New Year’s Resolutions

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Today is the sixth day of 2019.  How many resolutions have you already made—and broken?

Whatever your views are on the utility of New Year’s resolutions, it is true that the passing of one calendar year, and the dawn of a new one, especially when the days are short and cold, prompts reflection and contemplation.  One remembers past achievements (or failures), and resolves to be a better person (however defined) in the future.

Now, I can offer no special advice or insights in this regard.  But it does seem to me that all too often we judge a person’s worth by the things they have (nice house, fancy car, expensive clothes) rather than by what they do (practice kindness, generosity, empathy).  To the ancient Greeks and our Founding Fathers, character was destiny.  And, as I have discussed (here), without practicing kindness, how can we ever be in a position to do the right thing when we are tested, such as Odd Nansen did, and all those recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among The Nations did, even in the face of mortal danger.

Arne Garborg. Painting by Eilif Peterssen

So, I would like to share with you a quote by a Norwegian, Arne Garborg (1851–1924), who was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature four times:

“For money you can have everything it is said.  No, that is not true.  You can buy food, but not appetite; medicine but not health; soft beds, but not sleep; knowledge but not intelligence; glitter, but not comfort; fun, but not pleasure; acquaintances, but not friendship; servants, but not faithfulness; grey hair, but not honor; quiet days, but not peace.  The shell of all things you can get for money.  But not the kernel.  That cannot be had for money.”

[Thanks to my friend Norma Askeland Smith for introducing me to Garborg.  When Norma’s mother left Norway to get married in America in 1934, Norma’s uncle Gunnar Thompson gave Norma’s mother a book of poetry by Garborg, his favorite writer.  “I like to think this passage meant something to him as well,” she writes.  Gunnar Thompson, a teacher, was arrested by the Nazis on March 15, 1941, was transferred to Sachsenhausen on September 6, 1941, and died there on July 1, 1942, age 34.]

A Feel-Good Story

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I thought it both appropriate and welcome to end 2018 with a feel-good story.  I’ve done so before—here, here and here.  At least it made me feel good.

Writing can oftentimes be a lonely calling. The research: you and your book/article/computer screen.  Writing: you’re alone with your thoughts and ideas, and that’s it.  My blogs produce some response—from a small and dedicated group of friends and supporters—despite an extensive subscription base.  Only when I go on the road do I finally interact with others.  Sometimes even that can be underwhelming.

In a November 11, 2018 New York Times Book Review column, Steve Israel, a retired U.S. Congressman turned novelist, comically depicts the rejection and sheer indifference a writer often experiences:

“In politics, one’s skin must be impenetrable to insult and even the occasional knife in the back.  But sitting behind a pile of books at an Author Night, watching people pick up your book as if it’s a piece of spongy fruit at the market, is sheer torture.  Often, they frown skeptically, weigh the book in their hands, glance at a few pages and toss it back on the pile.  All right in front of you.”

I’ve been there too.  A while ago I was scheduled to speak at a Barnes & Noble not far from where I live.  B&N did all the right things: order the books; post the event on their website; create an attractive poster visible to everyone entering the store.  I publicized it too.  On the day of the event the manager enthusiastically announced it over the P.A. every 15 minutes for one hour preceding the talk.  At the appointed time I had exactly one member in the audience, an affable fellow who accidentally wandered into my section and who was too well-mannered to leave me entirely alone. (Before my talk was over the crowd had swelled to three.)

So, whenever I receive unexpected feedback, it’s a cause for celebration.  Not long ago I received a letter in the U.S. mail.  I quote it in its entirety, leaving out only any identifying references to protect the writer’s privacy:

“Dear Mr. Boyce:

Thank you for your presentation on Odd Nansen at ______ recently.  I’m not an avid reader, but your presentation stirred me into buying the book—and reading it in its entirety!

To say I enjoyed the book would not seem correct.  Rather, it grabbed my interest—and each session, I read more than I had planned.  I come from northern Germany and Danish roots—but fortunately my people on both sides were here before both World Wars.

