A Memorial Day Remembrance

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Capt. Robert M. Losey

I don’t generally recycle old blogs I’ve previously written, but in some cases I will make an exception.  Two years ago on Memorial Day I wrote about Capt. Robert M. Losey, the first U.S. serviceman to be killed in World War II—it happened in Norway.  The full story can be found here.

Syttende Mai (May 17)

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Syttende Mai Celebration*

Syttende Mai, or May 17, is Norway’s Constitution Day, and its most important national holiday.  Norwegians everywhere celebrate the signing of the Norwegian Constitution on May 17, 1814, by the Norwegian Constituent Assembly in Eidsvoll, Norway.  The Norwegian Constitution is now the second oldest in continuous force (after the United States).

I can’t think of a better way to observe the day than to quote Odd Nansen’s own words written 77 years ago:

Sunday, May 17, 1942

It’s best to forget the 17th of May when you are a Norwegian shut up in a German concentration camp and struggling to make the time vanish, so that it may be the 18th as quickly as possible. So in a way it was no bad thing to have a working day today. But work as I might, and struggle as I might to get the time, the confounded time, to pass, it wasn’t possible to forget that it was May 17th.  It was in the air, the clear, fresh spring air blowing from the southwest. The sun shone from early morning; the birds were singing, the birches sprouting so that one could absolutely stand and watch how their pale green tops became denser and more copious hour by hour. They flamed against the dark wood behind, which hasn’t rightly awakened yet.

Southward the landscape opens out; there is no dark, grave forest barrier. The sallows too are beginning to dress for the party, as they stand by the spring becks winding down between the fields toward the sea—far, far out yonder. I truly believe we can make out a streak of that too, a silver streak just under the light blue ridge on the horizon. And the mind goes on to seek the glittering fjord, with its islands one behind another, right out to the last skerries and then still farther out, to the open sea.

And behind rises the blue landscape, up from the ocean and from ridge to ridge with green floes in among them, and with dark and light brown fields like patchwork between the copses and rocky outcrops, and at the back of all, the mountains stand against the spring sky, pale blue with shining flecks of white. It is as though the eye were following the mind upon its free journey. And one sails on along the coast, gazing in rapture at the wonderland within. A rush of warmth goes through one. This is all Norway. . . .

That is the content of the 17th of May; so it has always been, and so it will always be. No one can change it, least of all these Germans, who have no conception of it.

And no one can deprive me of today’s tour of Norway; I’ve been round the whole country and absorbed it with the spring air. I saw it bathed in spring sunshine, beautiful as never before. No, I take it back that one should forget the 17th of May because one’s in a German concentration camp. On the contrary, one should remember it and keep it more intensely and fervently than ever.”

Skål, Norway!

*By evelinagustafsson@live.se – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10407995

 

May 13: Winston Churchill and Fridtjof Nansen

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I don’t know if Winston Churchill and Fridtjof Nansen (about whom I’ve written before here and here) ever knew each other or knew of each other.  I’ve never yet come across a reference to the other in either of their writings.  But then again, I’ve only scratched the surface of their respective output—both left prodigious written records.

Nevertheless, I find it hard to believe that they were not at least aware of each other, if not personally acquainted.  They both loomed so large over their respective stages in Europe that it’s almost impossible to think they hadn’t somehow crossed paths.

While Churchill may have missed the 1897 lecture Nansen (thirteen years his senior) gave to the Royal Geographical Society following his attempt at the North Pole (Winston was serving with the British Army in India at the time), they were both in London in 1906, when Fridtjof Nansen was appointed newly-independent Norway’s first ambassador to Great Britain and Churchill was re-elected to Parliament.   Both men were active during World War I; Nansen negotiating with the Wilson Administration for liberalized food trade; Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty

After World War I ended, Fridtjof Nansen was one of the most prominent figures in the newly created League of Nations, an organization strongly supported by Churchill.  With the approach of World War II, Churchill participated in the Focus Group, a loosely-allied group of British politicians alive to the threat of fascist Germany. Philip Noel-Baker, an old League friend of Fridtjof’s, was part of this select group.

