Posts tagged Thomas Buergenthal

Today is Anne Frank’s Birthday

Share

Anne Frank

Today is Anne Frank’s birthday.  Had she lived, she would be 93 years old.  The exact date and cause of her death are unknown, although it is now believed that she succumbed in late February, 1945, probably to a disease such as typhus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yom HaShoah: Holocaust Remembrance Day

Share

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

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

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

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

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

…..

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

….

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

….

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Primo Levi was at pains to remind us:

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

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

A Year-End Potpourri

Share

Let’s face it: 2021 was not the year most of us will remember fondly.  The fears, the disrupted plans, the false dawns.  Yes, 2021 is best left behind as soon as possible.

But even at the end of a bad year there are always a few bright spots worth noting.

I. A Mother and Child Reunion

Thomas and Gerda Buergenthal

Seventy-five years ago today Tom Buergenthal, age 12, set eyes on his mother for the first time in over two years—two years during which he had no idea whether his mother was even alive.  A simple boy’s faith had sustained him when the war finally ended:

“Of course, I was happy the war was over and that we had been liberated.  But when the soldiers spoke of their families and of home, I was reminded that I did not know where my home was.  I had no home without my parents, and I did not know where they were.  I was sure that if I had survived, they must have survived too and that they would find me!”

But as time passed, that hope became less and less tenable; if his parents were still alive, where were they, and why hadn’t they found him yet?  His mother, for her part, hadn’t given up looking for Tom—after all, wasn’t he ein Glückskind, a lucky child?  But the challenge of locating one small boy in war-ravaged Europe was almost insuperable.

As I have recently written (here), it was Tom’s decision to emigrate to Palestine, born of despair over his parents’ unknown status, that provided the key to his ultimate discovery and reunion with his mother, on December 29, 1946.

When Tom first learned that his mother was alive, earlier in the fall of 1946, and that the two would soon be reunited, he wrote those most poignant words:

“’She is alive!’ I kept repeating to myself.  It was the happiest moment of my life.  I began to cry and laugh all at once, casting off the self-control and tough-guy attitude I sought to cultivate at the orphanage.  I had a mother, and that meant that I could be a child again.”

II. It’s a Wonderful Life.

Clarence and George Bailey

This December also marks the 75th anniversary of one of my favorite movies: “It’s A Wonderful Life.”  I’ve written about the movie, and the power of serendipity, before (here).  It took George Bailey a visit from the angel Clarence to finally realize the important impact he had had on the lives of others.  I’m not sure if Odd Nansen ever wondered what impact his life—now perpetuated through the words of his inimitable diary—had on others.  I hope not.  His humanity in the crucible of a concentration camp has undoubtedly inspired others—myself included—to follow his example.  As Tom Buergenthal once told me, Nansen “not only saved my life, but also taught me to forgive.”

III. Sixth Distribution Goes Out

Recently, as is my yearly custom since From Day to Day first reappeared in print, I donated all my 2021 royalties and speaking fees: 50% to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC and 50% to HL-senteret, the Norwegian Center for Holocaust and Minority Studies in Oslo.  To date these donations cumulatively total $22,369.04.

IV. Looking Ahead

Back on March 15, 2020, at the start of the pandemic, I compared the (rather minor) dislocations to our everyday life caused by COVID to the infinitely more terrible experiences of people like Odd Nansen and Tom Buergenthal (here)—and hoped their experiences could inspire us to overcome whatever challenges we might face.

Thus I think it appropriate to end this blog with the words Odd Nansen wrote on January 2, 1944, and the hope he was able to muster in a much darker place:

“[W]e bid it welcome, and once more fix our hopes, our burning wishes, and our ache of longing on the new year. . . .  [A]ll things considered there seems every reason to take a rather more cheerful view of things after all.”

