Posts tagged Fridtjof Nansen

October 10, 1861: Fridtjof Nansen’s birthday.

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The following is an updated version of a blog I first posted in 2018.

Fridtjof Nansen

Today is Fridtjof Nansen’s 160th birthday.  I recently revisited the incredible account of his quest for the North Pole, Farthest North, in anticipation of a lecture I gave on the same subject.  The first time I had read it was back in 2010, soon after I discovered Odd Nansen’s diary and decided to get it re-published.  At the time Fridtjof Nansen’s exploits were totally new to me.

During my years of research on Odd Nansen I was frequently struck by the amazing similarities between Odd Nansen’s use of words and his father’s.  In my introduction to From Day to Day I wrote, “both father and son shared similar ideas and often used eerily similar language to express themselves.”  Throughout the text I highlight those instances of shared expression.

What struck me much more forcefully during this second reading of Farthest North was the growing sense of desperation Fridtjof Nansen experienced during his expedition, especially when he abandoned the safety of his ship, the Fram, and attempted, with only one other companion, some sled dogs, sledges and kayaks, to not only reach the North Pole, but then to return on the much longer trip back to civilization. After traveling for less than one month, Nansen concluded that his slow progress over rough ice and snow meant that he could not reach his goal with the food and daylight remaining, and he turned south.

This is when the real challenge began.  Heading toward “the recently discovered and sketchily mapped” Franz Joseph Land, Nansen and Hjalmar Johansen encountered all sorts of difficulties.   Here’s what Nansen confided to his diary on May 17, 1895 (May 17 being a particularly important date in the Norwegian calendar):

“And here we are in drifting ice, not knowing exactly where we are, uncertain as to our distance from an unknown land, and where we hope to find means of sustaining life and thence carve our way on towards home, with two teams of dogs whose number and strength diminish day by day, with ice and water between us and our goal which may cause us untold trouble, with sledges which now, at any rate, are too heavy for our own powers.  We press laboriously onward mile by mile; and meanwhile, perhaps, the drift of the ice is carrying us westward out to sea, beyond the land we are striving for.”

Almost two months later (July 11, 1895), nothing had improved:

“No sign of land in any direction and no open water, and now we should be in the same latitude as Cape Fligely, or at most a couple of minutes farther north.  We do not know where we are, and we do not know when this will end.  Meanwhile our provisions are dwindling day by day, and the number of our dogs is growing seriously less.  Shall we reach land while we yet have food, or shall we, when all is said, ever reach it?  It will soon be impossible to make any way against this ice and snow.  The latter is only slush; the dogs sink through at every step, and we ourselves splash through it up above our knees when we have to help the dogs or take a turn at the heavy sledges, which happens frequently.  It is hard to go on hoping in such circumstances, but still we do so; though sometimes, perhaps, our hearts fail us when we see the ice lying before us like an impenetrable maze. . . .”

Nansen would ultimately reach land in the Franz Josef archipelago before winter began—but too late to reach civilization.  The setting sun necessitated overwintering for another eight months, enduring sub-zero temperatures in a hastily constructed, primitive hut fashioned of rough stone walls and a roof made of polar bear and walrus hides.

In June 1896, just days before Nansen accidentally stumbled upon Englishman Frederick Jackson, and rescue, he had one final, terrible ordeal—jumping into the frigid waters to retrieve the kayaks which had drifted away from shore.  Nansen wrote: “when the gusts of wind came they seemed to go right through me as I stood there in my thin, wet woolen shirt.  I shivered, my teeth chattered, and I was numb almost all over.”

Forty-seven years later, Odd Nansen stood out on the appellplatz—the roll call square—of Sachsenhausen, observing Christmas Day.  He wrote: “I stood there [in the square] a long, long time; how long I don’t know. . . .  Certainly I shed a few tears, pitiful and lost in my rags, out there in the dark.”

I have often wondered how Odd Nansen kept going when things seemed to be at their bleakest, and the war dragged interminably on.  What resources did he draw upon?  He must have been well aware of his father’s exploits, and undoubtedly knew the story of Farthest North quite well.  When his heart failed, did he recall his own father’s struggles–against doubt, uncertainty, the unknown, the long odds facing him, and find the inspiration he needed, like his father, to prevail?

