The Meaning of November 26

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Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, the day set aside for Americans to give thanks for their manifold blessings.  Although celebrated in America in one form or another since 1619, it was not until President Franklin Roosevelt signed a joint resolution of Congress on December 26, 1941, that the date for Thanksgiving was finally set as the fourth Thursday of November.  This year that day falls on November 26.

Unfortunately, for some, November 26 evokes memories of pain and loss and suffering.  On that day in 1942, German soldiers and Norwegian policemen rounded up all remaining Jewish women and children in Norway and delivered them to two ships awaiting in Oslo harbor: the SS Donau and the MS Monte Rosa.  There they were joined by Jewish men and boys, aged 16 and older, who had already been rounded up exactly one month prior—October 26.

SS Donau about to depart Oslo harbor

The Donau (with 532 Jewish prisoners) and the Monte Rosa (with 28) sailed for the German port city of Stettin, where the prisoners were forced onto railcars headed for Auschwitz.  Of the 532 Donau prisoners, 345 were murdered within hours of their arrival in Auschwitz; the remainder were to be used as slave labor in Birkenau.  A final transport of another 158 Jewish prisoners departed Norway on February 24, 1943.  Some of these prisoners had been incarcerated in Grini, the same detention camp holding Odd Nansen.  Here’s what he wrote on that date about their departure:

Wednesday, February 24, 1943.  Mild weather and misery.  Last night the Jews were given notice to parade in mufti at eight o’clock this morning.  They went off later in the morning.  No doubt for Poland.  It was a melancholy band. Dr. [Wulff] Becker’s face shone out among them. A splendid fellow. ‘Well, good-bye, Nansen; thanks for everything and au revoir!’ No doubt he had his suspicions of what awaited him, but he had evidently made up his mind not to show it.  [Dr. Leonard] Levin’s good-bye was more somber, but he smiled, too.  The others were in a worse state.  It hurt to see them going off.”

All told, approximately 772 Jews were deported from Norway during World War II; only 34 of those deported survived until the end of the war.

Another approximately 1000 Jews and others escaped from Norway—many just hours prior to the roundup.  Most were smuggled to Sweden, and a smaller number made it to England.  [One of the earliest escapees was the Nobel Prize laureate in Literature, Sigrid Undset, who ultimately found sanctuary in America.]

Last month I was honored to moderate a film discussion as part of the 23rd Annual Milwaukee Jewish Film Festival.  The film—perhaps not surprisingly—was a Norwegian film about Jewish refugees trying to escape to Sweden.  It is called “Flukten over Grensen” [literally, “Escape over the Border,” or more colloquially, “The Crossing”]

“The Crossing,” which was produced in Norway, focuses on two sets of siblings: Gerda (age 9) and her older brother Otto (age 14?), and Daniel (age 14-15?) and his younger sister Sarah (age 7-8?).  Daniel and Sarah have been hiding with Gerda and Otto’s parents ever since their own father fled the October 1942 roundup of Jews.  However, when Gerda and Otto’s parents are arrested on Christmas Eve, and Gerda’s father meaningfully explains to her that “the Christmas presents” are in the basement and need to go to their aunt (who lives close by the Swedish border), it’s up to Gerda and Otto to uncover the hidden children and safely see Daniel and Sarah to freedom in Sweden.  It’s a wonderful film, replete with helpful adults, fascist sympathizers (including one who reenacts a scene right out of Hansel and Gretel), chases, near misses, as well as Otto’s dawning realization that the two young Jews in his care are not the “other” to be feared and despised, but human beings just like him.

If you ever get a chance to see “The Crossing,” please do—it’s well made, meaningful on multiple levels, and heartwarming.  Young Gerda is sure to steal your heart. My commentary as part of the film discussion can be found here.

As noted above, not all Jews in Norway were as fortunate as Daniel and Sarah.  One of those Jews on the Donau was Ruth Maier. Ruth was born in Vienna, Austria in 1920.   Until 1938 Ruth led a typical, happy life in Vienna.  But on March 12, 1938, the Anschluss occurred: Germany annexed Austria and German forces quickly moved in and took control.  Just as suddenly, Ruth and her family were social pariahs.  Through the international connections made by her father (who had died in 1933) Ruth and her younger sister Judith were ultimately able to escape Austria: Ruth to Norway; Judith to England.

Ruth Maier

For a time, Ruth thrived in Norway.   She soon became fluent in Norwegian, and attracted the attention of some leading artists: she modeled for painter Åsmund Esval, as well as the famous sculptor Gustav Vigeland.  His sculpture of her, titled “Surprised,” is permanently displayed in Vigeland Park in central Oslo.

“Surprised” by Gustav Vigeland

Ruth’s idyll ended on November 26 when she was arrested by two Norwegian policemen.  Upon arrival in Auschwitz on December 1, 1942, she was immediately murdered in the gas chambers.  Ruth was 22.

From 1933 to 1942 Ruth kept a diary, which fortunately survived in the possession of her close friend Gunvor Hofmo (whose uncle, Rolf Hofmo, was with Nansen in Grini and Sachsenhausen).  Hofmo tried to get Ruth’s diaries published in 1953, but was rebuffed.  Following Hofmo’s death in 1995, Norwegian poet Jan Erik Vold went through her papers and discovered the diaries.  After editing them, Vold was able to publish the diaries 2007; they were translated into English in 2009.  Ruth Maier’s diaries have been well received; she is now sometimes referred to as “Norway’s Anne Frank.”

According to the English version of her diary, Ruth Maier’s last words come from a letter she wrote to Hofmo that was somehow smuggled off the Donau before the ship departed.  The letter includes these lines:

“I think it’s just as well that it happened this way.  Why shouldn’t we suffer when there’s so much suffering?  Don’t worry about me.  Perhaps I wouldn’t even change places with you.”

Happy Birthday Marit!

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[You have a unique chance to meet Marit (virtually).  See below for details.]

Today marks the 92nd birthday of my dear friend, Marit (Nansen) Greve, Odd Nansen’s eldest child.

