The Year in Review

This past week marks the first anniversary of the re-publication of From Day to Day: One Man’s Diary of Survival in Nazi Concentration Camps (as well as the 72nd anniversary of the end of Odd Nansen’s captivity).  So, here’s a quick summary of the year in numbers (I have to put my MBA to some use after all):

13,574             Miles traveled
3,186               Website visitors
1,800+           Books sold
1,575               Dollars donated to charity
39                    Book presentations
29                    Blog posts
23                    Cities visited
9                       Bookstores visited
7                       Reviews of book
4                       Museums visited
1                       Incredible experience


For Holocaust Remembrance Day

Refugee Blues

By W.H. Auden


Say this city has ten million souls,

Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes:

Yet there’s no place for us, my dear, yet there’s no place for us.


Once we had a country and we thought it fair,

Look in the atlas and you’ll find it there:

We cannot go there now, my dear, we cannot go there now.


In the village churchyard there grows an old yew,

Every spring it blossoms anew:

Old passports can’t do that, my dear, old passports can’t do that.


The consul banged the table and said,

“If you’ve got no passport you’re officially dead”:

But we’re still alive, my dear, we’re still alive.


Went to a committee; they offered me a chair;

Asked me politely to return next year:

But where shall we go today, my dear, but where shall we go today?


Came to a public meeting; the speaker got up and said;

“If we let them in, they will steal our daily bread”:

He was talking of you and me, my dear, he was talking of you and me.


Thought I heard the thunder rumbling in the sky;

It was Hitler over Europe, saying: “They must die”:

We were in his mind, my dear, we were in his mind.


Saw a poodle in a jacket fastened with a pin,

Saw a door opened and a cat let in:

But they weren’t German Jews, my dear, but they weren’t German Jews.


Went down to the harbour and stood on the quay,

Saw the fish swimming as if they were free:

Only ten feet away, my dear, only ten feet away.


Walked through a wood, saw the birds in the trees;

They had no politicians and sang at their ease:

They weren’t the human race, my dear, they weren’t the human race.


Dreamed I saw a building with a thousand floors,

A thousand windows and a thousand doors:

Not one of them was ours, my dear, not one of them was ours.


Stood on a great plain in the falling snow;

Ten thousand soldiers marched to and fro:

Looking for you and me, my dear, looking for you and me.


From Collected Shorter Poems 1927-1957, by W.H. Auden

Special thanks to my good friend Kathy Aleš for sharing this poem with me

The Children of Bullenhuser Damm, Pt. III

The school at Bullenhuser Damm where the murders occurred.

The school at Bullenhuser Damm where the murders occurred.

As noted in my first blog concerning Bullenhuser Damm, some, but not all the murderers were brought to justice soon after the war.  The evil genius behind the medical experiments on the twenty young Jewish children at Neuengamme concentration camp, Kurt Heissmeyer, somehow managed to escape notice in postwar Germany, and ended up opening and operating a medical clinic in East Germany, unrecognized for almost twenty years, until 1963.

Finally convicted in 1966 and sentenced to life imprisonment, Heissmeyer died the following year in jail of a heart attack.  During his trial he was asked why he did not confine his experiments to guinea pigs (which he also tested simultaneously with his tests on the children). His response: “For me there was no basic difference between human beings and guinea pigs.”  Then he corrected himself: “Between Jews and guinea pigs.”

As disturbing as this answer is, it perhaps can be chalked up as the ranting of an unreconstructed Nazi. What is harder to explain is the prosecutor’s mindset in the case of Arnold Strippel, the senior officer in charge of the executions at Bullenhuser Damm.  After the war Strippel was initially charged and convicted of different murders—which he committed at Buchenwald—for which he received twenty-one life sentences.  Strippel served in prison from 1949 to 1969 when his sentence was vacated and he was freed (on retrial Strippel was again convicted, but only as an accomplice, and his new sentence equaled time already served).

In the mid-1960s (while Strippel was still in prison for the Buchenwald murders) an investigation into his alleged role in the Bullenhuser Damm murders was initiated by the Chief Prosecutor of Hamburg, Helmut Münzberg.  After a lengthy investigation Münzberg ultimately elected not to proceed with a prosecution.  Under German law, a murder conviction required proof that a person acted with a “base motive,” such as greed or hatred, or exhibited sadistic zeal.  Author Günther Schwarberg quotes from Münzberg’s official prosecutorial memorandum:

The investigations did not prove with the certainty that is demanded of them that the children suffered unduly before they died.  On the contrary, much can be said for the fact that all the children became unconscious as soon as they received the first injection [of morphine] and were therefore not aware of all that happened to them thereafter.  And so, beyond the destruction of their lives no further harm was done to them; and in particular they did not have to suffer especially long, either in body or soul.  (emphasis Schwarberg’s).

