Posts tagged Fridtjof Nansen

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.]

October 10, 1861: Fridtjof Nansen is Born

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Fridtjof Nansen

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.”

Odd Nansen

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.

‘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!

Fridtjof Nansen (d. May 13, 1930)

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Fridtjof Nansen

Fridtjof Nansen, father of Odd Nansen, polar explorer, statesman, humanitarian, died eighty-eight years ago today, age 68.  I have written previously about Fridtjof Nansen (here).  I also recently wrote about my forthcoming lecture at the 23rd annual Raoul Wallenberg memorial dinner at the Nordic Museum in Seattle on June 7 (here).

In preparing for my talk, I have been studying up on Wallenberg’s life.  Recently, while reading Alex Kershaw’s account of Wallenberg’s actions, The Envoy: The Epic Rescue of the Last Jews of Europe in the Desperate Closing Months of World War II, I came across this passage:

“According to [Wallenberg’s half-sister] Nina, he had two main heroes as a young man: Elsa Brandstrom and Fridtjof Nansen, whose acts of courage during World War I had left a lasting impression.  Brandstrom had been a courageous, self-taught nurse who had helped save thousands of lives in Siberia in 1915.  Nansen was a polar explorer, but he also worked for the League of Nations, returning half a million refugees from Germany and Austria-Hungary to their countries after the conflict.”

In my Introduction to Odd Nansen’s diary I mention that Fridtjof Nansen often quoted Henrik Ibsen (one of his favorite writers) to the effect that “man is strongest who stands most alone.”

Certainly Odd Nansen and Raoul Wallenberg took that advice to heart.  Following in Fridtjof’s footsteps, and following his advice, they both stood very much alone, against Nazi injustice, and showed how even one person can make a positive difference, and change the world for the better.

Quite a legacy, don’t you think?

An Anniversary, and a Road Trip

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Last week marked the second anniversary of the re-publication of the deluxe, fully edited and annotated World War II concentration camp diary of Odd Nansen, From Day to Day: One Man’s Diary of Survival in Nazi Concentration Camps.

For those of you keeping tabs (and who isn’t), here’s a brief scorecard:

  • 24,692 Miles traveled
  • 5,448 Website visitors
  • 5,206 Dollars donated
  • 75 Presentations
  • 64 Blog posts (this is #65)

I celebrated this important anniversary doing what I like to do best—talking about Nansen and his remarkable diary.  On April 18, I embarked on a ten-day, six-city tour, which ended in New York City, with stops along the way in several cities in New Jersey.  2,036 miles later, I can say it was all very worthwhile.

Virtually every stop along the way featured some fascinating encounter:

  • In Caldwell, NJ, an elderly audience member at the Public Library introduced herself to me after the talk, and explained that she had come to America decades ago by virtue of the Nansen Passport, a unique document pioneered by Fridtjof Nansen that allowed many stateless Europeans, particularly White Russians, to travel freely in the interwar period. [It so happens that I have written an article on the Nansen Passport which should be published later this year—stay tuned.]
  • In Upper Saddle River, NY, I was feted by the Sons of Norway Norrona Lodge. The members generously took up a collection for me, to help support the “cause,” and all such proceeds will go to the same recipients as the book’s royalties: The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC and the Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Religious Minorities in Oslo.  On top of that, the Lodge presented me with a gift basket filled with Norwegian goodies.  While my wife and I have been thoroughly enjoying the chocolates (with exotic names like Firkløver, Melkesjokolade and Gullbrød), it may take a bit longer to work up the courage to open the tinned mackerel (a good source of Omega-3 it boasts!).  All I can say is: “Takk for maten!”
  • At Bernards Township Public Library I discovered that the Library Director, Ruth Lufkin, had a son who graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy the same year as my son Owen. Go Navy, Beat Army!
  • A surprise visitor to the Summit Public Library was my brother-in-law, John McGowan and his son Nicholas. (A great steak dinner followed the talk, courtesy of John.)
  • A speech to the Old Guard of Princeton held the biggest surprise of all. Afterward I met a gentleman (whose privacy I will protect) who produced one of the actual breadboards used to smuggle parts of Nansen’s diary out of the camps at the close of the war.  It belonged to the grandfather of this man’s wife.  Talk about a real treasure!  That revelation will be hard to beat for quite some time, if ever.

Thomas Edison National Historical Park

The trip was not all work. In between appearances I spent a day at the site of Thomas Edison’s research labs in West Orange, NJ (now a National Historical Park). There, Edison, an autodidact, perfected the incandescent light bulb, the gramophone, and the movie camera, along with many other inventions (he ultimately held over 1,000 patents). The site also boasts the first movie production studio, and the first movie theater (in Edison’s library).  If you ever visit, ask for Harry, a volunteer with his own long career at Bell Labs and a passion for discussing all things Edison.

Edison’s Movie Production Studio

A day later, courtesy of my hosts Kathy Aleš and her husband Richard, I was able to attend a guest lecture by Lech Walesa, 1983 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, at Princeton University.  Although Walesa used an interpreter, his body language was at least as expressive as the actual speech.  He reminded the young audience that the Solidarity Movement had exactly zero chance of succeeding when it started, and yet it ultimately brought about the end of communist domination of Poland, and the end of communism altogether.  In other words any change, no matter how hopeless seeming, is possible.

Finally, I was able to spend time with an old friend, Samuel Hynes, the Woodrow Wilson Professor emeritus of Literature at Princeton University.  Sam has published extensively during his career (Flights of Passage, A Soldier’s Tale, A War Imagined, The Insubstantial Air, The Growing Seasons, among others), and, at age 93, isn’t slowing down much: he just published a new collection of essays and writings entitled On War and Writing (University of Chicago Press), which was recently reviewed in the New York Review of Books (by Max Hastings, one of my favorite historians).

During World War II Sam flew as a young Marine aviator in the South Pacific, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross.   Afterwards he taught Literature at Swarthmore, Northwestern and Princeton.   [In the Introduction to his new book, entitled “Two Vocations,” Sam writes: “From then on they [the Professor and the Pilot] worked together—the Pilot writing and the Professor looking over his shoulder, watching for split infinitives.”] You may remember Sam as the first talking head to appear on Ken Burns’ miniseries “The War.”  When our conversation turned to favorite poets, Sam started reciting Yeats by heart—an amazing display—and altogether an amazing afternoon.  [I plan to use some of Sam’s writings in a future blog—stay tuned as well.]

Samuel Hynes

So, all in all, it was a trip to be remembered.  Thanks to all my friends along the way who provided hospitality and support.  You know who you are.

As I turned my 2,036th mile pulling into my driveway, late last Friday night, I was greeted by a welcoming sound:  the Eastern Whippoorwill had finally returned from his long sojourn in Mexico, and was busily singing out his mating/territorial call.  Music to my ears!

As I brought my bags into the house, I was reminded of those immortal words of Sam Gamgee on the final page of The Lord of the Rings: “He drew a deep breath.  ‘Well, I’m back,’ he said.”

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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

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"Tim...gave a terriffic presentation [at the Norwegian Nobel Institute]."

- Anne Ellingsen, author of Odd Nansen: Arvtageren

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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
SMTWHFS
      1
2345678
9101112131415
16171819202122
23242526272829
3031     
Legend
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  This day in history