Posts tagged Thomas Buergenthal

August 1-2, 1944: Hope and Despair

Share

As dates go, the first two days of August 1944 seem to me unusually fraught.  Many things changed irrevocably—most for the worse, only a few for the better.

ANNE

On Tuesday, August 1, 1944, Anne Frank wrote in her diary to her imaginary friend Kitty.  To Kitty, and only to Kitty, could Anne confide all of her thoughts, longings, and emotions without fear of being judged.

On that day Anne tried to explain to Kitty about the “bundle of contradictions” that made up her nature.  She felt her exterior of exuberant cheerfulness, flippancy even, hid an interior self: “much purer, deeper, finer.”  This “deeper” Anne, however, shrank from exposing itself to others.  The real Anne could only be herself when she was alone.  She wanted to show this inner self—the quiet and serious Anne—but could not yet overcome this difficulty.  Her diary entry ends: [I will] keep trying to find a way to become what I’d like to be and what I could be . . . if only there were no other people in the world.”

Unknown to Anne, this was to be her final entry.  Three days later, on August 4, Anne, her family, and their friends were betrayed and arrested by the Gestapo.

No doubt hope sustained Anne during her ordeal, first in a transit camp, then in Auschwitz, and finally in Bergen-Belsen.  No doubt she hoped that she would one day be reunited with her precious diary.  Nevertheless, within six months Anne would perish, age 15.  Only her diary survived to reveal to the world her “purer, deeper, finer” self.

Anne Frank

Tom

On Wednesday, August 2, 1944, as the ink dried on Anne’s final diary entry, Thomas Buergenthal and his parents arrived by train in Auschwitz, the largest and deadliest camp the Nazis ever built.  Approximately 1.3 million people were murdered there, of whom approximately 1.1 million were Jews.

It’s doubtful if either Tom or his parents grasped at that moment the true horror of Auschwitz, the industrial scale of its gas chambers and crematoriums.  Prior to arrival, “I could not quite imagine what Auschwitz was really like,” Tom admits in his memoir, although he knew it was a place of dread.

Tom soon learned that his experience in Auschwitz would be very different.  Unlike his previous life in the Kielce Ghetto and in various work camps outside Kielce, his family would no longer remain intact.  Upon arrival he was immediately torn from his mother.  Except for a single brief glimpse of her through the wire—hair shorn, tear-stained, but alive—ten-year old Tommy would not see his mother Gerda for almost two and a half years.  Then, less than three months after arrival, Tom was also separated from his father.  Mundek was sent, first, to Sachsenhausen and later to Buchenwald.  There he died of pneumonia on January 15, 1945, less than 90 days before the camp was liberated.

What kept Tom going through all this?  True, he was ein Glückskind—a lucky child—helped by many, even in Auschwitz.  But what thoughts kept him from despair as he struggled to survive, alone?  As he explains in his memoir, while living in an orphanage after the war, and despite all indications to the contrary, “I continued to believe, without telling anyone, that my parents were alive and would find me one day soon.”  Hope kept despair at bay.

Tom Buergenthal with his parents

Warsaw

Finally, on August 1, as Anne Frank penned her final diary entry, and as Tom was about to enter Auschwitz, the Polish underground in Warsaw staged a revolt.  The insurgents hoped to both drive the Germans from the city, and establish control over Poland’s capital before the Soviet-backed Polish Committee of National Liberation arrived.  Initially, the underground succeeded in establishing control over much of central Warsaw.  Nevertheless, the Soviet army, which occupied the eastern bank of the Vistula River, and thus Warsaw’s eastern suburbs, rendered no assistance. This cold-blooded decision by Stalin has since been called “one of the major infamies of th[e] war.”

Ultimately, the outgunned and outmanned uprising was brutally crushed.  Over 16,000 resistance fighters were killed, as were between 150,000—200,000 Polish civilians.  Many were victims of mass executions by the German Army.  Most of the remaining population was sent off to concentration camps, including Sachsenhausen, as witnessed by Odd Nansen on August 15, 1944 and December 13, 1944.  The city was not liberated until January 17, 1945.

Warsaw Uprising 1944

In sum, in the first days of August, 1944, an unsuspecting Anne Frank poured her heart out to her diary, which would survive even if she did not.  Tom Buergenthal passed through the gates of hell, but inexplicably survived.  The Polish underground was crushed, but its tormentor, Nazi Germany, ultimately went down to total, ignominious defeat.  Poland did not see real freedom for decades.

