On This Day in 1942

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On this day in 1942,  three officials—two German, one Norwegian—approached a small cabin in snowy East Gausdal, Norway, and informed Odd Nansen that he was wanted for questioning in Oslo.  In fact, he was part of a round-up ordered by the German overseer of Norway, Reichskommissar Josef Terboven.

That very night Nansen began his prison diary.  His first entry concludes:

“I heard about the new actions against special officers and against friends of the royal family, who were all arrested at this time.  I supposed I must come under the latter heading, and if so I should probably be ‘inside’ until the was was over?”

Nansen was indeed ‘inside’ until the war was virtually over–almost 40 months later.  The record of his incarceration became From Day to Day: One Man’s Diary of Survival in Nazi Concentration Camps.  The diary has been hailed as a masterpiece—both upon its initial publication in English in 1949, and its subsequent re-issue by Vanderbilt University Press in 2016.

On the very same day as Nansen’s arrest, the governments-in-exile of nine German occupied nations, including Norway, issued the St. James Declaration, which set as one of their principal war aims the punishment of criminal acts perpetrated against their civilian populations by the Germans.  The U.K. and the U.S. were present at the St. James Conference, but as non-occupied countries, did not sign the Declaration.

Whether all those “guilty of, or responsible for, these crimes, whether they have ordered them, perpetrated them, or participated in them,” were ever fully punished is debatable. Nevertheless,  Nansen’s diary serves as a damning indictment of Nazi policies, and a roadmap for war crimes.

William L. Shirer, bestselling author of Berlin Diary, and future author of  the blockbuster The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, reviewed Nansen’s diary  in 1949 for the New York Herald Tribune.  He, too, recognized the historical importance of  a diary which showed “how the Germans behaved when they had a large part of civilized Europe at their feet.”  And yet, he noted, “and this is what makes this record unique—Nansen never gave in nor did he lose his faith in mankind.”

Now, that’s something worth remembering on this day in history.

The Meaning of Cold

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So the Bomb Cyclone has come and gone, leaving a Polar Vortex in its wake.  Did you survive it?  Unborn generations will be asking us in future years how we coped.  At the very least, the storm stranded thousands of passengers, shut down government services along the East Coast, provided a few days off from school, and probably froze enough pipes to keep the plumbing industry in America afloat (apologies for the pun) for quite some time.

Even here in western North Carolina, the so-called Isothermal Belt, where temperatures are expected to be, well, temperate, things got pretty nippy.  The barn was drained, heaters were installed in the horses’ water buckets against freezing, the light bulb was kept on in the well house, and the fireplace well stocked.  I am a veteran of almost 50 Connecticut winters, and even I felt a bit uncomfortable during my daily dog walk.  And I had my polar fleece ski cap, insulated and padded LL Bean coat, cashmere scarf, and sturdy boots (again courtesy of LL Bean).

Today, as I attempted (unsuccessfully) to hasten along my dogs’ perambulations, I couldn’t help but reflect on an event that occurred two weeks shy of 72 years ago: the evacuation of Auschwitz, otherwise known as the Auschwitz Death March.  Clad in cotton prison uniforms, some with blankets, some without, some with boots, some with wooden clogs, some with rags tied round their feet, approximately 56,000 prisoners set out on January 18, 1945, into the Polish winter.  According to Professor Daniel Blatman, an authority on the death marches, temperatures in the area “dropp[ed] to -10 to -15°C,” or 5 to 14° F.

One of those 56,000 prisoners was ten year-old Tom Buergenthal.  As Tom relates in his memoir, A Lucky Child, over the next three days he walked 70 kilometers (42 miles), sleeping on the frozen ground at night.  By the time he reached Gliwice on the third day, Tom could no longer feel his toes.  There, he ate his remaining bread and licked a few handfuls of snow.  “Oh, what would I have given for even a few spoonfuls of that terrible Auschwitz turnip soup or, for that matter, anything warm!” he writes.

Auschwitz in winter

At Gliwice Tom was packed onto an open cattle car.  At first the warmth of the crowded car was an asset, but as prisoners died and their bodies were thrown over the side, even that advantage faded.  “The snow and wind seemed never to let up, and we could feel the cold more now than before because there were fewer warm bodies pressing against us.” With his bread gone, Tom was reduced to eating snow, imagining it tasted like ice cream, “although I doubt that we remembered what ice cream tasted like.”

