Google Honors Fridtjof Nansen

The Google doodle

The Google doodle

I was awakened this morning by multiple messages on Facebook, Twitter, Hotmail, Gmail, LinkedIn, and carrier pigeon, each asking: “Have you seen today’s Google doodle?”  So, I beat a hasty path to the font of all knowledge, and saw with my own eyes an intricate scene of a Viking ship sailing up a fjord, a snow-bound hut, an unmistakable profile, and a facsimile of a Nansen passport, all crowned by a cross-country skier heading straight toward me.  A tribute to Fridtjof Nansen on his birthday (1861).

In the course of my research on Odd Nansen, his son, I learned quite a bit about Fridtjof as well, and a remarkable man he was.  No single biography yet does justice to all the facets of his life. Athlete, scientist, explorer, statesman, writer, humanitarian, artist: he was all of these and more.  As one biographer, Roland Huntford, sums up, he “was a hero of his times.”  Fridtjof was a prolific writer, with over a dozen books to his credit.   His tale of striking out for the North Pole in 1893 (age 31), Farthest North, is one of the most fascinating adventure stories ever written.  Not surprisingly, it is based on, and in large part transcribes, his diary entries written during his forty-month journey.  Like father, like son.

Fridtjof Nansen

Fridtjof Nansen

But what most clearly stands out for me is Fridtjof Nansen’s character, which is the element that allowed him to excel in so many endeavors.  In 1926, in an address to the students of St. Andrews University in Scotland, Nansen observed: “I had the advantage of living a great deal alone [think Arctic!] and had thus acquired the habit of making up my mind without asking the opinion of others.  Ibsen said that that man is strongest who stands most alone.”

One man who stood very much alone in the face of injustice was his son, Odd Nansen, arrested by the Nazis on January 13, 1942 as a hostage, and confined to various concentration camps for almost three and a half years, until the closing weeks of World War II.  No doubt Fridtjof’s example helped his son weather the storm.  As I write in my Introduction to From Day to Day: One Man’s Diary of Survival in Nazi Concentration Camps, Odd Nansen and his father were both very much alike in many ways, none more so than their strength of character.  And Odd Nansen’s concentration camp diary never fails to mention his father’s birthday, as one October 10th follows another in captivity.  Here’s a particularly poignant one:

Sunday, October 10, 1943.  Father’s birthday.  He would have been eighty-two today, if he had lived.  If he had lived!  The memory of him and his lifework seems completely alien and unintelligible, as though it all belonged to another world.  But there are still ties binding us to that world, and we won’t allow them to be severed if we can help it.  We hold fast to them convulsively, refuse to slide down the precipice that threatens on every side, with its black, hopeless maw.

….

Oh, if one could only wake up from this nightmare, wake up and find that there exists another reality which is of the light!  And this heartfelt wish evolves into an intense yearning, which increasingly takes conscious form in one’s mind. The light returns, at first by glimpses like a beacon lamp in the night, then like a fixed light a long way off, steadily approaching, changing to brilliant sunlight.  And in the sunlight, suddenly there they are, she [his wife Kari] and the children, smiling to one in trust and confidence! At last! All one has in life, all one goes on living for, is contained in that vision.”

For all of his incredible physical prowess and vitality, Fridtjof Nansen did not enjoy a particularly long life, dying on May 13, 1930, at age 68.  Years ago, I came across a biography of another Renaissance man, the Victorian William Morris, written by Fiona MacCarthy (William Morris: A Life for Our Time).  Describing Morris’s approaching death (at age 62), MacCarthy writes: “When Morris was dying, one of his physicians diagnosed his disease as ‘simply being William Morris and having done more work than most ten men.’”

Arguably, no better description of Fridtjof Nansen’s life exists either.  So, I thank all the many, many wonderful friends who wrote me today to ensure that I saw “the Google doodle,” and along with Google, salute the birthday and life of Fridtjof Nansen.

Skål!

October 6: Nansen Reaches Sachsenhausen; Ilse Weber Dies

In the history of the Holocaust, there are many somber anniversaries.  I’ve written about a few, including the start of the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto (here).

On October 6, 1944, seventy-three years ago today, the talented songwriter and playwright Ilse Weber went to her death at Auschwitz, voluntarily accompanying the children she had cared for while in Theresienstadt (which I’ve written more about here).

