Posts tagged From Day to Day

Schlachthof Fünf and the Bombing of Dresden

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On this day, 75 years ago, the firebombing of Dresden began.

Dresden was Germany’s seventh largest city, and until the raid, the largest city to escape any serious Allied bombing.  All that changed in a series of raids which began on the evening of the 13th and lasted for two days.  Over 1,000 British and American bombers, escorted by another 700+ American fighters, attacked the city, destroying over 1,600 acres in the city center, and killing an estimated 25,000 people.

Dresden post bombing

At least one American POW in Dresden that night survived the attack, and witnessed firsthand the aftermath.

Infantry scout Kurt Vonnegut, age 22, of the 106th Infantry Division,* was captured, along with another 6,000 Americans in the division, in mid-December 1944, during the height of the Battle of the Bulge.  He was taken to Dresden and housed in a Schlachthof [slaughterhouse].  Vonnegut survived the attack by hiding in a meat locker three levels between the street.

Vonnegut not only survived the attack, he was eventually liberated and repatriated to the United States.  He married, started a family, and began a conventional career with GE.  But we wanted to write—he had been the editor of his high school and college newspapers, and felt writing came easy to him.  His first magazine article appeared in February 1950, and less than a year later he quit his day job and took up writing full time. Despite publishing a number of novels, and many magazine articles, in the ensuing years, Vonnegut met with neither commercial nor critical success; his writing income barely kept the family afloat.

What haunted Vonnegut was his war experience.  He tried and tried—by his own admission he had written five thousand pages about Dresden—and thrown them all away.  He seemed unable to find an appropriate means to express himself.

Finally, in 1969, Vonnegut published his sixth novel: Slaughterhouse Five, or the Children’s Crusade.  The book skyrocketed to the top of the New York Times bestseller list, turning Vonnegut into an icon overnight, a status that he never lost for the rest of his life.  The book has remained on numerous “100 best books” lists ever since.  Vonnegut died in 2007, age 84.

Slaughterhouse Five tells the story of a hapless GI named Billy Pilgrim, who likewise ends up in Dresden and survives the bombing.  Portions of the novel are clearly autobiographical (although it is doubtful that Vonnegut could time-travel, or that he currently resides on the planet Tralfamadore in the company of Hollywood starlet Montana Wildhack, as Billy does).

Vonnegut’s book is unusual in many respects, including his fascination with Tralfamadore.  For example, he describes quite early (p. 5) an actual wartime event which he plans to write about: “I think the climax of the book will be the execution of Edgar Derby. . . .  The irony is so great.  A whole city gets burned down, and thousands and thousands of people are killed.  And then this one American footsoldier is arrested in the ruins for taking a teapot. . . .   [A]nd then he’s shot by a firing squad.”

It is not known whether Odd Nansen, who died in 1973, ever had the chance to read Slaughterhouse Five in the remaining four years of his life.  It is unlikely, but not impossible: the number of literary and biblical allusions that pepper Nansen’s WWII diary attest to a broad and well-read mind.

If Odd Nansen had read Vonnegut’s work, he might well have identified with Vonnegut’s experience—he witnessed an event much like the fate of Billy Pilgrim’s friend, Edgar Derby, himself.

Writing on March 23, 1944, almost a full year before Dresden, Nansen describes the ever-increasing Allied bombing campaign against Germany.  Oranienburg, the city where Sachsenhausen was located, was also an administrative headquarters of the Schutzstaffel (SS), and the site of many its workshops, and thus the camp was hardly immune from stray Allied bombs landing in its midst.

Here’s what Nansen writes, continuing an earlier entry that describes the results of one such bombing:

“Bombs also fell on the prison camp.  Half of one hut was burned down, otherwise only minor damage.  They say that one man was killed and four taken to the Revier [infirmary] with serious injuries.  What is certain is that a prisoner was shot for stealing from the ruins.  He was caught in the act and shot then and there.  No one sees anything strange in that.  Served him right, is all they say, with a shrug of the shoulders.  The SS and the prisoners appear to be of one mind on this form of justice.  I think however that most Norwegians still react against such things.  The man shot was a wretched, starving Ukrainian, who saw a loaf that would have burnt up in any case.”