How such cruelty could be visited upon a ten year-old boy, for no other reason than his Jewish birth, is a question that both perplexes me (no matter how much I read up on the subject), but also frightens me, as the disease of anti-Semitism once again gains virulence, even here in America.

Was there any saving grace, or silver lining, to be extracted from the experience of the Death March?  Hardly.  Thousands of prisoners died in the process, a mere 100 days before the war’s end.  After ten days on the cattle car, Tom had several of his frostbitten toes amputated when he finally arrived in Sachsenhausen.  But in a strange twist of fate, his injury placed him in Sachsenhausen’s Revier III (Infirmary No. 3), which also housed one of Odd Nansen’s Norwegian friends.  It was while visiting his friend that Odd first encountered young Tommy, so young and so innocent that Nansen called him “one of Raphael’s angels.”  Otherwise, the chances that Tom and Odd would ever have crossed paths in a camp as large as Sachsenhausen were almost negligible.  And that improbable meeting proved a boon to both Nansen and Buergenthal.

Even in the darkest hours there were a few other gleams of light.  Saul Friedländer, in his book Nazi Germany and the Jews, Volume II (The Years of Extermination), recounts the experience of another Death March participant, Paul Steinberg, who had “’a precise, detailed, overwhelming memory.’”  When Steinberg’s train approached Prague, Czechoslovakia, it passed under bridges where Czechs were marching overhead on their way to work.

“’As one man,’ Steinberg recalls, ‘the Czechs opened their satchels and tossed their lunches down to us without a moment’s hesitation. . . .  We were showered with rolls, slices of bread. . . .’”

Tom Buergenthal had a similar experience:

“Just when I was sure that it would only be a matter of a day or two before I too would die and be thrown out of the car, a miracle occurred.  As the train moved slowly through Czechoslovakia, . . . men, women and children standing on the bridges we passed under [began tossing bread loaves into the cars]  . . . . Had it not been for that Czech bread, we would not have survived.  I never learned how this magnificent campaign had been mounted, but as long as I live, I will not forget these angels—for to me they seemed to be angels—who provided us bread as if from heaven.”

Think about that the next time you reach for your fur-lined gloves.

A Gulag Diary Surfaces

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From the New York Times

The New York Times ran a fascinating article yesterday about a palm-sized diary, written in the Soviet Gulag, which “slumbered in obscurity” for “nearly 70 years.”  Here’s the link.

Written by Olga M. Ranitskaya, who was arrested in 1937 during Stalin’s Great Purge, the 115-page diary uses a stick figure, “Little Weather Devil,” as an alter-ego to describe Ranitskaya’s experience working in the weather station at a labor camp in Kazakhstan.  In 2009 it arrived in the desk of Zoya Eroshok, a newspaper editor in Moscow.  It had been sent by the daughter of a Gulag survivor, but with no clue as to its original author other than a first name: Olga.

Reading the article, I was struck by the number of parallels between Ranitskaya’s work and Nansen’s diary.

Nansen was born in 1901; Ranitskaya in 1905.  She began writing in 1941; he in 1942.  Ranitskaya’s diary is believed to be the only one written in the Gulag to have survived; getting caught was sufficient grounds for execution.  Nansen’s diary is one of only a very small number of concentration camp diaries to have survived, of which only a handful have ever been translated into English.  As Nansen noted on February 25, 1944: “A Dutchman has been found out keeping a diary, and that may lead to disaster.”  I have previously written about the fragility of diaries (here).

Ranitskaya titled her diary “Work and Days” from an epic poem by Hesiod, a Greek poet.  As I have written (here), Nansen’s title might well have come from Shakespeare’s Macbeth.   Ranitskaya’s writing “reveals a very good knowledge of the language and literature.”  Nansen’s diary is undeniably eloquent, and replete with Biblical, classical and literary references.

According to Eroshok, Ranitskaya responded to evil “with something of quality, the quality of the drawings, the quality of the language and the quality of strong and positive feelings: her love for her son, her love of life, her love for people.”  The quality of Nansen’s sketches bespeaks a formidable artistic talent, and, as I discuss in my Introduction to Nansen’s diary, the entire work can be “viewed as one long love letter to Kari,” his wife, as well as his children, to say nothing of Nansen’s love for young Tommy Buergenthal (which I’ve written about here).  Eroshok also views the diary as a form of revenge against Stalin for all his victims.  As I also write in my Introduction, “In the final analysis, it is Nansen’s diary itself that may constitute his ultimate act of resistance,” quoting Primo Levi to the effect that “’testimony was an act of war against fascism.’”