In an endnote to his book, The Murders at Bullenhuser Damm, Schwarberg reports a conversation he had with prosecutor Münzberg in 1979, twelve years after Münzberg wrote the above memorandum. “Chief Prosecutor Dr. Helmut Münzberg regretted having formulated this sentence.  He was sure he would never write another sentence like this one.”

The end of a series.

Photo source: By flamenc (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The Children of Bullenhuser Damm, Pt. II

Georges-André Kohn, age 10.

Georges-André Kohn, age 10.

Odd Nansen’s diary entry of April 10, 1945, concerning the children of Bullenhuser Damm contained only one clue as to their identity—the reference to a young boy with pneumonia whose father was the head of the Rothschild Institute in Paris.  This was Georges-André Kohn, and his father’s name was Armand Kohn.  The elder Kohn cooperated with the German occupation authorities in Paris in his position as director of the largest Jewish hospital in France, in the hopes that his behavior might protect him and his family.  And it did for a while, although such cooperation meant walking a fine line between fulfilling his job healing the hospital’s Jewish patients and strictly enforcing the ever more drastic edicts against the Jews promulgated by Adolf Eichmann’s representative in Paris, SS Hauptsturmführer Alois Brünner.

But Kohn’s trust was ultimately misplaced, and his protection ended as the Allies approached Paris in the summer of 1944.  Armand and his entire family (mother, wife and their four children) were personally arrested by Brünner in late July, and on August 17, 1944, one week before Paris was liberated, they were placed on the last deportation train to leave Paris.

The fate of Georges-André, who was murdered three days shy of his thirteenth birthday, is doubly tragic.  As the deportation train headed east to Germany, Georges-André’s twenty-one year-old brother Philippe and eighteen year-old sister Rose-Marie decided to escape the slow-moving train along with several other occupants, through an opening they had made in the cattle-car.  Georges wanted to escape as well, but was prevented by his father, who feared reprisals against those who remained behind.  Like a dutiful twelve year-old, Georges elected to remain on the train.  Both Philippe and Rose-Marie made good their escape, and survived the war.

Of the Kohn family members who stayed behind on the train, only the father Armand lived.  His wife Suzanne and twenty-two year-old daughter Antoinette died in Bergen-Belsen, his mother Marie-Jeanne died in Auschwitz and Georges-André in Neuengamme.  Armand died in 1962 without ever learning of Georges’ whereabouts or fate (Günther Schwarberg’s book was not published until 1980).   Philippe Kohn later became the honorary president of the Children of Bullenhuser Damm Association.

More about the Kohn family’s story can be found in Swastika Over Paris by Jeremy Josephs (Arcade Publishing, 1989), which the author dedicated to Georges-André Kohn.


The Children of Bullenhuser Damm, Pt. I

From Odd Nansen’s diary, Tuesday, April 10, 1945:

“Today I went to see a band of Jewish children who are kept here [in Neuengamme concentration camp], as they were in Sachsenhausen—as guinea-pigs.  At one end of the Revier [infirmary] hutments, with a concealed entrance, they live in a little room.  There are ten boys and ten girls, from four to twelve years old.  First one enters a small backyard, where there’s a big cage of actual guinea-pigs—for the same purpose as the Jewish children. The yard also contains a heap of coal and a rubbish heap.

There were hardly ten square meters [108 sq.ft.] to move about in. That was the only place where the children could get outside into the fresh air.  Otherwise they lived in the small room inside; it was almost filled up by their beds, which were in two stories, and where they slept two in a bed.  They were attractive little things, French, Dutch, Belgian and Polish. All of them came from Auschwitz. A boy of eight had spent four and a half years in concentration camps.

When I asked what kind of experiments were made on these human children, the Häftlingsarzt [prison doctor] who was “showing me around” put a warning finger to his lips: it mustn’t be talked about, but the children had had injections.  What kind of injections?  Again the finger on his lips, and out it came in a whisper: Tuberculose!  Were the men who had conducted the experiments really competent scientists?  Ach—ja—a German professor with some name like Wiesmeyer or Biesmeyer!  But the children didn’t look as if they had taken any harm, and none of them seemed to have tuberculosis. None of the children who had been there were dead, nor had there been very much sickness.  At the moment one of them, a son of the head of the Rothschild Institute in Paris, had pneumonia.  But he was well cared for and apparently improving already.  And they were obviously getting enough to eat and led a carefree life in a way, with no understanding of what was happening to them and around them.