Farthest North and From Day to Day, both based on diaries, together show how a person can prevail against even the toughest challenges, one created by Mother Nature, the other by the evil nature of man.  They both need to be read, and re-read, for their inspiring lessons.

Odd Nansen’s Art World

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Those of you who have read From Day to Day know full well Odd Nansen’s artistry.  In 41 illustrations Nansen depicts in great detail the squalid, dangerous life of a concentration camp prisoner.

Where did Nansen develop his artistic ideas and technique?

Recently I was approached by the Scandinavian Review to write an article about Nansen for their Spring/Summer issue.  I chose to write about Nansen’s many connections to the art and artists of his day.  Norway was (and still is) a small country—when Nansen moved to the U.S. in 1927, New York City alone had a population more than twice that of all Norway.  So it is not surprising that Nansen was closely connected to many artists through his family, his neighbors, his friends, and even his fellow prisoners.

Below is the link to my Scandinavian Review article—I hope you enjoy learning a bit more about a different aspect of Odd Nansen.

Pages from SR 2021 SPRING_Grini_Circle_Artists

May 13, 1930: Fridtjof Nansen Dies

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Fridtjof Nansen

Fridtjof Nansen, polar explorer, statesman, and humanitarian, died 91 years ago today, age 68.

Those of you who are watching the PBS series Atlantic Crossing (and, if not, you should be, even if it is only “inspired by true events”) are well acquainted with King Haakon VII (played by Oscar nominated Danish actor Søren Pilmark).  Haakon comes across in the series as politically savvy, and the very embodiment of Norwegian resistance to Germany’s occupation of Norway.

Those of you who have heard my lectures are aware that Haakon VII was not even Norwegian, being born and raised in Denmark.  Nevertheless, the man who was christened Christian Frederick Carl Georg Valdemar Axel of the House of Oldenburg, or Prince Carl for short, had some rather close dynastic ties to Norway: his maternal grandfather had once been King of both Norway and Sweden, and his great granduncle Christian Frederick was also (briefly) King of Norway in 1814.

The person sent by Norway in 1905 to convince Prince Carl to become the King of Norway was none other than Fridtjof Nansen, beginning a reign that would last for nearly 55 years.

King Haakon VII

And how close were Haakon and Fridtjof Nansen?

According to Odd Nansen’s older sister, Liv, who wrote Nansen: A Family Portrait, “our King and Queen . . . accounted Father one of their closest friends in the country and liked to see him often.”  In fact, when World War I broke out in the summer of 1914, Liv writes, “the telephone was always ringing, either friends wanting to hear [Nansen’s] views, the Press asking questions, or, as it often was, the King . . . wishing to speak with him.”

When Fridtjof Nansen took ill in early 1930, “the King often came and sat long by his bed.”  On the 13th of May Nansen was sitting on the balcony of Polhøgda enjoying the early signs of spring with Odd Nansen’s wife Kari when he “stopped in the middle of the sentence, and his head fell forward.  Kari hurried to him, but he was already dead.”

Accolades poured in from all corners.  Two Cambridge University professors of geography wrote: “For scientific achievements and perfection of methods of polar travel, Dr. Nansen takes first place among the explorers of his generation.”  The President of the Council of the League of Nations called Nansen “one of the greatest figures in the ten-year history of the League.”

The funeral was set for May 17th, the day Norway normally celebrates the adoption of its constitution.  The year 1930 was doubly special—the 25th anniversary of its independence from Sweden (also facilitated by Nansen).  According to the New York Times, “This year, however, thousands will march in the solemn procession to University Square, where the King and Queen and all members of the government will gather around the coffin.”

At the burial, Liv happened to look over at the King:

“Tears were running down his cheeks.  Yes, for many, many of us, Father had meant something special, something no one else in the world could replace.”

Fridtjof Nansen’s grave

Marit (Nansen) Greve 11/8/28–3/26/21

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It is with great sadness that I inform you of the death of my dear friend Marit Greve, eldest child of Odd and Kari Nansen, and granddaughter of Fridtjof Nansen, on Friday, March 26.  Marit was 92 years old.

