VE Day in Europe: May 8, 1945

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VE Day

Seventy-five years ago today World War II ended in Europe.  Hitler was dead, and a devastated Germany surrendered unconditionally.

In his diary for that day William L. Shirer wrote: “All day I have had to rub my eyes to believe it; to realize that this is really the end of the nightmare that began for me . . . five and a half years ago.  It seems a long time—ages—and some twenty-five million human beings who were alive on that day and relatively happy have perished, slaughtered on the battlefield, wiped out by bombs, tortured to death in the Nazi horror camps.”

Although the end of the war in Europe is quite clear, when did it all actually begin?

Most conventional answers focus on September 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland. But would Hitler have invaded Poland without securing his southern flank, which he accomplished on March 15, 1939 when he marched into Czechoslovakia? Would he have marched on Czechoslovakia if he hadn’t already seized Austria in March 1938?  Does the date go back even further—to Germany’s occupation of the Rhineland on March 7, 1936, in contravention of the Versailles Treaty?

I would submit that the date may in fact be even earlier than all that: to January 30, 1933, when Adolf Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor of Germany.  After all, Hitler had laid out his plans for all the world to see (and read) in Mein Kampf, published in 1925.  It’s all there: Germany’s need for Lebensraum in the East; his hatred of the Jews.  Hitler made no secret of his ultimate plans when and if he achieved a position of power.

And while much attention is focused on every conceivable aspect of the “hot” war (1939—1945), far less is paid to its crucial antecedents.

Peter Fritzsche, one of my favorite historians, has just written an in-depth study of Hitler’s start in 1939 in Hitler’s First Hundred Days: When Germans Embraced the Third Reich, Basic Books (2020).  As Fritzsche is quick to point out early on, “[In 1933] Europe suddenly slipped from the firm footing of a postwar era into the anxious vertigo of a prewar one.”

In his latest book, Professor Fritzsche attempts to answer a conundrum that lies at the heart of one of the strangest socio-political developments of the Twentieth Century. Namely, how were Hitler and the Nazis able, in a bitterly polarized country; in a country where opposition parties consistently outpolled them; in a country where the Nazis were in fact losing popular support—how did Hitler, within a mere 100 days, so solidify his hold on the nation that all dissent was effectively eliminated and the country stood almost wholeheartedly behind his program?

As Fritzsche explains, it’s complicated, and this blog can hardly do justice to his deep analysis.

Fritzsche first makes clear that Hitler’s ascension to the Chancellorship on January 30 was by no means preordained.  Just two months earlier, in the November 1932 national elections, the left-leaning Social Democrat Party, and the Communist Party, together received more votes than the Nazis, whose share of the national total actually slipped, from 37% to 33%.  But the right-wing, anti-Weimar parties were united, whereas the anti-fascist parties were not.

Even so, it was only on the morning of January 30 that the leaders of the nationalist, right wing factions each concluded that the appointment of Hitler was the only way to establish authoritarian rule, and destroy the hated Weimar Republic.  This desire outweighed even their fear that they would be unable to tame him.

Once in power, the Nazis used a combination of consent and coercion—push and pull—to meld German society into a united whole.  Many Germans, tired of the political and economic uncertainly which had characterized Germany since 1919, were beguiled by Hitler’s program, and the vision of a new Germany he offered.

In End of a Berlin Diary, Shirer relates an interrogation by US Forces of Hanna Reitsch conducted shortly after Germany’s surrender.  Reitsch had achieved notoriety during the war as a female test pilot and aeronautical expert.  Even in retrospect Reitsch continued to believe Hitler’s initial aims were worthy.  “Hitler ended his life as a criminal against the world,” she confessed, but quickly added, “he did not begin that way.  At first his thoughts were only of how to make Germany healthy again.”

Where consent failed, there was always the threat of coercion.  Armed with near dictatorial powers following the February 1933 Reichstag fire, the Nazis soon forced the independent press to toe the party line.  At the same time the compliant nationalist press pursued its goal of the destroying the republic, “which meant the destruction of fact, morality and law.” Any underground movement soon fell afoul of impromptu concentration camps, where the violence meted out was not primarily to extract information but to break the spirit of the resisters, and to cause suffering rather than death.