Postscript: For all of you assembling your list of New Year’s Resolutions (lose weight, read more, argue less, look younger, exercise more, be smarter, etc.) let me suggest one more: “I’ll write that review of From Day to Day on Amazon that I promised Tim back in. . . .“  You’ll be glad you did! And for those who have already done so—Tusen Takk! (A Thousand Thanks!)

Rare Archival Footage of Young Tom Buergenthal Located

Share

Otwock Orphanage

Seventy-six years ago today, Tom Buergenthal arrived at a Jewish orphanage in Otwock, Poland.  [Located 14 miles southeast of Warsaw, Otwock had been the site of a Jewish Ghetto earlier in the war.  By September 1942 the Ghetto’s inhabitants, numbering 12-15,000, had all been murdered.].  Tom had just spent the better part of 6+ months, since his liberation, traveling with the Scout Company of the 1st Kosciuszko Division, a Polish army division formed under Soviet auspices which had fought for months and participated in the fall of Berlin.

With his own cart and pony, and specially tailored military uniform, Tom was the division’s de facto mascot.  But with the war’s end, and the division back in Poland waiting to be demobilized, it was obvious that Tommy had no place, long-term, in such an organization, no matter how much they doted on him.  A sympathetic soldier, aware that Tom was Jewish (a fact which Tommy, understandably, was loath to publicize) located the orphanage in Otwock and made all the arrangements for Tom’s transfer to their care.

Tom was 11 years old.

In the preceding five years he had endured: the Kielce Ghetto; an Arbeitslager (a work camp) in Kielce; the Henryków work camp outside Kielce; Auschwitz Concentration Camp;  the Auschwitz Death March; and Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp.

He had last seen his parents over a year ago; he had no idea of their whereabouts, or if they were even still alive.

He could neither read nor write.

Can anyone of us imagine—even for a moment—what it could have been like to be in his shoes at that point?

Recently, I had the privilege of visiting with Tom and his wife Peggy (our first post-COVID meeting).  As we talked, our subjects ranged over a wide variety of topics.  At some point Tom began to talk about life at Otwock, and how the orphanage tried to create a normal life for its young inhabitants, some of whom had survived in the camps; some of whom had survived in hiding; some of whom had survived under false identities; and some of whom simply had survived on their own when their parents were taken away or killed.

As Tom writes in his memoir A Lucky Child:

“It was here that I underwent a gradual transformation from being a perennially frightened and hungry camp inmate struggling to survive to an eleven-year-old child with a relatively normal life.  I enjoyed almost every minute of my stay at the orphanage.”

I asked Tom a simple question: did the orphanage still exist?  This question prompted Peggy to do a Google search.

What she found was nothing less than amazing.

An archival film, apparently shot in the summer of 1946, and now in the possession of Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, showing life at Otwock.  Narrated in Yiddish and Hebrew, it shows clips of young children singing, being entertained by dancers, etc. And there was young Tom, now age 12, staring intently at the camera.

 In retrospect this is not altogether too surprising.  As Tom also relates in his memoir:

“Since I was the only one in the orphanage who had survived Auschwitz, I was frequently interviewed by journalists and trotted out to meet important visitors.  I even appeared occasionally in the newsreels that were shown in Polish movie houses in those pretelevision days.”

Here is the film.  Tom can be seen at 0:44; at 1:39 (he is in the second row, behind the girl with the hat); and at 2:22 (same).

We see shots of young Tommy, shirtless, looking healthy.  But one can’t help but notice that Tom is not really smiling, merely looking intently and seriously at the camera.  After all, it was not until September 1946—probably soon after this film was shot—that Tom finally learned for the first time that his mother was still alive (in fact he was mistakenly informed at the time that his “parents” were alive).  By the time this film was shot Tom had just about given up hope that he would ever be found and reunited with his parents, and had thus agreed to emigrate to Palestine.

Ironically, it was this decision—born of despair—that led to his name appearing on a list at the Jewish Agency of those wishing to emigrate.  In turn, this fact somehow—miraculously—caught the eye of someone at the Agency who had another list—a list of missing persons—with Tom’s name on it as well.  And that was how Tommy was finally found, and reunited with his mother.

