Posts tagged Odd Nansen

The Power of Conscience: Hiltgunt Zassenhaus

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Today is Hiltgunt Zassenhaus’s birthday. Were she still alive, she would be 104.

Hiltgunt Zassenhaus

Never heard of Hiltgunt Zassenhaus? Then read on:

In his diary entry for Saturday, April 7, 1945, Odd Nansen writes about how the Swedish Red Cross has been collecting all the Norwegian prisoners in Europe at Neuengamme, a concentration camp located near the Danish border. One such prisoner, a friend of Nansen’s named Leif Poulsson, has just arrived, in terrible physical shape. Nansen describes Poulsson’s harrowing journey: “Since [being at Natzweiler, a notorious camp] he had been in several camps and suffered with others, until at last he landed in a camp south of Stuttgart. . . . This was the worst of all the camps he had been in. There everyone was starving. The camp was so tucked away that the Swedes would scarcely have found it if the Norwegian seamen’s pastor in Hamburg hadn’t been so indefatigable in tracing the Norwegians who were hidden away there. At last he found it out, and the Swedish relief commission came at the eleventh hour.”

Now, how did the Norwegian Seamen’s pastor in Hamburg possibly know where Poulsson and other Norwegians were being kept? Enter Hiltgunt Zassenhaus.

Born in 1916 into an educated Hamburg family, Zassenhaus made a fateful decision early in life: to study Scandinavian languages in college. This initially led to a cushy job—official interpreter to the Court of Hamburg. But when World War II began, Hiltgunt was pressed into service of a much different character: to read—and censor—letters from the Jewish inhabitants of Polish ghettos to their friends and relatives in Scandinavia. Rather than ripping up letters pleading for food (as per her Gestapo instructions), she often added her own requests in the margins of the letters, for food and/or clothing, and smuggled them out of the country through a friend.

Later, Zassenhaus decided she could be of greater benefit as a physician, and began to study medicine. And yet again she was reluctantly pressed into service by the German Justice Department, this time to accompany clergy from the Norwegian Seamen’s Church, who were permitted to visit prisoners. Her task was once again to censor each meeting, and especially to ensure that no prayers or sermons were uttered during the visit. Again, rather than follow orders, Zassenhaus soon began to secretly smuggle food, medicines, and writing materials into the prisons—right under the jailers’ noses. Risking certain death with each visit, yet laden with a bulging suitcase, Hiltgunt bluffed her way past suspicious prison authorities who were even more fearful that she might well be a secret Gestapo agent herself, sent to spy on them.

As helpful as Hiltgunt’s actions were, she had one additional, even more critical, role to play. As Scandinavian prisoners were shunted from prison to prison, Zassenhaus, having developed personal relationships with many of them, insisted on visiting her charges wherever they were relocated. To keep track of all these movements (involving 52 different prisons), Zassenhaus developed a detailed card system for each prisoner, tracking their every move.

In the spring of 1945, Count Folke Bernadotte, head of the Swedish Red Cross (and a personal friend of Odd Nansen’s) personally negotiated permission from Heinrich Himmler to assemble all Scandinavian prisoners into one camp—Neuengamme—with the ultimate goal of repatriating them safely home as soon as possible. This effort, dubbed the “White Buses” operation for the white-painted Red Cross buses involved, suffered from one serious obstacle—no one in the Swedish Red Cross knew where all the Scandinavian prisoners were located, and if Himmler knew, he wasn’t talking.

White Buses

The key to this dilemma could be found in Zassenhaus’s card tracking system. As she later wrote: “[W]henever a prisoner could not be located, my file gave the answer.” Her incredible story is fully told in her memoir, published in English in 1974: Walls: Resisting the Third Reich—One Woman’s Story (more about the book here).

Zassenhaus is the only German ever to be awarded Norway’s highest civilian honor, the Oder of St. Olav, bestowed as “a reward for distinguished services rendered to Norway and mankind.” (In this she shares something in common with Odd Nansen, who also received the award, in 1970.) In 1974 Norway went even further—its government nominated Zassenhaus for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Despite all the dangers Hiltgunt faced in providing aid and comfort to her prisoners, she never flinched, and never wavered from her conviction that her cause was just. She once remarked: “[E]ven in the most desperate circumstances we as individuals can make choices. This is what humanity is about: we must never cease to listen to our conscience. It guides us toward serving life, then we are on the right course.”

