Check out the article in the Jewish Press – published today.
Check out the article in the Jewish Press – published today.
I submitted an article to the Forward relating the Polish Law that makes it illegal to say the “Polish Death Camps” or anything that asserts that that the Polish government was responsible for the Holocuast, and Sam and Esther’s story.
Here is the note I got in my e-mail today:
Your Forward contribution is now up, here. Thank you again for the thoughtful piece.
So excited – going national.
“Family and strangers, Jews and Gentiles, these simple people were simply good to me, though I had done nothing to deserve their goodness and though I could never pay them back. If I don’t so much believe in God anymore, I do believe in people: I believe that even in the most horrendous circumstances, there is still space for choice. No matter what the situation, people still get to determine how they will be in the world – whether good or evil, kind or cruel, or anything in between – through daily acts of choice, both large and small.”
(Two Rings: A story of love and war, by Millie Werber & Eve Keller, 233)
These words close a story describing the war-time years of Millie Werber. These words resonate deeply. Millie lived through the horrors of the war and through the darkest time of the 20th Century. Whether we live in a time of genocide or a time of safety and plenty, she still believes that we have a choice of how to act, how to behave towards others and towards ourselves. We will not likely solve all problems, but it’s a start and a way of being in a world in which I want to live.
In 1941, Millie was only 14. She survived the war because she was young, because she was beautiful, because she was hard working and determined, because there were kind people that helped her, and because she was lucky. The book, Two Rings: a story of love and war, tells Millie’s story of growing up in Radom, Poland and living there during the first part of the war. She worked in various armament factories and ended up in Auschwitz. Her tale is hard to read, as many are.
I worry that I have become hardened to the stories of the Holocaust. But listening (audio book) to the ups and downs of Millie’s life during these years, I found myself deeply disturbed by her telling of the horrors. I didn’t cry, but I was moved and disturbed. A good sign.
I learned many things from this book, but selfishly, the piece I was happiest about was the spelling of an obscure word – “oblava.” As I have been writing the book, I have been searching to find the spelling of a word that Sam used in one of his interviews. It means “round-up” and when Sam said the word, it sounded like “blava.” I tried to find this word in other sources to confirm it was a real word and how it was spelled. Well, I had no luck. So, I gave up and decided that if Sam said this word, that was good enough for me. I quoted him saying “there was a blava.”
Well, as I listened to Millie’s book, I heard the word – “blava” – as she was describing a round up of Jews. I pressed the 15 second back button and listened again – “blava” – definitely the word that Sam used. But I could not tell how it should be spelled. So, I needed the hard copy of the book. I looked on line and found the book at the Capitol Hill branch of the Seattle Library. I rode my bike over and picked up the book and – there it was “oblava” – with an “o”. I was so excited to find the correct spelling (or at least Millie’s spelling) of this word that I had been searching for. I added the “o” with a satisfying punch of the keyboard.
But then I mentioned this discovery to my friend Joanna Millick, whose native language is Polish. She informed me that it’s a Polish word and it is spelled with a “w” not a “v” – “oblawa.” Ok, so one more change before publication!
I hope you all like it as much as I do.
The actual cover that prints with the book is a bit less yellow and more sepia. But this is the design. You get the idea.
Pre-sales of the book will begin on Sept. 1 on amazon and the book will be released on October 1.
Save the Date: Launch Party – October 14 at Minyan Ohr Chadash from 5 – 7 p.m.(51st and South Brighton Street in Seattle). Refreshments will be served.
Other book events around Seattle:
October 17 – Seattle Holocaust Center for Humanity 11:30 -1
October 18 – Congregation Beth Shalom – 7:30 p.m.
November 8 – Temple De Hirsch (Seattle) – Endless Opportunities – 10:30 – 12
“Yesterday, I went to see the little ten-year-old in the Revier. Imagine one of Raphael’s angels! That’s how he looked, one actually had to make sure those weren’t wings standing up behind him on either side, but it was the pillow.” (518)
Odd Nansen wrote this on February 19, 1945 at Sachsenhausens. The boy was Thomas Buergenthal, who arrived to Sachsenhausens after surviving six months in Auschwitz and the Auschwitz Death March – a three-day march, followed by a ten-days in open cattle cars. Buergenthal is still living today and Boyce’s book includes a moving and beautiful Preface written by Buergenthal.
I have read Burgenthal’s memoir of his experience during the war – A Lucky Child. It is a powerful and deeply moving book. After the war, Buergenthal was reunited with his mother (his father died in Buchenwald in January of 1945), emigrated to the United States where he attended my alma matter – New York University Law School (and another law school called Harvard). He became an authority on international law and international human rights and served as a Justice of the International Court of Justice at the Hague from 2000 to 2010.
