Book review: Nansen’s powerful WWII diary republished

Illustration from the book, courtesy of Timothy Boyce
One of the things that enlivens this concentration camp diary is Nansen’s many sketches. While most, like the sketch of a “muselmann” below, show the grimness of the camps, others, like the birthday card Nansen made for his daughter Siri’s 10th birthday, show just how hard it is to crush a human spirit.

Michael Kleiner
Philadelphia, Penn.

The name Nansen has a cachet in Norway. Fridtjof navigated the Fram to the Arctic Ocean and skied across Greenland, was an ambassador for Norwegian independence in 1905, and earned the role League of Nations High Commissioner for the Aid of Refugees and Prisoners for his involvement in the refugee situation following World War I. Nansen won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922.

His son, Odd, helped Jewish refugees escape Nazi-controlled countries. The Nansen Office for International Refugees won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1938. On January 13, 1942, the Nazis arrested Nansen as a “court-hostage,” famous people who were part of the resistance. Odd, 40, kept a log of his experiences in three concentration camps over three years. They were Grini, outside Oslo (January 13, 1942, to August 4, 1942; November 22, 1942, to October 6, 1943); Veidal in northern Norway (August 5, 1942, to November 22, 1942); and Sachsenhausen in Germany (October 6, 1943, to March 20, 1945). From Day to Day: One Man’s Diary of Survival in Nazi Concentration Camps, was republished by Vanderbilt University Press, thanks to the efforts of editor Timothy J. Boyce, a retired lawyer in Tryon, N.C. The book is 604 pages, including 47 with photographs and appendices that include translations of common German phrases and “SS Ranks and U.S. Army Equivalents.” Also included are 43 of Odd’s beautiful sketches. The uniqueness of From Day to Day, as opposed to other diaries from the period, is that it was written in “real time.”

The book was out-of-print for 60 years. It took Boyce six years to find a publisher.

Toward the end of the war, the Nazis were liquidating the camps or sending prisoners to other camps. A majority of Jews were exterminated. Into Sachsenhausen from the Auschwitz Death March came 10-year-old Thomas Buergenthal, whose toes were so frostbitten that several had to be amputated. He had spent five years in camps so he could not read or write but had worked in the crematoriums. Nansen used his food and tobacco rations to bribe the hospital orderlies to keep Thomas’s name off the periodic selection lists.

Thomas became life-long friends of Odd and his children. He grew up to become judge on the International Court of Justice at The Hague and received the 2015 Elie Wiesel Award from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. He published a memoir, A Lucky Child, in 2010. That caught Boyce’s eye.

“I knew nothing about the book or Buergenthal, but I love history, particularly memoirs, and am fascinated with the Holocaust,” said Boyce. “Thomas relates that Nansen kept a diary while a camp prisoner.”

Boyce searched the internet and found one copy of From Day to Day in the U.S., and five in the world.

“It was one of the most powerful, compelling, eloquent, cinematic, and humanistic books I had ever come across,” said Boyce. “I decided that I would try to get the book republished. It was a masterpiece that people should read. It has such inspirational value for all people, how one maintains his humanity in the face of the most inhumane conditions possible.”

Boyce contacted Buergenthal, who was teaching at George Washington University Law School. They met in January 2011. Buergenthal supported the republishing effort, wrote the preface, and put Boyce in touch with Odd’s surviving children, Marit and Eigil. Boyce met them in Oslo in summer 2011.

Boyce’s break in finding a publisher came after a talk to the Sons of Norway Lodge in Nashville. “A member, Sten Vermund, offered to introduce me to the Director of the Vanderbilt Press. Sten had a personal reason for helping to get the book back into print. His grandfather was a prisoner at Grini.”

Since Fridtjof donated his Nobel prize money to refugee organizations and Odd used his royalties from the German translation of the diary for German refugee groups, Marit and Boyce decided Boyce should donate half his royalties to the U.S. Holocaust Museum and the other half to the Jewish Museum of Oslo.

Writing was forbidden in the camps. As readers, we are blessed with history, so when prisoners express optimism in 1942 that the war will soon end, we know it lasted three more years. Kudos to original translator Katherine John for retaining the superb writing.

There were stark differences between the camps. Grini was more of a labor camp with the possibility of release. Odd was an architect, so he had an indoor job where he avoided the outside hard labor and physical abuse other prisoners experienced. The Norwegian prisoners were allowed to receive parcels from family.

He was also used for making signs and pictures, some with hidden anti-German messages. It also gave him an office where, after hours, he could write in the diary. The diary was written, in part, to his beloved wife, Kari.

His status gave him certain freedoms. He could go into Oslo with a guard to pick up materials. He was able to arrange meetings with Kari, sometimes with the children (she was pregnant with their fourth child), where he would smuggle the diary out. Occasionally, she was able to visit him at the camp for 10 minutes under strict supervision. The diary was hidden in walls and buried in the ground at the edge of the camp.

