Posts tagged Odd Nansen

January 13, 1942: Odd Nansen Becomes a Hostage

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Odd Nansen: Self-Portrait

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2022 Year-End Potpourri

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

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

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

SEVENTH DISTRIBUTION GOES OUT

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

DEVOTION

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

TOM BUERGENTHAL AND SERENDIPITY AGAIN

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

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

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

It is a very small world indeed!

FRIDTJOF NANSEN IS EVERYWHERE

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

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

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

HAPPY NEW YEAR TO ALL!

Profiles in Courage: Lauritz Sand

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Lauritz Sand. Drawing believed to be by Odd Nansen’s friend Per Krohg.

Lauritz Sand was born in Trondheim, Norway on October 1, 1879.  Like Odd Nansen, Sand was artistic, and like Odd Nansen, he studied architecture.  When his artistic career failed to get off the ground, he elected to pursue a military career instead, with the Royal Dutch East Indies Army.

Following his retirement from the military in 1906, Sand turned to managing plantations in the Dutch East Indies, becoming the superintendent of the Anglo-Dutch Plantations in 1922.

Sand returned to Norway in 1938.  Soon after the German invasion in April, 1940, he began to apply his military and managerial skills to resistance work.  He was an early member of the military intelligence organization XU (which he may have had a hand in naming), for which he mapped German military installations in Norway.  When XU was infiltrated by the Nazis, Sand was arrested in September 1941, and brought to the notorious Victoria Terrace for interrogation.  Despite extensive and repeated torture, he gave only a one-word answer to all questions put to him: Nei (No).

Eight months after Sand’s arrest, here’s how Odd Nansen describes his friend’s condition inside Grini Prison:

“Easter Eve!  Thanks to high-mindedness and generosity we had only one hour’s extra work today.  This was an Easter gift to the prisoners, which was announced on parade at one o’clock.  The prisoners showed a commendable mastery of their rejoicing: a pale smile brushed as it were over the tired faces.

We held a short entertainment in the hospital this afternoon.  All the patients were lying or sitting out in the long corridor.  The “stage” was just outside Sand’s door.  Sand’s?  Or was it the ghost of Sand I saw there, propped up in the bed with pillows?  A white-haired, emaciated old man, staring in front of him and sucking mechanically at the pipe he could just hold onto with the hand that was free from bandages and plaster.

He nodded faintly to me when I sat down; I nodded back; it struck me there was something familiar about the man.  Thus I slowly recognized him, feature by feature.  It was actually the Sand I knew, the Sand I had lunched with almost daily last spring and summer.  Last summer he was going around brisk and springy.  Now he was a broken man; his eyes sat deep in his skull; his cheeks had fallen in; his neck and chin had dried up and contracted.  I saw that he could not move. The only living thing about him was his eyes, deep down in their sockets.  I don’t know what the gangsters have done to him, and I don’t want to ask.  It must be an atrocious thing that can change a man so.  His arm was broken in two places, all the fingers of his right hand were out of joint, his whole body seemed an affliction.  He got part of this treatment at the Terrace, part of it here.  And it is known who are guilty.  I don’t know how I managed to perform this evening, only that I got up in my turn and repeated Norsk sang, by Collett Vogt, to Sand, to Sand alone, and tried to put into it all I felt he was a martyr for.  I had such a desire to tell him right out that I was burning with pride to be his countryman.  But there was a guard standing motionless outside his door, and I could see he understood Norwegian; he was following the program with his face.  When I had said the poem, I moved; I couldn’t sit any longer facing Sand’s door and looking at him.  I was to sing some lively songs for the patients, and how was I to get through them with Sand before my eyes?  The hell of the German concentration camp is no longer in Germany alone.  It makes one shiver to think what may happen before this nightmare is done with.  It’s said they told Sand that as soon as he recovers they will smash him to bits again until he talks.” (Saturday, April 4, 1942)

Lauritz Sand recuperating in bed. Note the pipe in his left hand.

Eight months later, Sand was still recovering in the Grini Prison hospital:

“Truth to tell, holidays in prison soon lose their charm.  There’s miserably little to do.  I can’t lie sleeping all day, and this morning I took refuge with Sand up in the hospital for a couple of hours.  He likes a chat, likes to be “received again” among the living.  He is now decidedly in a fair way to get better.” (Saturday, December 26, 1942)

In the closing days of the war, Sand was notified that, as a result of his continued intransigence, he would be executed by firing squad on May 17, 1945.  Only Germany’s unconditional surrender on May 8, 1945, spared him from this fate.

Although Lauritz Sand never fully recovered—physically or mentally—from his four-year ordeal, he devoted himself for the remainder of his life to working on behalf of war veterans.  And, miraculously, despite all the abuse he had experienced, Lauritz Sand lived for another eleven years, dying 66 years ago today (December 17, 1956) at age 77.

King Haakon did not forget Sand’s service.  He visited Sand in November 1945 while he was still recuperating in the hospital, and made him a Knight of the Royal Norwegian Order of St. Olav. 

In 1952, four years before his death, a bust of Sand, now legendary as “Norway’s most tortured man,” was unveiled just outside the gates of Grini Prison. It contains a single-worded inscription: NEI.   King Haakon and Crown Prince Olav attended the ceremony.

Bust of Lauritz Sand.

I think we can join in with Odd Nansen when he observed in his diary on Sunday, March 3, 1942: “There is a Norwegian we can take off our hats to.”

Lauritz Sand with his Order of St. Olav (and his pipe).

