Posts tagged Odd Nansen

Steinbeck Article Published

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MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History has just recently published an article I wrote about John Steinbeck and his World War II novel, The Moon Is Down.  I have previously written (here) about the number of parallels between Steinbeck and Odd Nansen.

The article, entitled “Piéce De Résistance,” describes Steinbeck’s transition from successful novelist to successful propagandist.  How successful?  One critic called The Moon Is Down “easily the most popular piece of propaganda in occupied Western Europe.”  It was translated and secretly circulated (at great personal risk) by underground resistance movements in virtually all the occupied countries of Europe (as well as China).  Winston Churchill found time at the height of the war to read it, and found it “a well-written story.”  (Perhaps it takes one to know one: both Churchill and Steinbeck would in later years receive the Nobel Prize for Literature).  Moreover, Steinbeck was treated like a hero wherever he traveled in Europe after the war.  It’s truly a fascinating story.

Here’s the link to the full article.

Enjoy!

The Norwegian WWII version of The Moon Is Down  (translation: Moonless Night)

In Memoriam: Odd Nansen (12/6/01–6/27/73)

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Odd Nansen’s grave marker

Odd Nansen died forty-nine years ago today, age 71.

The anniversary of his death always seems like an appropriate time for remembrance and reflection. (See my previous observations on this date in 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017 and 2016).

Recently I finished reading No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II by Doris Kearns Goodwin.  In it, Goodwin describes the difficult, often painful, and yet highly productive, marriage between Franklin and Eleanor, and how bereft she felt at Franklin’s sudden death in Hot Springs, GA on April 12, 1945.

In her nationally syndicated newspaper column “My Day”* written just two weeks later, on April 26, 1945, Eleanor quoted a little verse sent to her by a friend she had not seen in a long while: “They are not dead who live in lives they leave behind: In those whom they have blessed they live a life again.”  According to Goodwin, those simple lines inspired Eleanor to make the rest of her life worthy of her husband’s memory.  “As long as she continued to fight for his ideals, he would continue to live.”

Eleanor, an awkward and often lonely child, certainly proved herself worthy of her husband’s memory.  In December 1945, she accepted President Truman’s invitation to join the American delegation to the new United Nations.  In doing so, she was “setting forth on a new journey into the field of universal human rights that would make her ‘the most admired person in the world’—and an important figure in American public life for nearly two more decades.”

What better way, on the anniversary of Odd Nansen’s death, to honor his memory, than to continue the fight for his ideals, and thus prove ourselves worthy of his legacy as well.

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

*Eleanor wrote about Fridtjof Nansen several times in her My Day column, but that is a matter for a future blog.

Today is Anne Frank’s Birthday

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Anne Frank

Today is Anne Frank’s birthday.  Had she lived, she would be 93 years old.  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 her book 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, on the other hand, 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 subsequent 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 someday smile equally on Nansen’s diary, and it will 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, let us hope that 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.

June 4, 1944: U-505 Captured

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On this date in 1944, U.S. Naval Task Group 22.3 captured German U-boat U-505 on the high seas near the Cape Verde Islands.  It was the first successful capture by the Navy of an enemy ship on the high seas since the War of 1812.

USS Guadalcanal alongside the captured German U-505

I first became aware of U-505 while doing research on Odd Nansen’s diary, From Day to Day.  On September 19, 1943, Nansen describes the following somber scene: while reading an old newspaper, one of Nansen’s fellow prisoners, Ole Iversen, learns that his son, Magnus Iversen, age 25, died months earlier when his ship was lost at sea.  By Googling “Magnus Iversen,” I discovered the ship on which he served was the M/T Sydhav, an oil tanker.  By Googling “Sydhav” I discovered that it was torpedoed off the coast of west Africa on March 6, 1942, with the loss of 12 of the ship’s crew, by U-505.  Nansen relates: “Poor Iver. . . .  [H]e took it fearfully hard.  He just went and lay down on his bunk, lay down and shook with sobs.”

