Nansen Lodge remembers Odd Nansen

Timothy Boyce talks about Nansen’s incredible diary from the Nazi concentration camps

Illustration from the book, courtesy of Timothy Boyd
One of the things that enlivens this concentration camp diary is Nansen’s many sketches. While most, like the sketch of a transport to Germany leaving Oslo under cover of night (above left), show the grimness of the war and the camps, others, like the sketch of Nansen’s wife and children visiting him at Grini, illustrate just how hard it is to crush a human spirit.

Victoria Hofmo
Brooklyn, N.Y.

The curiosity of three entities converging is always a time to take notice, whether it occurs in the heavens or in a Sons of Norway Lodge in Staten Island, New York. This phenomenon occurred on February 24 with a trifecta of Nansens. The first was the name of the lodge, the second the famous explorer and humanitarian Fridtjof (for whom the lodge is named), and the third and lesser-known Nansen was Odd, the son of Fridtjof.

The lodge was hosting a talk by Timothy Boyce, who has published Odd Nansen’s remarkable diary, From Day to Day: One Man’s Diary of Survival in Nazi Concentration Camps. The diary was available in a variety of languages just after the war, but it had not been published for nearly 70 years and had been forgotten. Until Boyce came along.

Boyce gave the audience a good overview of Odd Nansen, who chose the profession of architecture. Besides being an explorer, his father Fritjof had been a great humanitarian and his influence was certainly fused into Odd’s character. Venturing out on his own, Nansen moved to Brooklyn, just over the bridge from where this talk was being held. Boyce surmised that he had decided to live on this side of the Atlantic to get out of his father’s shadow. Unfortunately Nansen did not remain in Brooklyn but instead returned to Norway, where he was arrested as a political prisoner in 1942. He remained a captive until the end of the war.

Nansen’s Norwegian origin brought him luck in the concentration camps, as Norwegians were placed on the second tier of the Aryan hierarchy, just below the Germans. Therefore he was given more privileges, like being able to receive Red Cross care packages. It was through this privileged designation that Nansen was able to save a young Jewish boy, Thomas Buergenthal, from the death camp list by using the extras he received as bribes. His meeting with Buergenthal took place in the second concentration camp Nansen had been sent to—Sachsenhausen in Germany. He had been transferred there from the Norwegian camp at Grini where he had first been sent upon arrest.

Although Grini was awful, there he could at least have contact with his beloved wife. Boyce elaborated: “It is true that Nansen had contact with his wife, Kari, while he was in Grini. Initially, he was occasionally allowed out of the camp (to get supplies, etc.) and would arrange to meet with her secretly. When that practice was discontinued (as the Germans tightened security), she could still visit him periodically as long as she got permission from the Gestapo, and she also wrote him letters and sent him parcels.”

In fact, one reason he wrote his diary was because it served as a way for him to maintain a conversation with his wife. In the foreword Nansen wrote for the diary when it was first published, he states: “I never wrote with the idea that what I was writing would be published. I was writing for my wife, to let her know what was happening and how I was getting on—and also to arrange my ideas.”

One may wonder how he was not only able to write the diary but also get it out of the camp. Boyce provides the answer when he passes around a wooden breadboard, a common item prisoners used to carry their food. He shows that it has been sliced in half and hollowed out, the perfect hiding place for pages. And that is just what Odd and his friends did. Even more incredible are the images Odd was able to produce and preserve under such horrific circumstances.

Illustration from the book, courtesy of Timothy Boyd

After the talk, the easygoing and engaging Boyce signed copies of the book that were for sale. Everyone I spoke with was very impressed by the speaker and the man who had written this diary. Nansen Lodge and Timothy Boyce are owed a huge thank you for enlightening us about this potent and relevant piece of history. Hearing accounts of the camps from a voice who was there makes it all the more poignant, as it connects us in the present to those in the past.

All the proceeds from the book go to charities that have been selected by Nansen’s family. This edition includes additional sketches by Nansen and annotations by Boyce, as well as a preface by Buergenthal, who survived the camps to later become a humanitarian lawyer—including serving at the Court of Justice at The Hague—and credits Nansen for his career choice.

Buergenthal could not remember Nansen’s name when he was first freed from the camps, but they later connected and he spent a lot of time at Nansen’s home in Norway. Boyce explains, “After Tom wrote to Nansen (when Tom’s mother learned that a certain Mr. Nansen had published a famous diary in Norway that recounted his years in Sachsenhausen), and they reconnected, Odd came to Germany and took Tommy back with him for a six-week summer vacation in Norway. In his preface, Tom mentions that they saw each other again in 1951 when Nansen visited Germany and again in the late 50s and that they corresponded in the interim. Tom tells me that he periodically saw Nansen throughout his life, until Nansen’s death in 1973.”

Of course the story of the victims is important, but isn’t the story of resistance equally so? Carl Sandburg described Nansen’s diary as an “epic narrative and a tribute to the human spirit to rise above torture, terror, and death.” In Odd Nansen the power of one does exist. His example of standing alone, against the bully, needs to be trumpeted, taught and encouraged, especially in our unsettling times.

Further information:
Many sites are offering the book online. Timothy Boyce has been speaking across the country about the book. If you are interested in learning more or having him speak at your organization, visit his website at timothyjboyce.com.

Thomas Buergenthal also wrote a book about his experience in the camps titled A Lucky Child: A Memoir of Surviving Auschwitz as a Young Boy.

This article originally appeared in the July 28, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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