February 6, 1949: Shirer Reviews Nansen

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“It is a moving record of a man who, though he seems to be unconscious of it, is one of the noble and heroic spirits of our . . . times.”

So ends William L. Shirer’s review of From Day to Day, first published on this day 72 years ago.

1949 Edition

Shirer was already a best-selling author by 1949.  His Berlin Diary and End of a Berlin Diary had earned him that distinction.  It would be another ten years before he achieved even more lasting fame with the publication of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

William L. Shirer

Shirer’s review, accompanied by some of Nansen’s illustrations, appeared in the New York Herald Tribune Book Review.  [Those of you who have heard my lecture on Fridtjof Nansen may recall that it was James Gordon Bennett, the owner of the New York Herald, who organized and financed the ill-fated Jeannette Expedition (1879-81). The loss of the Jeannette helped Nansen plan his own approach to the North Pole in 1893.  The New York Herald and the New York Tribune merged in 1924.  The New York Herald Tribune ceased operation in 1966.]

Shirer begins his review in a defensive mood:

“This poignant record of a Norwegian’s three years of captivity under the master race may get a mixed reception in a land of short memory that happily escaped the horrors of a Nazi occupation.”

Writing in End of a Berlin Diary, published in 1947, Shirer claimed to have been told “by a British and an American publisher that the people in Great Britain and America are sick to death of books about German atrocities.” He repeats the same claim in this review. But, Shirer pleads, “This book is different from all the others [I have] read.”  Sure, it also contains unspeakable barbarities.  “But [Nansen’s diary] rises above them and reminds us in never-to-be-forgotten pages how noble and generous the human spirit can be in the face of terrible adversity.”

Although it is not known if Shirer and Nansen ever met, Shirer had been continuously reporting from Europe since 1925, and knew Odd Nansen’s father, Fridtjof, well:

“Fridtjof Nansen  . . . dedicated the last years of his life to helping the refugees–the displaced persons, as we call them now—of the first world war.  This reviewer still remembers the old gentleman, with his thick white hair and his lively eyes, stamping around the palace of the League of Nations in Geneva and forcing the harried statesmen of the world to heed him and his endeavors to find homes for the world’s homeless.  Hundreds of thousands were saved by ‘Nansen passports.’”

Shirer recounts the degradations Odd Nansen experienced in prison, and the even worse examples he saw but luckily personally escaped.  And in “dreaded Sachsenhausen . . . he had to steel himself to see much worse.”  Yet Shirer concludes that what makes Nansen’s diary—written “magnificently free of bitterness or hate or revenge”—so unique is this:

“Nansen never gave up nor did he lose his faith in mankind, in men’s courage, their integrity and their capacity to love.”

Words true 72 years ago, words true today.

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

The Meaning of Cold: Redux

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With much of the U.S. once again facing a winter onslaught, I thought it might be worth revisiting and republishing a blog I wrote three years ago during a similar case of winter’s fury: the Bomb Cyclone of 2018.  Sadly, my fears of antisemitism have only grown stronger in the interval.  Here it is.

So the Bomb Cyclone has come and gone, leaving a Polar Vortex in its wake.  Did you survive it?  Unborn generations will be asking us in future years how we coped.  At the very least, the storm stranded thousands of passengers, shut down government services along the East Coast, provided a few days off from school, and probably froze enough pipes to keep the plumbing industry in America afloat (apologies for the pun) for quite some time.

Even here in western North Carolina, the so-called Isothermal Belt, where temperatures are expected to be, well, temperate, things got pretty nippy.  The barn was drained, heaters were installed in the horses’ water buckets against freezing, the light bulb was kept on in the well house, and the fireplace well stocked.  I am a veteran of almost 50 Connecticut winters, and even I felt a bit uncomfortable during my daily dog walk.  And I had my polar fleece ski cap, insulated and padded LL Bean coat, cashmere scarf, and sturdy boots (again courtesy of LL Bean).

Today, as I attempted (unsuccessfully) to hasten along my dogs’ perambulations, I couldn’t help but reflect on an event that occurred two weeks shy of 72 years ago: the evacuation of Auschwitz, otherwise known as the Auschwitz Death March.  Clad in cotton prison uniforms, some with blankets, some without, some with boots, some with wooden clogs, some with rags tied round their feet, approximately 56,000 prisoners set out on January 18, 1945, into the Polish winter.  According to Professor Daniel Blatman, an authority on the death marches, temperatures in the area “dropp[ed] to -10 to -15°C,” or 5 to 14° F.

One of those 56,000 prisoners was ten year-old Tom Buergenthal.  As Tom relates in his memoir, A Lucky Child, over the next three days he walked 70 kilometers (42 miles), sleeping on the frozen ground at night.  By the time he reached Gliwice on the third day, Tom could no longer feel his toes.  There, he ate his remaining bread and licked a few handfuls of snow.  “Oh, what would I have given for even a few spoonfuls of that terrible Auschwitz turnip soup or, for that matter, anything warm!” he writes.