By June 1944 the so-called “Battle of the Atlantic,” the effort to keep the sea lanes open on the Atlantic Ocean, especially the critical routes between America and Great Britain, had long since turned in favor of the Allies in two respects: 1) the total tonnage of merchant shipping—Britain’s lifeline—lost to U-boats began to fall below the amount of new ship construction, and 2) the number of German U-boats destroyed began to outpace the rate at which new U-boats were being added to the fleet.

Thereafter, the combined effects of: 1) better Allied convoying; 2) better airborne reconnaissance of potential U-boat activity; 3) increased merchant ship construction; 4) better technologies, such as high frequency direction finding (aka HF/DF or Huff/Duff) ; and finally 5) the Allies’ ability to read the German’s top secret Enigma Code, all spelled doom to Germany’s attempt to starve England into submission.

Task Group 22.3 consisted of one escort carrier, USS Guadalcanal, and five fast destroyer escorts: USS Pillsbury, USS Pope, USS Flaherty, USS Chatelain and USS Jenks.  The Task Group was known as a “hunter-killer” group.  Its sole function was to chase down and destroy German U-boats.  Its leader, the skipper of the Guadalcanal, was Captain (later Admiral) Daniel Gallery.  A 1920 product of the U.S. Naval Academy, Gallery came from a family of high achievers: two of his younger brothers also became admirals. (Another brother, John Gallery, might also have reached that rank had he not chosen to become a priest instead—where he settled for being a Navy chaplain.)

Capt. Daniel V. Gallery

Gallery was nothing if not an independent thinker. [Fridtjof Nansen would have loved him.]  His task group became the first to successfully pioneer night-time carrier landings.  Until then, using carrier-based aircraft, for combat or reconnaissance, was strictly a dawn-to-dusk operation.  At the time German U-boats needed to periodically remain on the surface to recharge the batteries which powered them while submerged.  By 1944 the U-boats had long since learned to surface and recharge only at night.

By implementing 24-hour, round the clock aerial surveillance, TG 22.3 took away the U-boats’ last refuge.  Indeed, on the first night of aerial patrolling, the Task Group tracked down U-515 and sank it.  On the very next night it located U-68 and destroyed it as well.

But Capt. Gallery was after bigger game. He wasn’t content to merely hunt and destroy; Gallery wanted to capture a U-boat intact.  Accordingly:

“We . . . determined, in case opportunity arose in this cruise, to assist and expedite the evacuation of the U-boat by concentrating anti-personnel weapons on it, to hold back with weapons that could sink the sub, and to attempt to board it as soon as possible.   This was discussed at the departure conference of all Commanding Officers before sailing, and all the ships were ordered to draw up plans for capture and to organize boarding parties.”

In June 1944, with the aid of Ultra (the Allies’ reading of the Enigma Code), Gallery was notified that U-505 was nearby, close to the Cape Verde Islands.  Despite being very low on fuel and overdue for refueling in Casablanca, Gallery decided to take up pursuit.  Sure enough, planes from the Guadalcanal soon discovered U-505 and both they and the destroyer escorts attacked with depth charges, forcing the damaged and leaking ship to the surface.  U-boat captain, Harald Lange, soon gave the order: “Abandon ship!”

In the ensuing melee no one aboard U-505 thought to open all the seacocks to scuttle the boat.  As one writer points out: “The Germans . . . considered the capture of a U-boat at sea so unlikely training for such an event would have been a waste of time.”  Only one young sailor, Hans Goebeler, had the presence of mind to open one strainer valve to flood the ship. [Goebeler would ultimately move his family to America after the war, where he wrote a memoir of life in a German U-boat.]

