Posts tagged Anne Frank

The Many Agonies of Otto Frank

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Millions of people worldwide have read the diary of Anne Frank.  By now it has been translated into 70 languages, and regularly appears on many schools’ reading lists.  Millions more, without having ever read the book, know many of the basic facts of her life story.  How Anne received a diary on her 13th birthday, June 12, 1942, while living in Amsterdam, where her family had fled from Frankfurt, Germany to escape Hitler’s persecutions.  How Germany had earlier [May, 1940] overrun the Netherlands, effectively trapping refugee families like the Franks. How the Franks, fearing the worst, prepared a secret living space above the business owned by Anne’s father.  How the Frank family moved into the Secret Annex on July 6, 1942 in response to a summons delivered to Anne’s older sister to report to a labor camp.  How Anne recorded all of her secret thoughts and feelings in her diary for over two years, until August 4, 1944, when the family was betrayed (by whom remains a mystery).  How Anne eventually perished in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in northern Germany in February or March 1945.  How her diary became an international bestseller.

But many of those millions would be hard pressed to remember the names of Anne’s sister (Margot), her mother (Edith) or father (Otto), let alone recall their fates.  And yet they, along with the van Pels family—Hermann, Auguste, and son Peter (given the pseudonym van Daan in the diary) and Fritz Pfeffer (given the name Albert Düssel by Anne) all lived together in the close quarters of the Secret Annex, and have their own stories.

Otto Frank and Family

The agony of all eight occupants of the Secret Annex began with their arrest in August 4.  [I have previously written how, once everyone was arrested, but before the Nazis could seize all the contents of the Annex, employee and family friend Miep Gies swept up Anne’s diary and the papers she found strewn on the floor for safekeeping until Anne returned.]  Within days all eight were moved to Westerbork, a nearby transit camp.  Similarly, all eight were put on the same transport to Auschwitz (it was in fact the last transport ever sent from Westerbork to Auschwitz), a three-day journey in sealed boxcars that arrived September 6, 1944.  Although all survived the selection at the ramp, the entire experience, coming so soon on the heels of their sudden arrest, must have been terrifying.  There Otto was separated from Anne and the rest of his family.

When Anne later discovered that those considered unfit for hard labor were sent directly to the gas chambers, she concluded that her father, whom she considered to be in less than the best of health, must have been killed.  Ironically, as we shall see, Otto was the only person of the eight occupants of the Secret Annex to ultimately survive.

But it took a took a great deal of luck (something Tom Buergenthal would fully understand) on Otto’s part to make it.  As he explained in a letter written June 8, 1945: “In November 44 I was so weak from work and lack of food that with the help of a Dutch doctor I was admitted to the hospital, and I regained my strength there until the Russians liberated us on January 27, 1945.”

In an earlier letter Otto, who stood 6’ 1’’ tall, provided additional detail: “If I hadn’t been taken to a hospital—I was weak and weighed [less than 115 lbs.]—there is no way I would still be alive.  I was lucky & had good friends.  Peter van Pels . . . was like a son to me and did everything to help me.  Every day he brought me extra food.”

As liberation approached, there was one further stroke of luck: “On the 26th [of January 1945] we were taken out [of the infirmary] by the S.S. to be killed, but someone called the S.S. away before they could do that—it was a miracle!”

Now, Otto’s next agony began.  Where was his family?

In his very first letter following liberation [February 23, 1945] and while still in Auschwitz, Otto wrote his mother, “I don’t know where Edith and the children are, we were separated on September 5, ’44.  I only heard that they were transported to Germany.  We have to hope that we’ll get them back healthy.”  [By this time Anne and Margot were likely victims of a typhus epidemic that was raging through the overcrowded and unsanitary conditions prevalent in Bergen-Belsen.  The actual date and cause of their deaths remains unknown.]

All the while Otto was trying to return home.  His circuitous journey—similar to many displaced persons—ran from Auschwitz to Kattowitz (now Katowice, Poland) to Czernowitz (now Chernivtsi, Ukraine), to Odessa, then by steamship through the Dardanelles to Marseille, and then finally overland to Amsterdam.  While in Kattowitz he again wrote his mother: “You will understand how much it tortures me not to know where Edith and the children are.  But I still hope to see them all safe and sound.”