My friend the Häftlingsarzt, who had obviously grown fond of the little ones, answered with a worried shake of the head when I asked what would become of them if the camp were evacuated.  He wanted me to ask the Swedish commission if they couldn’t do something for them!  I will—but am prepared in advance for that also being in vain, like most of what one tries to do for other fellow-prisoners.

As a matter of fact it isn’t only these children who are experimented on.  The whole block at the end of which they lived turned out to be full of wretched creatures of the usual Muselmenn type, and they too are the objects of different kinds of experiment.  Whether they die of these experiments or of something else, really in a sense doesn’t matter.  For die they must!  Indeed, if any good came of the experiments they wouldn’t have died in vain. And that’s more than one can say of million after million.”

Odd Nansen was uncertain about many things on April 10, 1945: when would the war end?  would he survive?  when would he be freed?

But after 39 months of captivity, Nansen was absolutely certain about the fate of the children he just met: “Die they must!”  In this he was not mistaken.  In fact, these children, leading “a carefree life in a way,” had only ten more days to live.

The Nazi doctor conducting the experiment, Kurt Heissmeyer, believed that “racially inferior” patients [i.e., Jews] had lower resistance to illnesses such as tuberculosis than did racially superior ones [i.e., Aryans].  With no training or expertise, he set out to prove that tuberculosis of the lungs could be combated by artificially inducing live tuberculosis cultures into the skin.  Had Heissmeyer the requisite expertise, he would have known that this thesis had already been discredited, and thus—contrary to Nansen’s hopes—his experiments were, in the later judgment of a medical panel, “useless for scientific research and . . . they in no way enriched it.”

The children were cared for by two Dutch orderlies, Dirk Deutekom and Anton Hölzel, as well as two French doctors, René Quenouille (age 60), a radiologist arrested for hiding British paratroopers, and Gabriel Florence (age 58) a professor of biology and a member of the resistance.  A renowned scientist, he had previously been nominated for a Nobel Prize.  I believe that Florence was the Häftlingsarzt to which Nansen refers—he spoke German well enough to be used in the camp as an interpreter, and Nansen spoke German as well (but not French or Dutch).

On the night of April 20, upon orders from SS headquarters in Berlin, the twenty children, as well as their orderlies and doctors, were driven from Neuengamme into downtown Hamburg, to a school on Bullenhuser Damm Street that had been converted into an auxiliary SS camp.  All were taken to the basement.  The adults were hanged in one room; the children taken to an air-raid shelter in another part of the basement, each given an injection of morphine, and hanged, two at a time, from hooks affixed to the wall.  Those whose body weight was insufficient to do the job were grabbed around the waist and pulled down.  Their names:


Alexander Hornemann, age 8, Holland

Eduard Hornemann, age 12, Holland

Marek Steinbaum, age 10, Poland

Marek James, age 6, Poland

W. Junglieb, age 12, Yugoslavia

Roman Witónski, age 7, Poland

Eleonora Witónski, age 5, Poland

R. Zeller, age 12, Poland

Sergio de Simone, age 7, Italy

Georges André Kohn, age 12, France

E. Reichenbaum, age 10, Poland

Surcis Goldlinger, age 11, Poland

Lelka Birnbaum, age 12, Poland

Ruchla Zylberberg, age 10, Poland

H. Wassermann, age 8, Poland

Lola Klingermann, age 8, Poland

Rywka Herszberg, age 7, Poland

Blumel Mekler, age 11, Poland

Mania Altman, age 5, Poland

Jacqueline Morgenstern, age 12, France

Jacqueline Morgenstern as a seven year-old in Paris

Jacqueline Morgenstern as a seven year-old in Paris

During the war Nazi doctors conducted experiments on more than twenty thousand prisoners; several thousand died in the process, or shortly thereafter, others, like the children of Bullenhuser Damm, were murdered to hide the crime, and still others suffered lifelong disabilities as a result of their experience.

