‘Just Wave’ in Minot, ND

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I’ve just returned from a Scandinavian festival in Minot, ND—Norsk Høstfest.  I was really looking forward to the trip.  I had gone last year and thoroughly enjoyed myself.  What is a bit unusual about my fond memories is that last year I caught a bad cold at the event (the convention center was like a refrigerator) and then threw my back out to boot.  So why such pleasant memories?

It’s not necessarily due to the location.  Minot is a rather plain, unprepossessing town/city of almost 50,000.  The weather is usually at least 25 degrees colder than Tryon (this year snow was forecast for the day I was leaving).  The economy in the area is geared toward farming; one customer at my booth admitted to me that the only time he gets to do any real reading these days is “during calving season.”  I nodded my head, unsure whether calving season occurs in the spring, summer or fall (or maybe winter?).   I certainly had never heard that explanation before.

So, what is it about Høstfest?  Within hours of landing, it struck me.  Almost everyone I met, from the shuttle bus driver, the fellow bus passengers, the vendors at the festival, the entertainers, the attendees, were simply among the friendliest, most courteous, most civil people I have ever met.  One can’t help but be in a good mood all the time.  And the courtesy is genuine—whether it is the woman selling Norwegian waffles, the man supplying Finnish beef stew, or the purveyor of Icelandic chocolate, everyone is upbeat, happy to be there, and committed to your enjoyment as well.  It’s a bit like being at a birthday party, or a wedding, with thousands of your best friends.

I think back to last year, when I was in so much pain on the final day that I was having difficulty even walking to the shuttle bus stop.  A couple—clearly more advanced in age than I—came along and asked if they could carry my bag.  That is why the Høstfest is so special to me.

And if that were not enough, I met some fascinating people as well.  One man, now living in Sun City Center, FL, told me that both his grandfather Sigurd and uncle Sverre were arrested the same day in 1943 and sent to Grini, the same camp where Odd Nansen spent almost 18 months as a prisoner.  Another man informed me that his grandfather’s uncle was Bernhard Nordahl, who accompanied Fridtjof Nansen on his historic quest for the North Pole.  Another woman explained how, as a 9 year-old, she watched the defeated German soldiers leave Norway in the summer of 1945 from the hill beside her house.

Perhaps the most fitting coda to the entire trip came when I reached the Minot International Airport on Sunday morning to fly home.  The airport was extra quiet when I arrived a full two hours before my flight—no one at the ticket counters, etc.  Finally, help arrived, I checked my bag, and headed for the gate.  Not a TSA person in sight.  Then I noticed this official looking sign:

Sign at Minot Airport

The picture quality is not that great, so I’ll recreate the text:

The TSA CHECKPOINT
typically opens
1-1/2 hours
(90 minutes)
before departures.
The Trestle Tap House will
serve customers on the
mezzanine. Just wave at the
staff or call in your order.
(701) 852-1210

Isn’t it comforting to know that even if the TSA is not on the job (which they ‘typically’ are), you can still get service at the Tap House—just wave at the staff.

This tells me more about Minot, ND, than any fancy travel brochure could.  I’m already looking forward to next year!

From Day to Day Goes to Third Printing

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Sparked by strong sales in the first half of 2018, Vanderbilt University Press has ordered a third printing of Odd Nansen’s From Day to Day.  As mentioned previously, Vanderbilt’s first printing was expected to last for approximately three years (i.e., until May 2019).  The second printing was ordered less than two years later, and this third printing follows only seven months after that.

Recently I received a mailing from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (which, as discussed here and here, is the beneficiary of 50% of all royalties from the sale of my edition of From Day to Day).  On the cover was this quote from Elie Wiesel, Founding Museum Chairman:

“We should never think that it is finished.  With imagination, with passion, with fervor, begin again.  It’s up to you now that my past does not become your future.”

Odd Nansen’s incomparable diary is an important guidepost in preventing the past from becoming the future.  Now, more than ever, with Antisemitism on the rise, both here and abroad, Nansen’s words and example need to be studied, and heeded.