But soon the first shoe dropped.  In Otto’s second letter from Kattowitz he confided what he had learned from a woman he just met: “I just got the news of Edith’s death on 1/6/45, and it has hit me so hard that I am not entirely my old self.  Only the thought of the children keeps me going. . . . .  If she could have held out only two more weeks then the Russians would have liberated her too and it would have turned out differently.”

In a letter to his mother dated May 15, 1945, Otto continued: “All my hopes are for the children. I cling to the firm belief that they are still alive and that we will be together soon.”

Less than a month later [June 8] he lamented, “I don’t know where [the children] are and I never stop thinking about them.”

By July Otto had arrived in Amsterdam and quickly learned the worst: a Red Cross listing of the dead included “Annelies Marie Frank” and “Margot Betti Frank.”  He tracked down the name and address of Lien Brilleslijper, the woman who had filed the report of their deaths.  Brillesjper and her sister had been in Bergen-Belsen with Anne and Margot.  She described to him the charnel house conditions that prevailed there as the war drew to a close: more than 35,000 prisoners died of disease, sickness and malnutrition in the three and a half months between January 1945 and the camp’s liberation on April 15.

In his May 15, 1945 letter, Otto had also commiserated: “All our possessions are gone. There won’t be a pin left, the Germans stole everything—not a photo, letter or document remains.”  But this was not entirely true.  On August 19, 1945 (76 years ago today), Otto observed for the first time “I don’t have any pictures from the last few years of course, but Miep was somehow able to save an album and also Anne’s diary.  I still don’t have the strength to read it.”

Eventually Otto worked up the courage to read what his dead daughter had written while in the Secret Annex.  He was astounded:

“What I read is indescribably upsetting, but still I read it.  I can’t describe it to you, I’m not done reading it yet and want to finish reading through the whole thing before I make any excerpts or translations. Among other things she describes her feelings in puberty with unbelievable self-awareness and self-criticism.  Even if it wasn’t Anne who had written it, it would still be so moving.  What a terrible shame that this life was snuffed out!”

Now, instead of avoiding the diary, Otto couldn’t leave it alone.  In a later letter he wrote, “I can’t stay away from Anne’s diaries and they are so unbelievably moving. . . .  I can’t let the diaries out of my hands, there is too much in them that is not intended for anyone else.”   And again, in a subsequent letter:

“You can’t even imagine everything that is in it. . . .   It’s about everything that happens in a group of people while they are in hiding, all the fears and conflicts, all the arguments, the food, politics, the Jewish question, the weather, moods, education, birthdays, memories: everything.”

Ultimately, Otto overcame his initial reluctance, mindful of Anne’s expressed desire to become an author, and decided he needed to share Anne’s story—suitably edited—with the wider world.  The Dutch version appeared in 1947, followed by translations in Germany, where it sold moderately well, France, and Great Britain.  It finally appeared in the United States in 1952, published by Doubleday after approximately ten other publishers had passed on it.  Eleanor Roosevelt, in her Introduction, wrote that it was “one of the wisest and most moving commentaries on war and its impact on human beings that I have ever read.”

However, it was only after the theatrical version (in 1955) and especially, the movie version (in 1959) that the diary became a permanent bestseller worldwide.  With acclaim, however, came a backlash, and Otto Frank spent much of the succeeding years seeking redress from the many Holocaust deniers and extremists who claimed that the diary was a fraud, a fake, a forgery.  [At a bookfair in central New Jersey a few years ago I even had someone approach me, asking me if Odd Nansen’s diary was anything like “the so-called diary of Anne Frank.”]

Although Otto Frank eventually remarried, and lived to see Anne’s diary become a worldwide phenomenon, with millions of visitors to the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam, he never really recovered from the trauma of the Holocaust.  How could he? The agony of uprooting to flee persecution; the agony of a life in hiding, fearing discovery; the agony of trying to survive in Auschwitz; the agony of losing his entire family; the agony of discovering Anne’s genius—posthumously; the agony of confronting naysayers.

In a very real sense Otto Frank’s agony only ended with his death, forty-five years ago today, on August 19, 1980. He was 91 years old.

Otto Frank in 1961

Postscript:  The fate of the remaining occupants of the Secret Annex:

Auguste van Pels was sent from Auschwitz to a subcamp of Buchenwald and later died in transit from Buchenwald to Theresienstadt in March or April, 1945, most likely of typhus.  She was 44 years old.