Auschwitz in winter

At Gliwice Tom was packed onto an open cattle car.  At first the warmth of the crowded car was an asset, but as prisoners died and their bodies were thrown over the side, even that advantage faded.  “The snow and wind seemed never to let up, and we could feel the cold more now than before because there were fewer warm bodies pressing against us.” With his bread gone, Tom was reduced to eating snow, imagining it tasted like ice cream, “although I doubt that we remembered what ice cream tasted like.”

How such cruelty could be visited upon a ten year-old boy, for no other reason than his Jewish birth, is a question that both perplexes me (no matter how much I read up on the subject), but also frightens me, as the disease of anti-Semitism once again gains virulence, even here in America.

Was there any saving grace, or silver lining, to be extracted from the experience of the Death March?  Hardly.  Thousands of prisoners died in the process, a mere 100 days before the war’s end.  After ten days on the cattle car, Tom had several of his frostbitten toes amputated when he finally arrived in Sachsenhausen.  But in a strange twist of fate, his injury placed him in Sachsenhausen’s Revier III (Infirmary No. 3), which also housed one of Odd Nansen’s Norwegian friends.  It was while visiting his friend that Odd first encountered young Tommy, so young and so innocent that Nansen called him “one of Raphael’s angels.”  Otherwise, the chances that Tom and Odd would ever have crossed paths in a camp as large as Sachsenhausen were almost negligible.  And that improbable meeting proved a boon to both Nansen and Buergenthal.

Even in the darkest hours there were a few other gleams of light.  Saul Friedländer, in his book Nazi Germany and the Jews, Volume II (The Years of Extermination), recounts the experience of another Death March participant, Paul Steinberg, who had “’a precise, detailed, overwhelming memory.’”  When Steinberg’s train approached Prague, Czechoslovakia, it passed under bridges where Czechs were marching overhead on their way to work.

“’As one man,’ Steinberg recalls, ‘the Czechs opened their satchels and tossed their lunches down to us without a moment’s hesitation. . . .  We were showered with rolls, slices of bread. . . .’”

Tom Buergenthal had a similar experience:

“Just when I was sure that it would only be a matter of a day or two before I too would die and be thrown out of the car, a miracle occurred.  As the train moved slowly through Czechoslovakia, . . . men, women and children standing on the bridges we passed under [began tossing bread loaves into the cars]  . . . . Had it not been for that Czech bread, we would not have survived.  I never learned how this magnificent campaign had been mounted, but as long as I live, I will not forget these angels—for to me they seemed to be angels—who provided us bread as if from heaven.”

Think about that the next time you reach for your fur-lined gloves.

[Originally published January 7, 2018.]

International Holocaust Remembrance Day

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Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, or, more formally, the International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust.  The date, set by UN Resolution, corresponds to the day that Auschwitz, the largest and deadliest concentration the Nazis ever built, was finally liberated.  Approximately 1.1million prisoners, of which 1 million were Jews, were murdered in Auschwitz between 1941 To 1944.  During the course of the war, over 10 million prisoners, of which 6 million were Jews, were murdered by the Nazis.

In my very first blog, written on September 3, 2015, I argued that references to “six million deaths” is in a sense counterproductive, in that the human brain is incapable of fully grasping the enormity of that number.  Comparisons may help: six million is greater than the combined populations of Wyoming, Vermont, Alaska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Delaware and Rhode Island.  If the murdered Jews constituted a separate state, it would be the 20th largest in the U.S.  But even such comparisons fail to adequately convey what six million deaths mean.  Only when the focus is brought down to an individual life can we emotionally engage and understand how tragic the loss of even that one life is.

Accordingly, in these blogs I have written about the individual victims of the Holocaust: Ilse Weber; Georges-André Kohn and the children of Bullenhuser Damm; Ruth Maier, Konrad Kaplan, and of course, Anne Frank.  All of these people had dreams, loved, were loved, and their deaths, individually and collectively, constitute a rent in the fabric of the world.

Since the purpose of today’s commemoration is to remember the survivors as well as the dead, I would like to focus on just one Holocaust survivor who was also a friend of Odd Nansen’s: Leiba Wolfberg.

Leiba (aka Leif) Wolfberg was born in Lithuania in 1914; when he emigrated to Norway is unknown.  Arrested on April 3, 1942, and sent to Grini in June 9, 1942, Wolfberg first appears in Nansen’s diary five days later, performing a violin duet with another prisoner. Less than two months later, on August 3 1942, Wolfberg once again merits mention in the diary—although for a much less enjoyable event.

Wolfberg is “called over” to be medically examined for his fitness to join a transport.  When called, he hobbles out on a makeshift crutch, having just that day been operated upon for an infected foot. This infuriates the Nazi camp officials, who proceed to upbraid him and tear his bandage off.  The Lagerkommandant, Denzer, screams: “’Here’s a lazy rascal of a Jew, been trying to dodge by going to the hospital for nothing at all.’ . . . .  Poor Leiba was ordered to take his place in the column.  He hobbled off, leaning on his stick.  Denzer tore the stick from him in a fury, and swung it threateningly over his head; at the last moment he returned to his senses and hurled it with all his might over the new fence, into the wood.”