Marit was actually born here in America—in Brooklyn, NY, to be exact, while her father was working in New York City (1927—1930) in architecture/urban planning.  Although many people refuse to believe this, I maintain that I can still detect a slight Brooklyn accent beneath her Norwegian lilt.  She was only one and a half when the Nansen family returned to Norway in the spring of 1930, a move precipitated by the illness of her famous grandfather, Fridtjof Nansen (who died May 13, 1930).

Marit’s childhood was anything but ordinary.  When she was but eleven and a half, Germany invaded and occupied Norway (April 9, 1940). Now German soldiers were ubiquitous.  Danger lurked everywhere.  Conditions were tough.  Even children were affected: the Nazis tried to control the school curriculum, all organized sports, and even the church liturgy—all of which aroused vehement pushback from the Norwegians.

In early January 1942, Marit, her parents, and her two younger siblings, Eigil (age 10) and Siri (age 8) were enjoying a respite from the cares and concerns brought about by almost two years of occupation.  They were on holiday near Lillehammer, enjoying a rustic mountain getaway in a hytte (cabin) owned by Odd Nansen’s business partner, Ernst Holmboe.

It was a quiet Tuesday evening, and the family was gathered around to hear the nightly BBC Norwegian broadcast when they saw three men with flashlights approaching the hytte.  The radio was hurriedly hidden away (owning a radio was illegal, as was listening to the BBC).  The three strangers (two Germans and the local sheriff) announced only that Nansen was being summoned to Oslo for “questioning.”  Nansen writes in his very first diary entry the following: “Kari [his wife] was calm, Marit, Eigil and Siri cried, poor things, but were smiling bravely through their tears before I left.”

Marit had just recently turned thirteen.

She was old enough to begin to imagine what might happen to her father.  But probably neither she nor her father could imagine how horrifying his next three and a half years would actually be.

While Nansen was imprisoned in Grini, a police detention camp outside Oslo, Marit was occasionally able to visit her father, accompanied by her mother and sometimes her siblings.  One memorable visit occurred on Thursday, August 5, 1943.  This time Marit arrived with Nansen’s partner Holmboe, who was there on a business visit.  Initially Marit was refused access by an overly punctilious interpreter, but tragedy was averted when a sympathetic German guard, on his own initiative, pleaded Marit’s case.  Result: Marit was allowed into her father’s presence.

“Marit came rushing over, crying bitterly; she had been in such despair because they wouldn’t let her see me, poor child.  Oh, how it warmed my heart; I do believe she cares a little for her daddy, and now I am not afraid she may have grown away from me and forgotten me in this time.”

It was a good thing Marit and Nansen saw each other then; within weeks Nansen would run afoul of Grini’s commandant, resulting in the Einzelhaft (solitary confinement) followed by transport to Sachsenhausen.  Nansen would need to rely on that bittersweet memory for the next two years, as Marit matured into a young woman.  And Marit would have to help keep her family going without their father for two more years.

The Nansen Family greeting their father upon his return home from captivity. Marit on the right.

My first encounter with Marit occurred in August 2010.  Following an introduction provided by Tom Buergenthal, I arranged a stopover in Oslo en route home from attending a wedding in Stockholm.  As befitted a first meeting, the interview was rather formal and proper. Marit graciously answered all my questions, as she was to do, again and again, over the next six years, as I edited, annotated and wrote the introduction to Nansen’s diary.

What evolved from that first meeting was an immensely enjoyable and rewarding friendship—including visits to Norway and vice versa (which I have written about here).  As I mention in my Acknowledgements, “To come to know Marit as I have is truly one of the unexpected, but deeply cherished, joys of this undertaking.”

SKÅL, Marit, on your wonderful achievement, and many more birthdays to come!

Me and Marit celebrating her 90th birthday in Oslo.

[Note: Dear readers, you have a wonderful chance to meet Marit (virtually).  Here’s how.  On Sunday, November 15, at 9:00 am (ET) I will be the guest speaker at the 14th Annual Kristallnacht Commemoration sponsored by The Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven and Congregation Or Shalom. The highlight of the event will be the presentation (virtually) by Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut to Marit and her family of a U.S. Senate Resolution commending Odd Nansen for his courageous humanitarian work prior to World War II—via Nansenhjelpen—and his inspirational World War II concentration camp diary, From Day to Day.  Register for the free event via the following link: us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_8X2vn1cTSYqUFrLXFeUYvQ.  I hope you will be able to join me when Marit accepts her father’s well-deserved commendation!]

November 1, 1943: Moscow Declaration Issued–and Ignored

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The Moscow Conference of Foreign Secretaries (10/19/43—11/1/43) was the first high level meeting of the three major allies during World War II, and formed the prelude to the first in-person meeting of Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin in Teheran less than one month later.

The ministers dealt with a variety of issues: reaffirming the principle of unconditional surrender, and expressing a unified desire to establish an international organization for the preservation of the forthcoming peace.  Another topic was the treatment of German war criminals. By the fall of 1943 the genocidal aims of the Nazis were clear beyond a doubt.  Jan Karski, a member of the Polish resistance, had been smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto and a subcamp of Belzec, and personally relayed his findings to British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, and, on July 28, 1943, to President Roosevelt.  Even Odd Nansen knew what was happening.  On December 6, 1942, he noted in his diary: “Himmler has decided that all Jews are to be wiped out.”

Moscow Conference

Prior to the start of the conference, Churchill drafted a proposed declaration on the subject of war crimes, and it was adopted at the Conference and publicly issued over the names of the three leaders on November 1, 1943.

The text of what became known as the Moscow Declaration on German Atrocities is worth quoting in full:

“The United Kingdom, the United States and the Soviet Union have received from many quarters evidence of atrocities, massacres and cold-blooded mass executions which are being perpetrated by the Hitlerite forces in the many countries they have overrun and from which they are now being expelled.  The brutalities of Hitlerite domination are no new thing and all the peoples or territories in their grip have suffered from the worst form of government by terror.  What is new is that many of these territories are now being redeemed by the advancing armies of the liberating Powers and that in their desperation, the recoiling Hitlerite Huns are redoubling their ruthless cruelties. This is now evidenced with particular clearness by monstrous crimes of the Hitlerites on the territory of the Soviet Union which is being liberated from the Hitlerites, and on French and Italian territory.