Hermann van Pels was murdered in Auschwitz’s gas chambers in October, 1944, age 46.

Peter van Pels took part in the Auschwitz Death March to Mauthausen, where he fell ill and died on May 5, 1945, five days after Mauthausen was liberated.  He was 18.

Fritz Pfeffer was sent from Auschwitz to Sachsenhausen in late October 1944, and from there to Neuengamme, where he died on December 20, 1944, age 55, most likely of dysentery or cholera. 

August 2, 1944: Tom Buergenthal Enters Auschwitz

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Auschwitz

 

Seventy-seven years ago today Thomas Buergenthal, age 10, entered Auschwitz-Birkenau along with his parents.  Originally the site of a Polish army barracks (inhabited briefly by Jan Karski), Auschwitz was developed by the Nazis into the largest and deadliest concentration/extermination camp ever.  Approximately 1.1 million people—the population of Salt Lake City or Memphis—were murdered there.  Of this number, almost 1 million were Jews.

In Buergenthal’s memoir, A Lucky Child, he writes that he was “lucky” to get into Auschwitz.  This is not meant to be facetious.  In many respects the worst day at Auschwitz was the first, for that typically meant a so-called selection at the railroad disembarkation ramp.  Here, those who could not be expected to work under grueling camp conditions—children, the aged, invalids—were separated from the rest and sent directly to the gas chambers.

Often times, if the camp was approaching full capacity (an elastic concept), even the able-bodied were sent directly to be gassed.  While I have done no study of the survival rate at the ramp, a few anecdotal examples provide some guidance.  In Martin Gilbert’s book Kristallnacht, he writes about the aftermath of the pogrom which occurred on November 9-10, 1938: “[I]n February [1943] . . . a thousand [German Jews] . . . were deported to Auschwitz . . . from Breslau, of whom 994 were sent straight to the gas chambers.”  Later he notes: “On 2 March 1943 one of the largest single deportations to Auschwitz took place: 1,500 Jewish men, women and children from Berlin.  Of them, 1,350 were sent to the gas chambers on arrival.”

Thus, just getting into Auschwitz was something of a victory.  “Had there been a selection, I would have been killed before ever making it into the camp,” Tom admits.

How did he escape the dreaded section?  We’ll never know the exact reason, but Tom’s surmise is no doubt correct: “The SS officers . . . probably assumed, since our transport came from a labor camp, that children and others had already been eliminated in those camps.”  Perhaps also the small size of Tom’s transport did not warrant a full-blown selection process.

Escaping a selection, however, while critical, was only half the story.  Now Tom had to find a way to navigate the crucible of Auschwitz—“the last place on earth many of the prisoners sent there were destined to see.”  Disease, starvation, exhaustion, and murder were just some of the dangers every prisoner faced every day.

Tom Buergenthal with his parents in happier days

Tom was instantly separated from his mother at the ramp, and, but for one brief glance through the wire, he was not to see or be reunited with her for almost two and a half years.  Tom’s father was also sent away in late October 1944, first to Sachsenhausen, and later to Buchenwald, where he would perish in January 1945.  Now Tom was all alone.

How did he manage?

For several years leading up to August 1944, in the Kielce Ghetto and elsewhere, Tom was getting an education of sorts from his parents: “the essentials of survival.” In Auschwitz and later in Sachsenhausen, Tom continued to learn “the tricks I needed to survive.”  Many other prisoners, by contrast, were thrust into Auschwitz directly from normal, middle-class environments without the benefit of such “training.”  They could hardly be expected to adapt overnight to brutal camp conditions.  One thinks of Anne Frank, whose final diary entry (August 1, 1944) was one day prior to Tom’s arrival.  She went from living in the comparative safety of her annex on the date of her arrest (August 4, 1944) to the maelstrom of Auschwitz a few short weeks later (September 6, 1944).  She, her sister Margot, and her mother Edith were all dead less than six months later.

Whatever the combination of factors—bureaucratic oversight by the Nazis, the innate or inculcated survival skills of a young child, or some other favorable alignment of the stars, on August 2, 1944, Thomas Buergenthal proved once again to be ein Glückskind—a lucky child.

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.

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.

