Posts tagged Kari Nansen

Atlantic Crossing: An Idiosyncratic Miscellany*

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[* If you haven’t yet seen Atlantic Crossing, please stop reading this, and watch it.  Do not pass Go, and do not collect $200.]

June 7 is an important date in Norway’s World War II history.  On June 7, 1940, King Haakon VII, Crown Prince Olav, and many Norwegian government officials, fled to Great Britain aboard the British destroyer HMS Devonshire.  On June 7, 1945, after exactly five years in exile, King Haakon returned to a free Norway, and to a rapturous welcome from the Norwegian people.

Both of these events—the King’s flight and his subsequent return—are recounted in the new, eight-part PBS Masterpiece series Atlantic Crossing.  I recently finished watching it with great interest.  Even if its central focus, the relationship between President Franklin Roosevelt and Crown Princess Märtha, is largely fictional (but “inspired by true events”), there is still a great deal of interesting overlap between matters I’ve previously written about here and the events depicted in the show.  I thought it might be fun to recount some of those connections.

I’ve already written (here) about the close connection between King Haakon VII and Fridtjof Nansen; how Nansen was instrumental in convincing Haakon, then a 33-year-old Danish prince, to become the king of the newly independent Norway in 1905, and how the two remained close personal friends until Fridtjof’s death in 1930.

Not only were Haakon and Fridtjof close, Crown Prince Olav was also good friends with Odd Nansen.  Nansen’s older sister Liv wrote a family biography where relates: “In the springtime they [the King and Queen] brought the Crown Prince, little Olav, out to Pølhogda so that our three small ones and he could play.”  Odd Nansen and Olav also attended the same school in Oslo together (although Odd was one grade ahead).  Olav was equally close to Odd Nansen’s wife Kari, and, following Nansen’s death in 1973, King Olav continued to visit her and play bridge with her and her friends.

Episode 2 depicts the German efforts to kill Haakon and Olav, once driving them and the cabinet ministers into the snowy woods during a bombing raid.  Although not stated in the show, this bombing raid followed on the heels of the government’s decision to fight on, rather than surrender to Germany’s demands.  Thereafter, Haakon and Olav were under constant German attack.  A similar bombing raid in Molde, Norway, in late April 1940 gave rise to a fish(y) tale, as I’ve previously related (here).

King Haakon VII and Crown Prince Olaf, Molde, Norway

Florence (“Daisy”) Harriman (referred to as “Madame Ambassador” in the series) was America’s Minister to Norway in 1940.  She was only the second woman in U.S. history to be appointed to such a post.  Norway was an appropriate choice for such a pioneering appointment: it was the fourth country in the world to grant female suffrage (years before the U.S.).  According to her memoir, Mission to the North, it was Harriman who, at FDR’s request, personally conveyed upon her arrival in Oslo an invitation to Märtha and Olav to visit the U.S. in 1939, the event with which Atlantic Crossing begins.

Mission to the North describes the incredible chaos following the surprise German invasion of April 9, 1940, as well as the scramble by the American legation and the Norwegian government to stay one step ahead of the German invaders.

Harriman’s driver, Capt. Robert M. Losey (seen briefly in the opening scene of Episode 2), was killed in a German bombing raid in Dombås, Norway on April 21, 1940, becoming the first U.S. serviceman killed in World War II (see here). For her efforts in arranging the safe passage of Crown Princess Märtha and her children to the U.S. aboard the USAT American Legion, which sailed from Petsamo, Finland on August 16, 1940, she was awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of St. Olav by King Haakon in 1942.

Capt. Losey and Ambassador Florence Harriman

Harriman’s counterpart, Wilhelm Morgenstierne, was Norway’s minister and later ambassador to the U.S. from 1934 to 1958.  He was also a close friend of Fridtjof Nansen, having served as an assistant to Nansen during World War I, when Nansen headed a Norwegian mission to the U.S. to secure relief from the Allied naval blockade.  According to Nansen’s sister Liv, Morgenstierne was even skiing with Fridtjof Nansen in early 1930 when Nansen began to feel unwell; Nansen died a few months later, having never fully recovered.

Fridtjof Nansen, daughter Liv, and Wilhelm Morgenstierne

As shown in the series, Morgenstierne had little success getting access to Roosevelt to plead Norway’s case.  Odd Nansen had much the same experience when he traveled to DC in the fall of 1939 to plead for more aid to Finland, which was then at war with the Soviet Union.  Here’s what Nansen wrote in his diary on January 21, 1940, about his efforts: “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.”