Yes, Odd Nansen would have been right at home with Slaughterhouse Five.

*I have previously written about another important member of the 106th Infantry Division who was captured around the same time as Vonnegut—Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds (here).

Year-End Report; 4th Distribution; A Plea

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As we bid adieu to an old year, and welcome in a new year, it is always worth doing a bit of stock-taking.

Happily, 2019 was the best year yet for sales of From Day to Day.  Rather than trailing off, sales are still trending upward three- and one-half years since Odd Nansen’s diary was first republished in April 2016.

This was certainly a group effort.  Thanks to all who helped (and this is but a partial list—please forgive me if I inadvertently forgot to include you): Morgan Jordan (again!); Jeanne Addison (again!); Shay Pilnik; Gail Gold; Dan Haumschild; Frank and Monica Schaberg; Eve Gelfand; Michelle Dunn; Kathy Wielk; John and Aelish Clifford; Oliver and Patty Bourgeois; Andy Lubin; Lise Lunge Larsen; Judy Campbell; Jack and Peggy Sheehan; Judy Clickner; Billie Emmerich; Michael Mathews and Mea Kaemmerlen; David Sheinkopf; Sudie Wheatle (again!); Judy Cohen; Pam Belyea; Sherrie Polsky; Bob Copenhaver; Kathy Ales and Richard Levine (again!); and last but certainly not least, my dear friend Marit (Nansen) Greve.

Year-end also means doing a bit of accounting work.  This year’s royalties and speaking fees totaled $4,630.10, which, following custom, are being distributed 50% to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC and 50% to HL Senteret, the Norwegian Center for Study of Holocaust and Religious Minorities in Oslo.  To date such distributions now total $15,364.28.

Here’s another brief scorecard for the year:

70 presentations to over 3,000 attendees in 13 states, the District of Columbia and Oslo, Norway.

29,000+ miles traveled.

10,000+ website visitors (cumulative since 2016).

So, all in all, it was a very good year.

But our work it not yet done.  As I write this blog, five Jews were recently stabbed (one critically) in Monsey, NY, in the midst of a Hanukkah celebration (one of 13 anti-Semitic crimes reported in New York State since December 8, according to Governor Andrew Cuomo). Nationally and internationally there has been an upsurge in anti-Semitic incidents over the past several years.

One antidote to such behavior are the inspiring words and actions of people like Odd Nansen.  His diary depicts how just one courageous person can change things for the better, even in the midst of a concentration camp. Thomas Buergenthal is a living testament to Nansen’s humanity.

Seventy presentations in 2019 kept me plenty busy.  Unfortunately, I can only be in one place at a time, and I’ll probably never get to all the venues I would like to reach.

The solution: publicity.  That can come about by word of mouth (i.e., you, my readers) or it can come via social media.  This blog will get posted on my website, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. But an equally powerful social media engine for a book like From Day to Day is Amazon.

And that is why book reviews are essential.

There has been plenty of press lately about retailers who are gaming the system, paying people for positive reviews, or ordering employees to post reviews under various aliases, etc.  This phenomenon has even spawned a new cottage industry, which offers to “authenticate” reviews, and weed out the obvious fakes.

The important takeaway is this: companies go to such great (and sometimes dishonest) lengths because they understand only too well the power of positive product reviews.  So, as I often mention at the close of my presentations, a book review on Amazon is literally priceless.  Please help me make sure Nansen’s words are never again forgotten.  Please, my readers, post a review—of any length—on Amazon.

You’ll be glad you started 2020 off on the right foot.  I thank you, and I know Odd Nansen would have thanked you as well.

I wish you peace, good health and happiness in 2020.  And here’s a proposed resolution: If we all tried acting just a bit more like Odd Nansen, the world undoubtedly would be a better place. Let’s give it a try.