The Nazis also promoted solidarity within its growing ranks, ironically, by artfully engaging in the politics of division, of exclusion and inclusion.  The Jews were the first to be excluded, via boycotts, etc., and no one could be neutral.  To help a Jew was to be anti-German. Next came the Social Democrats.  To associate with a Social Democrat was to be a traitor, and a traitor could not be a friend.  Better then to accept the inevitable, and even embrace it, than to object, and thus stand out in the crowd.  In fact, it was not enough to keep quiet—one had to denounce the enemy.  When Hitler belittled Weimar, and those associated with it, in his speeches, his audiences cried out “Hang them.”

And so, in an exceptionally rapid and comprehensive way, German society became fascist.  As Hanna Reitsch’s comments above show, the country was soon convinced that the coming of Hitler promised a brighter future for Germany.

But as Professor Fritzsche makes clear, the conservative grandees who coalesced behind Hitler on that fateful morning of January 30, 1933, in their eager ambition to destroy Weimar by any means possible, made one fatal mistake, a mistake that they would only come to fully realize when Germany lay in utter ruin on May 8, 1945:

“they had made a pact with the devil.”

April 28: Odd Nansen’s Diary Ends

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“So completely has our world been turned upside down.  Is it strange that one should be confused and still unable to fit oneself into reality.”

Thus ends Odd Nansen’s final diary entry, on April 28, 1945.  Nansen was in Horsens, Denmark at the time, and, while technically not yet “free”—there were still German guards about—it was clear that the end was near, and Nansen was safe.

But the unreality of the war’s sudden end had stopped him in his tracks.  Nansen, a man who had assiduously filled the pages of his secret diary for almost 40 months in the most challenging environment possible, was now rendered speechless.

“Only it seems so hopelessly impossible to describe.   Where am I to begin, where am I to stop, what am I to write?”

Another famous diarist, William L. Shirer, writing shortly after Nansen, agreed: “It was the week, of all our lives, we’ve been waiting for.  When it came, and unfolded, one breathless hour after another, it was too much for our poor human minds really to grasp.  You could not find words—or at least I couldn’t—to express it.”

Odd Nansen can be forgiven if anticipating the object of his longing—home and family—precluded any further attention to his diary in those whirlwind days.  Selfishly, I would have preferred the diary to continue a bit longer, if only to read his thoughts and observations on the world-shaking events that continued to unfold:

  • April 28, 1945: Mussolini executed
  • April 29, 1945: Dachau liberated
  • April 30, 1945: Hitler suicide
  • May 1, 1945: Goebbels suicide
  • May 2, 1945: Berlin surrenders to Soviets
  • May 8, 1945: Germany surrenders
  • May 9, 1945: Quisling arrested

But it was not to be.  Interestingly, Nansen, who had maintained a diary almost continuously since his teens, would never again over the course of his life take up a pen for a diary.  Perhaps he felt that nothing could compare with the experiences he—at such great personal risk—had memorialized.

And perhaps he was correct.  When you’ve written what some critics later called “a masterpiece,” “never-to-be-forgotten words, “and “among the most compelling documents to come out of the [war],” it’s best not to attempt a second act.

Nevertheless, we shall always be grateful for what we have: a first-hand account, in Shirer’s words, of “how noble and generous the human spirit can be in the face of terrible adversity.”

April 26–A Day for Anniversaries

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My readers have by now undoubtedly noticed that I have a thing about anniversaries.

Today is no exception, and marks several important such anniversaries, including the fact that my mother, were she still alive, would have turned 100 today.

Also, today is the fourth anniversary of the re-appearance, in print, of the English version of From Day to Day, following a 67-year hiatus.  Perhaps equally important, this week represents the ten-year anniversary of my chance decision, in late April 2010, to purchase a newly published memoir called A Lucky Child, written by Thomas Buergenthal.

As I’ve pointed out to the audiences I have addressed, once you have, like me, amassed almost 5,000 books at home, the impetus to purchase yet another book comes quite easily.  And so I had little hesitation in purchasing A Lucky Child even though I knew almost nothing of the book’s contents or its author—no reviews, no advertising, no recommendations—beyond what I could see on its cover.  And yet A Lucky Child and From Day to Day, taken together, have changed the entire course of my life over these past 10 years—and hopefully for many more to come.  The people I’ve met, the stories I’ve heard, the history I’ve learned, have all changed me indelibly and, I feel, for the better.

I recently came across a quote, attributable to Eleanor Roosevelt, when explaining how her husband’s polio affected him.  “Anyone who has gone through great suffering,” she said, “is bound to have a greater sympathy and understanding of the problems of mankind.”

