Posts tagged From Day to Day

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.

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)

An Anniversary; A Year-End Report

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“At half-past seven the district sheriff of East Gausdal came up to the cottage with two Germans.”

So begins From Day to Day, which Odd Nansen, in his usual self-deprecating way, describes thusly in his Foreword: “This book is a diary and makes no claim to be anything else.”

The above opening lines were penned 79 years ago tonight, in a single cell in the Lillehammer county jail, marking Odd Nansen’s arrest and the start of his fateful 40-month journey through Nazi concentration camps.

What more appropriate time to provide a report to my subscribers on all that happened this past year.

COVID is what happened this past year.  And that threw everyone’s plans for 2020, mine included, into a cocked hat.  It was difficult to make any plans as the pandemic unfolded, and scheduling, rescheduling, delays and uncertainty were the order of the day, dominating everyone’s thinking.  For five months, stretching from February to July, I lived in a state of suspended animation. Would the pandemic abate?  Was it better to wait things out?  And how exactly did Zoom work?

The new year has brought some clarity:  Yes, Zoom works just fine—millions now use it (and other technologies) like they were born to it.  A vaccine is on the way.  And yet uncertainty still persists.  When will herd immunity be achieved?  When will life return to “normal”?

Looking back, I can see that 2020 represented progress, just not as much progress as I had envisioned a year ago at this time. Here are some the 2020 vital stats:

19 presentations (all but 4 virtual)

36 blogs posted

1770 event attendees

4580 website visitors

$1,996.02. Last year’s share of royalties and speaking fees distributed to each of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and HL Senteret, the Norwegian Center for Holocaust and Minority Studies

$19,296.32. Combined to-date distributions of royalties and speaking fees to the above two organizations

Notwithstanding the uncertainty mentioned above, 2021 promises to be an improvement over last year.  Already, two weeks into the new year, I have 19 presentations scheduled, with the prospect for more opportunities on the horizon.  And plenty more blog topics beckon.

So I am optimistic for 2021, and hope you are too.  Here’s wishing you all the best for a safe, healthy, and happy New Year!

Happy Birthday Marit!

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[You have a unique chance to meet Marit (virtually).  See below for details.]

Today marks the 92nd birthday of my dear friend, Marit (Nansen) Greve, Odd Nansen’s eldest child.

Marit was actually born here in America—in Brooklyn, NY, to be exact, while her father was working in New York City (1927—1930) in architecture/urban planning.  Although many people refuse to believe this, I maintain that I can still detect a slight Brooklyn accent beneath her Norwegian lilt.  She was only one and a half when the Nansen family returned to Norway in the spring of 1930, a move precipitated by the illness of her famous grandfather, Fridtjof Nansen (who died May 13, 1930).

Marit’s childhood was anything but ordinary.  When she was but eleven and a half, Germany invaded and occupied Norway (April 9, 1940). Now German soldiers were ubiquitous.  Danger lurked everywhere.  Conditions were tough.  Even children were affected: the Nazis tried to control the school curriculum, all organized sports, and even the church liturgy—all of which aroused vehement pushback from the Norwegians.

In early January 1942, Marit, her parents, and her two younger siblings, Eigil (age 10) and Siri (age 8) were enjoying a respite from the cares and concerns brought about by almost two years of occupation.  They were on holiday near Lillehammer, enjoying a rustic mountain getaway in a hytte (cabin) owned by Odd Nansen’s business partner, Ernst Holmboe.

It was a quiet Tuesday evening, and the family was gathered around to hear the nightly BBC Norwegian broadcast when they saw three men with flashlights approaching the hytte.  The radio was hurriedly hidden away (owning a radio was illegal, as was listening to the BBC).  The three strangers (two Germans and the local sheriff) announced only that Nansen was being summoned to Oslo for “questioning.”  Nansen writes in his very first diary entry the following: “Kari [his wife] was calm, Marit, Eigil and Siri cried, poor things, but were smiling bravely through their tears before I left.”

Marit had just recently turned thirteen.

