From Day to Day: One Man's Diary of Survival in Nazi Concentration Camps

From Day to Day: One Man's Diary of Survival in Nazi Concentration Camps

From Day to Day: One Man's Diary of Survival in Nazi Concentration Camps

From Day to Day: One Man's Diary of Survival in Nazi Concentration Camps


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This new hardcover edition of Odd Nansen's diary, the first in over sixty-five years, contains extensive annotations and other material not found in any other hardcover or paperback versions.

Nansen, a Norwegian, was arrested in 1942 by the Nazis, and spent the remainder of World War II in concentration camps—Grini in Oslo, Veidal above the Arctic Circle, and Sachsenhausen in Germany. For three and a half years, Nansen kept a secret diary on tissue-paper-thin pages later smuggled out by various means, including inside the prisoners' hollowed-out breadboards.

Unlike writers of retrospective Holocaust memoirs, Nansen recorded the mundane and horrific details of camp life as they happened, "from day to day." With an unsparing eye, Nansen described the casual brutality and random terror that was the fate of a camp prisoner. His entries reveal his constantly frustrated hopes for an early end to the war, his longing for his wife and children, his horror at the especially barbaric treatment reserved for Jews, and his disgust at the anti-Semitism of some of his fellow Norwegians. Nansen often confronted his German jailors with unusual outspokenness and sometimes with a sense of humor and absurdity that was not appreciated by his captors.

After the Putnam's edition received rave reviews in 1949, the book fell into obscurity. In 1956, in response to a poll about the "most undeservedly neglected" book of the preceding quarter-century, Carl Sandburg singled out From Day to Day, calling it "an epic narrative," which took "its place among the great affirmations of the power of the human spirit to rise above terror, torture, and death." Indeed, Nansen witnessed all the horrors of the camps, yet still saw hope for the future. He sought reconciliation with the German people, even donating the proceeds of the German edition of his book to German refugee relief work. Nansen was following in the footsteps of his father, Fridtjof, an Arctic explorer and humanitarian who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922 for his work on behalf of World War I refugees. (Fridtjof also created the "Nansen passport" for stateless persons.)

Forty sketches of camp life and death by Nansen, an architect and talented draftsman, provide a sense of immediacy and acute observation matched by the diary entries. The preface is written by Thomas Buergenthal, who was "Tommy," the ten-year-old survivor of the Auschwitz Death March, whom Nansen met at Sachsenhausen and saved using his extra food rations. Buergenthal, author of A Lucky Child, formerly served as a judge on the International Court of Justice at The Hague and is a recipient of the 2015 Elie Wiesel Award from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780826521002
Publisher: Vanderbilt University Press
Publication date: 04/25/2016
Pages: 624
Product dimensions: 7.20(w) x 10.10(h) x 1.70(d)

About the Author

Odd Nansen, a Norwegian architect, organized relief efforts for Jews and other refugees beginning in 1936, and was imprisoned by the Nazis in a series of concentration camps. After the war, he remained active in humanitarian work until his death in 1973.

Timothy J. Boyce practiced law for thirty-five years, most recently as the managing partner of the Charlotte office of Dechert LLP, an international law firm.

Read an Excerpt

From Day to Day

One Man's Diary of Survival in Nazi Concentration Camps

By Odd Nansen, Timothy J. Boyce, Katherine John

Vanderbilt University Press

Copyright © 2016 Timothy J. Boyce
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8265-2102-6


PART I: Grini


TUESDAY, JANUARY 13, 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 Wang's 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?

WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 14, 1942 * Wakened at six o'clock with bread and butter and something by way of coffee. The day passed in reading and a little writing. We were not allowed to smoke, and had had to give up our matches together with our knives. However, I found my lighter in my pocket. It was dry, but I actually got a little flame out of it, enough to light a cigarette. That was before breakfast. When the jailer came in the morning, he dilated his nostrils and said, "You've had a morning smoke, eh?" I had to confess and give up my lighter.