Marit was born November 8, 1928, in Brooklyn, NY. (I would often kid her that, beneath her Norwegian lilt, I could still detect a trace of a Brooklyn accent.)  She was 13 years-old when her father was arrested in 1942, old enough to remember vividly the night he was taken away.

She was also old enough to remember well the hardships that followed—like learning to make and eat dandelion salad and soup.  But there were also moments of humor.  Like many families, the Nansens raised animals during the war for food.  At one point they were down to a single rabbit, which they then kept with the chickens.  According to Marit the rabbit soon began to think it was a hen: “It climbed the perch . . . in the evenings like the hens, [and] had a siesta in the sitting box  . . . every day.  Astonishingly, it did not produce an egg.”

Marit admiring a Tryon, NC pumpkin,  September 2016.

Odd Nansen of course worried about his family while he was incarcerated, and what effect his long separation might have on his children.  On March 3, 1943, he wrote: “Marit looked very fit, but I noticed that she’s almost grown a bit shy of me, and it went right through me like a stab.  Have I been away so long already? . . . I can’t stand for my children to drift away.”  Five months later (Aug. 5, 1943), when Marit was temporarily denied access to her dad, and cried in despair over the thought, Nansen was overjoyed: “Oh, how it warmed my heart; I do believe she cares a little for her daddy, and now I’m not afraid she may have grown away from me and forgotten me in this time.”  On Marit’s 16th birthday Nansen once again fretted in his diary that he was losing his little girl, who was now becoming a woman, despite her protestations to the contrary in a letter she sent him.  “Poor little Marit, she can’t help it.  And besides it’s not to oblige their parents that children live their lives.  But all the same I miss you badly, my little “fishergirl,” and if you sometimes miss your daddy too, my wish is only that it may be a blessing for both of us.”

Odd Nansen and Marit, 1930s

Based on everything I learned from Marit, Nansen needn’t have worried at all.

I first met Marit in August of 2011.  Having decided to republish Nansen’s diary, I first arranged a meeting in Washington, DC, to introduce myself to Tom Buergenthal.  Tom, gracious as ever, offered during the meeting to write to Marit and introduce me so that I could start a correspondence with her.  After all, by that time, Tom and Marit had been friends for over 60 years.  In Tom’s Preface, he writes of his first trip to Norway in 1948: “Kari Nansen, Odd Nansen’s wife, and their four children—Marit, Eigil, Siri, and Odd Erik—treated me almost from the beginning like a member of the family.” Tom further indicated to me that Marit was the “keeper of the flame” and was the best resource to answer all my questions about her father.

Oslo, October 2015

Several months later my wife Tara and I were invited to a wedding in Stockholm, Sweden, and I arranged ahead of time to stop over in Oslo on our way home and meet with Marit.  We agreed to rendezvous at Polhøgda, the house built by Fridtjof Nansen that Marit had grown up in as a child.  (When Marit married she moved into a new house a mere five-minute walk away.)  We sat outside on the lawn on a gorgeous afternoon and Marit patiently answered all the questions I could think of.  Tara (who was furiously taking notes on my behalf) and I had been warned about Norwegians’ habitual reserve, and so we were pleasantly surprised when Marit then invited us to her home.  There we chatted further, and she showed me a framed photo of the Nansen family on the day her father returned from captivity (the same photo appears on page 567 of From Day to Day).  I couldn’t stop staring at this photo, at which point Marit removed it from the frame and handed it to me! A typical example of her graciousness and generosity.

Hotel Grande, October 2014. Me; Marit; Anne Ellingsen (Odd Nansen’s biographer); Anne Greve, Marit’s daughter; Robert Bjorka (last living Norwegian survivor of Sachsenhausen)

And thus began a wonderful friendship and collaboration. Marit visited the U.S. as our houseguest twice, in 2013 and 2016, and I followed up on my 2011 visit with trips to Norway in 2014, 2015, 2018 and 2019.  Had COVID not intervened, I would have travelled to Norway last April for another presentation, and Marit had even agreed to attend a Kristallnacht commemoration set for November 2020 in New Haven, CT.