In the final paragraph of Nansen’s Postscript to his diary, he writes:

“The worst crime you can commit today, against yourself and society, is to forget what happened and sink back into indifference.  What happened was worse than you have any idea of—and it was the indifference of mankind that let it take place.”

As long as Nansen’s words are read, the world will not forget what happened, and as long as they are read, it will be that much more difficult for the world to sink back into indifference.  I sincerely hope that From Day to Day goes on to many more printings, and I will do everything in my power to make that happen.

THE Tour (Part II): Postscript

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Seventy-seven years ago last Thursday (August 23, 1941), Per Birkevold, Hjalmar Svae and Bjorn Fraser began their ill-fated quest to steal a German boat and escape from Norway to England.  I have written about this episode in prior blogs (here and here).  I also wrote about the amazing coincidence of meeting Hjalmar Svae’s niece, Siri Svae Fenson, and Bjorn Fraser’s daughter, Helene Sobol, within days of each other (here).

Well, there’s yet more to the story.  After the war Svae ran a dancing school in Oslo, named, appropriately enough, Svae’s Dancing School.  Turns out that Helene Sobol, Fraser’s daughter, attended the very same dancing school.  Here’s a photo of Helene, age around 9, with her younger sister Jane, all dressed up in their finest ball dresses.

Courtesy Helene Sobol

What you cannot tell from the photo is that the two dresses shown were made by Helene’s father out of parachute silk! When Fraser’s death sentence was commuted, he volunteered to work in the prison tailor shop, where he learned—apparently quite well—his tailoring skills.  Siri Svae Fenson, Svae’s niece, remembers visiting her uncle’s dancing school as a child, and may even have unknowingly crossed paths with young Helene many years ago.

And wait, there’s still yet another interesting connection.  As mentioned in my earlier blog, Bjorn Fraser went on to a very successful career in the Norwegian Air Force.  In the early 1960s he commanded the Sola Air Base near Stavanger.  There he was visited, in 1964, by Hiltgunt Zassenhaus, who was in the country to receive the Order of St. Olav, the only German ever to be so honored for her wartime heroics.  Zassenhaus, in her capacity as a “chaperone/watchdog,” accompanied clergy from the Seamen’s Church who were allowed to visit Norwegian prisoners.  While supposedly keeping an eye on the clergy, she was actually secretly smuggling food and vitamins into the prisoners, and keeping track of their exact location, allowing them to rescued in the “White Buses” operation at the end of the war.  Ten years later (1974) Hiltgunt was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her work by the Norwegian Parliament (the Storting).  I have written about Zassenhaus at more length here.

Courtesy Helene Sobol

In the above photo from the 1964 visit, Fraser stands to the far right; Zassenhaus stands next to him (his right, our left); Helene is the young woman in the white dress (fifth from the left); her mother is standing directly in front of her (to our right).

Thanks to Helene Sobol for the photos, and the additional insights.  Are there still more connections out there?? Stay tuned.

THE Book Tour (Part VI): YouTube

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On June 14 I had the opportunity to address the residents of Sun City Lincoln Hills, in Lincoln, CA.  The 150-seat auditorium soon filled up, and chairs were brought in, and finally, when no more chairs could be accommodated, some resorted to sitting in the aisles.  I was honored by the presence of a Holocaust survivor (Herta Jacoby), and by the presence of six children of Holocaust survivors, all of whom received complimentary copies of From Day to Day afterward. 

The AV technicians who helped me were unusually proficient, and easily set me up with my PowerPoint, portable microphone, etc.  They announced that they would tape the program for those residents unable to make the presentation.  Recently they shared with me their work, which they have now posted on YouTube.  The production quality is quite good, so if you haven’t yet seen my presentation about Odd Nansen and From Day to Day, or if you just need to see it again (and yet again—I won’t mind), here it is: https://youtu.be/d3n46V0fGNU.

Many thanks to Debra Skolnick for her assistance in setting up this program, and to all the residents who showed their interest and support by attending.

“We are all Jews”

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The month of August is full of anniversaries related to World War II: the bombing of Hiroshima (8/6/45); the surrender of Japan (8/16/45); the Warsaw Uprising (8/1/44); the liberation of Paris (8/25/44); the capture of Sicily (8/17/43); and the Treblinka Uprising (8/2/43), which I recently wrote about here.