Illustration from the book, courtesy of Timothy Boyce

A remarkable show of resistance was shown at the Lysaker train station. People at the station encircled Kari so she and Odd could meet. She also brought food and cigarettes. While Odd copied freight bills, the goods were loaded into his hung jacket, to be smuggled into the camp for him and other prisoners.

Curiously, some of the guards encouraged the smuggling. One was Eckert, “a good-natured lunatic.” When Odd dropped a loaf of bread back in camp, Eckert told the lieutenant it was his loaf. Eckert received a month’s curfew.

Odd analyzed the guards, officers, and commandant. Prisoners gave them nicknames like “Storm Prince” and “The Segment.” He tried to find any humanity in them and had conversations with them about Nazism. He poked fun at them in his writing. However, Odd shares how an officer, considered a bully, cried after the execution of 15 resistance fighters.

Odd had status among the prisoners, who would ask for assistance with their situations.

The many footnotes in the book are remarkable, for example identifying all prisoners mentioned, why and when they were arrested and their exact release dates. Information about the individual guards and leaders and what happened to them after the war were also included.

“The internet helped direct me on my research, especially in the beginning, when I knew nothing about Nansen or Norway,” said Boyce. “I read just about every available English language work dealing with Norway, WWII, and the concentration camps. As I became more experienced with written Norwegian, I could also rely on some Norwegian texts. The other font of information was Marit, who is the family historian and explained hundreds of questions I had along the way. Without her, the footnotes would not be nearly so insightful about Nansen himself. Tom Buergenthal was also very helpful.”

Odd did spend a short time in isolation.

The Jews were kept separately from the other prisoners and had the worst outside jobs.

The prisoners held secret entertainment evenings—some were able to bring instruments with them. They would close by singing “Ja vi elsker.”
“West wind” was the code word for news reports from the BBC.

The expanding breadth of the resistance is seen as Odd announces the arrivals. One day the teachers, another the clerics. During his second stint in Grini, it was the ski jumping champion Ruud brothers.

Odd and most of the other prisoners he knew left Grini on Aug, 4, 1942, en route to northern Norway. Their destination was unknown. First, 34 men were crammed into a train cattle car; then 400 in the hold of a ship. Sometimes, they were allowed on deck. Food was smuggled aboard.

At Veidal, the prisoners were able to build a stove where they could cook the food from the parcels. There were evening lectures as some of the prisoners were experts in their fields. I was surprised when my friends’ grandfather—Olav Dalgard—was mentioned! Odd’s tasks were mainly wood carving and trivial things like making boxes for the Germans to send herring home for Christmas presents.

Grini was harsher the second time around. He does another stint in isolation. A couple of weeks after negotiating for better treatment from one of the officers, Odd is sent to Sachsenhausen, after a caricature he drew of the commander is uncovered.

At Sachsenhausen, they immediately learned the hand signal signifying someone had died in the crematorium, their ashes had gone “up the chimney.” Though the Norwegians still received their parcels, the camp food was usually cabbage soup. There were floggings and hangings. The Nazis often had prisoners do the task. Absent was Odd’s access to the Nazi officers and his sarcasm. Boyce did a search and found one instance of humor at Sachsenhausen. Sachsenhausen was also 20 miles north of Berlin, so they were able to see and feel the bombings.

There were also the Muselmänner, some of whom had been in the camp since the 1930s. Most were Ukrainians and Russians, who looked like skeletons and crawled on the ground looking for scraps of food, like “animals.”

Odd criticizes his compatriots for hoarding their food and treating these prisoners no better than the Nazis did. “Weren’t we fighting the same thing?”

Sachsenhausen was also where the Nazis secretly had prisoners, mainly Jews, print counterfeit British pounds, stamps, and passports. They were separated from the rest of the camp. Adolf Burger, believed to be the last surviving member of this operation, died Dec. 6, 2016, at age 99.

Odd wrote a powerful post script in 1948. He recalls how when he was finally safely in Sweden, he wanted to call Kari but had forgotten the telephone number—after writing a diary that would be a testament to history and memory. He also notes that as horrible as what he witnessed was, it was worse elsewhere. His admonition to us:

“…How is the coming generation equipped for this work of rebuilding the world and carrying it forward? And, what can and must we do to strengthen it and lighten its labor on this, the hardest and most difficult task that any generation has ever faced?…One thing is certain: hate, revenge and retribution are not the way. They lead us back to the abyss. We should have experience enough by now to know that.…I am thinking of the rising generation in all countries, for no country has escaped the disaster. And not least, I am thinking of the rising generation in countries that lost the war…

“…Whatever one might feel about the Germans and others who were fighting against one’s country during the war, surely in the course of time, even though it may require some effort, one can think and feel differently about the growing generation, wherever it is growing up….

“…Just suppose that, from the tormented, starving, fear-ridden humanity, instead of the cry for justice, there arose a cry for kindness—for love!…In the echo of that cry from human hearts, a new justice would be created, the outlines of a new, more human world would appear, and the way to it would open…And along with it will come…a recognition of the duties and responsibility that democracy has need of to endure….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!”

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 13, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

You may also like...