Posts tagged From Day to Day

January 13, 1942: Odd Nansen Becomes a Hostage

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Odd Nansen: Self-Portrait

On this date 81 years-ago Odd Nansen was ordered, by the local sheriff and two Germans, to accompany them to Oslo “for questioning.”  He would soon learn the truth—the authorities had no interest in questioning him, and no intention of releasing him from their grasp.  His crime? None.  Nansen was never accused or convicted of any wrong-doing or anti-German activity (even though he was in fact involved in the Resistance).  Instead, he learned of his new status: hostage.

The taking of hostages in wartime is as old as antiquity—a means of ensuring obedience by the local civilian population.  The major difference the Nazis brought to the taking of hostages was the ruthlessness with which they implemented and enforced their hostage-taking activities, which encompassed every country they occupied.

As early as August 19, 1940, William L. Shirer was broadcasting that the German military commander of the Netherlands had issued another warning against continued acts of sabotage.  If they continued, the general warned, collective punishment would be levied, not only against the perpetrator, but also the town in which the perpetrator lived “and hostages [will be] taken.”

Similarly, in Nansen’s case, it was the commando-style attacks by the British against Norway—Operations Anklet and Archery, which provoked Reichskommissar Josef Terboven (Hitler’s personal representative in Norway) to order in January 1942 the arrest of twenty of the most prominent citizens of the country—preferably ones with ties to the royal Family—as hostages.

The life of a hostage was precarious in the extreme—as it depended, not on the actions or behavior of the hostage him- or herself, but upon the actions of others.

In Mary Berg’s diary for June 10, 1941, she notes that the Polish underground was enforcing its own laws against collaborators, as well as the resulting retaliation by the Germans:

“The famous Polish moving-picture star, Igo Sym, who collaborated with the Nazis, was executed recently by the patriots.  The Nazis posted red placards all over the city, promising a reward of ten thousand zlotys for the delivery of the “traitors.” Meanwhile, a few hundred prominent Poles have been imprisoned as hostages and some of them have been shot.”

In France, which generally had a weak and ineffective resistance organization early in the war, 471 hostages were nevertheless shot in an eight-month period (September 1941—May 1942).  In general, however, the further east in Europe one traveled, and the longer the war lasted, the more vicious the reprisals against hostages became. For example, to quell an incipient uprising in Serbia in mid-1941 (as the Russian invasion increasingly required all of Germany’s resources) Hitler personally ordered between 50 and 100 hostages be shot for every German soldier killed.

Similarly, by late 1943, Greece experienced a spasm of extreme violence directed against hostages.  As historian Mark Mazower relates in Hitler’s Empire, on December 4, 1943, 50 hostages were shot in Aigion.  The next day another 50 hostages were hanged at the Andritsa rail station.  A few days later, on December 13, the entire male population of Kalavryta—over 500 men—were killed in reprisal for the kidnaping and killing of German soldiers by nearby partisans.

Thus, it is perhaps something of a miracle that Odd Nansen never knew of such wanton killings and survived his 40-month incarceration—until the war’s final days—without facing any such reprisals, for his own sake, and indeed, for ours as well.   Otherwise, we might never have Nansen’s masterpiece, From Day to Day, to offer us a unique, and uniquely insightful, look into the inner workings of the German concentration camp system.

Note: In one of the ironies of history, on January 13, 1942, the very same day that Odd Nansen first entered a Norwegian prison cell, the governments of nine German-occupied countries (Norway, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, France, Greece, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Poland and Yugoslavia) met at St. James’s Palace in London and issued a joint declaration (the St. James’s Palace Declaration on the Punishment for War Crimes) that those found guilty of war crimes would be punished after the war.

The very first recital of their declaration reads: “Whereas, Germany, since the beginning of the present conflict which arose out of her policy of aggression, has instituted in the Occupied countries a regime of terror characterized amongst other things by imprisonments, mass expulsions, the execution of hostages and massacres.” The declaration was the first joint statement of goals and principles by the Allied Powers during World War II, later to be superseded by the Atlantic Charter and still later by the Declaration by United Nations. The Norwegian signatories were Terje Wold, Minister of Justice, and Trygve Lie, Minister for Foreign Affairs, and, after the war, first Secretary-General of the United Nations.