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

Exactly one year earlier, on October 6, 1943, Odd Nansen arrived at the German concentration camp of Sachsenhausen, located approximately twenty-five miles north of Berlin.  After a practical joke went awry, and became a contest of wills between Nansen and the head of the head of the protective custody camp in Grini, Norway, Nansen was informed:

“that I would now go to Germany and find out what a real German “K.Z.Lager” (Kazettenlager) [Concentration Camp] was like.  He assured me that I need entertain no hopes of ever getting back to Norway—they could just put up the “monument” upon my grave (once more) straight away, for from the place I was now bound for, people seldom returned alive.”

As Nansen departed Grini for his new destination, he remained upbeat, observing “There’s something strange about movement—even if one is going to hell.  At any rate one’s getting somewhere—something is happening, the route may be pretty, and isn’t the paving celebrated?”  And, commenting on his arrival in Sachsenhausen after a voyage by bus, ship and train, Nansen observes:

“In the light from a crack in the door [of the railcar] where I was lying, I wrote about the strange journey.  Unfortunately I didn’t manage to preserve that section of the diary, but I am certain there was nothing dolorous in those travel notes.  We were going on—slowly perhaps, but we were getting somewhere.  Something was happening—we were in motion.  And as I said, there’s something about movement—even if it leads to hell.  And that was pretty much where it led.”

A Great Road Trip

Earlier this month I embarked on my most ambitious book tour yet—a 13-day, 9-stop, 2,942-mile extravaganza that took me to four states (NY, NJ, PA and MD).

Each stop was memorable in its own way.  In Brooklyn (to address a Sons of Norway Lodge) I was able to visit the apartment building where Odd Nansen lived while in America.  In Lancaster, PA (addressing a Sons of Norway Lodge) I met a woman whose grand-uncle, Henry Gleditsch, is (tragically) written about in Nansen’s diary (pp. 260, 263).  In Philadelphia I spoke to a dinner crowd at The Franklin Inn Club, a venerable literary society which boasts among its illustrious past members N.C. Wyeth and Howard Pyle, my two favorite painters.  In Lutherville, MD (speaking to yet another Sons of Norway Lodge) I met a gentleman who told me his doctor in Baltimore had once been Hiltgunt Zassenhaus, the remarkable woman whom I write about on p. 543 of the book, and whom I have blogged about here.  (She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by the Norwegian Stortinget, or Parliament, in 1974.)

Nansen's Apartment, 1001 President Street, Brooklyn, NY

Nansen’s Apartment, 1001 President Street, Brooklyn, NY (1928-1929)

There were a few mishaps along the way.  The most serious occurred on my final stop, The Adult School in Madison, NJ.  Upon arrival, and anticipating an audience in excess of 60 people, I discovered that my car’s trunk (holding my entire stock of books) was shut tight, and no amount of yanking, pulling, begging or screaming would induce it to open.  Panic ensued.  I might still be pulling my hair out in the parking lot of the Madison High School were it not for the timely intercession of Phil Leopold (husband of Adult School Director and event coordinator Kris Leopold—and both Georgetown alums).  Phil quickly and calmly located the trunk safety lock button on my dashboard and saved the day.  One would think that, after 10 years of ownership and over 136,000 miles, I should know how my Volvo works.  But one would be mistaken.  (Which leads to another interesting question: what else don’t I yet know about this car??)

Presentation at The Adult School, Madison, NJ

Presentation at The Adult School, Madison, NJ

At The Adult School

At The Adult School

The trip would not have been nearly so enjoyable were it not for the hospitality extended to me by the hosts at each of my events, and by so many friends who put me up along the way: Brian and Karen Flaherty, Kathy and Richard Aleš, Dick and Holly Gross, and Kathy and Don Weida.  You put up with my arrivals and departures at strange hours, provided food (and wine!), and most importantly, good company.  Thanks to you all.

To quote Odd Nansen: “According to a very congenial interpretation of Einstein’s theory of relativity, with which I’m not very familiar, traveling makes one younger.  I think there must be something in it.”

I think so too.  And knowing that more people have now heard the story of this remarkable humanitarian made it all worthwhile.

SEPTEMBER 1, 1939: THE WAR BEGINS

In the pre-dawn hours of September 1, 1939, Hitler’s armies, using a trumped-up pretext, invaded Poland, signaling the start of World War II in Europe.  By the time the war ended 2,194 days later, on May 8, 1945, it represented the most catastrophic man-made event the world had ever known.

The Battle of Poland

The Battle of Poland

I offer two quotes from contemporaries writing at that time—one an elegy for a world which had vanished forever, and one a fearful prediction of the world that was yet to come.