August 14, 1945: World War II Ends

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Seventy-five years ago today, World War II ended with the surrender of Imperial Japan.  The following day, the Japanese Emperor’s voice, heard by the country’s inhabitants for the first time, concluded that “the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage.”  Therefore, “we have resolved to pave the way for a grand peace for all the generations to come by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is insufferable.”  The formal surrender occurred on September 2, 1945 aboard the USS Missouri.

Thus did the deadliest conflict in human history finally conclude.  Over 70 million dead, countless millions more injured, damaged, haunted.

With the hindsight of 75 years, it all seems somewhat predictable.  After all, how did Germany, Japan, Italy and their lesser allies ever think they could defeat the combined might of the United States, the Soviet Union and Great Britain?

And, in a very real sense, every history book written since August 1945 (and there have been many—more ink has been spilled about World War II than probably any other subject) is predictable. Of the trillions of facts to sift, and the billions of causal events to examine, even the best historian, knowing how the final chapter ends, consciously or unconsciously chooses those facts and events that point to and support the inevitable conclusion.  Thus we get narratives such as: “Although the Allies went down to defeat in the Battle of XXXX, they learned valuable lessons that would help turn the tables in their next encounter.”  Or: “Although it looked as if the Nazi war machine would triumph, a closer look at these five factors reveals that they were in fact ultimately doomed.”

The only way to really experience the war as it occurred is to study the words of its participants as it occurred.  This is why diaries—of Odd Nansen, Anne Frank, William L. Shirer, and many others, are so critical.  They didn’t, and couldn’t, know how or when or in what way the war would end.  [Another great resource is the Library of America’s two-volume Reporting World War II, which chronologically arranges reports by journalists such as Pyle, Morrow, Hersey, Shirer, et al, as the war unfolds.]

So, I will now let William L. Shirer have the last words on August 14, 1945, drawn from his book End of a Berlin Diary.  The eloquence, uncertainty, hope (there’s that word again), and poignancy of his thoughts written on that day are particularly compelling:

“World War II is over!

In the excitement of our victory tonight, in the joy and relief, it was difficult to remember the dark days when defeat stared us in the face and catastrophe was staved off by only the narrowest of margins.  It was utterly impossible for more than a handful this night to recall, as I had done a time or two in Germany when the triumph of the Nazi barbarians seemed so certain, what the awful consequences would have been for us had victory not come in the end. . . .

Now the desperate and the heroic days are over.  Peace will be sweet, yes; but the adjustment to it will take some time, and no doubt it will bring much disillusionment as imperfect little men try to repair the unspeakable damage—physical, moral, spiritual.  There will have to be adjustment too for those of us who have lived little else the last ten years but the tense fight against the barbarism of the Nazi and Fascist world.  The tensions of that epic struggle have been in my blood for so long, conditioning whatever I did or thought or was, that it will take time and effort and great relaxation to get them out of my system so I can begin anew. . . .

We kept on broadcasting until about two thirty a.m., weary and exhausted and yet, deep down, exhilarated by this immense day.  Afterward there were drinks and food in the back room of the little pub below with those who had toiled both here and in the war’s midst to bring to our fellow men the facts and the background and the smell and the sound and the fury of this gruesome holocaust which had come to its bloody end this night.  God, how long and wretched and inhuman it has been!

When I stumbled down Fifty-first Street toward home, the summer’s sun was coming up beyond the East River, rising on this first day of peace.”

Peace!

[Like Shirer and his contemporaries during the war, we don’t yet know when or how our current battle with a deadly and mysterious virus will end.  Let’s hope we can soon feel the way Shirer did on that bright new morning 75 years ago.]

August 1-2, 1944: Hope and Despair

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As dates go, the first two days of August 1944 seem to me unusually fraught.  Many things changed irrevocably—most for the worse, only a few for the better.

ANNE

On Tuesday, August 1, 1944, Anne Frank wrote in her diary to her imaginary friend Kitty.  To Kitty, and only to Kitty, could Anne confide all of her thoughts, longings, and emotions without fear of being judged.

On that day Anne tried to explain to Kitty about the “bundle of contradictions” that made up her nature.  She felt her exterior of exuberant cheerfulness, flippancy even, hid an interior self: “much purer, deeper, finer.”  This “deeper” Anne, however, shrank from exposing itself to others.  The real Anne could only be herself when she was alone.  She wanted to show this inner self—the quiet and serious Anne—but could not yet overcome this difficulty.  Her diary entry ends: [I will] keep trying to find a way to become what I’d like to be and what I could be . . . if only there were no other people in the world.”