Did those guilty of war crimes receive the punishment they were promised by the St. James’s Palace Declaration? The Lagerkommandant of Grini, Alfred Zeidler, was sentenced after the war to life imprisonment, but was released in 1953.  Anton Kaindl, Commandant of Sachsenhausen (1943-45) was also sentenced to life imprisonment, by the Russians, and died in the Gulag in 1948.  Max Pauly, Neuengamme’s Commandant in 1945, was sentenced to death in May 1946, and hanged later that year.  Josef Terboven died by suicide in May 1945 rather than surrender.

2022 Year-End Potpourri

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“None the less we bid it welcome, and once more fix our hopes, our burning wishes, and our ache of longing on the new year.  The news is excellent, and all things considered there seems every reason to take a rather more cheerful view of things after all.” (From Day to Day, January 2, 1944)

Thus did Odd Nansen feel at the start of 1944, and so I also feel at the start of 2023—all things considered, there seems every reason to be cheerful.

Here’s a few thoughts on various year-end matters that I thought worth mentioning, as we fix our burning wishes on the new year.

SEVENTH DISTRIBUTION GOES OUT

Recently I was able to send to each of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and HL Senteret, the Norwegian Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Religious Minorities their 50% share in the royalties and speaking fees I earned this past year related to Odd Nansen’s diary.  To date my cumulative distributions now top $26,000.

DEVOTION

Before the Christmas holiday I was able to see the movie Devotion (which I had previously written about here). Frankly, I was somewhat ambivalent about seeing the movie version of Tom Hudner and Jesse Brown—could it really stand up to the book version (most movies don’t in my opinion).  The film begins by noting that it is “inspired” by the story of Jess and Tom, and there are some film scenes that clearly do not follow the actual events, but overall the film had the same powerful impact that the book version did.  If you get a chance to see this drama, go, but bring tissues.

TOM BUERGENTHAL AND SERENDIPITY AGAIN

Recently my wife and I were invited to dinner at a friends’ house, to meet a new couple who had recently moved into town—Bonnie and Jeff.  Jeff, being the excellent attorney that he is, had already Googled our names to get some background on us.  Once we were all settled with a glass of wine, Jeff confessed to being curious why I was so involved with matters relating to World War II, the Holocaust, diaries, etc.  I explained how it all started with a memoir I had read back in 2010, about a young Jewish concentration camp prisoner whose life was ultimately saved by Odd Nansen, and how this prisoner later emigrated to the U.S. and became a world-famous expert on human rights, serving as a justice on the International Court of Justice at The Hague.  By this time Bonnie’s attention was rivetted to my story.  Q: What was this man’s name? A: Thomas Buergenthal.  Q: Does Tom have three sons? A: Why, yes, he does.

Well, it turns out that Bonnie and her younger sister Shannon were classmates with Tom’s  youngest two sons, all while they were attending the Country Day School in—of all places—Costa Rica in the late 1970s.  To add to the coincidence, Shannon is married to a lawyer who attended G.W. Law School—and who of course had Tom as a professor!

In all my travels and presentations, I have now met people who 1) were born in the same village in Czechoslovakia as was Tom, 2) attended the same high school in Patterson, NJ with Tom, 3) went to the same undergraduate college (Bethany College in West Virginia) as Tom, although not in his class, 4) who attended NYU Law School with Tom, and now this.

It is a very small world indeed!

FRIDTJOF NANSEN IS EVERYWHERE

This week I received an email from an old friend, Diana, a brilliant attorney who was recently seconded to her firm’s Singapore office for a short tour of duty.  Diana explained that she was awaiting a meeting at Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower for her work permits.  Just outside of the Ministry of Manpower sits another office, of the Norwegian company NHST Worldwide, a global media company.  Diana just had to share with me the writing she saw above NHST’s office entrance:

So while Fridtjof may have never made it to Singapore, Singapore knows Nansen!  If you readers ever spot Nansen memorabilia in your travels (including but not limited to the North Pole) please send them along to me and I’ll be happy to share.

And so, on the advice of no less a role model than Fridtjof Nansen, let us all go FORWARD into the New Year with confidence and hope.

HAPPY NEW YEAR TO ALL!

January 13, 1942

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Year-End Potpourri

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Let’s face it: 2021 was not the year most of us will remember fondly.  The fears, the disrupted plans, the false dawns.  Yes, 2021 is best left behind as soon as possible.

But even at the end of a bad year there are always a few bright spots worth noting.

I. A Mother and Child Reunion

Thomas and Gerda Buergenthal

Seventy-five years ago today Tom Buergenthal, age 12, set eyes on his mother for the first time in over two years—two years during which he had no idea whether his mother was even alive.  A simple boy’s faith had sustained him when the war finally ended:

“Of course, I was happy the war was over and that we had been liberated.  But when the soldiers spoke of their families and of home, I was reminded that I did not know where my home was.  I had no home without my parents, and I did not know where they were.  I was sure that if I had survived, they must have survived too and that they would find me!”