Accordingly, the aforesaid three allied Powers, speaking in the interests of the thirty-two United Nations, hereby solemnly declare and give full warning of their declaration as follows:

At the time of the granting of any armistice to any government which may be set up in Germany, those German officers and men and members of the Nazi party who have been responsible for, or have taken a consenting part in the above atrocities, massacres and executions, will be sent back to the countries in which their abominable deeds were done in order that they may be judged and punished according to the laws of those liberated countries and of the free governments which will be created therein.  Lists will be compiled in all possible detail from these countries having regard especially to the invaded parts of the Soviet Union, to Poland and Czechoslovakia, to Yugoslavia and Greece, including Crete and other islands, to Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg, France and Italy.

Thus, the Germans who take part in wholesale shootings of Italian officers or in the execution of French, Dutch, Belgium or Norwegian hostages or of Cretan peasants, or who have shared in the slaughters inflicted on the people of Poland or in the territories of the Soviet Union which are being swept clear of the enemy, will know that they will be brought back to the scene of their crimes and judged on the spot by the peoples whom they have outraged.  Let those who have hitherto not imbrued their hands with innocent blood beware lest they join the ranks of the guilty, for most assuredly the three allied Powers will pursue them to the uttermost ends of the earth and will deliver them in order that justice may be done.

The above declaration is without prejudice to the case of the major criminals, whose offenses have no particular geographical localisation (sic) and who will be punished by the joint decision of the Governments of the Allies.”  (my emphasis added)

Churchill was hopeful that such an unmistakable declaration would “make some of these villains shy of being mixed up in the butcheries now that they know they are going to be beat. . . .   Lots of Germans may develop moral scruples if they know they are going to be brought back and judged in the country, and perhaps the very place, where their cruel deeds we done.”

The Moscow Conference and its deliberations were no secret.  Even newly arrived Sachsenhausen prisoner no. 72060 (Odd Nansen), could record in his diary as soon as November 4, 1943: “The news is still brilliant.  The Moscow Conference is over, and according to report they’ve ‘decided’ that the war is to be finished this year.  Goodness—if only that could happen!”

So, did the Nazis develop moral scruples? Did they shy away from their butcheries when the writing was on the wall for all to see? Hardly.  In fact, the same developments that Churchill alluded to led the Nazis to exactly the opposite conclusion.

According to historian Martin Gilbert, “the spectre (sic) of defeat, and the reality of daily losses of territory in the east, led to an intensification of the murder of Jews, in order to ensure the completion of the ‘final solution.’” Around this time Heinrich Himmler ordered Aktion Erntefest (Operation Harvest Festival), targeting Jews in the Lublin, Poland district, many of them survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

Starting at 5:00AM on November 3, 1943, a mere 48 hours after the issuance of the Moscow Declaration, Jews in Majdanek Concentration Camp were led in groups of 100 to trenches (which they had previously dug), and ordered to strip and lie down, where they were shot.  Loudspeakers played music to drown out the gunfire and the cries of the victims.  By 5:00PM the shooting was over, and 18,400 Jews were dead—the largest single-day killing of the Holocaust.

Majdanek Concentration Camp–only Auschwitz was larger

But Operation Harvest Festival wasn’t over.  Also on November 3, over 6,000 Jews were shot at Trawniki, a nearby forced labor camp.  German SS and police units involved in the Majdanek killings moved on to nearby Poniatowa, another forced labor camp, and shot an additional 14,000 Jewish prisoners on November 4.

With at least 39,000, and possibly up to 43,000 victims murdered in two days, Harvest Festival was the largest single massacre of Jews by German forces during World War II.

So much for the development of moral scruples.

One of the ongoing controversies of World War II is whether the Allies could have and should have done more to prevent the full extent of the Holocaust.  Specifically, should the Allies have bombed the rail lines leading to camps such as Auschwitz.  The attitude of Roosevelt, and the U.S. Government in general, was that ending the war as quickly as possible offered the best hope for the Jews, and thus all decisions were based on that criteria alone.  Others have since argued that interdicting the rail lines might have saved lives otherwise lost, with negligible impact on the overall war effort.

If nothing else, Operation Harvest Festival underscores that so long as the Nazis had an adequate supply of bullets, they could and would remain murderously effective in single-mindedly carrying out their cruel butcheries.

If the Nazis failed to develop any moral scruples in response to the Moscow Declaration, did the Allies pursue their quarry to the uttermost ends of the earth in order that justice might be done?

>Heinrich Himmler committed suicide following his capture by British troops on May 21, 1945.

>SS Obergruppenführer Friedrich-Wilhelm Krüger, entrusted by Himmler with carrying out Harvest Festival, committed suicide on May 10, 1945.

>SS and Police Leader Jakob Sporrenberg, who directed Harvest Festival (and who observed the killings from a plane overhead) was captured in Norway, tried by a Polish court after the war, convicted and executed in 1952.

>Martin Gottfried Weiss, Commandant of Majdanek at the time of Harvest Festival, was tried and executed in 1946.

>The Commander of Poniatowa, Gottlieb Hering, died on October 9, 1945 under mysterious circumstances.

>The Commander of Trawniki, Karl Streiber, was tried in 1975 and acquitted.

According to legal scholars Michael Bazyler and Frank Turkheimer, “Over the past seventy years, tens of thousands of individuals who were part of the German regime and their local collaborators . . . have been prosecuted for crimes committed during the years of German rule . . . .  In somewhat sporadic and unorganized fashion, many of these trials dealt either directly or indirectly with the genocide of the Jews.”

Tens of thousands prosecuted (not convicted) for the deaths of millions of Jews and others, leaving millions more families destroyed.

Has justice truly been served? Can it ever be?

