Posts tagged Nordic Museum

Beware the Ides of January!

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Julius Caesar

Recently my wife Tara and I were working on a crossword puzzle.  The clue for the four-letter word was: “January 13, e.g.”  I immediately thought of “Ides” but quickly dismissed it—that’s the 15th day of the month, right?  After all, if there is one thing I remember from high school English, it was that the Ides of March fell on the 15th.  Well, it turned out that the answer was “Ides,” which sent me to do some research.  Turns out that “Ides” means the middle of the Roman month, which is the 15th day of March, May, July and October, but is the 13th day of all other months.

The Romans had other terms for certain days of the week.  “Calends” refers to the first day of each month, and “Nones” is the eighth day preceding the Ides.  According to some sources, all three days—Calends, Nones and Ides—were considered inauspicious, and were to be avoided.  Hence Shakespeare’s soothsayer’s warning to Julius Caesar to be on guard come March 15 (a warning old Julius failed to heed in 44 BC).

One wonders what might have happened had someone warned Odd Nansen to beware the Ides of January—if he could have been forewarned that the Nazi were after him.  Most likely nothing.  Nansen wouldn’t have escaped alone and left his family to the tender mercies of the Gestapo, and escaping en famille to Sweden, with three small children and, as would soon be revealed, a pregnant wife, would have been nigh impossible. In any event, Nansen was as surprised as anyone when “the district sheriff . . . came up to the cottage with two Germans” on January 13, 1942.  Nansen’s misfortune would prove to be our gain; the world obtained an unparalleled insight into the crucible of the concentration camp, as well as an inspiring example of how one person kept his humanity in the most inhumane conditions imaginable.

To commemorate the 77th anniversary of Nansen’s arrest, today I joined a book discussion group.  They were at the Nordic Museum in Seattle, WA; I was sitting at home in Tryon, NC—that’s the beauty of Skype.  Twenty people all converged on the museum at 10:30 am (PST) which was 7:30 pm Oslo time, or the exact time of Nansen’s arrest.  Over half had attended my presentation in Seattle in June (described here); half had already read all or part of Nansen’s diary; six were self-described WWII history buffs; five had a family member or friend directly affected by the Holocaust, and one personally knew both Odd Nansen and his son, Odd Erik. The motivations of the participants varied widely.  Some were interested in the story, some were inspired by Odd Nansen’s example; some wanted additional insight into Nansen’s resilience.  While the acoustics presented a bit of a challenge, the meeting was both interesting and informative.  Many thanks to Pam Belyea for organizing and moderating the meeting, to the Nordic Museum for hosting the event in its wonderful new facility, and to the participants, whose interest in Odd Nansen was so heartening.

A fitting way to remember the occasion of Odd Nansen’s arrest, on the Ides of January.

THE Book Tour (Part III): Nordic Museum

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One of the greatest highlights of my recent trip west was the opportunity to give the keynote address at the 23rd annual Raoul Wallenberg Memorial Dinner, held at the new Nordic Museum in Seattle on June 7.  Speaking to a sellout audience of 200, it was both a thrill and an honor to memorialize the life of one of the few shining lights during what has been called “western civilization’s darkest hour.”

At tremendous personal risk, Wallenberg actively confronted his nemesis, Adolf Eichmann, and the Hungarian Arrow Cross, and with courage, energy, imagination and intelligence, saved the lives of thousands of Hungary’s persecuted Jews.  The survivors and their descendants, estimated at perhaps one million today, are the living testament to his miraculous work.

When I accepted the Nordic Museum’s invitation to provide the keynote address I had only a very rudimentary knowledge of Wallenberg.  I knew that he: 1) was Swedish, 2) helped Jews during World War II, and 3) disappeared into Soviet captivity under murky circumstances.

