Posts tagged Sachsenhausen

April 22, 1945: Sachsenhausen Liberated

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Today marks the 76th anniversary of the liberation of Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp.  I can’t think of a better way to observe it than to republish the post I wrote one year ago:

April 22, 1945: Thomas Buergenthal Liberated

Seventy-five years ago today, Polish and Russian armed forces liberated Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, and with it, Thomas Buergenthal.

Tom was nineteen days shy of his 11th birthday.  He had been a captive, in one form or another, of the Nazis since early 1940, when he and his family were herded into the Kielce Ghetto in Poland.  Tom was then just over five and a half years of age, meaning that, by April 1945, he had spent approximately half of his entire existence on earth as a prisoner.

And Tom had known fear even before the war began.  He sensed his mother’s trepidation when the two of them were ordered to the local police station in Zilina, Czechoslovakia in early 1939.  The family had fled to Zilina from their home in Ľubochňa, having been dispossessed of the hotel Tom’s father owned and ran there.  The family now fled Zilina as well, and Tom had to sleep in a ditch when trapped in the no-man’s-land between the Czech and Polish borders. He was not yet five years old.

And now Tom was free.

But what did freedom mean to a ten-year-old child?

Where were his parents?  He had last seen his father, Mundek, in October 1944, when he and Mundek were separated while in Auschwitz, and his father sent off to other camps (including, for a short time, Sachsenhausen), before succumbing to pneumonia in Buchenwald in January 1945.  He had seen his mother, Gerda, only once in Auschwitz, around the same time as his father was taken away.  Tom spotted her through the wire—thin, her hair shorn, tear covered—before she too was sent away to another camp: Ravensbrück.

How would Tom find them?  Where would he look?  How could he even begin?  Another year and a half would pass before Tom and his mother were miraculously reunited (movingly told in his memoir, A Lucky Child).

On April 22, 1945, then, what were Tom’s prospects?  Almost eleven, and yet still illiterate, Tom had had only one type of schooling—the school of survival.  He had done well in that school, a necessary experience for what lay ahead, but hardly sufficient.

What could Tom possibly aspire to?

Meanwhile, on the exact same date—April 22, 1945—but a world away, delegates from 46 countries began gathering in San Francisco to commence, in the words of William L. Shirer, “the difficult job of setting up the machinery of peace,” the United Nations.  And for all its shortcomings, the delegates did get some things right.  “[I]t will give us a better world organization than was the old League at Geneva,” wrote Shirer, “[T]here is to be an International Court of Justice, functioning as the judicial organ of the United Nations.”

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” is a phrase that goes back to an anti-slavery sermon in 1853, and has been used by many since, including Martin Luther King and Barack Obama.

Who could have known, back in that chaotic, uncertain world of April 1945—certainly not the delegates, and least of all Tom Buergenthal—that one day, six and a half decades later, this newly freed child prisoner would become a distinguished member of that same International Court of Justice.

I salute you, my dear friend Tom, and the wonderful new life of yours that began, however fitfully, 75 years ago today.

Thomas Buergenthal

Tom and Odd and Frodo and Sam: Fact Meets Fiction and Fiction Meets Fact

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“Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.”  The Lord of the Rings

I have a confession to make: I am a big fan of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (LOTR to the uninitiated).  If I had to spend the rest of my days on a deserted island, or in total social isolation, a copy of From Day to Day and a copy of The Lord of the Rings would more than satisfy all my nonfiction and fiction needs.  Indeed, the only book I have read more times than From Day to Day, is LOTR—and in that I had a head start of several decades, having first read Tolkien’s fantasy classic while in the eighth grade.

For those of you familiar with the story (and if you are not familiar, you may want to skip this part—or better yet—get your own copy today and start reading!), the climax focuses on Frodo and his faithful servant Sam on “the last desperate stage” of their journey. Having passed through many perils and trials, Frodo and Sam are so close to success—the destruction of the ring of power—but are also so much more likely to fail than ever before.  After all, these two “haflings” as they are called, are not brave and skilled fighters, they have no special talents, and arrayed against them are innumerable obstacles.

The nightmarish land they must now cross is not unlike a concentration camp—a nasty, brutish land where “ideals have vanished; [and] . . . kindness has turned to ice in many a heart,” to use Nansen’s own words.  Like camp prisoners, the inhabitants of the dark lord’s realm likewise have no names: “Up you get and fall in, or I’ll have your numbers and report you,” a character threatens Sam and Frodo at one point, mistaking them for orcs.  The pair, disguised, are forced into a gang, and, under the threat of the lash, the two are driven to their physical limits, in scenes that could be found in any concentration camp:

“It was hard enough for poor Sam, tired as he was; but for Frodo it was a torment, and soon a nightmare.  He set his teeth and tried to stop his mind from thinking, and he struggled on.  The stench . . . was stifling, and he began to gasp with thirst.  On, on they went, and he bent all his will to draw his breath and to make his legs keep going; and yet to what evil end he toiled and endured he did not dare to think.”