Happy Birthday Odd Nansen

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Odd Nansen

Odd Nansen was born 121 years ago today, making this (at least in Hobbit-speak) his twevlety-first birthday.  Whatever the year, it is always an occasion to remember and commemorate.

In remarks given by then U.S. President John F. Kennedy at a fundraiser held on November 29, 1962 for the benefit of a yet-to-be-built National Cultural Center, he observed:

“Art knows no national boundaries.  Genius can speak in any tongue, and the entire world will hear it and listen.  Aeschylus and Plato are remembered today long after the triumphs of imperial Athens are gone.  Dante outlived the ambitions of 13th Century Florence.  Goethe stands serenely above the politics of Germany, and I am certain that after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we, too, will be remembered not for the victories or defeats in battle or in politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit.”*

I am equally certain that after World War II has become as a relevant as the Peloponnesian War, Odd Nansen’s contribution to the human spirit will still be remembered and commemorated.

*Following Kennedy’s assassination, almost exactly one year after these remarks were delivered, Congress passed legislation to rename the cultural center the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.  The Kennedy Center officially opened September 8, 1971.

Anti-Semitism in America

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On this day in 1951 Thomas Buergenthal first set foot on American soil.  He was 17 years-old.  During a good part of those 17 years Tom had successfully defeated the Nazis’ best efforts to murder him, whether through the liquidation of the Kielce Ghetto, internment in Auschwitz-Birkenau, or participation in the Auschwitz Death March.

But all that was now behind Tom, and he was eager to start a new life in America, his new home, a country that had been so instrumental in vanquishing the scourge of Nazism, and thus ending the suffering of so many.

One thing Tom most likely never imagined in his wildest dreams back in 1951 was that seventy-one years later anti-Semitism would be alive and well in America, and that a former president of the United States, who is also a current candidate for a future presidency, would be entertaining virulent anti-Semites in his home.

My purpose here is not to dwell on the manifold moral failings of The Former Guy, but to ask each of us to look in the mirror.  In doing so I would ask each of us to reflect on part of a blog I originally wrote five years ago:

In a fascinating, insightful and highly readable new book, Why: Explaining the Holocaust, author Peter Hayes concludes his inquiry with three “broad implications for all citizens.”  Second among these is that “the Holocaust illustrates the fundamental importance and difficulty of individual courage and imagination.”  Certainly, Odd Nansen possessed the requisite courage and imagination.  But Hayes goes on to remark that bravery alone is not enough: “wit, wiliness, shrewd judgment, persistence, and creativity in challenging evil are also indispensable.”  Again, Nansen’s diary is replete with examples of these traits as well.

Hayes’ book is broken into a series of chapters, each of which addresses one question central to the Holocaust: Why the Jews?  Why the Germans? Why murder? Etc.  One question Hayes does not tackle (probably because it would require its own book) is why some people became villains, and yet others, like Nansen, became heroes.

When we pontificate today that “we must never forget the Holocaust” or “we must never let it happen again,” implicit in our statement is the firm belief that we would never participate in such evil; we would never support a program like the Nazis.  And yet millions of Germans, Austrians, and Sudeten Czechs joined the Nazi Party, and millions more collaborated with them in occupied and allied countries.

Perhaps—perhaps—one can understand the allure which the Nazi ideology (and jobs) held for the down-and-out mechanic or the failed farmer (which is what Heinrich Himmler, the greatest mass murderer of all time, was before the war).

But how could educated German doctors, subject to the Hippocratic Oath (“do no harm”), willingly engage in the so-called T4, or Euthanasia Action, killing the disabled (71,000–80,000 murdered by August 1941, and many more after that as well)?  How could “many eager lawyers,” dedicated to the rule of law, willingly act “as middleman in the sale of Jews’ assets, and the numerous willing graspers for their medical and legal practices, their artwork, their houses and apartments, their furniture and carpets”? How could German professors, leading some of the most prestigious academic institutions in the world, permit the Nazi minister of education to order them: “From now on, it is not up to you to decide whether something is true, but whether it is in the interests of the National Socialist Revolution”?

So, how could we have withstood the subtle coercion exercised by, and the enticing blandishments offered by, the Nazis had we lived in that time and place?

Hayes does provide a significant clue, when he writes, “Resistance is never easy and seldom comfortable, and compassion has to be practiced in order to hold up when challenged.” (emphasis mine).  The Odd Nansen depicted in his diary (1942–1945) is the same Odd Nansen who voluntarily put his career on hold in 1936 to form a relief organization for stateless Jewish refugees.  He undertook the task knowing it would be difficult, frustrating and often daunting, especially in the face of indifference and official governmental anti-Semitism.  Is it surprising, then, that Nansen managed to survive the crucible of World War II with his humanity intact?

If today we flatter ourselves that we can be indifferent to suffering in our midst, if we can ignore the plight of those less fortunate, or of powerless minorities (like the Jews of the 1930s), if we can turn our backs on the lessons of the beatitudes, will we really be ready, if and when we are ever tested in a conflict as horrible as the Holocaust? The lessons of history suggest otherwise.

 

 

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.

Upcoming Events

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Book Signings

  • February 22, The Adult School, NJ*
  • February 26, 2023: Temple Avodat Shalom, River Edge, NJ
  • March 28, 2023: Shalom Club, E. Windsor, NJ
  • March 29, 2023: Kemmerer Library, Harding Twp., NJ
  • March 30, 2023: Institute for Learning, New Haven, CT
  • March 31, 2023: Institute for Learning, New Haven, CT
  • May 15, 2023: Polhogda, Lysaker, Norway
  • * = Virtual

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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