I think that is a sentiment that Odd Nansen would have wholeheartedly supported.

After the war, Zassenhaus completed her medical studies, emigrated to the U.S., and in 1952 opened a medical practice in Baltimore. Hiltgunt Margret Zassenhaus died on November 20, 2004, age 88. On her grave is inscribed (from I Corinthians): Die Liebe gibt nicht auf [Love never fails].

Zassenhaus grave

Portions of this blog first appeared on November 20, 2016.

Remembering Odd Nansen: Dec. 6, 1901–Jun. 27, 1973

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Odd Nansen

Odd Nansen died on June 27, 1973, age 71.  Each year on his anniversary I try to highlight some aspect of his character (here, here, here, and here).  Although I never met the man, by studying his diary, and through numerous conversations with his daughter and my dear friend Marit Greve, I feel I know a bit about the man.

In my Introduction to From Day to Day, I discuss what, to me, is in many ways the emotional heart of the diary, which I also describe as “one of the most vivid and wrenching episodes Nansen ever wrote about.”

The place: Sachsenhausen.  The date: Monday, February 12, 1945.  The end of the war is less than three months away.  But the Nazi persecution of the Jews is still in full swing.  Nansen visits an isolation area in the camp filled with Jews newly arrived from another camp.

Here is how Nansen begins his narrative: “There are no words left to describe the horrors I’ve seen with my own eyes. . . .   Dante’s inferno couldn’t be worse.”

Starved, half-mad Jewish prisoners are fighting over scraps of garbage while being set upon by ex-German soldiers who are themselves prisoners in Sachsenhausen, but who have been supplied with rubber truncheons and given free rein to wreak havoc.

A Jew “who had been struck ten or twenty times” totters and falls at Nansen’s feet.  His lips are cleft, his teeth knocked out, his feet frostbit, and he bleeds from mouth and ear.  Nansen lifts him (“he was as light as a child”), props him against a wall, straightens his clothes and dries the blood from his face.

“[T]hen he raised his arm with an effort, as though mustering all his failing strength; his hand reached the level of my head; there he let it sink, and slowly that bony hand of his slid down over my face.  It was his last caress, and he gurgled something that his friend translated with, ‘He says you are a decent man.’ Then he collapsed along the wall and onto the ground, and I think he died then and there, but I don’t know, for I was hurrying off with my face burning. ‘A decent man!’ I who hadn’t even dared to try and stop his tormentor.  I who hadn’t even cared to risk my own skin by going out into the camp and collecting food for those starving skeletons!  ‘A decent man!’ If only I could ever raise myself up again from this shadow life in this sink of degradation, and be ‘a decent man!’”

I have always been struck by this passage, and especially Nansen’s own reaction.  Although he might well have been among the most decent, most selfless, most humane people in all of Sachsenhausen, Nansen could only lacerate himself for how little his had done to help this suffering man.

Recently I came across the following passage in Stalingrad, a novel written by Vasily Grossman, and first published in 1952.  Grossman was a Soviet Jewish war correspondent who had covered the battle.  To me, it sums up Nansen perfectly:

“Good men and bad men alike are capable of weakness.  The difference is simply that a bad man will be proud all his life of one good deed—while an honest man is hardly aware of his good acts, but remembers a single sin for years on end.”

Rest in Peace, Odd Nansen.

June 24, 1893: Fridtjof Nansen sets out for the North Pole

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“The most important thing is not to reach your goal, but always to be on your way—always on your way.”  Fridtjof Nansen

Fridtjof Nansen

On this day in 1893, on the heels of the summer solstice and the all-important midsummer celebration, Fridtjof Nansen, Odd Nansen’s father, departed Oslo (or Christiania, as it was then called) on board his ship Fram.   His objective: the North Pole.

Nansen (1861—1930) had already earned his spurs by becoming the first man to cross Greenland’s forbidding terrain, in 1888.  But reaching the North Pole would be a significantly more formidable undertaking, something many had tried, and all had failed, usually with disastrous consequences.  Nansen’s approach would also be unique: he purposely planned to embed his ship into the polar ice cap and allow the ice cap’s drift to carry the ship north, without it being crushed.