Marit in Tryon, NC, September 2016

My many favorite memories include: her visits to America; sharing the podium with Marit at the Nobel Institute in Oslo, where we spoke in the same room Fridtjof Nansen gave his own Nobel Peace Prize address decades earlier; speaking at the Norwegian Center for Holocaust and Minority Studies; and most importantly, sharing in Marit’s special 90th birthday party in 2018, held on the deck of the Fram, the ship Fridtjof Nansen built for his expedition to the North Pole (1893—1896).

Marit’s Birthday. She is wearing the apron I gave her, which states “I just turned 90. What did you do today.”

When From Day to Day was re-published in 2016, I acknowledged the critically important contributions of three individuals: Tom Buergenthal, for introducing me to Odd Nansen in the first place via his memoir; Sten Vermund, for introducing me to Vanderbilt University Press, my eventual publisher, and most importantly, Marit Greve.  At the time I wrote: “Many of the insights into Nansen’s diary entries would have remained impossible without her knowledge of the events of 1942-1945.  Marit is a wonderful friend, self-effacing to a fault, and the inheritor of her father’s wit and humor.  To come to know Marit as I have is truly one of the unexpected, but deeply cherished, joys of this undertaking.”

My last image of Marit, holding a US Senate Commendation for Odd Nansen’s work on behalf of refugees, received January, 2021.

Skål, Marit, and may your memory be a blessing.  I shall miss you terribly.

Lay down
Your sweet and weary head.
Night is falling;
You have come to journey’s end.
Sleep now,
And dream of the ones
Who came before.
They are calling
From across the distant shore.

February 6, 1949: Shirer Reviews Nansen

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

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

1949 Edition

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

William L. Shirer

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

Shirer begins his review in a defensive mood:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Words true 72 years ago, words true today.

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

June 24, 1893: Fridtjof Nansen sets out for the North Pole

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“The most important thing is not to reach your goal, but always to be on your way—always on your way.”  Fridtjof Nansen

Fridtjof Nansen

On this day in 1893, on the heels of the summer solstice and the all-important midsummer celebration, Fridtjof Nansen, Odd Nansen’s father, departed Oslo (or Christiania, as it was then called) on board his ship Fram.   His objective: the North Pole.

Nansen (1861—1930) had already earned his spurs by becoming the first man to cross Greenland’s forbidding terrain, in 1888.  But reaching the North Pole would be a significantly more formidable undertaking, something many had tried, and all had failed, usually with disastrous consequences.  Nansen’s approach would also be unique: he purposely planned to embed his ship into the polar ice cap and allow the ice cap’s drift to carry the ship north, without it being crushed.

To do this Nansen had to design a new ship, one “as enduring and as strong as possible; it shall be just big enough to carry supplies of coal and provisions for 12 men for 4 years.”  Many of the best polar experts thought the plan nothing short of madness.  Adolphus Greely, the dean of American polar explorers (and once the holder of the farthest north record), called it “an illogical scheme of self-destruction,” and found it “almost incredible that the plan here advanced by Dr. Nansen should receive encouragement or support.”

Fram and its crew

But in the end Nansen proved all the naysayers wrong. Although he never reached his ultimate goal—the Pole—he ventured farther north than any man had ever gone, and in the process proved his theory of arctic drift.

The entire trip lasted 3 years, 2 months and 16 days.

Today we complain about quarantining safe at home, with every creature comfort.  Imagine, if you will, spending any length of time—to say nothing of 3+ years—aboard a cramped ship with 11 strangers, where almost 6 months of every year are in total darkness, and where the outside temperatures are often well below zero.  Now, that’s hardship.

As an adventure story alone, Fridtjof Nansen’s feat has few peers.  But, more importantly, it would have a direct bearing on the life of his yet-to-be-born fourth child, Odd Nansen.