Magic in Oslo

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Courtesy Anne Ellingsen

On Sunday, September 15, I had the honor of addressing an audience about Odd Nansen’s diary at HL-Senteret, the Norwegian Center for Holocaust and Minority Studies, housed, appropriately enough, in Vidkun Quisling’s wartime residence located on Bygdøy.  The event was co-sponsored with Norway’s Resistance Museum (Norges Hjemmefrontmuseum).

Quisling’s former residence.  Courtesy HL-Senteret

My visit to Norway, as well as the event, were pure magic from start to finish.

Sunday morning dawned bright and sunny—a sparkling fall day that showed Oslo off at its best.  I had had a wonderful sleep (not surprising, having been awake for almost all the preceding 48 hours) at the Grand Hotel, where Nobel Peace Prize laureates stay when receiving their award.  My stay at the Grand, I soon realized, was going to be special: While walking up the main staircase to my floor, I gazed upon a large oil painting, which, I discovered, had been painted by Per Krohg, a friend of Nansen’s and fellow prisoner in Grini.  I even refer to Krohg in my presentation.

I then set out for a quick breakfast.  Fortified by a brisk cup of tea—not the ordinary old English Breakfast—the only offering they had was called Bengal Fire, and a croissant, I was ready for the day. (I did notice that NY cheesecake—or ostekake—had made its way across the Atlantic.)

While walking back to the hotel to get ready, I happened upon a coin lying on the sidewalk.  It proved to be a 1 øre piece—the subject of a previous blog post (here), which I took to be a sign of good luck.

I first proceeded to the Resistance Museum, located in the Akershus Fortress complex, to view an underground Norwegian translation of a novel written by John Steinbeck in 1942, The Moon is Down (Natt Uten Måne)—the subject of a future blog.  Thanks to Frode Færøy for allowing me to do some research on a Sunday morning.

From there I proceeded to Quisling’s old home, and arrived early enough to receive a private tour of the facility, including Quisling’s private office, still well preserved from his short reign as Minister-President 75 years ago.  I very much enjoyed giving my presentation to an SRO crowd.  Kari Amdam, Head of Programming at HL-Senteret, began by reading an email from the former head of Norwegian Center for Human Rights, who was unable to attend, but who recalled meeting Nansen as a young boy.  “Nansen was a link to a reality, just 10—15 years earlier, filled with so much cruelty and suffering,” he wrote.  The full presentation can be viewed here.

At the reception and book signing which followed, I met and spoke with so many interesting people.  I once again saw my friend Robert Bjorka, who will turn 99 in November, and who was a fellow prisoner with Odd Nansen in Sachsenhausen.  I met the son of Bjorn Bjerkeng, the Norwegian who split the breadboards for Nansen and five of his close friends, allowing the Sachsenhausen portion of the diary to be safely smuggled out of camp.  I met the grandchildren of Odd Nansen’s friend and fellow prisoner Eric Magelssen, whose own breadboard is pictured on pg. 559 of the new edition of From Day to Day.  I met the son of Carl Jakhelln, another Sachsenhausen prisoner who later co-authored a book of poems about his captivity. I met a gentleman who trained as an architect with Odd Nansen after the war, and for a time lived in a small garage apartment in Nansen’s home. Anne Ellingsen, Nansen’s biographer, was there also.  This is but a sampling of the wonderful guests who attended the presentation.

I cannot of course leave out my dearest friend in Norway, Marit Greve, Nansen’s eldest child, approaching age 91, who attended as my special guest along with her daughters Kari and Anne.

Robert Bjorka and Marit Greve, courtesy Anne Ellingsen

Altogether it was a wonderful and memorable experience, capped off with some champagne afterward in the company of Marit and her family.

More stories to follow!

Updates: Lecture in Oslo; Fourth Printing

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I am excited to announce that on Sunday, September 15, at 2:00 pm, I will be speaking about Odd Nansen’s diary at Villa Grande, Huk Aveny 56, Oslo.