Dinnertime arrived, but I had to wait for mine long after the others. Then came a basket. The jailer looked mysterious and told me not to say anything. "This ain't allowed," he said, and out of the basket came a delicious dinner, with the compliments of Håkon Tallaug. Beef olives, half a bottle of burgundy, cloudberries and cream, cakes, bannocks, and down at the bottom of the basket my friend the jailer had stuck my lighter, and I'm blessed if it didn't light again. In short, a lordly meal. Most of the afternoon I beguiled with trying to swing a lighted cigarette over to Odd Wangs window. I joined my bootlaces to the cord of my knapsack and tied my nailbrush at the end to weight the pendulum. It was a failure but amusing. Later we hit on the idea that he should ring and ask to borrow a cake of soap from me. Thus he got the cigarette — alight in the soapbox. Supper came in to both of us from Odd's father. We lacked for nothing. Before lying down to sleep our second prison sleep, we heard that we were to be taken to Oslo early the next morning.

THURSDAY, JANUARY 15, 1942 * The train left about six.

In Oslo we met some of Odd's family, but no Black Maria, so we had to walk to Number 19-f After a last good smoke and a deep draft of fresh air, in we went through an anteroom for biographical records, over the Bridge of Sighs and into Hell.

First we were ordered to stand erect with our faces to the wall. A bad habit of sticking my hands into my pockets, which I share with other fairly good Norwegians, produced some frightful bellowing from one of the German guards who stood in the corridor. He had been bellowing a long time before I realized what it was about. Later, when I was unlucky enough to fold my arms across my chest, the bellows burst forth again, this time sealed with a well-directed kick in the pants, and I got my hands down to my sides. But they felt an urge to meet yet again, this time behind my back. Then his screams were loud and ugly and menacing, and he kicked so hard and painfully that the hands shot down of their own accord along the seams of my trousers. I had to stand like that for three quarters of an hour. Then I was called into an office, where I was registered, given a number, and deprived of all my things, except what I might have in the way of food and "harmless" toilet articles. After that I was marched off to a cell with uproar and abuse, first because I went too fast, then because I went too slow, and finally because I went one cell too far, thereby demonstrating that I didn't know how to read.

The cell already had a prisoner — a lawyer named [Jon] Nokleby, from Drammen. He looked ill and had been inside for two months. He was delighted to have a roommate.

Gradually I got wise to the customs and routine of the "house." Up at six o'clock, clean the cell, make the "bed" — I slept on the floor, on a mattress which had only to be rolled up — breakfast, which was served through the peephole in the door by one of the "workers," that is, prisoners who have been in prison for some time and have got the job, then out into the passage to fetch water, and empty refuse, and wash the dishes. Dinner came through the peephole in the door at about twelve o'clock, and supper at about five. There was not much else to break the monotony. No doubt strictly speaking I was forbidden to read, but there were a few books in the cell and I embarked on one. Tobacco neither of us had, so that was right out of the question. On the other hand I got a bath. The bathman was County Sheriff Gabrielsen. We had a pleasant chat. In the cell with me I had a box with a store of food; we shared that and ate it with our supper and breakfast, which was bread and butter and something in the nature of tea or coffee. We were also given a cup of sour milk for breakfast, and a few slices of raw rutabaga for supper. When the dirty slices of rutabaga came in through the little hole, at first I felt exactly like a rabbit.

FRIDAY, JANUARY 16, 1942 * In the morning a lout of a jailer came and bellowed something about packing up my things double quick. I was going to Grini, he shrieked. I packed and got out, took an affecting leave of Nokleby from Drammen, who looked very unhappy at being left alone again with his thoughts, and so, with kicks, cuffs, and yells, was hustled into the "reception," where I got the rest of my luggage back and had to sign that none of it was missing (without a chance to look and see). Odd Wang had now reappeared upon the scene. We were taken down to the prison yard, where a Black Maria awaited us. We were handcuffed to one another. The lout sat down facing us, and laid his right hand on his revolver. He sat like that all the way to Grini. He asked about our professions. I replied in all simplicity that I was an architect. He didn't think much of that, but when Odd announced himself as a professional boxerf he showed marked symptoms of respect. Otherwise our groping attempts to start a conversation miscarried. His only answer was, "That's for Adolf Hitler to decide," whatever we asked.