Odd Nansen

As Fridtjof Nansen’s biographer, Roland Huntford, observes about his trip, “This combination of achievement and publicity [abetted by Nansen’s striking looks and the advent of the telegraph] gave Nansen the fame that lasted a lifetime.”  All of Nansen’s later accomplishments—playing a key role in Norway’s independence; facilitating the introduction of a new royal dynasty; first ambassador to Great Britain; humanitarian work for the League of Nations; Nobel Peace Prize—all grew out of the international reputation Nansen earned from his polar adventure.  As Huntford concludes, “Without the Fram there would be no Nansen as we know him.”

This fame also attached to his son Odd Nansen, making him a prime target when the Nazis went looking for suitable hostages in early 1942.  Thus, it is not too much of a stretch to say that, without the Fram, there might never have been Odd Nansen, Häftling (Prisoner) Number 1380.

There was another equally important inheritance running from father to son.  As Fridtjof’s granddaughter, and Odd’s daughter, Marit (Nansen) Greve, has written about Fridtjof’s polar trip: “Here was courage, strength and endurance in abundance—a man who could undoubtedly meet the challenges and conquer the strongest forces around him.”

Odd Nansen did not have to conquer long nights, the cold, isolation, and polar bears.  The forces arrayed against him during his captivity were nonetheless no less daunting: spiritual darkness; fear; doubt; hate.  But reading Odd Nansen’s diary, From Day to Day, it is easy to conclude that, like his father, Odd Nansen had “courage, strength and endurance in abundance . . . [to] meet the challenges and conquer the strongest forces around him.”

National Oatmeal Day

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I’ve written about some important topics lately: Sachsenhausen, V-E Day, war diaries, etc.  And there are plenty of other matters I could be writing about: the announcement of the capture of Adolf Eichmann on May 23, 1960, or the arrival of Josef Mengele at Auschwitz on May 24, 1943, or the tragic voyage of the passenger ship MS St. Louis and its Jewish refugees, turned away from Cuba on May 27, 1939.

But this week, while sheltering-in-place, I made myself a batch of one of my favorite cookies: oatmeal raisin.  And that got me thinking about oatmeal.

We all know that oatmeal is good for us. But many, like me I suspect, prefer their oatmeal in cookie form rather than as a breakfast meal.

Odd Nansen wasn’t too keen on oatmeal, or porridge as it is sometimes called, either.  It didn’t help that his father, Fridtjof Nansen, was a big believer in the efficacy of porridge.  In fact, he thought so highly of porridge that he made his children eat it—not simply every day—but twice every day.  Can you imagine having only one free meal per day that is not oatmeal? I understand from Odd’s daughter Marit that this wasn’t instant oatmeal either—it required hours and  hours of cooking just to make it palatable.

Fridtjof’s children devised their own coping mechanisms.  As Odd’s older sister Liv later wrote, “[A]s soon as Father was out of the door . . . having had his breakfast, we rushed to the window and emptied our plates out of it.”

Sometimes Odd Nansen resorted to even more extreme defensive measures.  In a letter written in 1906 to Fridtjof, away in London while serving as Norway’s Ambassador to Great Britain, Odd’s mother Eva wrote about Odd’s civil disobedience.  “Yesterday he yelled incessantly and said he would not have it [the porridge], but then I came in and said that in that case I should have to write Father, and surely he would not like Father to hear that he had become so fastidious.  He at once controlled himself and took his spoon and ate it all up without a grumble.  The boy certainly has character.”

One can well imagine a five-year-old Odd Nansen backing down in the face of his mother’s threat.  Perhaps he feared that Fridtjof would make him eat porridge three times a day as punishment.  [For a man who subsisted on polar bear meat and walrus blubber for months while in the Arctic, perhaps oatmeal seemed like a delicacy.]

But tastes change, and circumstances change, and by December 24, 1942, while in prison in Grini, even Odd Nansen looked forward to a special Christmas Eve treat: “At five o’clock there was to be a common dinner table for each hut, and Christmas porridge. It was rather behind time, but when it did arrive toward seven it was good, really good, and we got two big plate­fuls each, with sugar, cinnamon and a lump of butter. In our hut we all ate out in the lobby. It was very cozy and successful.”