Thanks again for introducing me to Mr. Nansen.  I’m enclosing a 1 Øre coin* from 1942 as a memento.  It’s not in the best condition—has probably been through a lot, much like the Norwegians during WWII.

Best regards,

George  Xxxxxxx”

Thank you, George, and thanks to the many others from whom I did hear this past year, for your interest in Odd Nansen, and your support for my work in publicizing his diary.  You made the miles traveled, the talks given, the blogs written, all worthwhile.

Happy New Year.

[* 100 Øre equal 1 Norwegian Krone.  1 Krone is currently equal to approximately $0.11.  The coin ceased to be minted in 1972.]

Third Royalty Checks Go Out

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I am pleased to announce that the third distribution of royalty checks has just been made.  As I explained in earlier posts (here and here), I determined at the outset of my journey with From Day to Day that any royalties derived from the sale of Nansen’s diary would go to a charity or charities that Odd Nansen would have approved of were he still alive.  Following consultations Nansen’s daughter Marit Greve, we agreed that 50% would go to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in DC, and 50% to HL-Senteret, The Center for Study of the Holocaust and Religious Minorities, in Oslo.

The fiscal year ending June 30, 2018 was a particularly strong year for sales of From Day to Day—in fact the best year in sales so far, and the royalties I received reflected this performance.  In addition, although I do not charge a speaking fee for my presentations, this past year several organizations generously provided me with an honorarium for my services.  Since these were unexpected, I have, as in years past, decided to include them in my distributions as well.  With these latest checks, to date such distributions total over $9,734.00.

As always, all of the above would never have been possible without the assistance of so many people who helped me along the way—by making introductions, suggesting speaking venues, recommending my work, organizing events themselves, providing much needed hospitality, etc.  To all of you I owe a debt which can never be fully repaid.  But I salute you for your help, and wish you all the very best that 2019 can offer.  Here is but a partial list of those who went above and beyond the call of duty the past year: Tese Stephens (again!), Harry Goodheart, Ron Myrvik, Kathy Aleš (again!), Morgan Jordan (again!), Ginny Bear, Dick Kuhn, Kaye Wergedal, Mary Beth Ingvoldstad, Kris Leopold (again!), Kathryn O’Neal, Ken Fagerheim, Judy Gervais Perkiomaki, Graydon Vanderbilt, Susan Navrotsky, Jeanne Addison, Siri Svae Fenson, Philip Humphries and Cynthia St. Clair, and last but not least, my old friend and legal colleague Peter Hapke.

I also want to recognize those who took the time to write positive reviews of Nansen’s diary for sites such as Amazon—your help is deeply appreciated.

I’m sure that I have overlooked many equally deserving of recognition, and hope you will forgive the oversight, and allow me to use Odd Nansen’s own words: “Honor to them all for their share.”

Odd Nansen’s Birthday (12/6/01)

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Odd Nansen

Today is the 117th anniversary of Odd Nansen’s birth on December 6, 1901.

Each year I try to commemorate his anniversary with a pithy statement or quote that encapsulates the kind of person Nansen was.  In previous years I have quoted noted Holocaust survivor and writer Primo Levi (here), and Holocaust survivor and historian H.G. Adler (here).

This year’s quote comes from Eric Sevareid.  Most members of my (baby boomer) generation know him from his days as a commentator on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.  That’s how I came to know him, while still in elementary school, and I loved his trenchant, eloquent commentaries, even if the subject matter was sometimes well above my head.

What most people might not know is that Sevareid was from Norwegian stock.  As Sevareid writes in his autobiography, Not So Wild a Dream, “Christmas dinner was never right for [my father] without lutefisk and lefse, and Pastor Reishus always preached first in Norwegian, then in English.”  Sevareid was born in North Dakota, and lived for a while in my favorite ND city, Minot, before moving to Minneapolis.  Taking up journalism in college, he soon found himself as one of “Morrow’s Boys,” reporting on the war for CBS. In 1940 he was the first to report on the Fall of France.  As a broadcaster, Sevareid received numerous Peabody Awards and several Emmys, and was inducted in the Scandinavian-American Hall of Fame.

