John F. Kennedy (1917–1963)

Those who have heard my presentation about Odd Nansen know that what first captured my attention about his diary was his sheer eloquence.  I appreciate good writing, especially writing employed in the service of noble thoughts.

So on the anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s death, I wanted to share some particularly eloquent remarks Kennedy made almost exactly one year prior to his assassination, remarks which in turn bring to mind Odd Nansen, and Nansen’s unique contribution to the human spirit:

“Aeschylus and Plato are remembered today long after the triumphs of imperial Athens are gone.  Dante outlived the ambitions of 13th century Florence.  Goethe stands serenely above the politics of Germany, and I am certain that after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we, too, will be remembered not for our victories or defeats in battle or in politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit.”

Remarks on behalf of the National Cultural Center, November 29, 1962.

World War II Conference in New Orleans

 

This past weekend I had the pleasure of attending the 10th International Conference on World War II, held in New Orleans and sponsored by the National WWII Museum.

With Norman Ohler

With Norman Ohler

I was particularly interested in hearing and meeting one of the program speakers, Norman Ohler, author of Blitzed, the 2015 bestseller (since translated into 25 languages) which depicts in great detail the rampant drug abuse by both Adolf Hitler and, more generally, the German armed forces during World War II. Ohler’s presentation was quite interesting, and I enjoyed the chance to meet with him afterward 1) to get my copy of his book signed (of course), and 2) to discuss his use of Odd Nansen’s Diary, From Day to Day, in support of his arguments.  As I have written previously, Nansen was an eye-witness (in Sachsenhausen) to the use of prisoners as guinea pigs in the development and testing of ever more powerful stimulants for use in the German war effort.

With Sir Richard Evans

With Sir Richard Evans

An additional highlight was meeting another of my favorite historians, Sir Richard Evans, formerly Regius Professor of History at Cambridge University.  Evans is the author of the magisterial Third Reich trilogy, as well as a number of other important works, such as The Third Reich in History and Memory.

It turns out that Evans and I have an acquaintance in common.  Nikolaus Wachsmann, the author of KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps, and now a professor at the University of London, was once Evans’s research assistant.  Wachsmann begins Chapter 11 of his own highly regarded book with an in-depth description of Odd Nansen and Tom Buergenthal.  Since Wachsmann was already well acquainted with Nansen’s diary he readily agreed to provide a “blurb” for my book, which now graces the rear dust jacket:

“A long-forgotten masterpiece.  In his secret diary, written inside the Nazi camps, the Norwegian prisoner Odd Nansen paints a deeply affecting picture of everyday terror, sketching the inmates’ lives and deaths with exceptional clarity and compassion.  Rarely has the inhumanity of the camps been captured with such humanity.”

Other highlights of the conference were meeting Richard Overy, author of The Bombers and the Bombed (on which I relied for several of my annotations), and a spell-binding Closing Keynote Address by Hershel “Woody” Williams, one of only four living World War II Medal of Honor recipients (out of 472 awarded).  Now 94, Williams was initially rejected by the Marines for being too short.  When the height requirement was subsequently lowered, he re-applied and joined the 3rd Marine Division.  For his actions on Iwo Jima on February 23, 1945 (the same day the U.S. flag was raised above Mt. Suribachi), Williams was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Truman on October 5, 1945.

Williams receiving the Medal of Honor

Williams receiving the Medal of Honor

Woody Williams today

Woody Williams today

A memorable conference!

“I Have a Rendezvous with Death”

Today marks the ninety-ninth anniversary of the Armistice, the end of fighting on the Western Front during World War I.  [The formal end to the war did not occur until the Treaty of Versailles, signed June 28, 1919—or five years to the day when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated.  The U.S. never ratified the Treaty, and did not acknowledge a formal end to hostilities until July 2, 1919.]

“I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air—
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.”

Those words were written by American Alan Seeger.  Born in 1888, Seeger studied at Harvard, where he was influenced by the Romantic poets.  Graduating in 1910, he lived for a time in Greenwich Village, before moving to the Latin Quarter in Paris.  He was living there when the war broke out, and almost immediately joined the French Foreign Legion.  The uncle of one of my favorite folk singers, Pete Seeger (1919—2014), Alan Seeger has sometimes been called “the American Rupert Brooke.”

“It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath—
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.”

Seeger soon had his rendezvous with death—killed on July 4, 1916 in Belloy-en-Santerre, France, while taking part in the Battle of the Somme [over 600,000 Allied casualties; the front moved six miles].  Before the war was over, more than 18 million fellow soldiers and civilians each had their rendezvous with death as well.  Recently I finished reading Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War by Max Hastings, one of my favorite authors.  Hastings is particularly scathing about the needlessness of the war: Austria-Hungary’s desire to teach Serbia a lesson (with no tears shed over Franz Ferdinand’s death); Germany’s “blank check” given to Austria-Hungary, knowing that Russia would defend Serbia, etc.  This stupidity was rivaled only by the ineptitude of almost all the generals, fighting with 19th Century tactics against 20th Century weaponry and technology.

