THE Book Tour (Part III): Nordic Museum

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One of the greatest highlights of my recent trip west was the opportunity to give the keynote address at the 23rd annual Raoul Wallenberg Memorial Dinner, held at the new Nordic Museum in Seattle on June 7.  Speaking to a sellout audience of 200, it was both a thrill and an honor to memorialize the life of one of the few shining lights during what has been called “western civilization’s darkest hour.”

At tremendous personal risk, Wallenberg actively confronted his nemesis, Adolf Eichmann, and the Hungarian Arrow Cross, and with courage, energy, imagination and intelligence, saved the lives of thousands of Hungary’s persecuted Jews.  The survivors and their descendants, estimated at perhaps one million today, are the living testament to his miraculous work.

When I accepted the Nordic Museum’s invitation to provide the keynote address I had only a very rudimentary knowledge of Wallenberg.  I knew that he: 1) was Swedish, 2) helped Jews during World War II, and 3) disappeared into Soviet captivity under murky circumstances.

As I studied up on Wallenberg in preparation for my address, I was astounded by the number of parallels between his life and that of Odd Nansen (in addition to their both being Scandinavian):

  • Both men were very artistic, and loved to draw when they were young;
  • That interest in turn led both men to study architecture in college (Wallenberg at the University of Michigan; Nansen at the Norwegian Institute of Technology (NTH) in Trondheim);
  • Both men were very talented architects, and both won architectural prizes at an early age (Nansen winning third prize in a contest in 1929 and Wallenberg earning second prize in a 1935 competition);
  • Raoul Wallenberg once confided to his half-sister, Nina Lagergren, that his two childhood idols had been the Swedish nurse Elsa Brandstrom, and the Norwegian explorer and humanitarian, Fridtjof Nansen, Odd Nansen’s father;
  • Both Nansen and Wallenberg had their first significant, and transformative, exposure to Jewish suffering in the same year—1936. Wallenberg began working for a branch of the Holland Bank in Haifa, Palestine, and while there met Jewish refugees fleeing from a Germany that was enacting ever more severe anti-Semitic measures.  According to his biographer Jeno Levai, “The[ir] stories of suffering had a great influence on him.”  In that same year Nansen put his own career on hold and formed Nansenhjelpen, or Nansen Relief, to help stateless Jews stranded in central Europe obtain visas for Norway.

The caption reads: “This building housed the former Holland Bank where Raoul Wallenberg, the Righteous of the Nations, worked in 1936.” Photo courtesy of Kristin Collins

  • In addition to their artistic skills, both men possessed valuable practical skills. Myrtle Wright, an English Quaker living in Norway during the war observed that Nansen “had an attractive personality and both as an organiser [sic] and propagandist was well suited for the work he had taken up.”  Biographer Kati Marton relates that Wallenberg “was a man of passionate conviction and at the same time a very practical organizer.”
  • Both Wallenberg and Nansen would spend time in captivity: Nansen as a prisoner of the Nazis and Wallenberg of the Soviets—although interestingly neither was ever charged, tried, convicted, or sentenced for any crime.

Signing copies of From Day to Day at the Nordic Museum

Nansen is certainly not as well-known as Wallenberg—undoubtedly because he spent the greater part of World War II—from January 1942 until its end in 1945—in Nazi captivity. Nevertheless, I concluded my comparison with the observation that I believe Nansen deserves to be included in the same conversation as Wallenberg, for this final trait that both men embodied:

  • Wallenberg and Nansen both believed in the power of a single individual, even when faced with the most extreme circumstances, to change the world for the better.

In a fitting coda, exactly eight days after my speech at the Nordic Museum, I gave a presentation at Rossmoor, an adult community in Walnut Creek, CA.  After my talk, a woman approached me, introduced herself in heavily accented English, and stated: “I am a Hungarian Jew.  I am alive today because of Raoul Wallenberg.”

THE Book Tour (Part II): Serendipity Again

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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.

The story is told more fully here.  (A second blog involving Siri’s family is told here.)

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.

Me, Siri and Max Fenson at an Indian restaurant, Santa Rosa, CA

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:

Bjørn Fraser at King Olav V’s oath to the Norwegian Constitution, 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……….

