“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.