Now, I make no claim to any such suffering.  In fact, I’ve led an incredibly privileged life.  But I feel that one can vicariously experience something of the suffering of others.  And the experiences of Tom Buergenthal and Odd Nansen—whose stories I’ve read, and re-read, and absorbed—have engendered, I hope, “a greater sympathy and understanding of the problems of mankind.”  I certainly cannot imagine a better insight into such problems than the combined experiences of these two special people provide.

Even if this is all true, it still begs an important question.  Why did I choose to purchase, and read, Tom’s memoir in 2010, which in turn induced me—via a single footnote on page 177—to search out Odd Nansen’s diary?

Perhaps the best explanation I can come up with is one I found in a book review written a few years ago.  The reviewer observed: “The life of an artifact or work of literature is subject to happenstance.  How it travels and settles, takes root and effloresces, depends on so many various and unpredictable factors—on wars and the weather, on one reader’s serendipitous encounter or a rare individual’s advocacy. . . .” (emphasis added)

So, while I still scratch my head in wonder, I accept that I was fortunate to have had not one, but two, serendipitous encounters with such inspiring works, and the opportunity to advocate for them.

And that, as Robert Frost might say, has made all the difference.

April 22, 1945: Thomas Buergenthal Liberated

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

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

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

And now Tom was free.

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

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

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

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

What could Tom possibly aspire to?

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

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

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

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

Thomas Buergenthal

The Lost Diaries of War

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My readers already know that I have a thing about diaries. I’ve written about Anne Frank’s diary (here), and a recently discovered Holocaust diary (here).

Some of you may have seen in the April 15 issue of the New York Times a fascinating piece about World War II diaries—more than 2,000—kept by Dutch civilians.  Apparently, they were collected by the government after the war, but, apart from cataloguing, they were never shared with the wider public.  Now, 75 years after the war’s end, they are finally seeing the light of day.

Now the Dutch are for the first time transcribing and digitizing these artifacts, and the Times article contains snippets of the diaries, along with representative images of the actual pages.  The reading is compelling.   Here’s the link.

Coincidentally, I was recently reading a classic by a favorite author of mine, William L. Shirer, called End of the Berlin Diary.  I’ve written about Shirer before (here).  The book covers Shirer’s return to Berlin in 1945, five years after he was expelled by the Nazis for writing unfavorably about the regime.  The book is a mixture of diary impressions and materials Shirer unearthed about the German war machine.  In this sense he is anticipating the work he would undertake in the 1950s when he compiled his magnum opus, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

Some of Shirer’s research and observations are startlingly relevant to some of the diary entries in the Times piece, so I decided to juxtapose certain diary entries with quotes from Shirer’s reporting, which provides a useful counterpoint.

Here goes:

“I’d always assumed they [the Germans] would leave us alone.  We had been neutral until the end,* and good to the Germans.”  Elisabeth Jacoba van Lohuizen-van Wielink [May 10, 1940].

“Breach of the neutrality of Belgium and Holland is meaningless.  No one will question that when we have won.”  Secret speech by Adolf Hitler to top military commanders, November 23, 1939.

“[T]he Queen . . . has fled the country because she feared for her life. . . .   The Germans wouldn’t have harmed her; they are much too honorable for that.”  Unnamed pro-Nazi Dutch woman [May 15, 1940].

“Have no pity.  Brutal attitude.  Eighty million people shall get what is their right.  Their existence has to be secured.  The strongest has the right.  Greatest severity.”**  Adolf Hitler speech, August 22, 1939, to military commanders set to lead assault on Poland.

“This is no life, but hell on earth.  My hands are trembling so much I can barely write.  This is all getting too much.  This is more than anyone can bear.”  Mirjam Bolle [February 23, 1943] [Later sent to Bergen-Belsen]

“[Reading about how few Jews are still alive in Germany] reminds me of another news item in the local press.  It tells of the testimony of a fifteen-year-old German lad, the son of the former SS commander of the Mauthausen concentration camp.  Questioned about his father, the boy said: ‘For my birthday, my father put forty inmates at my disposal to teach me how to shoot.  I took shots at them until they were all lying around dead. Otherwise I have nothing else to report about my father,’”

Finally, a comparison between Odd Nansen’s diary and one of the Dutch diaries, each entry written within months of the other:

“Sometimes I fear that I won’t be believed, because later generations simply won’t wish to accept what’s described in these pages, yet I swear on everything I hold dear to me that none of the events are untrue.”  Anton Frans Koenraads [May 6, 1945].

“It occurs to me that no one will believe this when we come to describe it.  You exaggerate, they’ll say.  It’s impossible.”  Odd Nansen [January 25, 1945].