Unknown to Anne, this was to be her final entry.  Three days later, on August 4, Anne, her family, and their friends were betrayed and arrested by the Gestapo.

No doubt hope sustained Anne during her ordeal, first in a transit camp, then in Auschwitz, and finally in Bergen-Belsen.  No doubt she hoped that she would one day be reunited with her precious diary.  Nevertheless, within six months Anne would perish, age 15.  Only her diary survived to reveal to the world her “purer, deeper, finer” self.

Anne Frank

Tom

On Wednesday, August 2, 1944, as the ink dried on Anne’s final diary entry, Thomas Buergenthal and his parents arrived by train in Auschwitz, the largest and deadliest camp the Nazis ever built.  Approximately 1.3 million people were murdered there, of whom approximately 1.1 million were Jews.

It’s doubtful if either Tom or his parents grasped at that moment the true horror of Auschwitz, the industrial scale of its gas chambers and crematoriums.  Prior to arrival, “I could not quite imagine what Auschwitz was really like,” Tom admits in his memoir, although he knew it was a place of dread.

Tom soon learned that his experience in Auschwitz would be very different.  Unlike his previous life in the Kielce Ghetto and in various work camps outside Kielce, his family would no longer remain intact.  Upon arrival he was immediately torn from his mother.  Except for a single brief glimpse of her through the wire—hair shorn, tear-stained, but alive—ten-year old Tommy would not see his mother Gerda for almost two and a half years.  Then, less than three months after arrival, Tom was also separated from his father.  Mundek was sent, first, to Sachsenhausen and later to Buchenwald.  There he died of pneumonia on January 15, 1945, less than 90 days before the camp was liberated.

What kept Tom going through all this?  True, he was ein Glückskind—a lucky child—helped by many, even in Auschwitz.  But what thoughts kept him from despair as he struggled to survive, alone?  As he explains in his memoir, while living in an orphanage after the war, and despite all indications to the contrary, “I continued to believe, without telling anyone, that my parents were alive and would find me one day soon.”  Hope kept despair at bay.

Tom Buergenthal with his parents

Warsaw

Finally, on August 1, as Anne Frank penned her final diary entry, and as Tom was about to enter Auschwitz, the Polish underground in Warsaw staged a revolt.  The insurgents hoped to both drive the Germans from the city, and establish control over Poland’s capital before the Soviet-backed Polish Committee of National Liberation arrived.  Initially, the underground succeeded in establishing control over much of central Warsaw.  Nevertheless, the Soviet army, which occupied the eastern bank of the Vistula River, and thus Warsaw’s eastern suburbs, rendered no assistance. This cold-blooded decision by Stalin has since been called “one of the major infamies of th[e] war.”

Ultimately, the outgunned and outmanned uprising was brutally crushed.  Over 16,000 resistance fighters were killed, as were between 150,000—200,000 Polish civilians.  Many were victims of mass executions by the German Army.  Most of the remaining population was sent off to concentration camps, including Sachsenhausen, as witnessed by Odd Nansen on August 15, 1944 and December 13, 1944.  The city was not liberated until January 17, 1945.

Warsaw Uprising 1944

In sum, in the first days of August, 1944, an unsuspecting Anne Frank poured her heart out to her diary, which would survive even if she did not.  Tom Buergenthal passed through the gates of hell, but inexplicably survived.  The Polish underground was crushed, but its tormentor, Nazi Germany, ultimately went down to total, ignominious defeat.  Poland did not see real freedom for decades.

All of these participants faced despair in early August, but all were motivated by hope.  Indeed, hope may have been the most powerful weapon they could wield.  For some it was enough; for others it fell short.  Memories of August 1-2 will always remain bittersweet.

Today is Anne Frank’s Birthday

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Anne Frank

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

D-Day: June 6, 1944

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

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

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

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

Odd Nansen

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

Victor Klemperer

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

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

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

Anne Frank

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

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

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

The parallel lives of Thomas Buergenthal and Anne Frank

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Seventy-five years ago today (August 2, 1944), Thomas Buergenthal, age 10, entered Auschwitz, the largest and most lethal concentration camp the Nazis ever built, and the symbolic heart of the Holocaust.  Tom was immediately separated from his mother Gerda—thereafter he was to see her only once, through the wire, before she was transported to Ravensbrück, and they were not to be reunited until December 1946.  Buergenthal lived in Auschwitz for a time with his father Mundek until he, too, was transported—first to Sachsenhausen (there is no record that he ever crossed paths with Odd Nansen) and then to Buchenwald, where he succumbed to pneumonia in January 1945.