I recently finished reading No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin.  It’s a history of the Roosevelt White House during World War II.  Turns out that FDR was no fan of oatmeal either.  Nevertheless, the White House cook—a certain Mrs. Nesbitt, called “Fluffy” behind her back—came from the Fridtjof Nansen school of culinary nutrition, and Fluffy believed in oatmeal.

Here’s how the most powerful man in the world handled it.  “My God!” he exclaimed to his secretary Grace Tully one day.  “Doesn’t Mrs. Nesbitt know that there are breakfast foods besides oatmeal?  It’s been served to me morning in and morning out for months now and I’m sick and tired of it!”  Later that day FDR called Tully in for some dictation, and handed her advertisements for various cereals he had torn from the morning paper.  “Corn Flakes! 13 ounce package, 19 cents! Post Toasties! 13 ounce package, 19 cents! . . .  Now take this gentle reminder to Mrs. Nesbitt.”  History does not reveal whether Roosevelt’s gentle reminder ever succeeded.

Odd Nansen never met Franklin Roosevelt, although he tried at least once.  Nansen traveled to America in late 1939 to drum up popular and governmental support for tiny Finland, which had been attacked by Russia.   Nansen’s diary for January 21, 1940 reads: “Sought an audience with Roosevelt today, but have not yet heard anything.  Everything is so damn slow and difficult.  I wonder if I should just go over to the White House and ring the bell.”

Apparently, Nansen never got a chance to try out the White House doorbell (although he did meet Eleanor after the war).  It’s a pity that FDR and Odd Nansen, two great humanists, never met in person.  They undoubtedly would have had much in common, and much to talk about—perhaps starting with their common antipathy to oatmeal.

And yes, there is a National Oatmeal Day.  This year it was April 30.  I don’t know how I managed to let that anniversary slip by.  I’ll be more vigilant next year.

But then again, any day with an oatmeal raisin cookie is National Oatmeal Day to me.

Odd Nansen’s Birthday

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Today marks the 118th anniversary of Odd Nansen’s birth, on December 6, 1901.

Odd Nansen

Recently I gave a lecture on Odd Nansen’s father, Fridtjof Nansen (whom I’ve written about here).  Afterward, a gentleman in the audience recommended reading a book called In the Land of White Death by Valerian Albanov.  Albanov, a Russian, joined the Saint Anna expedition in 1912 which aimed to sail 7,000 miles, from Murmansk to Vladivostok, via the treacherous arctic waters north of Siberia—the so-called Northeast Passage.  Like many such expeditions, it ended in utter disaster, with only Albanov and one other crew member (out of an original complement of 24) surviving.  In 1917, Valerian published an account of his experience based on a diary he kept along the way.  It was translated into French in 1928, but thereafter languished for some seventy years, until it was “re-discovered” in 1998 and republished in a new French version.  In this way it came to the attention of American adventure writer David Roberts, who brought out an English translation in 2000.  It is an incredible adventure story.*

What particularly struck me was the Preface written by noted adventure author Jon Krakauer.  Tell me whether Krakauer’s description reminds you of any other book:

“[W]hy is Valerian Ivanovich Albanov all but unknown to the world?

. . .

Albanov . . . turned out to be a gifted writer and an uncommonly honest diarist.  He wrote a spare, astounding, utterly compelling book that — thanks to bad luck and the vagaries of history—vanished into the recesses of twentieth century letters.

But it remains in the shadows no longer. . . .  More than eighty years after Albanov wrote this tour de force, there is reason to hope that he might finally receive the recognition he deserves.”

Let us hope this is indeed the fate of Valerian Albanov, as well as that other “uncommonly honest” diarist of an “utterly compelling book,” Odd Nansen, whose birthday we commemorate today.

______________________

*There are multiple threads connecting Albanov with the great Fridtjof Nansen.  Albanov considered Nansen’s account of his 1893—1896 polar expedition, Farthest North, to be “a precious treasure” which he had read so many times he could “cite entire passages from memory.”  Moreover, when the Saint Anna went missing, several search and rescue missions were launched, including one by Otto Sverdrup.  Sverdrup accompanied Fridtjof Nansen on his Greenland crossing in 1888, and captained Nansen’s ship Fram during Nansen’s expedition to the North Pole.  No trace of the missing Saint Anna, or the remaining 22 crew members, was ever found until 2010, when explorers discovered a skeleton and other artifacts on Franz Josef Land (the arctic archipelago where Fridtjof Nansen overwintered, and where he later met up with his rescuer, Frederick Jackson).

