Posts tagged Sam Hynes

Odd Nansen (d. June 27, 1973)

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Odd Nansen

Odd Nansen died 45 years ago today, on June 27, 1973, age 71.  I always feel that the anniversary of his death is an appropriate time to memorialize his life, and to try and draw lessons from it.

Although Nansen wrote several books during his lifetime, his sole “porthole” through which we English speakers can know him is through his incomparable diary, From Day to Day.  I have written extensively about the importance of his diary as a diary in my Introduction to From Day to Day, and I have written several blogs about various aspects of diaries (herehere and here).

My good friend (and another famous writer) Samuel Hynes, in his most recent book, On War and Writing (which I have blogged about here), also touches upon the importance of diaries.  Although his focus is on soldiers, the observation is apt for wartime prisoners as well.  In an essay entitled “In the Whirl and Muddle of War,” he explains:

“There seem to be two quite different needs that produce war writing: the need to report and the need to remember.  The reporting instinct operates as war happens, and appears in letters and diaries that at their best realize the unimaginable. [Nansen’s diary certainly does that.]  But such documents are more than simply narratives. . . .   Wars force their participants to confront the questions that life will put to them anyway, but not so bluntly: Am I a leader?  Am I a coward?  When required to act, will I fail?  You don’t have to label this challenge the test of manhood (a term that is not in much favor these days); call it instead a test of maturity, or of selfhood.  War confronts [one] with a challenge in terms that makes success or failure nakedly clear.

Life back home doesn’t often do that.  So the letters and diaries . . . are also report cards; they say that this young man has taken the test, and has passed.”

No one reading Odd Nansen’s diary can come to any conclusion but that he was a leader, he acted when required, he took the test of manhood/maturity/selfhood, and he passed.

But the power of Nansen’s diary, in my opinion, is not simply as a report card of his success in passing the test of selfhood.  To me, Nansen shows how an ordinary man can inspire each of us to overcome our own tests of selfhood.  Nansen was no different than each of us.  True, he was born into a notable Norwegian family, with a larger-than-life father.  But nothing in his upbringing had prepared him, or could have prepared him, for the crucible he was to face during World War II.  And yet he met that challenge, and defeated the forces of hate and fear arrayed against him.

Drawing yet again upon the insights of Sam Hynes, who writes in a subsequent essay entitled “A Critic Looks at War”:

“War is also the human struggle against human enemies—against Evil, Fear, Death itself.  Against those enemies men have sometimes performed acts of great courage and self-sacrifice, qualities that we recognize as humanly valuable, even as we hate the wars that bring them into being.  War stories are witnesses to such acts, not performed by heroes but by people like us.  Like Wilfred Owen, we may pity our fellow humans, pitched into war scenes of such extremity, but like Hemingway we must recognize the dignity of what they do.  They are ourselves, elsewhere; and their actions are our extreme possibilities.”

Next time we are faced with a moral conundrum, let us each remind ourselves, “What would Odd Nansen do?”  Inspired by Nansen’s great courage and self-sacrifice while in the infernos of death that comprised the Konzentrationslagers of World War II, let us aspire to live up to the “extreme possibilities” that lie within each of us.

An Anniversary, and a Road Trip

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Last week marked the second anniversary of the re-publication of the deluxe, fully edited and annotated World War II concentration camp diary of Odd Nansen, From Day to Day: One Man’s Diary of Survival in Nazi Concentration Camps.

For those of you keeping tabs (and who isn’t), here’s a brief scorecard:

  • 24,692 Miles traveled
  • 5,448 Website visitors
  • 5,206 Dollars donated
  • 75 Presentations
  • 64 Blog posts (this is #65)

I celebrated this important anniversary doing what I like to do best—talking about Nansen and his remarkable diary.  On April 18, I embarked on a ten-day, six-city tour, which ended in New York City, with stops along the way in several cities in New Jersey.  2,036 miles later, I can say it was all very worthwhile.