All of these participants faced despair in early August, but all were motivated by hope.  Indeed, hope may have been the most powerful weapon they could wield.  For some it was enough; for others it fell short.  Memories of August 1-2 will always remain bittersweet.

Are Fortunetellers Any Good?

Share

The following is one of the most fascinating passages in Odd Nansen’s diary, penned while in Sachsenhausen on Monday, June 19, 1944:

“This community within the walls contains everything, even a fortuneteller—or astrologer, as he calls himself, though he reads hands. He read mine yesterday.  Predicted that on the 21st or possibly the 20th of July a terrible disaster would befall Germany, which would bring the war to a close.  The armistice would come immediately afterward. . . . .  I should be home in July or August, he said.” (emphasis mine)

True to the astrologer’s word, on July 20, 1944, Adolf Hitler was the subject of an assassination attempt that came perilously close to ending his life.  The plot, known as Operation Valkyrie, required Claus von Stauffenberg to place a bomb-laden briefcase in Hitler’s briefing bunker located in Wolfsschanze, his military headquarters in Rastenburg, East Prussia.  Von Stauffenberg and other high-ranking officers in the German military had become convinced that Hitler was a disaster for the country.  Only his death, they concluded, by releasing the armed forces from their personal oath to the Führer, would allow the military to wrest control of Germany away from the Nazi Party and the SS. The plan almost succeeded.  Shortly after noon on July 20th, von Stauffenberg placed the briefcase under the briefing table near Hitler.  Then, as pre-arranged, he left the briefing to fly to Berlin and set the Valkyrie plan into motion.

Claus von Stauffenberg

Von Stauffenberg had originally planned to arm two bombs, but was able to prime only one explosive in time.  (A decorated war veteran, von Stauffenberg had lost an eye, his right hand, and two fingers from his left hand in combat.)  Also unbeknownst to von Stauffenberg, after he left the meeting another attendee pushed the inoffensive looking briefcase behind a leg of the heavy, wooden conference table.

The resulting blast killed four of the meeting occupants (including the officer who had moved the briefcase out of the way) and injured everyone else in the room to some degree.  Hitler’s trousers were singed and tattered, and his eardrums punctured, but he survived. Almost 5,000 Germans accused of supporting the plot, including von Stauffenberg, were ultimately executed in reprisal.

Hitler’s bunker following the bombing

How could a fortuneteller, imprisoned in the bowels of a concentration camp, possibly have advance knowledge of the conspirator’s plans?  On June 19, 1944, the date of Nansen’s diary entry, even the conspirators didn’t know the date of the attack—it all depended on when von Stauffenberg or another plotter could gain access to Hitler.  In fact, assassination attempts were also scheduled for July 7 (using General Helmuth Stieff as the bomber), as well as July 14 and 15 (involving von Stauffenberg).  In each case some glitch caused the conspirators to pull back on their plan.

If the conspirators had succeeded on the 20th—if the bomb had not been moved, or if both bombs had been primed—and Hitler killed, would the war have ended?  This remains one of history’s tantalizing puzzles.  The probable answer: most likely not.  The conspirators were certainly anti-Nazi, but just as certainly German nationalists unlikely to give up their territorial gains, and in any event England the U.S. were unlikely to agree to a separate peace which the conspirators ardently hoped for.

So what did the fortuneteller know and how did he know it?  Was it just a lucky guess? An amazing coincidence?  Something else?

Before you discount completely the powers of astrology, or palm reading, or fortunetelling, consider that Thomas Buergenthal’s mother also visited a fortuneteller, in 1939, while the family was staying in Katowice, Poland, waiting for action on their visa application to England.  Even though she took off her wedding ring before entering, the fortuneteller “proclaimed that [Tom’s] mother was married and had one child.” Moreover, the fortuneteller told Tom’s mother “that her son was ‘ein Glückskind’—a lucky child—and that he would emerge unscathed from the future that awaited” the Buergenthal family.

Given Tom Buergenthal’s amazing accomplishments and his many contributions to humanity, we can all be truly grateful that the Katowice fortuneteller was 100% correct: Tom was indeed ein Glückskind.

Tom Buergenthal’s memoir

Today is Anne Frank’s Birthday

Share

Anne Frank

Today is Anne Frank’s birthday.  Had she lived, she would be 91 years old, the same age as Odd Nansen’s eldest child, my dear friend Marit Greve.  The exact date and cause of her death are unknown, although it is now believed that she succumbed in late February, 1945, probably to a disease such as typhus.

