Posts tagged Odd Nansen

A Tale of Two Offices

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In my previous blog about my recent trip to Norway, I described my visit to the former home of Vidkun Quisling, where I viewed his private office while he was Minister-President (1942-45).

What I didn’t mention was that I had a much more enjoyable visit to Odd Nansen’s private home and office as well.  After the war, Nansen designed a new home for his growing family, located just a stone’s throw from Fridtjof Nansen’s home, Polhøgda, where he had previously lived following his father’s death.

Odd Nansen’s home

The house has long since passed out of the Nansen family and into private hands, but Preben Johannessen, son-in-law of my dear friend Marit, offered to approach the current owner and neighbor (Preben and Marit’s daughter Anne live almost adjacent to the house) and explain that a visitor from America was very desirous of seeing Odd Nansen’s handiwork.  The neighbor kindly agreed, and the day following my presentation in Oslo, Marit, Anne, Preben and I were given a guided tour of the home.

It was fascinating to view the architectural details Odd Nansen built into his new home, many of which remain unchanged over 70 years later.  These include a cozy, wood-fired sauna near the master bedroom, and ceiling panels in the dining room hand painted by Nansen himself.

Dining Room ceiling painted by Odd Nansen

The pièce de résistance was of course Odd Nansen’s study, occupying the highest room in the entire house, complete with specially built drawers to hold his architectural drawings.  The original, hand-drawn architectural renderings of his home were still there, available for viewing.  As Nansen completed his house plans around the same time as he published From Day to Day, he must have been a very busy man indeed.

Odd Nansen’s architectural plans

Seeing the offices of Odd Nansen and Vidkun Quisling on back-to-back days got me to thinking about the two men.

Quisling and Nansen were near contemporaries of each other (Quisling was 14 years Nansen’s senior).  Both men had close relationships with the great Fridtjof Nansen—Odd as his son, and Quisling as his key assistant, coordinating famine relief for Fridtjof in Soviet Russia in the early 1920s, as well as later projects in Armenia.

Both men showed considerable talent early in their careers.  Odd Nansen entered an architectural contest in 1930 (age 29) and placed third among 254 submissions, many by the leading U.S. architects of the day, including the son of Frank Lloyd Wright.  Quisling graduated first in his class from Norway’s military academy with the highest grades ever awarded up to that time.

By the 1930s, both men began to make important career decisions which would shape the future direction of their lives.

In 1933, Quisling, motivated by a mystic ideology called Universism, hatred of Communism, and perhaps most importantly, impressed by Adolf Hitler’s recent meteoric rise to Chancellor of Germany, formed the Nasjonal Samling (National Unity) Party, known by its initials, NSNS was a fascist knock-off of the Nazi Party, complete with its own Nordic flags, an SA-like paramilitary equivalent (the Hirden), etc.  It garnered little popular support, and never attracted more than 2% of Norway’s voters. Nevertheless, by 1942 Quisling was riding high in Nazi-occupied Norway, having just been appointed its Minister-President.

In 1936, Odd Nansen, on the other hand, formed Nansenhjelpen at the behest of several prominent Norwegians.  At significant cost to his career and family, he helped stateless refugees in central Europe obtain visas to Norway.  He was, a contemporary wrote, “mindful of the fact that he was the bearer of the Nansen name.” Despite daunting obstacles, Nansenhjelpen succeeded in bringing approximately 260 such refugees to Norway before the outbreak of World War II.

These choices put Nansen and Quisling on a collision course that resulted in Nansen’s arrest in January 1942.  In his diary entry for July 24, 1942, Nansen writes: “That confirms what I have believed all the time . . .  Quisling is behind my arrest.”  It looked for all the world that Quisling had made the better choice, Nansen the wrong one.