It took eight years for Eroshok and Moscow’s Gulag History Museum to track down the identity of the diarist and publish “a small, handsome volume” which includes the record of Ranitskaya’s interrogation as well as other poems she wrote.  My journey from re-discovery of Nansen’s 60+ year-old diary to re-publication in a deluxe, annotated version with Vanderbilt University Press, took six years.

Finally, it is telling that the director of the Gulag History Museum, Roman V. Romanov, feels Russia must “get past the arguments over how many millions Stalin killed and focus instead on the fate of ordinary people.”  He writes: “’What’s important is to return to people’s fate and allow the viewers to be part of someone’s life.’”

Ironically, the first blog post I ever wrote, on September 3, 2015 (here), begins with a quote from none other than Stalin that one death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic, and contains this observation: “Nansen’s diary is many things, but at one level it is an attempt to give a face, and personal story, or at least some recognition, to each individual he encountered, to bestow some dignity on them, notwithstanding their condition.”

A special shout-out to my friend Frank Schaberg who alerted me to this article.

Second Royalty Distribution Goes Out

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As explained in previous posts (here and here), I determined at the outset of my journey with From Day to Day that any royalties derived from the sale of Nansen’s diary would go to a charity or charities that Odd Nansen would have approved of were he still alive.

After discussing the matter with Nansen’s daughter Marit Greve, we agreed that 50% would go to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in DC, and 50% to HL-Senteret, The Center for Study of the Holocaust and Religious Minorities, in Oslo.

Although I do not charge a speaking fee for my presentations, this past year several organizations were generous enough to pay me an honorarium for my services.  Since these were unexpected I have decided to include them in my distributions as well.  With these latest checks, to date such distributions total $5,206.88.

All of the above would never have been possible without the assistance of so many people who helped me along the way—by making introductions, suggesting speaking venues, recommending my work, organizing events themselves, etc.  To all of you I owe a debt which can never be fully repaid.  But I salute you for your help, and wish you all the very best that 2018 can offer.  Here is but a partial list of those who went above and beyond the call of duty this past year: Tese Stephens, Harry Goodheart, Don Lineback, Kathy Aleš, Ella-Marie Smith, Rabbi Yossi Liebowitz, Dan Mask, Jim Warycha, Cindy Williams, Dotty Myhre-Donahue, Kris Leopold, Don Zellmer, Morgan Jordan, Bridget Ray, Ginny Bear, Shirley Stevens, Dick Kuhn, and Kaye Wergedal.  I’m sure that I have overlooked someone equally deserving of recognition, and hope you will forgive the oversight, and allow me to use Odd Nansen’s own words: “Honor to them all for their share.”

The Power of Serendipity

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It’s a Wonderful Life

Seventy-one years ago today, probably my favorite movie of all time premiered: It’s a Wonderful Life, starring the incomparable Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey, and the luminous Donna Read as Mary Hatch Bailey (with strong performances by Lionel Barrymore as Mr. Potter, Henry Travers as Clarence, Gloria Grahame as Violet, and Karolyn Grimes as Zuzu).

George’s journey back through time, with the help of Angel Clarence, underscores the unique contribution he made in the life of his friends and neighbors.  George just happened to save his kid brother Harry from drowning (allowing him to later down a kamikaze pilot just in the nick of time); just happened to save old man Gower from a life of ruin by detecting the poison accidentally put into a child’s diphtheria prescription; just happened to have cash savings sufficient to tide The Bailey Savings & Loan over during a Depression-era bank run; just happened…..well, you know the whole story—everyone not living under a rock for the last seventy-one years knows the story.

Was George meant to save his brother, save Gower, save the Savings & Loan? Or were all of George’s actions simply a matter of serendipity? Even with Clarence’s help, it’s impossible to know.

Those of you who have heard my presentation, listened to my interviews, or read my website, know that I wrestle with the question of how I came to be so involved in Odd Nansen’s life.  Why did I purchase Thomas Buergenthal’s memoir, A Lucky Child, back in 2010?  Why did I then read it; I have lots of books that I’ve purchased over the years, intending to read, but haven’t.  In fact, I probably need to live to age 150 in order to finish all the books still unread on my shelves.  And why did I decide to locate a copy of Nansen’s diary, ever-so-briefly mentioned in a footnote in Buergenthal’s book?  Why indeed?  Was it all just serendipity?