Anne, her family, and the other inhabitants of the secret annex in Amsterdam were discovered and arrested on August 4, 1944.  Thereafter she was sent to Westerbork, then Auschwitz (sharing the camp with Thomas Buergenthal who was also there at the time) and finally, in October 1944, to Bergen-Belsen.

Despite considerable differences in age and experience, there are numerous parallels between Odd Nansen and Anne Frank.  Most obviously, they were both famous diarists. Moreover, their diaries were not a mere afterthought, they were central to their respective lives.  When the Frank family received a call-up notice and decided to go into hiding, “I began to pack some of our most vital belongings into a school satchel [and] the first thing I put in was this diary,” wrote Anne.  Similarly, Nansen writes in his Foreword “Paper and writing materials were the last things I put in my knapsack before going off with the district sheriff and his henchmen.”  Anne describes as one of her “worst moments” the time her family discussed burning the diary, lest it fall into the wrong hands and implicate their helpers; Nansen called his diary “such a blessed help to me, such a comfort.”

Both diaries survived by the slimmest of margins.  Nansen faced the constant threat of detection in prison, and relied on all sorts of channels while in Norway to smuggle the diary pages to his wife, including, at one point, a Wehrmacht driver that even he called “ungovernable [and] frankly dangerous.”  Anne’s diary, seemingly safely hidden in a briefcase, was unceremoniously and unwittingly dumped on the floor of the annex on the day of her arrest by a Gestapo official who wanted to use the briefcase to collect any family jewelry and cash he could find in the apartment. After the Gestapo left, Miep Gies collected everything she could find on the floor for safekeeping.  As a result, as Francine Prose has pointed out in Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife, “There is no way of knowing if any, or how much, of Anne’s writing was lost.”

This was not the only danger both diaries faced.  Upon his evacuation from Germany (along with his secret diary) at the hands of the Swedish Red Cross, Nansen heard, to his dismay, that the prisoners’ every possession, without exception, was burned upon arrival in Denmark, presumably to prevent the spread of disease.  Miep Gies, holding Anne’s diary until her return, later wrote that, had she read the diaries “she might have felt compelled to burn them, out of concern for her colleagues.”

Once the war was over, both diaries had difficulty getting into print.  Nansen’s diary was rejected by the first publisher it was submitted to, before being taken up by Dreyers Forlag.  Similarly, the manuscript collated and prepared by Anne’s father Otto Frank was rejected by every Dutch editor to whom it was submitted.

Once finally published, Nansen’s work was faster out of the gate, becoming a bestseller in Norway when it appeared in 1947; that same year Anne’s book had a small initial print run (1500 copies) in Holland, and was out of print by 1950.  Nansen also had an easier time breaking into the U.S. market; by 1949 an English translation was available through G.P. Putnam’s Sons.  Anne’s diary received a skeptical reception.  One major publishing house called it “a dreary record of typical family bickering, petty annoyances and adolescent emotions.”  The book was already on Doubleday’s reject pile when an assistant to the director of its Paris bureau picked it up in 1952, started reading, couldn’t stop, and thus rescued it.

When both diaries ultimately appeared in America, they each met with an enthusiastic response.  Meyer Levin, writing in the New York Times Book Review, was smitten by Anne’s writing; it “simply bubbles with amusement, love [and] discovery” he wrote.  The New Yorker said of Nansen’s diary: “[I]t will surely rank among the most compelling documents to come out of the recent [war].”

Even the moneys generated by the books have followed a similar course.  According to Prose, Otto Frank decided to channel some the book’s profits into human rights causes.  Odd Nansen chose to give all the proceeds of the German edition of From Day to Day to German refugees.  And one hundred percent of the speaking fees and royalties from the sale of the new edition of From Day to Day are earmarked for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Norwegian Center for Holocaust and Minority Studies .

Of course, the post-publication trajectories of The Diary of Anne Frank and From Day to Day have been much different.  Millions of copies of The Diary of Anne Frank are now in print.  As Prose explains, “Good fortune and serendipity appeared, at every stage, to arrange Anne’s diary’s American success.”  Out of print, and all but forgotten in America for over 65 years, perhaps good fortune and serendipity will now smile equally on Nansen’s diary, and it will someday join the ranks of seminal works on the Holocaust, along with Anne’s diary, Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz and Elie Wiesel’s Night.