Villa Grande

Villa Grande is the home of HL-Senteret, the Norwegian Center for Holocaust and Minority Studies.  During World War II, Villa Grande was occupied by none other than Vidkun Quisling, Nazi collaborator and Odd Nansen’s nemesis, who called the residence “Gimlé” a reference to Norse Mythology.  HL-Senteret is one of the two beneficiaries of all royalties and speaking fees earned from the sale of From Day to Day.  The event is co-sponsored by Norges Hjemmfrontmuseum, Norway’s Resistance Museum.  It is the Resistance Museum that displays Odd Nansen’s breadboard, by which he and five of his friends successfully smuggled the German portion of his diary out to freedom.

Many of my subscribers still have strong family connections back in Norway, and I hope that you will encourage your relatives who live in and near Oslo to attend if possible.

I am also pleased to announce that Vanderbilt University Press has ordered a fourth printing of From Day to Day.  As the original 1949 English version from G.P. Putnam’s Sons made it to a second printing (of unknown quantity), before falling out of print, we must be doing something right!  To all of the many, many people who have helped bring Nansen’s story back to life, I thank you all, and vow to do my part in continuing to educate the public about what Arutz Sheva, the Israel National News Service, calls “a diary that may be the most epic narrative of all.”

 

Third Royalty Checks Go Out

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I am pleased to announce that the third distribution of royalty checks has just been made.  As I explained in earlier posts (here and here), I determined at the outset of my journey with From Day to Day that any royalties derived from the sale of Nansen’s diary would go to a charity or charities that Odd Nansen would have approved of were he still alive.  Following consultations Nansen’s daughter Marit Greve, we agreed that 50% would go to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in DC, and 50% to HL-Senteret, The Center for Study of the Holocaust and Religious Minorities, in Oslo.

The fiscal year ending June 30, 2018 was a particularly strong year for sales of From Day to Day—in fact the best year in sales so far, and the royalties I received reflected this performance.  In addition, although I do not charge a speaking fee for my presentations, this past year several organizations generously provided me with an honorarium for my services.  Since these were unexpected, I have, as in years past, decided to include them in my distributions as well.  With these latest checks, to date such distributions total over $9,734.00.

As always, all of the above would never have been possible without the assistance of so many people who helped me along the way—by making introductions, suggesting speaking venues, recommending my work, organizing events themselves, providing much needed hospitality, etc.  To all of you I owe a debt which can never be fully repaid.  But I salute you for your help, and wish you all the very best that 2019 can offer.  Here is but a partial list of those who went above and beyond the call of duty the past year: Tese Stephens (again!), Harry Goodheart, Ron Myrvik, Kathy Aleš (again!), Morgan Jordan (again!), Ginny Bear, Dick Kuhn, Kaye Wergedal, Mary Beth Ingvoldstad, Kris Leopold (again!), Kathryn O’Neal, Ken Fagerheim, Judy Gervais Perkiomaki, Graydon Vanderbilt, Susan Navrotsky, Jeanne Addison, Siri Svae Fenson, Philip Humphries and Cynthia St. Clair, and last but not least, my old friend and legal colleague Peter Hapke.

I also want to recognize those who took the time to write positive reviews of Nansen’s diary for sites such as Amazon—your help is deeply appreciated.

I’m sure that I have overlooked many equally deserving of recognition, and hope you will forgive the oversight, and allow me to use Odd Nansen’s own words: “Honor to them all for their share.”

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.”

Odd Nansen’s Postscript

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Back in June I was honored to give a presentation to the Nordic Museum in Seattle, WA (which I have written about here).

Following my talk, one of the first audience members I met were Shlomo Goldberg and his wife Karen Treiger.  Shlomo explained that his father had escaped from Treblinka–from Treblinka!–one of the deadliest camps the Nazi ever constructed–and thereafter survived by hiding in a pit in the forest with a woman who would later become his wife.  Within just the past few days Karen has published the story of her in-laws; of survival, of finding a new life in America, and of Karen’s own journey of discovery: My Soul is Filled With Joy: A Holocaust Story, available on Amazon here.

The story of Sam and Esther Goldberg is almost beyond belief, and I plan to write more about the book in a future blog.  Karen recently shared with me a piece she just wrote for the Wexner Foundation, started by Leslie Wexner, the billionaire philanthropist who created a retail and marketing empire (The Limited; Bath & Body Works; Henri Bendel, etc.).  She gives a succinct overview of her in-laws’ story, and then closes her piece with the final words Odd Nansen wrote in his Postscript to From Day to Day, words which she writes still “rings in my ears”:

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!