Here’s an anniversary you may not be aware of: August 8, 1985: the death of Master Sergeant Roderick (Roddie) Edmonds, age 65.

Master Sergeant Edmonds is not particularly well known here in the U.S. although he deserves to be—he is the first, and only, U.S. serviceman to be honored by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations for his actions during World War II (and only the fifth American overall to be so honored).

Roddie Edmonds

Born in South Knoxville, TN in 1919, Edmonds enlisted in the U.S. Army in March 1941 (i.e., before Pearl Harbor), and had reached the rank of Master Sergeant by late 1944.  As a member of the 422nd Regiment, 106th Infantry Division, he arrived in the European combat zone in December 1944, just in time for the Battle of the Bulge, which began on December 16, 1944.  Three days later, on December 19, he was captured, along with virtually all the soldiers of the 422nd and 423rd Regiments—over 6,000 prisoners captured in one of the largest mass surrenders in U.S. history.  Edmonds was first transported to POW Stalag IX-B, and subsequently moved, along with approximately 1,200 other enlisted Americans, to Stalag IX-A near Ziegenhain, Germany.

Edmonds during the Battle of the Bulge

Although some of the details vary, it appears that on January 27, 1945, Edmonds was ordered by the camp commandant of Stalag IX-A to tell only Jewish prisoners to report the following morning so that they could be segregated from all the other prisoners.  As the senior noncommissioned officer of the camp, Edmonds had overall responsibility for all American prisoners.  He refused, ordering all camp prisoners to report instead.  Seeing this, the commandant retorted in disbelief that not all the prisoners could be Jewish.

“We are all Jews,” Edmonds replied.

The commandant then threatened to shoot Edmonds if he did not give up the Jewish soldiers.  Edmonds replied: “If you shoot me, you will have to shoot all of us, and after the war you will be tried for war crimes.”

The commandant backed down, and approximately 200 Jewish soldiers were saved from an uncertain, and possibly deadly, fate as slave laborers.

Stalag IX-A

Edmonds survived captivity, but surprisingly never told his family of his heroic action.  Twenty-four years after his death, in 2009, his son Chris came across a New York Times article about former President Richard Nixon’s purchase of a New York City townhouse from a Lester Tanner.  In the course of Tanner’s interview, he mentioned that he had been saved from likely death by Roddie Edmonds.  This started Chris on an odyssey which led to other Jews who had also been saved, including Irwin (Sonny) Fox, TV personality and former Chair of the Academy of TV Arts & Sciences.

For his actions Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds was recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations in February 2015, and Chris received the Righteous medal at a ceremony attended by the Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. and President Barrack Obama.

As Tom Buergenthal has observed in his memoir, A Lucky Child, “What is it in the human character that gives some individuals the moral strength not to sacrifice their decency and dignity, regardless of the costs to themselves, whereas others become murderously ruthless in the hope of ensuring their own survival?”

Maybe we’ll never know the answer to that conundrum, but knowing that there are people—like Roddie Edmonds—like Odd Nansen—who did retain the moral strength not to sacrifice their decency and dignity, should help inspire us all to try and emulate their example.

THE Book Tour (Part V): Treblinka Uprising

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Following my June 7 presentation at the new Nordic Museum in Seattle—on the occasion of the 23rd annual Raoul Wallenberg Memorial Dinner—I met with and spoke to many in the audience while signing books.  Often these people had their own important connections to World War II, and equally fascinating stories to tell.  I only wish I could remember, and relate, them all.

Nothing, however, prepared me for the meeting with Shlomo Goldberg and his wife Karen Treiger.  Shlomo, who was one of the first in line, revealed to me that his father, Sam Goldberg, had been one of the handful of prisoners ever to have escaped from Treblinka, and even more miraculously, survived to tell the story.  Treblinka (which, as I have written about here, was initially run by a psychiatrist, Irmfried Eberl), was a Vernichtungslager.  Unlike Dachau, or Buchenwald, or Sachsenhausen, it was an extermination camp, whose sole purpose, like the other so-called Operation Reinhard camps (Belzec and Sobibór) was to kill as many Jews as quickly and as ruthlessly as possible.