As the Times article provides wonderful images of various original diary covers and  pages, I thought I’d end this blog with a page from Nansen’s diary that is particularly close to my heart.  On one of my visits to Norway, my dear friend (and Nansen’s daughter) Marit Greve took me to Norway’s national library, where the originals of Nansen’s diary are kept.  I was hoping to capture an image of a representative page.  When I snapped the picture I had no idea of its contents. It was not until I developed the photo later that I realized, to my surprise, that the page in question dealt with Tom Buergenthal.

A handwritten page from Odd Nansen’s diary.

If you look closely in the middle of the image, you will see “Tommy, Rafaelengelen” in Nansen’s handwriting.  The entry is for February 26, 1945, and reads in part: “Yesterday, as usual on Sunday, I was in the Revier.  First I went to see my youngest friend Tommy, the Raphael angel. He was smiling. . . .”

Of all the pages in the diary I might have photographed, I can’t think of one I could possibly have preferred more.

_______________________________

*Recall the words of Netherlands’s Herr Snouck Hurgronje in my previous post, regarding the country’s strict neutrality vis a vis England and France.

** Once Norway’s King Håkon VII refused to capitulate in 1940, the German’s tried to kill him through aerial bombing.

April 9, 1940: Norway Invaded

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Eighty years ago today German Armed Forces showed up in Norway—uninvited, unannounced, and unwelcome.  Despite holding out for longer than most other European countries overrun by the Nazis, Norway finally capitulated on June 10, 1940.  It would remain occupied for over five years—longer than any other European country, excepting only Czechoslovakia and Poland.

German troops in Norway

Germans employed almost 400,000 troops during their occupation of Norway, or approximately 1 soldier for every 7.5 civilians.  On a per capita basis, that would be the equivalent of America being occupied today by a foreign army totaling over 44 million soldiers—more than the combined populations of Illinois, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and New Jersey.

Notwithstanding this overwhelmingly heavy German presence, many people, of all ages, joined the Resistance—including 38-year-old Odd Nansen—activities that he would later describe in his diary as “wanton playing with fire” [July 14, 1942].  No less an authority than preeminent British military historian John Keegan once observed that the Norwegians “provided the SOE with its most dependable and spirited supporters in Western Europe.” The SOE, or Special Operations Executive, was a British World War II organization formed to conduct espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe.  [I’ve previously written about resistance heroes here, here, and here.]

H7: The symbol for King Håkon VII, and widely used as a symbol of defiance to Nazi rule.

Many people are familiar with the unusual events in Norway preceding the invasion.  How, just days prior to their invasion, the German Embassy in Oslo invited many prominent Norwegian officials, and others, including America’s Ambassador to Norway, Florence Harriman, to a lavish reception and film screening of a “peace film.”  Rather than a pleasant nighttime social event, the guests were shown a shocking film of Germany’s recent blitzkrieg attack on Poland, together with a warning that this is what would happen to a country if it resisted the Nazis.  As a bit of psychological warfare it may have missed its mark.  As Harriman wrote in her diary: “The audience was shocked and—this seems strange now—still puzzled, as to why the film had been shown to them, to Norwegians.”

Clare Boothe Luce (whom I’ve written about here) also relates, in her highly readable memoir, Europe in the Spring, about another equally bizarre event which, in retrospect, explains much about the mindset of Europe at the dawn of World War II, and what can occur without collective security agreements between nations facing a common enemy.  Luce (an American ambassador to Italy and Brazil after the war, and the wife of publisher Henry Luce) found herself in Holland on May 7, just three days before it would be overrun by German forces.  That night she dined with Herr Snouck Hurgronje, Holland’s Permanent Secretary General for Foreign Affairs.  Naturally, Luce writes, she asked him about the impending crisis.  Here is their exchange:

“’The Germans are making troop movements,” said Mr. Snouck placidly, ‘which strongly suggests an invasion [of Holland].’

‘Oh,’ I said. ‘Are you sure.’

Ja,’ he answered cheerfully.  ‘The same sources have informed our government so which informed it five days before the German invasion of Norway.’

I said, aghast: ‘You knew five days before that the Germans were going to invade Norway?’

Ja!’ he affirmed proudly. ‘Our sources of information are excellent.  You see, a good Dutchman often can pass as a real German.’ (I thought: ‘And vice versa.’)

I asked: ‘You knew five days before? Did you—tell the English and the French about it?’

‘Certainly not,’ he said indignantly.  ‘Why should we? They are not our allies.’” 