At Grini we were received in the Vermittlung [Registration Office] by Nils Dybwad and other prisoners who took down what had to be taken down about us. Our luggage was gone through. Money and knives were confiscated, but they let us keep our tobacco. Then on we went, up to the "mountain hotel" itself. On the terrace stood Frode Rinnan. We got a hearty welcome, and he invited us to go in and choose a good room. He was on easy speaking terms with the German who accompanied us, an SS-devil who after all showed some trace of human qualities. His name is Kunz and he is a lathe operator from Worms — mighty smart in his uniform, with the death's-head cap and high, shining boots. And like the rest he delights in bawling one out. On such occasions a cataract of sound and fury pours from his mouth. One has to have been several months here to understand it.

We were taken up to the third floor and into a big room where the beds stood cheek by jowl in two tiers. Next to it was an annex, a little room with eight beds. We were put in there, and it turned out that for the present we were alone there. When the bawler had gone, we went round saying how d'you do. We were in the middle of the so-called "court gang." There we met Emil Nicolaysen, Ingar Dobloug, and very many more, as well as a lot of fathers from Maloy and Bergen imprisoned as hostages for their sons who had gone to England. There were also fathers from other towns and provinces.

Guards' trousers and jacket, a shirt, a pair of drawers, and a pair of boots were issued to us by the lawyer Henning Bodtker, who was in charge of the wardrobe. The jacket, shirt, and drawers were too small for me, and the boots unwearable. Everything else was all right.

When I first met Frode, it had been settled that I should have a job with him in the architect's office — according to report an ideal job. The day passed in getting one's bearings; dinner consisted of the famous "storm soup," which was really good. I actually found a bit of meat in it.

SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 1, 1942 * I am sitting here alone in my "office." It's Sunday, and I have come here for peace and quiet. This is one's only chance in the week to get some real peace, for today everyone is "free," and all the working places are deserted. I was to get a plan ready by tomorrow for the new block of huts; that was my excuse for coming here. I am reveling in the quiet. Over on the other side of the passage in a cell with a double door, Sejersted Bodtker is on Dunkelzelle [dark cell] as a punishment. He has been there a fortnight and has another fortnight to go. He was with Rector [Didrik] Seip of the University. Seip got out yesterday. I don't think they have been so badly off. At other times I feel a positive envy of Sejersted Bødtker, because he is left in peace. The very worst thing about prison life is all these people. There are more than seven hundred of them, and they make a row all day long. Here at the office they are in and out all through working hours, they sit down to pass the time, they talk and smoke. No sooner has one left than another comes in. Not a moment's quiet, not a single little chance to be alone with one's thoughts, to write or draw or whatever else, only something of one's own.

Such is this prison — and to think I have always gone about with the idea that solitude was worse than anything else.

It is three weeks on Tuesday since I was arrested. It seems to me an eternity. I feel as though it had happened in another age, in quite another world. This prison life is so different from what one has been used to. Not that we have a bad time of it, we haven't really — it's true we don't get enough to eat, but to the best of our poor ability and opportunities we have amended that — but the essential strangeness is this living right on top of seven hundred people all round the clock. There is no room to be oneself. In an overcrowded hut one sits up against these people, taking one's meals; at night one lies side by side with them trying to sleep, trying not to hear their deafening snores, while hour after hour creeps by in the darkness.

Neither before, during, nor after working spells can one get away from them; they lie on the beds, sit on stools and tables, stand about in the corridors, talking, smoking, and discussing the selfsame questions over and over. How long will it last? When will Germany have to give in? When shall I get out? So-and-so was let out yesterday, and I'm here for the same thing. Have you heard that So-and-so has been arrested? I wonder why? Do you know anything? Do you know anything? Have you heard the latest? — and so on interminably. This atmosphere becomes a heavy and pernicious weight on the mind; insensibly one gives way to it; little by little one slides into the collective. The new arrivals notice it in those who have been here long, until they themselves get like that. Then they leave off noticing. A few more fowls have joined the poultry yard, and the new ones soon learn to cackle just like the rest. Any jarring, distinctive note is quickly muffled and reduced to harmony with the grand chorus.