To do this Nansen had to design a new ship, one “as enduring and as strong as possible; it shall be just big enough to carry supplies of coal and provisions for 12 men for 4 years.”  Many of the best polar experts thought the plan nothing short of madness.  Adolphus Greely, the dean of American polar explorers (and once the holder of the farthest north record), called it “an illogical scheme of self-destruction,” and found it “almost incredible that the plan here advanced by Dr. Nansen should receive encouragement or support.”

Fram and its crew

But in the end Nansen proved all the naysayers wrong. Although he never reached his ultimate goal—the Pole—he ventured farther north than any man had ever gone, and in the process proved his theory of arctic drift.

The entire trip lasted 3 years, 2 months and 16 days.

Today we complain about quarantining safe at home, with every creature comfort.  Imagine, if you will, spending any length of time—to say nothing of 3+ years—aboard a cramped ship with 11 strangers, where almost 6 months of every year are in total darkness, and where the outside temperatures are often well below zero.  Now, that’s hardship.

As an adventure story alone, Fridtjof Nansen’s feat has few peers.  But, more importantly, it would have a direct bearing on the life of his yet-to-be-born fourth child, Odd Nansen.

Odd Nansen

As Fridtjof Nansen’s biographer, Roland Huntford, observes about his trip, “This combination of achievement and publicity [abetted by Nansen’s striking looks and the advent of the telegraph] gave Nansen the fame that lasted a lifetime.”  All of Nansen’s later accomplishments—playing a key role in Norway’s independence; facilitating the introduction of a new royal dynasty; first ambassador to Great Britain; humanitarian work for the League of Nations; Nobel Peace Prize—all grew out of the international reputation Nansen earned from his polar adventure.  As Huntford concludes, “Without the Fram there would be no Nansen as we know him.”

This fame also attached to his son Odd Nansen, making him a prime target when the Nazis went looking for suitable hostages in early 1942.  Thus, it is not too much of a stretch to say that, without the Fram, there might never have been Odd Nansen, Häftling (Prisoner) Number 1380.

There was another equally important inheritance running from father to son.  As Fridtjof’s granddaughter, and Odd’s daughter, Marit (Nansen) Greve, has written about Fridtjof’s polar trip: “Here was courage, strength and endurance in abundance—a man who could undoubtedly meet the challenges and conquer the strongest forces around him.”

Odd Nansen did not have to conquer long nights, the cold, isolation, and polar bears.  The forces arrayed against him during his captivity were nonetheless no less daunting: spiritual darkness; fear; doubt; hate.  But reading Odd Nansen’s diary, From Day to Day, it is easy to conclude that, like his father, Odd Nansen had “courage, strength and endurance in abundance . . . [to] meet the challenges and conquer the strongest forces around him.”

Today is Anne Frank’s Birthday

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Anne Frank

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

D-Day: June 6, 1944

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Seventy-six years ago today, the largest amphibious assault ever undertaken, Operation Overlord, began.

In retrospect, events like D-Day increasingly to take on an aura of historical inevitability.  It seems inevitable that the massive Allied landings would succeed, inevitable that the second front would be established, inevitable that Germany’s demise would ultimately follow.  It had to be “the beginning of the end.”

Success certainly didn’t seem so assured at the time.  General Dwight Eisenhower, supreme commander of all Allied forces, wrote two announcements in the hours before D-Day began: one, announcing success, and crediting the troops, and a second, accepting sole responsibility for Overlord’s failure.

One thing which remains all the more astounding in hindsight is the secrecy which was successfully maintained right up to the launch of the invasion—an undertaking massive in scope: involving 156,000 men and almost 7,000 naval vessels.  Nevertheless, the timing and the location of the invasion caught almost everyone—including the Germans—by surprise.

Odd Nansen

For Odd Nansen, news of the Allied landings “came like thunder from a clear sky,” he wrote in his diary on June 6.  “I’d almost given up the idea of that everlasting invasion, that second front that had been haunting our minds for almost three years, and now it’s really started!”  Despite Nansen’s excitement, it would be another ten months—the worst ten months of his prison experience—before he would finally see freedom.

Victor Klemperer

Another diarist, Victor Klemperer, was not nearly so enthusiastic.  Klemperer, a German Jew, had managed (just barely) to avoid deportation to a concentration camp solely because he was married to a non-Jew.   His diary, begun in 1933 with the accession of the Nazis, relates, in excruciating detail, his ever more harrowing existence at the hands of his German tormentors: primarily the Gestapo, but also neighbors and colleagues who shunned him after years of (apparent) friendship.