Remains of the mass graves/trenches at Majdanek (Source: Bronislaw Wesolowski)

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich turns 60

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In his book, End of a Berlin Diary, William L. Shirer includes an entry for November 14, 1945, describing the meticulous records kept by the Nazis, which were then being used as evidence against them in the Nuremburg trials.  “Students of the war will want to pore over these papers and examine them in detail,” he noted.

What seemed like an invitation to others was in fact a subliminal message to Shirer’s future self.

Fired by CBS in 1947 despite his exemplary work as one of “Murrow’s Boys” during World War II, Shirer found himself in the wilderness for years.  Unemployed and blacklisted during the McCarthy era for his left-leaning views, Shirer struggled to support his family by writing books and lecturing.  The books did not sell well, and the speaking opportunities, dealing with his experiences in Nazi Germany, began to dry up.

William L. Shirer

On January 24, 1954, Shirer wrote in his diary, “To Do: A book to be called ‘The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.’”  Shirer certainly had advantages very few journalists or historians possessed.  He had lived in Nazi Germany for years, until he was expelled in December 1940.  He could speak and read German.  He had even returned home from Nuremburg with a duffel bag stuffed with copies of the Nazi papers introduced during the trial as evidence. As he confessed in his memoir, A Native’s Return, 1945—1988, “I had been tossing around in my mind the idea of doing such a book ever since covering the Nuremberg trial . . . nearly nine years before, in the late fall of 1945.”

Shirer’s big problem: money.  His years in the wilderness had exhausted his savings; he had no ongoing income.  A secondary concern of Shirer’s was that he was primarily a broadcast journalist, not a historian.  Even his previous publishing successes had been his diaries. Could Shirer devote years to research and writing with no financial support, and could he apply “the discipline and know-how to write a historical work whose subject and the materials to support it were so vast?”  Shirer hesitated, and waited for academic historians to undertake the “unique opportunity” to delve into the “avalanche of new material.”

No one did.

“Nine years after the end of the war and the fall of Hitler, I decided to take the plunge—since no one else would.  I would not write around the subject.  I would tackle it head-on.  I would try to write for the first time a fully documented and complete history of the rise and fall of the Third Reich.  Somehow I would find the time to do it and still support my family.”

Most publishers turned Shirer down flat, and those who were interested gagged at the $10,000 advance Shirer calculated he needed to cover his expenses for the two years he figured it would take to bring the book to completion. Finally, a close friend at Simon & Schuster convinced the right people to take a flyer on Shirer’s brainchild.  Shirer was shocked to find how little attention had been paid to the vast treasure of captured Nazi documents held in U.S. archives.  “[The librarians at the Library of Congress] trundled out a whole hand-truck full of Hitler’s personal papers.  I was astonished that they had not been opened since being catalogued.  We took to untying the ribbons that bound them.  Out fell what were to me priceless objects: among others, scores of paintings Hitler had done in his vagabond youth in Vienna.”

So Shirer labored on—500 pages by the fall of 1957; 805 pages by the spring of 1958.  By then the $10,000 advance was long gone, and Simon & Schuster had no interest in advancing more.  Foundations and magazines turned him down.  The prospect of laying the book aside and getting a job loomed.  Finally, at the eleventh hour, a small foundation stepped in with just enough funds to get Shirer over the finish line.  “This saved my life and my book.  We quickly paid what we owed on our grocery bills, assured the girls that they could remain in school . . . and I settled back to fourteen hours a day writing.”

Shirer finally completed the book—all 1,795 typed pages—on August 24, 1959.  He felt good about the result: “it was the best I had ever written.”

But would anyone want to read it?  “I had no illusions that it would sell.  Everyone connected with it—my publisher, my editor, my agent, my close friends . . . had assured me that it would not.  And I had no reason to doubt them.”  Shirer was not unmindful that his lecturing on Hitler and Nazi Germany had fallen off precisely because, as his agent explained, “there was no longer any interest in America in either.” Moreover, not only was Rise and Fall a massive book to read, it’s $10 price tag all but guaranteed a small sale.  “No book that price, I was told, had ever done well.”

The initial U.S. print run of 12,500 copies was released on October 17, 1960.

The book attracted mostly favorable reviews, and was chosen to be the featured  November 1960 selection by Book of the Month Club.  It soon climbed on to the bestseller lists.  Thereafter Simon & Schuster could barely keep up with demand; sales exceeded everyone’s wildest expectations.

According to Ken Cuthbertson, Shirer’s biographer, “American readers have bought an estimated ten million copies of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” and it has been translated into German, French, Chinese and Russian.  According to another academic, the book “has become more than just another work of history.  A singular literary institution, it has achieved a reputation as ‘the best-selling historical work ever written in modern times.’”

A much younger me in front of Shirer’s home, Lennox, MA (Feb. 1990)

I have had a soft spot for William L. Shirer ever since I spent practically the entire summer of 1970, at the tender age of 15, reading Rise and Fall.  Much of it went over my head, but it did hit home as a cautionary tale about the dangers of following an unprincipled demagogue. What is more, it was Shirer, in his 1949 review of From Day to Day for the New York Herald Tribune, who called Odd Nansen “one of the noble and heroic spirits” whose diary “reminds us in never-to-be-forgotten pages how noble and generous the human spirit can be in the face of terrible adversity.”

So today is the 60th anniversary of the appearance of Shirer’s “singular literary institution.” Here’s an interesting thought experiment: Imagine if, in spite of the many positive reviews, Rise and Fall had quickly slipped into oblivion in 1960, and was only rescued today, and republished by a family member, or an academic, or by a journalist.  Generations would have missed out on Shirer’s monumental work.  Of course, that is exactly what happened to Odd Nansen’s diary, where the gap was even longer—67 years between publications.  That time can never be recaptured, but we can commit to ensuring that Nansen’s singular, monumental, work is never forgotten again.

Happy 60th Birthday to The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

My autographed copy of Rise and Fall. That’s another story for another day.