Tom Buergenthal with his parents

There are a number of striking parallels between the lives of Tom Buergenthal and Anne Frank

It was two days after Tom’s arrival at Auschwitz (August 4, 1944) that Anne, age 15, was arrested along with her family and four others who had been in hiding for over two years in Amsterdam.

Anne Frank

Although Anne lived most of her childhood in Holland and Tom in Czechoslovakia, Anne’s parents and Tom’s mother were all German, all (along with Tom’s father, born in Galicia) having fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

Within a month of Anne’s arrest, she was also transported to Auschwitz, arriving September 3, 1944.  Upon arrival, she was separated from her father. Again, there is no knowing if Tom and Anne were ever even close to each other in the sprawling camp that held more than 150,000 prisoners at its height.  What we do know is that Anne contracted scabies in Auschwitz, and Tom, having been selected for the gas chamber, was temporarily housed with others in a barracks for prisoners with scabies until a sufficiently large group could be assembled for the crematorium.  (Miraculously, he survived this experience, another instance when he would prove to be “ein Glückskind,” a lucky child.)

In late October or early November, 1944, around the time Tom lost his father to the transports, Anne, along with her older sister Margot,  was also transported, to the Bergen-Belsen camp, located approximately 40 miles south of Hamburg.  Bergen-Belsen was unsanitary and overcrowded, subject to epidemics of infectious diseases like typhus and typhoid fever.  When Auschwitz was finally evacuated in late January, 1945, Tom was among the 60,000 or so prisoners involved in the infamous Death March.  In late February or early March, 1945, around the time Buergenthal and Odd Nansen were first meeting each other in the infirmary in Sachsenhausen, Anne died in Bergen-Belsen.  The exact date and exact cause of death will never be known.

Recently I addressed the students of my high school alma mater, and posed the counterfactual question: What if Odd Nansen had been in Bergen-Belsen instead of Sachsenhausen, and had met Anne Frank instead of Tom Buergenthal?  Or, conversely, what if Anne Frank had been sent to Sachsenhausen, and Tom sent to Bergen-Belsen instead? Could Odd Nansen have saved Anne Frank’s life the way he saved Tom’s?  Would Tom have been able to survive in Bergen-Belsen?

Certainly there were factors that helped Tom, not the least being the fact that, having lived first in a Jewish ghetto in Kielce, and then in various work camps before arriving in Auschwitz, meant that he had “a relatively long period of survival training. Who knows whether I would have survived had I arrived in Auschwitz from a normal middle-class environment and immediately had to face brutal camp conditions.”  Anne, on the other hand, was spared Tom’s “gradual immersion into hell.”

But the key difference, I believe, was Odd Nansen.  Tom writes: “I realized that Mr. Nansen had probably saved my life [in Sachsenhausen’s infirmary, where Tom was convalescing following amputation of frostbitten several toes] by periodically bribing the orderly in charge of our barracks . . . to keep my name off the list of ‘terminally ill’ patients, which the SS guards demanded every few weeks ‘to make room for other prisoners.’”

Anne had no such person in Bergen-Belsen to help her through her crucible.  Had she survived, we might have celebrated her 90th birthday this past June 12.  Anne was bright, perceptive, and an extremely talented writer.  What more might she have accomplished during her lifetime? We’ll never know.  On the other hand, we do know that Tom Buergenthal had a wonderfully productive career promoting human rights, a career that culminated as a judge on the International Court of Justice at The Hague (2000—2010).

Buergenthal at the International Court of Justice at The Hague

If nothing else, Odd Nansen’s life shows us how just one humane person can help in tikkun olam–repairing the world.

Upcoming Events

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Book Signings

  • October 10, 2021: Sons of Norway (Maine Nordmenn)
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“Timothy Boyce’s presentation on “The Secret Concentration Camp Diary of Odd Nansen” combined an engaging speaking style, a knowledge of history, and a passion for his subject, resulting in a very enjoyable and informative morning for the more than 250 Senior Scholars at Queens University attendees. “

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