On the evening of June 6, Klemperer was giving a private tutoring lesson (having long since been deposed from his university teaching position) when, as he confided in his secret diary: “Eva [his wife] brought the news that the invasion had begun last night (from June 5-6). Eva was very excited, her knees were trembling.  I myself remained quite cold, I am no longer or not yet able to hope.” Even days later, when it was apparent that the landings had succeeded, Klemperer admitted, “I can no longer hope for anything, I can hardly imagine living to see the end of this torture, of these years of slavery.”

Klemperer nevertheless miraculously survived the war, dying in 1960, age 78.

Anne Frank

Perhaps the most enthusiastic of all diarists was Anne Frank.  On June 6 she was almost two-years into her enforced, hidden existence in the secret “annex” above her father’s shop, along with seven other people.  At first, she records, everyone in the annex concluded the event was merely a trial run, much like the Dieppe landing two years earlier.  By 10 am, however, with BBC broadcasts in German, Dutch, French and other languages, they all realized this was the “real” event.  “Is this really the beginning of the long-awaited liberation?  The liberation we’ve all talked so much about, which still seems too good, too much of a fairy tale, ever to come true?  Will this year, 1944, bring us victory?  We don’t know yet.  But where’s there’s hope, there’s life. It fills us with fresh courage and makes us strong again.  We’ll need to be brave to endure the many fears and hardships and suffering yet to come.”

What young Anne Frank did not, could not, know, was that she was fated to record only eleven more entries in her diary.  On the morning of August 4, 1944 (only a week before the Battle of the Falaise Pocket, the decisive engagement of the Battle of Normandy) several security police arrived at 263 Prinsengracht, Amsterdam, and arrested all eight people in hiding—the victims of an apparent betrayal, although the culprit has never been definitively established. Of the eight people rounded up that morning, only Anne’s father Otto survived the war.

Excitement, despair, hopefulness—the feelings generated by the D-Day invasion.  Although Anne Frank never experienced the fruits of the Allies’ sacrifice on that day, millions of other Europeans did, finally freed from the yoke of Nazi oppression.  Anne, not yet fifteen years old on D-Day, yet had the wisdom to recognize one thing: where there’s hope, there’s life.

National Oatmeal Day

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I’ve written about some important topics lately: Sachsenhausen, V-E Day, war diaries, etc.  And there are plenty of other matters I could be writing about: the announcement of the capture of Adolf Eichmann on May 23, 1960, or the arrival of Josef Mengele at Auschwitz on May 24, 1943, or the tragic voyage of the passenger ship MS St. Louis and its Jewish refugees, turned away from Cuba on May 27, 1939.

But this week, while sheltering-in-place, I made myself a batch of one of my favorite cookies: oatmeal raisin.  And that got me thinking about oatmeal.

We all know that oatmeal is good for us. But many, like me I suspect, prefer their oatmeal in cookie form rather than as a breakfast meal.

Odd Nansen wasn’t too keen on oatmeal, or porridge as it is sometimes called, either.  It didn’t help that his father, Fridtjof Nansen, was a big believer in the efficacy of porridge.  In fact, he thought so highly of porridge that he made his children eat it—not simply every day—but twice every day.  Can you imagine having only one free meal per day that is not oatmeal? I understand from Odd’s daughter Marit that this wasn’t instant oatmeal either—it required hours and  hours of cooking just to make it palatable.

Fridtjof’s children devised their own coping mechanisms.  As Odd’s older sister Liv later wrote, “[A]s soon as Father was out of the door . . . having had his breakfast, we rushed to the window and emptied our plates out of it.”

Sometimes Odd Nansen resorted to even more extreme defensive measures.  In a letter written in 1906 to Fridtjof, away in London while serving as Norway’s Ambassador to Great Britain, Odd’s mother Eva wrote about Odd’s civil disobedience.  “Yesterday he yelled incessantly and said he would not have it [the porridge], but then I came in and said that in that case I should have to write Father, and surely he would not like Father to hear that he had become so fastidious.  He at once controlled himself and took his spoon and ate it all up without a grumble.  The boy certainly has character.”

One can well imagine a five-year-old Odd Nansen backing down in the face of his mother’s threat.  Perhaps he feared that Fridtjof would make him eat porridge three times a day as punishment.  [For a man who subsisted on polar bear meat and walrus blubber for months while in the Arctic, perhaps oatmeal seemed like a delicacy.]