Holland was technically neutral before the war.  Parts of the country were liberated by Allied forces in the second half of 1944; the remainder of the country was finally liberated on May 5, 1945.  As Luce mordantly records later in her book: “(Mr. Snouck ten days later was in London, a member of her exiled Majesty’s belligerent government.)”

The Ides of March

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[Blogger’s Note: Most of my forthcoming scheduled appearances are now being postponed until further notice.  In my own contribution to “social distancing,” I plan to stay home as much as possible, and write more blogs.]

The 15th of March has had a bad connotation for quite some time—since at least 44 BC to be exact, when Julius Caesar was assassinated.  Shakespeare turned the date into a meme of sorts in his 1599 play about Caesar—as something to “beware of.”

March 15, 1939 was a particularly grim day, all told, in the lives of many.

Odd Nansen

On that day Odd Nansen was in Prague, Czechoslovakia, having just returned on the 13th from a mission in Bratislava.  In both cities he was toiling away at helping refugees.  Nansenhjelpen, the organization he founded and ran, had been fighting an uphill battle since 1936.  By this time Nansen and his wife Kari were pursuing both legal means (visas) and not so legal means (smuggling) in their efforts to assist desperate refugees fleeing persecution.  In fact, a transport of eighty refugees was set to depart Prague for Norway—on March 15.

In the early morning hours of the scheduled departure date Nansen was awakened by a call notifying him that German forces had crossed the Czech border, and would arrive in Prague shortly.  And shortly they did arrive, in force, directing traffic, shutting down all trains, commandeering all local hotels.  The Nansens were summarily ejected from their hotel room/office.  With some inside help, and a bribe to grease things, they soon secured a room in the nearby Hotel Alcron.

With all trains halted, Nansen’s first order of business was securing the release of his eighty trapped refugees.  By a stroke of luck, a German general, Erich Hoepner, was also staying at the Alcron, and Nansen obtained a meeting with him.

According to author Maynard Cohen, writing in his book A Stand Against Tyranny:

“Odd Nansen began with a description of the refugees in the forest outside Prague, how at that moment they lay in the snow beneath the open sky outside Prague, having forsaken their quarters in fear of the Gestapo.  He spoke of the sick and the old, the women and children, who had fled from country to country and city to city to avoid their ever-following pursuers.”

Hoepner relented, and allowed the women and children to depart by train; the men were illegally smuggled across the border into Poland.*

Less than three years later, Nansen would find himself a prisoner of the Nazis.**

Meanwhile, somewhere along the Czech/Polish border, four-year-old Tommy Buergenthal was stuck, along with his parents, was in his own purgatory.

Tom Buergenthal with his parents

Tom’s parents (following an ominous visit to the local police station), had decided that Czechoslovakia was no longer safe for them and they headed out for Poland.  They got as far as the border, where they became trapped in a no-man’s-land, the 50-yd strip that separated the Polish border post from the Czech border post.  As stateless refugees they had no valid travel documents.  Tom relates in his memoir, A Luck Child:

“As soon as we got to the Polish side of the border, the Polish guards would order us back to the Czech side.  The Czechs, in turn, would not allow us to reenter.  And so it went on for days. . . .  Back and forth we went, day and night.  We would sleep in the field adjacent to the road between the border posts or in one of the ditches [which ran alongside the road].”

It was only when heavily armed German troops arrived at the Czech border on March 15th did things change.  When Tom’s parents were able to convince the Germans (“the very people we were trying to escape”) that they were Polish, the German in charge browbeat the Polish guards into admitting the Buergenthals.  “That is how we got into Poland.”  It may have seemed like deliverance at the time, but the Kielce Ghetto, Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Ravensbrück and Sachsenhausen lay ahead.

Ilse Weber

Elsewhere in Prague Ilse and Willi Weber, along with their five-year-old son (also named Tommy), were similarly scrambling to escape.  Willi had applied to the Palestine Office in 1938 for a certificate allowing his family to emigrate to Palestine, and it was granted.  Before he could take advantage of his good luck, however, the Czech government ruled that Jews from the Sudetenland (absorbed into Germany in October, 1938 pursuant to the Munich Pact) should be given first priority.  Willi was assured he would automatically qualify for the next certificates—scheduled to arrive March 15.  When, as Willi later wrote, “Adolf’s hordes arrived” on that fateful day, the Palestine Office in Prague left.  While some certificates ultimately did arrive in Prague a bit later, their price had almost quadrupled, beyond the reach of the Webers.

