The “Channel Dash”

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Those of you who have read From Day to Day: One Man’s Diary of Survival in Nazi Concentration Camps know that on page 433 is an illustration drawn by Odd Nansen, a birthday card for his close friend, Erik Magelssen.

As Nansen explained in the diary, in order to stay in the same work squad (kommando) with Odd Nansen and their mutual friend, Frode Rinnan, Magelssen passed himself off as having expertise as a “wood-gas generator” although he had absolutely no experience in the field.

Magelssen, one of Nansen’s five friends who helped him to smuggle his diary out of Sachsenhausen in their breadboards, is depicted in the sketch with over-sized gloves.  Nansen’s caption reads in part: “Director Erik Magelssen in full canonicals—wood-gas generator expert and ‘director’ of fuel production…. Those gloves of his we called the pocket-battleships ‘Gneisenau’ and ‘Scharnhorst.’”

Both Nansen and Magelssen, indeed all the of the Norwegians, were well aware of both German battleships, as both the Gneisenau and the Scharnhorst participated in Operation Weserůbung, the German invasion of Norway in April 1940.  Thereafter, they engaged in successful commerce raiding, destroying or capturing 22 ships (January—March 1941), before returning to port in Brest, France.

Seventy-six years ago today (February 11, 1942), both ships, along with the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, participated in the “Channel Dash.” More formally known as Operation Cerberus (after the three-headed dog of ancient mythology), the two battleships and the cruiser boldly sortied from Brest and sailed up through the English Channel to German ports—all under the noses of the British Navy, which was tasked with keeping a close eye on their activity.

The Gneisenau and the Scharnhorst had been ordered back to German waters by Adolf Hitler, to counter a possible British invasion of Norway, which, as I explain in From Day to Day, haunted Hitler’s fevered dreams for the entirety of the war.  Arriving in Kiel on February 13, to the intense embarrassment of the British Navy, both ships had nevertheless suffered serious damage along the way from British mines (the Scharnhorst was put out of action for a year)

As there was no invasion of Norway in 1942, or for the duration of the war, the move was later described as a “tactical success and a strategic failure,” inasmuch as the ships exchanged a successful role threatening trans-Atlantic Allied shipping in return for an invasion that never materialized.

The British soon exacted a measure of revenge for the embarrassment of the Channel Dash.  The Gneisenau was attacked in drydock during a bombing raid on the night of February 26-27, 1942, and so badly damaged when a bomb penetrated its forward ammunition magazine that it never sailed again for the remainder of the war.  The Scharnhorst returned to action in 1943, but was sunk by the British Navy in the Battle of the North Cape (December 26, 1943).

A photo of Magelssen’s bread board, still in the possession of the Nansen family, can be found in the photo gallery on page 559 of From Day to Day.

The Holocaust and Historical Truth

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Today, one day following International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Washington Post published a news story about the Polish government’s passage of a law “making it a criminal offense to mention Polish complicity in crimes committed during the Holocaust.”  According to Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, the law is intended, not to “whitewash history, but to safeguard it and safeguard the truth about the Holocaust and prevent its distortion.”  Poles particularly object to the use of the term “Polish death camps,” which are Polish only insofar as the Nazis established the so-called Reinhard camps (Treblinka, Sobibór and Bełźec), and Auschwitz-Birkenau, on Polish soil.  The full text of the article is here.

The law still needs final approval from Poland’s Senate and president to become effective, which is expected.

Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Center, said the law was “liable to blur the historical truths regarding the assistance the Germans received from the Polish population during the Holocaust.”

History, unfortunately, is never completely black and white.  Poland, as the epicenter of the Holocaust in many ways, has the largest number of individuals (6,706) recognized by Yad Vashem as “Righteous Among the Nations.”  This honor is bestowed only on those who, after rigorous investigation, are proven to have taken “great risks to save Jews during the Holocaust.”