Located in northeast Poland, Treblinka began operating on July 23, 1942, and during its approximately 15-month existence, killed somewhere between 700,000 and 900,000 Jews. That’s more than any other camp save Auschwitz.

It was constructed using Jewish slave labor, some of whom continued to make up the 300-person squad that kept the camp operating.  Sam Goldberg was captured in June 1942, forced to join in the construction of the camp, and was kept on as a member of the Sonderkommando, the operators of the death machinery.

In early 1943 an underground resistance group formed with the goal of seizing control of the camp, destroying it and escaping to freedom.  After months of careful planning, the prisoners captured some weapons, set fire to several buildings, and attacked the guards.  Many prisoners were killed in the ensuing battle, but approximately 300 men made good on their escape, of which only approximately 72 avoided death in the massive manhunt that subsequently followed.

Treblinka Uprising

Sam Goldberg was one of those lucky few.  In fact, according to Karen Treiger, he, along with one other prisoner, may have been the only two survivors who were involved in both the original construction and subsequent running of the camp to have successfully escaped.

Sam squeezed through the barbed wire fence, dived into the Bug River, and then kept running until he reached the nearby forest.  There he stumbled upon Esther Wzsnia, a Jewish refugee who was already hiding in the forest, aided by a nearby Polish family headed by Aleksander and Helene Stys.  Sam elected to stay with Esther and a third refugee, Chaim Kwiatak.  Together they dug a pit in the forest, and, with the assistance of the Stys family, remained in hiding for another year, until the area was liberated by Soviet troops in August 1944.

Karen Treiger has just written the story of Sam and Esther (they both survived the war, eventually married each other, and emigrated to America), in her forthcoming book, My Soul is Filled with Joy: A Holocaust Story.*

Karen Treiger’s forthcoming book

Karen was not only the moving force in bringing the Goldberg story to print, she and Shlomo traveled to Poland, revisited Treblinka and the nearby pit, and met the descendants of the Stys family. Thereafter, she was instrumental in obtaining the honored designation of Righteous Among the Nations from Yad Vashem for Aleksander and Helene (described as Esther’s and Sam’s angel) as well as their children Antoni, Leokadia and Janina.  Mazel tov Karen!

I am very much looking forward to reading Karen’s fascinating tale of a rare escape, a fortuitous forest meeting, survival against incredible odds, and a happy ending in America.

By the way, the date of the Treblinka uprising: August 2, 1943, or exactly seventy-five years ago today.

[*Karen’s book will be available for pre-order from Amazon on September 1, and release on October 1.  Karen has also written several blogs about Odd Nansen’s From Day to Day on her website:  https://soyouwanttowriteaholocaustbook.wordpress.com/2018/07/17/odd-nansen-a-war-time-diary/, as well as a very positive review on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/R2GJNQI1OZGNM3/ref=cm_cr_othr_d_rvw_ttl?ie=UTF8&ASIN=0826521002.  Thank you so much Karen.]

THE Book Tour (Part IV): Fogelbo

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Serendipity.   There’s that word again.

The final stop in my west coast tour was Nordia House, the lovely cultural home of Nordic Northwest, a Portland, Oregon, based organization dedicated to preserving, communicating and celebrating Nordic culture, heritage and innovation.

Nordia House

Now, one would think that, after more than 100 presentations, I would finally have my act together. And one would be wrong.  Although I try to keep track of all the moving parts involved in a presentation/book signing (books, projector, props, power cords, speaking notes, my bread board, etc.) often times something gets overlooked.

After a delightful evening at Nordia House (where all existing seats filled up quickly and more had to be brought in) I discovered, before turning in for the night, that I had left the charging cord for my iPhone back in the auditorium where I spoke.  As no one can function at even the most basic level without their iPhone for very long these days (me included), this presented an existential crisis.

Luckily, Nordia House boasts a wonderful café—the Broder Söder—and since my longtime friend Susan Navrotsky and I had planned to share a farewell breakfast the following morning anyway, we decided to return to the scene of the crime, retrieve the cord, and sample some good Scandinavian food as well.