I am currently working on an article about The Moon is Down, a novel written by John Steinbeck in 1942.  The action is located in a small town in an unnamed country (that looks suspiciously like Norway) which is occupied by an unnamed foreign army (that looks suspiciously like the German Army).  At the novel’s climax, the town’s mayor, held (like Nansen) as a hostage, realizes he is to be executed in retaliation for ongoing sabotage.  He reminisces with his closest friend, the town doctor, about their school days, when together they studied SocratesApology.  The mayor recalls a particularly pertinent part of Socrates’ speech while he was on trial for his life, when Socrates recalls a question directed to him, and his answer:

“Do you feel no compunction, Socrates, at having followed a line of action which puts you in danger of the death penalty?’

I might fairly reply to him, ‘You are mistaken, my friend, if you think that a man who is worth anything ought to spend his time weighing up the prospects of life and death. He has only one thing to consider in performing any action–that is, whether he is acting rightly or wrongly, like a good man or a bad one.”

Odd Nansen lived beyond the biblical three-score and ten years, earning the respect and admiration of his many friends and diary readers.  He died of natural causes on June 26, 1973, age 71.

Vidkun Quisling was executed by firing squad, following a trial for treason, on October 24, 1945, age 58.

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!

The parallel lives of Thomas Buergenthal and Anne Frank

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Seventy-five years ago today (August 2, 1944), Thomas Buergenthal, age 10, entered Auschwitz, the largest and most lethal concentration camp the Nazis ever built, and the symbolic heart of the Holocaust.  Tom was immediately separated from his mother Gerda—thereafter he was to see her only once, through the wire, before she was transported to Ravensbrück, and they were not to be reunited until December 1946.  Buergenthal lived in Auschwitz for a time with his father Mundek until he, too, was transported—first to Sachsenhausen (there is no record that he ever crossed paths with Odd Nansen) and then to Buchenwald, where he succumbed to pneumonia in January 1945.

Tom Buergenthal with his parents

There are a number of striking parallels between the lives of Tom Buergenthal and Anne Frank

It was two days after Tom’s arrival at Auschwitz (August 4, 1944) that Anne, age 15, was arrested along with her family and four others who had been in hiding for over two years in Amsterdam.

Anne Frank

Although Anne lived most of her childhood in Holland and Tom in Czechoslovakia, Anne’s parents and Tom’s mother were all German, all (along with Tom’s father, born in Galicia) having fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

Within a month of Anne’s arrest, she was also transported to Auschwitz, arriving September 3, 1944.  Upon arrival, she was separated from her father. Again, there is no knowing if Tom and Anne were ever even close to each other in the sprawling camp that held more than 150,000 prisoners at its height.  What we do know is that Anne contracted scabies in Auschwitz, and Tom, having been selected for the gas chamber, was temporarily housed with others in a barracks for prisoners with scabies until a sufficiently large group could be assembled for the crematorium.  (Miraculously, he survived this experience, another instance when he would prove to be “ein Glückskind,” a lucky child.)

In late October or early November, 1944, around the time Tom lost his father to the transports, Anne, along with her older sister Margot,  was also transported, to the Bergen-Belsen camp, located approximately 40 miles south of Hamburg.  Bergen-Belsen was unsanitary and overcrowded, subject to epidemics of infectious diseases like typhus and typhoid fever.  When Auschwitz was finally evacuated in late January, 1945, Tom was among the 60,000 or so prisoners involved in the infamous Death March.  In late February or early March, 1945, around the time Buergenthal and Odd Nansen were first meeting each other in the infirmary in Sachsenhausen, Anne died in Bergen-Belsen.  The exact date and exact cause of death will never be known.

Recently I addressed the students of my high school alma mater, and posed the counterfactual question: What if Odd Nansen had been in Bergen-Belsen instead of Sachsenhausen, and had met Anne Frank instead of Tom Buergenthal?  Or, conversely, what if Anne Frank had been sent to Sachsenhausen, and Tom sent to Bergen-Belsen instead? Could Odd Nansen have saved Anne Frank’s life the way he saved Tom’s?  Would Tom have been able to survive in Bergen-Belsen?