Whether or not the two were acquainted, personally or by reputation, May 13th was a critical anniversary in both their lives.

Fridtjof Nansen

On May 13, 1930, Fridtjof Nansen passed away, age 68.   As I have explained in an earlier post, while the medical report may have listed the cause of death as heart failure, in reality I believe it was simply a case of his having done more work than most ten men.  If there was one word that encapsulated his personality, it was forward (in Norwegian the word is fram which happened to be the name of the ship he built for his expedition to the North Pole).  As he once explained, there should be no thought or plan of retreat: “Then one loses no time in looking behind, when one should have quite enough to do in looking ahead—then there is no chance for you or your men but forward.  You have to do or die!”

Winston Churchill

Exactly 10 years later, on May 13, 1940, that same philosophy inspired Churchill’s famous “blood, toil, tears and sweat” speech to the House of Commons.  At the time of the speech, Churchill had been Prime Minister for all of three days, assuming the position “on the eve of the gravest crisis which any British Government ever faced,” in the words of one historian.  Austria had been annexed; Czechoslovakia occupied; Poland crushed; Denmark overrun; Holland would capitulate 2 days later; Belgium in 18 more; France was slightly more than a month away from surrendering; Norway was fighting gallantly against impossible odds.  Many in Great Britain advocated negotiating with Hitler.

Nevertheless, Churchill marked out his own position unmistakably.  After informing his countrymen that he had nothing to offer them but blood, toil, tears and sweat, Churchill continued:

“We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind.   We have before us many, many long months of struggle and suffering.  You ask, what is our policy?  I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime.  That is our policy.  You ask, what is our aim?  I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory there is no survival.”

As one historian described Churchill’s spellbinding speech, and its effect on both his country and the worldwide audience that it was also intended for: “If this was Britain’s ‘finest hour,’ it was also Winston’s.”

No doubt if Fridtjof Nansen were still alive, he would have wholeheartedly agreed.

May 2: Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day)

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Last week, while on a book tour through CT and NY, I was privileged to spend May 2—Yom HaShoah—at my high school alma mater, Notre Dame of West Haven, CT. In the morning I taught  23 Seniors in the school’s Holocaust class.  Notre Dame, a boys school run by the Brothers of the Holy Cross, has had a Holocaust course as part of its curriculum for over 30 years. The teacher, Matt Milano, had his students read selected diary entries from Odd Nansen’s From Day to Day, choose the most powerful sentence in the excerpt, and then come up with three questions based on his reading. I enjoyed spending time, however brief, discussing Nansen’s diary with the young scholars.

Addressing the Seniors and Juniors

 I then addressed the entire Junior and Senior classes. I drew a comparison between Anne Frank and Thomas Buergenthal, two children caught in the vortex of the Holocaust. Both arrived in Auschwitz at roughly the same time (August 1944). They never met so far as we know, which is not surprising considering that Auschwitz’s population at that point exceeded 60,000, or more than the entire population of West Haven, CT.

Anne was soon sent on the Bergen-Belsen, where she died in early 1945.  Tommy was later evacuated to Sachsenhausen, where he survived through the intervention of Odd Nansen. I compared the “what might have been” of Anne’s life—a gifted writer whose diary, composed when she was younger than many in the audience, has sold millions of copies and been translated into 60 languages, with the reality of Tom’s life and career—a distinguished career dedicated to the preservation and enhancement of human rights everywhere.

I challenged the students to follow Nansen’s example, and change a life for the better.  I reminded them that Notre Dame’s motto is “Character, Confidence,” and most importantly, “Compassion.”