Journalist and author William L. Shirer (whom I have written about here), wrote in his diary on October 8, 1939:

“How dim in memory the time when there was peace.  That world ended, and for me, on the whole, despite its faults, its injustices, its inequalities, it was a good one.  I came of age in that one, and the life it gave was free, civilized, deepening, full of minor tragedy and joy and work and leisure, new lands, new faces—and rarely commonplace and never without hope.”

“And now darkness.”

Journalist and playwright Clare Boothe Luce (of whom I’ve written about here), observed in early 1940:

“Of course, Hitler hasn’t won the war yet. . .. .  But victory or defeat or the deadlock of a long-dragged-out blood-letting, half of Europe and perhaps all of England will be laid in ruins, and millions of boys—and girls—and old people and babies who might have seen many more lovely, lovely springs will have died very needlessly.”

Human beings, being human, love to try and quantify complex events, so as to get a better handle on them, and World War II is no exception.  How many deaths, how many casualties, did the war produce?  Twenty million?  Thirty million?  Forty Million? Fifty Million?  No one will ever know.  But even if we could calculate with precision the vast number of dead and wounded produced by the war, we would still not bring within its compass the tidal wave of suffering it produced.

I recently watched an installment of Foyle’s War, a wartime detective series first broadcast in 2002.  Entitled “Broken Souls” the show had its share of mysteries, mixed motivations, and human foibles, all unraveled by DCS Foyle by episode’s end.  But this one had more: a RAF pilot consigned to an asylum after watching the rest of his bomber crew perish in a fiery crash; a young boy, a messenger, who runs away from home after delivering one too many death notices to grieving families; a German POW who doesn’t know whether his family is still alive or not back home; a returning British POW who struggles to reconnect with a wife who hasn’t seen him in years and a son who doesn’t know him; and a Polish-Jewish refugee who, upon learning of the horrors of Majdanek (the first major concentration camp liberated by the Allies, on July 24, 1944), where his wife and daughter had been sent, attempts suicide, and later in the program kills the German POW who has knocked him to the ground and speaks to him in German.  The final tally: one life taken, four lives broken.

Majdanek

Majdanek

And today, 78 years later, Americans are marching in the streets, more heavily armed than Nazi stormtroopers, bedecked in Nazi regalia, chanting anti-Semitic slurs under the guise of free speech.  If this is not insanity, then I don’t what insanity is.

Which leads to another question: could the madness of 1939 happen again?

Hjalmar Svae: Norwegian Patriot

One of the most enjoyable, and least expected, aspects of my involvement with Odd Nansen’s diary has been the people I have met along the way, many with some personal connection to Nansen’s experience.

Those of you who have read the book and/or heard my presentations know that I heavily annotated the new edition of From Day to Day, including information on places and events mentioned by Nansen.  More importantly, I also wanted to tell as much as possible about the people Nansen met during his 40-month odyssey.  Odd Nansen’s story is truly remarkable.  But so are the stories of his fellow prisoners, whether in the Grini or Veidal camps in Norway, or in Sachsenhausen or Neuengamme in Germany, and these stories deserve to be told if possible.

Recently, my friend Carol Pendergrast introduced me to her friend, Siri Svae Fenson.  It turns out that Siri’s uncle, Hjalmar Svae, was also a prisoner for a while in Norway, and is mentioned several times in Nansen’s diary.  Here’s what Nansen has to say:

Sunday, February 22, 1942: “I am thinking of my friend Bryn. . ..  He was in the surveyor’s gang, along with [Bjørn] Fraser and [Hjalmar] Svae.  Those two went off the other day, no doubt to “Bavaria” [the Oslo county jail, so-named from its prior use as a brewery].  That was a melancholy parting.  I’m afraid things look bad for them.  It was they who stole the German motorboat at Jeløy and sailed for England, but ran aground in Denmark.  Their leader [Per] Birkevold, who is now in the hospital, can at any rate have very little chance.  These men are fine types of Norwegian patriots.”

Thursday, March 12, 1942: “What is now lying black and heavy in people’s minds is the news that Fraser and Svae have been condemned to death!  Now I suppose they are at Akershus, waiting for the time of grace to run out.  They can’t have much chance to speak of.  And poor Birkevold, their leader, who is lying here in the hospital and has been told.  He took it splendidly, we heard from one of the male nurses today.  He said he was glad to have been told; it was better than lying there knowing nothing.  And so he is one-hundred-percent certain to be shot on his discharge from the hospital, unless something extraordinary happens by then.”