Certainly there were factors that helped Tom, not the least being the fact that, having lived first in a Jewish ghetto in Kielce, and then in various work camps before arriving in Auschwitz, meant that he had “a relatively long period of survival training. Who knows whether I would have survived had I arrived in Auschwitz from a normal middle-class environment and immediately had to face brutal camp conditions.”  Anne, on the other hand, was spared Tom’s “gradual immersion into hell.”

But the key difference, I believe, was Odd Nansen.  Tom writes: “I realized that Mr. Nansen had probably saved my life [in Sachsenhausen’s infirmary, where Tom was convalescing following amputation of frostbitten several toes] by periodically bribing the orderly in charge of our barracks . . . to keep my name off the list of ‘terminally ill’ patients, which the SS guards demanded every few weeks ‘to make room for other prisoners.’”

Anne had no such person in Bergen-Belsen to help her through her crucible.  Had she survived, we might have celebrated her 90th birthday this past June 12.  Anne was bright, perceptive, and an extremely talented writer.  What more might she have accomplished during her lifetime? We’ll never know.  On the other hand, we do know that Tom Buergenthal had a wonderfully productive career promoting human rights, a career that culminated as a judge on the International Court of Justice at The Hague (2000—2010).

Buergenthal at the International Court of Justice at The Hague

If nothing else, Odd Nansen’s life shows us how just one humane person can help in tikkun olam–repairing the world.

July 12, 1845: Henrik Wergeland dies.

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Henrik Arnold Wergeland, variously described as “Norway’s Byron,” “Norway’s Pushkin,” and “Norway’s Victor Hugo,” died 174 years ago today, on July 12, 1845, age 37.

Henrik Wergeland

Despite his brief life, Wergeland was a prolific writer, poet, playwright, polemicist, historian and linguist.  Today, however, he is probably best known for his work on behalf of Norway’s Jews.

When Norway’s constitution (the second oldest in the world in continuous force, after America’s) was adopted on May 17, 1814, Clause 2 banned virtually all Jews from entering the country. As an equal opportunity discriminator, the drafters of the Constitution for good measure also banned Jesuits (so much for my Georgetown education!) and all monastic orders.  One of the three delegates behind the so-called “Jew clause” was none other than Wergeland’s father, Nicolai Wergeland.

For years Wergeland considered Clause 2 to be a national disgrace, contrary to all the values otherwise contained in the Constitution, and he worked tirelessly for its repeal.  In that effort he published two collections of poems, The Jew (1842), the most famous poem of which is “The Army of Truth,” and The Jewess (1844).

Wergeland did not live to see the successful conclusion of his efforts, which occurred on June 13, 1851, six years after his death.   In 1849, following his death, but before the repeal of Clause 2, Jews living outside of Norway obtained special permission to enter and erect a monument at Wergeland’s graveside.   On it are engraved the following words: “Henrik Wergeland, the indefatigable advocate of freedom and justice for humanity and all citizens.”  Wergeland was also one of the moving forces behind the popularization of Syttende Mai, Norway’s Constitution Day, which today always includes a ceremony at his grave site. (During WWII the Nazi’s forbade any celebration of Wergeland. Also during the war Vidkun Quisling ordered the reinstatement of Clause 2.)

May 17 ceremony. Wergeland’s monument is on the right.

One might think the story ends there, but this is Norway, which is a very small country.  One of the Wergeland’s strongest literary critic was Johan Sebastian Wellhaven, another giant of Norwegian literature.  Wellhaven’s niece was none other than Eva (Sars) Nansen, Odd Nansen’s mother.   In addition, Wergeland’s complete works were published in 23 volumes between 1918 and 1940, edited in part by Didrik Arup Seip, Rector of the University of Oslo.  Siep was also a fellow prisoner of Odd Nansen’s in Grini and Sachsenhausen.  A small world indeed!