Most importantly, now that From Day to Day is back in print, perhaps it will also provide the same inspiration that Francine Prose attributes to Anne’s eloquent diary: “Anne Frank’s strong and unique and beautiful voice is still being heard by readers who may someday be called upon to decide between cruelty and compassion.  Guided by a conscience awakened by [the diary] one . . .  may yet opt for humanity and choose life over death.”

The above is a revised and updated version of a blog which first appeared on June 12, 2016.

April 26–A Day for Anniversaries

Share

My readers have by now undoubtedly noticed that I have a thing about anniversaries.

Today is no exception, and marks several important such anniversaries, including the fact that my mother, were she still alive, would have turned 100 today.

Also, today is the fourth anniversary of the re-appearance, in print, of the English version of From Day to Day, following a 67-year hiatus.  Perhaps equally important, this week represents the ten-year anniversary of my chance decision, in late April 2010, to purchase a newly published memoir called A Lucky Child, written by Thomas Buergenthal.

As I’ve pointed out to the audiences I have addressed, once you have, like me, amassed almost 5,000 books at home, the impetus to purchase yet another book comes quite easily.  And so I had little hesitation in purchasing A Lucky Child even though I knew almost nothing of the book’s contents or its author—no reviews, no advertising, no recommendations—beyond what I could see on its cover.  And yet A Lucky Child and From Day to Day, taken together, have changed the entire course of my life over these past 10 years—and hopefully for many more to come.  The people I’ve met, the stories I’ve heard, the history I’ve learned, have all changed me indelibly and, I feel, for the better.

I recently came across a quote, attributable to Eleanor Roosevelt, when explaining how her husband’s polio affected him.  “Anyone who has gone through great suffering,” she said, “is bound to have a greater sympathy and understanding of the problems of mankind.”

Now, I make no claim to any such suffering.  In fact, I’ve led an incredibly privileged life.  But I feel that one can vicariously experience something of the suffering of others.  And the experiences of Tom Buergenthal and Odd Nansen—whose stories I’ve read, and re-read, and absorbed—have engendered, I hope, “a greater sympathy and understanding of the problems of mankind.”  I certainly cannot imagine a better insight into such problems than the combined experiences of these two special people provide.

Even if this is all true, it still begs an important question.  Why did I choose to purchase, and read, Tom’s memoir in 2010, which in turn induced me—via a single footnote on page 177—to search out Odd Nansen’s diary?

Perhaps the best explanation I can come up with is one I found in a book review written a few years ago.  The reviewer observed: “The life of an artifact or work of literature is subject to happenstance.  How it travels and settles, takes root and effloresces, depends on so many various and unpredictable factors—on wars and the weather, on one reader’s serendipitous encounter or a rare individual’s advocacy. . . .” (emphasis added)

So, while I still scratch my head in wonder, I accept that I was fortunate to have had not one, but two, serendipitous encounters with such inspiring works, and the opportunity to advocate for them.

And that, as Robert Frost might say, has made all the difference.

April 22, 1945: Thomas Buergenthal Liberated

Share

Seventy-five years ago today, Polish and Russian armed forces liberated Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, and with it, Thomas Buergenthal.

Tom was nineteen days shy of his 11th birthday.  He had been a captive, in one form or another, of the Nazis since early 1940, when he and his family were herded into the Kielce Ghetto in Poland.  Tom was then just over five and a half years of age, meaning that, by April 1945, he had spent approximately half of his entire existence on earth as a prisoner.

And Tom had known fear even before the war began.  He sensed his mother’s trepidation when the two of them were ordered to the local police station in Zilina, Czechoslovakia in early 1939.  The family had fled to Zilina from their home in Ľubochňa, having been dispossessed of the hotel Tom’s father owned and ran there.  The family now fled Zilina as well, and Tom had to sleep in a ditch when trapped in the no-man’s-land between the Czech and Polish borders. He was not yet five years old.

And now Tom was free.

But what did freedom mean to a ten-year-old child?

Where were his parents?  He had last seen his father, Mundek, in October 1944, when he and Mundek were separated while in Auschwitz, and his father sent off to other camps (including, for a short time, Sachsenhausen), before succumbing to pneumonia in Buchenwald in January 1945.  He had seen his mother, Gerda, only once in Auschwitz, around the same time as his father was taken away.  Tom spotted her through the wire—thin, her hair shorn, tear covered—before she too was sent away to another camp: Ravensbrück.