Virtually every stop along the way featured some fascinating encounter:

  • In Caldwell, NJ, an elderly audience member at the Public Library introduced herself to me after the talk, and explained that she had come to America decades ago by virtue of the Nansen Passport, a unique document pioneered by Fridtjof Nansen that allowed many stateless Europeans, particularly White Russians, to travel freely in the interwar period. [It so happens that I have written an article on the Nansen Passport which should be published later this year—stay tuned.]
  • In Upper Saddle River, NY, I was feted by the Sons of Norway Norrona Lodge. The members generously took up a collection for me, to help support the “cause,” and all such proceeds will go to the same recipients as the book’s royalties: The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC and the Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Religious Minorities in Oslo.  On top of that, the Lodge presented me with a gift basket filled with Norwegian goodies.  While my wife and I have been thoroughly enjoying the chocolates (with exotic names like Firkløver, Melkesjokolade and Gullbrød), it may take a bit longer to work up the courage to open the tinned mackerel (a good source of Omega-3 it boasts!).  All I can say is: “Takk for maten!”
  • At Bernards Township Public Library I discovered that the Library Director, Ruth Lufkin, had a son who graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy the same year as my son Owen. Go Navy, Beat Army!
  • A surprise visitor to the Summit Public Library was my brother-in-law, John McGowan and his son Nicholas. (A great steak dinner followed the talk, courtesy of John.)
  • A speech to the Old Guard of Princeton held the biggest surprise of all. Afterward I met a gentleman (whose privacy I will protect) who produced one of the actual breadboards used to smuggle parts of Nansen’s diary out of the camps at the close of the war.  It belonged to the grandfather of this man’s wife.  Talk about a real treasure!  That revelation will be hard to beat for quite some time, if ever.

Thomas Edison National Historical Park

The trip was not all work. In between appearances I spent a day at the site of Thomas Edison’s research labs in West Orange, NJ (now a National Historical Park). There, Edison, an autodidact, perfected the incandescent light bulb, the gramophone, and the movie camera, along with many other inventions (he ultimately held over 1,000 patents). The site also boasts the first movie production studio, and the first movie theater (in Edison’s library).  If you ever visit, ask for Harry, a volunteer with his own long career at Bell Labs and a passion for discussing all things Edison.

Edison’s Movie Production Studio

A day later, courtesy of my hosts Kathy Aleš and her husband Richard, I was able to attend a guest lecture by Lech Walesa, 1983 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, at Princeton University.  Although Walesa used an interpreter, his body language was at least as expressive as the actual speech.  He reminded the young audience that the Solidarity Movement had exactly zero chance of succeeding when it started, and yet it ultimately brought about the end of communist domination of Poland, and the end of communism altogether.  In other words any change, no matter how hopeless seeming, is possible.

Finally, I was able to spend time with an old friend, Samuel Hynes, the Woodrow Wilson Professor emeritus of Literature at Princeton University.  Sam has published extensively during his career (Flights of Passage, A Soldier’s Tale, A War Imagined, The Insubstantial Air, The Growing Seasons, among others), and, at age 93, isn’t slowing down much: he just published a new collection of essays and writings entitled On War and Writing (University of Chicago Press), which was recently reviewed in the New York Review of Books (by Max Hastings, one of my favorite historians).

During World War II Sam flew as a young Marine aviator in the South Pacific, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross.   Afterwards he taught Literature at Swarthmore, Northwestern and Princeton.   [In the Introduction to his new book, entitled “Two Vocations,” Sam writes: “From then on they [the Professor and the Pilot] worked together—the Pilot writing and the Professor looking over his shoulder, watching for split infinitives.”] You may remember Sam as the first talking head to appear on Ken Burns’ miniseries “The War.”  When our conversation turned to favorite poets, Sam started reciting Yeats by heart—an amazing display—and altogether an amazing afternoon.  [I plan to use some of Sam’s writings in a future blog—stay tuned as well.]

Samuel Hynes

So, all in all, it was a trip to be remembered.  Thanks to all my friends along the way who provided hospitality and support.  You know who you are.

As I turned my 2,036th mile pulling into my driveway, late last Friday night, I was greeted by a welcoming sound:  the Eastern Whippoorwill had finally returned from his long sojourn in Mexico, and was busily singing out his mating/territorial call.  Music to my ears!

As I brought my bags into the house, I was reminded of those immortal words of Sam Gamgee on the final page of The Lord of the Rings: “He drew a deep breath.  ‘Well, I’m back,’ he said.”

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