She was old enough to begin to imagine what might happen to her father.  But probably neither she nor her father could imagine how horrifying his next three and a half years would actually be.

While Nansen was imprisoned in Grini, a police detention camp outside Oslo, Marit was occasionally able to visit her father, accompanied by her mother and sometimes her siblings.  One memorable visit occurred on Thursday, August 5, 1943.  This time Marit arrived with Nansen’s partner Holmboe, who was there on a business visit.  Initially Marit was refused access by an overly punctilious interpreter, but tragedy was averted when a sympathetic German guard, on his own initiative, pleaded Marit’s case.  Result: Marit was allowed into her father’s presence.

“Marit came rushing over, crying bitterly; she had been in such despair because they wouldn’t let her see me, poor child.  Oh, how it warmed my heart; I do believe she cares a little for her daddy, and now I am not afraid she may have grown away from me and forgotten me in this time.”

It was a good thing Marit and Nansen saw each other then; within weeks Nansen would run afoul of Grini’s commandant, resulting in the Einzelhaft (solitary confinement) followed by transport to Sachsenhausen.  Nansen would need to rely on that bittersweet memory for the next two years, as Marit matured into a young woman.  And Marit would have to help keep her family going without their father for two more years.

The Nansen Family greeting their father upon his return home from captivity. Marit on the right.

My first encounter with Marit occurred in August 2010.  Following an introduction provided by Tom Buergenthal, I arranged a stopover in Oslo en route home from attending a wedding in Stockholm.  As befitted a first meeting, the interview was rather formal and proper. Marit graciously answered all my questions, as she was to do, again and again, over the next six years, as I edited, annotated and wrote the introduction to Nansen’s diary.

What evolved from that first meeting was an immensely enjoyable and rewarding friendship—including visits to Norway and vice versa (which I have written about here).  As I mention in my Acknowledgements, “To come to know Marit as I have is truly one of the unexpected, but deeply cherished, joys of this undertaking.”

SKÅL, Marit, on your wonderful achievement, and many more birthdays to come!

Me and Marit celebrating her 90th birthday in Oslo.

[Note: Dear readers, you have a wonderful chance to meet Marit (virtually).  Here’s how.  On Sunday, November 15, at 9:00 am (ET) I will be the guest speaker at the 14th Annual Kristallnacht Commemoration sponsored by The Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven and Congregation Or Shalom. The highlight of the event will be the presentation (virtually) by Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut to Marit and her family of a U.S. Senate Resolution commending Odd Nansen for his courageous humanitarian work prior to World War II—via Nansenhjelpen—and his inspirational World War II concentration camp diary, From Day to Day.  Register for the free event via the following link: us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_8X2vn1cTSYqUFrLXFeUYvQ.  I hope you will be able to join me when Marit accepts her father’s well-deserved commendation!]

A Surfeit of Books

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Back in the good old days (surely you remember, like February last), I was looking forward to a robust 2020 speaking schedule, with events ranging from DC to New Jersey to Chicago to Minnesota to the Dakotas, and even Norway.  Accordingly, I stocked up on a healthy supply of  Odd Nansen’s From Day to Day to handle the expected demand.

Well, we all know how that turned out.

I am slowly ramping up my virtual speaking schedule, and have my fingers crossed that by 2021 we’ll have a workable vaccine and may be able to resume in-person events.  In the meantime, I keep staring at my stack of books.

Recently, I realized that I was looking at the situation entirely the wrong way. I was reading Richard Hofstadter’s 1964 Pulitzer Prize-winning classic, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, and came across Hofstadter’s discussion of Henry David Thoreau, and a problem Thoreau ran into when faced with an overstock of one of his own books:

“Thoreau remarked on the seven-hundred-odd unsold copies of an edition of a thousand of his A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers which were stacked in his room: ‘I now have a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself.  Is it not well that the author should behold the fruits of his labor?’”

My website currently boasts that I have “almost 5,000 books” at home.  I may need to revise it to read: “Tim’s library now exceeds 5,000 books, a good many of which he has personally edited, annotated, and written introductions for.”