Wolfberg is then shipped off to Auschwitz, along with the majority of Norway’s Jewish prisoners, in late November 1942, and is not heard from again until two years later, in mid-November 1944, when he arrives in Sachsenhausen.  Unlike most of his fellow Norwegian Jews, Leiba had managed to stay alive in Auschwitz.  His skill on the violin got him a job playing in Auschwitz (which boasted a first-rate orchestra composed of prisoners), a job that brought slightly better food and working conditions.

On November 12, 1944, Nansen once again meets up with Wolfberg, and immediately notices a sea-change in his young friend:

“The Wolfberg I met again was quite different from the one I was with at Grini in 1942. That Wolfberg was a weakly, nervous boy, the type of boy one superficially and thoughtlessly calls a “coward.” He was afraid of dying at that time, mortally afraid of dying. The Wolfberg I met yesterday had no fear of death; he was no nervy Jewish lad, but a grown man who faced reality unblinkingly, with wide-open eyes. . . He was glad to meet me, and talked away about “the old days” at Grini, what a pleasant time we had, how different . . . .  And then gradually he got talking of the years between. Auschwitz!

I believe it will be hard for posterity, indeed for other people at all, to grasp the depth of suffering and horror of which Auschwitz has been the frame.”

Apparently Wolfberg was again sent on for a time from Sachsenhausen to Lieberose, a subcamp.  By mid-February 1945, however, he was back in Sachsenhausen proper again.  And again Odd Nansen was impressed by his outlook:

“I was talking to Wolfberg again yesterday; he got out to see us. He evidently wasn’t expecting to come through this alive, poor fellow, but asked us in a curiously light, easy manner to give his love to common friends if we got through. No crematorium can impress him now, no hangmen, none of these in­human horrors that still upset me, for a time at least. He is hardened, but at the same time it’s remarkable how he has preserved his warmth of heart and his subtle, pliant humanity.”

Three days later Nansen learns that Wolfberg is still alive, and may in fact have been “moved out of harm’s way.”  But nothing is definite, and Nansen frets: “I don’t know [Wolfberg’s fate] and I don’t know how I’m to find out what happened to him.”

Well, Leiba Wolfberg did survive.  His registration card was secretly altered to give him a new, non-Jewish identity—”Rolf Berg.”  In this way he was evacuated to safety along with all other Norwegians, in the “white buses” operation.

Wolfberg, who had once assured Nansen “I shouldn’t care if I were going to the furnace tonight, I’m fully prepared for it,” lived out his days teaching violin in Norway, and performing with the Norwegian National Orchestra.  What better rebuke to the hate visited upon him—to share his “pliant, subtle humanity” through the beauty of his music—the world’s universal language.

All this nevertheless leaves us with a question: Why?  Why did Wolfberg survive, and others not?  Why did Ilse Weber perish and her husband survive?  Why did Anne Frank, her sister and her mother all die, and her father Otto survive?  Why did Georges-André die, and his father Armand survive? Why did Mundek Buergenthal die and his wife and son survive?  In studying the Holocaust, such inquiries unfortunately lead nowhere.  As a guard in Auschwitz once remarked to Primo Levi: “In here there is no ‘why.’”

But focusing on the incredible achievements of those who did survive serves to underscore the “might have beens” for those who did not.  Could Anne Frank become a wonderful novelist? Ilse Weber a famous poet? Georges-André a hospital director like his father?

So while we mourn the dead, and the potential lives they could have led, we can take some inspiration from the lives of the survivors—like Leiba Wolfberg, Otto Frank, Tom Buergenthal, and others—and in so doing, come to a deeper, more complete understanding of the Holocaust.  Hopefully, this will in turn lead us to vow, with even greater conviction: Never Again.

Winston Churchill: A Life

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Fifty-six years ago today, Winston Churchill passed away, age 90.  I’ve written about him before (here, here and here).

Like many larger-than-life figures, especially one in the public eye for much of his life, Churchill has his share of supporters (most recently Erik Larson) as well as his detractors.  He certainly made his share of mistakes, and held views that have not always stood the test of time.

But for today I’ll focus on a contemporary account of Churchill which sheds some light on how he was viewed in his own time, and by a people who had never voted for him, nor even in most cases spoke his language.

For this I turn to my old friend William L. Shirer.  In his book, End of a Berlin Diary, he recounts visiting Paris on November 11, 1944, just months after it had been liberated, to attend the Armistice Day commemoration.  He reflected on how, previously, with “each year . . . less people turned out on the Champs-Élysées on Armistice Day.”  But on this first Armistice Day since liberation, “a crowd of a million Parisians . . . lined the Champs-Élysées from the Arc de Triomphe to the Place de la Concorde.”

I’ll let Shirer take it from here:

“At first, during the early morning when [the Parisians] were gathering on the avenue, they struck me as being in a subdued state of excitement.  They had to pinch themselves to believe that what they were doing and seeing this day, that they were—free again—was all true. . . .