 On August 2, 1943, Sevareid was investigating the Assam-Burma-China Ferry Command’s air supply of Chiang Kai-shek’s army over the Himalayas when his plane crashed.  Miraculously, 21 of the 22 passengers and crew aboard the stricken plane managed to parachute safely into the jungle. The Americans were ultimately rescued by the British administrator in the region, Philip Adams.  Here is how Sevareid describes Adams in his autobiography:

“For me, he takes a place among the few rare men I have known, of limitless courage, unfettered mind, and controlled compassion for others—the great, lonely men, some in the spotlight, others in obscurity, who are everywhere and always the same, devoted coworkers in the difficult and dangerous conspiracy of goodwill.”

I’m pretty sure that if Eric Sevareid had ever had the chance to meet Odd Nansen, he would have included Nansen in that select fraternity as well.

Longing: The Story of the Bracelet

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“Apart from the already described reactions, the newly arrived prisoner experienced the tortures of other most painful emotions, all of which he tried to deaden.  First of all, there was his boundless longing for his home and his family.”   —Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Odd Nansen would certainly agree with Frankl’s observation.  In the second paragraph of his Foreword, Nansen explained that most of the “private matter” had been cut out of the published version of his diary, but not all: “I couldn’t cut it all out, I felt, without taking from the diary too much of its character. For it is the case that a prisoner thinks a great deal about his wife, his children, and home.”   Indeed, as I write in my Introduction, in many ways From Day to Day can be viewed as one long love letter to Nansen’s wife Kari.

Longing suffuses the entire diary.  “For more than a week, a fearful week, I had been looking forward to it [a meeting with Kari] and longing for it.” (May 7, 1942).  “Longing keeps us in life and hope.” (January 30, 1944).  In the very last diary entry Nansen wrote (April 27-28, 1945), he anguishes that “all I have been longing for for years with all my soul [seemed] more remote than ever.”

So, it was with great surprise that, during my recent visit to Oslo, Nansen’s granddaughter Anne Greve casually asked me if I knew the background to the bracelet she was wearing?  It was a simple silver bracelet, adorned with a common-looking brown stone (there were originally three such stones, but only one remains):

The bracelet

Inside the bracelet Nansen inscribed a simple, heartfelt message for his wife, on the occasion of their sixteenth wedding anniversary:

“Et Griniminne til dig fra mig/Vel ingen sjelden juvel/Men pant på at jeg elsker dig/Av hele min lengtende sjel/Din Odd/Grini 27-8-43”

A partial view of the bracelet’s interior

“A Grini memory to you from me/Well no rare jewel/But trust that I love you/With all my longing soul/Your Odd/Grini 27-8-43”

According to Anne, Nansen’s wife Kari wore it constantly throughout her life, and now Anne does as well:

Anne Greve modeling the bracelet

Readers of the diary know that the portion which covers August 27, 1943 was unfortunately lost, so we’ll never know what thoughts or feelings, if any, Nansen recorded on that date.  We do know what he wrote on the following anniversary, while in Sachsenhausen: “Sunday, August 27, 1944.  Our wedding day!  Seventeen years! . . .   Life has been good to us after all.  The wealth it has given us in these seventeen years no one can take from us.  It is of eternity and will never die, even though we should never meet again.”

MHQ Publishes Article on Nansen Passport

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I am pleased to announce that the Winter 2019 issue of MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History, has just hit the newsstands, and contains an article I authored regarding the Nansen Passport.

One of the many reasons Fridtjof Nansen was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922 was his work as the first High Commissioner for Refugees at the League of Nations.  In this capacity, in 1922, Nansen promoted the use of an identity card for stateless Russian refugees, to allow them to safely cross national borders and seek work.  All told, from its inception in 1922 through the start of World War II, approximately 450,000 individuals (Russians, and later, Armenians, Syrians and Kurds) were able to take advantage of the Nansen Passport.  Prominent foreigners who came to America on the Nansen Passport include composer Igor Stravinsky, novelist Vladimir Nabokov, and pianist Sergey Rachmaninoff.

