The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich turns 60

Share

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

Share

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

Share

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

Share

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

Share

. . . 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

Share

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

Share

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.]

August 1-2, 1944: Hope and Despair

Share

As dates go, the first two days of August 1944 seem to me unusually fraught.  Many things changed irrevocably—most for the worse, only a few for the better.

ANNE

On Tuesday, August 1, 1944, Anne Frank wrote in her diary to her imaginary friend Kitty.  To Kitty, and only to Kitty, could Anne confide all of her thoughts, longings, and emotions without fear of being judged.

On that day Anne tried to explain to Kitty about the “bundle of contradictions” that made up her nature.  She felt her exterior of exuberant cheerfulness, flippancy even, hid an interior self: “much purer, deeper, finer.”  This “deeper” Anne, however, shrank from exposing itself to others.  The real Anne could only be herself when she was alone.  She wanted to show this inner self—the quiet and serious Anne—but could not yet overcome this difficulty.  Her diary entry ends: [I will] keep trying to find a way to become what I’d like to be and what I could be . . . if only there were no other people in the world.”

Unknown to Anne, this was to be her final entry.  Three days later, on August 4, Anne, her family, and their friends were betrayed and arrested by the Gestapo.

No doubt hope sustained Anne during her ordeal, first in a transit camp, then in Auschwitz, and finally in Bergen-Belsen.  No doubt she hoped that she would one day be reunited with her precious diary.  Nevertheless, within six months Anne would perish, age 15.  Only her diary survived to reveal to the world her “purer, deeper, finer” self.

Anne Frank

Tom

On Wednesday, August 2, 1944, as the ink dried on Anne’s final diary entry, Thomas Buergenthal and his parents arrived by train in Auschwitz, the largest and deadliest camp the Nazis ever built.  Approximately 1.3 million people were murdered there, of whom approximately 1.1 million were Jews.

It’s doubtful if either Tom or his parents grasped at that moment the true horror of Auschwitz, the industrial scale of its gas chambers and crematoriums.  Prior to arrival, “I could not quite imagine what Auschwitz was really like,” Tom admits in his memoir, although he knew it was a place of dread.

Tom soon learned that his experience in Auschwitz would be very different.  Unlike his previous life in the Kielce Ghetto and in various work camps outside Kielce, his family would no longer remain intact.  Upon arrival he was immediately torn from his mother.  Except for a single brief glimpse of her through the wire—hair shorn, tear-stained, but alive—ten-year old Tommy would not see his mother Gerda for almost two and a half years.  Then, less than three months after arrival, Tom was also separated from his father.  Mundek was sent, first, to Sachsenhausen and later to Buchenwald.  There he died of pneumonia on January 15, 1945, less than 90 days before the camp was liberated.

What kept Tom going through all this?  True, he was ein Glückskind—a lucky child—helped by many, even in Auschwitz.  But what thoughts kept him from despair as he struggled to survive, alone?  As he explains in his memoir, while living in an orphanage after the war, and despite all indications to the contrary, “I continued to believe, without telling anyone, that my parents were alive and would find me one day soon.”  Hope kept despair at bay.

Tom Buergenthal with his parents

Warsaw

Finally, on August 1, as Anne Frank penned her final diary entry, and as Tom was about to enter Auschwitz, the Polish underground in Warsaw staged a revolt.  The insurgents hoped to both drive the Germans from the city, and establish control over Poland’s capital before the Soviet-backed Polish Committee of National Liberation arrived.  Initially, the underground succeeded in establishing control over much of central Warsaw.  Nevertheless, the Soviet army, which occupied the eastern bank of the Vistula River, and thus Warsaw’s eastern suburbs, rendered no assistance. This cold-blooded decision by Stalin has since been called “one of the major infamies of th[e] war.”

Ultimately, the outgunned and outmanned uprising was brutally crushed.  Over 16,000 resistance fighters were killed, as were between 150,000—200,000 Polish civilians.  Many were victims of mass executions by the German Army.  Most of the remaining population was sent off to concentration camps, including Sachsenhausen, as witnessed by Odd Nansen on August 15, 1944 and December 13, 1944.  The city was not liberated until January 17, 1945.

Warsaw Uprising 1944

In sum, in the first days of August, 1944, an unsuspecting Anne Frank poured her heart out to her diary, which would survive even if she did not.  Tom Buergenthal passed through the gates of hell, but inexplicably survived.  The Polish underground was crushed, but its tormentor, Nazi Germany, ultimately went down to total, ignominious defeat.  Poland did not see real freedom for decades.

All of these participants faced despair in early August, but all were motivated by hope.  Indeed, hope may have been the most powerful weapon they could wield.  For some it was enough; for others it fell short.  Memories of August 1-2 will always remain bittersweet.

In Praise of Books

Share

My readers, you know that I sometimes depart from my usual mission to write about lighter (but no less interesting!) subjects.

You also know that I am a fan of, and have written about, Kurt Vonnegut (here)

Vonnegut

Well, forty-five years ago today (July 28), Vonnegut’s uncle Alex died, age 86.  Described as “a Harvard-educated insurance salesman and bon vivant,” Alex Vonnegut encouraged young Kurt to read.  When Kurt was in high school, he and Alex formed a book club for two, and Alex’s suggestions introduced the future writer to Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw, Thorstein Veblen, H.L. Mencken, H.G. Wells, and Robert Louis Stevenson, among other notable authors.

So it was only natural that, upon his uncle’s death, Vonnegut penned the following tribute:

“I am eternally grateful to him for my knack of finding in great books reason enough to feel honored to be alive, no matter what else might be going on.”