But tastes change, and circumstances change, and by December 24, 1942, while in prison in Grini, even Odd Nansen looked forward to a special Christmas Eve treat: “At five o’clock there was to be a common dinner table for each hut, and Christmas porridge. It was rather behind time, but when it did arrive toward seven it was good, really good, and we got two big plate­fuls each, with sugar, cinnamon and a lump of butter. In our hut we all ate out in the lobby. It was very cozy and successful.”

I recently finished reading No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin.  It’s a history of the Roosevelt White House during World War II.  Turns out that FDR was no fan of oatmeal either.  Nevertheless, the White House cook—a certain Mrs. Nesbitt, called “Fluffy” behind her back—came from the Fridtjof Nansen school of culinary nutrition, and Fluffy believed in oatmeal.

Here’s how the most powerful man in the world handled it.  “My God!” he exclaimed to his secretary Grace Tully one day.  “Doesn’t Mrs. Nesbitt know that there are breakfast foods besides oatmeal?  It’s been served to me morning in and morning out for months now and I’m sick and tired of it!”  Later that day FDR called Tully in for some dictation, and handed her advertisements for various cereals he had torn from the morning paper.  “Corn Flakes! 13 ounce package, 19 cents! Post Toasties! 13 ounce package, 19 cents! . . .  Now take this gentle reminder to Mrs. Nesbitt.”  History does not reveal whether Roosevelt’s gentle reminder ever succeeded.

Odd Nansen never met Franklin Roosevelt, although he tried at least once.  Nansen traveled to America in late 1939 to drum up popular and governmental support for tiny Finland, which had been attacked by Russia.   Nansen’s diary for January 21, 1940 reads: “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.”

Apparently, Nansen never got a chance to try out the White House doorbell (although he did meet Eleanor after the war).  It’s a pity that FDR and Odd Nansen, two great humanists, never met in person.  They undoubtedly would have had much in common, and much to talk about—perhaps starting with their common antipathy to oatmeal.

And yes, there is a National Oatmeal Day.  This year it was April 30.  I don’t know how I managed to let that anniversary slip by.  I’ll be more vigilant next year.

But then again, any day with an oatmeal raisin cookie is National Oatmeal Day to me.

April 28: Odd Nansen’s Diary Ends

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“So completely has our world been turned upside down.  Is it strange that one should be confused and still unable to fit oneself into reality.”

Thus ends Odd Nansen’s final diary entry, on April 28, 1945.  Nansen was in Horsens, Denmark at the time, and, while technically not yet “free”—there were still German guards about—it was clear that the end was near, and Nansen was safe.

But the unreality of the war’s sudden end had stopped him in his tracks.  Nansen, a man who had assiduously filled the pages of his secret diary for almost 40 months in the most challenging environment possible, was now rendered speechless.

“Only it seems so hopelessly impossible to describe.   Where am I to begin, where am I to stop, what am I to write?”

Another famous diarist, William L. Shirer, writing shortly after Nansen, agreed: “It was the week, of all our lives, we’ve been waiting for.  When it came, and unfolded, one breathless hour after another, it was too much for our poor human minds really to grasp.  You could not find words—or at least I couldn’t—to express it.”

Odd Nansen can be forgiven if anticipating the object of his longing—home and family—precluded any further attention to his diary in those whirlwind days.  Selfishly, I would have preferred the diary to continue a bit longer, if only to read his thoughts and observations on the world-shaking events that continued to unfold:

  • April 28, 1945: Mussolini executed
  • April 29, 1945: Dachau liberated
  • April 30, 1945: Hitler suicide
  • May 1, 1945: Goebbels suicide
  • May 2, 1945: Berlin surrenders to Soviets
  • May 8, 1945: Germany surrenders
  • May 9, 1945: Quisling arrested

But it was not to be.  Interestingly, Nansen, who had maintained a diary almost continuously since his teens, would never again over the course of his life take up a pen for a diary.  Perhaps he felt that nothing could compare with the experiences he—at such great personal risk—had memorialized.

And perhaps he was correct.  When you’ve written what some critics later called “a masterpiece,” “never-to-be-forgotten words, “and “among the most compelling documents to come out of the [war],” it’s best not to attempt a second act.