Odd Nansen (d. June 27, 1973)

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Odd Nansen

Odd Nansen died 45 years ago today, on June 27, 1973, age 71.  I always feel that the anniversary of his death is an appropriate time to memorialize his life, and to try and draw lessons from it.

Although Nansen wrote several books during his lifetime, his sole “porthole” through which we English speakers can know him is through his incomparable diary, From Day to Day.  I have written extensively about the importance of his diary as a diary in my Introduction to From Day to Day, and I have written several blogs about various aspects of diaries (herehere and here).

My good friend (and another famous writer) Samuel Hynes, in his most recent book, On War and Writing (which I have blogged about here), also touches upon the importance of diaries.  Although his focus is on soldiers, the observation is apt for wartime prisoners as well.  In an essay entitled “In the Whirl and Muddle of War,” he explains:

“There seem to be two quite different needs that produce war writing: the need to report and the need to remember.  The reporting instinct operates as war happens, and appears in letters and diaries that at their best realize the unimaginable. [Nansen’s diary certainly does that.]  But such documents are more than simply narratives. . . .   Wars force their participants to confront the questions that life will put to them anyway, but not so bluntly: Am I a leader?  Am I a coward?  When required to act, will I fail?  You don’t have to label this challenge the test of manhood (a term that is not in much favor these days); call it instead a test of maturity, or of selfhood.  War confronts [one] with a challenge in terms that makes success or failure nakedly clear.

Life back home doesn’t often do that.  So the letters and diaries . . . are also report cards; they say that this young man has taken the test, and has passed.”

No one reading Odd Nansen’s diary can come to any conclusion but that he was a leader, he acted when required, he took the test of manhood/maturity/selfhood, and he passed.

But the power of Nansen’s diary, in my opinion, is not simply as a report card of his success in passing the test of selfhood.  To me, Nansen shows how an ordinary man can inspire each of us to overcome our own tests of selfhood.  Nansen was no different than each of us.  True, he was born into a notable Norwegian family, with a larger-than-life father.  But nothing in his upbringing had prepared him, or could have prepared him, for the crucible he was to face during World War II.  And yet he met that challenge, and defeated the forces of hate and fear arrayed against him.

Drawing yet again upon the insights of Sam Hynes, who writes in a subsequent essay entitled “A Critic Looks at War”:

“War is also the human struggle against human enemies—against Evil, Fear, Death itself.  Against those enemies men have sometimes performed acts of great courage and self-sacrifice, qualities that we recognize as humanly valuable, even as we hate the wars that bring them into being.  War stories are witnesses to such acts, not performed by heroes but by people like us.  Like Wilfred Owen, we may pity our fellow humans, pitched into war scenes of such extremity, but like Hemingway we must recognize the dignity of what they do.  They are ourselves, elsewhere; and their actions are our extreme possibilities.”

Next time we are faced with a moral conundrum, let us each remind ourselves, “What would Odd Nansen do?”  Inspired by Nansen’s great courage and self-sacrifice while in the infernos of death that comprised the Konzentrationslagers of World War II, let us aspire to live up to the “extreme possibilities” that lie within each of us.

THE Book Tour (Part I)

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Well, the great Northwest Pacific book tour of 2018 is now officially in the record books.  A 5-city, 24-day, 31-appearance extravaganza officially ended when I landed in Charlotte Douglas International Airport at 6:05 am this morning from my red eye flight from Portland, OR.

The trip was a success on so many levels—presentations made, blog subscriptions obtained, books sold.  But the greatest success for me was the people I met, and the stories they shared with me.  I will be relating them for some time to come in subsequent blogs (hence the denomination of this blog as merely the first of many).

At the very least, I owe a great debt of gratitude to those many people who took me into their homes and helped transform what could have been an interminable slog into an invaluable opportunity to catch up with friends old and new.  They include the Marriott Corporation (just kidding), Cynthia St. Clair and Philip Humphries of Bellingham, WA; Peter Hapke and Marci Lombardi of Seattle, WA; Siri and Max Fenson of Santa Rosa, CA; Kathryn O’Neal and Michael McKaig of Oakland, CA; and Susan Navrotsky of Portland, OR.  Some of these were lifelong friends, some fellow attorneys or former clients; in one case a couple I had never met before. But in all cases they were unfailingly gracious in opening their homes to me as I flitted from appearance to appearance.  I also need to include in this list my Seattle “handler” Ginny Bear, who worked unstintingly on my behalf, and lined up more venues for me than anyone else.

