Monday, December 6, 2021

What darkens prison life

Six weeks into his detention by the Gestapo, Odd Nansen, a young Norwegian architect, was writing in his secret diary that ‘the tobacco shortage is glaring, and beyond all comparison the thing that darkens prison life most’. Some 18 months later he would be writing, ‘every day prisoners are being brought here from Berlin, and they are shot at once.’ Nansen - born 120 years ago today - survived the concentration camps and the war, and is today remembered mostly for this diary.

Odd was born on 6 December 1901 near Oslo in Norway, the second youngest of five children born to explorer and diarist Fridtjof Nansen (see Siberian driftwood cannot lie). His mother died when he was six, and he went to live with a neighbour. He studied architecture at the Norwegian Institute of Technology in Trondheim. In 1927, he married Karen Hirsch, and they would have two children. That same year he went to work in New York City, returning to Oslo in 1930 where he was apprenticed with Arnstein Arneberg, one of the country’s leading architects. However, by the following year, he had started his own architectural practice.

In 1936, Nansen formed the humanitarian organisation Nansenhjelpen to provide relief for Jews fleeing Nazi persecution in central Europe; and in 1939, it set up the Jewish Children’s Home in Oslo. Together with his wife and a journalist they set up an office in Prague, and Nansen himself travelled extensively through Europe trying to enlist help for the growing number of refugees. Back in Oslo, he joined the fledgling Norwegian resistance. However, he was soon arrested by the Gestapo and detained at Veidal prison camp, outside Oslo (where daily life was tolerable, and he was even allowed some freedom to visit the city), and then at Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Germany.

Nansen survived the war, and returned to Norway where he resumed his architectural career. However, he also continued his humanitarian work, as president of One World from 1947 to 1956 and as a co-founder of UNICEF. He received many honours in time, from his own nation, but also from Germany and Austria. He died in 1973. Further information is available from Wikipedia, Norwegian American or Tim Boyce’s website.

Odd Nansen is mostly remembered today for the diary he kept throughout his incarceration by the Gestapo. It was first published in its original Norwegian in three volumes in 1947. An English one-volume version (as translated by Katherine Jones) was published by G. P. Putnam in 1949 titled From Day to Day (which can freely borrowed online at Internet Archive). However, much more recently, in 2016, it was edited by Timothy J. Boyce and re-published as From Day to Day: One Man’s Diary of Survival in Nazi Concentration Camps. This new edition - which can be sampled at Googlebooks - is fully annotated and indexed. It contains a wealth of information and commentary as well as all the sketches by Nansen that were also in the original edition. 

In his introduction, Boyce explains that Nansen was already an inveterate diarist at the time of his arrest in 1942, and that he started his secret note taking on the very first night in jail, continuing, more or less daily, throughout his captivity. ‘With an unsparing eye Nansen recorded the casual brutality and random terror that was the fate of a camp prisoner. His entries reveal the quiet strength, and sometimes ugly prejudices, of his fellow Norwegians; his palpable longing for his wife and family; his constantly frustrated hopes for an early end to the war; his horror at the especially barbaric treatment reserved for the Jews.’

Both editions of the book include a foreword by Nansen himself. Here is the first part of it: ‘This book is a diary and makes no claim to be anything else. I was in the habit of keeping a diary, so it was natural to continue after my arrest on January 13, 1942. Paper and writing materials were the last things I put in my knapsack before going off with the district sheriff and his henchman, up in the mountains at Gausdal. I began to write the very next day in my cell in the Lillehammer county jail and kept it up for nearly three and a half years. For reasons easily understood I wrote the diary in a very small hand on the thinnest of paper. The writing was so small that the typists had to use a magnifying glass.

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. Therefore the diary may often seem rather too personal, even though most of the private matter has been cut out. I couldn’t cut it all out, I felt, without taking from the diary too much of its character. For it is the case that a prisoner thinks a very great deal about his wife, his children, and home.

Friends, both outside and inside, thought that a diary like this might be of interest beyond my immediate circle. I feel that they may be right, and so here it is. I should explain that it has been cut down to about a third of the original manuscript. I found much that ought to be cut, and could be cut, and it has turned out long enough.

Here are a few extracts from Nansen’s diaries. A few further extracts can be read online at History Net

13 January 1942
‘At half-past seven the district sheriff of East Gausdal came up to the cottage with two Germans. It was dark. We saw the sheriff’s flashlight a long way off. We thought he was hunting radios, as he came just at the suspicious hour.