Then suddenly something happened.  All the pent-up feelings of years exploded.  I don’t think I had ever seen this before.  It was just before the traditional hour of eleven a.m.  Down toward the Place de la Concorde we heard the cheers break out.  But it wasn’t ordinary cheering.  It was a mighty roar—even in the distance. Where I was, nobody knew why. . . .   De Gaulle would be in the first [car], standing stiffly, saluting.  He was popular because of what he had done.  But he was not the sort of man to set crowds afire.

And then we knew.  The cars approached.  De Gaulle was in the first one all right, standing stiffly and saluting.  It was what was at his side that set the sparks off.  Standing at his side was Winston Churchill. . . .  At this moment he became, for the moment, a great symbol to these people, the symbol of France’s liberators.  And because not a single one of the million people had expected to see him at this instant, the complete surprise and lightning-sure recognition of the man they knew as the one who, above all others, had saved them, touched off the explosive materials that had lain long and deep in all of them.  For security reasons . . . the public had not been told that Churchill was in Paris or even in France.

At the sight of him there was bedlam.  Now you could really see human beings mad with joy.  They shouted wildly, gripped by a wonderful hysteria. They shouted and stamped and gesticulated and crawled on one another so that their eyes would not lose sight of the man.  After he passed, there was a reaction.  Several around me were in tears. . . .  Gratitude is not very plentiful in this world; but today the French, who are not noted for it, had it.”

RIP, Winston Churchill.

An Anniversary; A Year-End Report

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“At half-past seven the district sheriff of East Gausdal came up to the cottage with two Germans.”

So begins From Day to Day, which Odd Nansen, in his usual self-deprecating way, describes thusly in his Foreword: “This book is a diary and makes no claim to be anything else.”

The above opening lines were penned 79 years ago tonight, in a single cell in the Lillehammer county jail, marking Odd Nansen’s arrest and the start of his fateful 40-month journey through Nazi concentration camps.

What more appropriate time to provide a report to my subscribers on all that happened this past year.

COVID is what happened this past year.  And that threw everyone’s plans for 2020, mine included, into a cocked hat.  It was difficult to make any plans as the pandemic unfolded, and scheduling, rescheduling, delays and uncertainty were the order of the day, dominating everyone’s thinking.  For five months, stretching from February to July, I lived in a state of suspended animation. Would the pandemic abate?  Was it better to wait things out?  And how exactly did Zoom work?

The new year has brought some clarity:  Yes, Zoom works just fine—millions now use it (and other technologies) like they were born to it.  A vaccine is on the way.  And yet uncertainty still persists.  When will herd immunity be achieved?  When will life return to “normal”?

Looking back, I can see that 2020 represented progress, just not as much progress as I had envisioned a year ago at this time. Here are some the 2020 vital stats:

19 presentations (all but 4 virtual)

36 blogs posted

1770 event attendees

4580 website visitors

$1,996.02. Last year’s share of royalties and speaking fees distributed to each of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and HL Senteret, the Norwegian Center for Holocaust and Minority Studies

$19,296.32. Combined to-date distributions of royalties and speaking fees to the above two organizations

Notwithstanding the uncertainty mentioned above, 2021 promises to be an improvement over last year.  Already, two weeks into the new year, I have 19 presentations scheduled, with the prospect for more opportunities on the horizon.  And plenty more blog topics beckon.

So I am optimistic for 2021, and hope you are too.  Here’s wishing you all the best for a safe, healthy, and happy New Year!

Children: Lost and Found

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Among the manifold tragedies of the Holocaust, one of the greatest was the destruction of Jewish families.  Worried parents were often faced with agonizing choices regarding the fate of their children: keep the family intact and hope for the best, or send them away rather than risk their futures to an increasingly dark future.  Sometimes this required packing them off to foreign lands, into the hands of strangers, for indefinite periods.  Other times it meant sending them into hiding, or giving their children new (non-Jewish) identifies to ensure their safety.  Ilse Weber sent her 7-year-old son off on the Kindertransport to England, and later Sweden.  Ruth Maier went off alone from Vienna to Norway, age 18.

Of course, once in the maw of the concentration camp, family separation was all but assured.  Anne Frank, age 15, was separated from her father Otto when she was sent on to Bergen-Belsen and he remained in Auschwitz. Elie Wiesel, age 15, separated from his mother and sisters when the family was arrested in Hungary in 1944.

Tom Buergenthal was no exception.  Upon arriving in Auschwitz in August 1944, Tom, age 10, was immediately separated from his mother, who was placed in a women’s subcamp.  Thereafter he had only one, fleeting, glimpse of her through the wire, a few months later, before she was transported to Ravensbrück in Germany. Around the same time, Tom’s father was also sent away—first to Sachsenhausen and later to Buchenwald—where he would succumb to pneumonia in January 1945.  All Tom knew was that both his parents were gone, destination and fate unknown, and he was alone.

At least Tom’s story had a somewhat happy ending.  After the war, a clerk in the Jewish Agency in Palestine somehow miraculously noticed Tom’s name on a list of those wishing to emigrate to Palestine and the same name on a list of missing persons.  Absent this discovery, who knows whether Tom would ever have been located by his mother, despite the fact that she, like so many parents, had never stopped searching for him.  After all, had he not been labeled ein Glückskind—a lucky child—by the fortuneteller?