In the coming days I will address these encounters, large and small, in big museums and small retirement homes, that made my book tour such an incredibly enjoyable, enlightening and humbling experience.  Stay tuned.

A Father’s Day Tribute

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The following tribute was not written on Father’s Day, nor was it intended for Father’s Day.

It was written on December 7, 1944—the anniversary of Pearl Harbor—by a 21 year-old Marine to his father back home in the States.

The Marine was James W. Johnston.  Long after the war, at age 76, Johnston wrote of his combat experience in The Long Road of War, to my mind one of the finest memoirs ever written about World War II—and there are plenty of outstanding ones.

After reading the book back in 2006, I contacted Johnston, and had the pleasure and honor of speaking with him several times before he died on March 27, 2009.  Jim was always gracious with his time, and very solicitous of my two sons, then both serving in the Marines.

He explained to me that he was a “flat-trajectory Marine,” a phrase I had never encountered before.  By that he meant that he did not fire artillery at targets way off in the distance, or lob mortar shells from behind the front lines.  No, he was shooting directly at the enemy, who was firing directly at him, trying to kill him.

When Johnston wrote the lines cited below to his Dad, he was only 21, but a boy no longer.  He had already participated in three bloody campaigns: Eastern New Guinea, New Britain and Peleliu.

By December 1944 he was resting, and recuperating, on the South Pacific island of Pavuvu, awaiting troop replacements (“to fill the voids left by Peleliu”) and gear before undertaking the invasion of Okinawa—one of the longest, deadliest and most savage Marine campaigns of the war, or of any war (up to 160,000 combined combat casualties; over 400 Allied ships sunk or damaged; up to one-half of the island’s civilian population of 300,000 killed).  Johnston’s machine gun squad, which he had just been promoted to lead, was part of the first assault wave.  [According to the Marine Corps Gazette, “More mental health issues arose from the Battle of Okinawa than any other battle in the Pacific during World War II.”]

Before the war was ended, Johnson would receive the Combat Action Ribbon, two Purple Hearts (Peleliu and Okinawa), and a Navy Commendation Medal.

As the father of two former Marines (both of whom also received the Combat Action Ribbon, as well as Navy and Marine Corps Achievement and Commendation Medals), I find Jim Johnston’s words to his father, in their simplicity, their unabashed affection, to be particularly poignant, and they have stuck with me for years.  Here’s what he wrote:

“This is December seventh.  Do you remember three years ago today?  We were riding home in the car and we had heard all about Pearl Harbor.  Somewhere between McCook and Wauneta [Nebraska] we heard La Paloma [on the radio]* and, Dad, you said, ‘Son, we may be separated many miles some of these days but wherever you are and no matter how far separated we are when you hear that song, think of your old Dad.’

Three years have passed since that day and two of them we have been separated these thousands of miles.  I don’t have much opportunity to hear that piece.  Most of the time I can’t even hear any music and when I can hear some, I can’t request what I want; but Pop, right now I’m hearing La Paloma, and do you know why?—because I’m whistling it.”

Happy Father’s Day to all, and especially to those fathers who have sons or daughters in harm’s way, whether on land, at sea, or in the air.

[* Historical Note: it is likely that Johnston and his Dad were listening to the Harry James version, which was recorded by Columbia Records in 1941.]

Bomb Redux

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Today’s news feed (here) was filled with stories of a 550-pound unexploded bomb discovered in Dresden that was successfully defused today.  Approximately 9,000 city residents living near the site of the bomb were evacuated from their homes for two days while the defusing operation was underway, and flights to and from the Dresden airport were also suspended.

Dresden was the site of one of the worst Allied bombing raids of the war, on February 13-15, 1945, when the resulting firestorm killed approximately 25,000 people, and left thousands more homeless.   The raid was then, and remains today, controversial, as a terror bombing of a non-military target.  As some have pointed out, the German bombing of Rotterdam (May 14, 1940), which razed most of the city, all while negotiations for capitulation were already underway, and the subsequent “Baedeker Raids” of 1942, where the Germans vowed to “bomb every cultural site in Britain marked with three stars in the Baedeker Guide” effectively swung British public opinion in favor of indiscriminate bombing of German cities, culminating in raids such as that on Dresden. 