Recently I was flipping through my latest copy of Publisher’s Weekly (that’s what book nuts do).  Since it was devoted exclusively to children’s books, I was scanning it quickly (my grandchildren already have enough books to last many years).  On the penultimate page, a glancing reference to Auschwitz caught my eye.  It was an interview with Spanish author Antonio Iturbe, who has just published an English translation of his Young Adult novel (ages 13 and up), The Librarian of Auschwitz, based on a true story.

Years ago, while reading Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night, Iturbe learned that, in a special children’s barrack, Block 31, located in Auschwitz’s “family camp,” eight to ten books were secretly collected and maintained by one of the older girls, whose job it was to hide them in a different place each night.   (I, too, had read The Library at Night—that’s what book nuts do—but did not remember the reference to Auschwitz.)

As Iturbe recalls “When I closed [Manguel’s] book, this question kept knocking on the door of my curiosity: How was it possible to have a library in the hell of Auschwitz.  And then I started looking, and found more than I ever imagined.”  Iturbe visited Auschwitz, and tried to discover everything he could about Block 31.  He learned that a novel called The Painted Wall, written by Ota Kraus, had been set in the “family camp,” but he couldn’t find a copy of the out-of-print book anywhere.  Finally, he found a webpage where someone had a copy for sale.  The person who had responded signed her e-mail “Dita.”

“I’d read in a book that the young librarian at Auschwitz was called Edita.  So I asked her if she had anything to do with the girl from Auschwitz. She answered, ‘Yes, but now I am 80 years old and I live in Israel.’ It is a moment that cannot be captured in words. From there, we began a correspondence by email, and finally found ourselves together in Prague.  Knowing Dita Kraus is one of the important things that has happened in my life.”

Read the full interview with Iturbe here.  It is as heartwarming as Frank Capra’s movie.  I certainly found myself nodding as I read this wonderful story.  I, too, know that befriending Tom Buergenthal and Odd Nansen’s daughter Marit Greve are among the most important things that have happened in my life.

But was it serendipity that brought Iturbe and Dita Kraus together?  Or something else?  You tell me.  And while you’re pondering that conundrum, I think I’ll go watch It’s a Wonderful Life yet one more time.

Merry Christmas, George Bailey.

PS: A shout-out to my son (and movie maven) Patrick, who reminded me of today’s important anniversary.

 

The Humaneness of Odd Nansen

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Today marks the 116th anniversary of Odd Nansen’s birth, in 1901.

Sometimes I ask myself why I have become so enamored of a person I never met; why do I spend so much time devoted to a diary he wrote, before I was even born, and which I still have difficulty appreciating—the description is so divorced from any personal experience I have ever had.

Recently I read, for the first time, the front inside dust jacket flap from the original, 1949 English language version of From Day to Day.  It is worth quoting:

“To convey the flavor of Odd Nansen’s remarkable diary, kept while a prisoner in German concentration camps, in a brief description is impossible, for the essence of it is the spiritual quality that shines out on every page—the magnanimity, the tolerance, the humor, above all the humaneness of this daily record (emphasis mine).”

Interestingly, I also recently read a review in The New York Review of Books of a newly published book entitled Theresienstadt 1941-1945: The Face of a Coerced Community by H. G. Adler.  Adler (1910—1988) was a Czech Jew (like Ilse Weber) who, also like Weber, was deported to Theresienstadt in February 1942.  His wife Gertrude could have survived, but chose not leave her mother, and so was gassed in Auschwitz.  Adler was also transported to Auschwitz, but survived as a forced laborer, and ultimately emigrated to England in 1947 in anticipation of the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia.  He had lost 18 close relatives to the Holocaust.

Adler resolved, while in Theresienstadt, that if he survived, he would write about the camp in detail.  He left notes and materials behind when he was transported to Auschwitz (again, like Weber’s husband, Willi), accumulated more material after his liberation, and published his research, in German, in 1955.  An expanded second edition appeared in 1960, and was reprinted again in 2005 with an afterward by his son, Jeremy.  This version has only recently been translated into English, published by Cambridge University Press.