“Words? Those sounds the world despises.
Words in poems?
Even more to be disdained!
Ah, how feeble are your powers
to defend
all the truth that man denies!
. . . .
Forward, though, you feeble lines!
Words are armies!
On this earth your victory
was promised by the Lord, Light’s father,
when you serve
Truth itself, his child, alone.”

From The Army of Truth.

Fun in Minnesota!

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I’ve just recently returned from a five-day sojourn in the “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” otherwise known as Minnesota (with an emphasis on the third syllable).  I had never visited Minnesota before, unless one counts making airline connections at the Minneapolis—St. Paul International Airport. The experience was delightful from beginning to end.  Coming home last Saturday night I even saw some of Cincinnati’s fireworks display from 35,000 ft.

I first flew to Duluth (explored by Daniel Greysolon, Sieur du Lhut, in 1679) at the invitation of Lise Lunge-Larsen of the Nordic Center.  Lise, a noted children’s author and storyteller, was a delightful host, showing me about the town.  I got an up close and personal view of its watery neighbor—Lake Superior.  You probably already knew that Superior is the largest freshwater lake in the world by surface area, and the third largest by volume.  If Lake Superior were emptied out, it would cover ALL of North America and ALL of South America to the tune of 12 inches.  What you probably didn’t know is that Superior boasts some of the best drinking water anywhere—many breweries and distilleries utilize its pure water for a “superior” taste.  In fact, Lise’s daughter and son-in-law founded Vikre Distillery in town, which was voted the Best Craft Specialty Spirits in the country by USA TODAY in 2016. That water must be doing something right!

Nordic Center, Duluth, MN

On June 25 the Nordic Center was packed with an attentive crowd, including several people interestingly enough named Boyce.  Unfortunately, I didn’t find any connection to my grandfather Dennis Boyce, who ran away from Donegal, Ireland, as a teenager to come to America in early 1900s. It was a great crowd, and a wonderful evening.  We celebrated afterward at Vikre and even got to see Duluth’s famous Aerial Lift Bridge in action— locals who are stuck on either side waiting for the enormous cargo ships to pass through are said to have been “bridged.”

From there I traveled to Minneapolis for a series of talks, the highlight being at the Norway House on June 27.  Again, another large audience.  While I usually preface my remarks by asking if anyone in the audience has any Norwegian ancestry, here I asked if anyone did not (and there were, but only a handful).  As the guest speaker I was treated to some delectable Norwegian desserts from the kaffebar in the lobby.

Norway House, Minneapolis, MN

The Gallery where I spoke was hosting a photographic exhibition by Judy Olausen entitled “Mother: a vision of the Eisenhower-era mother; eager to please, ready to serve, and blissfully sweeping the unmentionable under the rug.”  The photos were quirky, zany, tongue-in-cheek send-ups of 1950’s era homemakers.  Interesting for their own sake, they provided a unique backdrop to my talk, resulting in some unforgettable juxtapositions.  Here’s my favorite:

Norway House, Minneapolis, MN

Is the woman in the photo aghast at the point I’m trying to make?  Is something horrible crawling up the back of my shirt? Or is it simply a case of underarm odor?

The only way to know is to visit the exhibit yourself (and don’t forget to try the pastries).

Nordic Center photo courtesy Nordic Center Facebook page; Norway House photos courtesy Mike Wick. 

Odd Nansen: Dec. 6, 1901–Jun. 27, 1973

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Odd Nansen

Odd Nansen died 46 years ago today, on June 27, 1973, age 71.

Each year on his death I like to draw from literature a description that I feel aptly describes some aspect of Nansen’s character (which I’ve done here, here and here).

Last year’s blog made a passing reference to Ernest Hemingway in my tribute to Odd Nansen, so perhaps it is only fitting that this year I draw from Hemingway’s third (of four) wives, Martha Gellhorn.  Gellhorn was one of the first, and most widely read, female war correspondents of the Twentieth Century.  She was the only woman to land at Normandy on D-Day, and among the first correspondents to report on the Dachau concentration camp following its liberation by American forces in April 1945.