Some, but not all, of those responsible for the murders at Bullenhuser Damm, were apprehended, tried by a British Military Court soon after the war, convicted and sentenced to death, including the Commandant of Neuengamme, SS Obersturmbannfϋhrer Max Pauly.  While on death row Pauly wrote to his son: “I want to emphasize today that I am not aware of any fault of mine, and that I always acted in the interests of the prisoners, doing my duty to the end.”  Apparently acting in the interests to the prisoners did not extend to trying to keep them alive—it is estimated that at least 43,000 of Neuengamme’s 100,000 prisoners died by the end of the war, due to exhaustion, malnutrition, disease and violence. Here’s how Nansen described his new living quarters when he arrived at the camp: “The misery passed all bounds and baffled all conception. In every bed there were three or four, indeed some­times five or six men. It sounds incredible, but I saw them. Certainly they were lying on top of each other, but most of them were nothing but skeletons and didn’t take up much room. . . . The whole interior of the building was one inferno, a waiting room of death worse than could be conjured up in the wildest fantasies.”

Much of the above story comes from The Murders at Bullenhuser Damm, written by German journalist Günther Schwarberg (trans. Erna Baber Rosenfeld with Alvin H. Rosenfeld, Indiana University Press, 1984).  There is also a website maintained by The Children of Bullenhuser Damm Association, with more information, here.

Sometimes in a book there is a turn of phrase, a description, a contrast, that simply stabs one right in the heart.  In Schwarberg’s book, in addition to the truly tragic story of these young children, it is a juxtaposition that jumped out at me.  On page 104 of the book, Pauly, again writing to his son from death row, reminisces:

“Please remember my favorite dish—pancakes and chocolate pudding.  If I could only eat my fill once more!”

Earlier in the book the author, in describing life for children in Auschwitz [where all the Bullenhuser Damm children came from] quotes a prison doctor’s conversation with a nine year-old shortly before the boy was to be sent to the gas chamber.  The boy explains:

“My shoes are still very good.  Maybe you can find someone who wants to exchange them with me for a bread ration.  I won’t need them anymore.  I’m sure I won’t.  And I would really like to eat my fill once more before I die.”

Discussion at Main Street Books

Professor Scott Denham (holding breadboard) and Timothy Boyce with book

Professor Scott Denham (holding breadboard) and Timothy Boyce with book

Audience at Main Street Books

Audience at Main Street Books

On Tuesday evening I shared the stage at Main Street Books, Davidson, NC, with Scott Denham, Charles A. Dana Professor of German Studies at Davidson College, to discuss Odd Nansen’s From Day to Day and the larger issue of representing the Holocaust.

Scott observed that the Holocaust was a highly documented event.  The Nazis were meticulous record-keepers, and most of those records survived the war.  The sheer preponderance of such records meant that much early postwar historiography was skewed toward the perpetrators’ viewpoint.  Thus, it is all the more important that testimony for and by the victims of such violence also be disseminated and studied.  Odd Nansen’s diary is a step in such direction, and Professor Denham complimented the professionalism with which Vanderbilt University Press re-published the newly edited, annotated and introduced edition of From Day to Day.

I enjoyed the stimulating discussion and the attentive audience.  Thanks to Adah Fitzgerald, proprietor, and Eleanor Merrill, event coordinator, for their help and hospitality.

Dan Mask, a friend and enthusiastic supporter of my journey, provided the photos.

Interview on iHeart Radio

Recently I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Dean Karayanis of The History Author Show, which broadcasts on iHeart Radio.  Dean, who has a special fondness for Norway, was impressed with Odd Nansen’s diary, and our interview covers a wide range of subjects related to the book, to Odd Nansen, and to my story of discovery and re-publication.  Dean has also done a fabulous job of interweaving real radio clips from the era, starting with a description of the Nazi invasion of Norway on April 9, 1940 (the seventy-seventh anniversary of which will be in less than two weeks).

I highly recommend you listen to this interview; a complete podcast can be found here.

UPDATE: Tusen takk (A thousand thanks) to Dean for offering to donate the proceeds he earns from the sale of From Day to Day through his website to charity, following my example.  That is extremely generous and thoughtful, Dean, and I had forgotten your offer until I listened to the entire interview again.

First Royalty Checks Go Out

Those who have been to my presentations, or have read my previous blog on the subject (here), know that I have always intended to give away any royalties from the sale of From Day to Day to a charity or charities that Nansen would have approved of.