How would Tom find them?  Where would he look?  How could he even begin?  Another year and a half would pass before Tom and his mother were miraculously reunited (movingly told in his memoir, A Lucky Child).

On April 22, 1945, then, what were Tom’s prospects?  Almost eleven, and yet still illiterate, Tom had had only one type of schooling—the school of survival.  He had done well in that school, a necessary experience for what lay ahead, but hardly sufficient.

What could Tom possibly aspire to?

Meanwhile, on the exact same date—April 22, 1945—but a world away, delegates from 46 countries began gathering in San Francisco to commence, in the words of William L. Shirer, “the difficult job of setting up the machinery of peace,” the United Nations.  And for all its shortcomings, the delegates did get some things right.  “[I]t will give us a better world organization than was the old League at Geneva,” wrote Shirer, “[T]here is to be an International Court of Justice, functioning as the judicial organ of the United Nations.”

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” is a phrase that goes back to an anti-slavery sermon in 1853, and has been used by many since, including Martin Luther King and Barack Obama.

Who could have known, back in that chaotic, uncertain world of April 1945—certainly not the delegates, and least of all Tom Buergenthal—that one day, six and a half decades later, this newly freed child prisoner would become a distinguished member of that same International Court of Justice.

I salute you, my dear friend Tom, and the wonderful new life of yours that began, however fitfully, 75 years ago today.

Thomas Buergenthal

The Lost Diaries of War

Share

My readers already know that I have a thing about diaries. I’ve written about Anne Frank’s diary (here), and a recently discovered Holocaust diary (here).

Some of you may have seen in the April 15 issue of the New York Times a fascinating piece about World War II diaries—more than 2,000—kept by Dutch civilians.  Apparently, they were collected by the government after the war, but, apart from cataloguing, they were never shared with the wider public.  Now, 75 years after the war’s end, they are finally seeing the light of day.

Now the Dutch are for the first time transcribing and digitizing these artifacts, and the Times article contains snippets of the diaries, along with representative images of the actual pages.  The reading is compelling.   Here’s the link.

Coincidentally, I was recently reading a classic by a favorite author of mine, William L. Shirer, called End of the Berlin Diary.  I’ve written about Shirer before (here).  The book covers Shirer’s return to Berlin in 1945, five years after he was expelled by the Nazis for writing unfavorably about the regime.  The book is a mixture of diary impressions and materials Shirer unearthed about the German war machine.  In this sense he is anticipating the work he would undertake in the 1950s when he compiled his magnum opus, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

Some of Shirer’s research and observations are startlingly relevant to some of the diary entries in the Times piece, so I decided to juxtapose certain diary entries with quotes from Shirer’s reporting, which provides a useful counterpoint.

Here goes:

“I’d always assumed they [the Germans] would leave us alone.  We had been neutral until the end,* and good to the Germans.”  Elisabeth Jacoba van Lohuizen-van Wielink [May 10, 1940].

“Breach of the neutrality of Belgium and Holland is meaningless.  No one will question that when we have won.”  Secret speech by Adolf Hitler to top military commanders, November 23, 1939.

“[T]he Queen . . . has fled the country because she feared for her life. . . .   The Germans wouldn’t have harmed her; they are much too honorable for that.”  Unnamed pro-Nazi Dutch woman [May 15, 1940].

“Have no pity.  Brutal attitude.  Eighty million people shall get what is their right.  Their existence has to be secured.  The strongest has the right.  Greatest severity.”**  Adolf Hitler speech, August 22, 1939, to military commanders set to lead assault on Poland.

“This is no life, but hell on earth.  My hands are trembling so much I can barely write.  This is all getting too much.  This is more than anyone can bear.”  Mirjam Bolle [February 23, 1943] [Later sent to Bergen-Belsen]

“[Reading about how few Jews are still alive in Germany] reminds me of another news item in the local press.  It tells of the testimony of a fifteen-year-old German lad, the son of the former SS commander of the Mauthausen concentration camp.  Questioned about his father, the boy said: ‘For my birthday, my father put forty inmates at my disposal to teach me how to shoot.  I took shots at them until they were all lying around dead. Otherwise I have nothing else to report about my father,’”

Finally, a comparison between Odd Nansen’s diary and one of the Dutch diaries, each entry written within months of the other:

“Sometimes I fear that I won’t be believed, because later generations simply won’t wish to accept what’s described in these pages, yet I swear on everything I hold dear to me that none of the events are untrue.”  Anton Frans Koenraads [May 6, 1945].

