Posts tagged Auschwitz

Jan Karski: Hero of the Holocaust (Part I)

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Jan Karski as a young man

There are some people whose experiences during World War II are so fantastical, so filled with drama and danger, that one wonders how they managed to simply keep going.  Jan Karski is one such man.

Karski, described by British historian Michael Burleigh as “one of the bravest men of the war,” and whose life was summarized by Elie Wiesel as “a masterpiece of courage, integrity and humanism,” died twenty-one years ago today, age 86.

Born Jan Kozielewski in 1914 in the city of Łódź, in what was then part of the Russian Empire, Karski (an alias he adopted during the war and kept thereafter) was the youngest of eight children from an educated, upper middle class Polish Catholic family.  A scholastic standout, he trained in his youth to serve in the diplomatic corps. Like all Poles, he performed mandatory military service, and was a reserve lieutenant in the mounted artillery.

In late August 1939, as Hitler’s agitation over the Danzig Corridor escalated, Karski’s unit was mobilized and ordered to a military installation in Oświęcim on the Polish-German border.  Oświęcim is better known by the name the Germans later gave it: Auschwitz, the very symbol of the Holocaust.

The Poles were quite confident they could handle the Germans.  “England and France are not needed this time.  We can finish this alone,” Karski’s commanding officer confided.  In fact, they had no answer for Germany’s blitzkrieg tactics.  Within hours on September 1, Karski’s unit was overwhelmed, leading to a long, disorganized and demoralized retreat.  The retreat lasted for weeks, until Karski reached Tarnopol.  There he and his comrades surrendered—to the invading Russians, who previously agreed to partition Poland pursuant to a secret protocol with Germany.

Karski, who hadn’t even fired a single shot in anger, soon found himself on a cattle car headed to a Soviet POW camp in what is now Ukraine.  The camp was highly stratified, but not in the way one might expect. It was the common soldier who had the best accommodations (such as they were), and the officers, considered by the Soviets to be the oppressors of the proletariat, who had the worst housing and the hardest tasks.

Looking to escape, but resigned to the fact that any escape under the circumstances was well nigh impossible, Karski was thrilled to learn of a proposed prisoner swap with the Germans.  Polish POWs in German custody would be exchanged for Poles held in Soviet custody of Germanic descent and Poles born in the territories now incorporated into the Reich.  There was only one catch: the Russians were only willing to exchange Polish soldiers of the rank of private—no officers need apply.

Karski convinced a Polish private with no desire to participate in the exchange to switch uniforms with him (the Russians weren’t paying particularly close attention anyway).  Karski’s decision was prescient.  The world would later learn that shortly after the swap, Polish officers remaining in Soviet custody were segregated.  Stalin, desirous of eliminating any possible future source of resistance among the intelligentsia and officer corps, personally ordered the slaughter of 22,000 Polish officers and government officials in the Katyn Forest in April and May 1940.

Once the POW swap was effected, Karski found himself out of the frying pan, but now in the proverbial fire.  The Germans promised their captives “work” and “food” but it was all a ruse, Karski suspected, and he wasn’t about to give the Germans a chance to prove him right.  En route to Germany, Karski jumped from a moving train at night, notwithstanding guards posted on the train with machine guns.

World War II was not even three months old and Karski had effected not one but two daring escapes.  His sole focus: to join the Underground and continue the fight for Poland’s freedom.  His goal was Warsaw, and the first stop on his trek was the city of Kielce.  [About this same time Tom Buergenthal and his parents were living as refugees in the part of Kielce which would shortly become the Kielce Ghetto.]

In a memoir Karski published in 1944, Story of the Secret State, Karski details his life in the Polish resistance. It was a choice fraught with danger.  Perhaps no country, with the possible exception of Russia, suffered so much at the hands of its German occupiers.  The country simply ceased to exist as a sovereign state—part absorbed into Germany, part absorbed into Russia, and the rest—the Generalgouvernement—treated as occupied territory. Karski is at pains throughout his memoir to explain that there was no Quisling, no serious collaboration with the Nazis on any level at any time.