Once located, Tom embarked on yet another transport—a happy one—from Otwock, Poland to Göttingen, Germany where his mother eagerly awaited him.  Seventy-four years ago today—December 29, 1946—Tom arrived by train at Göttingen station.  By now the war had been over for nineteen months, and it had been almost two and a half years since mother and child had been together.

“I could not contain my excitement. I spotted my mother even before the train came to a stop.  As I try to describe the emotions of that moment, I realize that I am incapable of putting into words what I felt.  And even now, so many years later, tears well up in my eyes as I see her standing there, nervously scanning the slowing railroad cars for a glimpse of me.  While the train was still moving, I jumped out and raced over to her.  We fell into each other’s arms and stood there long after the train had moved out of the station, hugging each other and trying in just a few minutes to recount all that had happened to us since that August day in 1944 when we were separated in Auschwitz.”

The meeting was also bittersweet:

Und Papa?” I finally asked.  She did not answer right away but kept shaking her head as tears ran down her cheeks.  Right then I knew that my father had not survived the war that was now finally over for my mother and me.

A Young Thomas Buergenthal

While so many Nazis and their helpers were trying to destroy families, Odd Nansen was trying to save them.

In 1938, following the Anschluss, Odd Nansen’s relief organization, Nansenhjelpen, helped Jewish children travel from Vienna to attend summer camp in Norway. As conditions in Austria worsened, the children were allowed, reluctantly, to stay in Norway, at a Jewish Children’s Home headed by one Nina Hasvoll,* herself a refugee from Russia and Germany.  The following year Nansenhjelpen brought children from Czechoslovakia to the children’s home in Oslo as well.  Nina continued to look out for her young charges in Oslo for several years, until late 1942, when conditions for Jews in Norway worsened.  On the morning of November 26, 1942, acting on a tip, Nina was able to spirit all of her 14 children away from the home a mere two hours before the Norwegian police arrived to round them up for deportation. [Virtually all the Jewish children who were rounded up were ultimately murdered in Auschwitz.] She helped the children escape to safety in Sweden with the help of several friends, a taxi driver and two border pilots, all of whom were later recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem.

Nina Hasvoll

One of the young children in Hasvoll’s care was Berthold Grünfeld, who had arrived from Czechoslovakia as a 7-year-old in 1939 through the efforts of Odd Nansen.  As a result of Nina Hasvoll’s care, attention, and quick action during the Jewish roundup, Grünfeld survived and later became a prominent psychiatrist in postwar Norway.  In 2005 he was appointed to the Royal Norwegian Order of St. Olav in recognition for his “distinguished services rendered to Norway and mankind.” Berthold never forgot Nina Hasvoll, and named one of his daughters Nina in her honor.

Berthold Grünfeld

That daughter, Nina Grünfeld, has in turn produced a wonderful film about Nina Hasvoll and the Jewish Children’s Home.  Called “Nina’s Children,” it is available to rent on Vimeo.  Here is the link.  I highly recommend it.  If you watch and listen closely, you will see and hear references to Nansenhjelpen in the movie.

So, as we celebrate Tom Buergenthal’s’ good fortune in being miraculously reunited with his mother 74 years ago this day, let us honor the actions of Odd Nansen, Nina Hasvoll, and others like them during the Holocaust.  But let us also remember the loss of Tom’s father, as well as tragic fates of the Frank family, the Wiesel family, the Weber family, the Maier family, and all those countless other families that would never again be made whole—a lasting, indelible tragedy of the Holocaust, and a tragedy which is still being perpetrated today.

*Nina married after the war and is often referred to as Nina Hasvoll Meyer.  She had no children of her own.

Boxing Day 1941

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Boxing Day, observed on the day after Christmas, traces its roots back to medieval England, when boxes of gifts, money and food (including sometimes, leftovers) were given as tokens of appreciation to servants, and as alms to the less fortunate.

Boxing Day 1941 did not find many people focused on gift- or alms-giving.  After more than two years of war, Great Britain continued to suffer one humiliating defeat after another: Dunkirk; Crete; Hong Kong; Malaya.  The U.S., which had until only recently been awash in isolationist sentiment, was still mentally adjusting to a state of war with not one, but two, aggressor nations.  Norway had just finished its first full calendar year of increasingly heavy-handed occupation.

Least of all was Boxing Day foremost on the minds of those British and Norwegian commandos who were secretly steaming through stormy weather toward the Norwegian coast on Christmas Day.  The first task force—Operation Anklet—was aimed at the Lofoten Islands on the northwestern coast of Norway.  Like Washington’s attack on the Hessians in Trenton, NJ on December 26, 1776, the attackers hoped to catch their adversaries still recovering from too much holiday cheer. The landing force of 300 men planned to dig in on the islands and disrupt communications with German forces in northern Norway.