Evening Presentation

Later in the evening I addressed parents, alumni (including some old classmates from ND ’72) and interested third parties. The evening began with a welcome by school President Robert Curis, and a prayer by Rabbi Alvin Wainhaus of Congregation Or Shalom.  Along with my many memories of that special day, I will cherish the yahrzeit candle that was lit for the duration of my talk.

yahrzeit candle

April: Anniversaries and a Reckoning

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The revised hardcover edition of From Day to Day was re-published exactly three years ago this week.  I don’t think I ever realized the significance of this week in any of my previous reflections.  Monday, April 22, represented the 74th anniversary of the liberation of Sachsenhausen, and with it, freedom after almost six years for Thomas Buergenthal.  Similarly, April 27-28, 1945 represents the final entry in Nansen’s diary.  Nansen’s agonized, brutally honest words from that entry, when he is on the cusp of freedom, are worth repeating:

“What on earth am I to write?  It’s as impossible today as on all the other days that have passed in one long whirl of unreality and fairy tale. . ..   The day before yesterday I was to scribble a message to Kari, only a hurried greeting, a few words on a scrap of paper, with the mudguard of a truck to write on. . .. But no, it seemed to me impossible, insuperable! . . .   I felt like crying with despair and rage. . ..  Dear, darling Kari! .. . .  I don’t know what more I got down.  I had to write something, couldn’t say I found it impossible.  Only a little message—I’ll be soon be home!  Surely I could write that much! And so I wrote that. . ..   And here I am, as bankrupt, as confused, and as stupefied as ever, out of contact with reality, because it is in fact unbelievable.”

Anniversaries are also a time for stock-taking.  Here are some of the highlights of my three-year journey (cumulative through 12/31/18):

Miles traveled: 51,807

Website visitors: 7,301

Presentation audiences: 5,000+

Presentations made: 137

Blogs written:  105

Speaking of blogs, several friends have wondered at the recent dearth of blogs from me.  I can only plead a busy travel schedule, which has prevented me from collecting all my thoughts.  But the travels have certainly been worthwhile.  The following represents just a few of the highlights in the first quarter of 2019, (but which nevertheless are emblematic of the entire experience with this book since the start):

  • Before speaking at the Providence Athenaeum in February I was shown the library’s rare book collection, which is rare indeed: a first edition, signed copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, a first edition Moby Dick, and a library charge-out book signed by library patron “E.A. Poe.”

 

  • In Barrington, RI, an audience member that his own grandfather had spent time in Grini, the Norwegian camp where Nansen spent almost 18 months.

 

  • In Baltimore, I met a 92 year-old patron named Joel. Joel returned to the room where I had spoken just as I was packing up to leave.  He told me that my recitation of Nansen’s dairy entry for August 27, 1944, wherein he relates that his love for Kari is of eternity, and will never die “even though we should never meet again,” had struck a nerve with him.  Joel explained that he fought in the Italian campaign during WWII, and had lost a brother in the Battle of the Bulge, and had another brother injured in the same battle.  With tears in his eyes, he confessed that while fighting in Italy he never thought he would make it home alive himself.  Joel then confessed that, until that very day, he had never mentioned this crippling fear to anyone else in his entire life.

 

  • In York, PA, I learned about the famed “Four Chaplains,” sometimes also known as the “Dorchester Chaplains.” Four chaplains (Alexander Goode, a rabbi; John Washington, a Catholic priest; George Fox, a Methodist minister; and Clark Poling, a Reformed Church minister) were sailing with the troop transport SS Dorchester when it was torpedoed on February 3, 1943. When the supply of life jackets ran out, each of the chaplains gave his away, and remained with those unable to escape the sinking ship.  The Dorchester sank in 27 minutes, with 672 men still on board.  The four chaplains were last seen on deck, arms linked, praying together.  The town of York, where Alexander Goode once served as a rabbi and scout leader, commemorates the memory of the Four Chaplains with a prayer breakfast annually around mid-May, close to Rabbi Goode’s birthday of May 10.