The reality of what was happening at Auschwitz, Majdanek, Chelmno and other Nazi Death Camps unfolds in real time as Nansen learns bit by bit from Jews that arrive at Sachsenhausens from these camps. Imagine being a Christian, Norwegian prisoner in a Nazi Concentration camp and hearing the tales of horror of Jews who arrived from Auschwitz – including little Tommy.
Little Tommy schools Nansen in the reality of life at Auschwitz. Nansen writes:
“Before he was ten years old he got to know the horrors in their full extent. He could tell one about the gas chamber, how big it was, how many people it could hold at a time (two thousand), and how many boxes (of gas) they used then (four). He described the dressing room, where they undressed before going into the big hall; it was full of benches, he said, and they had all to hang their clothes up tidily on the pegs and be sure to hang their number tags on the top. No, it wasn’t in the big hall there were benches – he laughed at my ignorance – no, they had to stand in there, for they were going to die, and again he smiled his angel smile. Was it possible? No, they couldn’t sit down in there, they stood close, close together and died. He sounded surprised that anyone as old as I looked shouldn’t know that. It might take about ten minutes; then they were dead, said he almost objectively.
Was the hall like a bath, did the gas come out from the cocks in the roof, or how was it? He shook his head at such ignorance. Oh no, it was thrown in to them. The boxes? Now he was quite in despair at my not knowing such simple, ordinary things as that glass containers were thrown in through openings in the wall, and broke as they hit the floor. (About the relation between these glass containers and the boxes I’m not quite clear, but I couldn’t go on, I felt almost like a criminal as I sat there questioning that little angel about such things.)” (519-520)
Early on, Nansen realized that the greatest robbery in the history of the world was taking place on Nazi-controlled land. On October 11, 1943, soon after his arrival at Sachsenhausens, he writes of the mountains of gold, money, jewels, clothes, shoes, etc. that arrived there by the trainload and how prisoners were forced to sort, repair the goods. Nansen writes:
“Money? Jewels? Ornaments? Where did they come from? – And to whom did they belong? Multimillionaires? How could this be?
From the great annihilation camps in Poland – Auschwitz, Lublin, and others – where hundreds of thousands upon hundreds of thousands of Jews were being killed, there came incessantly to Sachsenhausens railway trains full of the clothing, footwear and effects of the murdered Jews. A special squad of many hundreds of prisoners, among them my Norwegian friend, to which the prisoners were ‘hired’ from the camps. Sewn into the clothing they discovered fortune in banknotes – and in the footwear, especially in the high heels of the women’s shoes, they found little treasures of jewels. Each day’s ‘catch’ was several tubs full of jewels and ornaments and great bundles of banknotes. One has to go back to one’s childhood’s fairy book, the Thousand and One Nights, for a counterpart (397) to all that shining splendor. The robbers too are well represented; for who ‘owns’ all that stolen property? The rightful owners have been put to eternal silence in the gas chambers of Poland, and no one can prevent the SS and big ‘factory owners,’ Himmler, Göring, and Goebbels from taking over the goods. They too must live, and the D.A.W. – Deutsch Austrustungs-Werke [German equipment-works] – find they can spare a little time from the production of armaments. Of course they charge a little for their trouble, both the head and the other SS men, one or two buckets of jewels a day and a few piles of banknotes – then Himmler, Göring, and Goebbles get the rest – so they think.” (397-398)
In November of 1943, Nansen met a Jewish watchmaker named Kiel who was transferred from Auschwitz to Sachsenhausens to repair the thousands of watches that came off the arms of the dead Jews. Kiel described the reality of Auschwitz. Nansen writes that what he heard was “so horrible, so incomprehensible in ghastliness, that it defies all description.” (419) Around that same time Leif Wolfberg, a Norwegian Jew, who Nansen knew at Grini, arrived from Auschwitz. He told Nansen that almost all the Norwegian Jews that were sent to Auschwitz were murdered there. Nansen sat with Wolfberg for hours, listening and ingesting the mass extermination of the Jewish people that was taking place. As I read Nansen’s description of what he learned from Wolfberg, I tried to put myself in Nansen’s place – having not yet heard the details of the death machine that the Germans created. I felt his shock and disgust in his words:
“Then – when those who were to die had been separated from those who were to live – the death cortege moved off to the crematoria. These contained, besides the gas chambers and the furnaces, which could burn forty-eight corpses at a time, a big dressing room, where they were taken on the pretext that they were to have a bath. They undressed without suspicion and went into the ‘bath,’ which was next door. There gas came out of the showers instead of water. How long it was turned on before they died Wolfberg didn’t know, nor did he know whether it was a painful death. The road from the bath to the furnace was short. This process has now been going on several years without a break, and in spite of that the five crematoria have been inadequate. . . The whole process – stoking, moving corpses and all – was of course attended to by the prisoners themselves. No SS man soiled his hands with such dirty work as Jew-killing.” (483)
“I believe it will be hard for posterity, indeed for other people at all, to grasp the depth of suffering and horror of which Auschwitz has been the frame. Still less will it be possible to understand those who have survived it. That they can remain human beings, think and feel and be like human beings.” (481)
In the Postscript, written in 1948, Nansen pleads with his reader and urges that the “way to a new world” is through human kindness. He continues, with a sense of urgency – the telling of “what happened in the shadow of the Nazi dictatorship have ceased to be sensational reading, or entertainment. They are a call to arms! And they are burningly topical as long as there is still a danger that it may happen again.