On my book tours I have had at least two occasions where audience members approached me after my presentation and related that they, or their parents, arrived in America as refugees using the Nansen Passport.   The gratitude in their voices and expressions was palpable—it was clear to me that they viewed Fridtjof Nansen as their savior.

The complete article on the Nansen Passport can be found here.  This is not the first time MHQ has shown an interest in the Nansen story.  In its Spring 2018 issue the magazine reprinted selected excerpts from Odd Nansen’s diary, From Day to Day: One Man’s Diary of Survival in Nazi Concentration Camps.  The online version of these excerpts can be found hereMHQ covers a variety of interesting topics, for the specialist and general reader alike–I highly recommend it to you.

The final word in this blog, as it is in my article, goes to Dorothy Thompson, the prominent American journalist who wrote in 1938, at the early stages of an even worse refugee crisis: “What the whole refugee problem needs today, more than anything else, is another Nansen, with his simple belief in human dignity, his enormous sense of personal honor and responsibility, and his confidence in the power of humanity to organize and mobilize to meet its emergencies.”

A Special Visit to Norway

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I’ve just returned from a magical trip to Oslo, Norway to help celebrate the 90th birthday of Marit Greve, Odd Nansen’s eldest child.

The outbound voyage went without a hitch.  My airplane seat had a nifty video screen which showed my position in flight at all times.  I checked the flight stats while passing over Newfoundland (which is appropriate, as Newfoundland boasts the presence of L’Anse aux Meadows, the Vikings’ first settlement in the New World).  Altitude: 38,366 feet; temperature: -58°F.  I realized that even seven miles above the tundra of Newfoundland in November, the temperature was still warmer than some of the temps faced by Fridtjof Nansen during his polar exploration. Hats off to that man!

Oslo was rainy and cold upon arrival, and remained that way for the duration of the trip.  As Preben Johannessen, Marit’s son-in-law, reminded me in a ditty which he claims he learned from Marit:

No Sun/No Moon/No Dawn/No Noon/No-vember.

But, as the Norwegians are quick to point out, there is no bad weather, just the wrong clothes, and so I, and everyone else in Oslo, just powered through. What was a bit more difficult to overcome was that sunrise (per the weather app, not personal experience) was 8:14 am and sunset at 3:47 pm—this more than a month before the winter solstice.

As mentioned, the highlight of the trip, indeed its primary purpose, was to celebrate Marit’s birthday—she turned 90 on November 8.   Marit was born in Brooklyn, NY, in 1928, and I maintain that, if you listen very carefully, you can still detect a Brooklyn accent trying to be heard under her Norwegian lilt.

Marit appears many times in Odd Nansen’s World War II diary.  On her birthday in 1944 Nansen recorded this:

“Marit’s Birthday.  When I was arrested, she was only just thirteen and a little girl.  Now she is sixteen and a woman.  It’s strange.  She herself assures me so sweetly and eagerly, in the letter I had from her, that she hasn’t grown away from me.  But the whole letter shows that she has.  Poor little Marit, she can’t help it.  And besides it’s not to oblige their parents that children live their lives.  But all the same I miss you badly, my little “fishergirl,”* and if you sometimes miss your daddy too, my wish is only that it may be a blessing for us both.”

I can relate that seventy-four years later, Marit still hasn’t grown away from her father.