The news article further points out that the northern German city of Kiel is also in the process of neutralizing an unexploded bomb–an operation that involves the evacuation of 4,300 residents, and that only last month 10,000 people were evacuated in central Berlin while a successful bomb defusing operation was underway.

Who knew that my recent blog about a British bomb defusing squad would prove so timely.  Perhaps the ghosts of the Holy Trinity are looking down on the current efforts to make safe instruments–originally designed to kill over seven decades ago–and wishing their former enemies, and now current allies, continued success.

Fridtjof Nansen (d. May 13, 1930)

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Fridtjof Nansen

Fridtjof Nansen, father of Odd Nansen, polar explorer, statesman, humanitarian, died eighty-eight years ago today, age 68.  I have written previously about Fridtjof Nansen (here).  I also recently wrote about my forthcoming lecture at the 23rd annual Raoul Wallenberg memorial dinner at the Nordic Museum in Seattle on June 7 (here).

In preparing for my talk, I have been studying up on Wallenberg’s life.  Recently, while reading Alex Kershaw’s account of Wallenberg’s actions, The Envoy: The Epic Rescue of the Last Jews of Europe in the Desperate Closing Months of World War II, I came across this passage:

“According to [Wallenberg’s half-sister] Nina, he had two main heroes as a young man: Elsa Brandstrom and Fridtjof Nansen, whose acts of courage during World War I had left a lasting impression.  Brandstrom had been a courageous, self-taught nurse who had helped save thousands of lives in Siberia in 1915.  Nansen was a polar explorer, but he also worked for the League of Nations, returning half a million refugees from Germany and Austria-Hungary to their countries after the conflict.”

In my Introduction to Odd Nansen’s diary I mention that Fridtjof Nansen often quoted Henrik Ibsen (one of his favorite writers) to the effect that “man is strongest who stands most alone.”

Certainly Odd Nansen and Raoul Wallenberg took that advice to heart.  Following in Fridtjof’s footsteps, and following his advice, they both stood very much alone, against Nazi injustice, and showed how even one person can make a positive difference, and change the world for the better.

Quite a legacy, don’t you think?

The Holy Trinity: A Bomb Story

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No, not that bomb story.  This doesn’t involve the Trinity test site near Alamogordo, New Mexico, where the first atomic bomb was successfully exploded (although there is, as we shall see, a tie-in to that matter as well).

No, this story involves the twentieth Earl of Suffolk, otherwise known as Charles Henry George Howard, or Charles Howard for short.  Most everyone, however, knew him as Mad Jack or Wild Jack.

Charles Howard

Charles quit college at 17 and ran away to sea, sailing around the world and earning tattoos on both arms.  [In today’s self-expressive age that doesn’t rate as much, but there were not many members of the peerage in the 1920s sporting such adornments.]  Upon his return to Great Britain he was commissioned in the Scots Guards but was soon asked to leave because of his “wild ways.”  For a while he tried his hand as a jackaroo on a sheep ranch in Australia, before returning to Great Britain again and earning a degree in chemistry and pharmacology from Edinburgh University.

World War II found the Earl of Suffolk serving as Liaison Officer to the French Ministry of Armaments, posted in Paris.  With the imminent fall of France in June 1940, the British were eager to spirit out of the country various assets important to the Allied cause, including important research scientists, diamonds, and most importantly, heavy water in the possession of France’s nuclear scientists.

Heavy water was initially considered crucial in the production of a nuclear chain reaction, and the French scientists’ precious supply had itself been previously spirited out of Norway (the only producer of heavy water) under the Gestapo’s very noses.  Possession of the world’s then entire supply of heavy water would allow the Allies to continue their experiments with uranium fission; its loss to the Germans would conversely have sped up their own research program.