It was then, and only then, that could he write: “[T]hat meant . . . I could be a child again.”

Before I left Tom and Peggy for the day, we played the film over and over several times.  In some of the images Tom could spot faces he remembered.  Even the words of the some of the songs came back to him.

Needless to say, it made for a very special, and very emotional, afternoon.

Thomas Buergenthal, Age 12

In The Beginning…..

Share

…….was the word.  Actually, many of them.  About 300,000 to be accurate.

While still in high school I adopted a practice I learned from the father of one of my school friends: writing on the front endpaper of one’s book one’s name and the date they started reading said book.  I later began to add the location where I started reading a book as well.  Thus, at a quick glance I can be transported back to the place and time associated with my memory of the book itself.  (Invariably, the actual date is further in the past than I would have otherwise guessed.)

Eleven years ago today I started reading an old diary written by an unknown (to me) Norwegian.  The book had been hard to come by—there was only one offered for sale that I could find anywhere in the United States; five in the entire globe.  I purchased one of those five from a book dealer in New Zealand.  The name of the book was From Day to Day.  Indeed, my only familiarity with the book came from a brief, footnoted mention of it in a memoir written by Thomas Buergenthal, A Lucky Child, that I had read earlier that year.

With no preconception of what might lie within, and a bit put off by the diary’s length—over 500 pages—I made an initial decision to proceed rather deliberately.  I would read only one diary entry per day—sort of like a daily devotional—and thereby walk in the footsteps of the diarist as he recorded his experiences each day.  Soon that discipline gave way to two diary entries per day, and then three, and then more.

By that time, as I inform my audiences, I was hooked.

And the rest is history.  Exactly when I made the fateful decision to edit and republish Nansen’s diary is now a bit fuzzy, but clearly it occurred by year-end.   In early 2011 I visited Washington, DC to research the book’s copyright status at the Library of Congress, and to meet Tom Buergenthal for the first time.  After we discussed Tom’s memoir, and he showed me his shelf full of the many different translations of his book (17 at the time I recall), I tentatively mentioned my plans to get Nansen’s diary back into print.  Tom could not have been more supportive and encouraging, even writing a letter of introduction to Odd Nansen’s daughter Marit, thereby facilitating what became another wonderful friendship. With Tom’s blessing I was ready to tackle the project that would change my life in so many rewarding and delightful ways.

And it all began on August 8, 2010.

My Notation

August 2, 1944: Tom Buergenthal Enters Auschwitz

Share

Auschwitz

 

Seventy-seven years ago today Thomas Buergenthal, age 10, entered Auschwitz-Birkenau along with his parents.  Originally the site of a Polish army barracks (inhabited briefly by Jan Karski), Auschwitz was developed by the Nazis into the largest and deadliest concentration/extermination camp ever.  Approximately 1.1 million people—the population of Salt Lake City or Memphis—were murdered there.  Of this number, almost 1 million were Jews.

In Buergenthal’s memoir, A Lucky Child, he writes that he was “lucky” to get into Auschwitz.  This is not meant to be facetious.  In many respects the worst day at Auschwitz was the first, for that typically meant a so-called selection at the railroad disembarkation ramp.  Here, those who could not be expected to work under grueling camp conditions—children, the aged, invalids—were separated from the rest and sent directly to the gas chambers.

Often times, if the camp was approaching full capacity (an elastic concept), even the able-bodied were sent directly to be gassed.  While I have done no study of the survival rate at the ramp, a few anecdotal examples provide some guidance.  In Martin Gilbert’s book Kristallnacht, he writes about the aftermath of the pogrom which occurred on November 9-10, 1938: “[I]n February [1943] . . . a thousand [German Jews] . . . were deported to Auschwitz . . . from Breslau, of whom 994 were sent straight to the gas chambers.”  Later he notes: “On 2 March 1943 one of the largest single deportations to Auschwitz took place: 1,500 Jewish men, women and children from Berlin.  Of them, 1,350 were sent to the gas chambers on arrival.”