Without repeating all of my earlier blog, I feel that the “intellectual property” involved is Nansen’s words, not my annotations, and over which I have no moral claim.  More importantly, perhaps, is the example set by Nansen and his father Fridtjof Nansen.  Odd Nansen gave away the royalties from the sale of the German translation of From Day to Day to German refugee agencies.  His father Fridtjof, upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922, donated nearly all the significant cash stipend that accompanied the award to reconstruction work in the Soviet Union, then recovering from a significant famine.  How could I do less?

Recently I received my first distribution from Vanderbilt University Press, and forwarded 50% of the sum to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC, and 50% to HL-Senteret, the Center for Studies of Holocaust and Religious Minorities, in Oslo, Norway.  [This latter organization represents a slight change from my original intentions, which did not prove feasible, but was only done following consultations with Nansen’s daughter Marit Greve.]

The sum distributed was rather modest; it related only to sales from April 23, 2016, the book’s publication date, to June 30, 2016, the end of Vanderbilt’s fiscal year.  In the course of my travels, two patrons also elected to me pay $10 more than the book’s sticker price, with the express stipulation that these monies also be sent along with my royalties, and I was happy to comply.  Thanks to my two anonymous donors for your extra generosity.

With anti-Semitism on the rise throughout the world, and mindful of Primo Levi’s admonition: “It happened, therefore it can happen again,” I hope and pray that both the Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Center for Studies of the Holocaust continue their fine work, aided, indirectly, by Odd Nansen’s eloquent diary.

Ilse Weber (1903–1944).

Oh, I wish you all will be children again,
with the right to love, to feel shining sun,
to the joy each child can claim at birth,
round cheeks and glances bright with mirth,
the chance to eat, some this, some that,
you poor children of Theresienstadt.
(from Blue Hour at the Children’s Ward)

Ilse Weber (nee Herlinger) was born January 11, 1903, into a prosperous German-speaking Jewish family in Ostrava, a city in the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, Austro-Hungarian Empire that ultimately became Czechoslovakia after World War I.

Ilse was musically talented, and could play the piano, guitar, lute, mandolin, balalaika and the concertina. She was also quite literate, and growing up was always immersed in a book.

At age sixteen Ilse completed a personal questionnaire, revealing that her favorite occupation was “writing letters, stories and poems,” and that her “little passion” was “children.”

She was able to combine her various passions, and wrote children’s poems, songs and plays. By age 26, Ilse could boast of having published three children’s books, written a series of audio plays for the radio, and published numerous poems and articles.

As a young teen, Ilse advertised for pen pals. While she developed a network of correspondents, her closest relationship developed with Lilian von Lowënadler, the daughter of a Swedish diplomat.  This correspondence ultimately flowered into an intense friendship.

In 1930, Ilse married Willem (Willi) Weber, also from Ostrava, a successful small businessman. Shortly thereafter their first child, Hanuš, was born (December 31, 1931). Following Hanuš’ arrival, life for Ilse looked unquestionably good—a home, a son, a husband.

Then came Hitler.

Some of Ilse’s letters to Lilian were miraculously preserved [more on that later] and have just been published in a new book: Dancing on a Power Keg, (Bunim & Bannigan/Yad Vashem, 2016).  They cover the period from February 6, 1933 (one week after Hitler seized power), through Ilse’s deportation to Theresienstadt in 1942, until September 29, 1944, when she was transported to Auschwitz.  As such, they constitute a compelling window into the life of a typical Jewish family in Czechoslovakia as they gradually and remorselessly fall victim to the humiliations, torments and persecutions of The Final Solution.  In the words of Peter Fritzsch, writing in An Iron Wind: “Victims steadily lost the ability to make themselves at home in the world.”

In 1933, the start of the correspondence, of course, all of these dangers were no more than a cloud, the size of a man’s fist, on the horizon. Ilse’s letters are chatty, and filled with news of her children’s illnesses, her radio work, the family’s travels, etc.  A second son, Thomas, followed on March 3, 1934.

By 1937, the idyll of living in Czechoslovakia had long since vanished. Ilse writes: “I laugh very little these days.” (April 29, 1937).

Worse was to come in 1938, as the Munich Crisis heated up. Hitler, determined to incorporate Czechoslovakia’s Sudeten Germans into the Greater Reich, threatened war, while encouraging the Sudeten Germans to foment unrest.  March 28, 1938: “I no longer know here any one of my, until recently, German friends, who doesn’t ogle Germany. . . .   And the worst is for us Jews.  How Hitler must fear us that he persecutes us so!  Up to this day I have believed in God; but if he doesn’t give us a token of his existence soon, I can no longer.  This persecution of Jews is inhuman.”