And here’s where Mad Jack comes in.  He arrived in Bordeaux ahead of the Germans and was given the assignment of safely conveying the heavy water, scientists, and diamonds intact to England.  As Richard Ketchum describes it in his book The Borrowed Years 1938-1941: America on the Way to War:

“After a series of misadventures, [Hans] Halban, [Lew] Kowarski, and other colleagues from the Collège de France arrived with their families and the heavy water at Bordeaux, where they boarded the little British coaler SS Broompark and encountered a crew that might have emerged from Central Casting.  The man in charge—who knew exactly who the scientists were and what they had brought with them—was the twentieth Earl of Suffolk, a swashbuckling character with a thick mustache . . . wearing hunting boots and swinging a loaded hunting crop.  At his side, lighting his cigarettes, was his secretary, Miss Morden; hovering nearby was his chauffer, Fred Hards.”

Hedging his bets, Mad Jack, who stood 6’4”, built a raft which carried the heavy water and diamonds.  Were the ship to be attacked and sunk (and another vessel leaving Bordeaux at the same time was in fact sunk), the raft could be cut loose and its precious cargo saved.  In any event, the ship, which set sail on June 19, 1940, soon reached Falmouth in one piece.  Later that year Halban and Kowarski, with the help of the heavy water, proved a self-sustaining nuclear reaction was possible.  Mad Jack was commended in the House of Commons for “a considerable service . . . rendered to the Allied cause.”

SS Broompark, June 1940

[Note to my Norwegian friends: the skipper of the Broompark was Olaf Paulsen, born in Oslo (then Christiana) in 1878.  Broompark was torpedoed three months later (September 21, 1940) by German U-48, but Paulsen’s efforts saved the ship, for which he was awarded the OBE (Order of the British Empire) by the British Government.  Broompark (under a different skipper) was again attacked on July 25, 1942, and this time sunk, by U-552.  Note to my American friends: U-552 was the same submarine that sunk the USS Reuben James, the first U.S. Navy ship lost in World War II (October 31, 1941).]

But Charles was just getting started.

A Bomb Disposal Squad At Work

Drawing on his scientific training, he now joined a bomb disposal squad, along with secretary Morden and chauffer Hards—the group now dubbed “the Holy Trinity.”  With what Winston Churchill would later describe in his magisterial memoir of the Second World War as “urbane and smiling efficiency,” the Holy Trinity proved their prowess, successfully defusing thirty-four unexploded bombs.  Mad Jack would closely examine each bomb, dictating notes all the while to Morden, with Hards standing by to assist, under the theory that others would learn from any mistake he might make, and not repeat it again.

Seventy-seven years ago today (May 12, 1941), on his thirty-fifth try, Charles’s luck ran out.

He had been asked to work on a 500-pound unexploded bomb which contained two separate fuses, a Type 17 and a Type 50.  Since intact fuses of these types were needed for instructional purposes for other bomb disposal units, and as these types were in short supply, he began his work on the 12th of May with Morden and Hards standing by.

In the cat-and-mouse game between Allied and Axis forces, the Germans began to booby-trap their own bombs, adding yet another detonator, hidden out of sight behind the fuse, which would set-off the bomb once the first fuse was withdrawn.  It is believed that the bomb in question held just such a booby-trap (most of the evidence having been destroyed).  All three members of the Holy Trinity were killed in the resulting explosion, as were eleven others standing nearby.

The twentieth Earl of Suffolk was 35 years-old.  He was survived by his Chicago-born ballet dancer wife, Mimi Forde-Pigott, and three sons.

In 1947 a stained-glass window was dedicated in Charles’s honor at the church of St. John the Baptist, Charlton, Wiltshire, where his remains had been buried.  On one panel is a poem, written by John Masefield, the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, commemorating his death:

“He loved the bright ship with the lifting wing;

He felt the anguish in the hunted thing;

He dared the dangers which beset the guides;

Who lead men to the knowledge nature hides;

Probing and playing with the lightning thus;

He and his faithful friends met their death for us;

The beauty of a splendid man abides.”

Stained Glass Memorial, Charlton

Date Set For Raoul Wallenberg Address

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I have the honor and privilege of being chosen to give the keynote address at the 23rd annual Raoul Wallenberg memorial dinner at the Nordic Museum of Seattle on June 7 at 5:30 pm.

Nordic Museum

The Nordic Museum, which celebrated its grand opening in its new, $40 million facility this past weekend, is an internationally recognized museum and cultural center dedicated to collecting, preserving and educating since its founding in 1980.  It is the largest museum in the United States honoring the legacy of immigrants from all five Nordic countries.