Thus, just getting into Auschwitz was something of a victory.  “Had there been a selection, I would have been killed before ever making it into the camp,” Tom admits.

How did he escape the dreaded section?  We’ll never know the exact reason, but Tom’s surmise is no doubt correct: “The SS officers . . . probably assumed, since our transport came from a labor camp, that children and others had already been eliminated in those camps.”  Perhaps also the small size of Tom’s transport did not warrant a full-blown selection process.

Escaping a selection, however, while critical, was only half the story.  Now Tom had to find a way to navigate the crucible of Auschwitz—“the last place on earth many of the prisoners sent there were destined to see.”  Disease, starvation, exhaustion, and murder were just some of the dangers every prisoner faced every day.

Tom Buergenthal with his parents in happier days

Tom was instantly separated from his mother at the ramp, and, but for one brief glance through the wire, he was not to see or be reunited with her for almost two and a half years.  Tom’s father was also sent away in late October 1944, first to Sachsenhausen, and later to Buchenwald, where he would perish in January 1945.  Now Tom was all alone.

How did he manage?

For several years leading up to August 1944, in the Kielce Ghetto and elsewhere, Tom was getting an education of sorts from his parents: “the essentials of survival.” In Auschwitz and later in Sachsenhausen, Tom continued to learn “the tricks I needed to survive.”  Many other prisoners, by contrast, were thrust into Auschwitz directly from normal, middle-class environments without the benefit of such “training.”  They could hardly be expected to adapt overnight to brutal camp conditions.  One thinks of Anne Frank, whose final diary entry (August 1, 1944) was one day prior to Tom’s arrival.  She went from living in the comparative safety of her annex on the date of her arrest (August 4, 1944) to the maelstrom of Auschwitz a few short weeks later (September 6, 1944).  She, her sister Margot, and her mother Edith were all dead less than six months later.

Whatever the combination of factors—bureaucratic oversight by the Nazis, the innate or inculcated survival skills of a young child, or some other favorable alignment of the stars, on August 2, 1944, Thomas Buergenthal proved once again to be ein Glückskind—a lucky child.

From Day to Day Celebrates Fifth Anniversary  

Share

This week marks the fifth anniversary of the republication of From Day to Day: One Man’s Diary of Survival in Nazi Concentration Camps.

What a fantastic five years it has been—and that’s even including the last 12 months!  Little could I have imagined the many wonderful people I would meet along the way, each with their own story, often touching upon World War II experiences—theirs, their family’s, their relative’s, or their friend’s.  Some of these stories I have shared in the 170+ blogs I’ve written since 2016.  (A few are here, here, here, and here).  Not to mention the many wonderful friendships I formed along the way, with Tom Buergenthal, Marit Greve, Sten Vermund, and many, many, others

Looking back, I still marvel at how a six-line footnote included by Tom Buergenthal in his 2010 memoir, A Lucky Child, and read by me the same year, could so unalterably change the direction of my life, for it introduced me to an unknown Norwegian named Odd Nansen, and to a diary he had written years before I was born.

A while ago I came across this passage in a book review written by Robert Darnton, Director Emeritus of the Harvard University Library:

“We commonly think of books as containers of ideas or wrapping for literature, but they can be understood in other ways—as if they were blood cells carrying oxygen through a body politic or data points as infinite as the stars in the sky.  Books lead lives of their own, and they intersect with our lives in ways we have only begun to understand.”

Years ago, I might have scoffed at this notion, dismissing it as pure fantasy, but now I’m not so sure. The number of coincidences—serendipity I call it for lack of a better term—that seem to attend everything about Odd Nansen’s diary is simply uncanny.  Maybe the diary does have a life of its own?  Maybe it was just waiting for someone to come along and bring it back to life—when the time was right.  I’ve written about serendipity a number of times: here, here, here and here.

