From the November 2018 issue of Smithsonian Magazine:
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 (here, here 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.
The New York Times ran a fascinating article yesterday about a palm-sized diary, written in the Soviet Gulag, which “slumbered in obscurity” for “nearly 70 years.” Here’s the link.
Written by Olga M. Ranitskaya, who was arrested in 1937 during Stalin’s Great Purge, the 115-page diary uses a stick figure, “Little Weather Devil,” as an alter-ego to describe Ranitskaya’s experience working in the weather station at a labor camp in Kazakhstan. In 2009 it arrived in the desk of Zoya Eroshok, a newspaper editor in Moscow. It had been sent by the daughter of a Gulag survivor, but with no clue as to its original author other than a first name: Olga.
Reading the article, I was struck by the number of parallels between Ranitskaya’s work and Nansen’s diary.
Nansen was born in 1901; Ranitskaya in 1905. She began writing in 1941; he in 1942. Ranitskaya’s diary is believed to be the only one written in the Gulag to have survived; getting caught was sufficient grounds for execution. Nansen’s diary is one of only a very small number of concentration camp diaries to have survived, of which only a handful have ever been translated into English. As Nansen noted on February 25, 1944: “A Dutchman has been found out keeping a diary, and that may lead to disaster.” I have previously written about the fragility of diaries (here).
Ranitskaya titled her diary “Work and Days” from an epic poem by Hesiod, a Greek poet. As I have written (here), Nansen’s title might well have come from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Ranitskaya’s writing “reveals a very good knowledge of the language and literature.” Nansen’s diary is undeniably eloquent, and replete with Biblical, classical and literary references.
According to Eroshok, Ranitskaya responded to evil “with something of quality, the quality of the drawings, the quality of the language and the quality of strong and positive feelings: her love for her son, her love of life, her love for people.” The quality of Nansen’s sketches bespeaks a formidable artistic talent, and, as I discuss in my Introduction to Nansen’s diary, the entire work can be “viewed as one long love letter to Kari,” his wife, as well as his children, to say nothing of Nansen’s love for young Tommy Buergenthal (which I’ve written about here). Eroshok also views the diary as a form of revenge against Stalin for all his victims. As I also write in my Introduction, “In the final analysis, it is Nansen’s diary itself that may constitute his ultimate act of resistance,” quoting Primo Levi to the effect that “’testimony was an act of war against fascism.’”
It took eight years for Eroshok and Moscow’s Gulag History Museum to track down the identity of the diarist and publish “a small, handsome volume” which includes the record of Ranitskaya’s interrogation as well as other poems she wrote. My journey from re-discovery of Nansen’s 60+ year-old diary to re-publication in a deluxe, annotated version with Vanderbilt University Press, took six years.
Finally, it is telling that the director of the Gulag History Museum, Roman V. Romanov, feels Russia must “get past the arguments over how many millions Stalin killed and focus instead on the fate of ordinary people.” He writes: “’What’s important is to return to people’s fate and allow the viewers to be part of someone’s life.’”
Ironically, the first blog post I ever wrote, on September 3, 2015 (here), begins with a quote from none other than Stalin that one death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic, and contains this observation: “Nansen’s diary is many things, but at one level it is an attempt to give a face, and personal story, or at least some recognition, to each individual he encountered, to bestow some dignity on them, notwithstanding their condition.”
A special shout-out to my friend Frank Schaberg who alerted me to this article.