Even Sam begins to lose all hope:

“Never for long had hope died in his staunch heart, and always until now he had taken some thought for their return.  But the bitter truth came home to him at last: at best their provisions would take them to their goal; and when the task was done, there they would come to an end, alone, houseless, foodless in the midst of a terrible desert.  There could be no return.”

It is this imagery—of two desperate souls fighting against hopeless odds—that comes to my mind as I reflect on the terrible days 76 years ago.  Everyone had surely recognized by February 1945 that Germany would lose the war.  But what did that mean for the inmates of KZ Sachsenhausen? If anything, the war was even then reaching new, unimaginable, heights of ferocity.  Fully 60% of all Allied bombs dropped during the war fell in its final 10 months; during those same final 10 months German military forces would suffer 2.6 million deaths, nearly one-half of their total war-related deaths incurred in the entire span of  World War II.

Beginning on February 13, 1945, the Allies firebombed Dresden. As many as 25,000 Germans, including  many civilians, died within hours of the attack, either incinerated or suffocated as the intense fires sucked out all available oxygen.  Thousands more were left homeless.

On the very same day—February 13—Odd Nansen reported on the madness occurring within the walls of Sachsenhausen:

“From the Tub[erculosis] section of the Revier men are constantly being picked out who go direct to the crematorium.  Yes, direct!  Not into the gas chamber first. They get a knock on the head, that’s usually enough. . . .   A big, strong Pole who has been in the Tub four years and is by no means mortally ill was to be taken the other day.  He got word of it, jumped out through the window and hid in the camp.  The Blockältester took another patient, a Pole or Ukrainian, out of one of the beds and sent him instead. The quota had to be filled to avoid a fuss.”

Life Frodo and Sam, Tom Buergenthal and Odd Nansen may have been closer to liberation 76 years ago today, but they were also beset by more dangers than ever before.  The heightened Allied bombing campaign held its own unique terrors: stray bombs could, and did, occasionally land inside the camp, killing helpless prisoners.  Allied interdiction of almost all daylight surface transport meant that Red Cross food parcels might or might not continue to arrive, reducing even the Norwegians to starvation levels.

Moreover, Tom and Odd each nursed their own private fears.  Tom worried about a possible evacuation of Sachsenhausen.  A veteran of one death march, Tom was all too well aware that his injured feet would spell disaster on a long march, and being left behind was even worse.  In his memoir he writes: “Camp evacuations meant long marches and overcrowded trains, like those that brought me to Sachsenhausen.  But it also meant that people who could not walk would be shot wherever they were found—on the roadside or in their beds. I imagined seeing SS guards with their big boots walking from bed to bed in the infirmary, shooting everyone left behind.”

For his part, Odd Nansen was keenly aware that a German surrender, or the imminent capture of Sachsenhausen, might easily be preceded by a massacre of all the camp’s inhabitants.  In fact, Heinrich Himmler had already issued orders to all camp commandants that “not a single prisoner must fall alive into enemy hands.” (emphasis mine)

And in this hellish milieu, 76 years ago today, Tom and Odd first met—quite accidentally—when Nansen stumbled upon young Tommy recovering in Revier III.

Like Frodo and Sam, Tom and Odd were close to losing hope.

Like Frodo and Sam, Tom and Odd undoubtedly would have given anything to be delivered from all this madness.  As Frodo had once complained to the wizard Gandalf: “I wish it [the war for the ring] need not have happened in my time.”  “So do I,” answers Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times.  But that is not for them to decide.  All that we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

Odd Nansen could not have known of Gandalf’s wise counsel—LOTR was not published until 1954-55—but he lived by its precept.  He knew what to do with the time that had been given him.  And these two forlorn individuals [curiously, the German word for prisoner is Häftling] found succor in each other.  As Nansen wrote, “For the very first time [I] saw you, you went straight to [my] heart.”  And thereafter Nansen saved Tommy by bribing the orderlies in the Revier to protect the young boy.  Tom, in turn, saved Odd: “Without suspecting it, Tommy accomplished with us a work of salvation. He touched something in us which was about to disappear.  He called to life again human feelings, which were painful to have, but which nevertheless meant salvation for us all.”

And, like Frodo and Sam, against all odds, Nansen and Tom prevailed in the end as well.

Now do you see why Tom and Odd, Frodo and Sam seem alike to me in so many ways, and why From Day to Day and The Lord of the Rings are my two favorite books?