When we were seated after a short wait, I noticed the occupants of the adjacent table—two men enjoying a similarly leisurely brunch as well.  I remembered one of the two men—he had attended my talk of the previous night, sat in the first row, and listened intently to my presentation about Odd Nansen.

Well, one thing led to another, and soon all four of us were chatting across the tables, in between bites of a delicious breakfast.  At one point, my neighbor from the previous evening mentioned how much he had enjoyed learning about Odd Nansen and his diary, From Day to Day, and then proceeded to hand me his business card.  He also asked if Susan and I would be interested, when finished with our food, in visiting his home, which was located just next door?

The business card read: “Ross A. Fogelquist/Honorary Vice Counsel of Sweden Emeritus.”

Turns out that Ross, an emeritus member of the Nordic Northwest Board as well, donated the land on which Nordia House sits, and was instrumental in the fundraising campaign which made Nordia House a reality.

If Nordia House is typical of modern Scandinavia design—clean lines, unadorned, indeed stark—Mr. Fogelquist’s home, “Fogelbo,” is decidedly not—it is a log house that could have been built by the first Swedish settlers to arrive in the New World around 1638.

Fogelbo

In fact, Fogelbo (which means “bird nest,” a take-off on Fogelquist, which means “bird on a branch”) was built between 1938 and 1940 by the renowned carpenter and log cabin builder Henry Steiner.  Inside, Ross showed us a museum-quality collection of Scandinavian artifacts and antiques—one of the largest private such collections in the country.

The interior of Fogelbo

Ross’ pride in his home and his collection was palpable.  I was particularly struck by the ornate chests the Scandinavian immigrants used to transport their earthly possessions across the ocean, the vast United States, and to the Pacific Northwest.  Even though Fogelbo was to be the venue that very evening for a midsummer’s night celebration, Ross acted as though he would like nothing better than to spend the rest of the day with us, showing us all of his treasures, and relating the backstory to each.

As an ambassador for all things Scandinavian and Swedish, Ross was superb, which is probably why King Carl XVI of Sweden knighted Ross in 1985 as a Knight of the Royal Order of the Polar Star, first class.

Ross Fogelquist

With regret, I and my friend Susan finally took our leave of Ross—I did have a plane to catch—but the memory of that delightful final day with Ross in Portland will remain with us. (Incidentally, Ross has already deeded Fogelbo to Nordic Northwest, which is in the process of incorporating it and its park-like grounds into their mission.)

Tim and Ross

And all this because I forgot my phone cord.  Serendipity indeed!

[A special thanks to my friend Judy Gervais Perkiomaki who met me at last year’s Norsk Høstfest, and encouraged me to speak at Nordia House]

THE Book Tour (Part III): Nordic Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Signing copies of From Day to Day at the Nordic Museum

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

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

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

THE Book Tour (Part II): Serendipity Again

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Most of my blog readers already know of my friend Siri Svae Fenson.  Previously I had written about her uncle, Hjalmar Svae, described by Odd Nansen as “a fine type of Norwegian patriot.”  Svae, along with two other Norwegians, had attempted to escape to Great Britain from Norway in a stolen German motorboat in August 1941.  Unfortunately, the engine quit before they reached their goal, and the ocean current carried the boat all the way back to Denmark where they were captured, arrested, and sentenced to death.  Svae then undertook a second, even more dangerous, but ultimately successful, escape attempt from prison.

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

When Siri learned that I would be speaking at the Sons of Norway Sixth District Convention in Rohnert Park, CA, in June, she graciously invited me to stay with her and her husband Max, since they lived in nearby Santa Rosa, CA.

Siri and Max proved to be wonderful hosts, and Siri even organized a meeting at her home of the local Sons of Norway chapter (Freya Lodge) so I could share Nansen’s story in a relaxed setting.

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

I took leave of Siri and Max on Monday evening, June 11.  Fast forward a mere three days, and I am now arriving at the Norwegian Club of San Francisco for dinner and a presentation on the evening of the 14th.