By the end of 1938, learning that Lilian had lost a newborn daughter who was born prematurely, Ilse’s attempt to provide some comfort reveals her state of mind: “You will probably not be able to forget this little girl for the rest of your life. But perhaps one day you will be happy that it parted from you without having to know the cruelty of this ugly world and its despicable people.” (December 1, 1938).

So also my mother goes
along strange ghetto lanes,
hunched by age and duress,
eyes blank with loneliness,
of all she loved, nought remains.
(from Remembrance)

By mid-1939, Ilse concluded that Hanuš would be safer away from Czechoslovakia’s increasingly dangerous atmosphere, and so she arranged for his inclusion in a “kindertransport” organized by Nicholas George Winton (later knighted), which ultimately rescued 669 children (most of them Czech Jews) by bringing them to England.   From England, Ilse’s friend and pen pal Lilian took Hanuš to Sweden, where he spent the war years, initially in Lilian’s custody, and later in the care of Lilian’s mother, Gertrude von Lowënadler.

In my thoughts and dreams I hold you near
and yet it’s a blessing to me you’re not here.
Life has taken so much away,
all my joy gone since you left that day.
Oh yes, the burden is hard to bear,
but at least I know that you are spared.
A thousand torments to be endured,
if your happy childhood is ensured.
It’s getting late and I must lie down.
If I could rest eyes on you again!
Dear son, no matter how strong my need,
I can only write letters you’ll never read.
(from Letter to My Child)

Ilse’s letters, first to Lilian, and then to Gertrude (and often jointly to Hanuš) are filled with typical motherly exhortations, to wash up, to study, to obey. At the same time, they reveal the worsening situation in Czechoslovakia.

By the end of 1940 the Webers, who had moved earlier that year from Ostrava (because “one had to fear for one’s life in the streets”) to a three-room apartment in Prague, were forced yet again to move, this time to a single room in an apartment owned by a certain Dr. Weidmann, a pediatrician “though now without a practice,” a euphemistic way of explaining that he, like all Jewish doctors, had been barred from his previous profession.

In the same letter (December 1940), Ilse expressed thanks upon learning that Hanuš had received some clothes from the Red Cross: “We’re no longer used to kindness by anyone. You know, all it takes is for someone to say to me a sympathetic word and I already cry. My nerves are so kaput.”

And it only got worse. By April 21, 1941, Ilse observes, “In the last two years I aged a hundred years, and almost everyone with me.”

Even the simplest pleasures were increasingly hard to come by. That summer Ilse described one of her favorite pastimes, a walk down to the Vltava River that flows through Prague: “[B]efore me the wide river with its beautiful arched bridges and small boats, in the background wooded hills.  It is beautiful, even when you can only look at it, not being allowed to go there.  Sometimes it really surprises me that we’re not forced to wear black glasses.  So we caress the green splendor with our eyes and remember past days when the trees still turned green indiscriminately for all people.” (July 6, 1941)

One month later Ilse writes she is “not good for anything anymore. I’m unable to write even one poem. Inside, I’m like dead.” (August 31, 1941)

From the distance I could
hug you only with my eyes,
too cowardly to run to you
to slip by your side.
I saw you and the others
pass through the barracks gate
tormented and without a home,
off to an unknown fate.

I didn’t say goodbye to you,
and you may never know
that even as I deserted you
I never felt so close.
(from Goodbye Mother)

By January 1942 Ilse had hit rock bottom, missing Hanuš and worn down by her daily struggles. “I can’t imagine that I will see my child again.  Last night I was so desperate that I seriously suggested to Willi to end it all and rather commit suicide with me and Tommy.  Luckily, Willi is a rational, calm man and knows how to handle me.  Fact is that mentally I simply can’t go on.”

One month later (February 6, 1942), Ilse, Willi and Tommy were deported to Theresienstadt, a ghetto and concentration camp located in Terezin, Czechoslovakia. Upon arrival Ilse started a children’s infirmary.  Oddly enough, she thrived in her new role—she even began composing poems again, many of which she also set to music.  As a contemporary of Ilse’s later wrote: “Ilse’s indescribable sense of duty for her family and children–patients never let her rest.  She allowed herself only little sleep. She took advantage of every free moment to draw images with words that captured everyday life in Theresienstadt.”  Willi even concluded later that Theresienstadt was the peak of Ilse’s career as a writer.