It was for me. They said I must come away to Lillehammer, and then to Oslo, where I should be told the reason. I was given time to pack my knapsack. Kari was calm, Marit, Eigil, and Siri cried, poor things, but were smiling bravely through their tears before I left.

So off we went. The car was waiting at the sanatorium garage. The sheriff talked a lot in the car. No doubt he was anxious to gloss over his pitiful role. He wished me a speedy return when he went off at Segalstad Bridge.

I was put into the Lillehammer county jail. A single cell. When the jailer had gone, a voice in the cell next door asked who I was. It was Odd Wangs voice. He did not know why he had been arrested either, but thought it must be due to a misunderstanding. That I should have been arrested, he said, was natural enough, but that he. . . No, it was certainly a misunderstanding, which would be cleared up as soon as he got to Oslo and had a chance to explain himself. It had grown late, and we soon lay down. The light was left us until twelve o’clock, and we could read. The plank bed was hard, as plank beds are, but I was not cold, for we were given blankets.

One of the “Germans” turned out to be a purebred Norwegian. At the cottage he pretended to be German. Admiral Tank-Nielsen had spent the night before in my cell.

I heard about the new actions against special officers and against the friends of the royal family, who were all arrested at this time. I supposed I must come under the latter heading, and if so I should probably be “inside” until the war was over?’

23 February 1942
‘Today the whole Bergen gang was sent off. We couldn’t even say good-bye to them. We stood here at the office window and watched them as they moved off with their trunks and knapsacks, in civilian clothes and under a strong guard of roaring Germans. Bryn waved gallantly as he marched away downhill with the rest.

Otherwise life goes on as before; soon we shall be right back in the old familiar grooves. Yesterday there was even a distribution of tobacco - half a box of pipe tobacco each - as before.

On the very morning the escape took place, the Storm Prince had complained to the Terrace that he had too few men for guard duties. That’s what one may call a lucky hit, and it has most likely saved him from unpleasantness. New sentries have been posted, and things have been tightened up a little all round. In the future, it’s reported, no one may go into Oslo (except Rinnan, who enjoys the personal favor of the Storm Prince). But no doubt that too will gradually pass off, so that others can have their chance as well. In the meantime we must have patience and enjoy the many and various advantages of prison life as well as we can. For there are in fact certain advantages in this life. If we can’t exactly call it peace, still it offers much of what is called peace - no telephones, no bother, no nervous hurry to get this and that done in time, no meetings, no importunates coming to see one and to chatter about this and that, no oppressive responsibility for one thing and another.’

24 February 1942
‘It is six weeks ago today that I was arrested up in Gausdal. That seems to lie so infinitely far back in time. It’s strange how the days fly past. Working hours are positively too short if there is anything one wants to get done. And there is, here in the architects office. There are songs to write, caricatures to draw, matters to arrange. Recently there have been more and more prisoners wanting free designs for houses and cottages. Some must have them quickly, for they are expecting to get out soon; others have more time, but then as a rule they have also time to enforce their views on architecture, so that the problems gradually become comprehensive and downright wearing.

Our stout, comfortable Bauleiter is in the know. He quite realizes that we are working on things we ought not, but he has secured us the personal permission of the Storm Prince to have lights in our rooms until eleven every night, since we have “urgent matters” on hand. In addition he has now procured us a quantity of excellent drawing material.

We have even got hold of a copying machine, so that now we can get our caricatures and private jobs copied on the spot. Also he has arranged the purchase of an edging machine, so all our drawings are elegantly bordered. He is in on a certain amount of smuggling, thinks for instance that our bread ration is terribly small. His opinion was that he would starve to death if he had to live on it.

Of architecture he has not the faintest idea. He is a carpenter from Hannover, where in civil life he ran a little business. He is homesick for it and has had enough of soldiering, he says. It is badly paid and unattractive altogether. He was on the North Finnish front and was wounded there. He saw and experienced war at close quarters, and it was frightful. Once he saw a Finn cut the throats of four Russians, cut out their Adam’s apples and put them away as souvenirs. The Finn explained that he had to have sixteen Adam’s apples to get a holiday. Our fat friend Bauleiter Gebecke shook his head, which is like an egg the wrong way up, threw out his hand and smiled his broad smile, so that the little mouse teeth stood out between his mighty lips. “That’s war,” he said. It was something he had once been in, now it was past and gone. His reflections went no further. He was now in Grini, where he had been sent to look after some building work, far, far from the fronts. And here he thought he would have to stay at least two years.