But as time passed, that hope became less and less tenable; if his parents were still alive, where were they, and why hadn’t they found him yet?  His mother, for her part, hadn’t given up looking for Tom—after all, wasn’t he ein Glückskind, a lucky child?  But the challenge of locating one small boy in war-ravaged Europe was almost insuperable.

As I have recently written (here), it was Tom’s decision to emigrate to Palestine, born of despair over his parents’ unknown status, that provided the key to his ultimate discovery and reunion with his mother, on December 29, 1946.

When Tom first learned that his mother was alive, earlier in the fall of 1946, and that the two would soon be reunited, he wrote those most poignant words:

“’She is alive!’ I kept repeating to myself.  It was the happiest moment of my life.  I began to cry and laugh all at once, casting off the self-control and tough-guy attitude I sought to cultivate at the orphanage.  I had a mother, and that meant that I could be a child again.”

II. It’s a Wonderful Life.

Clarence and George Bailey

This December also marks the 75th anniversary of one of my favorite movies: “It’s A Wonderful Life.”  I’ve written about the movie, and the power of serendipity, before (here).  It took George Bailey a visit from the angel Clarence to finally realize the important impact he had had on the lives of others.  I’m not sure if Odd Nansen ever wondered what impact his life—now perpetuated through the words of his inimitable diary—had on others.  I hope not.  His humanity in the crucible of a concentration camp has undoubtedly inspired others—myself included—to follow his example.  As Tom Buergenthal once told me, Nansen “not only saved my life, but also taught me to forgive.”

III. Sixth Distribution Goes Out

Recently, as is my yearly custom since From Day to Day first reappeared in print, I donated all my 2021 royalties and speaking fees: 50% to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC and 50% to HL-senteret, the Norwegian Center for Holocaust and Minority Studies in Oslo.  To date these donations cumulatively total $22,369.04.

IV. Looking Ahead

Back on March 15, 2020, at the start of the pandemic, I compared the (rather minor) dislocations to our everyday life caused by COVID to the infinitely more terrible experiences of people like Odd Nansen and Tom Buergenthal (here)—and hoped their experiences could inspire us to overcome whatever challenges we might face.

Thus I think it appropriate to end this blog with the words Odd Nansen wrote on January 2, 1944, and the hope he was able to muster in a much darker place:

“[W]e bid it welcome, and once more fix our hopes, our burning wishes, and our ache of longing on the new year. . . .  [A]ll things considered there seems every reason to take a rather more cheerful view of things after all.”

Postscript: For all of you assembling your list of New Year’s Resolutions (lose weight, read more, argue less, look younger, exercise more, be smarter, etc.) let me suggest one more: “I’ll write that review of From Day to Day on Amazon that I promised Tim back in. . . .“  You’ll be glad you did! And for those who have already done so—Tusen Takk! (A Thousand Thanks!)

Happy Birthday, Fiskerjente

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Odd Nansen and Marit, 1930s

Today is Marit (Nansen) Greve’s birthday.  She would have been 93 years old.

Odd Nansen wrote about Marit in his diary on November 8, 1944, while in Sachsenhausen, using “fiskerjente,” meaning “fisher girl” as a term of endearment.  After all, she had often accompanied him in the prewar era when he went out fishing, something he greatly enjoyed.  Nansen worried in his diary that their long separation, and those crucial years in Marit’s young life—from age 13 to age 16—without her father, would cool her affection for him.

Nansen needn’t have worried.  Marit was the keeper of the flame, and throughout her long life worked diligently, but unobtrusively, at the Grini Museum and the Fram Museum, to ensure that her father’s and grandfather’s legacies would endure.  Without her help, the current edition of Odd Nansen’s diary would have been significantly poorer.

Marit passed away last March 26.  She had lived a long and full and productive life, spanning so many important years in the life of her country and her family.  She had left nothing undone.  It was her time to go.

Nevertheless, to borrow the same words her father wrote 77 years ago today: “But all the same I miss you badly, my little “fisher girl.”

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.

Wow! A New Play Based on Nansen’s Diary!

