reading No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin.  It’s a history of the Roosevelt White House during World War II.  Turns out that FDR was no fan of oatmeal either.  Nevertheless, the White House cook—a certain Mrs. Nesbitt, called “Fluffy” behind her back—came from the Fridtjof Nansen school of culinary nutrition, and Fluffy believed in oatmeal.

Here’s how the most powerful man in the world handled it.  “My God!” he exclaimed to his secretary Grace Tully one day.  “Doesn’t Mrs. Nesbitt know that there are breakfast foods besides oatmeal?  It’s been served to me morning in and morning out for months now and I’m sick and tired of it!”  Later that day FDR called Tully in for some dictation, and handed her advertisements for various cereals he had torn from the morning paper.  “Corn Flakes! 13 ounce package, 19 cents! Post Toasties! 13 ounce package, 19 cents! . . .  Now take this gentle reminder to Mrs. Nesbitt.”  History does not reveal whether Roosevelt’s gentle reminder ever succeeded.

Odd Nansen never met Franklin Roosevelt, although he tried at least once.  Nansen traveled to America in late 1939 to drum up popular and governmental support for tiny Finland, which had been attacked by Russia.   Nansen’s diary for January 21, 1940 reads: “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.”

Apparently, Nansen never got a chance to try out the White House doorbell (although he did meet Eleanor after the war).  It’s a pity that FDR and Odd Nansen, two great humanists, never met in person.  They undoubtedly would have had much in common, and much to talk about—perhaps starting with their common antipathy to oatmeal.

And yes, there is a National Oatmeal Day.  This year it was April 30.  I don’t know how I managed to let that anniversary slip by.  I’ll be more vigilant next year.

But then again, any day with an oatmeal raisin cookie is National Oatmeal Day to me.

Syttende Mai: 17 May

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Today Norwegians everywhere celebrate Syttende Mai (literally 17th May), the anniversary of the signing of Norway’s constitution on May 17, 1814, in Eidsvoll, Norway.

Typically, Norwegians mark Syttende Mai with celebrations and festivities—parades, feasts, etc.  I suspect this year’s activities will be much more subdued, if held at all.  More likely the celebration will be virtual in most areas. I had had a full slate of appearances scheduled for May 14—19 at Sons of Norway lodges and other venues in such places such as Grand Forks and Fargo ND, Thief River Falls, Red Wing, St Cloud, Minneapolis and Austin, MN.

All cancelled (or rather, postponed until 2021).

It’s probably no coincidence that the great Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl started one of his famous expeditions—the RA II voyage, on May 17, 1970, departing Morocco in a papyrus sailing craft.  Fifty-seven days and 4,000 miles later he arrived safely in the Barbados.  A true adventurer and a man in the mold of  Fridtjof Nansen, Heyerdahl made his reputation sailing the Kon Tiki raft from Peru to Polynesia in 1947.

One of Heyerdahl’s crew members on the Kon Tiki was Knut Haugland, who participated in the famous raid on the heavy water plant in Vemork, Norway. Even the general in charge of Germany’s military occupation of Norway, General von Falkenhorst, later described the raid as “the finest coup I have seen in this war.”  Many books have been written about the daring attack, most recently The Winter Fortress, by Neal Bascomb, which I reviewed in the pages of The Norwegian American (here).

Speaking of World War II, whose end in Europe we recently celebrated, I’ll close this essay with an observation made by M.R.D. Foot, a British intelligence officer during the war, and the official historian of the Special Operations Executive, or SOE.  Winston Churchill conceived the SOE to conduct espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance throughout occupied Europe.  During the war it employed almost 13,000 people from every occupied country and every conceivable background, men and women.  [I’ve previously written about some Norwegian members of the SOE here and here.]

This is what Foot had to say in his definitive history of the SOE:

“One thing, besides their courage, distinguished the agents sent into Norway for SOE: their toughness.  Several times over, they stood up to conditions of hardship that would make most city men not merely wilt, but die: Jan Baalstrud, who lay wounded in his sleeping-bag, without food or drink, in the snow for six nights and days, and survived, may stand as an example for several more.”

So, to my rightfully proud Norwegian friends on this 17th of May, I raise a (virtual) glass and toast your famous day: Skål!

Upcoming Events

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Book Signings

  • December 1, 2020: JCC of Central New Jersey, Scotch Plains, NJ (Virtual)
  • December 2, 2020: Shorewood Glen, Shorewood, IL (Virtual)
  • January 14, 2021: Lifelong Learning at Wofford College (Virtual)
  • January 21, 2021: Lifelong Learning at Wofford College (Virtual)
  • January 21, 2021: Norwegian-American Chamber of Commerce, Chicago, IL (Virtual)
  • February 12, 2021: Osher Life Long Learning, Furman University, Greenville, SC (Virtual)
  • February 15, 2021: Osher Life Long Learning, NC State, Raleigh, NC (Virtual)
  • February 22, 2021: Osher Life Long Learning, NC State, Raleigh, NC (Virtual)
  • April 9, 2021: Osher Life Long Learning, Furman University, Greenville, SC (Virtual)
  • May 6, 2021: Notre Dame H.S. Alumni Club of DC, Washington, DC
  • May 13, 2021: Sons of Norway, Grand Forks, ND
  • May 14, 2021: Norwegian Heritage Week, Thief River Falls, MN
  • 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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"Tim...gave a terriffic presentation [at the Norwegian Nobel Institute]."

- Anne Ellingsen, author of Odd Nansen: Arvtageren

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