Mankind's enemy number one, collectivism, is in the process of winning a sly and fatal victory; one must always be on guard if one is not to succumb. Each day is like the next; there are no new problems cropping up. No struggles, no difficulties, everything goes like clockwork — a dreary clockwork. We rise at seven every morning, and make the bed in conformity with German standards — incidentally, an imbecile little farce in itself. Then the different "waiters" bring in the food. It is the same every day; a little pat of butter, three slices of heavy bread, and as many cups of brown water as you please. God knows what it is made of. Oddly enough they call it coffee, but it is weaker than weak tea, and if one hadn't a few saccharine tablets of one's own to slip in, the lukewarm water would hardly have any taste at all. Then comes a break until half-past eight, when we have a roll call, that is, we parade in the yard before the prison. Each section falls in by itself, under the command of its own hut leader. He reports the number on parade, the number sick, and the number "detailed" — prisoners who have been ordered on extra work outside the working places. When the figures have been checked by a so-called Zugführer [chief guard], we parade in working groups and march to the sites.

All new prisoners have jobs assigned them by the labor-control office. This office is directed by Erling Steen, and as far as possible men are given the kind of job that suits their age and health. Beforehand they have been to the doctor, who examines them and gives them a number — that is to say, their life or their physique is appraised. There are four classes of life. Class 1 is the best. The old and chronically ill are put down as 4; they must have indoor jobs or complete exemption. The 3's also have indoor work, while the 2's may have light outdoor work. The i's get the hardest and heaviest outdoor labor, such as clearing tree stumps, ditching, transport, etc. In the way of indoor jobs there are smithy work, joiner's work, glazier's work, glove making, the architect's office, the stores office, the personnel office, and the surveyor's office, where the work is partly outdoor. The tea gang, or Ceylon gang as they are also called, "roll" tea; that is, they treat the raspberry leaves that have been collected during the summer in the woods and fields round the prison, after a peculiar and original method that consists of rolling the leaves between their palms to a gray-green pulp — the finished product. Light outdoor work includes the shoveling of snow and the lopping of branches along the trout stream; this is done by the so-called trout gang. They clean out the brook where the trout spawn are to be set, and the trees are lopped, it's said, so that the "Storm Prince" can cast a fly in comfort. The "Storm Prince" is Obersturmführer [Hermann] Koch, the superintendent of the prison. It seems to be agreed that he is on the whole a good man for the prisoners. He is on our side in a way, against Victoria Terracef or the highest Gestapo and SS leadership, of which he too is in constant fear. But to return to the daily routine. The first working spell goes on until half-past twelve, which is dinnertime. You either turn up singly in the huts,§ or march there with the whole gang from the place of work. By then the waiters have brought the food up to the passages in large buckets or slop pails. As a rule it is storm soup with one or two bits of meat in it and a powerful lot of groats or it is dried and salted cod, herring and potatoes, or it may be salt coalfish. All this food, whether soup, fish, or potatoes, is eaten from a soup plate, the only kind of plate that has been issued to everyone, along with a spoon, a dinner knife, a fork, and a little cup and saucer. Some have got hold of a container like a chamber pot without a handle. That is better than the plate when it comes to soup, because it holds more. The plate runs over with one helping, and there is quite a long way to carry it from the serving place to the hut. As a rule we get two helpings of soup. To begin with one thinks it an achievement to have swallowed down one, but in the course of time one feels positively greedy for number two as well. It's the same with fish. To begin with it's hard work to get down one of the unappetizing yellow — brown bits of fish, but in the course of time they slip down more and more easily, not only one but two pieces, besides the regulation three or four potatoes. It sometimes happens that we get barley gruel afterward.


Excerpted from From Day to Day by Odd Nansen, Timothy J. Boyce, Katherine John. Copyright © 2016 Timothy J. Boyce. Excerpted by permission of Vanderbilt University Press.
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Table of Contents


Sketches by Odd Nansen, ix,
Introduction, by Timothy J. Boyce, 1,
Preface: The Odd Nansen I Knew, by Thomas Buergenthal, 49,
A Note Regarding This Revised Edition, 54,
Translator's Note, 54,
Foreword by Odd Nansen, 55,
PART I: Grini, 59,
PART II: Veidal, 201,
PART III: Grini, 275,
PART IV: Sachsenhausen, 387,
Postscript by Odd Nansen, 553,
APPENDIX I. Regarding Concentration Camps, 569,
APPENDIX II. SS Ranks and US Army Equivalents, 571,
APPENDIX III. Timeline, 572,
APPENDIX IV. Glossary of Repeated German Words and Phrases, 575,
Sources for Footnotes, 577,
Acknowledgments, 605,
Index, 607,

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