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No sooner than I had just finished posting a new blog describing my recent article in the Scandinavian Review about Odd Nansen and his art world, featuring fellow Grini prisoner Per Krohg, among others, I learned yesterday about a new play called “The Bøyg,” written by A.J. Ditty.  According to Ditty, the ostensible protagonist in the play is the very same Per Krohg, and the play’s action is derived from diary entries in Odd Nansen’s From Day to Day: One Man’s Diary of Survival in Nazi Concentration Camps.  Ditty calls Nansen’s diary “an extremely important primary text for this play.”

The Bøyg will be performed tomorrow, September 26 at the Stockbridge Theater in Derry, NH at 2pm.

Ditty describes his play as “a lot about making art in isolation.” It focuses on events described by Nansen in his diary in late December, 1942.  At the time the prisoners were preparing to celebrate Christmas—the first Christmas many of them will have ever observed in prison, and they struggle to preserve a sense of home.

The Bøyg is an amorphous character (really, just a voice) in Henrik Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt.  Published by Ibsen in 1867 and first performed in 1876, with musical accompaniment by Edvard Grieg, it remains one of the most widely performed Norwegian plays.

Henrik Ibsen

Ibsen based his verse play loosely on an earlier Norwegian folktale, Per Gynt.  In my article in the Scandinavian Review, I focus on Norway’s “tightly interconnected web of artists.”  That web—and the Lysaker Circle I describe—also included writers as well.  The Per Gynt folktale was first recorded and collected by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen.  Asbjørnsen also collaborated with Jørgen Moe in a collection of Norwegian folktales which became so famous it was simply referred to as “Asbjørnsen and Moe.”  Who illustrated Asbjørnsen and Moe?  None other than Erik Werenskiold, Fridtjof Nansen’s friend and neighbor, and a leading member of the Lysaker Circle.  Tightly interconnected indeed.

Ditty was recently interviewed by New Hampshire Public Radio about his play, which interview can be heard in full here.

Serendipity strikes again!

In The Beginning…..

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…….was the word.  Actually, many of them.  About 300,000 to be accurate.

While still in high school I adopted a practice I learned from the father of one of my school friends: writing on the front endpaper of one’s book one’s name and the date they started reading said book.  I later began to add the location where I started reading a book as well.  Thus, at a quick glance I can be transported back to the place and time associated with my memory of the book itself.  (Invariably, the actual date is further in the past than I would have otherwise guessed.)

Eleven years ago today I started reading an old diary written by an unknown (to me) Norwegian.  The book had been hard to come by—there was only one offered for sale that I could find anywhere in the United States; five in the entire globe.  I purchased one of those five from a book dealer in New Zealand.  The name of the book was From Day to Day.  Indeed, my only familiarity with the book came from a brief, footnoted mention of it in a memoir written by Thomas Buergenthal, A Lucky Child, that I had read earlier that year.

With no preconception of what might lie within, and a bit put off by the diary’s length—over 500 pages—I made an initial decision to proceed rather deliberately.  I would read only one diary entry per day—sort of like a daily devotional—and thereby walk in the footsteps of the diarist as he recorded his experiences each day.  Soon that discipline gave way to two diary entries per day, and then three, and then more.

By that time, as I inform my audiences, I was hooked.

And the rest is history.  Exactly when I made the fateful decision to edit and republish Nansen’s diary is now a bit fuzzy, but clearly it occurred by year-end.   In early 2011 I visited Washington, DC to research the book’s copyright status at the Library of Congress, and to meet Tom Buergenthal for the first time.  After we discussed Tom’s memoir, and he showed me his shelf full of the many different translations of his book (17 at the time I recall), I tentatively mentioned my plans to get Nansen’s diary back into print.  Tom could not have been more supportive and encouraging, even writing a letter of introduction to Odd Nansen’s daughter Marit, thereby facilitating what became another wonderful friendship. With Tom’s blessing I was ready to tackle the project that would change my life in so many rewarding and delightful ways.

And it all began on August 8, 2010.

My Notation

From Day to Day Celebrates Fifth Anniversary  

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This week marks the fifth anniversary of the republication of From Day to Day: One Man’s Diary of Survival in Nazi Concentration Camps.

What a fantastic five years it has been—and that’s even including the last 12 months!  Little could I have imagined the many wonderful people I would meet along the way, each with their own story, often touching upon World War II experiences—theirs, their family’s, their relative’s, or their friend’s.  Some of these stories I have shared in the 170+ blogs I’ve written since 2016.  (A few are here, here, here, and here).  Not to mention the many wonderful friendships I formed along the way, with Tom Buergenthal, Marit Greve, Sten Vermund, and many, many, others

Looking back, I still marvel at how a six-line footnote included by Tom Buergenthal in his 2010 memoir, A Lucky Child, and read by me the same year, could so unalterably change the direction of my life, for it introduced me to an unknown Norwegian named Odd Nansen, and to a diary he had written years before I was born.