Here is the latest example of serendipity.

Earlier this year I received a purchase order for a copy of Nansen’s diary through my website.  It was notable in that it was the first and only purchase order I’ve received over the past five years from someone outside the U.S.  The buyer was located in Austria.  I did a Google search of the address and learned that the buyer, Christiane P., lived near Vienna. In confirming the order, I wrote Christiane and happened to mention that I had visited Vienna in December 2018, and had had a wonderful time in the Austrian capital.  Christiane replied that the next time I visited Vienna I needed to let her know, as she gave tours there, focusing on its experience in World War II, with an emphasis on the rise of Hitler and Hitlerism.

Well, I responded, when in Vienna my wife and I had indeed taken a tour much like the one Christiane was describing.  In fact, I still had a photo on my camera of our tour guide—could Christiane be one and the same person?  Her response: Yes–it was her! Now, I had not mentioned my book to Christiane during our tour, and she could not have possibly have remembered my name after the passage of over two years, and yet she, of the many millions in Europe, reached out to me based on her interest in learning about a Norwegian named Odd Nansen and his World War II diary.

Coincidence? Serendipity? You tell me.  Whatever is at work here, I only hope it keeps up for the next five years!

And to you, my readers, I offer my thanks for all your past and future support, whether by way of word of mouth, reviews on Amazon, suggestions for presentations, and the like.  Without your help, the continued high level of interest in Odd Nansen’s diary after five years would be impossible.  In 1949, despite rave reviews in all the major U.S. papers, the book went to a second printing before going out of print. Today, we are on our fifth printing, and demand remains strong. All thanks to you.

April 22, 1945: Sachsenhausen Liberated

Share

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

Marit (Nansen) Greve 11/8/28–3/26/21

Share

It is with great sadness that I inform you of the death of my dear friend Marit Greve, eldest child of Odd and Kari Nansen, and granddaughter of Fridtjof Nansen, on Friday, March 26.  Marit was 92 years old.

Marit was born November 8, 1928, in Brooklyn, NY. (I would often kid her that, beneath her Norwegian lilt, I could still detect a trace of a Brooklyn accent.)  She was 13 years-old when her father was arrested in 1942, old enough to remember vividly the night he was taken away.

She was also old enough to remember well the hardships that followed—like learning to make and eat dandelion salad and soup.  But there were also moments of humor.  Like many families, the Nansens raised animals during the war for food.  At one point they were down to a single rabbit, which they then kept with the chickens.  According to Marit the rabbit soon began to think it was a hen: “It climbed the perch . . . in the evenings like the hens, [and] had a siesta in the sitting box  . . . every day.  Astonishingly, it did not produce an egg.”

Marit admiring a Tryon, NC pumpkin,  September 2016.

Odd Nansen of course worried about his family while he was incarcerated, and what effect his long separation might have on his children.  On March 3, 1943, he wrote: “Marit looked very fit, but I noticed that she’s almost grown a bit shy of me, and it went right through me like a stab.  Have I been away so long already? . . . I can’t stand for my children to drift away.”  Five months later (Aug. 5, 1943), when Marit was temporarily denied access to her dad, and cried in despair over the thought, Nansen was overjoyed: “Oh, how it warmed my heart; I do believe she cares a little for her daddy, and now I’m not afraid she may have grown away from me and forgotten me in this time.”  On Marit’s 16th birthday Nansen once again fretted in his diary that he was losing his little girl, who was now becoming a woman, despite her protestations to the contrary in a letter she sent him.  “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 both of us.”

Odd Nansen and Marit, 1930s

Based on everything I learned from Marit, Nansen needn’t have worried at all.