The full text of Karen’s piece can be found here; click on the link to learn more about Sam and Esther Goldberg.

Thank you, Karen, for highlighting Odd Nansen’s powerful admonition to all of us.

THE Book Tour (Part VI): YouTube

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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.

On This Day in 1942

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On this day in 1942,  three officials—two German, one Norwegian—approached a small cabin in snowy East Gausdal, Norway, and informed Odd Nansen that he was wanted for questioning in Oslo.  In fact, he was part of a round-up ordered by the German overseer of Norway, Reichskommissar Josef Terboven.

That very night Nansen began his prison diary.  His first entry concludes:

“I heard about the new actions against special officers and against friends of the royal family, who were all arrested at this time.  I supposed I must come under the latter heading, and if so I should probably be ‘inside’ until the was was over?”

Nansen was indeed ‘inside’ until the war was virtually over–almost 40 months later.  The record of his incarceration became From Day to Day: One Man’s Diary of Survival in Nazi Concentration Camps.  The diary has been hailed as a masterpiece—both upon its initial publication in English in 1949, and its subsequent re-issue by Vanderbilt University Press in 2016.

On the very same day as Nansen’s arrest, the governments-in-exile of nine German occupied nations, including Norway, issued the St. James Declaration, which set as one of their principal war aims the punishment of criminal acts perpetrated against their civilian populations by the Germans.  The U.K. and the U.S. were present at the St. James Conference, but as non-occupied countries, did not sign the Declaration.

Whether all those “guilty of, or responsible for, these crimes, whether they have ordered them, perpetrated them, or participated in them,” were ever fully punished is debatable. Nevertheless,  Nansen’s diary serves as a damning indictment of Nazi policies, and a roadmap for war crimes.

William L. Shirer, bestselling author of Berlin Diary, and future author of  the blockbuster The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, reviewed Nansen’s diary  in 1949 for the New York Herald Tribune.  He, too, recognized the historical importance of  a diary which showed “how the Germans behaved when they had a large part of civilized Europe at their feet.”  And yet, he noted, “and this is what makes this record unique—Nansen never gave in nor did he lose his faith in mankind.”

Now, that’s something worth remembering on this day in history.

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Upcoming Events

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Book Signings

  • February 25, 2020: Osher Life Long Learning, Duke University, Durham, NC
  • March 12, 2020: Renaissance Institute, Notre Dame of Maryland University, Baltimore, MD
  • March 13, 2020: Sage Academy of Lifelong Learning, Goucher Collge, Baltimore, MD
  • March 26, 2020: Illinois Holocaust Museum, Skokie, IL
  • April 16, 2020: Polhogda, Lysaker, Norway
  • April 26, 2020: Chicago Sinai Congregation, Chicago, IL
  • April 26, 2020: Hidden Children, 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 14, 2020: Sons of Norway, Grand Forks, ND (Gyda-Varden Lodge)
  • May 15, 2020: Norwegian Heritage Week, Thief River Falls, MN
  • May 16, 2020: Sons of Norway, Red Wing, MN (Lauris Norstad Lodge)
  • May 17, 2002: Sons of Norway, Fargo, ND (Kringen Lodge)
  • May 18, 2020: Sons of Norway, St. Cloud, MN (Trollheim Lodge)
  • May 19, 2020: Tuesday Open House, Mindekirken, Minneapolis, MN
  • May 19, 2020: The Waters of Plymouth, Plymouth, MN
  • May 19, 2020: Sons of Norway, Austin, MN (Storting Lodge)
  • 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 4, 2020: The Adult School, Bernardsville, NJ
  • June 7, 2020: Regency Hadassah, Monroe, NJ
  • November 15, 2020: Kristallnacht Commemoration, Congregation Or Shalom, Organge, CT
  • October 19, 2021: Shalom Club, Great Notch, NJ

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"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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