These 6,706 represent fully over 25% of all individuals recognized by Yad Vashem.  By comparison, the second highest is the Netherlands, with 5,595 (including Jan and Miep Gies—mentioned here and here—who helped Anne Frank).  Norway has 67, including Sigrid Hellisen-Lund, a friend of Odd Nansen’s who worked closely with him in Nansenhjelpen, the organization he established to help refugees during the interwar period.  The United States has 5.

On the other hand, as Laurence Rees points out in his latest work, The Holocaust: A New History (PublicAffairs 2017):

“Poland, Hungary and Romania all enacted anti-Semitic legislation during the 1930s. . . .   In August 1936, for example, all Polish shops were required to display the name of the owner on their signs.  As a consequence it was obvious which shops belonged to Jews.  The following year Jews were forbidden from entering the medical profession, and restrictions were placed on their ability to practise [sic] law. . ..

The Polish government was also contemplating removing Jews from Poland altogether.  In early 1937 the Poles opened discussions with the French about the possibility of sending large numbers of Polish Jews to the island of Madagascar off the south-east coast of Africa . . ..

The Polish Madagascar initiative acted as a powerful reminder . . . that anti-Semitic initiatives were not just the preserve of the government of the Third Reich.  The desire of other European countries in the 1930s to persecute and even remove their Jews has largely been forgotten in the public consciousness today—dwarfed by the scale and ferocity of the subsequent Nazi Holocaust.”

The final word goes to my old Georgetown professor, Jan Karski (mentioned here), who is described in the article as a “famed resistance fighter” and who nevertheless acknowledged that the Poles’ attitude toward fellow Polish Jews was “ruthless, often without pity.”

While references to “Polish death camps” should more accurately refer instead to “death camps located by the Nazis in Poland,” to outlaw any mention of Polish complicity in the Holocaust is indeed to “whitewash history.”

Churchill’s Darkest Hour

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Gary Oldman as Churchill

On this day in 1965, Winston Churchill died, age 90.  So perhaps it is only fitting that yesterday the 90th Oscar nominations were announced, and among the leading contenders was “Darkest Hour,” a film that could easily have been titled “Churchill’s Darkest Hour.”  The film received a total of six nominations, ranging from obscure categories like Best Picture and Best Actor, to some highly contested categories (the ones you have to stay up till 11:55 pm to find out the winner), such as Best Makeup and Hairstyling.  I guess making Gary Oldman look convincingly as bald as Churchill is quite a skill. I enjoyed watching the movie thoroughly and highly recommend it.

Winston Spencer Churchill was a very complex man, one whose life spanned the reign of Queen Victoria to the space age, and included important roles in both World War I and World War II.  As with any complex, larger-than-life personality, he has, and will continue to have, his share of supporters and detractors.  But it is hard to conceive that anyone else could have carried Great Britain through when, alone, the country faced the Nazi juggernaut.  Churchill assumed the prime ministership on May 10, 1940.  By then Germany had crushed Poland in thirty days, occupied Austria and Czechoslovakia and Denmark, and overwhelmed Belgium in eighteen days.  France, which had fought for over four years during WWI, and helped defeat Germany, was invaded the same day and capitulated a mere forty-six days later.  (The country which held out the longest was Norway, a nation of less than four million, which took over two months to subdue.)

Churchill and England fought on, alone, with the United States officially neutral and its Congress still deeply isolationist, and with the Soviet Union bound by a nonaggression treaty with Germany itself.  It was not until Hitler committed the twin disasters, within a six-month period, of invading Russia and declaring war on the U.S., that the tide unexpectedly began to turn.

When Churchill assumed this arduous task, one that he would shoulder until the very closing days of the war, he was 65 years old, the age when most of us want nothing more than to retire.  I am 63 and am content to walk my dogs, write a few blogs (like this), make an occasional presentation about Odd Nansen’s fabulous diary, From Day to Day: One Man’s Diary of Survival in Nazi Concentration Camps, and tend my garden, and I consider that a pretty full life.  Whatever the source of Churchill’s energy was, it sustained him through many a dark hour, day, week, month and year before the outcome of World War II was assured.