Raoul Wallenberg

Raoul Wallenberg was born into a prominent Swedish family in 1912.  Like Odd Nansen, he studied to be an architect, graduating from the University of Michigan in 1935.  The following year he took a job with an export-import company owned by Kalman Lauer, a Hungarian Jew.  Wallenberg was himself one-sixteenth Jewish (through one of his great-great-grandfathers), a fact of which he was very proud.

As a result of anti-Semitic decrees in Hungary beginning in the mid-1930s, and later with the onset of World War II, Wallenberg, now a co-owner of the trading company, undertook numerous business trips to Hungary, Germany and German-occupied France in his partner’s place.  Along the way he learned to speak Hungarian and observed German bureaucratic methods.

By early 1944 it was apparent to all that Germany would lose the war, and Hungary, an Axis power, began secret discussions with the Allies, hoping to secure a separate peace.  When an enraged Hitler learned of these negotiations he ordered the occupation of Hungary, which occurred on March 19, 1944.

Adolf Eichmann, one of the most notorious organizers of the Holocaust, was soon dispatched to Budapest, and the Jewish population, which had not previously felt the full brunt of the Holocaust, now began to be deported in massive numbers. [Eichmann was later hanged in Israel in 1962 for his role in the Final Solution.]

In less than three months (May-July 1944), approximately 430,000 Hungarian Jews were transported to Auschwitz; somewhere between 70 and 90 percent were killed upon arrival.

As reports of these actions filtered back to the Allies, President Roosevelt sent Treasury official Iver Olsen to Sweden to locate someone willing to travel to Hungary under diplomatic cover (Sweden then being a neutral nation) to organize a rescue program for the Jews.  Olsen approached a relief committee of prominent Jewish leaders in Sweden for assistance.  Kalman Lauer, Wallenberg’s business partner, was a member of this committee.

The committee’s first choice was actually Count Folke Bernadotte, Vice-Chair of the Swedish Red Cross.  [Folke Bernadotte, a friend of Odd Nansen’s, would later organize the relief program for Scandinavian inmates in all Nazi concentration camps, known as the White Buses operation.  While on an inspection visit to Neuengamme, Bernadotte met up with prisoner Nansen.  “When [Nansen] was brought before me and I saw him snatch off his cap and stand to attention as all prisoners were required to do when in the presence of a German of rank . . . I boiled with anger,” Bernadotte would later write.]

When Bernadotte was rejected by the Hungarian authorities, Lauer suggested Wallenberg.  Despite some U.S. misgivings about Wallenberg’s reliability, given existing ties between Wallenberg family businesses and Germany, he was assigned as a special envoy to the Swedish legation in Budapest in July 1944.

Those concerns proved misplaced.  Immediately upon his arrival Wallenberg began issuing “protective passports” to Jews, thus preventing their deportation.  In all, approximately 9,000 passes were issued.  He also rented numerous buildings in Budapest, thereby converting them to Swedish “territory” subject to diplomatic immunity.  Eventually these buildings housed almost 10,000 people.

Wallenberg’s actions came at significant personal risk.  He was forced to sleep in a different location each night to avoid capture or execution by Hungarian fascists (Arrow Cross Party) or Eichmann’s SS members.

Having successfully eluded the Nazis, Wallenberg ultimately fell victim to the approaching Soviets.  During the siege of Budapest in early 1945, Wallenberg was summoned to the headquarters of Marshal Rodion Malinovsky, commander of the 2nd Ukrainian Front.  His last recorded words were “I’m going to Malinovsky’s . . . whether as a guest or prisoner I do not know yet.”  He was never seen again, and is presumed to have died in Soviet captivity in 1947, although the exact circumstances of his death remain subject to much speculation.

Wallenberg has been recognized as one of the Righteous Among Nations by Yad Vashem, and posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by the United States Congress.  In 1981 he was designated an Honorary Citizen of the United States, the second person to ever receive the honor (after Winston Churchill).  The sponsor of the bill was U.S. Congressman Tom Lantos (D. CA), one of the thousands whose life was saved by Wallenberg’s efforts in Hungary.

