Posts tagged Thomas Buergenthal

In The Beginning…..

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…….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

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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  

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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

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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

Marit (Nansen) Greve 11/8/28–3/26/21

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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

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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.

The Meaning of Cold: Redux

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With much of the U.S. once again facing a winter onslaught, I thought it might be worth revisiting and republishing a blog I wrote three years ago during a similar case of winter’s fury: the Bomb Cyclone of 2018.  Sadly, my fears of antisemitism have only grown stronger in the interval.  Here it is.

So the Bomb Cyclone has come and gone, leaving a Polar Vortex in its wake.  Did you survive it?  Unborn generations will be asking us in future years how we coped.  At the very least, the storm stranded thousands of passengers, shut down government services along the East Coast, provided a few days off from school, and probably froze enough pipes to keep the plumbing industry in America afloat (apologies for the pun) for quite some time.

Even here in western North Carolina, the so-called Isothermal Belt, where temperatures are expected to be, well, temperate, things got pretty nippy.  The barn was drained, heaters were installed in the horses’ water buckets against freezing, the light bulb was kept on in the well house, and the fireplace well stocked.  I am a veteran of almost 50 Connecticut winters, and even I felt a bit uncomfortable during my daily dog walk.  And I had my polar fleece ski cap, insulated and padded LL Bean coat, cashmere scarf, and sturdy boots (again courtesy of LL Bean).

Today, as I attempted (unsuccessfully) to hasten along my dogs’ perambulations, I couldn’t help but reflect on an event that occurred two weeks shy of 72 years ago: the evacuation of Auschwitz, otherwise known as the Auschwitz Death March.  Clad in cotton prison uniforms, some with blankets, some without, some with boots, some with wooden clogs, some with rags tied round their feet, approximately 56,000 prisoners set out on January 18, 1945, into the Polish winter.  According to Professor Daniel Blatman, an authority on the death marches, temperatures in the area “dropp[ed] to -10 to -15°C,” or 5 to 14° F.

One of those 56,000 prisoners was ten year-old Tom Buergenthal.  As Tom relates in his memoir, A Lucky Child, over the next three days he walked 70 kilometers (42 miles), sleeping on the frozen ground at night.  By the time he reached Gliwice on the third day, Tom could no longer feel his toes.  There, he ate his remaining bread and licked a few handfuls of snow.  “Oh, what would I have given for even a few spoonfuls of that terrible Auschwitz turnip soup or, for that matter, anything warm!” he writes.

Auschwitz in winter

At Gliwice Tom was packed onto an open cattle car.  At first the warmth of the crowded car was an asset, but as prisoners died and their bodies were thrown over the side, even that advantage faded.  “The snow and wind seemed never to let up, and we could feel the cold more now than before because there were fewer warm bodies pressing against us.” With his bread gone, Tom was reduced to eating snow, imagining it tasted like ice cream, “although I doubt that we remembered what ice cream tasted like.”

How such cruelty could be visited upon a ten year-old boy, for no other reason than his Jewish birth, is a question that both perplexes me (no matter how much I read up on the subject), but also frightens me, as the disease of anti-Semitism once again gains virulence, even here in America.

Was there any saving grace, or silver lining, to be extracted from the experience of the Death March?  Hardly.  Thousands of prisoners died in the process, a mere 100 days before the war’s end.  After ten days on the cattle car, Tom had several of his frostbitten toes amputated when he finally arrived in Sachsenhausen.  But in a strange twist of fate, his injury placed him in Sachsenhausen’s Revier III (Infirmary No. 3), which also housed one of Odd Nansen’s Norwegian friends.  It was while visiting his friend that Odd first encountered young Tommy, so young and so innocent that Nansen called him “one of Raphael’s angels.”  Otherwise, the chances that Tom and Odd would ever have crossed paths in a camp as large as Sachsenhausen were almost negligible.  And that improbable meeting proved a boon to both Nansen and Buergenthal.

Even in the darkest hours there were a few other gleams of light.  Saul Friedländer, in his book Nazi Germany and the Jews, Volume II (The Years of Extermination), recounts the experience of another Death March participant, Paul Steinberg, who had “’a precise, detailed, overwhelming memory.’”  When Steinberg’s train approached Prague, Czechoslovakia, it passed under bridges where Czechs were marching overhead on their way to work.

