Posts tagged XU

Profiles in Courage: Lauritz Sand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bust of Lauritz Sand.

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

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

Norway’s Constitution Day: In Praise of Heroes

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Happy Constitution Day, Norway!

I’ve written about this day, known as Syttende Mai, before, focusing on Norway’s experiences in World War II (here and here).  I’ve also written in the past about some of the heroes of World War II (here) and some of its tragic victims (here).  Today I would like to focus on a small, and sometimes overlooked, segment of the resistance movement in Norway during World War II.

When people join an armed resistance movement, or any organized military group, as many Norwegians did during the war, joining Milorg in country, or escaping to England to fight with British forces or the SOE (Special Operations Executive), they accepted the possibility of a premature, violent, death.  But each such person usually held, deep inside themselves, the somewhat contradictory belief that, while death might come to some of their comrades, it would somehow spare them.  And in truth, no situation, no matter how dismal, no matter how hopeless, guarantees certain death.  Stories are legion of soldiers charging into the face of death and yet somehow miraculously surviving unhurt.  It’s that belief—that miracles can and do occur—that allows many such heroic feats to occur at all.

But there is a smaller group of people touched by war—those who choose to die by suicide.

Not long ago I finished reading a recently published book, Secret Alliances: Special Operations and Intelligence in Norway 1944-1945, by Tony Insall.  I wish I could recommend the book, but that’s not possible.  It is overly dry, repetitive, stuffed with acronyms, and rather disorganized.  Nevertheless, what jumped out at me from the book were the number of stories that ended with a resistance fighter taking their own life.  “[Karl Rasmussen] was taken to Gestapo headquarters in Tromsø, and committed suicide by jumping out of a third floor window.”  “In an exchange of shots when the Gestapo tried to arrest them, [Gregers] Gram was killed and [Edvard] Tallaksen injured.  He committed suicide in prison.”  “[Bjorn] Eriksen, [a student leader in XU, a clandestine intelligence organization] was arrested. . . and committed suicide by jumping out of a fourth floor window.”  Åsmund Færoy parachuted into Norway in early April 1945 to help protect Norway’s harbors against possible destruction by the retreating Germans.  He was apprehended April 9, 1945 and “unsuccessfully tried to hang himself.”

Even Odd Nansen was aware of the number of such deaths.  On August 21, 1943, he relates the story of a fellow cellmate, Knut Eliassen, a navy lieutenant, who had slit his wrists.  “Knut’s attempt at suicide was—as was so many others’—not successful.”*

Why did these men choose to end their own life by suicide?  Certainly, and quite reasonably, they feared torture.  Torture of course could be avoided by telling all they knew.  And yet it was precisely this fear—of talking—and thus harming others, that led each of them to end their own lives, in the knowledge that death was the only sure-fire method of keeping their secrets safe.

And the fear of torture was well placed.  One witness, housed with a resistance fighter, reported on the experience:

“He [the resistance fighter] found great difficulty in talking. . . .  I had to feed and wash him.  The policemen had broken four of his fingers and had pulled out the nails from two of them.  Afterward they had hit him with sticks wrapped in cloth until he collapsed.  Then they turned him on his back and jumped on his stomach.  He stated that he had asked his tormentors to shoot him.  I myself saw that he was bleeding through the mouth and the rectum and that four fingers had been broken and were bent backwards.”

As Odd Nansen observed of the frightful activities at Grini Prison, and at Victoria Terrace, the Gestapo headquarters in Oslo: “People have been beaten up and tortured and tormented beyond all bounds.  Some held, others cracked.  No one dare sit in judgement.  One man cracked and had the death of others on his conscience.” (March 12, 1942).

This conscience, this realization of their own possible weakness, this concern for the lives of others above their own, was what motivated Rasmussen, Tallaksen, Eriksen, Færoy, and many others, known and still unknown, to try and take their own life instead.

It takes a high degree of courage to go into battle, knowing full well there’s a chance of imminent death.  It takes an even higher degree of courage to face the certainty of death for the sake of one’s cause.

So on this day of celebration on behalf of Norway’s constitution—the second oldest in the world—let us honor those who selflessly and willingly made the ultimate sacrifice to protect that constitution.

Jeg hilser deg,** Messrs. Rasmussen, Tallaksen, Eriksen, Færoy, and the many who preceded you, and those that followed in your wake.

[* = This passage is found only in the newly edited 2016 version of Odd Nansen’s diary.]

[** = “I salute you”]

Upcoming Events

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Book Signings

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

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"[W]hat a terrific program that was--and we here at BTL [Bernards Township Library] feel we know exceptional programs! . . . You are an accomplished story-teller, and kept the audience of over 60 people engaged and enthralled."

- Ruth Lufkin Director Bernards Township Library Basking Ridge, NJ

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