Posts tagged Odd Nansen

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.

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.

A Feel-Good Story

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I thought it both appropriate and welcome to end 2018 with a feel-good story.  I’ve done so before—here, here and here.  At least it made me feel good.

Writing can oftentimes be a lonely calling. The research: you and your book/article/computer screen.  Writing: you’re alone with your thoughts and ideas, and that’s it.  My blogs produce some response—from a small and dedicated group of friends and supporters—despite an extensive subscription base.  Only when I go on the road do I finally interact with others.  Sometimes even that can be underwhelming.

In a November 11, 2018 New York Times Book Review column, Steve Israel, a retired U.S. Congressman turned novelist, comically depicts the rejection and sheer indifference a writer often experiences:

“In politics, one’s skin must be impenetrable to insult and even the occasional knife in the back.  But sitting behind a pile of books at an Author Night, watching people pick up your book as if it’s a piece of spongy fruit at the market, is sheer torture.  Often, they frown skeptically, weigh the book in their hands, glance at a few pages and toss it back on the pile.  All right in front of you.”

I’ve been there too.  A while ago I was scheduled to speak at a Barnes & Noble not far from where I live.  B&N did all the right things: order the books; post the event on their website; create an attractive poster visible to everyone entering the store.  I publicized it too.  On the day of the event the manager enthusiastically announced it over the P.A. every 15 minutes for one hour preceding the talk.  At the appointed time I had exactly one member in the audience, an affable fellow who accidentally wandered into my section and who was too well-mannered to leave me entirely alone. (Before my talk was over the crowd had swelled to three.)

So, whenever I receive unexpected feedback, it’s a cause for celebration.  Not long ago I received a letter in the U.S. mail.  I quote it in its entirety, leaving out only any identifying references to protect the writer’s privacy:

“Dear Mr. Boyce:

Thank you for your presentation on Odd Nansen at ______ recently.  I’m not an avid reader, but your presentation stirred me into buying the book—and reading it in its entirety!

To say I enjoyed the book would not seem correct.  Rather, it grabbed my interest—and each session, I read more than I had planned.  I come from northern Germany and Danish roots—but fortunately my people on both sides were here before both World Wars.

Thanks again for introducing me to Mr. Nansen.  I’m enclosing a 1 Øre coin* from 1942 as a memento.  It’s not in the best condition—has probably been through a lot, much like the Norwegians during WWII.

Best regards,

George  Xxxxxxx”

Thank you, George, and thanks to the many others from whom I did hear this past year, for your interest in Odd Nansen, and your support for my work in publicizing his diary.  You made the miles traveled, the talks given, the blogs written, all worthwhile.

Happy New Year.

[* 100 Øre equal 1 Norwegian Krone.  1 Krone is currently equal to approximately $0.11.  The coin ceased to be minted in 1972.]

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.”

Odd Nansen’s Birthday (12/6/01)

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Odd Nansen

Today is the 117th anniversary of Odd Nansen’s birth on December 6, 1901.

Each year I try to commemorate his anniversary with a pithy statement or quote that encapsulates the kind of person Nansen was.  In previous years I have quoted noted Holocaust survivor and writer Primo Levi (here), and Holocaust survivor and historian H.G. Adler (here).

This year’s quote comes from Eric Sevareid.  Most members of my (baby boomer) generation know him from his days as a commentator on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.  That’s how I came to know him, while still in elementary school, and I loved his trenchant, eloquent commentaries, even if the subject matter was sometimes well above my head.

What most people might not know is that Sevareid was from Norwegian stock.  As Sevareid writes in his autobiography, Not So Wild a Dream, “Christmas dinner was never right for [my father] without lutefisk and lefse, and Pastor Reishus always preached first in Norwegian, then in English.”  Sevareid was born in North Dakota, and lived for a while in my favorite ND city, Minot, before moving to Minneapolis.  Taking up journalism in college, he soon found himself as one of “Morrow’s Boys,” reporting on the war for CBS. In 1940 he was the first to report on the Fall of France.  As a broadcaster, Sevareid received numerous Peabody Awards and several Emmys, and was inducted in the Scandinavian-American Hall of Fame.

 On August 2, 1943, Sevareid was investigating the Assam-Burma-China Ferry Command’s air supply of Chiang Kai-shek’s army over the Himalayas when his plane crashed.  Miraculously, 21 of the 22 passengers and crew aboard the stricken plane managed to parachute safely into the jungle. The Americans were ultimately rescued by the British administrator in the region, Philip Adams.  Here is how Sevareid describes Adams in his autobiography:

“For me, he takes a place among the few rare men I have known, of limitless courage, unfettered mind, and controlled compassion for others—the great, lonely men, some in the spotlight, others in obscurity, who are everywhere and always the same, devoted coworkers in the difficult and dangerous conspiracy of goodwill.”