[The Norwegian Club of San Francisco has a venerable history itself.  It was founded in 1898 in anticipation of a visit from the great polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen (Odd’s father) who was on a speaking tour following his record-setting attempt on the North Pole.  The talk never took place, as Nansen’s plans changed, but the club has remained active ever since.  Moreover, when Roald Amundsen (who would be the first to reach the South Pole in 1911) successfully navigated the Northwest Passage (another first) in 1906, he celebrated his three-and-a-half-year feat in San Francisco, with the Norwegian Club.  As a result, the club possesses a priceless collection of artifacts from the trip and from Amundsen’s ship, the Gjøa, now on permanent display in Oslo.  The club also hosted Thor Heyerdahl and crew upon the completion of their famous Kon-Tiki expedition.]

Now, back to the main story.  It is approximately 6:45pm at the Club, and I’m setting up my books, checking the projection equipment, etc., as guests continue to file in.  At one point a member enters, introduces herself as Helene Sobol, and mentions how excited she is to hear my presentation—after all, her father was also a prisoner in Sachsenhausen during the war.  That was certainly enough to get my attention.  Her father’s name?  “Bjørn Fraser.”  Let’s check the Index to see if he is mentioned in the diary.  Sure enough, he is, on pages 87, 96, 111, 120 and 123.  Let’s pursue this a bit further.

Well, it turns out that Bjørn Fraser and Hjalmar Svae were on the same boat that never arrived in England.  There were only three men involved in the theft and escape—Fraser, Svae and a man named Per Birkevold.  Approximately 40,000 Norwegians were arrested by the Nazis and their sympathizers during the war.  What are the chances of meeting—less than one week apart—the relatives of two of the three members of an event so audacious that Odd Nansen spends considerable time in his diary describing their “crime,” and then worrying about their fate?!? And that those two relatives live less than an hour away from each other?

Serendipity seems to be one of my favorite words these days, but I really don’t know how else to describe all the coincidences/connections that almost continually pop-up in my journey to share Nansen’s story.  I’ve even written a blog about serendipity (here).  Needless to say, meeting both Siri and Helene were some of the biggest highlights of my book tour.  Helene’s sister still lives in Norway, as does Siri’s cousin—Hjlamar’s daughter Kirsti. I foresee connections being made in both America and Norway!

Despite receiving a death sentence, and despite Nansen’s conclusion that “They can’t have much chance to speak of,” Bjørn Fraser, like Hjalmar Svae, led something of a charmed life.  He not only survived the war when his sentence was reduced to ten years at hard labor, but later rose to become brigadier-general in the Norwegian Air Force, and also served as an aide-de-camp to King Olav V (who in turn was a schoolmate of Odd Nansen).  After our wonderful meeting, Helene later wrote to me, in part: “I was particularly touched by Nansen’s worry that my father had been shot, something that thankfully turned out to be false, or I would not have been born! His praise of my father . . . as [a] great patriot touched my heart.”   Here’s a photo Helene shared, showing her father, on the far left, and King Olav V in the center, as Olav takes his oath upon becoming king in 1957:

Bjørn Fraser at King Olav V’s oath to the Norwegian Constitution, 1957

It was truly an honor to share a meal and discuss Nansen’s diary at the Norwegian Club, following in the footsteps of the great Amundsen, Heyerdahl, and the even the ghost of Fridtjof Nansen.  By the way, the third member of the “boat gang,” Per Birkevold, also sentenced to death, also managed to survive until war’s end.  At this point I will be rather disappointed if I don’t meet up with a Birkevold relative in the near future……….

Odd Nansen (d. June 27, 1973)

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Odd Nansen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Upcoming Events

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Book Signings

  • February 10, 2019: Central United Methodist Church/S.T.A.R.
  • February 22, 2019: Providence Athenaeum, Providence, RI
  • March 10, 2019: York, PA Jewish Community Center, York, PA
  • May 2, 2019: Notre Dame High School, West Haven, CT
  • January 21, 2020: Alpha Delta Kappa, Raleigh, NC
< 2018 >
December
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9101112131415
16171819202122
23242526272829
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  This day in history