Sunday, April 5, 1942: “Birkevold was lying out in the hospital corridor last night, listening to our entertainment.  I waved to him.  He smiled back, but he was a different man from when I last saw him.  His mates have been condemned to death.  Svae managed to escape, indeed, but Fraser is sitting yonder in Akershus.  And here lies Birkevold, waiting to be condemned in his turn.  He is ill; he has a fever, and never surely has a fever that will not yield been more blessed than this one.  [Nansen suspected the fever was the work of a sympathetic prison doctor.]  May it only last both spring and summer, yes, and far into the autumn for safety’s sake.  This is his one chance.  For it doesn’t seem as though they condemn sick people, at all events not yet.  One fine day they will probably discover that they can shoot a sick man just as well as a sound one.  Birkevold must be lying thinking such thoughts too, poor lad.  And the thoughts and griefs that are agonizing him are such as no Easter morning has the power to end or drive away.”

During my research, I was able to determine that Svae’s friends Fraser and Birkevold were never in fact executed—both survived the war.  Beyond that, however, I knew nothing of their story, nor did I know if Svae was ever recaptured, or what his ultimate fate was.  Siri, who now lives in northern California, was able to provide much additional information regarding his arrest, escape and subsequent career.

First, to return to the crime.  Hjalmar Svae (age 25), a former ensign in the Norwegian Navy, worked with Bjørn Fraser and Per Birkevold in a torpedo factory in Horten, Norway, on the western shore of the Oslo fjord.  Birkevold had been planning an escape (a capital crime, punishable by death) for several months.  On August 23, 1941, the day prior to their planned breakout, Birkevold secured permission from the Germans to take a twenty-four-foot boat, with plenty of gasoline, to the opposite side of the Oslo fjord to be ready to test torpedoes.  Everything went according to plan until the escape party was within seventy miles of Newcastle, England. There the engine died and could not be revived, and high winds and rough seas began to drive the small boat backward. After drifting for eight days—with very little food or water packed for what should have been a short trip, the men were driven ashore in German-occupied Denmark. Arrested, returned to Oslo in September 1941 for trial, Svae and Fraser were condemned to death on March 10, 1942.

The very next day, Svae’s wife, Lucille, was scheduled to visit him in “Bavaria.”  Svae was taken down to the visitation area by a guard, who then left him alone.  As he subsequently wrote in a letter to Lucille: “I thought I’d ‘look around’ a bit.  I walked over to the iron gate.  It opened to let out two visitors.  I didn’t even think . . . I just walked out with them and the gate closed shut behind us.  I walked right through the room where I saw you sitting waiting to be called into the visitation area.”  Svae walked right past his wife and whispered “I am running,” and she had the presence of mind to remain seated without so much as blinking an eye.

Svae had one more iron gate to get through.  As he approached it, a police car was waiting to be let out.  Svae hid between the car and the wall.  As the gate opened he calmly walked out beside it, to freedom.  Ultimately, he made his way to Sweden, where Hjalmar’s brother (and Siri’s father), Per Svae, had a congregation where he served as pastor (Siri, all of one-year old, has no memory of the visit).  Although the Germans did not publicize the successful escape, most Norwegians reveled in the good news, courtesy of the BBC from London.

From Sweden Svae made his way to England, and served as the second in command aboard the HNoMS St. Albans, a destroyer which had begun its service in 1919 in the U.S. Navy (as the USS Thomas), was transferred to the Royal British Navy in September 1940 (where it was rechristened the HMS St. Albans) before being transferred yet again to the Royal Norwegian Navy-in-exile in April 1941.  Stationed in Halifax, HNoMS St. Albans ran convoy escort missions.

Svae returned to his family in Oslo in 1946, founded a shipping company and took over the Svae’s Dancing School.  Having escaped the jaws of death as a youth, like Jens Christian Beck, Svae’s life ended tragically in 1960 when he died by suicide, age forty-four.  With his daring escape attempt to England—seventy-six years ago this week—his second, equally daring escape from prison, and his subsequent naval service, Hjalmar Svae was indeed “a fine type of Norwegian patriot.”

Thanks to Siri Svae Fenson, who provided the translations from Resistance and Daily Life in the Moss District during the War, by Erling Ree-Pederson.

Dunkirk: The Power of Hope

Dunkirk

Dunkirk

I recently saw, and enjoyed, the movie Dunkirk, written, co-produced and directed by Christopher Nolan.  Surprisingly, it has proven to be both a commercial [$317 million receipts at last count] as well as critical success.  I say surprisingly, since the film about a historical event has no main characters (unless you call the evacuation itself the main character) and is remarkably devoid of much dialogue (but lots of sound effects).  And yet it is very effective at telling the story, as experienced on land, at sea, and in the air.