Karski’s memoir graphically depicts the incredibly dangerous life of a resistance fighter.  In Chapter 5 he describes how his close friend Dziepatowski initiated him into the Underground.  Dziepatowski’s fate: “[H]e was caught and subjected to appalling tortures, but did not reveal a single secret.  Finally he was executed.”  Three chapters later Karski meets with Marian Borzeçki (called Borecki in the memoir), a former high ranking government official.  His fate: “Toward the end of February, 1940, Borecki was caught by the Gestapo. . . .  He was dragged off to jail and submitted to the most atrocious Nazi tortures.  He was beaten for days on end.  Nearly every bone in his body was systematically and scientifically broken. . . .   In the end he was shot.”  Karski describes in detail the elaborate mechanisms the Underground employed to prevent a betrayal or arrest from jeopardizing the larger operation.  “Liaison women” had the task of connecting one Underground member with another; since members were constantly adopting new identities and new domiciles, only the appropriate liaison woman knew how to reach the appropriate person and arrange a meeting.  Karski observes: “The average ‘life’ of a liaison woman did not exceed a few months.”

Even for those who had no involvement with the Underground, life in occupied Poland was one of privation.  The diet of those who fared worst consisted “exclusively of black bread mixed with sawdust.  A plate of cereal a day was considered a luxury.”  During all of 1942, Karski never once tasted butter or sugar.

Karski’s own brush with the Gestapo wasn’t long in coming.  Because of his language skills, extensive travels across Europe and retentive memory, Karski was chosen to be a courier—carrying vital information (in his head) from the Underground’s various factions to the Polish government-in-exile in France.

Karski’s first courier mission, over the Tatra Mountains into Slovakia with the help of an experienced mountain guide, then to Hungary, Yugoslavia, Italy and France, went without a hitch.

A subsequent courier trip was less successful.  Unbeknownst to Karski on this mission, a previous mountain guide had fallen into the hands of the Gestapo, and told everything he knew—the routes used, the safe houses along the way, etc.  It was only a matter of time before Karski fell into a trap.  Captured, along with his guide, in Slovakia, he was quickly subjected to harsh interrogations.  Fearing, after one particularly brutal session that resulted in four lost teeth and several broken ribs, that he would be unable to hold in his secrets much longer, Karski decided to kill himself with a razor he had surreptitiously stolen from the washroom.

Waiting until the watchman completed his rounds, Karski slashed both his wrists.  (I have previously written about incredible courage it takes to end one’s life just to protect the lives of others here).  As the blood poured out of his arms,

“I thought of my mother.  My childhood, my career, my hopes.  I felt a bottomless sorrow that I had to die a wretched, inglorious death, like a crushed insect, miserable and anonymous.  Neither my family nor my friends would ever learn what had happened to me and where my body would lie.  I had assumed so many aliases that even if the Nazis wished to inform anyone of my death they probably could not track down my real identity.”

Ironically, it was the very act of trying to kill himself that ultimately saved his life.  Remaining in the Gestapo prison—with or without revealing any of the secrets he held—would have undoubtedly ended with his execution.  Instead, the night watchman heard his groans, and Karski was rushed to a nearby hospital.  There sympathetic Slovakian doctors and nurses protected him.  Later he was inexplicably transferred to another hospital just over the border, in Poland. (Karski speculates that he was brought there to give away the Underground in the vicinity.)

Once in Poland, word of Karski’s predicament was communicated to the local Underground.  With a well-placed bribe to the hospital guard, Karski was able to make good an escape into the arms of the local resistance fighters.  Responding to his gushing expressions of gratitude, his saviors were a bit more business-like: “Don’t be too grateful to us.  We had two orders about you.  The first was to do everything in our power to help you escape.  The second was to shoot you if we failed.”