Lofoten Islands

The second task force—Operation Archery—was intended as something of a diversionary tactic.  Equipment problems delayed the start of Archery by a day, until December 27th.  The immediate goal of its 500 troops was the destruction of fish-oil production plants located on and around the island of Vågsøy which had been repurposed by the Germans for the manufacture of explosives.  Another aim of both Anklet and Archery was to force Germany to increase its military presence in Norway.  This would siphon off forces otherwise earmarked for the fighting then raging on the Eastern Front.

British soldiers during Operation Archery

The Anklet task force realized almost immediately that without air cover their position was hopeless.  Leaving almost as quickly as they had appeared, by the evening of the 27th both attacking forces began their withdrawal.  What had they accomplished?

  • Several fish-oil factories destroyed.
  • Over 100 defenders killed and over 100 prisoners (Germans and Quislings) captured.
  • 270 loyal Norwegians returned to England to serve in the Free Norwegian Forces.
  • Hitler diverted 30,000 additional troops to Norway, as well as material resources to beef up coastal and inland defenses. By 1944, 370,000 German troops were engaged in garrison duty in Norway: roughly 1 soldier for every 10 Norwegians.  By way of comparison, a similar occupation force in today’s America would require 31 million soldiers.
  • Although a subsidiary consideration, the raiders also hoped to capture German code books. Most important of all, both task forces were providentially able to seize an Enigma coding machine, with associated wheels and settings, from German patrol boats captured in the operation.  Historian Hugh Sebag-Montefiore writes: “The captures made during Operations Archery and Anklet helped to usher in a golden period for the Bletchley Park code-breakers. . . .   It was a code-breaking feat which was to save countless lives.”

There was one other far-reaching consequence of Operations Anklet and Archery.  Odd Nansen, listening to BBC broadcasts while enjoying a Christmas holiday in the mountains, had no doubt learned about the raids.  But he could not possibly have connected the actions taken by these commandos with his own personal fate.  After all, he was in no way connected with military decisions arrived at in far-off England.  How could these raids possibly impact his life?

Josef Terboven thought otherwise.

Terboven was Norway’s Reichskommissar, Hitler’s hand-picked representative in Norway.  No respecter of international law himself, Terboven was shocked—shocked—at the brazen actions of the commandos; he condemned “the kidnapping of eight members of the Nasjonal Samling party [Quisling’s fascist party] by Englishmen in violation of international law.”

In reprisal, Terboven ordered the arrest of twenty former high court officials, as well as friends of the now exiled royal family.

Seventeen days after the last commando departed Norway’s shores, on January 13, 1942, Odd Nansen, still on holiday, was arrested as a hostage per Terboven’s edict.  That in turn would set off a chain of events that would lead to me writing this blog on another Boxing Day, seventy-nine years later……………..

December 6, 1901: Odd Nansen’s Birthday

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Odd Nansen

Today is the 119th anniversary of Odd Nansen’s birth.

“What is it in the human character that gives some individuals the moral strength not to sacrifice their decency and dignity, regardless of the costs to themselves, whereas others become murderously ruthless in the hope of ensuring their own survival?”  Thomas Buergenthal, A Lucky Child.

That, indeed, is the question.  Religion, philosophy, psychology, political science, among other disciplines, have all wrestled, unsuccessfully, to answer this conundrum.  Perhaps the answer is insoluble.  As historian Barbara Tuchman wrote, in Practicing History: “Whole philosophies have evolved over the question whether the human species is predominately good or evil.  I only know that it is mixed, that you cannot separate good from bad, that wisdom, courage and benevolence exist alongside knavery, greed and stupidity; heroism and fortitude alongside vainglory, cruelty and corruption.”

So, if humankind is inherently flawed—good existing beside evil at all times, what steps can we humans take to insure that good gains the upper hand in our ongoing struggle to do the right thing?

My friend, the writer Samuel Hynes, once observed about one of his favorite subjects—war—that it is ultimately a human struggle against human enemies: evil, fear, and death itself.  Further, stories of war are witnesses to acts of great courage and self-sacrifice.  Equally important, in Hynes’s view, those acts of great bravery—which we recognize as humanly valuable—are “not performed by heroes but by people like us. . . .   They are ourselves, elsewhere; and their actions are our extreme possibilities.”

Thus, we may never be able to fully solve Tom Buergenthal’s riddle, and must recognize, like Tuchman, that the capacity for both good and evil exists within all of us.  But as long as stories like Odd Nansen’s matchless diary exist and are read, we can nevertheless recognize that Nansen’s actions point the way to our own “extreme possibilities” —extremes of courage and self-sacrifice—and try to conduct our lives accordingly.

Happy Birthday, Odd Nansen.

The Meaning of November 26

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Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, the day set aside for Americans to give thanks for their manifold blessings.  Although celebrated in America in one form or another since 1619, it was not until President Franklin Roosevelt signed a joint resolution of Congress on December 26, 1941, that the date for Thanksgiving was finally set as the fourth Thursday of November.  This year that day falls on November 26.