As I studied up on Wallenberg in preparation for my address, I was astounded by the number of parallels between his life and that of Odd Nansen (in addition to their both being Scandinavian):

  • Both men were very artistic, and loved to draw when they were young;
  • That interest in turn led both men to study architecture in college (Wallenberg at the University of Michigan; Nansen at the Norwegian Institute of Technology (NTH) in Trondheim);
  • Both men were very talented architects, and both won architectural prizes at an early age (Nansen winning third prize in a contest in 1929 and Wallenberg earning second prize in a 1935 competition);
  • Raoul Wallenberg once confided to his half-sister, Nina Lagergren, that his two childhood idols had been the Swedish nurse Elsa Brandstrom, and the Norwegian explorer and humanitarian, Fridtjof Nansen, Odd Nansen’s father;
  • Both Nansen and Wallenberg had their first significant, and transformative, exposure to Jewish suffering in the same year—1936. Wallenberg began working for a branch of the Holland Bank in Haifa, Palestine, and while there met Jewish refugees fleeing from a Germany that was enacting ever more severe anti-Semitic measures.  According to his biographer Jeno Levai, “The[ir] stories of suffering had a great influence on him.”  In that same year Nansen put his own career on hold and formed Nansenhjelpen, or Nansen Relief, to help stateless Jews stranded in central Europe obtain visas for Norway.

The caption reads: “This building housed the former Holland Bank where Raoul Wallenberg, the Righteous of the Nations, worked in 1936.” Photo courtesy of Kristin Collins

  • In addition to their artistic skills, both men possessed valuable practical skills. Myrtle Wright, an English Quaker living in Norway during the war observed that Nansen “had an attractive personality and both as an organiser [sic] and propagandist was well suited for the work he had taken up.”  Biographer Kati Marton relates that Wallenberg “was a man of passionate conviction and at the same time a very practical organizer.”
  • Both Wallenberg and Nansen would spend time in captivity: Nansen as a prisoner of the Nazis and Wallenberg of the Soviets—although interestingly neither was ever charged, tried, convicted, or sentenced for any crime.

Signing copies of From Day to Day at the Nordic Museum

Nansen is certainly not as well-known as Wallenberg—undoubtedly because he spent the greater part of World War II—from January 1942 until its end in 1945—in Nazi captivity. Nevertheless, I concluded my comparison with the observation that I believe Nansen deserves to be included in the same conversation as Wallenberg, for this final trait that both men embodied:

  • Wallenberg and Nansen both believed in the power of a single individual, even when faced with the most extreme circumstances, to change the world for the better.

In a fitting coda, exactly eight days after my speech at the Nordic Museum, I gave a presentation at Rossmoor, an adult community in Walnut Creek, CA.  After my talk, a woman approached me, introduced herself in heavily accented English, and stated: “I am a Hungarian Jew.  I am alive today because of Raoul Wallenberg.”

Date Set For Raoul Wallenberg Address

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I have the honor and privilege of being chosen to give the keynote address at the 23rd annual Raoul Wallenberg memorial dinner at the Nordic Museum of Seattle on June 7 at 5:30 pm.

Nordic Museum

The Nordic Museum, which celebrated its grand opening in its new, $40 million facility this past weekend, is an internationally recognized museum and cultural center dedicated to collecting, preserving and educating since its founding in 1980.  It is the largest museum in the United States honoring the legacy of immigrants from all five Nordic countries.

Raoul Wallenberg

Raoul Wallenberg was born into a prominent Swedish family in 1912.  Like Odd Nansen, he studied to be an architect, graduating from the University of Michigan in 1935.  The following year he took a job with an export-import company owned by Kalman Lauer, a Hungarian Jew.  Wallenberg was himself one-sixteenth Jewish (through one of his great-great-grandfathers), a fact of which he was very proud.

As a result of anti-Semitic decrees in Hungary beginning in the mid-1930s, and later with the onset of World War II, Wallenberg, now a co-owner of the trading company, undertook numerous business trips to Hungary, Germany and German-occupied France in his partner’s place.  Along the way he learned to speak Hungarian and observed German bureaucratic methods.

By early 1944 it was apparent to all that Germany would lose the war, and Hungary, an Axis power, began secret discussions with the Allies, hoping to secure a separate peace.  When an enraged Hitler learned of these negotiations he ordered the occupation of Hungary, which occurred on March 19, 1944.

Adolf Eichmann, one of the most notorious organizers of the Holocaust, was soon dispatched to Budapest, and the Jewish population, which had not previously felt the full brunt of the Holocaust, now began to be deported in massive numbers. [Eichmann was later hanged in Israel in 1962 for his role in the Final Solution.]

In less than three months (May-July 1944), approximately 430,000 Hungarian Jews were transported to Auschwitz; somewhere between 70 and 90 percent were killed upon arrival.