Gellhorn was a prolific writer, but her greatest novel is A Stricken Field.  Based on her own experiences in Prague, Czechoslovakia immediately before the war, A Stricken Field follows the experiences of one Mary Douglas, an American correspondent.  We watch Douglas’ frustrating and ultimately futile efforts to help Prague’s refugees (much like Nansen tried to help Prague’s refugees, 1936—39) while she tries to report on a Czechoslovakia that has been callously abandoned by the western Allies as the price for “peace in our time.”  Gellhorn quickly wrote her novel at the famous farm she and Hemingway shared in Cuba, Finca Vigia (“Lookout Farm”), and published the work in 1940.

In one of the final scenes of the book, Mary Douglas, in a funk over her bitter experience, nevertheless finds some reasons for hope:

“I’ve seen enough in the last five years, Mary thought, to make anyone despair.  But disaster doesn’t harm the really good ones: they carry their goodness through, untouched, and nothing that happens can makes them cowardly or calculating.  I’ve seen some fine people in these disaster years.  I’ve seen one tonight.  There’s that to remember too, when despair sets in.”

I’ve known, indirectly, one such person, who carried his goodness through, untouched, during the disaster years of World War II:  Odd Nansen.  His example is always worth remembering whenever despair sets in.

 

Odd Nansen’s grave marker

Syttende Mai (May 17)

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Syttende Mai Celebration*

Syttende Mai, or May 17, is Norway’s Constitution Day, and its most important national holiday.  Norwegians everywhere celebrate the signing of the Norwegian Constitution on May 17, 1814, by the Norwegian Constituent Assembly in Eidsvoll, Norway.  The Norwegian Constitution is now the second oldest in continuous force (after the United States).

I can’t think of a better way to observe the day than to quote Odd Nansen’s own words written 77 years ago:

Sunday, May 17, 1942

It’s best to forget the 17th of May when you are a Norwegian shut up in a German concentration camp and struggling to make the time vanish, so that it may be the 18th as quickly as possible. So in a way it was no bad thing to have a working day today. But work as I might, and struggle as I might to get the time, the confounded time, to pass, it wasn’t possible to forget that it was May 17th.  It was in the air, the clear, fresh spring air blowing from the southwest. The sun shone from early morning; the birds were singing, the birches sprouting so that one could absolutely stand and watch how their pale green tops became denser and more copious hour by hour. They flamed against the dark wood behind, which hasn’t rightly awakened yet.

Southward the landscape opens out; there is no dark, grave forest barrier. The sallows too are beginning to dress for the party, as they stand by the spring becks winding down between the fields toward the sea—far, far out yonder. I truly believe we can make out a streak of that too, a silver streak just under the light blue ridge on the horizon. And the mind goes on to seek the glittering fjord, with its islands one behind another, right out to the last skerries and then still farther out, to the open sea.

And behind rises the blue landscape, up from the ocean and from ridge to ridge with green floes in among them, and with dark and light brown fields like patchwork between the copses and rocky outcrops, and at the back of all, the mountains stand against the spring sky, pale blue with shining flecks of white. It is as though the eye were following the mind upon its free journey. And one sails on along the coast, gazing in rapture at the wonderland within. A rush of warmth goes through one. This is all Norway. . . .

That is the content of the 17th of May; so it has always been, and so it will always be. No one can change it, least of all these Germans, who have no conception of it.

And no one can deprive me of today’s tour of Norway; I’ve been round the whole country and absorbed it with the spring air. I saw it bathed in spring sunshine, beautiful as never before. No, I take it back that one should forget the 17th of May because one’s in a German concentration camp. On the contrary, one should remember it and keep it more intensely and fervently than ever.”

Skål, Norway!