Clare Boothe Luce

Clare Boothe Luce

Coincidentally, I also just finished reading Europe in the Spring [Alfred A. Knopf, 1940] by Clare Boothe Luce (writing under her maiden name, Clare Boothe).  I recently discovered a copy (signed, no less!) at a great used bookstore, Parnassus Book Service, in Yarmouth Port, MA while on a book tour in the area.  Luce, the wife of Henry Luce, publisher of Time, Life, etc., was already a writer of considerable note when she visited Europe in the spring of 1940 to report on conditions while the “phoney war” was underway.  [France and England were at war with Germany, but very little actually fighting was going on.]  All this changed on May 10, 1940, when German armies poured into neutral Holland and Belgium (where Luce had just arrived) and France.  She saw smugness quickly turn to fear, and then to panic, as the Wehrmacht swept all before it (aided, it seems in part, by amphetamines—which I’ve written about here), leading to an astonishingly quick capitulation.  Flying to London on May 31, Luce was thus able to witness at first-hand the Dunkirk evacuation.  Here’s what she wrote about the event:

“The evacuation absorbed every mind, inflamed every heart, monopolized every conversation, in every home and pub and restaurant. . .. No conquering heroes returning heavy-laden with the loot of a rowdy and plunderous war ever received a more royal welcome than England gave her two hundred thousand troops who, driven out of Flanders, returned with nothing but their bare hands. [The actual figure was closer to 340,000 saved.]

[T]he High Commands of both sides were blamed for the long series of stupidities, both at home and in the field, of which the evacuation was the tragic fruit. . ..  But in the end there were and are no words to describe the courage of the plain soldiers, British and French, who took part in it.  The drama of Dunkirk will perhaps never be completely written, although all its horrors and heroisms will provide material for a thousand memoirs and histories [and I’d add: movies] still to be written.”

While waiting for her flight to England, Luce struck up a conversation with a French diplomat returning to his embassy in London.  Despite France’s dire predicament he did not despair, he said.  A survivor of the Battle of Verdun in World War I (almost 1,000,000 combined casualties), he had since that time, he informed her, adopted as his motto: “Il n’y a pas de situations déspérées, il y a seulement des hommes déspérés. (There are no hopeless situations; there are only men who have grown hopeless about them.)”

August 4, 1944: Anne Frank is Arrested

Anne Frank

On this date seventy-three years ago, Anne Frank, her family, the van Pels family (known as the van Daans in her diary) and Fritz Pfeffer (known as Albert Dussel) were arrested by the Gestapo, having lived in hiding for two years, four weeks and one day.  No one is sure  to this day who provided the incriminating tip to the Gestapo, although several people have been suggested.  I’ve written about Anne and her diary previously here.

Anne, her sister Margot, her mother Edith and father Otto, were all sent to Westerbork, and then on to Auschwitz.  Edith died in Auschwitz.  Margot and Anne were later sent Bergen-Belsen, where they both perished (Anne is believed to have died in late February 1945, although the exact date is unknown).  Anne’s father, Otto, survived in Auschwitz.

Miep Gies

Miep Gies

A woman who played a large part in helping the Frank family et al to survive in hiding, and who miraculously saved Anne’s diary following her arrest, was Miep Gies. (I have written about Miep previously here).  As Gies wrote in her fascinating memoir, Anne Frank Remembered: “On [the anniversary of] that day [August 4] too, Henk [her husband] and I stay home all day.  We act as though the day were not happening.  Neither of us will look at a clock all day.  I stand at the window all through the day, and Henk, on purpose, sits with his back to the window.  When we sense that it’s about five o’clock, that the day has passed, we experience a sense of relief that the day is finished.”

Gies died in January, 2010, age 100.

Judith Jones

Judith Jones

The other person who played a major role in the preservation of Anne’s diary, Judith Jones, died just two days ago, on August 2, 2017, age 93.  It was she, as an editorial assistant in the Paris office of Doubleday, who was charged with writing the rejection letter for Anne’s diary.  Instead, as she later wrote, she was struck by the photograph of the girl on the cover of an advance copy of the French edition. “I read it all day,” she noted. “When my boss returned, I told him, ‘We have to publish this book.’ He said, ‘What? That book by that kid?'” “I made the book quite important because I was so taken with it, and I felt it would have a real market in America. It’s one of those seminal books that will never be forgotten.”

Indeed, it never will be forgotten; Anne’s diary is now available in more than sixty languages.  So on this day, as we remember Anne’s tragic life, we should also honor the lives and actions of Miep Gies and Judith Jones—three remarkable women.

Liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto Begins

 

Warsaw Ghetto

Warsaw Ghetto

The very first blog I ever posted to this website (here) described the difficulty of grasping the magnitude of suffering encompassed by World War II.  As historian Max Hastings, in the concluding paragraph of his vast history of the war, Inferno, observes, “Among citizens of modern democracies to whom serious hardship and collective peril are unknown, the tribulations that hundreds of millions endured between 1939 and 1945 are almost beyond comprehension.”  Even more so is the tragedy of the Holocaust, which witnessed, as Peter Fritzsche has pointed out in his new book, An Iron Wind, “the willful persecution of people based not on what they had done, but on who they were.”

The human mind is simply not equipped to fathom what 6 million Jewish dead, or 10 million+ total murdered in the camps and elsewhere, means.  So we engage in mental games to better grasp these challenges, one being quantitative comparisons.  This is bigger than that; this went on longer than that; this is farther away than that; this was deadlier than that.

July 22 marks the 75th anniversary of the start of “Gross-Aktion Warschau” or Great Action Warsaw, an eight-week campaign to liquidate part of the Warsaw Ghetto, the largest ghetto in Nazi-occupied Europe.  The official word was that the Jews were being resettled “to the East.”  In fact, all the Jews were shipped directly to Treblinka, a newly constructed extermination camp, where they were gassed immediately upon arrival.

The deportations initially went according to plan—the Nazis’ murderous intentions were as yet unclear.  The Wannsee Conference, which coordinated the start of “the Final Solution,” had occurred only six months prior.  The ghetto inhabitants allowed themselves to be rounded up by the Jewish police.  (Not everyone was fooled—the head of the Jewish Council in the Ghetto, Adam Czerniakow, committed suicide upon being informed of the deportations rather than cooperate.) In another of the many bitter ironies of World War II, it was the same Jewish ghetto police and their families who were put on the final transport (September 21, 1942) which marked the end of the Gross-Aktion.

Only gradually did it finally become evident that there was no resettlement “to the East”; that deportation meant death.  By the end of September 1942, the remaining inhabitants of the Warsaw Ghetto began to take measures, however inadequate, to defend themselves. When next the Nazis entered the Ghetto to begin new deportations (January 1943), they were rebuffed by armed insurgents, ultimately culminating in the Warsaw Uprising (April 19—May 16, 1943).

While the Warsaw Uprising is well known and described in books and film, less attention has been paid to the Gross-Aktion.  Many histories of World War II don’t even mention it.

Which is surprising considering that at least 254,000, and perhaps as many as 300,000, Jews were murdered in that eight-week period.  For comparison sake, that’s more than the total killed in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. As historian Fritzsche (who makes the foregoing comparison in An Iron Wind), further notes, the Great Action “constituted ‘the greatest slaughter perpetrated within a single city in human history.’”

Max Hastings makes another concluding observation in Inferno which has some applicability to this story: “Within the vast compass of the struggle [i.e., World War II], some individuals scaled summits of courage and nobility, while other plumbed depths of evil, in a fashion that compels the awe of posterity.”

As a side note, the newly appointed Commandant of Treblinka at the time of the Gross-Aktion, Irmfried Eberl, was a psychiatrist—in other words, a doctor by training.  He had earned a reputation running a facility in the so-called T4, or euthanasia, program in Germany (a baffling issue which I’ve discussed here).  Even so, he was dismissed on August 26, 1942 for incompetence—that is, failing to “process,” or dispose of the bodies of the gassed victims quickly and efficiently enough, leading to panic among incoming train passengers.  Captured in 1948, Eberl hanged himself prior to standing trial.

As a further side note, as a sophomore attending Georgetown University in the fall of 1973, I had a class in Comparative Government taught by a professor Jan Karski.  Tall, thin, ramrod straight, Karski was (to me) an intimidating presence, with piercing, icy blue eyes.  I enjoyed the class, as I did most others, although I sometimes had a difficult time understanding his rather thick Polish accent.  Little did I know then that Karski had been a member of the Resistance in World War II, chosen to report to the Polish government-in-exile about Nazi atrocities in occupied Poland.  As Karski writes in his memoir, Story of a Secret State, rather than rely solely on uncorroborated word-of-mouth stories, he agreed in October 1942 to be smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto “so that I could literally see the spectacle of a people expiring, breathing its last before my eyes.”  Unfortunately, his message, personally related to Foreign Minister Sikorski of the Polish Government and later to President Franklin Roosevelt, fell on disbelieving ears. After he met with Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, Frankfurter is said to have remarked: “I did not say that he was lying, I said that I could not believe him. There is a difference.”

