Two Holocaust Survivors Reunite 79 Years Later

Share

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

A heart-warming tale indeed.

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

Share

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marit at First Edition Farm, July 2016

All’s Welles That Ends Welles

Share

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

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

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

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

Sumner Welles

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jean Giraudoux

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

One would think.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Moon Is Down Turns 80 Years Young

Share

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Vemork Raid: February 27/28, 1943

Share

Odd Nansen’s Diary, March 6, 1943:

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

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

Vemork Hydroelectric Plant

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recreation of the heavy water sabotage

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

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

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

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

Winter Olympic Trivia (Cont.)

Share

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

Q: Did Germany participate in the 1952 Winter Olympics?

A: Yes

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

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

Q: How did the Triple Axel gets its name?

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

Axel Paulsen

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

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

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

Q: Have there been other Norwegian speed skating prodigies?

A: Yes: Fridtjof Nansen

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

Fridtjof Nansen

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

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

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

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

A: Yes, and No

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

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

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

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

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

Share

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

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

Eigil Nansen lighting the Olympic Flame

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

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

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

Statue of Sondre Norheim

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

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

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

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

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

Olav Bjaaland at the South Pole

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: Who designed Bislett Stadium?

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

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

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

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

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

So much for Olympic tradition!

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

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

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

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

International Holocaust Remembrance Day

Share

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

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

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

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

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

As true today as when wrote the Postscript in 1946.

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

January 13, 1942

Share

Eighty years ago today,  three officials—two German, one Norwegian—approached a small cabin in snowy East Gausdal, Norway, and informed Odd Nansen that he was wanted for questioning in Oslo.  In fact, he was part of a round-up ordered by the German overseer of Norway, Reichskommissar Josef Terboven.

That very night Nansen began his prison diary.  His first entry concludes:

“I heard about the new actions against special officers and against friends of the royal family, who were all arrested at this time.  I supposed I must come under the latter heading, and if so I should probably be ‘inside’ until the was was over?”

As a hostage, Nansen was indeed ‘inside’ until the war was virtually over–almost 40 months later.  The record of his incarceration became From Day to Day: One Man’s Diary of Survival in Nazi Concentration Camps.  The diary has been hailed as a masterpiece—both upon its initial publication in English in 1949, and its subsequent re-issue by Vanderbilt University Press in 2016.

On the very same day as Nansen’s arrest, the governments-in-exile of nine German occupied nations, including Norway, issued the St. James Declaration, which set as one of their principal war aims the punishment of criminal acts perpetrated against their civilian populations by the Germans.  The U.K. and the U.S. were present at the St. James Conference, but as non-occupied countries, did not sign the Declaration.

Whether all those “guilty of, or responsible for, these crimes, whether they have ordered them, perpetrated them, or participated in them,” were ever fully punished is debatable. Nevertheless,  Nansen’s diary serves as a damning indictment of Nazi policies, and a roadmap for war crimes.

William L. Shirer, bestselling author of Berlin Diary, and future author of  the blockbuster The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, reviewed Nansen’s diary  in 1949 for the New York Herald Tribune.  He, too, recognized the historical importance of  a diary which showed “how the Germans behaved when they had a large part of civilized Europe at their feet.”  And yet, he noted, “and this is what makes this record unique—Nansen never gave in nor did he lose his faith in mankind.”

Now, that’s something worth remembering on this day in history.

The preceding first appeared, in slightly different form, on January 13, 2018.

The Cinnamon Cruller

Share

 

Yesterday, as is my custom, I took my dogs Trina and Joni out for their morning constitutional as soon as I got up. (Actually, it’s the dogs’ custom—they’ve trained me, not the other way around.)   The air was crisp, the sky a deep blue, the sun just peeking over the horizon, a frost lay on the grass.  In a word, glorious.