Someone with a sympathetic heart
for others’ sorrows, tears and hurt,
who possess to the full
determination, who can hide her fear:
this is what is needed here,
essential to survival.
I cannot pity those who lack
these qualities, who keep looking back,
who to their fancied pasts succumb.
They are clueless who think this way.
Here only inner value holds sway,
our only asset in days to come.
(from A Conversation in the Alley)

In September 1944 Willi received a transport notice to the dreaded “East”—Auschwitz. He immediately filled a sack with Ilse’s poems and sketches and buried them in a hole beneath a shed in Theresienstadt to which he had access by virtue of his job as a gardener.

“Today,” a little boy with a head bandage says,
“I dreamt I lived under a tree. I was
in cloud-cuckoo-land that
offered nothing to do but eat.”
“What did you eat?” asks a girl with round eyes.
“Cakes, sausages and all kinds of pies,
all in cloud-cuckoo-land, all to enjoy.”
“Cakes!” grumbles a yellow-jaundiced boy
whose hungry hopes have just been dashed,
“What I want is potatoes, mashed.”
“And I,” calls out a shrill wee voice,
“a scrambled egg would be my choice.”
Young voices echo through the hall:
“An egg! Just this once! Eggs for all!
For ten months not one egg eaten,
and how it tastes we’ve long forgotten.”

Shortly after Willi’s transport, the entire children’s infirmary was ordered onto a transport to Auschwitz as well. Rather than abandon her young charges, Ilse voluntarily registered herself and Tommy so as to accompany them, even though she had previously pledged to Willi that she would “under no circumstances” do so.  On October 4, 1944 she began her journey to Auschwitz.

A hoarse voice rises jovially:
“At home we had an apple tree,
if I could have an apple, just one. . .”
Then from a dim corner a wail’s begun,
Heinzi, tubercular and lame,
his cheeks, pale, white as snow, says “Home . . .
if I could only . . . how I wish . . .
to have what I left on my dish.
I ate no soup, no potatoes, no meat.
They yelled at me each time I didn’t eat,
now mother is sick and father is dead,
and all I want is a piece of dry bread.”
(from Blue Hour at the Children’s Ward)

After the war, Willi (who survived) returned to Theresienstadt and miraculously retrieved the cache of poems, which are also included in Dancing on a Powder Keg, several of which are reproduced in part here. [Willi, who was born in 1901, the same year as Odd Nansen, died in the summer of 1974, one year after Nansen.]

In 1977, thirty-three years after Ilse’s death, the husband of Lilian Lowënadler (Lilian had died during the war of complications after contracting pleurisy) was cleaning out his London apartment when he discovered a trunkfull of Ilse’s letters covering 1933-1944. He delivered them to Hanuš, who then left them unread for another twelve years, so fearful was he of revisiting his mother’s trauma.  Only in 1989 did Hanuš (now aged 58), in response to a request from his uncle (who was writing a family history), read their contents for the first time.

I could not protect you from
your hunger and privation.
Illness found you helpless;
death was your salvation.

Your coffin has been carried off.
Oh to feel grief, to even sigh.
Dead inside,
I’ve forgotten how to cry.
(from Burial)

Ilse (and Tommy) did not survive the war. It was not until 1999, over a half-century later, that Hanuš learned the details of their death from a friend from Ostrava and Theresienstadt who had been employed in Auschwitz’s “Leichenträger” [corpse carrying] commando:

“Sometime in autumn 1944 I noticed a group of ten or fifteen children that had arrived with a transport. Ilse stood in their middle trying to comfort the little ones.” [Despite the danger, the worker went over to Ilse, who immediately recognized him.]  “’Is it true that we can take a shower after the journey?’ she asked.  I did not want to lie and so I answered: ‘No, that is no shower room, it is a gas chamber, and I will give you a piece of advice now.  I have often heard you singing in the infirmary.  Go as quickly as possible into the chamber.  Sit with the children on the floor and start singing.  Sing what you always sing with them.  That way you will inhale the gas quicker.  Otherwise you would be trampled to death when the panic breaks out.’  Ilse’s reaction was strange.  She laughed, somehow absently, hugged one of the children and said: ‘So we will not be taking a shower. . . . ‘”

One month later (early November, 1944), all gassing ceased at Auschwitz, per order of Heinrich Himmler.