Karski, who never once mentioned his heroics to our unsuspecting class in 1973, died on July 13, 2000. He was recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations in 1982, and later named an honorary citizen of Israel.  He truly had “scaled the summits of courage and nobility.”

Nansen Diary Cited in German Bestseller

From Odd Nansen’s diary, November 21, 1944:

Just now a singular patrol is marching round and round the parade ground interminably.  All are fully equipped and fitted out and sing and whistle as they walk.  That’s the “pill patrol.”  They’re being used to test out a new energy pill.  How long can they keep going full steam on it?  After the first forty-eight hours it’s said that most of them had given up and collapsed, although the theory is that after taking this pill one can perform the incredible without the usual reaction afterward.  Well, no doubt the Germans could use a pill like that now.

One conundrum has always puzzled me about Odd Nansen’s diary.  I understand why From Day to Day may not have sold widely when first published in English in 1949—in my Introduction I blame war fatigue, concern over the emerging Cold War, and other factors for the lack of interest.  But what I’ve never fully understood is why historians failed during the succeeding six decades to use Nansen’s diary in their research on Nazi Germany, World War II, the Holocaust, the concentration camps, etc.  The number of history books I found during my research that even included mention of From Day to Day in their bibliography can probably be counted on one hand.  [Some attempts to correct this oversight are underway.  Nikolaus Wachsmann’s magisterial history of the camp system, KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps, not only relies on Nansen’s diary, he begins one of his chapters highlighting Nansen’s interactions with Tom Buergenthal.]

So imagine my surprise when I recently purchased Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich by Norman Ohler.

Blitzed

A novelist and screenwriter rather than an historian, Ohler set out to explore a hitherto untapped vein in the motherlode that is Nazi history—Germany’s and Hitler’s remarkable use (and misuse) of drugs in order to function during the war.

Ohler’s book begins with an account of the Nazis’ early attempts to stamp out widespread use of the heavy drugs which characterized life under the Weimer Republic.  This easy availability was due to, among other things, Germany’s preeminence in the pharmaceutical industry. In the 1920s German companies produced 40% of the world’s morphine and controlled 80% of the world’s cocaine traffic.  Under the Nazis stiff penalties (including death and sterilization) became the order of the day.  A favorite way to stigmatize illegal drugs was to lay their prevalence at the feet of the nefarious Jews.

But as opioid and cocaine use declined, German chemists were synthesizing new drugs—stimulants like methamphetamine—marketed under the brand name Pervitin.

At first Pervitin was available in Germany without prescription, and was touted as a cure for every ailment imaginable: aches, low energy, depression, reduced sex drive—you name it.  By 1939, fears over its widespread use—it was even being added to chocolates—and its addictive qualities, led Pervitin to be deemed a controlled substance, available only via prescription.  Even that hardly put a dent in its consumption, which continued to soar.  Moreover, the prescription requirement did not apply to the military.

And if there was one group which saw the benefits in stimulant use, it was the military.  Ohler attributes the German Army’s stunning blitzkrieg, or “lightning war,” victories in Poland and on the western front to the Wehrmacht’s use of Pervitin to keep soldiers going for days without rest.

As Germany’s fortunes faded, however, and as Hitler himself became ever more dependent on various drug cocktails administered by his personal physician, German doctors tested ever more potent combinations of Pervitin and cocaine in a vain attempt to provide a fighting advantage where no advantage could be had.  The soldiers who had marched into Poland in 1939 and France in 1940 were long gone by late 1944, and no amounts of stimulants could overcome the overwhelming advantage in men and materiel the Allies had built up.

Here’s where Nansen’s observation of November 21, 1944 (which is quoted by Ohler in Blitzed), comes in.  Ohler describes the German Navy’s development of a new wonder weapon: a mini-sub designed to wreak havoc on Allied shipping in the English Channel.  The crews, however, would need to function for four days without rest.  Could they do it?  New stimulants would need to be tested.

Elsewhere in Nansen’s diary (January 17, 1945) he describes the Schuhläufer, or “shoe-testing unit,” at Sachsenhausen.  Prisoners were made to march over a semi-circular track composed of various materials (concrete, mud, gravel, cobblestones, etc.) to test the efficiency of various synthetic shoe soles, leather and rubber being in increasingly short supply.