A while ago I came across this passage in a book review written by Robert Darnton, Director Emeritus of the Harvard University Library:

“We commonly think of books as containers of ideas or wrapping for literature, but they can be understood in other ways—as if they were blood cells carrying oxygen through a body politic or data points as infinite as the stars in the sky.  Books lead lives of their own, and they intersect with our lives in ways we have only begun to understand.”

Years ago, I might have scoffed at this notion, dismissing it as pure fantasy, but now I’m not so sure. The number of coincidences—serendipity I call it for lack of a better term—that seem to attend everything about Odd Nansen’s diary is simply uncanny.  Maybe the diary does have a life of its own?  Maybe it was just waiting for someone to come along and bring it back to life—when the time was right.  I’ve written about serendipity a number of times: here, here, here and here.

Here is the latest example of serendipity.

Earlier this year I received a purchase order for a copy of Nansen’s diary through my website.  It was notable in that it was the first and only purchase order I’ve received over the past five years from someone outside the U.S.  The buyer was located in Austria.  I did a Google search of the address and learned that the buyer, Christiane P., lived near Vienna. In confirming the order, I wrote Christiane and happened to mention that I had visited Vienna in December 2018, and had had a wonderful time in the Austrian capital.  Christiane replied that the next time I visited Vienna I needed to let her know, as she gave tours there, focusing on its experience in World War II, with an emphasis on the rise of Hitler and Hitlerism.

Well, I responded, when in Vienna my wife and I had indeed taken a tour much like the one Christiane was describing.  In fact, I still had a photo on my camera of our tour guide—could Christiane be one and the same person?  Her response: Yes–it was her! Now, I had not mentioned my book to Christiane during our tour, and she could not have possibly have remembered my name after the passage of over two years, and yet she, of the many millions in Europe, reached out to me based on her interest in learning about a Norwegian named Odd Nansen and his World War II diary.

Coincidence? Serendipity? You tell me.  Whatever is at work here, I only hope it keeps up for the next five years!

And to you, my readers, I offer my thanks for all your past and future support, whether by way of word of mouth, reviews on Amazon, suggestions for presentations, and the like.  Without your help, the continued high level of interest in Odd Nansen’s diary after five years would be impossible.  In 1949, despite rave reviews in all the major U.S. papers, the book went to a second printing before going out of print. Today, we are on our fifth printing, and demand remains strong. All thanks to you.

Tom and Odd and Frodo and Sam: Fact Meets Fiction and Fiction Meets Fact

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“Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.”  The Lord of the Rings

I have a confession to make: I am a big fan of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (LOTR to the uninitiated).  If I had to spend the rest of my days on a deserted island, or in total social isolation, a copy of From Day to Day and a copy of The Lord of the Rings would more than satisfy all my nonfiction and fiction needs.  Indeed, the only book I have read more times than From Day to Day, is LOTR—and in that I had a head start of several decades, having first read Tolkien’s fantasy classic while in the eighth grade.

For those of you familiar with the story (and if you are not familiar, you may want to skip this part—or better yet—get your own copy today and start reading!), the climax focuses on Frodo and his faithful servant Sam on “the last desperate stage” of their journey. Having passed through many perils and trials, Frodo and Sam are so close to success—the destruction of the ring of power—but are also so much more likely to fail than ever before.  After all, these two “haflings” as they are called, are not brave and skilled fighters, they have no special talents, and arrayed against them are innumerable obstacles.

The nightmarish land they must now cross is not unlike a concentration camp—a nasty, brutish land where “ideals have vanished; [and] . . . kindness has turned to ice in many a heart,” to use Nansen’s own words.  Like camp prisoners, the inhabitants of the dark lord’s realm likewise have no names: “Up you get and fall in, or I’ll have your numbers and report you,” a character threatens Sam and Frodo at one point, mistaking them for orcs.  The pair, disguised, are forced into a gang, and, under the threat of the lash, the two are driven to their physical limits, in scenes that could be found in any concentration camp:

“It was hard enough for poor Sam, tired as he was; but for Frodo it was a torment, and soon a nightmare.  He set his teeth and tried to stop his mind from thinking, and he struggled on.  The stench . . . was stifling, and he began to gasp with thirst.  On, on they went, and he bent all his will to draw his breath and to make his legs keep going; and yet to what evil end he toiled and endured he did not dare to think.”