“It occurs to me that no one will believe this when we come to describe it.  You exaggerate, they’ll say.  It’s impossible.”  Odd Nansen [January 25, 1945].

As the Times article provides wonderful images of various original diary covers and  pages, I thought I’d end this blog with a page from Nansen’s diary that is particularly close to my heart.  On one of my visits to Norway, my dear friend (and Nansen’s daughter) Marit Greve took me to Norway’s national library, where the originals of Nansen’s diary are kept.  I was hoping to capture an image of a representative page.  When I snapped the picture I had no idea of its contents. It was not until I developed the photo later that I realized, to my surprise, that the page in question dealt with Tom Buergenthal.

A handwritten page from Odd Nansen’s diary.

If you look closely in the middle of the image, you will see “Tommy, Rafaelengelen” in Nansen’s handwriting.  The entry is for February 26, 1945, and reads in part: “Yesterday, as usual on Sunday, I was in the Revier.  First I went to see my youngest friend Tommy, the Raphael angel. He was smiling. . . .”

Of all the pages in the diary I might have photographed, I can’t think of one I could possibly have preferred more.

_______________________________

*Recall the words of Netherlands’s Herr Snouck Hurgronje in my previous post, regarding the country’s strict neutrality vis a vis England and France.

** Once Norway’s King Håkon VII refused to capitulate in 1940, the German’s tried to kill him through aerial bombing.

The Ides of March

Share

[Blogger’s Note: Most of my forthcoming scheduled appearances are now being postponed until further notice.  In my own contribution to “social distancing,” I plan to stay home as much as possible, and write more blogs.]

The 15th of March has had a bad connotation for quite some time—since at least 44 BC to be exact, when Julius Caesar was assassinated.  Shakespeare turned the date into a meme of sorts in his 1599 play about Caesar—as something to “beware of.”

March 15, 1939 was a particularly grim day, all told, in the lives of many.

Odd Nansen

On that day Odd Nansen was in Prague, Czechoslovakia, having just returned on the 13th from a mission in Bratislava.  In both cities he was toiling away at helping refugees.  Nansenhjelpen, the organization he founded and ran, had been fighting an uphill battle since 1936.  By this time Nansen and his wife Kari were pursuing both legal means (visas) and not so legal means (smuggling) in their efforts to assist desperate refugees fleeing persecution.  In fact, a transport of eighty refugees was set to depart Prague for Norway—on March 15.

In the early morning hours of the scheduled departure date Nansen was awakened by a call notifying him that German forces had crossed the Czech border, and would arrive in Prague shortly.  And shortly they did arrive, in force, directing traffic, shutting down all trains, commandeering all local hotels.  The Nansens were summarily ejected from their hotel room/office.  With some inside help, and a bribe to grease things, they soon secured a room in the nearby Hotel Alcron.

With all trains halted, Nansen’s first order of business was securing the release of his eighty trapped refugees.  By a stroke of luck, a German general, Erich Hoepner, was also staying at the Alcron, and Nansen obtained a meeting with him.

According to author Maynard Cohen, writing in his book A Stand Against Tyranny:

“Odd Nansen began with a description of the refugees in the forest outside Prague, how at that moment they lay in the snow beneath the open sky outside Prague, having forsaken their quarters in fear of the Gestapo.  He spoke of the sick and the old, the women and children, who had fled from country to country and city to city to avoid their ever-following pursuers.”

Hoepner relented, and allowed the women and children to depart by train; the men were illegally smuggled across the border into Poland.*

Less than three years later, Nansen would find himself a prisoner of the Nazis.**

Meanwhile, somewhere along the Czech/Polish border, four-year-old Tommy Buergenthal was stuck, along with his parents, was in his own purgatory.

Tom Buergenthal with his parents

Tom’s parents (following an ominous visit to the local police station), had decided that Czechoslovakia was no longer safe for them and they headed out for Poland.  They got as far as the border, where they became trapped in a no-man’s-land, the 50-yd strip that separated the Polish border post from the Czech border post.  As stateless refugees they had no valid travel documents.  Tom relates in his memoir, A Luck Child:

“As soon as we got to the Polish side of the border, the Polish guards would order us back to the Czech side.  The Czechs, in turn, would not allow us to reenter.  And so it went on for days. . . .  Back and forth we went, day and night.  We would sleep in the field adjacent to the road between the border posts or in one of the ditches [which ran alongside the road].”