 

  • In Milwaukee, a guest brought with her a framed photo from Life Magazine showing the liberation of Dachau [which incidentally occurred April 29, 1945–another April anniversary]. The photo shows four GIs at Dachau’s gate.  The one with the cigarette in his mouth was her brother.

Dachau liberated

 

  • In Lincolnwood, IL, I met a relative of Michael Bornstein, probably the youngest survivor of Auschwitz, and I learned about his moving memoir, Survivor’s Club—I highly recommend it.

 

  • Finally, in Lisle, IL, I met Margaret Roth, a survivor of a different sort. She was born in Germany in 1938 and grew up in the shadow of the war, emigrating to the U.S. in 1968.  She inscribed her family memoir, An Ordinary Family in Extraordinary Times, to me as follows: “To Timothy Boyce/For a wonderful talk that showed that human love and compassion can overcome the greatest evil.”

On that positive note, I am excited to begin the fourth year of From Day to Day’s new lease on life, and see what fresh developments and experiences the next 12 months will bring.

The Katyn Massacre: A Mystery within a Riddle

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From Odd Nansen’s dairy, Thursday, July 9, 1942:

“At dinnertime I was called down for questioning in the Vermittlung [registration office].  It was Herold who did the questioning.  My entire life was unrolled, from the cradle to the present day. . . .  Clearly the point was just to get a résumé of my whole career and make it look—in its entirety—like a menace to the Third Reich.  I was confronted with a good-sized collection of “anti-German” remarks I’ve made throughout the years in lectures and articles on the refugee question. . . . I felt positively flattered by so much attention.

He confronted me with things I was supposed to have said to one of the drivers at Grini. [For example, that] I didn’t believe in the Russian atrocities they were using as publicity.  Katyn, etc.”

That single word, “Katyn,” is the subject of today’s blog.

On this date 76 years ago, the Nazis stunned the world with a major propaganda coup.  Official Nazi radio announced on April 13, 1943 that the remains of thousands of Polish prisoners had been found, all shot in the back of the head, and buried neatly in mass graves in the Katyn Forest, near Smolensk.

Katyn Forest

German forces quickly overran Smolensk following the start of Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, which began on June 22, 1941.  Eventually, news of the massacre reached German occupation forces in the area, leading to the discovery and exhumation of the graves.

Despite clear and convincing proof of Soviet culpability (Stalin was intent on destroying anyone who might resist Soviet efforts to control Poland after the war), Moscow actually blamed the Germans for the massacre, a position they staunchly maintained throughout the war. The Polish Government-in-Exile, which had earlier agreed to ally with the Soviets (despite their invasion of Poland in September 1939) in a common struggle against Germany, now demanded an impartial investigation by the International Red Cross.  Stalin refused to allow the Red Cross to investigate, and broke off relations with the Polish government.

This left the United States and Great Britain on the horns of a dilemma.  While it was quickly apparent to all that the Germans were entirely correct—the massacre had been perpetrated by Soviet forces, the Soviet Union was also clearly bearing the brunt of the Allied fighting against the Wehrmacht; the opening of the so-called Second Front (i.e., D-Day) was still over a year away.  So the Allies deferred to Realpolitik, and kept their well-founded suspicions to themselves, an awkward silence that the Nazi propaganda machine tried to take full advantage of.

Nazi Poster

The official Soviet position remained one of steadfast denial for 50 years after the fact.  With glasnost ushering in a new policy of transparency, the Soviet Government under Mikhail Gorbachev finally acknowledged what had been an open secret for decades.  On April 13, 1990, it officially admitted to the murder of thousands of Polish officers and others, all at the express order of Stalin. It is believed that almost 22,000 Polish nationals, primarily army officers but also including doctors, lawyers, professors, and engineers, were killed at Katyn and similar execution sites.*

Mystery solved.