Even Sam begins to lose all hope:

“Never for long had hope died in his staunch heart, and always until now he had taken some thought for their return.  But the bitter truth came home to him at last: at best their provisions would take them to their goal; and when the task was done, there they would come to an end, alone, houseless, foodless in the midst of a terrible desert.  There could be no return.”

It is this imagery—of two desperate souls fighting against hopeless odds—that comes to my mind as I reflect on the terrible days 76 years ago.  Everyone had surely recognized by February 1945 that Germany would lose the war.  But what did that mean for the inmates of KZ Sachsenhausen? If anything, the war was even then reaching new, unimaginable, heights of ferocity.  Fully 60% of all Allied bombs dropped during the war fell in its final 10 months; during those same final 10 months German military forces would suffer 2.6 million deaths, nearly one-half of their total war-related deaths incurred in the entire span of  World War II.

Beginning on February 13, 1945, the Allies firebombed Dresden. As many as 25,000 Germans, including  many civilians, died within hours of the attack, either incinerated or suffocated as the intense fires sucked out all available oxygen.  Thousands more were left homeless.

On the very same day—February 13—Odd Nansen reported on the madness occurring within the walls of Sachsenhausen:

“From the Tub[erculosis] section of the Revier men are constantly being picked out who go direct to the crematorium.  Yes, direct!  Not into the gas chamber first. They get a knock on the head, that’s usually enough. . . .   A big, strong Pole who has been in the Tub four years and is by no means mortally ill was to be taken the other day.  He got word of it, jumped out through the window and hid in the camp.  The Blockältester took another patient, a Pole or Ukrainian, out of one of the beds and sent him instead. The quota had to be filled to avoid a fuss.”

Life Frodo and Sam, Tom Buergenthal and Odd Nansen may have been closer to liberation 76 years ago today, but they were also beset by more dangers than ever before.  The heightened Allied bombing campaign held its own unique terrors: stray bombs could, and did, occasionally land inside the camp, killing helpless prisoners.  Allied interdiction of almost all daylight surface transport meant that Red Cross food parcels might or might not continue to arrive, reducing even the Norwegians to starvation levels.

Moreover, Tom and Odd each nursed their own private fears.  Tom worried about a possible evacuation of Sachsenhausen.  A veteran of one death march, Tom was all too well aware that his injured feet would spell disaster on a long march, and being left behind was even worse.  In his memoir he writes: “Camp evacuations meant long marches and overcrowded trains, like those that brought me to Sachsenhausen.  But it also meant that people who could not walk would be shot wherever they were found—on the roadside or in their beds. I imagined seeing SS guards with their big boots walking from bed to bed in the infirmary, shooting everyone left behind.”

For his part, Odd Nansen was keenly aware that a German surrender, or the imminent capture of Sachsenhausen, might easily be preceded by a massacre of all the camp’s inhabitants.  In fact, Heinrich Himmler had already issued orders to all camp commandants that “not a single prisoner must fall alive into enemy hands.” (emphasis mine)

And in this hellish milieu, 76 years ago today, Tom and Odd first met—quite accidentally—when Nansen stumbled upon young Tommy recovering in Revier III.

Like Frodo and Sam, Tom and Odd were close to losing hope.

Like Frodo and Sam, Tom and Odd undoubtedly would have given anything to be delivered from all this madness.  As Frodo had once complained to the wizard Gandalf: “I wish it [the war for the ring] need not have happened in my time.”  “So do I,” answers Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times.  But that is not for them to decide.  All that we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

Odd Nansen could not have known of Gandalf’s wise counsel—LOTR was not published until 1954-55—but he lived by its precept.  He knew what to do with the time that had been given him.  And these two forlorn individuals [curiously, the German word for prisoner is Häftling] found succor in each other.  As Nansen wrote, “For the very first time [I] saw you, you went straight to [my] heart.”  And thereafter Nansen saved Tommy by bribing the orderlies in the Revier to protect the young boy.  Tom, in turn, saved Odd: “Without suspecting it, Tommy accomplished with us a work of salvation. He touched something in us which was about to disappear.  He called to life again human feelings, which were painful to have, but which nevertheless meant salvation for us all.”

And, like Frodo and Sam, against all odds, Nansen and Tom prevailed in the end as well.

Now do you see why Tom and Odd, Frodo and Sam seem alike to me in so many ways, and why From Day to Day and The Lord of the Rings are my two favorite books?

Remembering the 76th anniversary of your very first meeting, Odd Nansen and Tom Buergenthal.

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