A Churchillian Postscript

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Winston Churchill

 

I am always overjoyed when I receive feedback from my blog subscribers regarding a recent post—especially if they have some personal connection to the story as well (this was a good example).

Last month I published a blog discussing both Churchill and Fridtjof Nansen, and the importance of May 13 in their lives.  As part of my blog, I included a photo of Churchill.  Just about everybody who knows anything about Churchill has seen it.  It has graced the book jackets of more than one Churchill biography.  In fact, it has been called one of the most iconic photos ever taken; according to The Economist magazine, it is the “most reproduced portrait in the history of photography.”  To many it epitomizes all the characteristics we associate with the man who led the British through World War II: truculence; doggedness; pugnacity; defiance in the face of overwhelming odds.

Well, like all good stories, there is a backstory to this one as well, as I recently learned. The photo was taken by an Armenian-Canadian photographer named Yousuf Karsh.  Born Hovsep Karsh in 1908, he and his family escaped the Armenian genocide to Syria in 1922.  From there he was sent to Canada by his family, arriving in 1923.  He lived in Quebec for five years with an uncle who was a portrait photographer, and who taught him the trade, starting with a Box Brownie camera.  From 1929—1931 he apprenticed with another Armenian photographer in Boston, John Garo.

Returning to Canada in 1932, Karsh set up his own studio in Ottawa.  He managed to capture the attention of Mackenzie King, Canada’s Prime Minister, who helped arrange portraits of visiting dignitaries.

Yousuf Karsh

On December 30, 1941, one of those visiting dignitaries happened to be Winston Churchill, in town taking a break from the Arcadia Conference talks in DC.  Following an address to the Canadian Parliament, Karsh arranged to photograph Churchill.  The first shot was quite standard, showing a smiling, jovial Churchill. Prior to the second shot, Karsh snatched the trademark Churchill cigar from him.  Churchill was miffed, and showed it.  Thus is history made, and thus we remember England’s feisty wartime leader.

Now, how do I know all this?  Much of it is available on-line and in various history books.  But the person who brought it to my attention was Pamela B.  I met Pam while giving the Wallenberg Memorial Address to the Nordic Museum in Seattle last June (here). After my Churchill blog was posted last month, Pam wrote me about Karsh, and revealed that she knew the great Karsh: looking for a summer job following high school graduation in Ottawa, Pam was hired on as the cook and housekeeper.  She writes “it was an interesting experience to work for someone so famous with a home full of mementos from his decades of hanging out with luminaries across the US and Europe.”  Pam was even interviewed by Karsh’s biographer for any telling insights.  She had none to relay, probably because, as she informed me, she was fired within three weeks (whether for deficiencies in housekeeping or cooking is not known).

There is yet another connection.  Pam’s husband Gary is the “world’s leading expert in the artistic depiction of facial expression” and writes a blog about such matters, including one on Churchill’s famous scowl (here).

“Wait,” as they say on some TV commercials, “there’s more!”

Yousef had a younger brother Malak who was also a talented photographer. He developed in to a premier landscape photographer (so as not to compete directly with his brother).  The Canadian $1 dollar bill (no longer in use) once depicted Queen Elizabeth on one side (photo by Yousuf) and a logjam on the Ottawa River just below Parliament on the obverse (courtesy of Malak).  Not too surprising that Pam would know Malak’s story as well—she dated Malak’s son Laurence in high school!

Now, back to Yousuf.  By the time he died in 2002, age 93, he was regarded as one of the leading photographers of the Twentieth Century.  More than 20 of Yousuf’s photos graced the cover of Life magazine, including the Churchill shot.  The picture did not actually appear until May 21, 1945, almost four years after it was taken.  That was shortly after VE Day, a victory Churchill did almost as much as anyone to help accomplish.