The best things of the world are these:
A little home full of luck and peace,
Without the neighbors’ envious looks,
With silent hours in homely nooks.
A sound of music, a children’s song
And far away are hate and wrong.
No one is there who grieves my heart,
But You shall come and never part.
(Written to Lilian von Lowënadler, February 3, 1939)

Presentation at Nassau Presbyterian Church


On February 23 I had the good fortune to address an audience at the Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton, NJ.  The event was co-sponsored by the church, the Princeton Public Library, the Princeton Clergy Association and The Jewish Center of Princeton.  The audience was wonderful, and from varied backgrounds, including old classmates from Georgetown, the retired headmaster of my sons’ prep school, Westminster, the mother of one of my earliest book supporters, colleagues from my former law firm, Dechert, and even the granddaughter of a Norwegian resistance fighter who died in February 1945 in the Gross Rosen concentration camp.  It was certainly a night to remember.  The  entire event was the brainchild of Kathy Ales of Princeton, herself a child of two Holocaust survivors.  Kathy’s energy and organizational skills (to say nothing of her hospitality) are a wonder to behold, and I owe a debt of gratitude that I can never fully repay.  Thanks to Nassau Presbyterian for their lovely venue (the photo is of me in their Sanctuary), to my other co-sponsors, to everyone who attended, and most of all, to my dear friend Kathy Ales.

Subscribe to My Blog

Get an email notice when a new blog post is published.
Email *

Upcoming Events

Book Signings

  • September 3, 2017: Scandinavian Fest, Budd Lake, NJ (10 am–6 pm)
  • September 8, 2017: Sons of Norway, Media, PA
  • September 9, 2017: Sons of Norway, Philadelphia, PA
  • September 10, 2017: Sons of Norway, Brooklyn, NY
  • September 12, 2017: Franklin Inn Club, Philadelphia, PA
  • September 14, 2017: JCC of Staten Island
  • September 15, 2017: Sons of Norway, Lancaster, PA
  • September 16, 2017: Sons of Norway, Marlboro, NJ
  • September 17, 2017: Sons of Norway, Baltimore, MD
  • September 18, 2017: The Adult School, Madison, NJ
  • September 27-30, 2017: Norsk Hostfest, Minot, ND
  • October 1, 2017: Norwegians Worldwide, Sioux Falls, SD
  • October 5, 2017: Wofford College Lifelong Learning (5:00 pm)
  • 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)

People are talking

"That you have developed such a comprehensive mastery of Odd Nansen and all that surrounds him... is beyond impressive. You could have gone on for three times as long and kept us riveted with your enthusiastic delivery. Your passion fills you."

- Jim Troppman
former P&G executive, attendee

On This Date

< 2017 >
  • Sons of Norway, Philadelphia, PA (Booksigning)
  • September 27-30:  Norsk Hostfest, Minot, ND
  • September 27-30:  Norsk Hostfest, Minot, ND
  • September 27-30:  Norsk Hostfest, Minot, ND
  Previous/Upcoming Engagements
  This day in history

Recent Posts

< 2017 >
  • Sons of Norway, Philadelphia, PA (Booksigning)
  • September 27-30:  Norsk Hostfest, Minot, ND
  • September 27-30:  Norsk Hostfest, Minot, ND
  • September 27-30:  Norsk Hostfest, Minot, ND
  Previous/Upcoming Engagements
  This day in history

Upcoming Events

Book Signings

  • September 3, 2017: Scandinavian Fest, Budd Lake, NJ (10 am–6 pm)
  • September 8, 2017: Sons of Norway, Media, PA
  • September 9, 2017: Sons of Norway, Philadelphia, PA
  • September 10, 2017: Sons of Norway, Brooklyn, NY
  • September 12, 2017: Franklin Inn Club, Philadelphia, PA
  • September 14, 2017: JCC of Staten Island
  • September 15, 2017: Sons of Norway, Lancaster, PA
  • September 16, 2017: Sons of Norway, Marlboro, NJ
  • September 17, 2017: Sons of Norway, Baltimore, MD
  • September 18, 2017: The Adult School, Madison, NJ
  • September 27-30, 2017: Norsk Hostfest, Minot, ND
  • October 1, 2017: Norwegians Worldwide, Sioux Falls, SD
  • October 5, 2017: Wofford College Lifelong Learning (5:00 pm)
  • 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)
< 2017 >
  • Sons of Norway, Philadelphia, PA (Booksigning)
  • September 27-30:  Norsk Hostfest, Minot, ND
  • September 27-30:  Norsk Hostfest, Minot, ND
  • September 27-30:  Norsk Hostfest, Minot, ND
  Previous/Upcoming Engagements
  This day in history