In 1942 the Webers were deported to Theresienstadt.  There over 30,000 prisoners would perish, most from starvation.  As Willi noted, “most of the dead were old people; the young always figured out how to help themselves in some way, and those who worked received bigger rations.”  Ilse and young Tommy Weber were later sent to Auschwitz, where they were both gassed upon arrival. Willi, also transported to Auschwitz, survived the war.***

Martha Gellhorn, the American journalist and war correspondent, had also been in Prague, arriving in June 1938.  Did she ever meet Odd Nansen? Perhaps: her biographer, Caroline Moorehead, writes that “she found herself drawn . . . into the fate of the refugees: the frightened Jews and dissidents who had recently fled Austria and Germany and now had nowhere to go.”  According to Gellhorn herself, in February 1939, “in the beautiful bolt-hole [hideaway] of Cuba,“ she began to write a short story about the refugees of Prague.  It ultimately grew into a novel, A Stricken Field, published in 1940.

Martha Gellhorn

In an afterword to her novel, Gellhorn quotes from a letter she wrote on March 19, 1939—four days after Odd Nansen’s heroic act; four days after Tom Buergenthal’s family’s escape from no-man’s-land into an even darker future; four days after the hopes and dreams of the Weber family were so terribly dashed:

“We live in a world unlike any other at any time.  A world so cruel and mad that one cannot believe it will survive. . . I think, no doubt selfishly, that right now there is nothing to do about it except help one’s friends.”

Right now we are all concerned with the coronavirus.  So much is unknown: how fast will it spread; who will it infect; will hospitals be prepared; who will die?  All of this is truly unnerving.  But would any of us trade our world, with all the promise it holds, for the far more difficult and uncertain one inhabited by the Nansens, the Buergenthals, the Webers, or the refugees of Prague? Of course not.

And if they could face their unknown futures resolutely, perhaps we can take some courage from their example, and focus on “help[ing] one’s friends.”

* Hoepner was hanged on August 8, 1944, for his part in the July 1944 assassination plot against Hitler.  As further punishment, his wife and daughter were sent to Ravensbrück, and his son was sent to Buchenwald.

** Odd Nansen was arrested on the Ides of January, 1942, as I have written about here.

*** I have previously written about Ilse Weber here.

Civilian Lives in War: The Role of Luck

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Civilian casualties in war have existed for as long as war itself—it is happening today in Syria and elsewhere as we speak. World War II, the most violent cataclysm ever, took civilian deaths to new heights.

For example, 77 years ago today, Great Britain experienced what would prove to be the worst single loss of civilian life in the war.  At 8:17 pm on March 3, 1943, air-raid sirens sounded in London.  By now Londoners were well acquainted with such air raids, and dutifully headed to their closest underground station, which also functioned as an air-raid shelter.  At Bethnal Green, one such station, a large crowd was heading down the unlit stairs when a woman with a small child tripped and fell near the bottom.  Others behind her fell over, and soon nearly 300 people were trapped in a tangled mass of squirming bodies.  Before it was over, 173 people (including the young child) were dead, crushed or asphyxiated; another 60 needed hospital attention.    

Meanwhile, 600 miles away, Odd Nansen was writing about another event that occurred closer to home on March 3 that had implications for Norway’s civilians.  [Nansen did not—and could not—write about the Bethnal Green disaster, as British authorities suppressed the news, fearing it would incentivize the Germans to continue air attacks and cause similar panics.]

Here’s what Nansen wrote in his diary, three days later, on March 6:

“The news is excellent—but still with no essential points. . . .  The Knaben molybdenum mines bombed to pieces the other day.  Yes, there are a few things going on—that one must admit.”

In my diary annotations I explain that the Knaben mines were of vital strategic importance to the war.  Knaben was the only molybdenum mine still operating in Europe and molybdenum is a critical alloy used in hardening steel.  It was only natural that the Allies would seek to deny Germany use of the site.

At the 2019 Norsk Høstfest, a gentleman approached my table, and introduced himself as Knut Gjovik.  Turns out that Knut’s father, Leiv Gjovik, was the foreman of the Knaben mine.  In fact, working at the mine was something of a family affair: Leiv’s brother, also named Knut Gjovik, was an interpreter for Russian POWs working there, and young Knut’s maternal uncle, Lars Knaben, was the mine’s assayer.

Young Leiv Gjovik and his wife Anna before the war.