A Profile in Courage: Louisa Gould

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The Date: September 23, 1942

The Place: The island of Jersey, the largest of the so-called Channel Islands.  For centuries the Channel Islands were contested by England and France.  Ultimately, they became part of the Duchy of Normandy—which makes sense—Jersey is but a stone’s throw from the Normandy Coast.  Nevertheless, by the 1259 Treaty of Paris, the Channel Islands were ceded to the British Crown, and to this day they remain a “Crown dependency.” French and British cultural influences are equally strong.

With the fall of France on June 22, 1940, the British government concluded it was impractical to defend the Channel Islands, and German forces occupied Jersey—unopposed—eight days later (June 30, 1940), the only British territory to be occupied by Germany during World War II.

The People: Feodor (or Fyodor) Polycarpovitch Buryi (sometimes spelled Burriy), a 23-year-old Russian pilot shot down on the Eastern Front in October 1941 and sent, along with hundreds of other Russian POWs, to one of many slave-labor camps established by the Germans on the Channel Islands.  As Odd Nansen makes clear in his diary, the life of a typical Russian POW in German hands was nasty, brutish and usually short.  “This [place] is a hell for Russian prisoners.  About fifteen thousand of them have marched through the gate [of Sachsenhausen] from time to time, and there are only eight or nine hundred left in the camp.  The rest have been starved to death, beaten to death or otherwise done away with,” Nansen recorded on Monday, October 11, 1943.

Louisa Gould, a 50-year-old widow.  Louisa ran a small grocery store from her home in St. Ouen, located in the remote northwest corner of Jersey.  Her two grown sons, Ralph and Edward, enlisted in the British armed forces at the start of the war.  In July, 1941 Louisa learned that Edward, an officer in the Royal Navy, had been killed in action when his ship was torpedoed in the Mediterranean.

Louisa Gould

The Action: On September 23, Buryi made good his escape from his slave labor camp; it was his third attempt.  Desperate, filthy, knowing no English or French, Buryi first stopped at the farm of René Le Mottée, who took him home and sheltered him for three months.  Buryi remained hidden with Le Mottée, whose children gave him the nickname “Bill,” until an informer tipped off the German Security Police.  Bill escaped just ahead of his captors, and next headed for the nearby home of Louisa Gould.

Knowing full well the severe punishments meted out for harboring prisoners, Gould nevertheless agreed to take Bill in, observing “I have to do something for another mother’s son.”  For the next 18 months Louisa hid Bill from the Germans, teaching him English as well (although with a French accent to disguise his Russian pronunciation).  In time Bill even began to help out at the grocery store, and his presence became something of an open secret in the local community of St. Ouen.

Louisa clearly was something of a risk taker: In June 1942 German authorities ordered the surrender of all home radios (much like in Nansen’s Norway) — an order Louisa (like Nansen) chose to ignore.   Each night Gould (like Nansen) tuned into the BBC broadcast—inviting her siblings, friends and Bill to listen in as well.  Louisa’s position as a shopkeeper allowed her to pass along pertinent news to her customers.

 Much like the family of Anne Frank, Louisa was ultimately betrayed—most likely by a neighbor driven by jealousy, envy, or a desire for better rations or a cash bonus.

Again, miraculously tipped off prior to the arrival of the police, Bill fled to the home of Louisa’s sister, Ivy Forster, and from there another member of the underground, Bob Le Sueur, soon took him to another safe house.  Louisa tried to hide all evidence of Bill’s presence for the previous 18 months, as well as her illegal radio.  Unfortunately, a search of her home turned up the radio as well as a Russian-English dictionary and a gift tag addressed from Louisa to Bill.

The Aftermath: Gould was arrested May 25, 1944 (less than two weeks before the D-Day invasion), and sentenced on June 22, 1944 to two years imprisonment for “failing to surrender a wireless receiving apparatus, prohibited reception of wireless transmission, and abetting breach of the working peace and unauthorized removal [of a Russian POW].” Louisa’s sister Ivy and brother Harold Le Druillenec, along with three friends, were also sentenced to various terms in prison, primarily for listening to the BBC.

Louisa, Harold and a friend named Berthe Pitolet were deported to prisons on the European mainland.  Harold passed through Neuengamme (this was almost a full year before Odd Nansen would arrive), ultimately ending up in Bergen-Belsen.  He would have shared the camp with Anne Frank and Anne’s sister Margot, but unlike them, he survived—but just barely.  Harold was one of only two British survivors in the entire camp.  He would later testify at the Nuremburg trials about the conditions in Bergen-Belsen.

Louisa and Berthe were sent to various transit camps in France before Louisa ultimately arrived in Ravensbrück.  It’s possible that Louisa even crossed paths with Tom Buergenthal’s mother, Gerda, who also was sent to Ravensbrück in the fall of 1944.

Ravensbrück

I’ve often written about the role of serendipity—pure luck—in my interactions with Nansen’s diary, and in the lives of many of whom I write (here, here and here).  In the summer of 1944, Louisa and Berthe were held for a short time in a prison in Rennes, France.  During a post-D-Day Allied bombing attack on a nearby rail station, the camp was badly hit as well.  In the ensuing confusion Berthe (who was French) escaped, but was unable to convince Louisa to join her.  Berthe ended up hiding in a nearby town until it was liberated by American soldiers less than one week later; Louisa continued on to Ravensbrück.

In all of my talks about Odd Nansen’s diary, I mention the dangers of entering the camp infirmary, or Revier.  On Monday, October 25, 1943, Nansen wrote: “[W]e’re all of us in constant . . . dread of swelling up in the legs and getting . . . dysentery or some other horror, which will land us in the Revier.  That’s the first step to the crematorium.”  

Gould took ill in early 1945 and was taken to the Revier.  She was gassed to death on February 13, 1945, age 53.  Ravensbrück was liberated eight weeks later.

In 2010, Louisa, Ivy and Harold were posthumously named British Heroes of the Holocaust, along with such other notables as Sir Nicholas Winton.  Her story (with typical artistic license) is now the subject of a 2017 film, “Another Mother’s Son,” written by Gould’s great-niece (available on Netflix).

In 1995, on the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, a memorial plaque in Louisa’s honor was unveiled in St. Ouen.

