Posts tagged Sachsenhausen

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.

THE Book Tour (Part II): Serendipity Again

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Most of my blog readers already know of my friend Siri Svae Fenson.  Previously I had written about her uncle, Hjalmar Svae, described by Odd Nansen as “a fine type of Norwegian patriot.”  Svae, along with two other Norwegians, had attempted to escape to Great Britain from Norway in a stolen German motorboat in August 1941.  Unfortunately, the engine quit before they reached their goal, and the ocean current carried the boat all the way back to Denmark where they were captured, arrested, and sentenced to death.  Svae then undertook a second, even more dangerous, but ultimately successful, escape attempt from prison.

The story is told more fully here.  (A second blog involving Siri’s family is told here.)

When Siri learned that I would be speaking at the Sons of Norway Sixth District Convention in Rohnert Park, CA, in June, she graciously invited me to stay with her and her husband Max, since they lived in nearby Santa Rosa, CA.

Siri and Max proved to be wonderful hosts, and Siri even organized a meeting at her home of the local Sons of Norway chapter (Freya Lodge) so I could share Nansen’s story in a relaxed setting.

Me, Siri and Max Fenson at an Indian restaurant, Santa Rosa, CA

I took leave of Siri and Max on Monday evening, June 11.  Fast forward a mere three days, and I am now arriving at the Norwegian Club of San Francisco for dinner and a presentation on the evening of the 14th.

[The Norwegian Club of San Francisco has a venerable history itself.  It was founded in 1898 in anticipation of a visit from the great polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen (Odd’s father) who was on a speaking tour following his record-setting attempt on the North Pole.  The talk never took place, as Nansen’s plans changed, but the club has remained active ever since.  Moreover, when Roald Amundsen (who would be the first to reach the South Pole in 1911) successfully navigated the Northwest Passage (another first) in 1906, he celebrated his three-and-a-half-year feat in San Francisco, with the Norwegian Club.  As a result, the club possesses a priceless collection of artifacts from the trip and from Amundsen’s ship, the Gjøa, now on permanent display in Oslo.  The club also hosted Thor Heyerdahl and crew upon the completion of their famous Kon-Tiki expedition.]

Now, back to the main story.  It is approximately 6:45pm at the Club, and I’m setting up my books, checking the projection equipment, etc., as guests continue to file in.  At one point a member enters, introduces herself as Helene Sobol, and mentions how excited she is to hear my presentation—after all, her father was also a prisoner in Sachsenhausen during the war.  That was certainly enough to get my attention.  Her father’s name?  “Bjørn Fraser.”  Let’s check the Index to see if he is mentioned in the diary.  Sure enough, he is, on pages 87, 96, 111, 120 and 123.  Let’s pursue this a bit further.

Well, it turns out that Bjørn Fraser and Hjalmar Svae were on the same boat that never arrived in England.  There were only three men involved in the theft and escape—Fraser, Svae and a man named Per Birkevold.  Approximately 40,000 Norwegians were arrested by the Nazis and their sympathizers during the war.  What are the chances of meeting—less than one week apart—the relatives of two of the three members of an event so audacious that Odd Nansen spends considerable time in his diary describing their “crime,” and then worrying about their fate?!? And that those two relatives live less than an hour away from each other?

Serendipity seems to be one of my favorite words these days, but I really don’t know how else to describe all the coincidences/connections that almost continually pop-up in my journey to share Nansen’s story.  I’ve even written a blog about serendipity (here).  Needless to say, meeting both Siri and Helene were some of the biggest highlights of my book tour.  Helene’s sister still lives in Norway, as does Siri’s cousin—Hjlamar’s daughter Kirsti. I foresee connections being made in both America and Norway!

Despite receiving a death sentence, and despite Nansen’s conclusion that “They can’t have much chance to speak of,” Bjørn Fraser, like Hjalmar Svae, led something of a charmed life.  He not only survived the war when his sentence was reduced to ten years at hard labor, but later rose to become brigadier-general in the Norwegian Air Force, and also served as an aide-de-camp to King Olav V (who in turn was a schoolmate of Odd Nansen).  After our wonderful meeting, Helene later wrote to me, in part: “I was particularly touched by Nansen’s worry that my father had been shot, something that thankfully turned out to be false, or I would not have been born! His praise of my father . . . as [a] great patriot touched my heart.”   Here’s a photo Helene shared, showing her father, on the far left, and King Olav V in the center, as Olav takes his oath upon becoming king in 1957:

Bjørn Fraser at King Olav V’s oath to the Norwegian Constitution, 1957

It was truly an honor to share a meal and discuss Nansen’s diary at the Norwegian Club, following in the footsteps of the great Amundsen, Heyerdahl, and the even the ghost of Fridtjof Nansen.  By the way, the third member of the “boat gang,” Per Birkevold, also sentenced to death, also managed to survive until war’s end.  At this point I will be rather disappointed if I don’t meet up with a Birkevold relative in the near future……….

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Upcoming Events

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  • February 10, 2019: Central United Methodist Church/S.T.A.R.
  • February 22, 2019: Providence Athenaeum, Providence, RI
  • March 10, 2019: York, PA Jewish Community Center, York, PA
  • May 2, 2019: Notre Dame High School, West Haven, CT
  • January 21, 2020: Alpha Delta Kappa, Raleigh, NC

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Upcoming Events

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Book Signings

  • February 10, 2019: Central United Methodist Church/S.T.A.R.
  • February 22, 2019: Providence Athenaeum, Providence, RI
  • March 10, 2019: York, PA Jewish Community Center, York, PA
  • May 2, 2019: Notre Dame High School, West Haven, CT
  • January 21, 2020: Alpha Delta Kappa, Raleigh, NC
< 2018 >
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9101112131415
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23242526272829
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