I’m pretty sure that if Eric Sevareid had ever had the chance to meet Odd Nansen, he would have included Nansen in that select fraternity as well.

Longing: The Story of the Bracelet

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“Apart from the already described reactions, the newly arrived prisoner experienced the tortures of other most painful emotions, all of which he tried to deaden.  First of all, there was his boundless longing for his home and his family.”   —Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Odd Nansen would certainly agree with Frankl’s observation.  In the second paragraph of his Foreword, Nansen explained that most of the “private matter” had been cut out of the published version of his diary, but not all: “I couldn’t cut it all out, I felt, without taking from the diary too much of its character. For it is the case that a prisoner thinks a great deal about his wife, his children, and home.”   Indeed, as I write in my Introduction, in many ways From Day to Day can be viewed as one long love letter to Nansen’s wife Kari.

Longing suffuses the entire diary.  “For more than a week, a fearful week, I had been looking forward to it [a meeting with Kari] and longing for it.” (May 7, 1942).  “Longing keeps us in life and hope.” (January 30, 1944).  In the very last diary entry Nansen wrote (April 27-28, 1945), he anguishes that “all I have been longing for for years with all my soul [seemed] more remote than ever.”

So, it was with great surprise that, during my recent visit to Oslo, Nansen’s granddaughter Anne Greve casually asked me if I knew the background to the bracelet she was wearing?  It was a simple silver bracelet, adorned with a common-looking brown stone (there were originally three such stones, but only one remains):

The bracelet

Inside the bracelet Nansen inscribed a simple, heartfelt message for his wife, on the occasion of their sixteenth wedding anniversary:

“Et Griniminne til dig fra mig/Vel ingen sjelden juvel/Men pant på at jeg elsker dig/Av hele min lengtende sjel/Din Odd/Grini 27-8-43”

A partial view of the bracelet’s interior

“A Grini memory to you from me/Well no rare jewel/But trust that I love you/With all my longing soul/Your Odd/Grini 27-8-43”

According to Anne, Nansen’s wife Kari wore it constantly throughout her life, and now Anne does as well:

Anne Greve modeling the bracelet

Readers of the diary know that the portion which covers August 27, 1943 was unfortunately lost, so we’ll never know what thoughts or feelings, if any, Nansen recorded on that date.  We do know what he wrote on the following anniversary, while in Sachsenhausen: “Sunday, August 27, 1944.  Our wedding day!  Seventeen years! . . .   Life has been good to us after all.  The wealth it has given us in these seventeen years no one can take from us.  It is of eternity and will never die, even though we should never meet again.”

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.

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.

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Upcoming Events

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Book Signings

  • April 24, 2019: Wofford College, Spartanburg, SC
  • April 28, 2019: Congregation Beth Israel, West Hartford, CT
  • April 28, 2019: Atria Darien, Darien, CT
  • April 29, 2019: Atria Rye Brook, Rye Brook, NY
  • April 29, 2019: The Watermark, Bridgeport, CT
  • April 29, 2019: Congregation B’nai Israel, Bridgeport, CT
  • April 30, 2019: Solstice of Guilford, Guilford, CT
  • April 30, 2019: The Osborn, Rye, NY
  • May 1, 2019: Meadow Ridge, Redding, CT
  • May 2, 2019: Notre Dame High School, West Haven, CT
  • May 30, 2019: The Glebe, Daleville, VA
  • May 31-June 2, 2019: Georgetown University, Washington, DC
  • June 3, 2019: Brightwood, Lutherville, MD
  • June 11, 2019: Osher Lifelong Learning, Clemson University, Clemson, SC
  • 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, 2019: Charlestown Sr. Living, Catonsville, MD
  • October 15, 2019: American Scandinavian Society, New York, NY
  • October 17, 2019: 55-Plus Club, Princeton, NJ
  • October 19, 2019: Stonebridge at Montgomery, Skillman, NJ
  • November 1, 2019: Osher Lifelong Learning, Furman University, Greenville, SC
  • January 21, 2020: Alpha Delta Kappa, Raleigh, NC

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"Definitely one of the finest presentations I've been to at OLLI [Osher Lifelong Learning Institute].  Mr. Boyce's passion about the story is unique and his presentation and his book brought tears to the eyes of many of us there."

- attendee Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Clemson Clemson, SC

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