While U-505’s crewmembers were bailing from the boat to save their lives, a boarding party, especially trained for just such an event, was speeding from USS Pillsbury to the stricken ship.  The head of the American boarding party, Lieutenant (j.g.) Albert David, had no idea, as he clambered down the main hatch, if 1) the boat was booby-trapped to explode, 2) there were armed German sailors still aboard to contest any takeover, or 3) whether he could even stabilize the damaged and alien craft before it sank and took him and his boarding party down with it.  David would later receive a well-earned Medal of Honor for his heroics, the only Medal of Honor awarded in the Atlantic Fleet during World War II.  Two Navy Crosses and a Silver Star were also awarded to crew members for their actions that day.  Gallery received a Distinguished Service Medal and the Task Group a Presidential Citation.

Captured U-505, now flying the U.S. flag

David and his crew succeeded in closing the strainer, stabilizing U-505, and attaching it to a tow line from the Guadalcanal.  Thus began the tedious return journey (together with all but one of the members of U-505 crew–now as POWS) across the Atlantic Ocean to Bermuda.  Once there, the Enigma machine and all the invaluable code books seized from the sub were immediately flown to the US mainland for cryptographic analysis.

Capt. Gallery had done the near-impossible—what a PR coup for the U.S. Navy!  There was but one big hitch: By publicizing the capture of U-505, the Allies would also be disclosing to the Germans that their top-secret Enigma codes were now also in Allied hands, compromising all of their important communications.  Once so notified—or even if only suspected—the Germans would instantly change all their Enigma settings.  Inasmuch as the capture of U-505 occurred 48 hours before D-Day, the ambitious cross-channel amphibious assault on Normandy, France, any changes to Enigma would have been an enormous potential setback. 

So the triumph of TG 22.3 had to be kept secret for the time being.  The sailors aboard the Task Group were required to sign an oath of silence, “on penalty of death.”  U-505 was quickly repainted and rechristened the USS Nemo (with a tip of the hat to Jules Verne) to avoid any nosy questions.

The German POWs were confined to a specially built camp in Louisiana, and, contrary to the provisions of the Geneva Convention, were not allowed to notify their families of their status. Such families were naturally forced to conclude that U-505 had been lost as sea, an increasingly common occurrence for German U-boats in the summer of 1944. It was not until the war ended that these families learned for the first time the miraculous news that their loved ones were actually alive and well.

The capture of U-505 is an amazing adventure tale.  But its capture is only one-half of its incredible career.  For rather than being junked by the U.S. Navy after the war, the boat ended up on display at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry.  On a recent trip to Chicago to speak to the Norwegian-American Chamber of Commerce, I had a chance to tour the U-505.

How this deadly German warship ended up on display in Chicago is another amazing tale.  But that is a tale for another day!  Stay tuned!

Yom HaShoah: Holocaust Remembrance Day

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Today marks Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day.  We vow never to forget, and never to let it happen again.

Today also happens to be the 77th anniversary of the final entry in Odd Nansen’s diary, From Day to Day:

“What on earth am I to write?  It’s as impossible today as on all the other days that have passed in one long whirl of unreality and fairy tale.  I am no longer in Germany!  I am in Denmark, at a country house; Møgelkær is its name, outside Hortens, and I’ve already been here more than a week!  It’s unbelievable.  And what have I not experienced in that week? Only it seems so hopelessly impossible to describe.  Where am I to begin, where am I to stop, what am I to write?”

Only a week earlier Tom Buergenthal experienced his own liberation, although he approached it much more cautiously:

“I saw some soldiers get off a military vehicle and walk towards the center of the Appellplatz [roll call plaza] in the direction of the big gong.  They did not look like the SS and wore uniforms I had never seen before.  But I was still afraid to move.  Then I heard the sound of the camp’s gong.  One of the soldiers was striking it as hard as he could, while another was yelling: ‘Hitler kaput! Hitler kaput!’ They threw their caps in the air and performed what looked like a wild dance.

…..

“The Soviet soldiers who first entered Sachsenhausen had told us that we were free, that we had been liberated.  I could not quite grasp what that meant.  I had never really thought of liberation as such.  My sole concern had been to survive from one day to the next.

….