Not surprisingly, Adler’s book spends a great deal of time examining the role of the Jewish Council of Elders which administered Theresienstadt at the behest of the SS.  Also not surprisingly, he finds their actions often falling short—corrupt, focused in self-preservation, condoning favoritism, etc. However, the reviewer, Thomas Nagel, observes:

“The one positive conclusion [Adler] drew from his dark experiences is that there is nonetheless a ground of morality that is in principle always available.  Adler calls this personal quality humaneness (Menschlichkeit, also translatable as “humanity”)—an inner resource that enables individuals of sufficient strength to act morally in any circumstance, however horrible.”

I guess it is this quality of “humaneness” that initially attracted me to, and still attracts me to, Odd Nansen.  I end virtually all of my presentations with an observation that Nansen’s humane example, evidenced throughout his diary, should serve as an inspiration to us all—of how to “act morally in any circumstance, however horrible.”

Happy Birthday, Odd Nansen

John F. Kennedy (1917–1963)

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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

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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”

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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?

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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

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Book Signings

  • March 4, 2018: Sons of Norway, Boston, MA (3:00 pm)
  • March 9, 2018: Furman University Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (1:00 pm)
  • April 10, 2018: Spartanburg Public Library, Pacolet, SC (6:30 pm)
  • April 12, 2018: NC State University Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (1:15 pm)
  • April 18, 2018: Lifelong Learning Roundtable, Wofford College, Spartanburg, SC
  • April 20, 2018: Sons of Norway, Saddle River, NJ (7:30 pm)
  • April 24, 2018: Bernards Township Public Library, Bernards Twp., NJ (7:00 pm)
  • April 25, 2018: Old Guard of Princeton, Princeton, NJ (10:15 am)
  • April 26, 2018: Summit Public Library, Summit, NJ (7:00 pm)
  • April 30, 2018: Ridgewod Public Library, Ridgewood, NJ
  • June 7, 2018: Nordic Heritage Museum, Seattle, WA
  • June 9, 2018: Sons of Norway, Santa Rosa, CA
  • June 10, 2018: Sons of Norway Sixth District Convention, Rohnert Park, CA
  • June 13, 2018: Congregation Beth Shalom, Napa, CA
  • August 30, 2018: Charleston Library Society, Charleston, SC (6:00 pm)
  • October 11, 2018: Willow Valley Communities, Willow Street, PA

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On This Date

< 2018 >
January
SMTWHFS
 123456
78910
  • All identification cards of Jews in Norway ordered to be stamped with "J"
111213
14151617181920
  • Wannsee Conference to coordinate "the Final Solution to the Jewish problem"
21222324252627
28293031   
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  This day in history

Recent Posts

< 2018 >
January
SMTWHFS
 123456
78910
  • All identification cards of Jews in Norway ordered to be stamped with "J"
111213
14151617181920
  • Wannsee Conference to coordinate "the Final Solution to the Jewish problem"
21222324252627
28293031   
Legend
  Previous/Upcoming Engagements
  This day in history

Upcoming Events

Share

Book Signings

  • March 4, 2018: Sons of Norway, Boston, MA (3:00 pm)
  • March 9, 2018: Furman University Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (1:00 pm)
  • April 10, 2018: Spartanburg Public Library, Pacolet, SC (6:30 pm)
  • April 12, 2018: NC State University Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (1:15 pm)
  • April 18, 2018: Lifelong Learning Roundtable, Wofford College, Spartanburg, SC
  • April 20, 2018: Sons of Norway, Saddle River, NJ (7:30 pm)
  • April 24, 2018: Bernards Township Public Library, Bernards Twp., NJ (7:00 pm)
  • April 25, 2018: Old Guard of Princeton, Princeton, NJ (10:15 am)
  • April 26, 2018: Summit Public Library, Summit, NJ (7:00 pm)
  • April 30, 2018: Ridgewod Public Library, Ridgewood, NJ
  • June 7, 2018: Nordic Heritage Museum, Seattle, WA
  • June 9, 2018: Sons of Norway, Santa Rosa, CA
  • June 10, 2018: Sons of Norway Sixth District Convention, Rohnert Park, CA
  • June 13, 2018: Congregation Beth Shalom, Napa, CA
  • August 30, 2018: Charleston Library Society, Charleston, SC (6:00 pm)
  • October 11, 2018: Willow Valley Communities, Willow Street, PA
< 2018 >
January
SMTWHFS
 123456
78910
  • All identification cards of Jews in Norway ordered to be stamped with "J"
111213
14151617181920
  • Wannsee Conference to coordinate "the Final Solution to the Jewish problem"
21222324252627
28293031   
Legend
  Previous/Upcoming Engagements
  This day in history