It was only when heavily armed German troops arrived at the Czech border on March 15th did things change.  When Tom’s parents were able to convince the Germans (“the very people we were trying to escape”) that they were Polish, the German in charge browbeat the Polish guards into admitting the Buergenthals.  “That is how we got into Poland.”  It may have seemed like deliverance at the time, but the Kielce Ghetto, Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Ravensbrück and Sachsenhausen lay ahead.

Ilse Weber

Elsewhere in Prague Ilse and Willi Weber, along with their five-year-old son (also named Tommy), were similarly scrambling to escape.  Willi had applied to the Palestine Office in 1938 for a certificate allowing his family to emigrate to Palestine, and it was granted.  Before he could take advantage of his good luck, however, the Czech government ruled that Jews from the Sudetenland (absorbed into Germany in October, 1938 pursuant to the Munich Pact) should be given first priority.  Willi was assured he would automatically qualify for the next certificates—scheduled to arrive March 15.  When, as Willi later wrote, “Adolf’s hordes arrived” on that fateful day, the Palestine Office in Prague left.  While some certificates ultimately did arrive in Prague a bit later, their price had almost quadrupled, beyond the reach of the Webers.

In 1942 the Webers were deported to Theresienstadt.  There over 30,000 prisoners would perish, most from starvation.  As Willi noted, “most of the dead were old people; the young always figured out how to help themselves in some way, and those who worked received bigger rations.”  Ilse and young Tommy Weber were later sent to Auschwitz, where they were both gassed upon arrival. Willi, also transported to Auschwitz, survived the war.***

Martha Gellhorn, the American journalist and war correspondent, had also been in Prague, arriving in June 1938.  Did she ever meet Odd Nansen? Perhaps: her biographer, Caroline Moorehead, writes that “she found herself drawn . . . into the fate of the refugees: the frightened Jews and dissidents who had recently fled Austria and Germany and now had nowhere to go.”  According to Gellhorn herself, in February 1939, “in the beautiful bolt-hole [hideaway] of Cuba,“ she began to write a short story about the refugees of Prague.  It ultimately grew into a novel, A Stricken Field, published in 1940.

Martha Gellhorn

In an afterword to her novel, Gellhorn quotes from a letter she wrote on March 19, 1939—four days after Odd Nansen’s heroic act; four days after Tom Buergenthal’s family’s escape from no-man’s-land into an even darker future; four days after the hopes and dreams of the Weber family were so terribly dashed:

“We live in a world unlike any other at any time.  A world so cruel and mad that one cannot believe it will survive. . . I think, no doubt selfishly, that right now there is nothing to do about it except help one’s friends.”

Right now we are all concerned with the coronavirus.  So much is unknown: how fast will it spread; who will it infect; will hospitals be prepared; who will die?  All of this is truly unnerving.  But would any of us trade our world, with all the promise it holds, for the far more difficult and uncertain one inhabited by the Nansens, the Buergenthals, the Webers, or the refugees of Prague? Of course not.

And if they could face their unknown futures resolutely, perhaps we can take some courage from their example, and focus on “help[ing] one’s friends.”

* Hoepner was hanged on August 8, 1944, for his part in the July 1944 assassination plot against Hitler.  As further punishment, his wife and daughter were sent to Ravensbrück, and his son was sent to Buchenwald.

** Odd Nansen was arrested on the Ides of January, 1942, as I have written about here.

*** I have previously written about Ilse Weber here.

Thomas Buergenthal: Track Star?

Share

Those of you who have attended my presentations on From Day to Day know of the spectacularly successful career enjoyed by Thomas Buergenthal: Justice, International Court of Justice at The Hague; Judge, Inter-American Court of Human Rights; United Nations Human Rights Committee; United Nations Truth Commission for El Salvador; Dean, Washington College of Law, American University; Elie Wiesel Award, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (the Museum’s highest honor).

Did you also know he was once a track star?

I have written (here, here, here and here) about the role of serendipity/coincidence in my journey with Odd Nansen’s diary.  Recently, while on a book tour, I gave a presentation in Somerset, NJ.  In the middle of my talk a gentleman in the rear of the audience stood and raised his hand.  I asked if he could hold his question until the end of my talk, when I would be happy to entertain it.  When my talk ended, I saw the hand go up again and immediately called upon him.