With the coronavirus pandemic raging about, these seem like pretty good words to live by.  Good luck finding your next great book. (And let me know what it is when you find it.)

I wouldn’t mind hanging out here for a while

Are Fortunetellers Any Good?

Share

The following is one of the most fascinating passages in Odd Nansen’s diary, penned while in Sachsenhausen on Monday, June 19, 1944:

“This community within the walls contains everything, even a fortuneteller—or astrologer, as he calls himself, though he reads hands. He read mine yesterday.  Predicted that on the 21st or possibly the 20th of July a terrible disaster would befall Germany, which would bring the war to a close.  The armistice would come immediately afterward. . . . .  I should be home in July or August, he said.” (emphasis mine)

True to the astrologer’s word, on July 20, 1944, Adolf Hitler was the subject of an assassination attempt that came perilously close to ending his life.  The plot, known as Operation Valkyrie, required Claus von Stauffenberg to place a bomb-laden briefcase in Hitler’s briefing bunker located in Wolfsschanze, his military headquarters in Rastenburg, East Prussia.  Von Stauffenberg and other high-ranking officers in the German military had become convinced that Hitler was a disaster for the country.  Only his death, they concluded, by releasing the armed forces from their personal oath to the Führer, would allow the military to wrest control of Germany away from the Nazi Party and the SS. The plan almost succeeded.  Shortly after noon on July 20th, von Stauffenberg placed the briefcase under the briefing table near Hitler.  Then, as pre-arranged, he left the briefing to fly to Berlin and set the Valkyrie plan into motion.

Claus von Stauffenberg

Von Stauffenberg had originally planned to arm two bombs, but was able to prime only one explosive in time.  (A decorated war veteran, von Stauffenberg had lost an eye, his right hand, and two fingers from his left hand in combat.)  Also unbeknownst to von Stauffenberg, after he left the meeting another attendee pushed the inoffensive looking briefcase behind a leg of the heavy, wooden conference table.

The resulting blast killed four of the meeting occupants (including the officer who had moved the briefcase out of the way) and injured everyone else in the room to some degree.  Hitler’s trousers were singed and tattered, and his eardrums punctured, but he survived. Almost 5,000 Germans accused of supporting the plot, including von Stauffenberg, were ultimately executed in reprisal.

Hitler’s bunker following the bombing

How could a fortuneteller, imprisoned in the bowels of a concentration camp, possibly have advance knowledge of the conspirator’s plans?  On June 19, 1944, the date of Nansen’s diary entry, even the conspirators didn’t know the date of the attack—it all depended on when von Stauffenberg or another plotter could gain access to Hitler.  In fact, assassination attempts were also scheduled for July 7 (using General Helmuth Stieff as the bomber), as well as July 14 and 15 (involving von Stauffenberg).  In each case some glitch caused the conspirators to pull back on their plan.

If the conspirators had succeeded on the 20th—if the bomb had not been moved, or if both bombs had been primed—and Hitler killed, would the war have ended?  This remains one of history’s tantalizing puzzles.  The probable answer: most likely not.  The conspirators were certainly anti-Nazi, but just as certainly German nationalists unlikely to give up their territorial gains, and in any event England the U.S. were unlikely to agree to a separate peace which the conspirators ardently hoped for.

So what did the fortuneteller know and how did he know it?  Was it just a lucky guess? An amazing coincidence?  Something else?

Before you discount completely the powers of astrology, or palm reading, or fortunetelling, consider that Thomas Buergenthal’s mother also visited a fortuneteller, in 1939, while the family was staying in Katowice, Poland, waiting for action on their visa application to England.  Even though she took off her wedding ring before entering, the fortuneteller “proclaimed that [Tom’s] mother was married and had one child.” Moreover, the fortuneteller told Tom’s mother “that her son was ‘ein Glückskind’—a lucky child—and that he would emerge unscathed from the future that awaited” the Buergenthal family.

Given Tom Buergenthal’s amazing accomplishments and his many contributions to humanity, we can all be truly grateful that the Katowice fortuneteller was 100% correct: Tom was indeed ein Glückskind.

Tom Buergenthal’s memoir

Upcoming Events

Share

Book Signings

  • October 25, 2020: Moderator, Jewish Film Festival, Milwaukee JCC, Milwaukee, WI (Virtual)
  • October 27, 2020: Osher Life Long Learning, Clemson University, Clemson, SC (Virtual)
  • November 9, 2020: Kristallnacht Observance, Chapman University, Orange, CA (Virtual)
  • November 10, 2020: Osher Life Long Learning, Clemson University, Clemson, SC (Virtual)
  • November 15, 2020: Kristallnacht Commemoration, Congregation Or Shalom, Orange, CT (Virtual)
  • November 18, 2020: The Adult School, New Jersey (Virtual)
  • December 1, 2020: JCC of Central New Jersey, Scotch Plains, NJ (Virtual)
  • December 2, 2020: Shorewood Glen, Shorewood, IL (Virtual)
  • February 12, 2021: Osher Life Long Learning, Furman University, Greenville, SC
  • February 15, 2021: Osher Life Long Learning, NC State, Raleigh, NC
  • February 22, 2021: Osher Life Long Learning, NC State, Raleigh, NC
  • April 9, 2021: Osher Life Long Learning, Furman University, Greenville, SC
  • 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

People are talking


"Tim...gave a terriffic presentation [at the Norwegian Nobel Institute]."

- Anne Ellingsen, author of Odd Nansen: Arvtageren

For more posts please see our archives.

Archives

On This Date

< 2020 >
May 16
  • 16
    No events
Legend
  Previous/Upcoming Engagements
  This day in history