But here’s the riddle: Although there were rumors of Soviet atrocities circulating in the Katyn region soon after the murders took place in April 1940—it’s awfully hard to shoot thousands of prisoners and bury them, even in a remote forest, without the locals knowing something about it—almost all the accounts of the event maintain that German authorities only learned of the massacre in late 1942 or early 1943.  Senior German officials only heard the news in March or April 1943.

And yet.

From Nansen’s diary, it is clear that he was sufficiently knowledgeable about the event to discuss it openly with a German soldier working at the Grini camp in Oslo in July 1942.  How did Nansen come across this intelligence, fully nine months prior to the German radio broadcast in April 1943?  In occupied Norway at the time, the Nazis controlled the airwaves.  The news could not have come from the BBC (or, as Nansen refers to it in his diary, the “west wind”) as they, too, were unaware of the story, and in any event buried almost all mention of it even after April 1943 lest they antagonize their ally.

So, while the mystery of the real perpetrators of the Katyn massacre has now long since been put to rest (despite some deniers in Russia today), the riddle of Odd Nansen’s awareness of this key episode of World War II, so many months prior to its public dissemination, remains an enduring riddle which we may never be able to unravel. But at the least, subsequent histories of Katyn may need to revise their timeline to account for an earlier public awareness of the event than traditionally has been the case.  Yet another reason why Odd Nansen’s diary is such an important historical document.

[* The Katyn tragedy claimed yet more victims in 2010.  On April 10 of that year, an airplane carrying Polish President Lech Kaczynski, his wife, and 87 other Polish politicians and military officers crashed just outside the Smolensk airport, killing all on board.  The purpose of the trip was to attend a ceremony commemorating the 70th anniversary of the massacre.]

Remembering Pilot Michel Bacos, Hero of the Entebbe Hijacking

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I heard this fascinating story this morning on NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday, about Michel Bacos, the French pilot of the hijacked plane that was diverted to Entebbe.  He died this week, age 95.  It’s moving tribute to a great man who showed moral courage.  The full text, and the audio link, can be found here.

As Scott Simon observes, “we may all wonder if we would act with courage in the face of … evil.”  But with examples like Michel Bacos (and Odd Nansen) to follow, perhaps that choice will be made just a little bit easier.

March 24, 1944: The Great Escape

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Seventy-five years ago today the Great Escape got underway.

For those of us of a certain age (I had just finished the third grade), the exploits of Steve McQueen in the film version of The Great Escape, gunning his motorcycle over those daunting fences standing between him and freedom, defined in large part our understanding of WWII. That is, the Americans, with some help from the Brits, always lead the way, and remain defiant to the end, win or lose.

Unfortunately, as with many Hollywood creations, it was mostly all made up. There were almost no Americans in Stalag Luft III in March 1944 (most having been moved to a POW camp of their own), and no American took part in the escape.

All of which is unfortunate, as the real story is heroic enough (even if not sufficiently American in origin). The plan was conceived by Squadron Leader Roger Bushell of the RAF, known to fellow prisoners as “Big X.” He proposed an escape scheme staggering in its scope, objectives and complexity. Big X set out in March 1943 to dig not one, but three, escape tunnels (appropriately dubbed Tom, Dick and Harry) to spring fully 200 prisoners in one massive breakout. Over 600 men in all would be involved in the effort, involving excavation, preparation of civilian clothing, forging of identity papers and travel documents, serving as lookouts, etc.  The idea behind multiple tunnels, even though it tripled the exertions required, was quite clever. If one tunnel was discovered, the Germans would conclude that POW efforts had been seriously set back, while in reality the Allies would have suffered little to no setback at all.