Unfortunately, for some, November 26 evokes memories of pain and loss and suffering.  On that day in 1942, German soldiers and Norwegian policemen rounded up all remaining Jewish women and children in Norway and delivered them to two ships awaiting in Oslo harbor: the SS Donau and the MS Monte Rosa.  There they were joined by Jewish men and boys, aged 16 and older, who had already been rounded up exactly one month prior—October 26.

SS Donau about to depart Oslo harbor

The Donau (with 532 Jewish prisoners) and the Monte Rosa (with 28) sailed for the German port city of Stettin, where the prisoners were forced onto railcars headed for Auschwitz.  Of the 532 Donau prisoners, 345 were murdered within hours of their arrival in Auschwitz; the remainder were to be used as slave labor in Birkenau.  A final transport of another 158 Jewish prisoners departed Norway on February 24, 1943.  Some of these prisoners had been incarcerated in Grini, the same detention camp holding Odd Nansen.  Here’s what he wrote on that date about their departure:

Wednesday, February 24, 1943.  Mild weather and misery.  Last night the Jews were given notice to parade in mufti at eight o’clock this morning.  They went off later in the morning.  No doubt for Poland.  It was a melancholy band. Dr. [Wulff] Becker’s face shone out among them. A splendid fellow. ‘Well, good-bye, Nansen; thanks for everything and au revoir!’ No doubt he had his suspicions of what awaited him, but he had evidently made up his mind not to show it.  [Dr. Leonard] Levin’s good-bye was more somber, but he smiled, too.  The others were in a worse state.  It hurt to see them going off.”

All told, approximately 772 Jews were deported from Norway during World War II; only 34 of those deported survived until the end of the war.

Another approximately 1000 Jews and others escaped from Norway—many just hours prior to the roundup.  Most were smuggled to Sweden, and a smaller number made it to England.  [One of the earliest escapees was the Nobel Prize laureate in Literature, Sigrid Undset, who ultimately found sanctuary in America.]

Last month I was honored to moderate a film discussion as part of the 23rd Annual Milwaukee Jewish Film Festival.  The film—perhaps not surprisingly—was a Norwegian film about Jewish refugees trying to escape to Sweden.  It is called “Flukten over Grensen” [literally, “Escape over the Border,” or more colloquially, “The Crossing”]

“The Crossing,” which was produced in Norway, focuses on two sets of siblings: Gerda (age 9) and her older brother Otto (age 14?), and Daniel (age 14-15?) and his younger sister Sarah (age 7-8?).  Daniel and Sarah have been hiding with Gerda and Otto’s parents ever since their own father fled the October 1942 roundup of Jews.  However, when Gerda and Otto’s parents are arrested on Christmas Eve, and Gerda’s father meaningfully explains to her that “the Christmas presents” are in the basement and need to go to their aunt (who lives close by the Swedish border), it’s up to Gerda and Otto to uncover the hidden children and safely see Daniel and Sarah to freedom in Sweden.  It’s a wonderful film, replete with helpful adults, fascist sympathizers (including one who reenacts a scene right out of Hansel and Gretel), chases, near misses, as well as Otto’s dawning realization that the two young Jews in his care are not the “other” to be feared and despised, but human beings just like him.

If you ever get a chance to see “The Crossing,” please do—it’s well made, meaningful on multiple levels, and heartwarming.  Young Gerda is sure to steal your heart. My commentary as part of the film discussion can be found here.

As noted above, not all Jews in Norway were as fortunate as Daniel and Sarah.  One of those Jews on the Donau was Ruth Maier. Ruth was born in Vienna, Austria in 1920.   Until 1938 Ruth led a typical, happy life in Vienna.  But on March 12, 1938, the Anschluss occurred: Germany annexed Austria and German forces quickly moved in and took control.  Just as suddenly, Ruth and her family were social pariahs.  Through the international connections made by her father (who had died in 1933) Ruth and her younger sister Judith were ultimately able to escape Austria: Ruth to Norway; Judith to England.

Ruth Maier

For a time, Ruth thrived in Norway.   She soon became fluent in Norwegian, and attracted the attention of some leading artists: she modeled for painter Åsmund Esval, as well as the famous sculptor Gustav Vigeland.  His sculpture of her, titled “Surprised,” is permanently displayed in Vigeland Park in central Oslo.

“Surprised” by Gustav Vigeland

Ruth’s idyll ended on November 26 when she was arrested by two Norwegian policemen.  Upon arrival in Auschwitz on December 1, 1942, she was immediately murdered in the gas chambers.  Ruth was 22.

From 1933 to 1942 Ruth kept a diary, which fortunately survived in the possession of her close friend Gunvor Hofmo (whose uncle, Rolf Hofmo, was with Nansen in Grini and Sachsenhausen).  Hofmo tried to get Ruth’s diaries published in 1953, but was rebuffed.  Following Hofmo’s death in 1995, Norwegian poet Jan Erik Vold went through her papers and discovered the diaries.  After editing them, Vold was able to publish the diaries 2007; they were translated into English in 2009.  Ruth Maier’s diaries have been well received; she is now sometimes referred to as “Norway’s Anne Frank.”