Yes, it is well and good that an author can behold the fruits of his labor!

Today is Anne Frank’s Birthday

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Anne Frank

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 26–A Day for Anniversaries

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My readers have by now undoubtedly noticed that I have a thing about anniversaries.

Today is no exception, and marks several important such anniversaries, including the fact that my mother, were she still alive, would have turned 100 today.

Also, today is the fourth anniversary of the re-appearance, in print, of the English version of From Day to Day, following a 67-year hiatus.  Perhaps equally important, this week represents the ten-year anniversary of my chance decision, in late April 2010, to purchase a newly published memoir called A Lucky Child, written by Thomas Buergenthal.

As I’ve pointed out to the audiences I have addressed, once you have, like me, amassed almost 5,000 books at home, the impetus to purchase yet another book comes quite easily.  And so I had little hesitation in purchasing A Lucky Child even though I knew almost nothing of the book’s contents or its author—no reviews, no advertising, no recommendations—beyond what I could see on its cover.  And yet A Lucky Child and From Day to Day, taken together, have changed the entire course of my life over these past 10 years—and hopefully for many more to come.  The people I’ve met, the stories I’ve heard, the history I’ve learned, have all changed me indelibly and, I feel, for the better.

I recently came across a quote, attributable to Eleanor Roosevelt, when explaining how her husband’s polio affected him.  “Anyone who has gone through great suffering,” she said, “is bound to have a greater sympathy and understanding of the problems of mankind.”

Now, I make no claim to any such suffering.  In fact, I’ve led an incredibly privileged life.  But I feel that one can vicariously experience something of the suffering of others.  And the experiences of Tom Buergenthal and Odd Nansen—whose stories I’ve read, and re-read, and absorbed—have engendered, I hope, “a greater sympathy and understanding of the problems of mankind.”  I certainly cannot imagine a better insight into such problems than the combined experiences of these two special people provide.

Even if this is all true, it still begs an important question.  Why did I choose to purchase, and read, Tom’s memoir in 2010, which in turn induced me—via a single footnote on page 177—to search out Odd Nansen’s diary?

Perhaps the best explanation I can come up with is one I found in a book review written a few years ago.  The reviewer observed: “The life of an artifact or work of literature is subject to happenstance.  How it travels and settles, takes root and effloresces, depends on so many various and unpredictable factors—on wars and the weather, on one reader’s serendipitous encounter or a rare individual’s advocacy. . . .” (emphasis added)

So, while I still scratch my head in wonder, I accept that I was fortunate to have had not one, but two, serendipitous encounters with such inspiring works, and the opportunity to advocate for them.

And that, as Robert Frost might say, has made all the difference.

Schlachthof Fünf and the Bombing of Dresden

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On this day, 75 years ago, the firebombing of Dresden began.

Dresden was Germany’s seventh largest city, and until the raid, the largest city to escape any serious Allied bombing.  All that changed in a series of raids which began on the evening of the 13th and lasted for two days.  Over 1,000 British and American bombers, escorted by another 700+ American fighters, attacked the city, destroying over 1,600 acres in the city center, and killing an estimated 25,000 people.

Dresden post bombing

At least one American POW in Dresden that night survived the attack, and witnessed firsthand the aftermath.

Infantry scout Kurt Vonnegut, age 22, of the 106th Infantry Division,* was captured, along with another 6,000 Americans in the division, in mid-December 1944, during the height of the Battle of the Bulge.  He was taken to Dresden and housed in a Schlachthof [slaughterhouse].  Vonnegut survived the attack by hiding in a meat locker three levels between the street.

Vonnegut not only survived the attack, he was eventually liberated and repatriated to the United States.  He married, started a family, and began a conventional career with GE.  But we wanted to write—he had been the editor of his high school and college newspapers, and felt writing came easy to him.  His first magazine article appeared in February 1950, and less than a year later he quit his day job and took up writing full time. Despite publishing a number of novels, and many magazine articles, in the ensuing years, Vonnegut met with neither commercial nor critical success; his writing income barely kept the family afloat.

