Posts tagged Fridtjof Nansen

A Churchillian Postscript

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Winston Churchill

 

I am always overjoyed when I receive feedback from my blog subscribers regarding a recent post—especially if they have some personal connection to the story as well (this was a good example).

Last month I published a blog discussing both Churchill and Fridtjof Nansen, and the importance of May 13 in their lives.  As part of my blog, I included a photo of Churchill.  Just about everybody who knows anything about Churchill has seen it.  It has graced the book jackets of more than one Churchill biography.  In fact, it has been called one of the most iconic photos ever taken; according to The Economist magazine, it is the “most reproduced portrait in the history of photography.”  To many it epitomizes all the characteristics we associate with the man who led the British through World War II: truculence; doggedness; pugnacity; defiance in the face of overwhelming odds.

Well, like all good stories, there is a backstory to this one as well, as I recently learned. The photo was taken by an Armenian-Canadian photographer named Yousuf Karsh.  Born Hovsep Karsh in 1908, he and his family escaped the Armenian genocide to Syria in 1922.  From there he was sent to Canada by his family, arriving in 1923.  He lived in Quebec for five years with an uncle who was a portrait photographer, and who taught him the trade, starting with a Box Brownie camera.  From 1929—1931 he apprenticed with another Armenian photographer in Boston, John Garo.

Returning to Canada in 1932, Karsh set up his own studio in Ottawa.  He managed to capture the attention of Mackenzie King, Canada’s Prime Minister, who helped arrange portraits of visiting dignitaries.

Yousuf Karsh

On December 30, 1941, one of those visiting dignitaries happened to be Winston Churchill, in town taking a break from the Arcadia Conference talks in DC.  Following an address to the Canadian Parliament, Karsh arranged to photograph Churchill.  The first shot was quite standard, showing a smiling, jovial Churchill. Prior to the second shot, Karsh snatched the trademark Churchill cigar from him.  Churchill was miffed, and showed it.  Thus is history made, and thus we remember England’s feisty wartime leader.

Now, how do I know all this?  Much of it is available on-line and in various history books.  But the person who brought it to my attention was Pamela B.  I met Pam while giving the Wallenberg Memorial Address to the Nordic Museum in Seattle last June (here). After my Churchill blog was posted last month, Pam wrote me about Karsh, and revealed that she knew the great Karsh: looking for a summer job following high school graduation in Ottawa, Pam was hired on as the cook and housekeeper.  She writes “it was an interesting experience to work for someone so famous with a home full of mementos from his decades of hanging out with luminaries across the US and Europe.”  Pam was even interviewed by Karsh’s biographer for any telling insights.  She had none to relay, probably because, as she informed me, she was fired within three weeks (whether for deficiencies in housekeeping or cooking is not known).

There is yet another connection.  Pam’s husband Gary is the “world’s leading expert in the artistic depiction of facial expression” and writes a blog about such matters, including one on Churchill’s famous scowl (here).

“Wait,” as they say on some TV commercials, “there’s more!”

Yousef had a younger brother Malak who was also a talented photographer. He developed in to a premier landscape photographer (so as not to compete directly with his brother).  The Canadian $1 dollar bill (no longer in use) once depicted Queen Elizabeth on one side (photo by Yousuf) and a logjam on the Ottawa River just below Parliament on the obverse (courtesy of Malak).  Not too surprising that Pam would know Malak’s story as well—she dated Malak’s son Laurence in high school!

Now, back to Yousuf.  By the time he died in 2002, age 93, he was regarded as one of the leading photographers of the Twentieth Century.  More than 20 of Yousuf’s photos graced the cover of Life magazine, including the Churchill shot.  The picture did not actually appear until May 21, 1945, almost four years after it was taken.  That was shortly after VE Day, a victory Churchill did almost as much as anyone to help accomplish.

Are there any other connections we can pack into this blog?  Well, my May 13 blog spoke about both Churchill and Fridtjof Nansen.  The Armenians (which Yousuf always thought of himself) still revere Fridtjof Nansen for all the work he did following World War I to assist them.  Every April 24, the date commemorating the start of the Armenian Genocide, they have a ceremony at Fridtjof’s gravesite in Lysaker, Norway.  In 2011 the Armenian Government flew Nansen’s granddaughter (and my dear friend) Marit (Nansen) Greve to Yerevan,  their capital city, so she could witness the unveiling of a new memorial to Fridtjof.

Flowers on Fridtjof Nansen’s grave, April 24, 2019. Courtesy Anne Greve.

It’s amazing what one little blog can unleash!  I hope some future subject causes you to reach out to me as well with your story!

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.

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

  • 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


"[W]hat a terrific program that was--and we here at BTL [Bernards Township Library] feel we know exceptional programs! . . . You are an accomplished story-teller, and kept the audience of over 60 people engaged and enthralled."

- Ruth Lufkin Director Bernards Township Library Basking Ridge, NJ

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