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt also had connections with the Nansens.  From 1935 to 1962, Eleanor wrote a six-day-a-week syndicated column called “My Day” which reached a readership of over 4 million in 90 newspapers at its height.  In her August 12, 1939, My Day column, Eleanor wrote:

“I remember meeting Mr. [Fridtjof] Nansen on various occasions.  You felt that he was suited to an outdoor life of adventure. . . .   Yet he spent years of his life at a desk interminably talking in diplomatic terms to people who diplomatically desired to do little or nothing.  It was a big sacrifice to ask of any man, and yet thousands of people who do not even know his name, have blessed the work he did on their behalf.”

In a December 1961 column, Eleanor revisited the topic of Fridtjof Nansen on the centennial anniversary of his birth, where she was even more effusive: “Nansen’s work has been discussed and commemorated all over this country.  The character of this man, I think, is one that every child in our schools should study and know.”

Also, in 1954, Eleanor Roosevelt became the inaugural recipient of the Nansen Refugee Award from the United Nations, in recognition of “outstanding service to the cause of refugees, displaced or stateless people.” (In 1961, the same Nansen Refugee Award was bestowed upon King Olav V of Norway.)

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

General Carl Gustav Fleischer was the hero of the Battle of Narvik, the first major Allied victory of World War II.  When Norway capitulated to the Germans, Fleischer was ordered to follow King Haakon and the cabinet into exile in Great Britain.  He left Norway June 8, 1940 aboard patrol vessel Fridtjof Nansen.  What’s Fleischer’s connection with the Nansens?  I haven’t found any—yet.  But I do know that Fleischer’s chief of staff during the Battle of Narvik was Odd Lindbäck-Larsen.  Lindbäck-Larsen did not go into exile with his general—he was imprisoned in Polizeihaftlager Grini and Kazettenlager Sachsenhausen along with Odd Nansen until the end of the war, and is mentioned several times in Nansen’s diary.

As noted, the final scene of Episode 8 shows Haakon, Märtha and her children all being cheered on by a crowd of delirious Norwegians in Oslo harbor.  Today, a statue of Roosevelt sits at that same harbor, a testament to Norway’s gratitude and high regard for his services on behalf of Norway during the war.  The scene in Episode 7, where the newly commissioned HRoMS Haakon VII is delivered to Norway, was the subject of my blog (here). And, as I wrote just last month, Haakon’s bodyguard upon his June 1945 return (as well as Olav’s earlier return on May 13, 1945) was none other than Gunnar Sonsteby.

Statue of FDR in Oslo Harbor

In the series Harry Hopkins is shown so often in FDR’s White House that it seems like he must live there.  Well, in fact he did – for over three and a half years.  For a time Hopkins was Roosevelt’s closest aide and confidant, fulfilling many important roles during World War II.

Now, most of my readers know that I am something of a book collector.  Years ago I purchased a book inscribed to Harry Hopkins by its author, James Norman Hall (of the literary partnership Nordhoff and Hall, authors of the Mutiny on the Bounty trilogy—still one of my all-time favorites).  Not only is the book inscribed to Hopkins, Hopkins himself signed it while in the White House in February 1942—when much of the action of Atlantic Crossing was taking place.

Norm Hall’s inscription to Harry Hopkins

Harry Hopkins signature, the White House, February 1942

Hopefully, this miscellany has provided some additional color on the many characters depicted in Atlantic Crossing, and will make your next viewing (undoubtedly soon) all that much more meaningful.  Enjoy!

Happy Anniversary

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. . . and with the baby on her arm and the other children round her [Kari] was more beautiful than anything I know of on earth.”  Odd Nansen, July 29, 1943

Nansen would next see his wife Kari when she visited him in Grini prison a few weeks later, on August 20, 1943.  Soon thereafter, he quickly found himself in hot water with the camp commandant, and just as quickly found himself on the next transport to Sachsenhausen.  He would not see Kari again for almost two years, until June 9, 1945.

In the years since I first started writing blogs, I have of course written extensively of Odd Nansen and his diary. What I have not done, however, is write about his wife Kari.