Remembering the 76th anniversary of your very first meeting, Odd Nansen and Tom Buergenthal.

February 6, 1949: Shirer Reviews Nansen

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“It is a moving record of a man who, though he seems to be unconscious of it, is one of the noble and heroic spirits of our . . . times.”

So ends William L. Shirer’s review of From Day to Day, first published on this day 72 years ago.

1949 Edition

Shirer was already a best-selling author by 1949.  His Berlin Diary and End of a Berlin Diary had earned him that distinction.  It would be another ten years before he achieved even more lasting fame with the publication of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

William L. Shirer

Shirer’s review, accompanied by some of Nansen’s illustrations, appeared in the New York Herald Tribune Book Review.  [Those of you who have heard my lecture on Fridtjof Nansen may recall that it was James Gordon Bennett, the owner of the New York Herald, who organized and financed the ill-fated Jeannette Expedition (1879-81). The loss of the Jeannette helped Nansen plan his own approach to the North Pole in 1893.  The New York Herald and the New York Tribune merged in 1924.  The New York Herald Tribune ceased operation in 1966.]

Shirer begins his review in a defensive mood:

“This poignant record of a Norwegian’s three years of captivity under the master race may get a mixed reception in a land of short memory that happily escaped the horrors of a Nazi occupation.”

Writing in End of a Berlin Diary, published in 1947, Shirer claimed to have been told “by a British and an American publisher that the people in Great Britain and America are sick to death of books about German atrocities.” He repeats the same claim in this review. But, Shirer pleads, “This book is different from all the others [I have] read.”  Sure, it also contains unspeakable barbarities.  “But [Nansen’s diary] rises above them and reminds us in never-to-be-forgotten pages how noble and generous the human spirit can be in the face of terrible adversity.”

Although it is not known if Shirer and Nansen ever met, Shirer had been continuously reporting from Europe since 1925, and knew Odd Nansen’s father, Fridtjof, well:

“Fridtjof Nansen  . . . dedicated the last years of his life to helping the refugees–the displaced persons, as we call them now—of the first world war.  This reviewer still remembers the old gentleman, with his thick white hair and his lively eyes, stamping around the palace of the League of Nations in Geneva and forcing the harried statesmen of the world to heed him and his endeavors to find homes for the world’s homeless.  Hundreds of thousands were saved by ‘Nansen passports.’”

Shirer recounts the degradations Odd Nansen experienced in prison, and the even worse examples he saw but luckily personally escaped.  And in “dreaded Sachsenhausen . . . he had to steel himself to see much worse.”  Yet Shirer concludes that what makes Nansen’s diary—written “magnificently free of bitterness or hate or revenge”—so unique is this:

“Nansen never gave up nor did he lose his faith in mankind, in men’s courage, their integrity and their capacity to love.”

Words true 72 years ago, words true today.

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

International Holocaust Remembrance Day

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Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, or, more formally, the International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust.  The date, set by UN Resolution, corresponds to the day that Auschwitz, the largest and deadliest concentration the Nazis ever built, was finally liberated.  Approximately 1.1million prisoners, of which 1 million were Jews, were murdered in Auschwitz between 1941 To 1944.  During the course of the war, over 10 million prisoners, of which 6 million were Jews, were murdered by the Nazis.

In my very first blog, written on September 3, 2015, I argued that references to “six million deaths” is in a sense counterproductive, in that the human brain is incapable of fully grasping the enormity of that number.  Comparisons may help: six million is greater than the combined populations of Wyoming, Vermont, Alaska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Delaware and Rhode Island.  If the murdered Jews constituted a separate state, it would be the 20th largest in the U.S.  But even such comparisons fail to adequately convey what six million deaths mean.  Only when the focus is brought down to an individual life can we emotionally engage and understand how tragic the loss of even that one life is.

Accordingly, in these blogs I have written about the individual victims of the Holocaust: Ilse Weber; Georges-André Kohn and the children of Bullenhuser Damm; Ruth Maier, Konrad Kaplan, and of course, Anne Frank.  All of these people had dreams, loved, were loved, and their deaths, individually and collectively, constitute a rent in the fabric of the world.

Since the purpose of today’s commemoration is to remember the survivors as well as the dead, I would like to focus on just one Holocaust survivor who was also a friend of Odd Nansen’s: Leiba Wolfberg.

Leiba (aka Leif) Wolfberg was born in Lithuania in 1914; when he emigrated to Norway is unknown.  Arrested on April 3, 1942, and sent to Grini in June 9, 1942, Wolfberg first appears in Nansen’s diary five days later, performing a violin duet with another prisoner. Less than two months later, on August 3 1942, Wolfberg once again merits mention in the diary—although for a much less enjoyable event.