*By evelinagustafsson@live.se – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10407995

 

May 2: Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day)

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Last week, while on a book tour through CT and NY, I was privileged to spend May 2—Yom HaShoah—at my high school alma mater, Notre Dame of West Haven, CT. In the morning I taught  23 Seniors in the school’s Holocaust class.  Notre Dame, a boys school run by the Brothers of the Holy Cross, has had a Holocaust course as part of its curriculum for over 30 years. The teacher, Matt Milano, had his students read selected diary entries from Odd Nansen’s From Day to Day, choose the most powerful sentence in the excerpt, and then come up with three questions based on his reading. I enjoyed spending time, however brief, discussing Nansen’s diary with the young scholars.

Addressing the Seniors and Juniors

 I then addressed the entire Junior and Senior classes. I drew a comparison between Anne Frank and Thomas Buergenthal, two children caught in the vortex of the Holocaust. Both arrived in Auschwitz at roughly the same time (August 1944). They never met so far as we know, which is not surprising considering that Auschwitz’s population at that point exceeded 60,000, or more than the entire population of West Haven, CT.

Anne was soon sent on the Bergen-Belsen, where she died in early 1945.  Tommy was later evacuated to Sachsenhausen, where he survived through the intervention of Odd Nansen. I compared the “what might have been” of Anne’s life—a gifted writer whose diary, composed when she was younger than many in the audience, has sold millions of copies and been translated into 60 languages, with the reality of Tom’s life and career—a distinguished career dedicated to the preservation and enhancement of human rights everywhere.

I challenged the students to follow Nansen’s example, and change a life for the better.  I reminded them that Notre Dame’s motto is “Character, Confidence,” and most importantly, “Compassion.”

Evening Presentation

Later in the evening I addressed parents, alumni (including some old classmates from ND ’72) and interested third parties. The evening began with a welcome by school President Robert Curis, and a prayer by Rabbi Alvin Wainhaus of Congregation Or Shalom.  Along with my many memories of that special day, I will cherish the yahrzeit candle that was lit for the duration of my talk.

yahrzeit candle

The Katyn Massacre: A Mystery within a Riddle

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From Odd Nansen’s dairy, Thursday, July 9, 1942:

“At dinnertime I was called down for questioning in the Vermittlung [registration office].  It was Herold who did the questioning.  My entire life was unrolled, from the cradle to the present day. . . .  Clearly the point was just to get a résumé of my whole career and make it look—in its entirety—like a menace to the Third Reich.  I was confronted with a good-sized collection of “anti-German” remarks I’ve made throughout the years in lectures and articles on the refugee question. . . . I felt positively flattered by so much attention.

He confronted me with things I was supposed to have said to one of the drivers at Grini. [For example, that] I didn’t believe in the Russian atrocities they were using as publicity.  Katyn, etc.”

That single word, “Katyn,” is the subject of today’s blog.

On this date 76 years ago, the Nazis stunned the world with a major propaganda coup.  Official Nazi radio announced on April 13, 1943 that the remains of thousands of Polish prisoners had been found, all shot in the back of the head, and buried neatly in mass graves in the Katyn Forest, near Smolensk.

Katyn Forest

German forces quickly overran Smolensk following the start of Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, which began on June 22, 1941.  Eventually, news of the massacre reached German occupation forces in the area, leading to the discovery and exhumation of the graves.

Despite clear and convincing proof of Soviet culpability (Stalin was intent on destroying anyone who might resist Soviet efforts to control Poland after the war), Moscow actually blamed the Germans for the massacre, a position they staunchly maintained throughout the war. The Polish Government-in-Exile, which had earlier agreed to ally with the Soviets (despite their invasion of Poland in September 1939) in a common struggle against Germany, now demanded an impartial investigation by the International Red Cross.  Stalin refused to allow the Red Cross to investigate, and broke off relations with the Polish government.

This left the United States and Great Britain on the horns of a dilemma.  While it was quickly apparent to all that the Germans were entirely correct—the massacre had been perpetrated by Soviet forces, the Soviet Union was also clearly bearing the brunt of the Allied fighting against the Wehrmacht; the opening of the so-called Second Front (i.e., D-Day) was still over a year away.  So the Allies deferred to Realpolitik, and kept their well-founded suspicions to themselves, an awkward silence that the Nazi propaganda machine tried to take full advantage of.