Given the mine’s strategic importance, it didn’t take much imagination to figure that it was on the Allies’ hit list.  But how would the Allies strike?  Sabotage?  Aerial bombing?  And when?

Ultimately, the British Special Operations Executive (S.O.E.) ruled out sabotage; bombing it would have to be.  On March 3, 1943, ten British de Havilland Mosquito bombers, manned by Norwegian crews, attacked.  The British after-action report concluded the raid was a success: the mines “were completely put out of action,” the damages estimated to be between “two and three million kroner.”   The New York Times cited officials who considered Knaben “of greater economic and industrial importance . . . than any other target in Norway.”

The attack on Knaben, Marc

The bombing of Knaben

The after-action summary included an additional fact: “It is reported that the German mine manager and 17 Norwegians were killed.”  Where was Leiv Gjovik? On the morning of the attack, Leiv, who apparently hadn’t missed a day of work in over two years, didn’t feel right and so called in sick.  He was thus was spared, while his entire crew was wiped out.  Did he know something?  Was he in fact in the Resistance?  Was it divine intervention, as Anna believed?  Or was he just plain lucky?  To this day even his son is not totally sure.  Leiv was subsequently interrogated at length by the Germans, but nothing ever came of it.

One thing is certain: had Leiv Gjovik reported for work as usual, he, too, would likely have been added to the swelling ranks of World War II’s civilian dead, and I never would have been able to calmly discuss Odd Nansen, or the Knaben raid, with his son.  Such are the vagaries of war.

Following the war, a monument was erected to the victims of the Knaben raid.

*March 3 continued to be an ill-omened date for civilians.  Two years later, on March 3, 1945, fifty British bombers attacked a V-2 launch site located near The Hague in Holland.  They missed the target and instead dropped their loads in a residential area more than a mile away.  The result: over 500 Dutch civilians dead and 20,000 homeless—including the Dutch resistance fighter who had provided the tip.

**Photos of Leiv Gjovik and of the Knaben Memorial generously supplied by Knut Gjovik.

Schlachthof Fünf and the Bombing of Dresden

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On this day, 75 years ago, the firebombing of Dresden began.

Dresden was Germany’s seventh largest city, and until the raid, the largest city to escape any serious Allied bombing.  All that changed in a series of raids which began on the evening of the 13th and lasted for two days.  Over 1,000 British and American bombers, escorted by another 700+ American fighters, attacked the city, destroying over 1,600 acres in the city center, and killing an estimated 25,000 people.

Dresden post bombing

At least one American POW in Dresden that night survived the attack, and witnessed firsthand the aftermath.

Infantry scout Kurt Vonnegut, age 22, of the 106th Infantry Division,* was captured, along with another 6,000 Americans in the division, in mid-December 1944, during the height of the Battle of the Bulge.  He was taken to Dresden and housed in a Schlachthof [slaughterhouse].  Vonnegut survived the attack by hiding in a meat locker three levels between the street.

Vonnegut not only survived the attack, he was eventually liberated and repatriated to the United States.  He married, started a family, and began a conventional career with GE.  But we wanted to write—he had been the editor of his high school and college newspapers, and felt writing came easy to him.  His first magazine article appeared in February 1950, and less than a year later he quit his day job and took up writing full time. Despite publishing a number of novels, and many magazine articles, in the ensuing years, Vonnegut met with neither commercial nor critical success; his writing income barely kept the family afloat.

What haunted Vonnegut was his war experience.  He tried and tried—by his own admission he had written five thousand pages about Dresden—and thrown them all away.  He seemed unable to find an appropriate means to express himself.

Finally, in 1969, Vonnegut published his sixth novel: Slaughterhouse Five, or the Children’s Crusade.  The book skyrocketed to the top of the New York Times bestseller list, turning Vonnegut into an icon overnight, a status that he never lost for the rest of his life.  The book has remained on numerous “100 best books” lists ever since.  Vonnegut died in 2007, age 84.

Slaughterhouse Five tells the story of a hapless GI named Billy Pilgrim, who likewise ends up in Dresden and survives the bombing.  Portions of the novel are clearly autobiographical (although it is doubtful that Vonnegut could time-travel, or that he currently resides on the planet Tralfamadore in the company of Hollywood starlet Montana Wildhack, as Billy does).

Vonnegut’s book is unusual in many respects, including his fascination with Tralfamadore.  For example, he describes quite early (p. 5) an actual wartime event which he plans to write about: “I think the climax of the book will be the execution of Edgar Derby. . . .  The irony is so great.  A whole city gets burned down, and thousands and thousands of people are killed.  And then this one American footsoldier is arrested in the ruins for taking a teapot. . . .   [A]nd then he’s shot by a firing squad.”