Wolfberg is “called over” to be medically examined for his fitness to join a transport.  When called, he hobbles out on a makeshift crutch, having just that day been operated upon for an infected foot. This infuriates the Nazi camp officials, who proceed to upbraid him and tear his bandage off.  The Lagerkommandant, Denzer, screams: “’Here’s a lazy rascal of a Jew, been trying to dodge by going to the hospital for nothing at all.’ . . . .  Poor Leiba was ordered to take his place in the column.  He hobbled off, leaning on his stick.  Denzer tore the stick from him in a fury, and swung it threateningly over his head; at the last moment he returned to his senses and hurled it with all his might over the new fence, into the wood.”

Wolfberg is then shipped off to Auschwitz, along with the majority of Norway’s Jewish prisoners, in late November 1942, and is not heard from again until two years later, in mid-November 1944, when he arrives in Sachsenhausen.  Unlike most of his fellow Norwegian Jews, Leiba had managed to stay alive in Auschwitz.  His skill on the violin got him a job playing in Auschwitz (which boasted a first-rate orchestra composed of prisoners), a job that brought slightly better food and working conditions.

On November 12, 1944, Nansen once again meets up with Wolfberg, and immediately notices a sea-change in his young friend:

“The Wolfberg I met again was quite different from the one I was with at Grini in 1942. That Wolfberg was a weakly, nervous boy, the type of boy one superficially and thoughtlessly calls a “coward.” He was afraid of dying at that time, mortally afraid of dying. The Wolfberg I met yesterday had no fear of death; he was no nervy Jewish lad, but a grown man who faced reality unblinkingly, with wide-open eyes. . . He was glad to meet me, and talked away about “the old days” at Grini, what a pleasant time we had, how different . . . .  And then gradually he got talking of the years between. Auschwitz!

I believe it will be hard for posterity, indeed for other people at all, to grasp the depth of suffering and horror of which Auschwitz has been the frame.”

Apparently Wolfberg was again sent on for a time from Sachsenhausen to Lieberose, a subcamp.  By mid-February 1945, however, he was back in Sachsenhausen proper again.  And again Odd Nansen was impressed by his outlook:

“I was talking to Wolfberg again yesterday; he got out to see us. He evidently wasn’t expecting to come through this alive, poor fellow, but asked us in a curiously light, easy manner to give his love to common friends if we got through. No crematorium can impress him now, no hangmen, none of these in­human horrors that still upset me, for a time at least. He is hardened, but at the same time it’s remarkable how he has preserved his warmth of heart and his subtle, pliant humanity.”

Three days later Nansen learns that Wolfberg is still alive, and may in fact have been “moved out of harm’s way.”  But nothing is definite, and Nansen frets: “I don’t know [Wolfberg’s fate] and I don’t know how I’m to find out what happened to him.”

Well, Leiba Wolfberg did survive.  His registration card was secretly altered to give him a new, non-Jewish identity—”Rolf Berg.”  In this way he was evacuated to safety along with all other Norwegians, in the “white buses” operation.

Wolfberg, who had once assured Nansen “I shouldn’t care if I were going to the furnace tonight, I’m fully prepared for it,” lived out his days teaching violin in Norway, and performing with the Norwegian National Orchestra.  What better rebuke to the hate visited upon him—to share his “pliant, subtle humanity” through the beauty of his music—the world’s universal language.

All this nevertheless leaves us with a question: Why?  Why did Wolfberg survive, and others not?  Why did Ilse Weber perish and her husband survive?  Why did Anne Frank, her sister and her mother all die, and her father Otto survive?  Why did Georges-André die, and his father Armand survive? Why did Mundek Buergenthal die and his wife and son survive?  In studying the Holocaust, such inquiries unfortunately lead nowhere.  As a guard in Auschwitz once remarked to Primo Levi: “In here there is no ‘why.’”

But focusing on the incredible achievements of those who did survive serves to underscore the “might have beens” for those who did not.  Could Anne Frank become a wonderful novelist? Ilse Weber a famous poet? Georges-André a hospital director like his father?

So while we mourn the dead, and the potential lives they could have led, we can take some inspiration from the lives of the survivors—like Leiba Wolfberg, Otto Frank, Tom Buergenthal, and others—and in so doing, come to a deeper, more complete understanding of the Holocaust.  Hopefully, this will in turn lead us to vow, with even greater conviction: Never Again.

August 1-2, 1944: Hope and Despair

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As dates go, the first two days of August 1944 seem to me unusually fraught.  Many things changed irrevocably—most for the worse, only a few for the better.

ANNE

On Tuesday, August 1, 1944, Anne Frank wrote in her diary to her imaginary friend Kitty.  To Kitty, and only to Kitty, could Anne confide all of her thoughts, longings, and emotions without fear of being judged.