In attendance at the unveiling was “Bill” Buryi, then age 76.  Bill had remained successfully hidden in Jersey until the end of the war, following which he was repatriated to his native Russia.

On the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, I salute the bravery of Louisa Gould, René Le Mottée, Ivy Forster, Harold Le Druillenec, Bob Le Sueur, and all the members of Jersey’s underground who, at incalculable risk, saved the lives—not of fellow islanders, or of fellow countrymen, or of co-religionists, but of fellow human beings.

A Surfeit of Books

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Back in the good old days (surely you remember, like February last), I was looking forward to a robust 2020 speaking schedule, with events ranging from DC to New Jersey to Chicago to Minnesota to the Dakotas, and even Norway.  Accordingly, I stocked up on a healthy supply of  Odd Nansen’s From Day to Day to handle the expected demand.

Well, we all know how that turned out.

I am slowly ramping up my virtual speaking schedule, and have my fingers crossed that by 2021 we’ll have a workable vaccine and may be able to resume in-person events.  In the meantime, I keep staring at my stack of books.

Recently, I realized that I was looking at the situation entirely the wrong way. I was reading Richard Hofstadter’s 1964 Pulitzer Prize-winning classic, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, and came across Hofstadter’s discussion of Henry David Thoreau, and a problem Thoreau ran into when faced with an overstock of one of his own books:

“Thoreau remarked on the seven-hundred-odd unsold copies of an edition of a thousand of his A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers which were stacked in his room: ‘I now have a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself.  Is it not well that the author should behold the fruits of his labor?’”

My website currently boasts that I have “almost 5,000 books” at home.  I may need to revise it to read: “Tim’s library now exceeds 5,000 books, a good many of which he has personally edited, annotated, and written introductions for.”

Yes, it is well and good that an author can behold the fruits of his labor!

9/1/39: WWII Starts in Gleiwitz

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As the long, hot, summer of 1939 drew to a close, Adolf Hitler, Chancellor of Germany, was determined to have his war.

True, he had accomplished his previous exploits—the re-militarization of the Rhineland; the annexation of Austria; the absorption of the Sudetenland; and the occupation of Czechoslovakia—all without firing a single shot.

But Poland, Hitler’s next target, backed by France and Great Britain (which had pledged their support), had by now learned that Hitler’s promises were worthless.  Poland resisted his demands for concessions and ignored his professed desire for “peaceful coexistence.”

For his part, Hitler was not daunted by the prospect of war. In fact, far from it; he welcomed the chance to show what his army, navy and air force, built with so much national effort and sacrifice, could do.

Hitler had just one scruple, however.  He could not simply invade Poland without a casus belli—a justification. [By the following year even this scruple disappeared when Germany, without cause, invaded Norway, Belgium and the Netherlands, all of which were neutral, as well as Denmark, with which Germany had recently signed a nonaggression pact.]

Hitler had already ordered his armed forces to be ready to invade Poland by September 1, but Poland was stubbornly refusing to play along.  Accordingly, Hitler decided to manufacture his own casus belli.  As he told his generals on August 22: “The victor will not be asked whether he told the truth.”  The SS were instructed to make it appear that Poland was attacking Germany.  Not taking any chances, the SS planned more than one provocation.  For example, SS men, dressed in Polish uniforms, attacked a German customs post, firing shots in the air and leaving behind six corpses—all prisoners taken from Dachau—also dressed in Polish uniforms.

Another provocation was chosen for Gleiwitz, a German town located four miles from the Polish border.  Gleiwitz did not have much going for it, except good railroad connections, and a 365-foot wooden radio transmitting tower—the tallest wooden structure in all of Europe.

Gleiwitz Tower

At 8:00pm on Thursday, August 31, the SS struck.  As historian Roger Moorhouse writes in his latest work, Poland 1939, the time had been chosen 1) to provide the cover of darkness, and 2) because many people would be listening to their radios at that hour. The SS team quickly overran the radio station, herded everyone into the basement, seized the microphone, and broadcast the following message in Polish:

Uwaga!  Tu Gliwice!  Radiostacja Znajduje Się W Polskich Rękach!” [Attention!  This is Gleiwitz!  The radio station is in Polish hands!]

To add verisimilitude to their “attack” the SS had the day before picked up Franciszek Honiok, an ethnic Pole who was nevertheless a German citizen.  Not only was Honiok ethnically Polish, he was widely known for his Polish sympathies.  The unsuspecting Honiok was brought to Gleiwitz, and on the evening of August 31, his drugged body was delivered to the radio station, and there he was executed in cold blood and left behind as “evidence.”

For unknown reasons, a much longer message was not broadcast as planned that evening, and even what was announced could barely be heard over the radio.

Nevertheless, the German press, which was no longer free and independent, no longer able or willing to speak truth to power, but merely served as a propaganda arm of the Nazis, was already primed to flood German streets the morning of September 1 with headlines castigating Poland for its dastardly acts.  In a 5:45am proclamation to his troops as they headed east, Hitler concluded: “there remains no other recourse for me but to meet force with force.”

Poland invaded

Hitler now had his war, or more precisely, as William L. Shirer noted, his “counter-attack.” And what a counter-attack it was, involving 1.5—2 million men, over 2,000 planes, and nearly 3,000 tanks.  Jan Karski, a Polish Mounted Artillery officer (and future professor of mine at Georgetown), recounts in his memoir: “[On that first morning] the extent of the death, destruction and disorganization this combined fire caused in three short hours was incredible.  By the time our wits were sufficiently collected to even survey the situation, it was apparent that we were in no position to offer any serious resistance.”

On that same hot sunny morning of September 1, Thomas Buergenthal and his parents were less than 20 miles away from Gleiwitz, having just boarded a train in Katowice, Poland en route to England.  But as Moorhouse notes, the Luftwaffe launched over 2,000 sorties on the first day alone, “strafing . . . at will.”  Tommy’s train was attacked and disabled, and his family’s dreams of freedom were, in his words, “not to be.”