It is not known whether Odd Nansen, who died in 1973, ever had the chance to read Slaughterhouse Five in the remaining four years of his life.  It is unlikely, but not impossible: the number of literary and biblical allusions that pepper Nansen’s WWII diary attest to a broad and well-read mind.

If Odd Nansen had read Vonnegut’s work, he might well have identified with Vonnegut’s experience—he witnessed an event much like the fate of Billy Pilgrim’s friend, Edgar Derby, himself.

Writing on March 23, 1944, almost a full year before Dresden, Nansen describes the ever-increasing Allied bombing campaign against Germany.  Oranienburg, the city where Sachsenhausen was located, was also an administrative headquarters of the Schutzstaffel (SS), and the site of many its workshops, and thus the camp was hardly immune from stray Allied bombs landing in its midst.

Here’s what Nansen writes, continuing an earlier entry that describes the results of one such bombing:

“Bombs also fell on the prison camp.  Half of one hut was burned down, otherwise only minor damage.  They say that one man was killed and four taken to the Revier [infirmary] with serious injuries.  What is certain is that a prisoner was shot for stealing from the ruins.  He was caught in the act and shot then and there.  No one sees anything strange in that.  Served him right, is all they say, with a shrug of the shoulders.  The SS and the prisoners appear to be of one mind on this form of justice.  I think however that most Norwegians still react against such things.  The man shot was a wretched, starving Ukrainian, who saw a loaf that would have burnt up in any case.”

Yes, Odd Nansen would have been right at home with Slaughterhouse Five.

*I have previously written about another important member of the 106th Infantry Division who was captured around the same time as Vonnegut—Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds (here).

International Holocaust Remembrance Day

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Today, January 27, marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.  The anniversary has been designated by the United Nations as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Auschwitz Gate

As the number of Holocaust survivors dwindles, as does the number of contemporary witnesses, and as antisemitism appears resurgent everywhere, even and especially here in the U.S., one is forced to ask: “How does one remember?” “What, specifically, does remembering the events of the Holocaust do?”  “Why remember at all? Why not consign the event to the dustbin of history, and simply move on?”

I submit that we always need to remember, not so much to prevent others from committing atrocities, but rather to remind ourselves that no one is immune from the blandishments—and coercive power—of evil.  Laurence Rees, writing in The Holocaust: A New History, about the Wannsee Conference which institutionalized the Holocaust, observes this about its participants: “[T]his meeting seems to represent what sophisticated, elegant and knowing human beings are capable of.  Not many of them, perhaps, could kill a Jew personally—Eichmann claimed he had a ‘sensitive nature’ and was ‘revolted’ at the sight of blood—but they could enthusiastically endorse a policy to remove 11 million people from this world.  If human beings can do this, what else can they do?”

If, as Rees writes, this is what sophisticated people are capable of doing, and if, as Primo Levi has warned, “It happened, therefore it can happen again, . . . it can happen everywhere,” what is our antidote, and the antidote for future generations?

In answer, I submit another quotation, from Lawrence Langer, writing in Admitting the Holocaust (emphasis mine):

“[E]very future generation will have to be educated anew in how to face the historical period we call the Holocaust.  This must be done not through abstract formulas like ‘the murder of 6 million,’ but in graphic detail, so that the destruction of an entire people and its culture—what was done, how it was done, and by whom—makes an indelible and subversive impression on their moral, political, philosophical, and psychological assumptions about individual behavior, the nature of reality, and the process of history.  The implications of the Holocaust are so bleak that we continue to wrestle with the desperate issue of how best to represent it.  That problem still needs to be solved.  Literature, history, testimony, commentary, theological speculation—many avenues exist for entering its vestibule, but no two approaches offer identical visions to those who cross the threshold into the landscape of the Holocaust itself.”

To me, Odd Nansen’s diary offers first-hand testimony, in graphic detail, of the Holocaust, but, more importantly, offers a standard of moral clarity as well, and thereby arms each of us to better resist evil whenever and wherever it inevitably arises. That’s my takeaway from International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Upcoming Events

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Book Signings

  • August 25, 2020: Norwegian History Roundtable (Virtual)
  • August 25, 2020: Montgomery County Library, Potomac, Md (Virtual)
  • 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)
  • October 30, 2020: Osher Life Long Learning, Furman University, Greenville, SC
  • 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 5, 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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