“After the Russians had left, all of us who had greeted them around the camp gong started for the SS kitchen.  I followed very slowly, some fifteen or twenty yards behind, always ready to take cover. I still could not believe this supposed liberation was real and not some trick concocted by the SS.  They probably staged this liberation in order to draw us out of our hiding places.

….

“Maybe we really have been liberated, I thought as I climbed on the desk and pulled down Hitler’s picture.  I threw it on the floor, shattering the glass and the frame.  I spat on it and stepped on his face so hard that my feet began to hurt, but still I went on until the picture was torn to pieces.”

For both Odd Nansen and Tom Buergenthal the last week of April marked the start of yet another journey before liberation would mean anything.  In Nansen’s case, it would still be several weeks before he was reunited with his family in Oslo (June 9, 1945).  Tommy’s purgatory would last much longer: more than 18 months before he was miraculously reunited with his mother (December 6, 1946).

Recently I was laid up for a while with a (thankfully mild) case of COVID.  I decided to spend the time curled up with a good history book, and I chose Armageddon: The Battle for Germany 1944-1945 by one of my favorite authors, Max Hastings.  If there is one theme that runs throughout the book, it was the German people’s collective belief, until the very final days of the war, and despite all evidence to the contrary, that Germany would still somehow emerge victorious.  As Hastings writes:

“At the summit of the Nazi leadership, fantasy still held sway.  At one of Hitler’s conferences in February [1945], [Albert] Speer drew [Admiral] Dönitz aside and sought to persuade him that the military situation was now hopeless, that steps must be taken to mitigate the catastrophe facing Germany.  ‘I am here to represent the Navy,’ responded the Grand-Admiral curtly. ‘All the rest is not my business.  The Führer knows what he is doing.’  Even at a much humbler level in the nation’s hierarchy, fantastic delusions persisted.  After Cologne fell [early March 1945], Sergeant Otto Cranz . . . was surprised to hear one of his comrades insist mechanically, yet with utter conviction: ‘My Führer must have a plan.  Defeat is impossible!’”

Indeed, Hastings is at something of a loss to explain how Josef Goebbels’s propaganda could “pervert[ ] the reasoning processes of one of the best-educated societies on earth.”  As of 1939 German doctors, chemists and physicists had garnered far more Nobel Prizes in their respective fields than any other country in the world. German culture was the envy of the world.

And yet, lest we scoff at the insanity described by Hastings, let us remember that people today deny the Holocaust—I’ve met them; that people deny the Sandy Hook school shootings—I’ve met them (and Alex Jones has yet to face the consequences of his actions almost 10 years later); people deny the efficacy of vaccines (my wife and I, fully vaccinated and boosted, recovered quickly.  A friend in our town—educated, successful—who was militantly anti-mask and anti-vaccine, was found dead in his home last fall, Ivermectin by his bedside); and the list goes on.

As Primo Levi was at pains to remind us:

“It happened.  Therefore, it can happen again.”

But it can only happen if we, like the majority of Germans in 1945, lose sight of the truth.

“There are things worse than war.”

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So wrote Odd Nansen in his diary entry dated April 3, 1942, eighty years ago today.

Nansen had just finished describing in his dairy an episode where 50 men, ordered to report in their civilian clothes, think they are about to be released (as an Easter gift), only to learn at the last moment that they are all instead being sent to a place that is “ten times worse than Grini, for the very homestead of evil, for Germany, for a concentration camp in Germany.”*  Here’s the full context of his observation:

“Out in the world, movement is obviously slow but certainly in the right direction.  It’s just the damnable time it takes, days, weeks, months, years! and fateful days, weeks, months, years!  Many will succumb.  Each day costs hundreds of lives.   But one must harden oneself and not think like that. There are things that are more important than that the individual should live through it.  There are things worse than war.”

As I point out in my annotations, Nansen used very similar language in a speech he once made in Appleton, Wisconsin, during a 1939 speaking tour of America to generate support for Finland in its war with Russia: “There are things in this world worse than war, fates worse than being victims of war.”

