[Blogger’s Note: Most of my forthcoming scheduled appearances are now being postponed until further notice. In my own contribution to “social distancing,” I plan to stay home as much as possible, and write more blogs.]
The 15th of March has had a bad connotation for quite some time—since at least 44 BC to be exact, when Julius Caesar was assassinated. Shakespeare turned the date into a meme of sorts in his 1599 play about Caesar—as something to “beware of.”
March 15, 1939 was a particularly grim day, all told, in the lives of many.
On that day Odd Nansen was in Prague, Czechoslovakia, having just returned on the 13th from a mission in Bratislava. In both cities he was toiling away at helping refugees. Nansenhjelpen, the organization he founded and ran, had been fighting an uphill battle since 1936. By this time Nansen and his wife Kari were pursuing both legal means (visas) and not so legal means (smuggling) in their efforts to assist desperate refugees fleeing persecution. In fact, a transport of eighty refugees was set to depart Prague for Norway—on March 15.
In the early morning hours of the scheduled departure date Nansen was awakened by a call notifying him that German forces had crossed the Czech border, and would arrive in Prague shortly. And shortly they did arrive, in force, directing traffic, shutting down all trains, commandeering all local hotels. The Nansens were summarily ejected from their hotel room/office. With some inside help, and a bribe to grease things, they soon secured a room in the nearby Hotel Alcron.
With all trains halted, Nansen’s first order of business was securing the release of his eighty trapped refugees. By a stroke of luck, a German general, Erich Hoepner, was also staying at the Alcron, and Nansen obtained a meeting with him.
According to author Maynard Cohen, writing in his book A Stand Against Tyranny:
“Odd Nansen began with a description of the refugees in the forest outside Prague, how at that moment they lay in the snow beneath the open sky outside Prague, having forsaken their quarters in fear of the Gestapo. He spoke of the sick and the old, the women and children, who had fled from country to country and city to city to avoid their ever-following pursuers.”
Hoepner relented, and allowed the women and children to depart by train; the men were illegally smuggled across the border into Poland.*
Less than three years later, Nansen would find himself a prisoner of the Nazis.**
Meanwhile, somewhere along the Czech/Polish border, four-year-old Tommy Buergenthal was stuck, along with his parents, was in his own purgatory.
Tom’s parents (following an ominous visit to the local police station), had decided that Czechoslovakia was no longer safe for them and they headed out for Poland. They got as far as the border, where they became trapped in a no-man’s-land, the 50-yd strip that separated the Polish border post from the Czech border post. As stateless refugees they had no valid travel documents. Tom relates in his memoir, A Luck Child:
“As soon as we got to the Polish side of the border, the Polish guards would order us back to the Czech side. The Czechs, in turn, would not allow us to reenter. And so it went on for days. . . . Back and forth we went, day and night. We would sleep in the field adjacent to the road between the border posts or in one of the ditches [which ran alongside the road].”
It was only when heavily armed German troops arrived at the Czech border on March 15th did things change. When Tom’s parents were able to convince the Germans (“the very people we were trying to escape”) that they were Polish, the German in charge browbeat the Polish guards into admitting the Buergenthals. “That is how we got into Poland.” It may have seemed like deliverance at the time, but the Kielce Ghetto, Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Ravensbrück and Sachsenhausen lay ahead.
Elsewhere in Prague Ilse and Willi Weber, along with their five-year-old son (also named Tommy), were similarly scrambling to escape. Willi had applied to the Palestine Office in 1938 for a certificate allowing his family to emigrate to Palestine, and it was granted. Before he could take advantage of his good luck, however, the Czech government ruled that Jews from the Sudetenland (absorbed into Germany in October, 1938 pursuant to the Munich Pact) should be given first priority. Willi was assured he would automatically qualify for the next certificates—scheduled to arrive March 15. When, as Willi later wrote, “Adolf’s hordes arrived” on that fateful day, the Palestine Office in Prague left. While some certificates ultimately did arrive in Prague a bit later, their price had almost quadrupled, beyond the reach of the Webers.
In 1942 the Webers were deported to Theresienstadt. There over 30,000 prisoners would perish, most from starvation. As Willi noted, “most of the dead were old people; the young always figured out how to help themselves in some way, and those who worked received bigger rations.” Ilse and young Tommy Weber were later sent to Auschwitz, where they were both gassed upon arrival. Willi, also transported to Auschwitz, survived the war.***
Martha Gellhorn, the American journalist and war correspondent, had also been in Prague, arriving in June 1938. Did she ever meet Odd Nansen? Perhaps: her biographer, Caroline Moorehead, writes that “she found herself drawn . . . into the fate of the refugees: the frightened Jews and dissidents who had recently fled Austria and Germany and now had nowhere to go.” According to Gellhorn herself, in February 1939, “in the beautiful bolt-hole [hideaway] of Cuba,“ she began to write a short story about the refugees of Prague. It ultimately grew into a novel, A Stricken Field, published in 1940.
In an afterword to her novel, Gellhorn quotes from a letter she wrote on March 19, 1939—four days after Odd Nansen’s heroic act; four days after Tom Buergenthal’s family’s escape from no-man’s-land into an even darker future; four days after the hopes and dreams of the Weber family were so terribly dashed:
“We live in a world unlike any other at any time. A world so cruel and mad that one cannot believe it will survive. . . I think, no doubt selfishly, that right now there is nothing to do about it except help one’s friends.”
Right now we are all concerned with the coronavirus. So much is unknown: how fast will it spread; who will it infect; will hospitals be prepared; who will die? All of this is truly unnerving. But would any of us trade our world, with all the promise it holds, for the far more difficult and uncertain one inhabited by the Nansens, the Buergenthals, the Webers, or the refugees of Prague? Of course not.
And if they could face their unknown futures resolutely, perhaps we can take some courage from their example, and focus on “help[ing] one’s friends.”
* Hoepner was hanged on August 8, 1944, for his part in the July 1944 assassination plot against Hitler. As further punishment, his wife and daughter were sent to Ravensbrück, and his son was sent to Buchenwald.
** Odd Nansen was arrested on the Ides of January, 1942, as I have written about here.
*** I have previously written about Ilse Weber here.