Refugees on the move

Young Tommy would ultimately have another, closer, encounter with Gleiwitz nearly five and a half years later.  In late January, 1945, Tom and his column of prisoners marched—shuffled really—out of the front gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau and onto the backroads of Poland.  Their goal: Gleiwitz, 42 miles away.  Even now, it is impossible to adequately describe the agony of that three-day trek.  According to Odd Nansen, the temperatures hovered around 10° F. and many froze to death along the way, or were shot if unable to continue.

Somehow, Tom made it to Gleiwitz, but that merely meant that the second stage of his terrible odyssey was to about begin: ten more days in an open cattle car headed for Sachsenhausen.

History offers many unexpected twists and turns, often heavily laden with irony.  But perhaps none so ironic as this: Germany’s Gleiwitz is today Poland’s Gliwice.  Millions of deaths later, at the Potsdam Conference of 1945, the postwar boundaries of eastern Europe were redrawn, and Gliwice found itself for the first time located within Poland.

Truly, Radiostacja Znajduje Się W Polskich Rękach; the radio station is in Polish hands.

Happy Anniversary

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. . . and with the baby on her arm and the other children round her [Kari] was more beautiful than anything I know of on earth.”  Odd Nansen, July 29, 1943

Nansen would next see his wife Kari when she visited him in Grini prison a few weeks later, on August 20, 1943.  Soon thereafter, he quickly found himself in hot water with the camp commandant, and just as quickly found himself on the next transport to Sachsenhausen.  He would not see Kari again for almost two years, until June 9, 1945.

In the years since I first started writing blogs, I have of course written extensively of Odd Nansen and his diary. What I have not done, however, is write about his wife Kari.

This is quite an oversight.  After all, Nansen makes clear in his Foreword that “I was writing [the diary] for my wife, to let her know what was happening and how I was getting on.”  Fully 135 entries mention her by name, more than anyone else in the diary.  As Nansen confesses: “[A] prisoner thinks a very great deal about his wife.. . . “  Those 135 entries represent over one-fifth of all the entries Nansen wrote, at least in the English version.  Another 100 or so entries were cut out when the diary was translated from Norwegian.  And even in the Norwegian version, Nansen admits, about two-thirds of what he wrote was never published: “most of the private matter has been cut out.”  One can only guess, therefore, at the full extent of Kari’s presence in the diary.

Whatever the extent, it’s clear that Odd Nansen did think a great deal about his wife.  Not only was Nansen writing for Kari, her was writing to her.  He addresses her directly, often signing off with a “Good-night, Kari.”  But even when not addressing her directly, everything he wrote was for an audience of one.  While imprisoned in Norway (Jan. 1942—Oct. 1943) the pages of the diary were periodically smuggled out to her—once Nansen even bribed a German driver to deliver an installment to her!

As Nansen’s daughter Marit has explained, upon receipt Kari would often gather wives of other prisoners and read passages aloud for their benefit as well.  Kari was savvy enough to realize that the pages of the diary were incendiary—their discovery could lead to vengeful punishment for many parties, most especially Nansen himself.  Accordingly, she cleverly hid the pages in the false bottom of a bedroom nightstand.  Shockingly (and providentially) the one time the Gestapo searched the house (after Nansen had had his run-in with the commandant) the agents, in their single-minded search for something hidden, overlooked an underground (and therefore illegal) newspaper lying in full view on top of the nightstand.

Once in Sachsenhausen, all of Nansen’s communications were limited to short, highly censored, letters.  This was just as well.  As Nansen quickly notes, “I’m glad they know nothing of this at home—or of anything that goes on in German concentration camps.”

Nansen didn’t hide his psychological need for Kari: “I can’t do anything without you, not even be in prison.” If the diary was his outreach to her, far more important to him, of course, was what he received from her: letters and (while still in Grini) occasional visits.  There is no question but that those letters and visits sustained him.

A letter was “a living breath of home,” and a visit a “radiant moment,” where Nansen “could have sat for hours and just looked at her, and held her hand. . . and been in heaven.”

The Visit

It’s hard to imagine that Nansen could have made it through his long incarceration without the emotional anchor provided by Kari.

For her part, Kari had to manage her fourth pregnancy and delivery alone, and then raise and protect her four children (oldest not yet 15), again alone.  Food and heat were hard to come by. Daughter Marit recounts eating dandelion greens, and raising rabbits for food.  And any encounter with the German occupiers (and there was approximately 1 German for every 10 inhabitants) could lead to trouble.  Instead of shying away from danger, young Marit courted it, assisting prisoners—who often worked unloading rail cars at the nearby station—to smuggle notes to their loved ones.

It all made for a long list of worries.

But Kari, like so many other wives (and occasionally, husbands) of the roughly 40,000+ Norwegian prisoners arrested at some point during the occupation, kept the family intact through the dark days of 1942—1945.

As I mention in my Introduction, I believe it was quite intentional, when Nansen was once asked by an inquisitive official in Sachsenhausen what he was writing so secretively, that Nansen responded: “I’m writing a love story.”  And indeed he was.  The diary, where he poured his heart out to his own Kari, was, in a sense, one long love letter to her.

Odd Nansen and Kari Hirsch were married 93 years ago today.  Writing about their wedding anniversary on August 27, 1944, Nansen observed, “The wealth [our marriage] has given us . . . no one can take from us.  It is of eternity and will never die. . . .”  That’s something worth commemorating.

 

V-J Day Postscript: A Dog Named Gus

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Ever since I wrote my first blog, back on September 3, 2015, I have encouraged my readers to provide feedback.  I appreciate the words of encouragement I’ve received, as well as the (thankfully, minor) criticism.  I’ve also enjoyed hearing from readers whose own memories or stories, some happy, some sad, some bittersweet, are prompted by something I’ve written.

In response to my most recent post, regarding the end of World War II, one of my readers sent me the following reply, which I thought particularly deserved to be shared with all of you.  With the reader’s permission, here it is, in full:

“V-J Day is etched on my memory.  I was twelve years old.  My cousin Jacky and I were crossing Riverside Street in front of her house along with our two dogs.  Suddenly, a hot rod bearing a group of screaming, celebrating teen boys, roared over the hill out of Monterey Park.  Jacky and I jumped to the side of the street; our dogs did not.  Both were killed.