Martha Gellhorn

Interestingly, American journalist Martha Gellhorn was actually in Finland at the same time as Nansen’s speech, reporting for Collier’s.  Simultaneously, her first novel, A Stricken Field, had just been published in the United States.  It is a thinly disguised recounting of her earlier, 1938 reporting experience for Collier’s in Prague, Czechoslovakia.  The novel’s heroine, a reporter named Mary Douglas, witnesses the betrayal of Czechoslovakia by the British and the French at the Munich Conference.  There, Germany, Italy, France and Great Britain all agreed (without consulting Czechoslovakia) to allow Germany to annex certain areas of Czechoslovakia.  In the novel, Mary is drawn (in the words of Gellhorn’s biographer, Caroline Moorehead) to “the fate of the refugees: the frightened Jews and the dissidents who had recently fled Austria and Germany and now had nowhere to go,** the Czech soldiers who had never had a chance to fight the Germans, and the other Czech nationalists about to be destroyed by the Gestapo and the Sudeten Nazis.”

Facing these dismal, demoralizing prospects, Mary asks herself, “why didn’t they fight?”  There is no shame “to be brave and too few.”  Sure, war is stupid, something to be loathed, “and from what I have seen of war I cannot recommend it, but if it were my country, I would want to fight or wait in my house for the bombs, or take it however it came to me.  She thought: they can destroy men other ways than with high explosive. When they have destroyed the men, with this peace, they have destroyed the women too.  There are worse things than war.”

And what, in the eyes of Odd Nansen and Martha Gellhorn, could be worse than war?

On the very same day, April 3, 1942, that Nansen recorded those words in his diary, a deportation of German Jews to the newly established death camp at Belzec took place.  The almost 1,000 deportees, all of whom would be murdered, included 129 Jews from Augsburg, in Bavaria.  According to British historian Martin Gilbert:

“With that deportation from Augsburg, the once one-thousand-strong Jewish community came to an end.  It had been founded more than seven hundred years earlier, in 1212, and in the fifteenth century had been a centre [sic] of Jewish culture.”

There were some things worse than war in the 1940s; there are some things worse than war today.

 

* Almost exactly eighteen months later, on October 6, 1943, Odd Nansen would also find himself in Sachsenhausen, a German concentration camp.

** Like Tom Buergenthal and his family.

In Memoriam: Marit Greve (11/8/28–3/26/21)

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One year ago today I lost a dear friend when Marit Greve, Odd Nansen’s eldest child, passed away in her sleep, age 92.  Marit was a such a delightful person.  Quite apart from the immense help she provided me while I was editing Odd Nansen’s WWII concentration camp diary, the Marit I came to know was smart and funny, low-key about her famous father and grandfather, diplomatic at times, and at others unafraid to say exactly what was on her mind.

Three generations of Nansens. Fridtjof Nansen holds Marit, while father Odd Nansen looks on. I believe the woman on the right is Odd Nansen’s sister-in-law Signe Hirsch

I still cherish my visits to Norway, beginning in 2011, and her two trips to America as my houseguest.  Our very first meeting was at Polhøgda, the home built by Fridtjof Nansen.  It was later occupied by Odd Nansen and his family until after WWII, when Odd constructed his own home nearby (which I’ve written about here).  After a tour of Fridtjof’s famous home, my wife Tara and I sat outside with Marit and I quizzed her with countless questions.  We had been told that Norwegians could be very formal and reserved, especially with strangers, so we were surprised when Marit then invited us back to her own home, located close by.  She showed me a photo taken of the Nansen family upon her father’s return from captivity in the summer of 1945.  When I gushed over it, Marit simply removed it from the frame it was in and handed the picture to me—she was that kind of person. [The photo can be found on page 567 of From Day to Day].  Each succeeding trip to Norway showcased her hospitality, her patience (with my unending questions) and her charm.  Each one was a delight.