Nevertheless, we shall always be grateful for what we have: a first-hand account, in Shirer’s words, of “how noble and generous the human spirit can be in the face of terrible adversity.”

April 26–A Day for Anniversaries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lost Diaries of War

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My readers already know that I have a thing about diaries. I’ve written about Anne Frank’s diary (here), and a recently discovered Holocaust diary (here).

Some of you may have seen in the April 15 issue of the New York Times a fascinating piece about World War II diaries—more than 2,000—kept by Dutch civilians.  Apparently, they were collected by the government after the war, but, apart from cataloguing, they were never shared with the wider public.  Now, 75 years after the war’s end, they are finally seeing the light of day.

Now the Dutch are for the first time transcribing and digitizing these artifacts, and the Times article contains snippets of the diaries, along with representative images of the actual pages.  The reading is compelling.   Here’s the link.

Coincidentally, I was recently reading a classic by a favorite author of mine, William L. Shirer, called End of the Berlin Diary.  I’ve written about Shirer before (here).  The book covers Shirer’s return to Berlin in 1945, five years after he was expelled by the Nazis for writing unfavorably about the regime.  The book is a mixture of diary impressions and materials Shirer unearthed about the German war machine.  In this sense he is anticipating the work he would undertake in the 1950s when he compiled his magnum opus, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

Some of Shirer’s research and observations are startlingly relevant to some of the diary entries in the Times piece, so I decided to juxtapose certain diary entries with quotes from Shirer’s reporting, which provides a useful counterpoint.

Here goes:

“I’d always assumed they [the Germans] would leave us alone.  We had been neutral until the end,* and good to the Germans.”  Elisabeth Jacoba van Lohuizen-van Wielink [May 10, 1940].

“Breach of the neutrality of Belgium and Holland is meaningless.  No one will question that when we have won.”  Secret speech by Adolf Hitler to top military commanders, November 23, 1939.

“[T]he Queen . . . has fled the country because she feared for her life. . . .   The Germans wouldn’t have harmed her; they are much too honorable for that.”  Unnamed pro-Nazi Dutch woman [May 15, 1940].

“Have no pity.  Brutal attitude.  Eighty million people shall get what is their right.  Their existence has to be secured.  The strongest has the right.  Greatest severity.”**  Adolf Hitler speech, August 22, 1939, to military commanders set to lead assault on Poland.

“This is no life, but hell on earth.  My hands are trembling so much I can barely write.  This is all getting too much.  This is more than anyone can bear.”  Mirjam Bolle [February 23, 1943] [Later sent to Bergen-Belsen]

“[Reading about how few Jews are still alive in Germany] reminds me of another news item in the local press.  It tells of the testimony of a fifteen-year-old German lad, the son of the former SS commander of the Mauthausen concentration camp.  Questioned about his father, the boy said: ‘For my birthday, my father put forty inmates at my disposal to teach me how to shoot.  I took shots at them until they were all lying around dead. Otherwise I have nothing else to report about my father,’”

Finally, a comparison between Odd Nansen’s diary and one of the Dutch diaries, each entry written within months of the other:

“Sometimes I fear that I won’t be believed, because later generations simply won’t wish to accept what’s described in these pages, yet I swear on everything I hold dear to me that none of the events are untrue.”  Anton Frans Koenraads [May 6, 1945].

“It occurs to me that no one will believe this when we come to describe it.  You exaggerate, they’ll say.  It’s impossible.”  Odd Nansen [January 25, 1945].

As the Times article provides wonderful images of various original diary covers and  pages, I thought I’d end this blog with a page from Nansen’s diary that is particularly close to my heart.  On one of my visits to Norway, my dear friend (and Nansen’s daughter) Marit Greve took me to Norway’s national library, where the originals of Nansen’s diary are kept.  I was hoping to capture an image of a representative page.  When I snapped the picture I had no idea of its contents. It was not until I developed the photo later that I realized, to my surprise, that the page in question dealt with Tom Buergenthal.

A handwritten page from Odd Nansen’s diary.

If you look closely in the middle of the image, you will see “Tommy, Rafaelengelen” in Nansen’s handwriting.  The entry is for February 26, 1945, and reads in part: “Yesterday, as usual on Sunday, I was in the Revier.  First I went to see my youngest friend Tommy, the Raphael angel. He was smiling. . . .”