Fittingly, the birthday party was held on the deck of the Fram, the ship which Marit’s grandfather, Fridtjof Nansen, had constructed in 1892 to carry him to, and over, the polar ice cap. (Things did not work out precisely as planned, but Fridtjof Nansen nevertheless pushed farther north than any human had up to that point.)  The Fram is now well ensconced in its own museum on the island of Bygdøy.  [Perhaps someday Marit will merit her own museum; after all, the ship is only 36 years older than she is.]  Marit’s family composed their own song to celebrate Marit’s achievement—here are her daughters Kari and Anne, sons-in-law Einar and Preben, and grandchildren Christian, Jacob and Mattias, serenading Marit from the quarterdeck, all presided over by the polar maestro himself, Fridtjof Nansen:

I enjoyed the chance to meet many of Marit’s friends and family relations.  Of particular interest to me was seeing Robert Bjørka again.  Robert, who turned 98 on November 9, was a personal friend of Odd Nansen’s.  An architect like Nansen, he was arrested March 1, 1943, and spent the remainder of the war in Sachsenhausen as well.  His memory is undimmed over the 75 years since he was sent to the concentration camp.

Marit received many lovely gifts, including what appeared to be a lifetime supply of champagne.  My gift to her was a bit more prosaic— an apron, but one that carried what I felt was an appropriate message: “I just turned 90.  What have you done today?”  Here we are together showing off her latest acquisition:

Two days later, Marit and I toured several venues to discuss future book tour possibilities.  Tuesday, my final day in town, was a day to relax, but in some ways it turned out to be the most interesting of all to me.  Marit shared with me many of Odd Nansen’s personal papers, including diaries he wrote as early as 1918 (when only 16 years old), and more importantly, ones he kept in 1940, 1941 and 1942.  It was truly special to hear Marit translate the diary entry Nansen wrote immediately following the German invasion of Norway (9 April 1940), or the last one he wrote as a free man, on January 4, 1942.  Nine days later, Nansen was taken away “for questioning” and never saw freedom again until the closing days of World War II.  Indeed, it was an honor and a privilege to hold “history” in my hands.

The following day I began the grueling 14 ½ hour return voyage, but the memories of this visit; the chance to celebrate Marit’s special birthday with family and friends; the stories Marit shared with me of her father and of life under the occupation; the encouraging results of our book tour meetings, all made for an unforgettable trip.  Many thanks to Marit and her family for their warm hospitality. Congratulations again Marit, and Skål!

*If you want to understand the significance of “fishergirl” you will just have to read the diary.

[Coming soon: The story of the bracelet.]

Another Astonishing WWII Holocaust Diary Surfaces

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From the November 2018 issue of Smithsonian Magazine:

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/astonishing-holocaust-diary-hidden-world-70-years-resurfaced-america-180970534/?fbclid=IwAR0dSgjl9xk0oeJLVivob9K4hP1azB9iJeJ8psQg5ORxeoOwsvyR_ugWR94

Pittsburgh 2018; London 1942

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On October 27, 2018, Robert Bowers killed 11 Jewish worshipers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA, including a 97 year-old woman, and wounded 6 others, in what the Anti-Defamation League calls the deadliest attack targeting Jews in U.S. history.

On October 29, 1942, almost exactly 76 years earlier, a public meeting was held in London.  In The Second World War, author Martin Gilbert’s encyclopedic history of the war, Gilbert describes this meeting of leading British churchmen and public figures.  The purpose was to protest against the Nazis’ persecution of Jews.

Gilbert adds that Prime Minister Winston Churchill delivered this message to the meeting:

“The systematic cruelties to which the Jewish people—men, women and children—have been exposed under the Nazi regime are amongst the most terrible events of history; and place an indelible stain upon all who perpetrate and instigate them.  Free men and women denounce these vile crimes and when this world struggle ends with the enthronement of human rights, racial persecution will be ended.” (my emphasis)

Have we learned nothing in the intervening 76 years?

Dr. Jeffrey K. Cohen is President of Allegheny General Hospital, the facility that treated Bowers following the attack.  Dr. Cohen, as well as the attending emergency room physician, and an emergency room nurse, are all Jewish.  Dr. Cohen has been quoted as saying: “It’s time for leaders to lead.  And the words mean things. And the words are leading to people doing things like this, and I find it appalling.”

Why is Antisemitism suddenly since 2017 on the rise here in America, a country that defeated the Nazis 73 years ago?

