From the November 2018 issue of Smithsonian Magazine:
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?
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.
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.
Today is Fridtjof Nansen’s 157th birthday. I recently revisited the incredible account of his quest for the North Pole, Farthest North, in anticipation of a lecture I gave on the same subject. The last time I had read it was back in 2010, soon after I first discovered Odd Nansen’s diary and decided to get it re-published. At the time Fridtjof Nansen’s exploits were totally new to me.
During my years of research on Odd Nansen I was frequently struck by the amazing similarities between Odd Nansen’s use of words and his father’s. In my introduction to From Day to Day I wrote, “both father and son shared similar ideas and often used eerily similar language to express themselves.” Throughout the text I highlight those instances of shared expression.
What struck me much more forcefully during this second reading of Farthest North was the growing sense of desperation Fridtjof Nansen experienced during his expedition, especially when he abandoned the safety of his ship, the Fram, and attempted, with only one other companion, some sled dogs, sledges and kayaks, to not only reach the North Pole, but then to return on the much longer trip back to civilization. After traveling for less than one month, Nansen concluded that his slow progress over rough ice and snow meant that he could not reach his goal with the food and daylight remaining, and he turned south.
This is when the real challenge began. Heading toward “the recently discovered and sketchily mapped” Franz Joseph Land, Nansen and Hjalmar Johansen encountered all sorts of difficulties. Here’s what Nansen confided to his diary on May 17, 1895 (May 17 being a particularly important date in the Norwegian calendar):
“And here we are in drifting ice, not knowing exactly where we are, uncertain as to our distance from an unknown land, and where we hope to find means of sustaining life and thence carve our way on towards home, with two teams of dogs whose number and strength diminish day by day, with ice and water between us and our goal which may cause us untold trouble, with sledges which now, at any rate, are too heavy for our own powers. We press laboriously onward mile by mile; and meanwhile, perhaps, the drift of the ice is carrying us westward out to sea, beyond the land we are striving for.”
Almost two months later (July 11, 1895), nothing had improved:
“No sign of land in any direction and no open water, and now we should be in the same latitude as Cape Fligely, or at most a couple of minutes farther north. We do not know where we are, and we do not know when this will end. Meanwhile our provisions are dwindling day by day, and the number of our dogs is growing seriously less. Shall we reach land while we yet have food, or shall we, when all is said, ever reach it? It will soon be impossible to make any way against this ice and snow. The latter is only slush; the dogs sink through at every step, and we ourselves splash through it up above our knees when we have to help the dogs or take a turn at the heavy sledges, which happens frequently. It is hard to go on hoping in such circumstances, but still we do so; though sometimes, perhaps, our hearts fail us when we see the ice lying before us like an impenetrable maze. . . .”
Nansen would ultimately reach land before winter began—but too late to reach civilization, necessitating overwintering for another eight months in sub-zero temperatures in a primitive hut constructed of stone walls and a roof made of polar bear and walrus hides.
In June 1896, just days before Nansen accidentally stumbled upon Englishman Frederick Jackson, and rescue, he had one final, terrible ordeal—jumping into the frigid waters to retrieve the kayaks which had drifted away from shore. Nansen wrote: “when the gusts of wind came they seemed to go right through me as I stood there in my thin, wet woolen shirt. I shivered, my teeth chattered, and I was numb almost all over.”
Forty-seven years later, Odd Nansen stood out on the appellplatz—the roll call square—of Sachsenhausen, observing Christmas Day. He wrote: “I stood there [in the square] a long, long time; how long I don’t know. . . . Certainly I shed a few tears, pitiful and lost in my rags, out there in the dark.”
I have often wondered how Odd Nansen kept going when things seemed to be at their bleakest, and the war dragged interminably on. What resources did he draw upon? He must have been well aware of his father’s exploits, and undoubtedly knew the story of Farthest North quite well. When his heart failed, did he recall his own father’s struggles—against doubt, uncertainty, the unknown, the long odds facing him, and find the inspiration he needed, like his father, to prevail?
Farthest North and From Day to Day, both based on diaries, together show how a person can prevail against even the toughest challenges, one created by Mother Nature, the other by the evil nature of man. They both need to be read, and re-read, for their inspiring lessons.
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:
The picture quality is not that great, so I’ll recreate the text:
The TSA CHECKPOINT
The Trestle Tap House will
serve customers on the
mezzanine. Just wave at the
staff or call in your order.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.