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!” (558)
Let us heed Nansen’s lesson.
OCTOBER, 1943 – SACHSENHAUSEN CONCENTRATION CAMP.
“Things are different here.” (412)
Oh yes, they were. Odd Nansen learned this very quickly as he stepped under the gate with the gleaming letters – Arbeit macht frei! [Work makes free!] This Nazi phrase was made famous at Auschwitz, but it first welcomed the prisoners of Dachau (1933) and later of Sachsenshausen, Flossenburg and Auschwitz.
See blog post dated January 22, 2016.
Nansen’s diary entries upon arrival at Sachsenhausen are sarcastic and have the air of a person not yet numbed by life in this concentration camp: “Tut, there was nothing nasty going on here. Here there was work! Fresh air, honesty, comradeship, fellowship. Just look: Wherever one turned in the big sunny square one encountered huts painted green, flowers, green lawns, and well-kept garden paths between the huts, along the prions wall, and along the electric fence with its well-kept Todeszone [deathzone], where nice little placards on the lawns drew one’s attention to the fact that one would be shot without warning if one came too near. What a sense of order and cleanliness! What an idyl!” (390)
Until he began to receive parcels from home and from the Swedish and Danish Red Cross, food was limited and he was hungry. He noted with continued sarcasm that there was plenty of money, gold and jewels, but none of them could be eaten – so what use were they to anyone in this camp. But then, the parcels started coming – what a difference that made: “sardines, crispbread, cheese, and all the good things on earth, which all disappear like magic, since everyone has still an inner void to fill up before he can get a solid foundation to ‘work’ on.” (410) Nansen also received packages of clothing from home: “good warm underclothing, windproof shirt and trousers, leather waistcoat, woolen, etc., etc., plus a quantity of vitamin tablets.” (416)
All this and more was granted to Nansen – why? because he was Norwegian – the upper tier of the human ladder – Aryan. He was also assigned more comfortable living quarters and his job was making toys, though no tools for this task were provided. (412-413) But still this was a better job than working outside and doing hard labor.
Before he got this “cushy” job making toys, he was forced to work out in elements. He had to walk several kilometers each day to the work site. The shoes that he was issued were ill-fitting wooden shoes. This did not go well – blisters developed quickly. Nansen writes on Monday, October 25, 1943: “It was like walking on red-hot iron with knives in it. . . . Now, after yet another swap [of shoes], I’ve rubbed an equally burning, agonizing place on one heel. Simply walking across the floor is unbearable torture, let alone walking to dinner. I’m trying to acquire a technique of keeping my lets stiff, so as to avoid friction inside the show. But that demands a slowness of tempo which is not practical when we are marching in column.” (410)
Nansen writes in his diary about how they attempted to clean their bodies at Sachsenhausen: “As a rule we line up in the cold for at least half an hour before they let us in. The floor is swimming in water – dirty water. In that we have to stand and undress. Standing on the benches is forbidden, even though we’re in stocking feet. The struggle to get one’s clothes off, and onto pegs, is hard and intensive. Inside the bathhouse the fight continues; this time it’s to get under one of the hundreds of showers in the roof and get a little water on one. All the showers are turned on at once. Often the water that comes out is scalding, so that there a lot of burns. After a few minutes this hot water is turned off and ice-cold turned on. Then there’s more room. But then everyone has to run out and begin the struggle to dry himself with a little pocket handkerchief of a towel and get the clothes onto his damp body. That that the stone floor is swimming in dirty water, that we’re packed like herring sin a barrel, that we have to try and get our feet more or less clean and dry before pulling on our socks, and if possible get them into our boots without stepping in the dirty water. The add that a lot of Germans are standing roaring and cursing because we’re too slow, striking those who have sneaked up on the benches, bawling out those who are clumsy, or stumble, or something, jeering at those who are crippled and therefore can’t keep up, and the picture of the madhouse will be pretty accurate. That we don’t lose our senses to a man is really a proof of the inconceivable adaptability of the human race.” (417)
By October 27, 1943, not even one month into Sachsenhausen, Nansen writes: “What a life! What a life! What a life! Desolating! Idiotic! Hopeless! Overwhelming! Paralyzing! How on earth is one to keep one’s head above water? (412)
Such was life in a German concentration through the eyes of a Norwegian Christian held as a “hostage.”