As reports of these actions filtered back to the Allies, President Roosevelt sent Treasury official Iver Olsen to Sweden to locate someone willing to travel to Hungary under diplomatic cover (Sweden then being a neutral nation) to organize a rescue program for the Jews.  Olsen approached a relief committee of prominent Jewish leaders in Sweden for assistance.  Kalman Lauer, Wallenberg’s business partner, was a member of this committee.

The committee’s first choice was actually Count Folke Bernadotte, Vice-Chair of the Swedish Red Cross.  [Folke Bernadotte, a friend of Odd Nansen’s, would later organize the relief program for Scandinavian inmates in all Nazi concentration camps, known as the White Buses operation.  While on an inspection visit to Neuengamme, Bernadotte met up with prisoner Nansen.  “When [Nansen] was brought before me and I saw him snatch off his cap and stand to attention as all prisoners were required to do when in the presence of a German of rank . . . I boiled with anger,” Bernadotte would later write.]

When Bernadotte was rejected by the Hungarian authorities, Lauer suggested Wallenberg.  Despite some U.S. misgivings about Wallenberg’s reliability, given existing ties between Wallenberg family businesses and Germany, he was assigned as a special envoy to the Swedish legation in Budapest in July 1944.

Those concerns proved misplaced.  Immediately upon his arrival Wallenberg began issuing “protective passports” to Jews, thus preventing their deportation.  In all, approximately 9,000 passes were issued.  He also rented numerous buildings in Budapest, thereby converting them to Swedish “territory” subject to diplomatic immunity.  Eventually these buildings housed almost 10,000 people.

Wallenberg’s actions came at significant personal risk.  He was forced to sleep in a different location each night to avoid capture or execution by Hungarian fascists (Arrow Cross Party) or Eichmann’s SS members.

Having successfully eluded the Nazis, Wallenberg ultimately fell victim to the approaching Soviets.  During the siege of Budapest in early 1945, Wallenberg was summoned to the headquarters of Marshal Rodion Malinovsky, commander of the 2nd Ukrainian Front.  His last recorded words were “I’m going to Malinovsky’s . . . whether as a guest or prisoner I do not know yet.”  He was never seen again, and is presumed to have died in Soviet captivity in 1947, although the exact circumstances of his death remain subject to much speculation.

Wallenberg has been recognized as one of the Righteous Among Nations by Yad Vashem, and posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by the United States Congress.  In 1981 he was designated an Honorary Citizen of the United States, the second person to ever receive the honor (after Winston Churchill).  The sponsor of the bill was U.S. Congressman Tom Lantos (D. CA), one of the thousands whose life was saved by Wallenberg’s efforts in Hungary.

It will indeed be an honor and a privilege to discuss one great Scandinavian humanitarian, Odd Nansen, while commemorating the life of another great Scandinavian humanitarian, Raoul Wallenberg.

More information about the event can be found here.  Tickets are $70 for non-museum members; $60 for museum members.

 

 

 

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Upcoming Events

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Book Signings

  • September 15, 2019: Center for Holocaust and Minority Studies, Oslo, Norway
  • September 25-28, 2019: Norsk Hostfest, Minot, ND
  • October 10, 2019: Friendship Roanoke, Roanoke, VA
  • October 14: Sage Academy 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 17, 2019: Heritage Point, Barnegat, NJ
  • October 17, 2019: Westlake Golf and Country Club, Jackson, NJ
  • October 18, 2019: Somerset Run, Somerset, NJ
  • October 18, 2019: VASA/Lodge Linne, New Providence, NJ
  • October 20, 2019: Rappahannock Westminster-Canterbury, Irvington, VA
  • 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 30, 2020: Kiawah World Lecture Series, Kiawah Island, SC
  • January 31, 2020: Osher Life Long Learning, Furman University, Greenville, SC
  • April 26, 2020: Chicago Sinai Congregation, Chicago, IL
  • April 27, 2020: Shorewood Glen, Shorewood, IL
  • April 28, 2020: Admiral on the Lake, Chicago, IL

People are talking


"Timothy Boyce captivated a larger than usual, attentive and appreciative audience with his spellbinding presentation of Odd Nansen and his World War II diary. He brilliantly demonstrated Odd Nansen’s will to survive while also helping others. A remarkable tale presented in an informative and fascinating way by a truly engaging speaker."

- Audun Gythfeldt, President
Sons of Norway Nor-Bu Lodge, Rockaway, NJ

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