(Click on any image to start slideshow. Photos courtesy of Anne Ellingsen.)
On October 1, 2015, I had the pleasure of participating in a seminar on the life of Odd Nansen, organized in conjunction with the recent publication of the first biography of Nansen, Odd Nansen: Arvtageren [Odd Nansen: The Inheritor] by Anne Ellingsen.
I had known that the venue was to be the Norwegian Nobel Institute in downtown Oslo. What I had failed to even imagine was that we would be speaking in the same room, and from the same podium, that Odd Nansen’s father Fridtjof used when accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922. Talk about inspiration!
The panel was outstanding. Following a welcome by the head of the Nobel Institute, Olav Njølstad, author Anne Ellingsen began with an excellent overview of Nansen’s life and work. The next speaker, Robert Bjørka (age 95), not only spent time in Grini and Sachsenhausen with Nansen, but for a while worked in the same squad (kommando) with him. Robert shared his first-hand experiences of the camps, as well as liberation at the hands of the Swedish Red Cross.
Thomas Buergenthal, another invitee, was unable to attend due to a previous commitment, so I had the honor of delivering his paper, entitled “My Uncle Odd.” I followed this presentation with my own remarks, on the diary’s appeal to Americans. To answer this question, I explained, one needed to understand 1) why the diary hadn’t appealed to Americans in 1949 (short answer: bad timing), 2) why the diary appealed to me 65 years later (see my “Why This Book, Why Me, Why Now?” ), and 3) why I feel the diary’s forthcoming re-release will appeal to Americans today (short answer: better timing).
Carl Emil Vogt, a scholar on Fridtjof Nansen, served as both moderator and panelist, and spoke about Odd Nansen’s close relationship with the family of 1921 Nobel Peace Laureate Christian Lous Lange. In 1936 Lange was instrumental in inspiring Odd Nansen to form Nansenhjelpen (Nansen Relief); later both of Lange’s sons ended up in the same concentration camps with Nansen. Marit Greve, Odd Nansen’s eldest daughter, spoke about the impact of Nansen’s humanitarian work on their family life. Marit could not recall a single instance while growing up when the family did not have at least one visiting guest at the dinner table—often a foreign refugee—a testament to her mother Kari’s ability to accommodate any and all strangers at a moment’s notice.
Michael Tetzschner, a member of Norway’s Parliament (the Storting), concluded the panel by contrasting the consequence-free atmosphere of today’s western democracies, where virtually any type of free speech is tolerated, with the courage needed by Odd Nansen to speak his conscience in German-occupied Norway, where critical speech often had serious, indeed fatal, consequences.
Following a short Q&A, we were all presented with bouquets, said our good-byes, and walked out into the brisk Oslo evening air. Whether my feet ever touched the ground on the way back to the hotel is debatable. It was truly a magical event; one I will never forget.