What haunted Vonnegut was his war experience.  He tried and tried—by his own admission he had written five thousand pages about Dresden—and thrown them all away.  He seemed unable to find an appropriate means to express himself.

Finally, in 1969, Vonnegut published his sixth novel: Slaughterhouse Five, or the Children’s Crusade.  The book skyrocketed to the top of the New York Times bestseller list, turning Vonnegut into an icon overnight, a status that he never lost for the rest of his life.  The book has remained on numerous “100 best books” lists ever since.  Vonnegut died in 2007, age 84.

Slaughterhouse Five tells the story of a hapless GI named Billy Pilgrim, who likewise ends up in Dresden and survives the bombing.  Portions of the novel are clearly autobiographical (although it is doubtful that Vonnegut could time-travel, or that he currently resides on the planet Tralfamadore in the company of Hollywood starlet Montana Wildhack, as Billy does).

Vonnegut’s book is unusual in many respects, including his fascination with Tralfamadore.  For example, he describes quite early (p. 5) an actual wartime event which he plans to write about: “I think the climax of the book will be the execution of Edgar Derby. . . .  The irony is so great.  A whole city gets burned down, and thousands and thousands of people are killed.  And then this one American footsoldier is arrested in the ruins for taking a teapot. . . .   [A]nd then he’s shot by a firing squad.”

It is not known whether Odd Nansen, who died in 1973, ever had the chance to read Slaughterhouse Five in the remaining four years of his life.  It is unlikely, but not impossible: the number of literary and biblical allusions that pepper Nansen’s WWII diary attest to a broad and well-read mind.

If Odd Nansen had read Vonnegut’s work, he might well have identified with Vonnegut’s experience—he witnessed an event much like the fate of Billy Pilgrim’s friend, Edgar Derby, himself.

Writing on March 23, 1944, almost a full year before Dresden, Nansen describes the ever-increasing Allied bombing campaign against Germany.  Oranienburg, the city where Sachsenhausen was located, was also an administrative headquarters of the Schutzstaffel (SS), and the site of many its workshops, and thus the camp was hardly immune from stray Allied bombs landing in its midst.

Here’s what Nansen writes, continuing an earlier entry that describes the results of one such bombing:

“Bombs also fell on the prison camp.  Half of one hut was burned down, otherwise only minor damage.  They say that one man was killed and four taken to the Revier [infirmary] with serious injuries.  What is certain is that a prisoner was shot for stealing from the ruins.  He was caught in the act and shot then and there.  No one sees anything strange in that.  Served him right, is all they say, with a shrug of the shoulders.  The SS and the prisoners appear to be of one mind on this form of justice.  I think however that most Norwegians still react against such things.  The man shot was a wretched, starving Ukrainian, who saw a loaf that would have burnt up in any case.”

Yes, Odd Nansen would have been right at home with Slaughterhouse Five.

*I have previously written about another important member of the 106th Infantry Division who was captured around the same time as Vonnegut—Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds (here).

Year-End Report; 4th Distribution; A Plea

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As we bid adieu to an old year, and welcome in a new year, it is always worth doing a bit of stock-taking.

Happily, 2019 was the best year yet for sales of From Day to Day.  Rather than trailing off, sales are still trending upward three- and one-half years since Odd Nansen’s diary was first republished in April 2016.

This was certainly a group effort.  Thanks to all who helped (and this is but a partial list—please forgive me if I inadvertently forgot to include you): Morgan Jordan (again!); Jeanne Addison (again!); Shay Pilnik; Gail Gold; Dan Haumschild; Frank and Monica Schaberg; Eve Gelfand; Michelle Dunn; Kathy Wielk; John and Aelish Clifford; Oliver and Patty Bourgeois; Andy Lubin; Lise Lunge Larsen; Judy Campbell; Jack and Peggy Sheehan; Judy Clickner; Billie Emmerich; Michael Mathews and Mea Kaemmerlen; David Sheinkopf; Sudie Wheatle (again!); Judy Cohen; Pam Belyea; Sherrie Polsky; Bob Copenhaver; Kathy Ales and Richard Levine (again!); and last but certainly not least, my dear friend Marit (Nansen) Greve.