Next blog post: Nansen describes what he hears from Jews who came to Sachsenhausen from Auschwitz.
[photo credit: https://timothyjboyce.com/]
“Protective Passports” – that is what Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat, issued to thousands of Hungarian Jews. These Passports saved them from being shipped to Auschwitz/Birkenau. He did not stop there – he also found these Jews safe houses and ensured that they had food and medicine for the duration of the war. In 1945, when all was lost for the Germans and total defeat was near, Wallenberg dissuaded an SS commander from executing his order to massacre all remaining Hungarian Jews. Wallenberg is truly a hero of the Holocaust.
Sadly, Wallenberg was murdered by the Soviets in 1947 in Lubyanka prison (according to Soviet Reports). But, he is remembered and celebrated throughout the world. He is especially celebrated by the Swedes and people of Norwegian ancestry. Each year in Seattle, there is a dinner honoring Wallenberg held at the Nordic Heritage Museum.
I was lucky enough to attend this year’s dinner at the Museum. It was my first Raoul Wallenberg dinner and didn’t know what to expect. There was a speaker, but I had no idea what he would talk about.
It turned out that the speaker was Timothy Boyce, a fellow retired lawyer, turned Holocaust author. He published a book which reprints the war-time diary of Odd Nansen, a Norwegian who was taken prisoner by the Germans. Boyce spent years researching the diary entries and meticulously adding an introduction and notes to the bottom of each page, allowing the reader to more fully understand the people and events written about by Nansen.
Odd Nansen may be a name you never heard of – I certainly had not. He was an architect whose father was famous and highly regarded in Norway for his expeditions to the North Pole and as Norwegian diplomat. Odd ended up in the grip of the Germans because he was the son of this famous person. He referred to himself as a war hostage.
The Germans invaded the neutral country of Norway on April 9, 1940. In mid-January 1942, Odd Nansen was arrested by the Germans as he was celebrating Christmas with his family. At first, things were not so bad – he was taken to prison and given nice meals and treated well. Then he was taken to Grini, a German prisoner camp in Norway. Life wasn’t great, but it was bearable. He was allowed visits from his wife and children, cigarettes, food, clothing and even packages from home. He was moved to a different labor camp, deep in the mountains, and them back again to Grini. In October of 1943 when he was taken to the Concentration Camp of Sachsenhausen in Germany. This was a different kind of place. But more on that later.
How was he able to write an almost daily journal of his life in a prison camp? Well, he wrote in tiny letters on very thin paper and hid the pages inside a hollowed-out bread board that he had been issued to eat on. The diary is very long, and it is remarkable that he was able to safely keep this record of life in German prison and concentration camp.
Life was not easy for Nansen and his fellow non-Jewish prisoners. But what struck me most were the few diary entries in which Nansen mentions Jews. The contrast is stark and chilling.
Boyce reports that there were approximately 2,000 Jews in Norway. Out of these 2,000, 772 were deported during the war. Only 34 survived captivity. Many Jews (more than 1,000) left before the deportations. (280) All assets belonging to the Jews of Norway was taken from them by the State in 1942.
A taste of some Nansen’s diary entries:
Monday, April 6, 1942: “All the Germans without exception are Jew-haters, and regard them no more than animals, if as much. No one will have any scruple about hitting them or satisfying his sadistic tendencies by plaguing and torturing them in other ways. Even if they are not formed into a special gang, it’s easy enough to take them separately on account of the yellow star which is sewn firmly on their jackets, so that everyone may see that here comes a dirty Jew – get out of the way.” (112-113)
Sunday, Nov. 29, 1942: “The other day a thousand Jews were shipped from Oslo. It’s reported that their destination is Poland. Highly probably. Five hundred of the Jews were women and children. All they possessed has been taken.” (283)
Saturday, August 21, 1943: “A moment later one of the Jews was ordered in. Everyone else was ordered to leave the room, but through the window one could see and hear what was going on. The poor Jew was greeted with a blow to the face by Heilmann. He fell – and there was a thump when he hit the floor. Then there were new thumping sounds – it was the Zebra [nick name of a German guard] kicking the Jew as he lay on the floor. This drama was short – the Jew fell immediately, and when he later emerged, the blood was streaming down his face. He had done nothing, he was working diligently when he was brought in, but he was Jewish.” (365)
Most of Norway’s Jews who were deported by the Nazis wound up in Auschwitz and were murdered there.
“It is indeed a curse to be a Jew.” (Nansen wrote on June 7, 1942 – 163)