“’As one man,’ Steinberg recalls, ‘the Czechs opened their satchels and tossed their lunches down to us without a moment’s hesitation. . . .  We were showered with rolls, slices of bread. . . .’”

Tom Buergenthal had a similar experience:

“Just when I was sure that it would only be a matter of a day or two before I too would die and be thrown out of the car, a miracle occurred.  As the train moved slowly through Czechoslovakia, . . . men, women and children standing on the bridges we passed under [began tossing bread loaves into the cars]  . . . . Had it not been for that Czech bread, we would not have survived.  I never learned how this magnificent campaign had been mounted, but as long as I live, I will not forget these angels—for to me they seemed to be angels—who provided us bread as if from heaven.”

Think about that the next time you reach for your fur-lined gloves.

[Originally published January 7, 2018.]

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.

Children: Lost and Found

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Among the manifold tragedies of the Holocaust, one of the greatest was the destruction of Jewish families.  Worried parents were often faced with agonizing choices regarding the fate of their children: keep the family intact and hope for the best, or send them away rather than risk their futures to an increasingly dark future.  Sometimes this required packing them off to foreign lands, into the hands of strangers, for indefinite periods.  Other times it meant sending them into hiding, or giving their children new (non-Jewish) identifies to ensure their safety.  Ilse Weber sent her 7-year-old son off on the Kindertransport to England, and later Sweden.  Ruth Maier went off alone from Vienna to Norway, age 18.

Of course, once in the maw of the concentration camp, family separation was all but assured.  Anne Frank, age 15, was separated from her father Otto when she was sent on to Bergen-Belsen and he remained in Auschwitz. Elie Wiesel, age 15, separated from his mother and sisters when the family was arrested in Hungary in 1944.

Tom Buergenthal was no exception.  Upon arriving in Auschwitz in August 1944, Tom, age 10, was immediately separated from his mother, who was placed in a women’s subcamp.  Thereafter he had only one, fleeting, glimpse of her through the wire, a few months later, before she was transported to Ravensbrück in Germany. Around the same time, Tom’s father was also sent away—first to Sachsenhausen and later to Buchenwald—where he would succumb to pneumonia in January 1945.  All Tom knew was that both his parents were gone, destination and fate unknown, and he was alone.

At least Tom’s story had a somewhat happy ending.  After the war, a clerk in the Jewish Agency in Palestine somehow miraculously noticed Tom’s name on a list of those wishing to emigrate to Palestine and the same name on a list of missing persons.  Absent this discovery, who knows whether Tom would ever have been located by his mother, despite the fact that she, like so many parents, had never stopped searching for him.  After all, had he not been labeled ein Glückskind—a lucky child—by the fortuneteller?

Once located, Tom embarked on yet another transport—a happy one—from Otwock, Poland to Göttingen, Germany where his mother eagerly awaited him.  Seventy-four years ago today—December 29, 1946—Tom arrived by train at Göttingen station.  By now the war had been over for nineteen months, and it had been almost two and a half years since mother and child had been together.

“I could not contain my excitement. I spotted my mother even before the train came to a stop.  As I try to describe the emotions of that moment, I realize that I am incapable of putting into words what I felt.  And even now, so many years later, tears well up in my eyes as I see her standing there, nervously scanning the slowing railroad cars for a glimpse of me.  While the train was still moving, I jumped out and raced over to her.  We fell into each other’s arms and stood there long after the train had moved out of the station, hugging each other and trying in just a few minutes to recount all that had happened to us since that August day in 1944 when we were separated in Auschwitz.”

The meeting was also bittersweet:

Und Papa?” I finally asked.  She did not answer right away but kept shaking her head as tears ran down her cheeks.  Right then I knew that my father had not survived the war that was now finally over for my mother and me.

A Young Thomas Buergenthal

While so many Nazis and their helpers were trying to destroy families, Odd Nansen was trying to save them.