Year-end also means doing a bit of accounting work.  This year’s royalties and speaking fees totaled $4,630.10, which, following custom, are being distributed 50% to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC and 50% to HL Senteret, the Norwegian Center for Study of Holocaust and Religious Minorities in Oslo.  To date such distributions now total $15,364.28.

Here’s another brief scorecard for the year:

70 presentations to over 3,000 attendees in 13 states, the District of Columbia and Oslo, Norway.

29,000+ miles traveled.

10,000+ website visitors (cumulative since 2016).

So, all in all, it was a very good year.

But our work it not yet done.  As I write this blog, five Jews were recently stabbed (one critically) in Monsey, NY, in the midst of a Hanukkah celebration (one of 13 anti-Semitic crimes reported in New York State since December 8, according to Governor Andrew Cuomo). Nationally and internationally there has been an upsurge in anti-Semitic incidents over the past several years.

One antidote to such behavior are the inspiring words and actions of people like Odd Nansen.  His diary depicts how just one courageous person can change things for the better, even in the midst of a concentration camp. Thomas Buergenthal is a living testament to Nansen’s humanity.

Seventy presentations in 2019 kept me plenty busy.  Unfortunately, I can only be in one place at a time, and I’ll probably never get to all the venues I would like to reach.

The solution: publicity.  That can come about by word of mouth (i.e., you, my readers) or it can come via social media.  This blog will get posted on my website, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. But an equally powerful social media engine for a book like From Day to Day is Amazon.

And that is why book reviews are essential.

There has been plenty of press lately about retailers who are gaming the system, paying people for positive reviews, or ordering employees to post reviews under various aliases, etc.  This phenomenon has even spawned a new cottage industry, which offers to “authenticate” reviews, and weed out the obvious fakes.

The important takeaway is this: companies go to such great (and sometimes dishonest) lengths because they understand only too well the power of positive product reviews.  So, as I often mention at the close of my presentations, a book review on Amazon is literally priceless.  Please help me make sure Nansen’s words are never again forgotten.  Please, my readers, post a review—of any length—on Amazon.

You’ll be glad you started 2020 off on the right foot.  I thank you, and I know Odd Nansen would have thanked you as well.

I wish you peace, good health and happiness in 2020.  And here’s a proposed resolution: If we all tried acting just a bit more like Odd Nansen, the world undoubtedly would be a better place. Let’s give it a try.

Magic in Oslo

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Courtesy Anne Ellingsen

On Sunday, September 15, I had the honor of addressing an audience about Odd Nansen’s diary at HL-Senteret, the Norwegian Center for Holocaust and Minority Studies, housed, appropriately enough, in Vidkun Quisling’s wartime residence located on Bygdøy.  The event was co-sponsored with Norway’s Resistance Museum (Norges Hjemmefrontmuseum).

Quisling’s former residence.  Courtesy HL-Senteret

My visit to Norway, as well as the event, were pure magic from start to finish.

Sunday morning dawned bright and sunny—a sparkling fall day that showed Oslo off at its best.  I had had a wonderful sleep (not surprising, having been awake for almost all the preceding 48 hours) at the Grand Hotel, where Nobel Peace Prize laureates stay when receiving their award.  My stay at the Grand, I soon realized, was going to be special: While walking up the main staircase to my floor, I gazed upon a large oil painting, which, I discovered, had been painted by Per Krohg, a friend of Nansen’s and fellow prisoner in Grini.  I even refer to Krohg in my presentation.

I then set out for a quick breakfast.  Fortified by a brisk cup of tea—not the ordinary old English Breakfast—the only offering they had was called Bengal Fire, and a croissant, I was ready for the day. (I did notice that NY cheesecake—or ostekake—had made its way across the Atlantic.)