Of all the pages in the diary I might have photographed, I can’t think of one I could possibly have preferred more.

_______________________________

*Recall the words of Netherlands’s Herr Snouck Hurgronje in my previous post, regarding the country’s strict neutrality vis a vis England and France.

** Once Norway’s King Håkon VII refused to capitulate in 1940, the German’s tried to kill him through aerial bombing.

The Ides of March

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[Blogger’s Note: Most of my forthcoming scheduled appearances are now being postponed until further notice.  In my own contribution to “social distancing,” I plan to stay home as much as possible, and write more blogs.]

The 15th of March has had a bad connotation for quite some time—since at least 44 BC to be exact, when Julius Caesar was assassinated.  Shakespeare turned the date into a meme of sorts in his 1599 play about Caesar—as something to “beware of.”

March 15, 1939 was a particularly grim day, all told, in the lives of many.

Odd Nansen

On that day Odd Nansen was in Prague, Czechoslovakia, having just returned on the 13th from a mission in Bratislava.  In both cities he was toiling away at helping refugees.  Nansenhjelpen, the organization he founded and ran, had been fighting an uphill battle since 1936.  By this time Nansen and his wife Kari were pursuing both legal means (visas) and not so legal means (smuggling) in their efforts to assist desperate refugees fleeing persecution.  In fact, a transport of eighty refugees was set to depart Prague for Norway—on March 15.

In the early morning hours of the scheduled departure date Nansen was awakened by a call notifying him that German forces had crossed the Czech border, and would arrive in Prague shortly.  And shortly they did arrive, in force, directing traffic, shutting down all trains, commandeering all local hotels.  The Nansens were summarily ejected from their hotel room/office.  With some inside help, and a bribe to grease things, they soon secured a room in the nearby Hotel Alcron.

With all trains halted, Nansen’s first order of business was securing the release of his eighty trapped refugees.  By a stroke of luck, a German general, Erich Hoepner, was also staying at the Alcron, and Nansen obtained a meeting with him.

According to author Maynard Cohen, writing in his book A Stand Against Tyranny:

“Odd Nansen began with a description of the refugees in the forest outside Prague, how at that moment they lay in the snow beneath the open sky outside Prague, having forsaken their quarters in fear of the Gestapo.  He spoke of the sick and the old, the women and children, who had fled from country to country and city to city to avoid their ever-following pursuers.”

Hoepner relented, and allowed the women and children to depart by train; the men were illegally smuggled across the border into Poland.*

Less than three years later, Nansen would find himself a prisoner of the Nazis.**

Meanwhile, somewhere along the Czech/Polish border, four-year-old Tommy Buergenthal was stuck, along with his parents, was in his own purgatory.

Tom Buergenthal with his parents

Tom’s parents (following an ominous visit to the local police station), had decided that Czechoslovakia was no longer safe for them and they headed out for Poland.  They got as far as the border, where they became trapped in a no-man’s-land, the 50-yd strip that separated the Polish border post from the Czech border post.  As stateless refugees they had no valid travel documents.  Tom relates in his memoir, A Luck Child:

“As soon as we got to the Polish side of the border, the Polish guards would order us back to the Czech side.  The Czechs, in turn, would not allow us to reenter.  And so it went on for days. . . .  Back and forth we went, day and night.  We would sleep in the field adjacent to the road between the border posts or in one of the ditches [which ran alongside the road].”

It was only when heavily armed German troops arrived at the Czech border on March 15th did things change.  When Tom’s parents were able to convince the Germans (“the very people we were trying to escape”) that they were Polish, the German in charge browbeat the Polish guards into admitting the Buergenthals.  “That is how we got into Poland.”  It may have seemed like deliverance at the time, but the Kielce Ghetto, Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Ravensbrück and Sachsenhausen lay ahead.

Ilse Weber

Elsewhere in Prague Ilse and Willi Weber, along with their five-year-old son (also named Tommy), were similarly scrambling to escape.  Willi had applied to the Palestine Office in 1938 for a certificate allowing his family to emigrate to Palestine, and it was granted.  Before he could take advantage of his good luck, however, the Czech government ruled that Jews from the Sudetenland (absorbed into Germany in October, 1938 pursuant to the Munich Pact) should be given first priority.  Willi was assured he would automatically qualify for the next certificates—scheduled to arrive March 15.  When, as Willi later wrote, “Adolf’s hordes arrived” on that fateful day, the Palestine Office in Prague left.  While some certificates ultimately did arrive in Prague a bit later, their price had almost quadrupled, beyond the reach of the Webers.