In 1938, following the Anschluss, Odd Nansen’s relief organization, Nansenhjelpen, helped Jewish children travel from Vienna to attend summer camp in Norway. As conditions in Austria worsened, the children were allowed, reluctantly, to stay in Norway, at a Jewish Children’s Home headed by one Nina Hasvoll,* herself a refugee from Russia and Germany.  The following year Nansenhjelpen brought children from Czechoslovakia to the children’s home in Oslo as well.  Nina continued to look out for her young charges in Oslo for several years, until late 1942, when conditions for Jews in Norway worsened.  On the morning of November 26, 1942, acting on a tip, Nina was able to spirit all of her 14 children away from the home a mere two hours before the Norwegian police arrived to round them up for deportation. [Virtually all the Jewish children who were rounded up were ultimately murdered in Auschwitz.] She helped the children escape to safety in Sweden with the help of several friends, a taxi driver and two border pilots, all of whom were later recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem.

Nina Hasvoll

One of the young children in Hasvoll’s care was Berthold Grünfeld, who had arrived from Czechoslovakia as a 7-year-old in 1939 through the efforts of Odd Nansen.  As a result of Nina Hasvoll’s care, attention, and quick action during the Jewish roundup, Grünfeld survived and later became a prominent psychiatrist in postwar Norway.  In 2005 he was appointed to the Royal Norwegian Order of St. Olav in recognition for his “distinguished services rendered to Norway and mankind.” Berthold never forgot Nina Hasvoll, and named one of his daughters Nina in her honor.

Berthold Grünfeld

That daughter, Nina Grünfeld, has in turn produced a wonderful film about Nina Hasvoll and the Jewish Children’s Home.  Called “Nina’s Children,” it is available to rent on Vimeo.  Here is the link.  I highly recommend it.  If you watch and listen closely, you will see and hear references to Nansenhjelpen in the movie.

So, as we celebrate Tom Buergenthal’s’ good fortune in being miraculously reunited with his mother 74 years ago this day, let us honor the actions of Odd Nansen, Nina Hasvoll, and others like them during the Holocaust.  But let us also remember the loss of Tom’s father, as well as tragic fates of the Frank family, the Wiesel family, the Weber family, the Maier family, and all those countless other families that would never again be made whole—a lasting, indelible tragedy of the Holocaust, and a tragedy which is still being perpetrated today.

*Nina married after the war and is often referred to as Nina Hasvoll Meyer.  She had no children of her own.

December 6, 1901: Odd Nansen’s Birthday

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Odd Nansen

Today is the 119th anniversary of Odd Nansen’s birth.

“What is it in the human character that gives some individuals the moral strength not to sacrifice their decency and dignity, regardless of the costs to themselves, whereas others become murderously ruthless in the hope of ensuring their own survival?”  Thomas Buergenthal, A Lucky Child.

That, indeed, is the question.  Religion, philosophy, psychology, political science, among other disciplines, have all wrestled, unsuccessfully, to answer this conundrum.  Perhaps the answer is insoluble.  As historian Barbara Tuchman wrote, in Practicing History: “Whole philosophies have evolved over the question whether the human species is predominately good or evil.  I only know that it is mixed, that you cannot separate good from bad, that wisdom, courage and benevolence exist alongside knavery, greed and stupidity; heroism and fortitude alongside vainglory, cruelty and corruption.”

So, if humankind is inherently flawed—good existing beside evil at all times, what steps can we humans take to insure that good gains the upper hand in our ongoing struggle to do the right thing?

My friend, the writer Samuel Hynes, once observed about one of his favorite subjects—war—that it is ultimately a human struggle against human enemies: evil, fear, and death itself.  Further, stories of war are witnesses to acts of great courage and self-sacrifice.  Equally important, in Hynes’s view, those acts of great bravery—which we recognize as humanly valuable—are “not performed by heroes but by people like us. . . .   They are ourselves, elsewhere; and their actions are our extreme possibilities.”

Thus, we may never be able to fully solve Tom Buergenthal’s riddle, and must recognize, like Tuchman, that the capacity for both good and evil exists within all of us.  But as long as stories like Odd Nansen’s matchless diary exist and are read, we can nevertheless recognize that Nansen’s actions point the way to our own “extreme possibilities” —extremes of courage and self-sacrifice—and try to conduct our lives accordingly.

Happy Birthday, Odd Nansen.

Upcoming Events

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Book Signings

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