During my research on all things Nansen, I once came across a passage that Fridtjof Nansen had written while aboard the Fram during his polar expedition, on the subject of death.  Here is how he envisioned it:

“It will come one day vast and silent, opening the heavy portal of Nirvana, and you will be washed away on the sea of eternity.”

It is comforting to think that your grandfather’s vision is correct, Marit.  Until I too am washed away on the sea of eternity I will continue to miss you.

Marit at First Edition Farm, July 2016

The Moon Is Down Turns 80 Years Young

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On this date in 1942, John Steinbeck’s short wartime novel The Moon Is Down, was published.

Composed quickly in late 1941, the work is set in an unnamed foreign country—one that looks an awful lot like Norway, that is suddenly invaded by an unnamed army—one that looks an awful lot like Germany’s.  Steinbeck’s purpose was to write about “the experiences of the occupied,” and in so doing, provide “a blueprint, setting forth . . .  what could be done” to resist, to fight back. In this Steinbeck succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.  One scholar later wrote that Steinbeck’s novel was

“the most powerful piece of propaganda ever written to help a small democratic country resist totalitarian aggression and occupation.”

An article I have written about Steinbeck and The Moon Is Down will be published in the Summer 2022 issue of MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History.  It is not my intent here to revisit or describe all the details of the forthcoming article—for that you’ll just have to read the piece when it comes out! (I promise to make it available to you as soon as it is published.)

Rather, here I would like to discuss a number of interesting parallels between Odd Nansen and John Steinbeck, beyond the novel’s obvious setting in Norway.

To begin with, Odd Nansen and John Steinbeck were contemporaries.  Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California on February 27, 1902—less than three months after Nansen’s birth on December 6, 1901.

Both men were extraordinarily generous.  According to Tom Buergenthal, Nansen donated the proceeds of the German translation of his diary to a fund set up to help German refugees.  Steinbeck likewise signed over the prize money from his 1940 Pulitzer Prize (for The Grapes of Wrath) to a friend to allow him to quit his day job and complete a novel he was working on (unfortunately, the novel was never published).  Even earlier, Steinbeck had agreed to the re-publication of a series of articles on migrant workers in California’s Central Valley on the condition that all proceeds go to migrant-worker relief. Finally, in 1942 he gave all royalties from Bombs Away: The Story of a Bomber Team, a book he wrote about the U.S. Army Air Force, to the Air Forces Aid Society Trust Fund. The movie rights alone fetched $250,000. (Steinbeck did not feel he should profit from the war effort.)

A key plot development in The Moon Is Down is the delivery, via miniature parachutes, of explosives to the local inhabitants.  This sets off a wave of sabotage throughout the countryside.  The resulting chaos in turn leads to the arrest of the local magistrate, one Mayor Orden, the hero of the novel, as a “hostage.”  Similarly, it was in retaliation for British commando raids in late December 1941 (Operations Anklet and Archery) that Odd Nansen was arrested as a “hostage” on January 13, 1942.  Fortunately for us, Odd Nansen did not meet the fate of Orden, who is executed in the closing pages of the novel as a sacrifice to the ongoing sabotage.

Finally, Odd Nansen and John Steinbeck seemed to share the same personal philosophy.  Just before being led to his execution, Mayor Orden reflects back on his school days with his close friend, Dr.  Winter.  At his graduation Orden had recited an excerpt from Plato’s Apology, an account of Socrates’s trial in 399 B.C. for heresy.  At one point Socrates, who is also facing imminent death, remarks:

“Someone will say, ‘And are you not ashamed, Socrates, of a course of life which is likely to bring you to an untimely end?’  To him I may fairly answer: ‘There you are mistaken: a man who is good for anything ought not to calculate the chance of living or dying; he ought only to consider whether what he is doing is right or wrong.’”

Eighty years later, Steinbeck’s novel is as relevant today as when it was first written.

Dedicated to the courageous Ukrainians in their fight to “resist totalitarian aggression and occupation.”

