Recently my wife Tara and I were working on a crossword puzzle. The clue for the four-letter word was: “January 13, e.g.” I immediately thought of “Ides” but quickly dismissed it—that’s the 15th day of the month, right? After all, if there is one thing I remember from high school English, it was that the Ides of March fell on the 15th. Well, it turned out that the answer was “Ides,” which sent me to do some research. Turns out that “Ides” means the middle of the Roman month, which is the 15th day of March, May, July and October, but is the 13th day of all other months.
The Romans had other terms for certain days of the week. “Calends” refers to the first day of each month, and “Nones” is the eighth day preceding the Ides. According to some sources, all three days—Calends, Nones and Ides—were considered inauspicious, and were to be avoided. Hence Shakespeare’s soothsayer’s warning to Julius Caesar to be on guard come March 15 (a warning old Julius failed to heed in 44 BC).
One wonders what might have happened had someone warned Odd Nansen to beware the Ides of January—if he could have been forewarned that the Nazi were after him. Most likely nothing. Nansen wouldn’t have escaped alone and left his family to the tender mercies of the Gestapo, and escaping en famille to Sweden, with three small children and, as would soon be revealed, a pregnant wife, would have been nigh impossible. In any event, Nansen was as surprised as anyone when “the district sheriff . . . came up to the cottage with two Germans” on January 13, 1942. Nansen’s misfortune would prove to be our gain; the world obtained an unparalleled insight into the crucible of the concentration camp, as well as an inspiring example of how one person kept his humanity in the most inhumane conditions imaginable.
To commemorate the 77th anniversary of Nansen’s arrest, today I joined a book discussion group. They were at the Nordic Museum in Seattle, WA; I was sitting at home in Tryon, NC—that’s the beauty of Skype. Twenty people all converged on the museum at 10:30 am (PST) which was 7:30 pm Oslo time, or the exact time of Nansen’s arrest. Over half had attended my presentation in Seattle in June (described here); half had already read all or part of Nansen’s diary; six were self-described WWII history buffs; five had a family member or friend directly affected by the Holocaust, and one personally knew both Odd Nansen and his son, Odd Erik. The motivations of the participants varied widely. Some were interested in the story, some were inspired by Odd Nansen’s example; some wanted additional insight into Nansen’s resilience. While the acoustics presented a bit of a challenge, the meeting was both interesting and informative. Many thanks to Pam Belyea for organizing and moderating the meeting, to the Nordic Museum for hosting the event in its wonderful new facility, and to the participants, whose interest in Odd Nansen was so heartening.
A fitting way to remember the occasion of Odd Nansen’s arrest, on the Ides of January.