Born in Norway in 1901, Odd Nansen was an architect and humanitarian whose life took a drastic turn in 1942 when he was arrested by the Nazis for his courageous work with the resistance. For three and a half years he was imprisoned at concentration camps in both Norway and Germany, a harrowing period during which, at great risk and for the benefit of his wife, Nansen kept a secret diary. In its pages, he diligently recorded the brutalities he witnessed, his own personal struggle, and his regular efforts to help fellow prisoners at a time of unimaginable desperation. When he wrote the following entry in August of 1944, Nansen was imprisoned at Sachsenhausen concentration camp, and not for the first time he was faced with the task of committing to paper a scene of chilling inhumanity.
The Diary Entry
Yesterday two men were hanged at once on the same gallows at evening roll call. A Pole and a Russian. They had stolen some food in a cellar where they worked. That was all. Again there was something wrong with the “technical apparatus.” The ropes were too long. Their feet touched the ground after the drop. One of them was not dead; people ran up and tried to get off his wooden shoes, and when they didn’t succeed the hangman lifted his legs off the ground. The victim turned blue in the face, and it looked as though he were suffering the most frightful agonies before he died.
Nor did these two know that they were going to be hanged until they came marching up with their guards and saw the gallows. One exclaimed in Polish, “My God! my God!” The other in Russian, “So long, comrades,” looking across and down the ranks, where they stood in silence, thousands of comrades. Both mounted the scaffold bravely, and went calmly to their deaths, without resistance, without a sign of collapse. They were both young lads. Anonymous to most. Two less among many, many hundreds of thousands.
The Lagerführer and another man, a prisoner—the dreaded fat Lagerältester and informer Kunke of the Sonderkommission were seen conversing gaily during the hanging. The Lagerführer had actually pointed to the gallows, where the two were hanging, and where people were busy getting their legs off the ground, and had said something that raised a laugh. We? Why, we went off to supper, and in the interest of truth we must confess that we enjoyed it as much as usual. Then there was the communiqué from the loud-speaker in the square, then another smoke, if one had it, and then (one’s best friend after all) bed and sleep. If only one could sleep into another age!
Odd Nansen’s diary, titled From Day to Day, was first published in English in 1941 by G. P. Putnam’s Sons, translated by Katherine John. In 2016, having been out of print for decades, a new edition arrived, edited by Timothy J. Boyce and published by Vanderbilt University Press. Its title is From Day to Day: One Man’s Diary of Survival in Nazi Concentration Camps. Nansen didn’t just rely on words; he also drew many pictures during his time in the camps, some of which—including the one atop this entry—feature in the published volume. I can’t recommend it highly enough.