Nazi Poster

The official Soviet position remained one of steadfast denial for 50 years after the fact.  With glasnost ushering in a new policy of transparency, the Soviet Government under Mikhail Gorbachev finally acknowledged what had been an open secret for decades.  On April 13, 1990, it officially admitted to the murder of thousands of Polish officers and others, all at the express order of Stalin. It is believed that almost 22,000 Polish nationals, primarily army officers but also including doctors, lawyers, professors, and engineers, were killed at Katyn and similar execution sites.*

Mystery solved.

But here’s the riddle: Although there were rumors of Soviet atrocities circulating in the Katyn region soon after the murders took place in April 1940—it’s awfully hard to shoot thousands of prisoners and bury them, even in a remote forest, without the locals knowing something about it—almost all the accounts of the event maintain that German authorities only learned of the massacre in late 1942 or early 1943.  Senior German officials only heard the news in March or April 1943.

And yet.

From Nansen’s diary, it is clear that he was sufficiently knowledgeable about the event to discuss it openly with a German soldier working at the Grini camp in Oslo in July 1942.  How did Nansen come across this intelligence, fully nine months prior to the German radio broadcast in April 1943?  In occupied Norway at the time, the Nazis controlled the airwaves.  The news could not have come from the BBC (or, as Nansen refers to it in his diary, the “west wind”) as they, too, were unaware of the story, and in any event buried almost all mention of it even after April 1943 lest they antagonize their ally.

So, while the mystery of the real perpetrators of the Katyn massacre has now long since been put to rest (despite some deniers in Russia today), the riddle of Odd Nansen’s awareness of this key episode of World War II, so many months prior to its public dissemination, remains an enduring riddle which we may never be able to unravel. But at the least, subsequent histories of Katyn may need to revise their timeline to account for an earlier public awareness of the event than traditionally has been the case.  Yet another reason why Odd Nansen’s diary is such an important historical document.

[* The Katyn tragedy claimed yet more victims in 2010.  On April 10 of that year, an airplane carrying Polish President Lech Kaczynski, his wife, and 87 other Polish politicians and military officers crashed just outside the Smolensk airport, killing all on board.  The purpose of the trip was to attend a ceremony commemorating the 70th anniversary of the massacre.]

March 24, 1944: The Great Escape

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Seventy-five years ago today the Great Escape got underway.

For those of us of a certain age (I had just finished the third grade), the exploits of Steve McQueen in the film version of The Great Escape, gunning his motorcycle over those daunting fences standing between him and freedom, defined in large part our understanding of WWII. That is, the Americans, with some help from the Brits, always lead the way, and remain defiant to the end, win or lose.

Unfortunately, as with many Hollywood creations, it was mostly all made up. There were almost no Americans in Stalag Luft III in March 1944 (most having been moved to a POW camp of their own), and no American took part in the escape.

All of which is unfortunate, as the real story is heroic enough (even if not sufficiently American in origin). The plan was conceived by Squadron Leader Roger Bushell of the RAF, known to fellow prisoners as “Big X.” He proposed an escape scheme staggering in its scope, objectives and complexity. Big X set out in March 1943 to dig not one, but three, escape tunnels (appropriately dubbed Tom, Dick and Harry) to spring fully 200 prisoners in one massive breakout. Over 600 men in all would be involved in the effort, involving excavation, preparation of civilian clothing, forging of identity papers and travel documents, serving as lookouts, etc.  The idea behind multiple tunnels, even though it tripled the exertions required, was quite clever. If one tunnel was discovered, the Germans would conclude that POW efforts had been seriously set back, while in reality the Allies would have suffered little to no setback at all.