Alan Seeger (1888--1916)

Alan Seeger (1888–1916)

What this book also underscores is how much the world has changed since “The Great War.”  Within the span measured by Pete Seeger’s life, some behaviors now seem so quaint, so foreign as to be almost inexplicable, or slightly daft in their archaic assumptions.  When Great Britain committed to the war, orders were dispatched to military establishments.  In one case “The colonel of the Royal Welch Fusiliers was attending a dinner party when an orderly bearing a message [to commence mobilization] was announced.  The guests were almost certain of its contents, but etiquette prevailed: the messenger was kept waiting until dinner was finished and the ladies had retired, before being permitted to deliver the regiment’s mobilisation [sic] telegram.”  A captain in the Royal Marines was exasperated when the order arrived in the middle of a cricket match, where he had scored “66 not out” [whatever that means]. Soldiers of the Austro-Hungarian Army, a polyglot group comprised of multiple national groups, often fired on neighboring formations, supposing them to be the enemy—since they spoke another language they could not understand.  This was mirrored within the Austrian Parliament, which allowed members to speak in their native tongues, but provided no translators for the rest of the assembly to even understand what they were saying.

Hastings’s work also provides a cautionary tale.  Speaking again of the Hapsburg Empire, he observes: “In the years before 1914, the Empire also grew accustomed to employing military threats as a routine extension of its diplomacy.  Its generals regarded war with reckless insouciance, as a mere tool for the advancement of national interests rather than as a passport to Hades.”

November 11 is also commemorated in the U.S. as Veterans Day.  As the father of two veterans, whose service I salute and honor, let us hope that our leaders, military and civilian, never, ever, regard war “with reckless insouciance.”

“God knows ‘twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear….
But I’ve a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.”

What’s in a Book’s Title?

I have often wondered, and people have from time to time asked me, where Nansen came up with the title to his diary, Fra Dag til Dag (From Day to Day).  Unfortunately, we may never know the answer.  Even Odd Nansen’s eldest daughter Marit is unsure of its origins.

Perhaps Nansen’s inspiration was quite prosaic: nothing more than an actual description of the diary’s focus.  As the journalist, author and diarist William L. Shirer wrote in the Foreword of his own work, Berlin Diary, “The only justification in my own mind was that chance, and the kind of job I had, appeared to be giving me a somewhat unusual opportunity to set down from day to day a first-hand account of a Europe that was already in agony and that, as the months and years unfolded, slipped inexorably towards the abyss of war and self-destruction.”  Shirer’s diary was an instant hit, selling over 600,000 copies in the first year of publication according to his biographer Ken Cuthbertson.  Since the book was published by Knopf in early 1941, for all we know Nansen was aware of it and had even read Shirer’s own words.

My good friend Don Lineback, on the other hand, is convinced that Nansen took his inspiration from Macbeth’s soliloquy in Act 5, Scene 5:

“She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.  Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more.  It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.”

Certainly, Odd Nansen was highly literate, and was undoubtedly familiar with Shakespeare’s plays.  His diary is replete with allusions to literary, classical and Biblical characters and ideas.  And this single soliloquy has provided a veritable cornucopia of phrases to be borrowed by other writers in naming their works.  Kurt Vonnegut (an old favorite of mine) titled a 1953 short story Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow.  Robert B. Parker did double duty, naming two different novels (both published in 1994) All Our Yesterdays and Walking Shadow. Signifying Nothing is the title of a short story by David Foster WallaceAlistair Maclean (of The Guns of Navarone fame) used The Way to Dusty Death as the title of his 1973 novel, and Jon Skovron appropriated Struts & Frets for a 2009 novel.  Probably the most famous usage is The Sound and the Fury by Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winning author William Faulkner. (In 1998, the Modern Library ranked The Sound and the Fury sixth on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.)  Even the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton” uses the third and fourth lines of the soliloquy as part of the song “Take a Break.”

Here’s what the soliloquy looks like with all these attributions:

“She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.  Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more.  It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.”

Odd Nansen may similarly have gotten his inspiration from this work.  One final, tantalizing, clue derives from yet another explicit borrowing of Shakespeare.  In 1916 the poet Robert Frost published a poem he called “Out, Out—.”  Based on an actual event that occurred in 1910, “Out, Out—” tells of a young boy who bleeds to death when his hand is severed by a buzz-saw.  Frost uses personification to make the saw itself seems alive—it “Leaped out of his hand, or seemed to leap/He must have given the hand.  However it was/Neither refused the meeting.  But the hand!”

As I point out in my annotation for Nansen’s diary entry on May 16, 1942, some of his own writing might well have been informed by Frost’s poem.  Earlier in the poem Frost writes:

“And the saw snarled and rattled, snarled and rattled,
As it ran light, or had to bear a load.”

In his diary entry Nansen describes Bauleiter [construction manager] Gebecke

“[who] prefers to hang around the circular saw, looking for a chance to demonstrate his accomplishments in that sphere. . . .  On such occasions Gebecke is on the spot; he sets the saw going and cuts the first dozen logs himself. . . .   And he cuts log after log, humming the saw’s tune: krrrtj—krrrtj! bsssssitj bsss-it! according as the logs are thicker or thinner.”

Was Nansen channeling Frost in his description of the saw?  There is no reason not to think that Nansen was fully aware of Robert Frost’s poetry.  And the title of the poem would have instantly transported him to Shakespeare’s writing.

So perhaps Don Lineback is correct in his supposition.  And why not? After all, some of Nansen’s best writing is positively Shakespearean.

Ian McKellen as Macbeth and Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth

Ian McKellen as Macbeth and Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth

Thanks for all of Yesterday’s Birthday Wishes

I’ve never felt younger!

“You are young as your faith,
as old as your doubts;
as young as your self-confidence,
as old as your fear;
as young as your hope,
as old as your despair.

In the central place of your heart,
there is a recording chamber–
as long as it receives messages
of beauty, hope, cheer, and courage,
you are young.”

General Douglas MacArthur

Norsk Høstfest, September 27, 2017

Norsk Høstfest, September 27, 2017

 

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.

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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)
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  • April 25, 2018: Old Guard of Princeton, Princeton, NJ
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