He quite understands that the building work will be so-so. He fully shares our amusement at the way the plans are constantly being changed and that the bigwigs never can agree on how a first-class concentration camp ought to be designed. Today he was grinning all over when he arrived from Oslo with a big copying machine under his arm and announced that the last plan also had been rejected and therefore we were for the moment without a plan. That being so, he said, we had no use for this big machine, and it cost two hundred kroner, but “money is no object,” he declared with an even broader grin, which went almost to his ears.

I suggested that we might draw an office hut and build that first, and I turned up a sketch of such a hut. He got interested immediately and by the afternoon had already secured the Storm Prince’s consent, so now we can just get on with it and not bother about anyone else. “We won’t even show them the drawings,” said he. “We’ll just build the whole thing, order the materials, and get ahead.” Then he sat down and wanted to know how we actually set about building such a hut. I gave him a brisk little lecture on elementary domestic building, accompanied by sketches, and he was very attentive, very docile, and very grateful. After all he has really nothing to do, and if he had, he would be in rather a fix without us to lean on.’

24 August 1942
‘Today I’ve taken in my “big wash.” I boiled and washed my clothes yesterday, and this evening they were dry and fine and clean, and I still haven’t begun to use one extra change of underclothes. I’m doing first-rate. Tomorrow I must try and get my socks darned. They’re having a hard time.

I forgot to say that yesterday we bathed in the brook under guard. Bathed is a strong expression; the brook isn’t more than half a meter [20 inches] wide and hasn’t much water in it, but still it flows, and one can get wet all over if one turns about. Per Krohg painted a sketch of that scene. He showed me another preliminary sketch: Divine Service. That may be grand. Otherwise he’s busy painting for the Tot-Baurat [construction superintendent], who nosed him out in the list of prisoners, embezzled him and set him to painting pictures. Now he behaves as if he owned Per Krohg, hide and hair. Everything Per does is the Baurat’s property, but he has his time to himself, goes about without a guard, and I think really he’s thriving on it. He has become enthusiastic over a couple of subjects, and manages to hide away enough sketches for them. Yesterday he became a grandfather, or was it today? He’s coping splendidly with this life.

The tobacco shortage is glaring, and beyond all comparison the thing that darkens prison life most. And there are small prospects of getting any for a long time. Several are bartering their watches and valuables for a little tobacco. Some of the civilian workers are turning the situation to good account. The Poles and Czechs are not backward either. One or two decent German guards give me a pinch of tobacco or a cigarette now and then. I’m almost over the worst now. But it is a severe privation. Good night!’

5 December 1943
‘The day before yesterday, when we were just leaving work, there came an order that everyone was to fall in instantly for counting. A man had been missed. It turned out to be a prisoner in the next squad who had hanged himself somewhere in the woods. As soon as that fact was ascertained, all was forgotten and in order. They had the correct total - including a corpse, which was fetched and driven up on a cart to be counted in!

On the same day the man in charge of the shoe factory, a Hauptsturmf├╝hrer, was arrested for swindling on a large scale. He had had ten thousand pairs of shoes burned to wipe out the traces of his fraud. For the shoes were property stolen from murdered Jews, and he had had them cut up on his own behalf, to secure the ornaments and currency they contained. How much he found is not known, but from previous experience one may safely reckon that immense sums are involved. The man was arrested not for embezzling the valuables but for burning the footwear! Many prisoners, who were employed in the shoe factory and carried out his orders, have been up for questioning, and the case is apparently brewing up to great dimensions. If only it gets big enough, no doubt it will be shelved and stifled. For if that splits open, everything will split. All are implicated in some swindle or other, and that binds them all together in a kind of freemasonry.

Yesterday a prisoner was shot in an attempt to escape. A poor wretch of a Pole, who had first attempted to hang himself. I suppose he could stand no more. Well, so he found peace, and that was doubtless what he longed for.

Every day prisoners are being brought here from Berlin, and they are shot at once. There were eleven yesterday, seven the day before, etc. What they had been guilty of we don’t know, but most probably they had been stealing, looting, and exploiting the situation in burning Berlin. Last night we had another raid.’

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