Most of my blog readers already know of my friend Siri Svae Fenson. Previously I had written about her uncle, Hjalmar Svae, described by Odd Nansen as “a fine type of Norwegian patriot.” Svae, along with two other Norwegians, had attempted to escape to Great Britain from Norway in a stolen German motorboat in August 1941. Unfortunately, the engine quit before they reached their goal, and the ocean current carried the boat all the way back to Denmark where they were captured, arrested, and sentenced to death. Svae then undertook a second, even more dangerous, but ultimately successful, escape attempt from prison.
When Siri learned that I would be speaking at the Sons of Norway Sixth District Convention in Rohnert Park, CA, in June, she graciously invited me to stay with her and her husband Max, since they lived in nearby Santa Rosa, CA.
Siri and Max proved to be wonderful hosts, and Siri even organized a meeting at her home of the local Sons of Norway chapter (Freya Lodge) so I could share Nansen’s story in a relaxed setting.
I took leave of Siri and Max on Monday evening, June 11. Fast forward a mere three days, and I am now arriving at the Norwegian Club of San Francisco for dinner and a presentation on the evening of the 14th.
[The Norwegian Club of San Francisco has a venerable history itself. It was founded in 1898 in anticipation of a visit from the great polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen (Odd’s father) who was on a speaking tour following his record-setting attempt on the North Pole. The talk never took place, as Nansen’s plans changed, but the club has remained active ever since. Moreover, when Roald Amundsen (who would be the first to reach the South Pole in 1911) successfully navigated the Northwest Passage (another first) in 1906, he celebrated his three-and-a-half-year feat in San Francisco, with the Norwegian Club. As a result, the club possesses a priceless collection of artifacts from the trip and from Amundsen’s ship, the Gjøa, now on permanent display in Oslo. The club also hosted Thor Heyerdahl and crew upon the completion of their famous Kon-Tiki expedition.]
Now, back to the main story. It is approximately 6:45pm at the Club, and I’m setting up my books, checking the projection equipment, etc., as guests continue to file in. At one point a member enters, introduces herself as Helene Sobol, and mentions how excited she is to hear my presentation—after all, her father was also a prisoner in Sachsenhausen during the war. That was certainly enough to get my attention. Her father’s name? “Bjørn Fraser.” Let’s check the Index to see if he is mentioned in the diary. Sure enough, he is, on pages 87, 96, 111, 120 and 123. Let’s pursue this a bit further.
Well, it turns out that Bjørn Fraser and Hjalmar Svae were on the same boat that never arrived in England. There were only three men involved in the theft and escape—Fraser, Svae and a man named Per Birkevold. Approximately 40,000 Norwegians were arrested by the Nazis and their sympathizers during the war. What are the chances of meeting—less than one week apart—the relatives of two of the three members of an event so audacious that Odd Nansen spends considerable time in his diary describing their “crime,” and then worrying about their fate?!? And that those two relatives live less than an hour away from each other?
Serendipity seems to be one of my favorite words these days, but I really don’t know how else to describe all the coincidences/connections that almost continually pop-up in my journey to share Nansen’s story. I’ve even written a blog about serendipity (here). Needless to say, meeting both Siri and Helene were some of the biggest highlights of my book tour. Helene’s sister still lives in Norway, as does Siri’s cousin—Hjlamar’s daughter Kirsti. I foresee connections being made in both America and Norway!
Despite receiving a death sentence, and despite Nansen’s conclusion that “They can’t have much chance to speak of,” Bjørn Fraser, like Hjalmar Svae, led something of a charmed life. He not only survived the war when his sentence was reduced to ten years at hard labor, but later rose to become brigadier-general in the Norwegian Air Force, and also served as an aide-de-camp to King Olav V (who in turn was a schoolmate of Odd Nansen). After our wonderful meeting, Helene later wrote to me, in part: “I was particularly touched by Nansen’s worry that my father had been shot, something that thankfully turned out to be false, or I would not have been born! His praise of my father . . . as [a] great patriot touched my heart.” Here’s a photo Helene shared, showing her father, on the far left, and King Olav V in the center, as Olav takes his oath upon becoming king in 1957:
It was truly an honor to share a meal and discuss Nansen’s diary at the Norwegian Club, following in the footsteps of the great Amundsen, Heyerdahl, and the even the ghost of Fridtjof Nansen. By the way, the third member of the “boat gang,” Per Birkevold, also sentenced to death, also managed to survive until war’s end. At this point I will be rather disappointed if I don’t meet up with a Birkevold relative in the near future……….