While walking back to the hotel to get ready, I happened upon a coin lying on the sidewalk.  It proved to be a 1 øre piece—the subject of a previous blog post (here), which I took to be a sign of good luck.

I first proceeded to the Resistance Museum, located in the Akershus Fortress complex, to view an underground Norwegian translation of a novel written by John Steinbeck in 1942, The Moon is Down (Natt Uten Måne)—the subject of a future blog.  Thanks to Frode Færøy for allowing me to do some research on a Sunday morning.

From there I proceeded to Quisling’s old home, and arrived early enough to receive a private tour of the facility, including Quisling’s private office, still well preserved from his short reign as Minister-President 75 years ago.  I very much enjoyed giving my presentation to an SRO crowd.  Kari Amdam, Head of Programming at HL-Senteret, began by reading an email from the former head of Norwegian Center for Human Rights, who was unable to attend, but who recalled meeting Nansen as a young boy.  “Nansen was a link to a reality, just 10—15 years earlier, filled with so much cruelty and suffering,” he wrote.  The full presentation can be viewed here.

At the reception and book signing which followed, I met and spoke with so many interesting people.  I once again saw my friend Robert Bjorka, who will turn 99 in November, and who was a fellow prisoner with Odd Nansen in Sachsenhausen.  I met the son of Bjorn Bjerkeng, the Norwegian who split the breadboards for Nansen and five of his close friends, allowing the Sachsenhausen portion of the diary to be safely smuggled out of camp.  I met the grandchildren of Odd Nansen’s friend and fellow prisoner Eric Magelssen, whose own breadboard is pictured on pg. 559 of the new edition of From Day to Day.  I met the son of Carl Jakhelln, another Sachsenhausen prisoner who later co-authored a book of poems about his captivity. I met a gentleman who trained as an architect with Odd Nansen after the war, and for a time lived in a small garage apartment in Nansen’s home. Anne Ellingsen, Nansen’s biographer, was there also.  This is but a sampling of the wonderful guests who attended the presentation.

I cannot of course leave out my dearest friend in Norway, Marit Greve, Nansen’s eldest child, approaching age 91, who attended as my special guest along with her daughters Kari and Anne.

Robert Bjorka and Marit Greve, courtesy Anne Ellingsen

Altogether it was a wonderful and memorable experience, capped off with some champagne afterward in the company of Marit and her family.

More stories to follow!

Upcoming Events

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Book Signings

  • February 23, 2021: Osher Life Long Learning, Duke University, Durham, NC (Virtual)
  • March 25, 2021: Drew University, Madison, NJ (Virtual)
  • April 1, 2021: The Jewish Federation of the Berkshires (Virtual)
  • April 7, 2021: Temple Beth El, Charlotte, NC (Virtual)
  • April 9, 2021: Osher Life Long Learning, Furman University, Greenville, SC (Virtual)
  • May 4, 2021: Notre Dame H.S. Alumni Club of DC, Washington, DC (Virtual)
  •  May 5, 2021: The Adult School, New Jersey (Virtual)
  • April 12, 2021: Sons of Norway, Milwaukee, WI (Virtual)
  • May 5, 2021: The Adult School, New Jersey (Virtual)
  • May 13, 2021: Sons of Norway, Grand Forks, ND
  • SPRING 2021: Sons of Norway, Fargo, ND (Kringen Lodge)
  • SPRING 2021: Sons of Norway, St. Cloud, MN (Trollheim Lodge)
  • SPRING 2021: Tuesday Open House, Mindekirken, Minneapolis, MN
  • June 9, 2021: Bet Shalom Hadassah, Jackson, NJ
  • October 19, 2021: Shalom Club, Great Notch, NJ

People are talking


"[W]hat a terrific program that was--and we here at BTL [Bernards Township Library] feel we know exceptional programs! . . . You are an accomplished story-teller, and kept the audience of over 60 people engaged and enthralled."

- Ruth Lufkin Director Bernards Township Library Basking Ridge, NJ

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