It will indeed be an honor and a privilege to discuss one great Scandinavian humanitarian, Odd Nansen, while commemorating the life of another great Scandinavian humanitarian, Raoul Wallenberg.

More information about the event can be found here.  Tickets are $70 for non-museum members; $60 for museum members.

 

 

 

An Anniversary, and a Road Trip

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Last week marked the second anniversary of the re-publication of the deluxe, fully edited and annotated World War II concentration camp diary of Odd Nansen, From Day to Day: One Man’s Diary of Survival in Nazi Concentration Camps.

For those of you keeping tabs (and who isn’t), here’s a brief scorecard:

  • 24,692 Miles traveled
  • 5,448 Website visitors
  • 5,206 Dollars donated
  • 75 Presentations
  • 64 Blog posts (this is #65)

I celebrated this important anniversary doing what I like to do best—talking about Nansen and his remarkable diary.  On April 18, I embarked on a ten-day, six-city tour, which ended in New York City, with stops along the way in several cities in New Jersey.  2,036 miles later, I can say it was all very worthwhile.

Virtually every stop along the way featured some fascinating encounter:

  • In Caldwell, NJ, an elderly audience member at the Public Library introduced herself to me after the talk, and explained that she had come to America decades ago by virtue of the Nansen Passport, a unique document pioneered by Fridtjof Nansen that allowed many stateless Europeans, particularly White Russians, to travel freely in the interwar period. [It so happens that I have written an article on the Nansen Passport which should be published later this year—stay tuned.]
  • In Upper Saddle River, NY, I was feted by the Sons of Norway Norrona Lodge. The members generously took up a collection for me, to help support the “cause,” and all such proceeds will go to the same recipients as the book’s royalties: The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC and the Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Religious Minorities in Oslo.  On top of that, the Lodge presented me with a gift basket filled with Norwegian goodies.  While my wife and I have been thoroughly enjoying the chocolates (with exotic names like Firkløver, Melkesjokolade and Gullbrød), it may take a bit longer to work up the courage to open the tinned mackerel (a good source of Omega-3 it boasts!).  All I can say is: “Takk for maten!”
  • At Bernards Township Public Library I discovered that the Library Director, Ruth Lufkin, had a son who graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy the same year as my son Owen. Go Navy, Beat Army!
  • A surprise visitor to the Summit Public Library was my brother-in-law, John McGowan and his son Nicholas. (A great steak dinner followed the talk, courtesy of John.)
  • A speech to the Old Guard of Princeton held the biggest surprise of all. Afterward I met a gentleman (whose privacy I will protect) who produced one of the actual breadboards used to smuggle parts of Nansen’s diary out of the camps at the close of the war.  It belonged to the grandfather of this man’s wife.  Talk about a real treasure!  That revelation will be hard to beat for quite some time, if ever.

Thomas Edison National Historical Park

The trip was not all work. In between appearances I spent a day at the site of Thomas Edison’s research labs in West Orange, NJ (now a National Historical Park). There, Edison, an autodidact, perfected the incandescent light bulb, the gramophone, and the movie camera, along with many other inventions (he ultimately held over 1,000 patents). The site also boasts the first movie production studio, and the first movie theater (in Edison’s library).  If you ever visit, ask for Harry, a volunteer with his own long career at Bell Labs and a passion for discussing all things Edison.

Edison’s Movie Production Studio

A day later, courtesy of my hosts Kathy Aleš and her husband Richard, I was able to attend a guest lecture by Lech Walesa, 1983 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, at Princeton University.  Although Walesa used an interpreter, his body language was at least as expressive as the actual speech.  He reminded the young audience that the Solidarity Movement had exactly zero chance of succeeding when it started, and yet it ultimately brought about the end of communist domination of Poland, and the end of communism altogether.  In other words any change, no matter how hopeless seeming, is possible.

Finally, I was able to spend time with an old friend, Samuel Hynes, the Woodrow Wilson Professor emeritus of Literature at Princeton University.  Sam has published extensively during his career (Flights of Passage, A Soldier’s Tale, A War Imagined, The Insubstantial Air, The Growing Seasons, among others), and, at age 93, isn’t slowing down much: he just published a new collection of essays and writings entitled On War and Writing (University of Chicago Press), which was recently reviewed in the New York Review of Books (by Max Hastings, one of my favorite historians).