That morning reminded me of another morning long ago when I was a paperboy.  I had inherited my paper route from my older brother Tom, who had outgrown it. [Translation: My parents told me I was now the new paperboy, and my indentured servitude would last until they decided otherwise.]  When one has no say in the matter, it’s best to simply submit and try and make the best of a bad situation.  And there were plenty of downsides: the less time I would have playing with my friends; the pouring rains; the freezing snows; the miscreant dogs. And fickle customers too: one afternoon, at the usual time, I saw one of my customers waiting by their mailbox about 100 yards ahead.  I quickened my pace, then broke into a trot, and finally a dash, all the while with a 35-pound bag banging against my right hip.  Out of breath, I hand-delivered the paper, expecting, perhaps, a word of thanks or encouragement.  What I got was: “Well, better late than never.”

Having a fairly large route—about 85 households—the size of the paper also affected my well-being.  Wednesdays were the worst.  All the merchants placed their advertisements in the Wednesday paper, swelling its size (those were the days).  Even with bags on both hips, I would still need to return home for a new load—meaning even less time for play.  Sunday morning was in a league of its own, but my parents stoically agreed to load the entire backseat of the car with the papers, allowing me to simply reach through the rear window as they drove and I walked alongside.

Conversely, Saturdays were the best day.  Now, I am congenitally against getting up early, and it seemed a crime against nature to miss sleeping-in on the only non-school, non-church day of the week, but once I was out and about, I was fine.  The paper was so thin I could easily carry my entire route in a single bag.  And at 7:30 am the neighborhood was all mine: no kids playing in the street, no adults making a racket with lawn mowers; no pesky dogs about.  I could daydream, and look forward to that second bowl of Cheerios waiting for me at home when the job was done.

One crisp late fall/early winter Saturday morning, my reverie was interrupted when Mrs. Kozolewski, one of my customers, pulled up alongside me in her old-model, two-tone Chevy. [I can no longer be sure her name was precisely Kozolewski, but I know it was 100% Polish.  My neighborhood consisted almost exclusively of Italian, Irish, and Polish surnames, with an occasional “Smith” or “Jones,” and one Jewish family, thrown in for good measure.] Mrs. K. rolled down the window, flashed me a friendly smile, and asked, “Would you like a donut?  I just came from the bakery.”

Well, what could I say?  Here was an offering featuring two of my favorite food groups: dough and sugar.  (Readers may remember my ode to the oatmeal raisin cookie, here).

I nodded, and she reached into her bag and handed me a cinnamon cruller.  A warm cinnamon cruller.  I had never had a cruller before, being something of a jelly donut devotee at the time.  One bite and I was transported, to a new and higher plane of existence. I don’t think I’ve ever had a better donut before, or since—and I’ve had my share.

I guess it all goes to show that even the smallest act of kindness can reverberate down through the years, long after the event itself.  Mrs. Kozolewski, wherever you are, thank you again, and Happy New Year.

PS: For a more contemporary story of a kind gesture, and what it can do, read this story.

Upcoming Events

Share

Book Signings

  • October 7, 2022: Sons of Norway, Boston, MA*
  • October 11, 2022: The Village at Rockville, Rockville, MD
  • The Adult School, New Vernon, NJ
  • October 13, 2022: Tri-County BNC, Princeton Junction, NJ
  • October 18, 2022: Shalom Club, Great Notch, NJ
  • October 19, 2022: The Legacy at North Augusta, Staunton, VA
  • November 15, 2022: Institute for Learning, New Haven, CT*
  • February 26, 2023: Temple Avodat Shalom, River Edge, NJ
  • * = Virtual

People are talking


"A thousand thanks for your most wonderful lecture on your beautiful and informative book. What a labor of love you have undertaken for the world. . . . I still regard the lecture as one of the most perfect I have ever heard, and since I became 84 in the past week, that amounts to many thousands, mostly in an academic atmosphere."

- Nan Bentley Director, Wednesday Forum University Unitarian Church Seattle, WA

For more posts please see our archives.

Archives

On This Date

< 2022 >
February
SMTWHFS
  12345
6789101112
13141516171819
  • Count Folke Bernadotte’s meets with Himmler to negotiate the release of Scandinavian prisoners
20212223242526
2728     
Legend
  Previous/Upcoming Engagements
  This day in history