On that day Anne tried to explain to Kitty about the “bundle of contradictions” that made up her nature.  She felt her exterior of exuberant cheerfulness, flippancy even, hid an interior self: “much purer, deeper, finer.”  This “deeper” Anne, however, shrank from exposing itself to others.  The real Anne could only be herself when she was alone.  She wanted to show this inner self—the quiet and serious Anne—but could not yet overcome this difficulty.  Her diary entry ends: [I will] keep trying to find a way to become what I’d like to be and what I could be . . . if only there were no other people in the world.”

Unknown to Anne, this was to be her final entry.  Three days later, on August 4, Anne, her family, and their friends were betrayed and arrested by the Gestapo.

No doubt hope sustained Anne during her ordeal, first in a transit camp, then in Auschwitz, and finally in Bergen-Belsen.  No doubt she hoped that she would one day be reunited with her precious diary.  Nevertheless, within six months Anne would perish, age 15.  Only her diary survived to reveal to the world her “purer, deeper, finer” self.

Anne Frank

Tom

On Wednesday, August 2, 1944, as the ink dried on Anne’s final diary entry, Thomas Buergenthal and his parents arrived by train in Auschwitz, the largest and deadliest camp the Nazis ever built.  Approximately 1.3 million people were murdered there, of whom approximately 1.1 million were Jews.

It’s doubtful if either Tom or his parents grasped at that moment the true horror of Auschwitz, the industrial scale of its gas chambers and crematoriums.  Prior to arrival, “I could not quite imagine what Auschwitz was really like,” Tom admits in his memoir, although he knew it was a place of dread.

Tom soon learned that his experience in Auschwitz would be very different.  Unlike his previous life in the Kielce Ghetto and in various work camps outside Kielce, his family would no longer remain intact.  Upon arrival he was immediately torn from his mother.  Except for a single brief glimpse of her through the wire—hair shorn, tear-stained, but alive—ten-year old Tommy would not see his mother Gerda for almost two and a half years.  Then, less than three months after arrival, Tom was also separated from his father.  Mundek was sent, first, to Sachsenhausen and later to Buchenwald.  There he died of pneumonia on January 15, 1945, less than 90 days before the camp was liberated.

What kept Tom going through all this?  True, he was ein Glückskind—a lucky child—helped by many, even in Auschwitz.  But what thoughts kept him from despair as he struggled to survive, alone?  As he explains in his memoir, while living in an orphanage after the war, and despite all indications to the contrary, “I continued to believe, without telling anyone, that my parents were alive and would find me one day soon.”  Hope kept despair at bay.

Tom Buergenthal with his parents

Warsaw

Finally, on August 1, as Anne Frank penned her final diary entry, and as Tom was about to enter Auschwitz, the Polish underground in Warsaw staged a revolt.  The insurgents hoped to both drive the Germans from the city, and establish control over Poland’s capital before the Soviet-backed Polish Committee of National Liberation arrived.  Initially, the underground succeeded in establishing control over much of central Warsaw.  Nevertheless, the Soviet army, which occupied the eastern bank of the Vistula River, and thus Warsaw’s eastern suburbs, rendered no assistance. This cold-blooded decision by Stalin has since been called “one of the major infamies of th[e] war.”

Ultimately, the outgunned and outmanned uprising was brutally crushed.  Over 16,000 resistance fighters were killed, as were between 150,000—200,000 Polish civilians.  Many were victims of mass executions by the German Army.  Most of the remaining population was sent off to concentration camps, including Sachsenhausen, as witnessed by Odd Nansen on August 15, 1944 and December 13, 1944.  The city was not liberated until January 17, 1945.

Warsaw Uprising 1944

In sum, in the first days of August, 1944, an unsuspecting Anne Frank poured her heart out to her diary, which would survive even if she did not.  Tom Buergenthal passed through the gates of hell, but inexplicably survived.  The Polish underground was crushed, but its tormentor, Nazi Germany, ultimately went down to total, ignominious defeat.  Poland did not see real freedom for decades.

All of these participants faced despair in early August, but all were motivated by hope.  Indeed, hope may have been the most powerful weapon they could wield.  For some it was enough; for others it fell short.  Memories of August 1-2 will always remain bittersweet.

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.

April 22, 1945: Thomas Buergenthal Liberated

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Seventy-five years ago today, Polish and Russian armed forces liberated Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, and with it, Thomas Buergenthal.

Tom was nineteen days shy of his 11th birthday.  He had been a captive, in one form or another, of the Nazis since early 1940, when he and his family were herded into the Kielce Ghetto in Poland.  Tom was then just over five and a half years of age, meaning that, by April 1945, he had spent approximately half of his entire existence on earth as a prisoner.