The tunnels were dug about 30 feet below the surface to hide the noise and prevent cave-ins in the sandy soil. Shoring the tunnel walls (the tunnel itself was about two feet square) was accomplished using bed slats and other cast-off wood. [Following the escape German authorities took a detailed inventory in the camp and discovered that 4,000 slats were missing, as were 1,700 blankets, 3,400 towels, countless utensils and other items.] The escape entrances were cleverly disguised, an ingenious trolley system was rigged up to speed the workers to the excavation site and speed the withdrawal of sand—almost 200 tons worth. An equally ingenious means of disbursing the surplus sand was also devised. At first POWs were recruited to carry dirt in false sleeves inside their pants legs which could be opened via their pockets, scattering debris onto the ground. When suspicions were aroused, and when winter snow rendered the ground white, other places and methods were employed. Primitive bellows (to keep the tunnels filled with oxygen) and lighting hooked up to the camp’s electricity source completed the scene.

Outline of escape tunnel “Harry”

All of this massive work was so cleverly conceived and staged that the Germans, aware that something was afoot and increasing their own vigilance, nevertheless could not discover the existence of the tunnels. Surprisingly, while camp authorities redoubled their efforts to thwart any escape attempt, ordinary German guards proved susceptible to bribes of chocolate, coffee and cigarettes (which the POWs received from the Red Cross), for which they gladly provided rail schedules, official documents (from which forgeries could be made), and other needed items.

Eventually “Tom” was discovered, and “Dick” abandoned. All hopes rested on “Harry.”

The original plan called for a breakout in the summer of 1944 to take advantage of the longer daylight and better weather. Ever increasing watchfulness by camp authorities, however, necessitated a sped-up timetable, and the next moonless night fell on March 24.

Despite all the meticulous planning, all did not go so well. The start time was crucially delayed for over an hour when bitterly cold temperatures froze the exit trap door. More seriously, it was discovered that the 335 ft. tunnel did not exit into the safety of the nearby woods as planned, but fell just short of the tree line, and close by a guard tower. This slowed the rate of escape from sixty men per hour to only ten per hour.

Seventy-six men successfully exited Harry before a sentry noticed the seventy-seventh man, around 5:00am, and raised the alarm. Thus, while brilliantly planned, the net result of the thousands of man-hours of effort was a complete bust. Of the seventy-six escapees, seventy-three were ultimately rounded up, of whom fifty—including Big X—were executed. The dead represented thirteen nationalities. Of the remaining twenty-three, seventeen were returned to Stalag Luft III, four were sent to Sachsenhausen, Odd Nansen’s abode at the time (where they again escaped via a tunnel, and were again recaptured), and two were sent to Colditz Castle. [After the war the murder of the fifty POWs was included in the war crimes indictment at the Nuremberg Trials, and several members of the Gestapo, including the killer of Bushell, Emil Schulz, were tried and executed.]

Great Escape Memorial By CSvBibra – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2742057.

The three successful escapees were Bram van der Stok a Dutch flyer (No. 41 Squadron RAF), and two Norwegian pilots: Per Bergsland (No. 332 Squadron RAF) and Jens Muller (No. 331 Squadron RAF). Muller wrote a memoir of his exploits in 1946 under the title Tre kom tilbake (Three Returned). It has just been translated into English for the first time and published as The Great Escape from Stalag Luft III (Naval Institute Press, 2019).

The last surviving participant in the breakout, Dick Churchill (no relation to Winston) passed away little more than a month ago, on February 12. He was 99.

Despite the frightening cost, Churchill felt until the end of his life that the venture had been worthwhile. In an interview with the BBC, he observed: “You fell into a certain category. Were you going to sit and enjoy the very few delights of a barbed wire prison camp until you were rescued, or were you going to try and get out of the place? You could be a quiet person, do nothing much, above all don’t annoy the Germans or the Gestapo, or you can try and do the opposite and feel better as a result of doing it.”

Dick Churchill

RIP Squadron Leader Churchill, as you join the seventy-five other escaped POWs who preceded you—some  at the hands of a firing squad—and the many, many others who toiled for so long in obscurity to make your valiant effort a reality.

Beware the Ides of January!