According to the English version of her diary, Ruth Maier’s last words come from a letter she wrote to Hofmo that was somehow smuggled off the Donau before the ship departed.  The letter includes these lines:

“I think it’s just as well that it happened this way.  Why shouldn’t we suffer when there’s so much suffering?  Don’t worry about me.  Perhaps I wouldn’t even change places with you.”

Happy Birthday Marit!

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[You have a unique chance to meet Marit (virtually).  See below for details.]

Today marks the 92nd birthday of my dear friend, Marit (Nansen) Greve, Odd Nansen’s eldest child.

Marit was actually born here in America—in Brooklyn, NY, to be exact, while her father was working in New York City (1927—1930) in architecture/urban planning.  Although many people refuse to believe this, I maintain that I can still detect a slight Brooklyn accent beneath her Norwegian lilt.  She was only one and a half when the Nansen family returned to Norway in the spring of 1930, a move precipitated by the illness of her famous grandfather, Fridtjof Nansen (who died May 13, 1930).

Marit’s childhood was anything but ordinary.  When she was but eleven and a half, Germany invaded and occupied Norway (April 9, 1940). Now German soldiers were ubiquitous.  Danger lurked everywhere.  Conditions were tough.  Even children were affected: the Nazis tried to control the school curriculum, all organized sports, and even the church liturgy—all of which aroused vehement pushback from the Norwegians.

In early January 1942, Marit, her parents, and her two younger siblings, Eigil (age 10) and Siri (age 8) were enjoying a respite from the cares and concerns brought about by almost two years of occupation.  They were on holiday near Lillehammer, enjoying a rustic mountain getaway in a hytte (cabin) owned by Odd Nansen’s business partner, Ernst Holmboe.

It was a quiet Tuesday evening, and the family was gathered around to hear the nightly BBC Norwegian broadcast when they saw three men with flashlights approaching the hytte.  The radio was hurriedly hidden away (owning a radio was illegal, as was listening to the BBC).  The three strangers (two Germans and the local sheriff) announced only that Nansen was being summoned to Oslo for “questioning.”  Nansen writes in his very first diary entry the following: “Kari [his wife] was calm, Marit, Eigil and Siri cried, poor things, but were smiling bravely through their tears before I left.”

Marit had just recently turned thirteen.

She was old enough to begin to imagine what might happen to her father.  But probably neither she nor her father could imagine how horrifying his next three and a half years would actually be.

While Nansen was imprisoned in Grini, a police detention camp outside Oslo, Marit was occasionally able to visit her father, accompanied by her mother and sometimes her siblings.  One memorable visit occurred on Thursday, August 5, 1943.  This time Marit arrived with Nansen’s partner Holmboe, who was there on a business visit.  Initially Marit was refused access by an overly punctilious interpreter, but tragedy was averted when a sympathetic German guard, on his own initiative, pleaded Marit’s case.  Result: Marit was allowed into her father’s presence.

“Marit came rushing over, crying bitterly; she had been in such despair because they wouldn’t let her see me, poor child.  Oh, how it warmed my heart; I do believe she cares a little for her daddy, and now I am not afraid she may have grown away from me and forgotten me in this time.”

It was a good thing Marit and Nansen saw each other then; within weeks Nansen would run afoul of Grini’s commandant, resulting in the Einzelhaft (solitary confinement) followed by transport to Sachsenhausen.  Nansen would need to rely on that bittersweet memory for the next two years, as Marit matured into a young woman.  And Marit would have to help keep her family going without their father for two more years.

The Nansen Family greeting their father upon his return home from captivity. Marit on the right.

My first encounter with Marit occurred in August 2010.  Following an introduction provided by Tom Buergenthal, I arranged a stopover in Oslo en route home from attending a wedding in Stockholm.  As befitted a first meeting, the interview was rather formal and proper. Marit graciously answered all my questions, as she was to do, again and again, over the next six years, as I edited, annotated and wrote the introduction to Nansen’s diary.

What evolved from that first meeting was an immensely enjoyable and rewarding friendship—including visits to Norway and vice versa (which I have written about here).  As I mention in my Acknowledgements, “To come to know Marit as I have is truly one of the unexpected, but deeply cherished, joys of this undertaking.”

SKÅL, Marit, on your wonderful achievement, and many more birthdays to come!

Me and Marit celebrating her 90th birthday in Oslo.

[Note: Dear readers, you have a wonderful chance to meet Marit (virtually).  Here’s how.  On Sunday, November 15, at 9:00 am (ET) I will be the guest speaker at the 14th Annual Kristallnacht Commemoration sponsored by The Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven and Congregation Or Shalom. The highlight of the event will be the presentation (virtually) by Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut to Marit and her family of a U.S. Senate Resolution commending Odd Nansen for his courageous humanitarian work prior to World War II—via Nansenhjelpen—and his inspirational World War II concentration camp diary, From Day to Day.  Register for the free event via the following link: us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_8X2vn1cTSYqUFrLXFeUYvQ.  I hope you will be able to join me when Marit accepts her father’s well-deserved commendation!]

Upcoming Events

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Book Signings

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