In 1942 the Webers were deported to Theresienstadt.  There over 30,000 prisoners would perish, most from starvation.  As Willi noted, “most of the dead were old people; the young always figured out how to help themselves in some way, and those who worked received bigger rations.”  Ilse and young Tommy Weber were later sent to Auschwitz, where they were both gassed upon arrival. Willi, also transported to Auschwitz, survived the war.***

Martha Gellhorn, the American journalist and war correspondent, had also been in Prague, arriving in June 1938.  Did she ever meet Odd Nansen? Perhaps: her biographer, Caroline Moorehead, writes that “she found herself drawn . . . into the fate of the refugees: the frightened Jews and dissidents who had recently fled Austria and Germany and now had nowhere to go.”  According to Gellhorn herself, in February 1939, “in the beautiful bolt-hole [hideaway] of Cuba,“ she began to write a short story about the refugees of Prague.  It ultimately grew into a novel, A Stricken Field, published in 1940.

Martha Gellhorn

In an afterword to her novel, Gellhorn quotes from a letter she wrote on March 19, 1939—four days after Odd Nansen’s heroic act; four days after Tom Buergenthal’s family’s escape from no-man’s-land into an even darker future; four days after the hopes and dreams of the Weber family were so terribly dashed:

“We live in a world unlike any other at any time.  A world so cruel and mad that one cannot believe it will survive. . . I think, no doubt selfishly, that right now there is nothing to do about it except help one’s friends.”

Right now we are all concerned with the coronavirus.  So much is unknown: how fast will it spread; who will it infect; will hospitals be prepared; who will die?  All of this is truly unnerving.  But would any of us trade our world, with all the promise it holds, for the far more difficult and uncertain one inhabited by the Nansens, the Buergenthals, the Webers, or the refugees of Prague? Of course not.

And if they could face their unknown futures resolutely, perhaps we can take some courage from their example, and focus on “help[ing] one’s friends.”

* Hoepner was hanged on August 8, 1944, for his part in the July 1944 assassination plot against Hitler.  As further punishment, his wife and daughter were sent to Ravensbrück, and his son was sent to Buchenwald.

** Odd Nansen was arrested on the Ides of January, 1942, as I have written about here.

*** I have previously written about Ilse Weber here.

Upcoming Events

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Book Signings

  • July 21, 2020: Norwegian History Roundtable (Virtual)
  • July 23, 2020: Del Webb at Grande Dunes, Myrtle Beach, SC (Virtual)
  • August 18, 2020: Norwegian History Roundtable (Virtual)
  • August 25, 2020: Montgomery County Library, Potomac, Md (Virtual)
  • October 7, 2020: The Adult School, New Jersey (Virtual)
  • October 30, 2020: Osher Life Long Learning, Furman University, Greenville, SC
  • November 4, 2020: Sun City Huntley, Huntley, IL
  • November 4, 2020: Shorewood Glen, Shorewood, IL
  • November 5, 2020: Admiral on the Lake, Chicago, IL
  • November 15, 2020: Kristallnacht Commemoration, Congregation Or Shalom, Orange, CT
  • November 18, 2020: The Adult School, New Jersey (Virtual)
  • February 5, 2021: Osher Life Long Learning, Furman University, Greenville, SC
  • May 13, 2021: Sons of Norway, Grand Forks, ND
  • May 14, 2021: Norwegian Heritage Week, Thief River Falls, MN
  • SPRING 2021: Notre Dame H.S. Alumni Club of DC, Washington, DC,
  • SPRING 2021: Sons of Norway, Fargo, ND (Kringen Lodge)
  • SPRING 2021: Sons of Norway, St. Cloud, MN (Trollheim Lodge)
  • SPRING 2021: Tuesday Open House, Mindekirken, Minneapolis, MN
  • SPRING 2021:  Georgetown University Bookstore, Washington, DC
  • SPRING 2021: JCC of Central New Jersey, Scotch Plains, NJ
  • SPRING 2021: The Adult School, Bernardsville, NJ
  • June 9, 2021: Bet Shalom Hadassah, Jackson, NJ
  • October 19, 2021: Shalom Club, Great Notch, NJ

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