Are there any other connections we can pack into this blog?  Well, my May 13 blog spoke about both Churchill and Fridtjof Nansen.  The Armenians (which Yousuf always thought of himself) still revere Fridtjof Nansen for all the work he did following World War I to assist them.  Every April 24, the date commemorating the start of the Armenian Genocide, they have a ceremony at Fridtjof’s gravesite in Lysaker, Norway.  In 2011 the Armenian Government flew Nansen’s granddaughter (and my dear friend) Marit (Nansen) Greve to Yerevan,  their capital city, so she could witness the unveiling of a new memorial to Fridtjof.

Flowers on Fridtjof Nansen’s grave, April 24, 2019. Courtesy Anne Greve.

It’s amazing what one little blog can unleash!  I hope some future subject causes you to reach out to me as well with your story!

May 13: Winston Churchill and Fridtjof Nansen

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I don’t know if Winston Churchill and Fridtjof Nansen (about whom I’ve written before here and here) ever knew each other or knew of each other.  I’ve never yet come across a reference to the other in either of their writings.  But then again, I’ve only scratched the surface of their respective output—both left prodigious written records.

Nevertheless, I find it hard to believe that they were not at least aware of each other, if not personally acquainted.  They both loomed so large over their respective stages in Europe that it’s almost impossible to think they hadn’t somehow crossed paths.

While Churchill may have missed the 1897 lecture Nansen (thirteen years his senior) gave to the Royal Geographical Society following his attempt at the North Pole (Winston was serving with the British Army in India at the time), they were both in London in 1906, when Fridtjof Nansen was appointed newly-independent Norway’s first ambassador to Great Britain and Churchill was re-elected to Parliament.   Both men were active during World War I; Nansen negotiating with the Wilson Administration for liberalized food trade; Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty

After World War I ended, Fridtjof Nansen was one of the most prominent figures in the newly created League of Nations, an organization strongly supported by Churchill.  With the approach of World War II, Churchill participated in the Focus Group, a loosely-allied group of British politicians alive to the threat of fascist Germany. Philip Noel-Baker, an old League friend of Fridtjof’s, was part of this select group.

Whether or not the two were acquainted, personally or by reputation, May 13th was a critical anniversary in both their lives.

Fridtjof Nansen

On May 13, 1930, Fridtjof Nansen passed away, age 68.   As I have explained in an earlier post, while the medical report may have listed the cause of death as heart failure, in reality I believe it was simply a case of his having done more work than most ten men.  If there was one word that encapsulated his personality, it was forward (in Norwegian the word is fram which happened to be the name of the ship he built for his expedition to the North Pole).  As he once explained, there should be no thought or plan of retreat: “Then one loses no time in looking behind, when one should have quite enough to do in looking ahead—then there is no chance for you or your men but forward.  You have to do or die!”

Winston Churchill

Exactly 10 years later, on May 13, 1940, that same philosophy inspired Churchill’s famous “blood, toil, tears and sweat” speech to the House of Commons.  At the time of the speech, Churchill had been Prime Minister for all of three days, assuming the position “on the eve of the gravest crisis which any British Government ever faced,” in the words of one historian.  Austria had been annexed; Czechoslovakia occupied; Poland crushed; Denmark overrun; Holland would capitulate 2 days later; Belgium in 18 more; France was slightly more than a month away from surrendering; Norway was fighting gallantly against impossible odds.  Many in Great Britain advocated negotiating with Hitler.

Nevertheless, Churchill marked out his own position unmistakably.  After informing his countrymen that he had nothing to offer them but blood, toil, tears and sweat, Churchill continued:

“We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind.   We have before us many, many long months of struggle and suffering.  You ask, what is our policy?  I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime.  That is our policy.  You ask, what is our aim?  I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory there is no survival.”

As one historian described Churchill’s spellbinding speech, and its effect on both his country and the worldwide audience that it was also intended for: “If this was Britain’s ‘finest hour,’ it was also Winston’s.”

No doubt if Fridtjof Nansen were still alive, he would have wholeheartedly agreed.

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