As Ohler (and Nansen) point out, “the shoe-walking unit was a punishment unit.”  Not only were inmates required to carry heavy backpacks (to put greater stress on the soles) and walk over 25 miles, the director, a man “known for his cruelty,” often issued shoes that were too small, or in different sizes for the left and right feet “supposedly to collect additional data.”

What Nansen was witnessing on November 21 was a special experiment by the German Navy on the shoe-testing track to see if humans could indeed function for four days without sleep.  According to Ohler, one prisoner, pumped up on cocaine and seven times the normal dose of Pervitin, covered 60 miles on the track in 16 hours “without fatigue,” and all the test subjects were able to stay awake throughout the requisite four days. [The use of the mini-subs turned out to be a complete failure.  Most never reached their target, and those sailors who returned to base complained of becoming delusional or psychotic under repeated doses of stimulants—all dispensed via chewing gum.]

An international bestseller, Blitzed has been translated into over 25 languages.  As one reviewer notes, it “places a new lens on a disturbing chapter in history.”

Despite its commercial success, Ohler’s book has received a mixed reception by the historical community.  It has been criticized as speculative, and given to overly broad generalizations, by historians Richard Evans (here), Dagmar Herzog (here), and Nik Wachsmann, while being praised by the likes of Antony Beevor (here) and Alex Kershaw, who called it “a serious piece of scholarship.”

In defending himself from his critics, Ohler penned a column for The Guardian newspaper this past May.  In it he refers to Germany’s leading historian of Nazism, Hans Mommsen, and Mommsen’s excitement over Ohler’s research findings.  He then quotes Mommsen’s reaction to reading about the “pill patrol”:

 “Mommsen was shocked; he knew so much about the Third Reich, but had never seen the navy’s files documenting these abominable tests. “I have never heard of this,” he said, baffled. “We historians have no idea about drugs. So we have never looked this way.”

If Mommsen, and the rest of the historical community, had only read From Day to Day, perhaps they wouldn’t have been quite so shocked (and uninformed) after all.

Whatever one thinks of the merits of some of Ohler’s positions, it is heartening to me to finally see From Day to Day used once again as a primary source in a history book dealing with this “disturbing chapter in history.”

Odd Nansen’s diary is too informative, too important, and too well-written, not to be. Historians, take note!

Speaking at Georgetown University

Speaking at McGhee Library, Georgetown University

Speaking at McGhee Library, Georgetown University

On June 2-4, 2017, I returned to the campus of Georgetown University (my alma mater) for reunion weekend. [This year marked an astounding 42 years since I had graduated!]  It was fun to share some of the excitement with the classes of 2012, 2007, 2002, etc., as well as some spectacularly fine weather (something of a rarity for DC in June).

At the McGhee Library, Georgetown University

At the McGhee Library, Georgetown University

More importantly, I had the opportunity to speak about Odd Nansen as a guest of the University’s Center for Jewish Civilization.  The talk was curated by Fr. Dennis McManus, a professor at the Center who teaches on Holocaust subjects, including survivors’ memoirs, autobiographies and diaries. Fr. McManus’ comments on Nansen’s diary can be found here.  It was a most enjoyable event, and afterward I was able to seat myself at the University bookstore with my books and met many wonderful alums of all ages.  Truly a memorable weekend (I was even able to visit some old campus haunts).

With Fr. Dennis McManus

With Professor Dennis McManus

Finally, I had the pleasure of being interviewed about my efforts to bring Odd Nansen back to print by Kate Colwell of the University’s development staff.  The interview can be found here.  Many thanks to Jim Warycha of the development staff for all his help in coordinating the presentation, the bookstore visit and the interview, to Kate for the interview, and to Fr. McManus for his interest in and support for Odd Nansen’s diary.

All photos courtesy of Jordan Silverman, Georgetown University. (c) Georgetown University

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2324252627
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Legend
  Previous/Upcoming Engagements
  This day in history

Upcoming Events

Book Signings

  • November 2, 2017: Annapolis Bookstore, Annapolis, MD (7:00 pm)
  • November 3-4, 2017: Georgetown University
  • November 14, 2017: Clemson University Osher Lifelong Learning Institute
  • March 9, 2018: Furman University Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (1:00 pm)
  • April 12, 2018: NC State University Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (1:15 pm)
  • April 25, 2018: Old Guard of Princeton, Princeton, NJ
< 2018 >
October
SMTWHFS
 123456
78910111213
14151617181920
2122
  • A border pilot attempting to help 9 Jews escape to Sweden kills policeman; Jews are blamed
2324252627
28293031   
Legend
  Previous/Upcoming Engagements
  This day in history