During World War II Sam flew as a young Marine aviator in the South Pacific, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross.   Afterwards he taught Literature at Swarthmore, Northwestern and Princeton.   [In the Introduction to his new book, entitled “Two Vocations,” Sam writes: “From then on they [the Professor and the Pilot] worked together—the Pilot writing and the Professor looking over his shoulder, watching for split infinitives.”] You may remember Sam as the first talking head to appear on Ken Burns’ miniseries “The War.”  When our conversation turned to favorite poets, Sam started reciting Yeats by heart—an amazing display—and altogether an amazing afternoon.  [I plan to use some of Sam’s writings in a future blog—stay tuned as well.]

Samuel Hynes

So, all in all, it was a trip to be remembered.  Thanks to all my friends along the way who provided hospitality and support.  You know who you are.

As I turned my 2,036th mile pulling into my driveway, late last Friday night, I was greeted by a welcoming sound:  the Eastern Whippoorwill had finally returned from his long sojourn in Mexico, and was busily singing out his mating/territorial call.  Music to my ears!

As I brought my bags into the house, I was reminded of those immortal words of Sam Gamgee on the final page of The Lord of the Rings: “He drew a deep breath.  ‘Well, I’m back,’ he said.”

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Upcoming Events

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Book Signings

  • August 30, 2018: Charleston Library Society, Charleston, SC (6:00 pm)
  • September 2, 2018: ScanFest, Budd Lake, NJ
  • September 26-29, 2018: Norsk Hostfest, Minot, ND
  • October 8, 2018: The Adult School, Madison, NJ (7:00 pm)
  • October 9, 2018: Sussex County Public Library, Newton, NJ (6:30 pm)
  • October 10, 2018: Princeton Windrows, Princeton, NJ
  • October 11, 2018: Willow Valley Communities, Willow Street, PA (1:30 pm)
  • October 12, 2018: Conestoga Valley High School, Lancaster, PA
  • October 16, 2018: The Adult School, Westfield, NJ (7:00 pm)
  • October 19, 2018: American College of Real Estate Attorneys, New Orleans, LA (12:30 pm)
  • October 26, 2018: Furman University/Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (1:00 pm)
  • February 10, 2019: Central United Methodist Church/S.T.A.R.
  • March 10, 2019: York, PA Jewish Community Center, York, PA

People are talking


“We thoroughly enjoyed your presentation. . . . We are really looking forward to reading the book.”

- Sharon Rohrback, President
Sons of Norway Blafjell Lodge, Bedford, VA

On This Date

< 2018 >
July
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22
  • Deportations from Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka begin; 250,000 Jews murdered within seven weeks.
232425262728
293031    
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< 2018 >
July
SMTWHFS
1234567
891011121314
15161718192021
22
  • Deportations from Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka begin; 250,000 Jews murdered within seven weeks.
232425262728
293031    
Legend
  Previous/Upcoming Engagements
  This day in history

Upcoming Events

Share

Book Signings

  • August 30, 2018: Charleston Library Society, Charleston, SC (6:00 pm)
  • September 2, 2018: ScanFest, Budd Lake, NJ
  • September 26-29, 2018: Norsk Hostfest, Minot, ND
  • October 8, 2018: The Adult School, Madison, NJ (7:00 pm)
  • October 9, 2018: Sussex County Public Library, Newton, NJ (6:30 pm)
  • October 10, 2018: Princeton Windrows, Princeton, NJ
  • October 11, 2018: Willow Valley Communities, Willow Street, PA (1:30 pm)
  • October 12, 2018: Conestoga Valley High School, Lancaster, PA
  • October 16, 2018: The Adult School, Westfield, NJ (7:00 pm)
  • October 19, 2018: American College of Real Estate Attorneys, New Orleans, LA (12:30 pm)
  • October 26, 2018: Furman University/Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (1:00 pm)
  • February 10, 2019: Central United Methodist Church/S.T.A.R.
  • March 10, 2019: York, PA Jewish Community Center, York, PA
< 2018 >
July
SMTWHFS
1234567
891011121314
15161718192021
22
  • Deportations from Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka begin; 250,000 Jews murdered within seven weeks.
232425262728
293031    
Legend
  Previous/Upcoming Engagements
  This day in history