The tunnels were dug about 30 feet below the surface to hide the noise and prevent cave-ins in the sandy soil. Shoring the tunnel walls (the tunnel itself was about two feet square) was accomplished using bed slats and other cast-off wood. [Following the escape German authorities took a detailed inventory in the camp and discovered that 4,000 slats were missing, as were 1,700 blankets, 3,400 towels, countless utensils and other items.] The escape entrances were cleverly disguised, an ingenious trolley system was rigged up to speed the workers to the excavation site and speed the withdrawal of sand—almost 200 tons worth. An equally ingenious means of disbursing the surplus sand was also devised. At first POWs were recruited to carry dirt in false sleeves inside their pants legs which could be opened via their pockets, scattering debris onto the ground. When suspicions were aroused, and when winter snow rendered the ground white, other places and methods were employed. Primitive bellows (to keep the tunnels filled with oxygen) and lighting hooked up to the camp’s electricity source completed the scene.

Outline of escape tunnel “Harry”

All of this massive work was so cleverly conceived and staged that the Germans, aware that something was afoot and increasing their own vigilance, nevertheless could not discover the existence of the tunnels. Surprisingly, while camp authorities redoubled their efforts to thwart any escape attempt, ordinary German guards proved susceptible to bribes of chocolate, coffee and cigarettes (which the POWs received from the Red Cross), for which they gladly provided rail schedules, official documents (from which forgeries could be made), and other needed items.

Eventually “Tom” was discovered, and “Dick” abandoned. All hopes rested on “Harry.”

The original plan called for a breakout in the summer of 1944 to take advantage of the longer daylight and better weather. Ever increasing watchfulness by camp authorities, however, necessitated a sped-up timetable, and the next moonless night fell on March 24.

Despite all the meticulous planning, all did not go so well. The start time was crucially delayed for over an hour when bitterly cold temperatures froze the exit trap door. More seriously, it was discovered that the 335 ft. tunnel did not exit into the safety of the nearby woods as planned, but fell just short of the tree line, and close by a guard tower. This slowed the rate of escape from sixty men per hour to only ten per hour.

Seventy-six men successfully exited Harry before a sentry noticed the seventy-seventh man, around 5:00am, and raised the alarm. Thus, while brilliantly planned, the net result of the thousands of man-hours of effort was a complete bust. Of the seventy-six escapees, seventy-three were ultimately rounded up, of whom fifty—including Big X—were executed. The dead represented thirteen nationalities. Of the remaining twenty-three, seventeen were returned to Stalag Luft III, four were sent to Sachsenhausen, Odd Nansen’s abode at the time (where they again escaped via a tunnel, and were again recaptured), and two were sent to Colditz Castle. [After the war the murder of the fifty POWs was included in the war crimes indictment at the Nuremberg Trials, and several members of the Gestapo, including the killer of Bushell, Emil Schulz, were tried and executed.]

Great Escape Memorial By CSvBibra – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2742057.

The three successful escapees were Bram van der Stok a Dutch flyer (No. 41 Squadron RAF), and two Norwegian pilots: Per Bergsland (No. 332 Squadron RAF) and Jens Muller (No. 331 Squadron RAF). Muller wrote a memoir of his exploits in 1946 under the title Tre kom tilbake (Three Returned). It has just been translated into English for the first time and published as The Great Escape from Stalag Luft III (Naval Institute Press, 2019).

The last surviving participant in the breakout, Dick Churchill (no relation to Winston) passed away little more than a month ago, on February 12. He was 99.

Despite the frightening cost, Churchill felt until the end of his life that the venture had been worthwhile. In an interview with the BBC, he observed: “You fell into a certain category. Were you going to sit and enjoy the very few delights of a barbed wire prison camp until you were rescued, or were you going to try and get out of the place? You could be a quiet person, do nothing much, above all don’t annoy the Germans or the Gestapo, or you can try and do the opposite and feel better as a result of doing it.”

Dick Churchill

RIP Squadron Leader Churchill, as you join the seventy-five other escaped POWs who preceded you—some  at the hands of a firing squad—and the many, many others who toiled for so long in obscurity to make your valiant effort a reality.

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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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