The Vemork Raid: February 27/28, 1943

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Odd Nansen’s Diary, March 6, 1943:

“The news was excellent—but still with no essential points.  There has been sabotage in Vemork.  The heavy-water works are destroyed.  Four Norwegian-speaking men in English uniform got away. . . .   Yes, there are a few things going on—that one must admit.”

Seventy-nine years ago tonight, eleven British-trained Norwegian saboteurs descended upon the heavily guarded Vemork hydroelectric plant.  Their mission: to destroy all extant stocks of heavy water, as well as the accompanying electrolysis machinery used in heavy water production.

Vemork Hydroelectric Plant

Did the members of Operation Gunnerside understand the importance of their mission?  Probably not.  To do so would have required an advanced degree in nuclear physics.  They were simply told that their mission was critical to the war, and, if successful, would be written about long afterward.

The Vemork hydroelectric plant—the world’s largest when it came on line in 1911, was originally dedicated to the production of fertilizer.  Only years later was it discovered that Vemork’s abundance of both water and electric power could be employed in the production of “heavy-water,” so-called due to the presence of an additional neutron in the H2O molecule.

Even then, heavy water was something of a mystery: what was it any good for?  No one really knew.  It was only when nuclear physicists discovered that heavy water made an excellent “moderator,” controlling the process of nuclear fission—and thus enabling the construction of a nuclear reactor and, ultimately, an atomic bomb, that the true value of Vemork’s unique heavy water plant was recognized.

With their invasion of Norway on April 9, 1940, control of Vemork passed into German hands.  Soon, it was apparent that German demands for ever increasing amounts of heavy water from Vemork signaled that they were pursuing their own research on an atomic bomb.  To the Allied Powers this possibility was unacceptable.

The first British Special Operation Executive (SOE) attempt to sabotage Vemork (Operation Freshman), which took place on November 19, 1942, was a total  failure, resulting in the loss of 41 men.  Equally concerning, Operation Freshman alerted the Nazi occupiers of the Allies’ intentions, leading to increased security at the plant: additional guards, searchlights, mine fields, etc.

Nevertheless, faced with such daunting obstacles, the Gunnerside team successfully scaled down a sheer, 660 ft. ravine, crossed a narrow river, and scaled back up the opposite side, to reach the remote ledge where the plant was located.  Entering the plant without detection, the demolition squad set delay fuses to allow time for escape.  All told, over 1,000lbs of heavy water, as well as associated equipment, were destroyed.  There were no casualties.

Recreation of the heavy water sabotage

Despite a search effort involving 3,000 German soldiers, none of the Norwegian saboteurs were caught, even though five members skied—in uniform—200 miles to safety in Sweden (two escaped to Oslo and four remained in the area for additional resistance work).

The SOE later considered Operation Gunnerside the most successful act of sabotage in WWII, and the German military commander of Norway, General von Falkenhorst, called it “The finest coup I have seen in this war.”

Joachim Rønneberg, the last surviving member of the Gunnerside operation, passed away on October 12, 2018, age 99.  I have previously written about Rønneberg here.  With Norway’s medal performance in the Winter Olympics still fresh in our minds, it is worth noting how Rønneberg described his 200-mile ski escape to Sweden: “The best skiing weekend I ever had.”

Operation Gunnerside members being congratulated by King Haakon VII. Rønneberg is on the far left.

Winter Olympic Trivia (Cont.)

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Last week’s blog produced so many responses I’ve decided to do it again!

Q: Did Germany participate in the 1952 Winter Olympics?

A: Yes

The question of Germany’s participation in the 1952 Games, so soon after the end of the worst conflagration in history, generated strong feelings, both pro and con.  According to Tom Buergenthal, one of those advocating for inclusion was Odd Nansen.  In a speech Nansen delivered in late 1951, he stated: “It is unjust and senseless to punish the children for the sins of their fathers.  But that is what is being sought to be done when Germany’s young people are kept out of associations [designed to promote] international cooperation.”

In the end, both East and West Germany were invited to participate.  West Germany sent a team; East Germany did not.