In sustaining England, Churchill also sustained those who were prisoners of the Nazis.  Odd Nansen mentions Churchill in no less than eight of his diary entries, the first six weeks after his arrest.  By then Churchill had been Prime Minister for almost two years.  Here’s what Nansen writes on Friday, February 20, 1942:

“Churchill made his speech a week ago, explaining the why and how [of the fall of Singapore].  It was plain that all who had heard him were eminently optimistic, though we haven’t got hold of what he actually said.  In all probability he didn’t gild the situation, but no doubt gave expression as usual to his unshaken faith in the future and the final victory.  The certainty he gives our whole world!  The victory of which our whole world is as sure as he is!”

I certainly am going to watch the Oscars this year, and will even stay up to 11:55 pm if I have to.  And in a small way, I hope that the man who said “Never, never, never give up!” will get his due.

PS: The movie “Dunkirk” (which I’ve written about here) received eight Oscar nominations.  Yet another reason to watch the proceedings!

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.

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Upcoming Events

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Book Signings

  • February 17, 2018: Sons of Norway, Roswell, GA (5:00 pm)
  • 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: Ridgewood Public Library, Ridgewood, NJ
  • June 1-2, 2018: Georgetown University Bookstore, Washington, DC
  • June 4, 2018: The Kenney, Seattle, WA (1:00 pm)
  • June 4, 2018: Sons of Norway, Conway, WA (5:00 pm)
  • June 6, 2018: Emerald Heights Retirement Community, Redmond, WA (1:30 pm)
  • 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

People are talking


"Timothy Boyce captivated a larger than usual, attentive and appreciative audience with his spellbinding presentation of Odd Nansen and his World War II diary. He brilliantly demonstrated Odd Nansen’s will to survive while also helping others. A remarkable tale presented in an informative and fascinating way by a truly engaging speaker."

- Audun Gythfeldt, President
Sons of Norway Nor-Bu Lodge, Rockaway, NJ

On This Date

< 2017 >
July
  • 01

    All day
    Jul 01, 2017-Jun 28, 2018
    The crucial battle of El Alamein begins
  • 20

    All day
    Jul 20, 2017-Jul 17, 2018
    Assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler
  • 22

    All day
    Jul 22, 2017-Jul 19, 2018
    Deportations from Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka begin; 250,000 Jews murdered within seven weeks.
  • 25

    All day
    Jul 25, 2017-Jul 22, 2018
    Mussolini deposed
Legend
  Previous/Upcoming Engagements
  This day in history

Recent Posts

< 2017 >
July
  • 01

    All day
    Jul 01, 2017-Jun 28, 2018
    The crucial battle of El Alamein begins
  • 20

    All day
    Jul 20, 2017-Jul 17, 2018
    Assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler
  • 22

    All day
    Jul 22, 2017-Jul 19, 2018
    Deportations from Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka begin; 250,000 Jews murdered within seven weeks.
  • 25

    All day
    Jul 25, 2017-Jul 22, 2018
    Mussolini deposed
Legend
  Previous/Upcoming Engagements
  This day in history

Upcoming Events

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Book Signings

  • February 17, 2018: Sons of Norway, Roswell, GA (5:00 pm)
  • 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: Ridgewood Public Library, Ridgewood, NJ
  • June 1-2, 2018: Georgetown University Bookstore, Washington, DC
  • June 4, 2018: The Kenney, Seattle, WA (1:00 pm)
  • June 4, 2018: Sons of Norway, Conway, WA (5:00 pm)
  • June 6, 2018: Emerald Heights Retirement Community, Redmond, WA (1:30 pm)
  • 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
< 2017 >
July
  • 01

    All day
    Jul 01, 2017-Jun 28, 2018
    The crucial battle of El Alamein begins
  • 20

    All day
    Jul 20, 2017-Jul 17, 2018
    Assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler
  • 22

    All day
    Jul 22, 2017-Jul 19, 2018
    Deportations from Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka begin; 250,000 Jews murdered within seven weeks.
  • 25

    All day
    Jul 25, 2017-Jul 22, 2018
    Mussolini deposed
Legend
  Previous/Upcoming Engagements
  This day in history