This is quite an oversight.  After all, Nansen makes clear in his Foreword that “I was writing [the diary] for my wife, to let her know what was happening and how I was getting on.”  Fully 135 entries mention her by name, more than anyone else in the diary.  As Nansen confesses: “[A] prisoner thinks a very great deal about his wife.. . . “  Those 135 entries represent over one-fifth of all the entries Nansen wrote, at least in the English version.  Another 100 or so entries were cut out when the diary was translated from Norwegian.  And even in the Norwegian version, Nansen admits, about two-thirds of what he wrote was never published: “most of the private matter has been cut out.”  One can only guess, therefore, at the full extent of Kari’s presence in the diary.

Whatever the extent, it’s clear that Odd Nansen did think a great deal about his wife.  Not only was Nansen writing for Kari, her was writing to her.  He addresses her directly, often signing off with a “Good-night, Kari.”  But even when not addressing her directly, everything he wrote was for an audience of one.  While imprisoned in Norway (Jan. 1942—Oct. 1943) the pages of the diary were periodically smuggled out to her—once Nansen even bribed a German driver to deliver an installment to her!

As Nansen’s daughter Marit has explained, upon receipt Kari would often gather wives of other prisoners and read passages aloud for their benefit as well.  Kari was savvy enough to realize that the pages of the diary were incendiary—their discovery could lead to vengeful punishment for many parties, most especially Nansen himself.  Accordingly, she cleverly hid the pages in the false bottom of a bedroom nightstand.  Shockingly (and providentially) the one time the Gestapo searched the house (after Nansen had had his run-in with the commandant) the agents, in their single-minded search for something hidden, overlooked an underground (and therefore illegal) newspaper lying in full view on top of the nightstand.

Once in Sachsenhausen, all of Nansen’s communications were limited to short, highly censored, letters.  This was just as well.  As Nansen quickly notes, “I’m glad they know nothing of this at home—or of anything that goes on in German concentration camps.”

Nansen didn’t hide his psychological need for Kari: “I can’t do anything without you, not even be in prison.” If the diary was his outreach to her, far more important to him, of course, was what he received from her: letters and (while still in Grini) occasional visits.  There is no question but that those letters and visits sustained him.

A letter was “a living breath of home,” and a visit a “radiant moment,” where Nansen “could have sat for hours and just looked at her, and held her hand. . . and been in heaven.”

The Visit

It’s hard to imagine that Nansen could have made it through his long incarceration without the emotional anchor provided by Kari.

For her part, Kari had to manage her fourth pregnancy and delivery alone, and then raise and protect her four children (oldest not yet 15), again alone.  Food and heat were hard to come by. Daughter Marit recounts eating dandelion greens, and raising rabbits for food.  And any encounter with the German occupiers (and there was approximately 1 German for every 10 inhabitants) could lead to trouble.  Instead of shying away from danger, young Marit courted it, assisting prisoners—who often worked unloading rail cars at the nearby station—to smuggle notes to their loved ones.

It all made for a long list of worries.

But Kari, like so many other wives (and occasionally, husbands) of the roughly 40,000+ Norwegian prisoners arrested at some point during the occupation, kept the family intact through the dark days of 1942—1945.

As I mention in my Introduction, I believe it was quite intentional, when Nansen was once asked by an inquisitive official in Sachsenhausen what he was writing so secretively, that Nansen responded: “I’m writing a love story.”  And indeed he was.  The diary, where he poured his heart out to his own Kari, was, in a sense, one long love letter to her.

Odd Nansen and Kari Hirsch were married 93 years ago today.  Writing about their wedding anniversary on August 27, 1944, Nansen observed, “The wealth [our marriage] has given us . . . no one can take from us.  It is of eternity and will never die. . . .”  That’s something worth commemorating.

 

Upcoming Events

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Book Signings

  • August 4, 2021: The Village at Augsburg, Baltimore, MD
  • October 25, 2021: Regency Hadassah, Monroe, NJ
  • October 26, 2021: The Adult School, Madison, NJ
  • December 9, 2021: The Adult School, Madison, NJ
  • January 13, 2022: Our World Lecture Series, Kiawah Island, SC
  • May 19, 2022: Bat Shalom Hadassah, Jackson, NJ
  • October 18, 2022: Shalom Club, Great Notch, NJ

People are talking


“Thank you so much for making the visit to Guilford [College] and presenting the honorable life of Odd Nansen. . . . Without your effort, we would never have been able to know Odd Nansen. With it, we have a history to rely upon as a moral compass for acting with integrity in the face of human rights violations. May we live up to it!”

– Jane K. Fernandes
President, Guilford College
Greensboro, NC

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