And Tom had known fear even before the war began.  He sensed his mother’s trepidation when the two of them were ordered to the local police station in Zilina, Czechoslovakia in early 1939.  The family had fled to Zilina from their home in Ľubochňa, having been dispossessed of the hotel Tom’s father owned and ran there.  The family now fled Zilina as well, and Tom had to sleep in a ditch when trapped in the no-man’s-land between the Czech and Polish borders. He was not yet five years old.

And now Tom was free.

But what did freedom mean to a ten-year-old child?

Where were his parents?  He had last seen his father, Mundek, in October 1944, when he and Mundek were separated while in Auschwitz, and his father sent off to other camps (including, for a short time, Sachsenhausen), before succumbing to pneumonia in Buchenwald in January 1945.  He had seen his mother, Gerda, only once in Auschwitz, around the same time as his father was taken away.  Tom spotted her through the wire—thin, her hair shorn, tear covered—before she too was sent away to another camp: Ravensbrück.

How would Tom find them?  Where would he look?  How could he even begin?  Another year and a half would pass before Tom and his mother were miraculously reunited (movingly told in his memoir, A Lucky Child).

On April 22, 1945, then, what were Tom’s prospects?  Almost eleven, and yet still illiterate, Tom had had only one type of schooling—the school of survival.  He had done well in that school, a necessary experience for what lay ahead, but hardly sufficient.

What could Tom possibly aspire to?

Meanwhile, on the exact same date—April 22, 1945—but a world away, delegates from 46 countries began gathering in San Francisco to commence, in the words of William L. Shirer, “the difficult job of setting up the machinery of peace,” the United Nations.  And for all its shortcomings, the delegates did get some things right.  “[I]t will give us a better world organization than was the old League at Geneva,” wrote Shirer, “[T]here is to be an International Court of Justice, functioning as the judicial organ of the United Nations.”

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” is a phrase that goes back to an anti-slavery sermon in 1853, and has been used by many since, including Martin Luther King and Barack Obama.

Who could have known, back in that chaotic, uncertain world of April 1945—certainly not the delegates, and least of all Tom Buergenthal—that one day, six and a half decades later, this newly freed child prisoner would become a distinguished member of that same International Court of Justice.

I salute you, my dear friend Tom, and the wonderful new life of yours that began, however fitfully, 75 years ago today.

Thomas Buergenthal

Longing: The Story of the Bracelet

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“Apart from the already described reactions, the newly arrived prisoner experienced the tortures of other most painful emotions, all of which he tried to deaden.  First of all, there was his boundless longing for his home and his family.”   —Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Odd Nansen would certainly agree with Frankl’s observation.  In the second paragraph of his Foreword, Nansen explained that most of the “private matter” had been cut out of the published version of his diary, but not all: “I couldn’t cut it all out, I felt, without taking from the diary too much of its character. For it is the case that a prisoner thinks a great deal about his wife, his children, and home.”   Indeed, as I write in my Introduction, in many ways From Day to Day can be viewed as one long love letter to Nansen’s wife Kari.

Longing suffuses the entire diary.  “For more than a week, a fearful week, I had been looking forward to it [a meeting with Kari] and longing for it.” (May 7, 1942).  “Longing keeps us in life and hope.” (January 30, 1944).  In the very last diary entry Nansen wrote (April 27-28, 1945), he anguishes that “all I have been longing for for years with all my soul [seemed] more remote than ever.”

So, it was with great surprise that, during my recent visit to Oslo, Nansen’s granddaughter Anne Greve casually asked me if I knew the background to the bracelet she was wearing?  It was a simple silver bracelet, adorned with a common-looking brown stone (there were originally three such stones, but only one remains):

The bracelet

Inside the bracelet Nansen inscribed a simple, heartfelt message for his wife, on the occasion of their sixteenth wedding anniversary:

“Et Griniminne til dig fra mig/Vel ingen sjelden juvel/Men pant på at jeg elsker dig/Av hele min lengtende sjel/Din Odd/Grini 27-8-43”

A partial view of the bracelet’s interior

“A Grini memory to you from me/Well no rare jewel/But trust that I love you/With all my longing soul/Your Odd/Grini 27-8-43”

According to Anne, Nansen’s wife Kari wore it constantly throughout her life, and now Anne does as well:

Anne Greve modeling the bracelet

Readers of the diary know that the portion which covers August 27, 1943 was unfortunately lost, so we’ll never know what thoughts or feelings, if any, Nansen recorded on that date.  We do know what he wrote on the following anniversary, while in Sachsenhausen: “Sunday, August 27, 1944.  Our wedding day!  Seventeen years! . . .   Life has been good to us after all.  The wealth it has given us in these seventeen years no one can take from us.  It is of eternity and will never die, even though we should never meet again.”