Even at twelve, I knew there was a reason for the boys, who were in my cousin Bob’s graduating class, to celebrate.  They had been facing the prospect of wading ashore in Japan to the type of reception American boys had faced at Iwo Jima.

The reprieve was not to endure: within five years, most of the guys would experience being overrun by the Chinese in Korea.

Although I understood it then and now, I still miss that little dog.”

August 14, 1945: World War II Ends

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Seventy-five years ago today, World War II ended with the surrender of Imperial Japan.  The following day, the Japanese Emperor’s voice, heard by the country’s inhabitants for the first time, concluded that “the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage.”  Therefore, “we have resolved to pave the way for a grand peace for all the generations to come by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is insufferable.”  The formal surrender occurred on September 2, 1945 aboard the USS Missouri.

Thus did the deadliest conflict in human history finally conclude.  Over 70 million dead, countless millions more injured, damaged, haunted.

With the hindsight of 75 years, it all seems somewhat predictable.  After all, how did Germany, Japan, Italy and their lesser allies ever think they could defeat the combined might of the United States, the Soviet Union and Great Britain?

And, in a very real sense, every history book written since August 1945 (and there have been many—more ink has been spilled about World War II than probably any other subject) is predictable. Of the trillions of facts to sift, and the billions of causal events to examine, even the best historian, knowing how the final chapter ends, consciously or unconsciously chooses those facts and events that point to and support the inevitable conclusion.  Thus we get narratives such as: “Although the Allies went down to defeat in the Battle of XXXX, they learned valuable lessons that would help turn the tables in their next encounter.”  Or: “Although it looked as if the Nazi war machine would triumph, a closer look at these five factors reveals that they were in fact ultimately doomed.”

The only way to really experience the war as it occurred is to study the words of its participants as it occurred.  This is why diaries—of Odd Nansen, Anne Frank, William L. Shirer, and many others, are so critical.  They didn’t, and couldn’t, know how or when or in what way the war would end.  [Another great resource is the Library of America’s two-volume Reporting World War II, which chronologically arranges reports by journalists such as Pyle, Morrow, Hersey, Shirer, et al, as the war unfolds.]

So, I will now let William L. Shirer have the last words on August 14, 1945, drawn from his book End of a Berlin Diary.  The eloquence, uncertainty, hope (there’s that word again), and poignancy of his thoughts written on that day are particularly compelling:

“World War II is over!

In the excitement of our victory tonight, in the joy and relief, it was difficult to remember the dark days when defeat stared us in the face and catastrophe was staved off by only the narrowest of margins.  It was utterly impossible for more than a handful this night to recall, as I had done a time or two in Germany when the triumph of the Nazi barbarians seemed so certain, what the awful consequences would have been for us had victory not come in the end. . . .

Now the desperate and the heroic days are over.  Peace will be sweet, yes; but the adjustment to it will take some time, and no doubt it will bring much disillusionment as imperfect little men try to repair the unspeakable damage—physical, moral, spiritual.  There will have to be adjustment too for those of us who have lived little else the last ten years but the tense fight against the barbarism of the Nazi and Fascist world.  The tensions of that epic struggle have been in my blood for so long, conditioning whatever I did or thought or was, that it will take time and effort and great relaxation to get them out of my system so I can begin anew. . . .

We kept on broadcasting until about two thirty a.m., weary and exhausted and yet, deep down, exhilarated by this immense day.  Afterward there were drinks and food in the back room of the little pub below with those who had toiled both here and in the war’s midst to bring to our fellow men the facts and the background and the smell and the sound and the fury of this gruesome holocaust which had come to its bloody end this night.  God, how long and wretched and inhuman it has been!

When I stumbled down Fifty-first Street toward home, the summer’s sun was coming up beyond the East River, rising on this first day of peace.”

Peace!

[Like Shirer and his contemporaries during the war, we don’t yet know when or how our current battle with a deadly and mysterious virus will end.  Let’s hope we can soon feel the way Shirer did on that bright new morning 75 years ago.]

Upcoming Events

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Book Signings

  • December 1, 2020: JCC of Central New Jersey, Scotch Plains, NJ (Virtual)
  • December 2, 2020: Shorewood Glen, Shorewood, IL (Virtual)
  • January 14, 2021: Lifelong Learning at Wofford College (Virtual)
  • January 21, 2021: Lifelong Learning at Wofford College (Virtual)
  • January 21, 2021: Norwegian-American Chamber of Commerce, Chicago, IL (Virtual)
  • February 12, 2021: Osher Life Long Learning, Furman University, Greenville, SC (Virtual)
  • February 15, 2021: Osher Life Long Learning, NC State, Raleigh, NC (Virtual)
  • February 22, 2021: Osher Life Long Learning, NC State, Raleigh, NC (Virtual)
  • April 9, 2021: Osher Life Long Learning, Furman University, Greenville, SC (Virtual)
  • May 6, 2021: Notre Dame H.S. Alumni Club of DC, Washington, DC
  • May 13, 2021: Sons of Norway, Grand Forks, ND
  • May 14, 2021: Norwegian Heritage Week, Thief River Falls, MN
  • SPRING 2021: Sons of Norway, Fargo, ND (Kringen Lodge)
  • SPRING 2021: Sons of Norway, St. Cloud, MN (Trollheim Lodge)
  • SPRING 2021: Tuesday Open House, Mindekirken, Minneapolis, MN
  • SPRING 2021:  Georgetown University Bookstore, Washington, DC
  • June 9, 2021: Bet Shalom Hadassah, Jackson, NJ
  • October 19, 2021: Shalom Club, Great Notch, NJ

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"Tim is an incredible speaker and we were mesmerized by his passion for this book and the story of how he brought it back to print."

- Susan Penfold, President
Tryon, NC, Chapter of American Association of University Women

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