The gentleman did not have a question at all, but rather some information to share: he had attended the same high school in the early 1950s as Tom Buergenthal—Paterson East High School.  In fact, the two were classmates together.

Dr. Don Zimmerman, a retired dentist, then offered to retrieve his old high school yearbook.  Sure enough, there was Don’s picture in the yearbook—the Senior Mirror 1953—along with Tom’s.

Don Zimmerman, Then

And Now

As can be seen, each photo was accompanied by a short write-up, containing answers that each student must have been asked to complete.  The first, undoubtedly, was: “What do you want to do after leaving Paterson High School?”  Tom certainly fulfilled his goal: “To be a lawyer and travel.”  Another of the questionnaire’s inquiries must have been: “What is your pet peeve?”  Tom’s simple answer: “Questionnaires.”  We also learn that Tom was “well-liked” and “from Germany.”  Here’s Tom’s graduation photo.  Pay particular attention to the final entry in his write-up—none other than “From Day to Day.

Tom’s Yearbook Photo

In our post-presentation conversation, Don Zimmerman also remembered being on the track team with Tom.  When I later called Tom to relay my meeting with an old classmate, I asked him about his track experience.  Yes, Tom admitted, he was on the school’s track team for a bit—as a sprinter no less—but soon realized that there were other more talented runners in the student body.

Nevertheless, he admitted, he did once win third place—in the 100-yard dash—in a school track meet.

Then Tom chuckled, and rather wryly observed, “Imagine what I might have been able to do if I had had all my toes.”

The parallel lives of Thomas Buergenthal and Anne Frank

Share

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.

Upcoming Events

Share

Book Signings

  • August 25, 2020: Norwegian History Roundtable (Virtual)
  • August 25, 2020: Montgomery County Library, Potomac, Md (Virtual)
  • September 18, 2020: VASA/Lodge Linne, New Providence, NJ (Virtual)
  • September 24, 2020: Norwegian-American Chamber of Commerce, Chicago, IL (Virtual)
  • October 7, 2020: The Adult School, New Jersey (Virtual)
  • October 27, 2020: Osher Life Long Learning, Clemson University, Clemson, SC (Virtual)
  • October 30, 2020: Osher Life Long Learning, Furman University, Greenville, SC
  • November 4, 2020: Sun City Huntley, Huntley, IL
  • November 4, 2020: Shorewood Glen, Shorewood, IL
  • November 5, 2020: Admiral on the Lake, Chicago, IL
  • November 9, 2020: Kristallnacht Observance, Chapman University, Orange, CA (Virtual)
  • November 10, 2020: Osher Life Long Learning, Clemson University, Clemson, SC (Virtual)
  • November 15, 2020: Kristallnacht Commemoration, Congregation Or Shalom, Orange, CT
  • November 18, 2020: The Adult School, New Jersey (Virtual)
  • December 1, 2020: JCC of Central New Jersey, Scotch Plains, NJ (Virtual)
  • February 5, 2021: Osher Life Long Learning, Furman University, Greenville, SC
  • February 15, 2021: Osher Life Long Learning, NC State, Raleigh, NC
  • February 22, 2021: Osher Life Long Learning, NC State, Raleigh, NC
  • May 13, 2021: Sons of Norway, Grand Forks, ND
  • May 14, 2021: Norwegian Heritage Week, Thief River Falls, MN
  • SPRING 2021: Notre Dame H.S. Alumni Club of DC, Washington, DC,
  • SPRING 2021: Sons of Norway, Fargo, ND (Kringen Lodge)
  • SPRING 2021: Sons of Norway, St. Cloud, MN (Trollheim Lodge)
  • SPRING 2021: Tuesday Open House, Mindekirken, Minneapolis, MN
  • SPRING 2021:  Georgetown University Bookstore, Washington, DC
  • June 9, 2021: Bet Shalom Hadassah, Jackson, NJ
  • October 19, 2021: Shalom Club, Great Notch, NJ

People are talking


"Tim...gave a terriffic presentation [at the Norwegian Nobel Institute]."

- Anne Ellingsen, author of Odd Nansen: Arvtageren

For more posts please see our archives.

Archives

On This Date

< 2020 >
August
SMTWHFS
      1
2345678
9101112131415
16171819202122
23242526272829
3031     
Legend
  Previous/Upcoming Engagements
  This day in history