A Special Visit to Norway

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I’ve just returned from a magical trip to Oslo, Norway to help celebrate the 90th birthday of Marit Greve, Odd Nansen’s eldest child.

The outbound voyage went without a hitch.  My airplane seat had a nifty video screen which showed my position in flight at all times.  I checked the flight stats while passing over Newfoundland (which is appropriate, as Newfoundland boasts the presence of L’Anse aux Meadows, the Vikings’ first settlement in the New World).  Altitude: 38,366 feet; temperature: -58°F.  I realized that even seven miles above the tundra of Newfoundland in November, the temperature was still warmer than some of the temps faced by Fridtjof Nansen during his polar exploration. Hats off to that man!

Oslo was rainy and cold upon arrival, and remained that way for the duration of the trip.  As Preben Johannessen, Marit’s son-in-law, reminded me in a ditty which he claims he learned from Marit:

No Sun/No Moon/No Dawn/No Noon/No-vember.

But, as the Norwegians are quick to point out, there is no bad weather, just the wrong clothes, and so I, and everyone else in Oslo, just powered through. What was a bit more difficult to overcome was that sunrise (per the weather app, not personal experience) was 8:14 am and sunset at 3:47 pm—this more than a month before the winter solstice.

As mentioned, the highlight of the trip, indeed its primary purpose, was to celebrate Marit’s birthday—she turned 90 on November 8.   Marit was born in Brooklyn, NY, in 1928, and I maintain that, if you listen very carefully, you can still detect a Brooklyn accent trying to be heard under her Norwegian lilt.

Marit appears many times in Odd Nansen’s World War II diary.  On her birthday in 1944 Nansen recorded this:

“Marit’s Birthday.  When I was arrested, she was only just thirteen and a little girl.  Now she is sixteen and a woman.  It’s strange.  She herself assures me so sweetly and eagerly, in the letter I had from her, that she hasn’t grown away from me.  But the whole letter shows that she has.  Poor little Marit, she can’t help it.  And besides it’s not to oblige their parents that children live their lives.  But all the same I miss you badly, my little “fishergirl,”* and if you sometimes miss your daddy too, my wish is only that it may be a blessing for us both.”

I can relate that seventy-four years later, Marit still hasn’t grown away from her father.

Fittingly, the birthday party was held on the deck of the Fram, the ship which Marit’s grandfather, Fridtjof Nansen, had constructed in 1892 to carry him to, and over, the polar ice cap. (Things did not work out precisely as planned, but Fridtjof Nansen nevertheless pushed farther north than any human had up to that point.)  The Fram is now well ensconced in its own museum on the island of Bygdøy.  [Perhaps someday Marit will merit her own museum; after all, the ship is only 36 years older than she is.]  Marit’s family composed their own song to celebrate Marit’s achievement—here are her daughters Kari and Anne, sons-in-law Einar and Preben, and grandchildren Christian, Jacob and Mattias, serenading Marit from the quarterdeck, all presided over by the polar maestro himself, Fridtjof Nansen:

I enjoyed the chance to meet many of Marit’s friends and family relations.  Of particular interest to me was seeing Robert Bjørka again.  Robert, who turned 98 on November 9, was a personal friend of Odd Nansen’s.  An architect like Nansen, he was arrested March 1, 1943, and spent the remainder of the war in Sachsenhausen as well.  His memory is undimmed over the 75 years since he was sent to the concentration camp.

Marit received many lovely gifts, including what appeared to be a lifetime supply of champagne.  My gift to her was a bit more prosaic— an apron, but one that carried what I felt was an appropriate message: “I just turned 90.  What have you done today?”  Here we are together showing off her latest acquisition:

Two days later, Marit and I toured several venues to discuss future book tour possibilities.  Tuesday, my final day in town, was a day to relax, but in some ways it turned out to be the most interesting of all to me.  Marit shared with me many of Odd Nansen’s personal papers, including diaries he wrote as early as 1918 (when only 16 years old), and more importantly, ones he kept in 1940, 1941 and 1942.  It was truly special to hear Marit translate the diary entry Nansen wrote immediately following the German invasion of Norway (9 April 1940), or the last one he wrote as a free man, on January 4, 1942.  Nine days later, Nansen was taken away “for questioning” and never saw freedom again until the closing days of World War II.  Indeed, it was an honor and a privilege to hold “history” in my hands.