Q: How did the Triple Axel gets its name?

A: The Axel jump is named after Axel Paulsen, a Norwegian figure skating and speed skating phenomenon (1855—1938). 

Axel Paulsen

At the 1882 World Championships (there being no Winter Olympics until 1924), Axel won the speed skating competition, and was awarded a special prize for the new jump he introduced to the figure skating competition (all while wearing speed skates). Thereafter the jump was called the Axel in his honor.  The Axel is figure skating’s oldest and most difficult jump; it is the only competitive jump that begins with a forward takeoff.

Paulsen went on to win multiple skating competitions, including in 1885 when he captured both the figure skating and speed skating championship.

(A shout-out to my friend R.A. for calling this to my attention.)

Q: Have there been other Norwegian speed skating prodigies?

A: Yes: Fridtjof Nansen

At age 15, Nansen won the boys’ 5K speed skating race in Christiana; at age 17 he won Norway’s distance speed skating championship; and at age 18 he broke the world record for the one-mile skate.  At that point Nansen decided to improve his skiing, and went on to win multiple cross-country skiing championships as well.

Fridtjof Nansen

Q: Who is leading in the medal count for the 2022 Games.

A: As of this writing, Norway is way ahead on the medals.

See my earlier comment about Norway’s size relative to its nearest competitors.

Q: Did the torch relay instituted in the 1952 Olympic Games continue in later games?

A: Yes, and No

Norway hoped the torch relay it began in Morgedal would continue as a regular part of all subsequent Winter Olympics, and it was repeated for the 1960 Squaw Valley Games.  However, the Greek delegation to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had other ideas, and began to lobby for the torch relay to originate in Olympia, Greece, as was already the case with the Summer Olympics.  They succeeded at the Innsbruck Winter Games in 1964.

This development did not present any particular difficulties until Lillehammer, Norway, was chosen to host the 1994 Winter Olympic Games.  The Norwegians wanted to recreate their Morgedal torch relay; the Greek delegation wanted the flame to come from Greece.  Neither side was inclined to compromise.  The Norwegians suggested merging the flame from the Morgedal torch with that of the Olympia torch.  No dice said the Greeks.  There was no way the “pure” flame from Olympia was going to be sullied by a “dirty” flame from a simple Norwegian hearth (notwithstanding that no ancient Greek competitor would have known what to do with a ski, a skate, or a bobsled, and would have been most uncomfortable competing in the nude, as was the custom in all historical games).

After much verbal jousting, a compromise was finally reached—the two torches would be carried to the opening side by side.  The Olympia flame would be used to light the Olympic cauldron; the Morgedal flame would be used to start the Paralympic Games.  However, when it came time for Norway’s Crown Prince Haakon to light the Olympic flame, there was only one torch.  Gerhard Heiberg, Norway’s member on the IOC and chairman of the Lillehammer committee, professed to know nothing about what happened to the second flame.  Petter Ronningen, chief operating officer for the Lillehammer Games, could only recall how “two flames entered the forest above the town, but only one came out.”

Lesson: When it comes to Olympic torches, don’t mess with Norway!

Upcoming Events

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Book Signings

  • October 7, 2022: Sons of Norway, Boston, MA*
  • October 11, 2022: The Village at Rockville, Rockville, MD
  • The Adult School, New Vernon, NJ
  • October 13, 2022: Tri-County BNC, Princeton Junction, NJ
  • October 18, 2022: Shalom Club, Great Notch, NJ
  • October 19, 2022: The Legacy at North Augusta, Staunton, VA
  • November 15, 2022: Institute for Learning, New Haven, CT*
  • February 26, 2023: Temple Avodat Shalom, River Edge, NJ
  • * = Virtual

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"Your presentation was outstanding, and the audience was captivated by your deep and touching involvement in this amazing web of World War history, intrigue, and tragedy. Your deep understanding of the Nansen/Buergenthal connection really helped to bring history alive for our members."

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