Karski’s tale, while remarkable, is hardly unique.  Millions of such escapes, captures, and tortures occurred throughout occupied Europe during the war.  What makes the story special for me, however, is first, the fact that Jan Karski was my professor as an undergraduate at Georgetown University, and second, that I never knew anything about his incredible experiences while I was his student.  In fact, it was not until his death in 2000 that I learned for the first time in an alumni magazine about Karski’s earlier life.  I wondered: had I been so obtuse that I missed any references—direct or oblique—to these matters during his classes?  Was I really that clueless at the time?

It was not until I later read his biography that I was comforted to learn that “most of Professor Karski’s students probably knew little or nothing about his past.  Story of a Secret State was out of print, he would not voluntarily bring up his wartime exploits, and even his faculty colleagues generally had only a dim knowledge of what he had done during the war.”

The Professor Karski I did meet in the fall of 1973 was still the “tall . . . man of striking appearance” noted by the Polish Ambassador to the U.S., Jan Ciechanowski, in 1943, whose “burning eyes reflected a keen intelligence.”  He was still “too thin” as Martha Gellhorn (Hemingway) once observed when she interviewed him around the same time.  He always did have “his omnipresent cigarette” in the words of his biographers (even in class—that was a different era after all).  Add it all up, and Professor Karski was one intimidating presence.  Even if I had known something of his background, I’m sure I would never have been able to bring myself to ask him about it.

Only now do I wish I could travel back in time and engage Professor Karski in person and learn what a truly inspiring human being he really was.  And this is only the beginning of Karski’s remarkable story.

Karski as I remember him

[Coming in Part II: Karski sees Hell up close and personal; a meeting with President Roosevelt; years of triumph and tragedy.]

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.

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.

International Holocaust Remembrance Day

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

Auschwitz Gate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

May 2: Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day)

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Last week, while on a book tour through CT and NY, I was privileged to spend May 2—Yom HaShoah—at my high school alma mater, Notre Dame of West Haven, CT. In the morning I taught  23 Seniors in the school’s Holocaust class.  Notre Dame, a boys school run by the Brothers of the Holy Cross, has had a Holocaust course as part of its curriculum for over 30 years. The teacher, Matt Milano, had his students read selected diary entries from Odd Nansen’s From Day to Day, choose the most powerful sentence in the excerpt, and then come up with three questions based on his reading. I enjoyed spending time, however brief, discussing Nansen’s diary with the young scholars.

Addressing the Seniors and Juniors

 I then addressed the entire Junior and Senior classes. I drew a comparison between Anne Frank and Thomas Buergenthal, two children caught in the vortex of the Holocaust. Both arrived in Auschwitz at roughly the same time (August 1944). They never met so far as we know, which is not surprising considering that Auschwitz’s population at that point exceeded 60,000, or more than the entire population of West Haven, CT.

Anne was soon sent on the Bergen-Belsen, where she died in early 1945.  Tommy was later evacuated to Sachsenhausen, where he survived through the intervention of Odd Nansen. I compared the “what might have been” of Anne’s life—a gifted writer whose diary, composed when she was younger than many in the audience, has sold millions of copies and been translated into 60 languages, with the reality of Tom’s life and career—a distinguished career dedicated to the preservation and enhancement of human rights everywhere.

I challenged the students to follow Nansen’s example, and change a life for the better.  I reminded them that Notre Dame’s motto is “Character, Confidence,” and most importantly, “Compassion.”

Evening Presentation

Later in the evening I addressed parents, alumni (including some old classmates from ND ’72) and interested third parties. The evening began with a welcome by school President Robert Curis, and a prayer by Rabbi Alvin Wainhaus of Congregation Or Shalom.  Along with my many memories of that special day, I will cherish the yahrzeit candle that was lit for the duration of my talk.

yahrzeit candle

The Meaning of Cold

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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.

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