I first met Marit in August of 2011.  Having decided to republish Nansen’s diary, I first arranged a meeting in Washington, DC, to introduce myself to Tom Buergenthal.  Tom, gracious as ever, offered during the meeting to write to Marit and introduce me so that I could start a correspondence with her.  After all, by that time, Tom and Marit had been friends for over 60 years.  In Tom’s Preface, he writes of his first trip to Norway in 1948: “Kari Nansen, Odd Nansen’s wife, and their four children—Marit, Eigil, Siri, and Odd Erik—treated me almost from the beginning like a member of the family.” Tom further indicated to me that Marit was the “keeper of the flame” and was the best resource to answer all my questions about her father.

Oslo, October 2015

Several months later my wife Tara and I were invited to a wedding in Stockholm, Sweden, and I arranged ahead of time to stop over in Oslo on our way home and meet with Marit.  We agreed to rendezvous at Polhøgda, the house built by Fridtjof Nansen that Marit had grown up in as a child.  (When Marit married she moved into a new house a mere five-minute walk away.)  We sat outside on the lawn on a gorgeous afternoon and Marit patiently answered all the questions I could think of.  Tara (who was furiously taking notes on my behalf) and I had been warned about Norwegians’ habitual reserve, and so we were pleasantly surprised when Marit then invited us to her home.  There we chatted further, and she showed me a framed photo of the Nansen family on the day her father returned from captivity (the same photo appears on page 567 of From Day to Day).  I couldn’t stop staring at this photo, at which point Marit removed it from the frame and handed it to me! A typical example of her graciousness and generosity.

Hotel Grande, October 2014. Me; Marit; Anne Ellingsen (Odd Nansen’s biographer); Anne Greve, Marit’s daughter; Robert Bjorka (last living Norwegian survivor of Sachsenhausen)

And thus began a wonderful friendship and collaboration. Marit visited the U.S. as our houseguest twice, in 2013 and 2016, and I followed up on my 2011 visit with trips to Norway in 2014, 2015, 2018 and 2019.  Had COVID not intervened, I would have travelled to Norway last April for another presentation, and Marit had even agreed to attend a Kristallnacht commemoration set for November 2020 in New Haven, CT.

Marit in Tryon, NC, September 2016

My many favorite memories include: her visits to America; sharing the podium with Marit at the Nobel Institute in Oslo, where we spoke in the same room Fridtjof Nansen gave his own Nobel Peace Prize address decades earlier; speaking at the Norwegian Center for Holocaust and Minority Studies; and most importantly, sharing in Marit’s special 90th birthday party in 2018, held on the deck of the Fram, the ship Fridtjof Nansen built for his expedition to the North Pole (1893—1896).

Marit’s Birthday. She is wearing the apron I gave her, which states “I just turned 90. What did you do today.”

When From Day to Day was re-published in 2016, I acknowledged the critically important contributions of three individuals: Tom Buergenthal, for introducing me to Odd Nansen in the first place via his memoir; Sten Vermund, for introducing me to Vanderbilt University Press, my eventual publisher, and most importantly, Marit Greve.  At the time I wrote: “Many of the insights into Nansen’s diary entries would have remained impossible without her knowledge of the events of 1942-1945.  Marit is a wonderful friend, self-effacing to a fault, and the inheritor of her father’s wit and humor.  To come to know Marit as I have is truly one of the unexpected, but deeply cherished, joys of this undertaking.”

My last image of Marit, holding a US Senate Commendation for Odd Nansen’s work on behalf of refugees, received January, 2021.

Skål, Marit, and may your memory be a blessing.  I shall miss you terribly.

Lay down
Your sweet and weary head.
Night is falling;
You have come to journey’s end.
Sleep now,
And dream of the ones
Who came before.
They are calling
From across the distant shore.

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

Share

“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.

Upcoming Events

Share

Book Signings

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

People are talking


"Tim...gave a terriffic presentation [at the Norwegian Nobel Institute]."

- Anne Ellingsen, author of Odd Nansen: Arvtageren

For more posts please see our archives.

Archives

On This Date

< 2022 >
September
SMTWHFS
    123
45678910
11121314151617
18192021222324
252627282930 
Legend
  Previous/Upcoming Engagements
  This day in history