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Julius Caesar

Recently my wife Tara and I were working on a crossword puzzle.  The clue for the four-letter word was: “January 13, e.g.”  I immediately thought of “Ides” but quickly dismissed it—that’s the 15th day of the month, right?  After all, if there is one thing I remember from high school English, it was that the Ides of March fell on the 15th.  Well, it turned out that the answer was “Ides,” which sent me to do some research.  Turns out that “Ides” means the middle of the Roman month, which is the 15th day of March, May, July and October, but is the 13th day of all other months.

The Romans had other terms for certain days of the week.  “Calends” refers to the first day of each month, and “Nones” is the eighth day preceding the Ides.  According to some sources, all three days—Calends, Nones and Ides—were considered inauspicious, and were to be avoided.  Hence Shakespeare’s soothsayer’s warning to Julius Caesar to be on guard come March 15 (a warning old Julius failed to heed in 44 BC).

One wonders what might have happened had someone warned Odd Nansen to beware the Ides of January—if he could have been forewarned that the Nazi were after him.  Most likely nothing.  Nansen wouldn’t have escaped alone and left his family to the tender mercies of the Gestapo, and escaping en famille to Sweden, with three small children and, as would soon be revealed, a pregnant wife, would have been nigh impossible. In any event, Nansen was as surprised as anyone when “the district sheriff . . . came up to the cottage with two Germans” on January 13, 1942.  Nansen’s misfortune would prove to be our gain; the world obtained an unparalleled insight into the crucible of the concentration camp, as well as an inspiring example of how one person kept his humanity in the most inhumane conditions imaginable.

To commemorate the 77th anniversary of Nansen’s arrest, today I joined a book discussion group.  They were at the Nordic Museum in Seattle, WA; I was sitting at home in Tryon, NC—that’s the beauty of Skype.  Twenty people all converged on the museum at 10:30 am (PST) which was 7:30 pm Oslo time, or the exact time of Nansen’s arrest.  Over half had attended my presentation in Seattle in June (described here); half had already read all or part of Nansen’s diary; six were self-described WWII history buffs; five had a family member or friend directly affected by the Holocaust, and one personally knew both Odd Nansen and his son, Odd Erik. The motivations of the participants varied widely.  Some were interested in the story, some were inspired by Odd Nansen’s example; some wanted additional insight into Nansen’s resilience.  While the acoustics presented a bit of a challenge, the meeting was both interesting and informative.  Many thanks to Pam Belyea for organizing and moderating the meeting, to the Nordic Museum for hosting the event in its wonderful new facility, and to the participants, whose interest in Odd Nansen was so heartening.

A fitting way to remember the occasion of Odd Nansen’s arrest, on the Ides of January.

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.]

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Upcoming Events

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Book Signings

  • January 23, 2020: Shalom Club/Carolina Preserve, Cary, NC
  • January 30, 2020: Kiawah World Lecture Series, Kiawah Island, SC
  • January 31, 2020: Osher Life Long Learning, Furman University, Greenville, SC
  • February 25, 2020: Osher Life Long Learning, Duke University, Durham, NC
  • March 25, 2020: Illinois Holocaust Museum, Skokie, IL
  • April 26, 2020: Chicago Sinai Congregation, Chicago, IL
  • April 27, 2020: Shorewood Glen, Shorewood, IL
  • April 28, 2020: Admiral on the Lake, Chicago, IL
  • May 7, 2020: Notre Dame H.S. Alumni Club of DC, Washington, DC
  • May 28, 2020: Augsburg Lutheran, Baltimore, MD
  • May 29-31, 2020: Georgetown University Bookstore, Washington, DC
  • June 2, 2020: JCC of Central New Jersey, Scotch Plains, NJ
  • June 3, 2020: Bet Shalom Hadassah, Jackson, NJ
  • June 7, 2020: Regency Hadassah, Monroe, NJ

People are talking


"You were a big hit last night--not only was your subject compelling and informative, but your presentation was engaging and accessible. I learned a lot from you."

- Rabbi Niles Goldstein Congregation Beth Shalom Napa, CA

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May 16
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