The following day I began the grueling 14 ½ hour return voyage, but the memories of this visit; the chance to celebrate Marit’s special birthday with family and friends; the stories Marit shared with me of her father and of life under the occupation; the encouraging results of our book tour meetings, all made for an unforgettable trip.  Many thanks to Marit and her family for their warm hospitality. Congratulations again Marit, and Skål!

*If you want to understand the significance of “fishergirl” you will just have to read the diary.

[Coming soon: The story of the bracelet.]

October 10, 1861: Fridtjof Nansen is Born

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Fridtjof Nansen

Today is Fridtjof Nansen’s 157th birthday.  I recently revisited the incredible account of his quest for the North Pole, Farthest North, in anticipation of a lecture I gave on the same subject.  The last time I had read it was back in 2010, soon after I first discovered Odd Nansen’s diary and decided to get it re-published.  At the time Fridtjof Nansen’s exploits were totally new to me.

During my years of research on Odd Nansen I was frequently struck by the amazing similarities between Odd Nansen’s use of words and his father’s.  In my introduction to From Day to Day I wrote, “both father and son shared similar ideas and often used eerily similar language to express themselves.”  Throughout the text I highlight those instances of shared expression.

What struck me much more forcefully during this second reading of Farthest North was the growing sense of desperation Fridtjof Nansen experienced during his expedition, especially when he abandoned the safety of his ship, the Fram, and attempted, with only one other companion, some sled dogs, sledges and kayaks, to not only reach the North Pole, but then to return on the much longer trip back to civilization. After traveling for less than one month, Nansen concluded that his slow progress over rough ice and snow meant that he could not reach his goal with the food and daylight remaining, and he turned south.

This is when the real challenge began.  Heading toward “the recently discovered and sketchily mapped” Franz Joseph Land, Nansen and Hjalmar Johansen encountered all sorts of difficulties.   Here’s what Nansen confided to his diary on May 17, 1895 (May 17 being a particularly important date in the Norwegian calendar):

“And here we are in drifting ice, not knowing exactly where we are, uncertain as to our distance from an unknown land, and where we hope to find means of sustaining life and thence carve our way on towards home, with two teams of dogs whose number and strength diminish day by day, with ice and water between us and our goal which may cause us untold trouble, with sledges which now, at any rate, are too heavy for our own powers.  We press laboriously onward mile by mile; and meanwhile, perhaps, the drift of the ice is carrying us westward out to sea, beyond the land we are striving for.”

Almost two months later (July 11, 1895), nothing had improved:

“No sign of land in any direction and no open water, and now we should be in the same latitude as Cape Fligely, or at most a couple of minutes farther north.  We do not know where we are, and we do not know when this will end.  Meanwhile our provisions are dwindling day by day, and the number of our dogs is growing seriously less.  Shall we reach land while we yet have food, or shall we, when all is said, ever reach it?  It will soon be impossible to make any way against this ice and snow.  The latter is only slush; the dogs sink through at every step, and we ourselves splash through it up above our knees when we have to help the dogs or take a turn at the heavy sledges, which happens frequently.  It is hard to go on hoping in such circumstances, but still we do so; though sometimes, perhaps, our hearts fail us when we see the ice lying before us like an impenetrable maze. . . .”

Nansen would ultimately reach land before winter began—but too late to reach civilization, necessitating overwintering for another eight months in sub-zero temperatures in a primitive hut constructed of stone walls and a roof made of polar bear and walrus hides.

In June 1896, just days before Nansen accidentally stumbled upon Englishman Frederick Jackson, and rescue, he had one final, terrible ordeal—jumping into the frigid waters to retrieve the kayaks which had drifted away from shore.  Nansen wrote: “when the gusts of wind came they seemed to go right through me as I stood there in my thin, wet woolen shirt.  I shivered, my teeth chattered, and I was numb almost all over.”

Forty-seven years later, Odd Nansen stood out on the appellplatz—the roll call square—of Sachsenhausen, observing Christmas Day.  He wrote: “I stood there [in the square] a long, long time; how long I don’t know. . . .  Certainly I shed a few tears, pitiful and lost in my rags, out there in the dark.”

Odd Nansen

I have often wondered how Odd Nansen kept going when things seemed to be at their bleakest, and the war dragged interminably on. What resources did he draw upon? He must have been well aware of his father’s exploits, and undoubtedly knew the story of Farthest North quite well.  When his heart failed, did he recall his own father’s struggles—against doubt, uncertainty, the unknown, the long odds facing him, and find the inspiration he needed, like his father, to prevail?

Farthest North and From Day to Day, both based on diaries, together show how a person can prevail against even the toughest challenges, one created by Mother Nature, the other by the evil nature of man.  They both need to be read, and re-read, for their inspiring lessons.

Upcoming Events

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  • June 9, 2021: Bet Shalom Hadassah, Jackson, NJ
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