Where are our national leaders?

Where is our Churchill?

Where?

Joachim Ronneberg (1919–2018)

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Joachim Ronneberg

Joachim Ronneberg, the last surviving member of Operation Gunnerside, the daring raid to destroy the heavy water facility at Vemork, Norway, died on Sunday, October 21.  Ronneberg was 99.  Obituaries from the New York Times and the BBC, respectively, are here and here.

Norwegian World War II hero Joachim Ronneberg, 93, attends a wreath-laying ceremony in his honor at the SOE agents monument in central London on April 25, 2013, for leading the SOE operation Gunnerside where Norwegian soldiers destroyed the German occupied Heavy Water Plant in Vemork, Norway.  (ANDREW COWIE/AFP/Getty Images)

In 2016 I was asked by The Norwegian American to review The Winter Fortress, the latest in a string of books detailing Operation Gunnerside, written by Neal Bascomb.  The complete review is here.

It is worth quoting at length the final two paragraphs of my review:

“The members of Operations Grouse, Freshman, Swallow, and Gunnerside and the team that sunk the ferry on Lake Tinnsjø never really knew why destroying heavy water was so important; they only knew that it had to be destroyed. Moreover, the secrecy surrounding the Allies’ own atomic program meant that their feats could not be widely publicized during the war. The members were simply promised: “[Y]our actions will live in history for a hundred years to come.”

It’s a good bet that that promise will be fulfilled. After all, it is now almost 75 years [this was written in 2016] since the Grouse team first landed on the Vidda. They and their compatriots endured ferocious winter weather, near starvation, the constant threat of discovery, and even death, and yet their patriotism, courage, and fortitude in the face of all this still inspires worthy books such as The Winter Fortress. As the official historian of the SOE [Special Operations Executive], M.R.D. Foot, later observed: “If SOE had never done anything else, ‘Gunnerside’ would have given it claim enough on the gratitude of humanity.”

Humanity is indeed grateful, Joachim Ronneberg.  You have fought the good fight, you have finished the race, you have kept the faith.

 

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Upcoming Events

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Book Signings

  • June 25, 2019: Nordic Center, Duluth, MN
  • June 26, 2019: The Colony, Eden Prairie, MN
  • June 26, 2019: The Waters, Edina, MN
  • June 27, 2019: Legends of Cottage Grove, Cottage Grove, MN
  • June 27, 2019: Abiitan, Minneapolis, MN
  • June 27, 2019: Norway House, Minneapolis, MN
  • June 28, 2019: Waters at 50th, Minneapolis, MN
  • June 28, 2019: The Kenwood, Minneapolis, MN
  • September 15, 2019: Center for Holocaust and Minority Studies, Oslo, Norway
  • September 25-28, 2019: Norsk Hostfest, Minot, ND
  • October 14: Sage Avademy for Lifelong Learning, Goucher College, Baltimore, MD
  • October 14, 2019: Charlestown Sr. Living, Catonsville, MD
  • October 15, 2019: American Scandinavian Foundation, New York, NY
  • October 17, 2019: 55-Plus Club, Princeton, NJ
  • October 18, 2019: VASA/Lodge Linne, New Providence, NJ
  • October 19, 2019: Stonebridge at Montgomery, Skillman, NJ
  • November 1, 2019: Osher Lifelong Learning, Furman University, Greenville, SC
  • November 14, 2019: Maven’s Club/Temple Emanuel, Winston-Salem, NC
  • January 23, 2020: Shalom Club/Carolina Preserve, Cary, NC
  • January 31, 2020: Osher Life Long Learning, Furman University, Greenville, SC

People are talking


“Timothy Boyce’s presentation on “The Secret Concentration Camp Diary of Odd Nansen” combined an engaging speaking style, a knowledge of history, and a passion for his subject, resulting in a very enjoyable and informative morning for the more than 250 Senior Scholars at Queens University attendees. “

- Carolyn Kibler, President
Senior Scholars at Queens University

For more posts please see our archives.

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