Diary of a Concentration Camp Survivor

Follow one man's journey to survive and document his time in a Nazi concentration camp.

By Odd Nansen


November 2016

Diary

Odd Nansen kept his diary safe by sewing it inside sleeping bags and hiding it in bread boards while captive in Nazi Germany.

Photo by Fotolia/felix

Content Tools

From Day to Day: One Man's Diary of Survival in Nazi Concentration Camps (Vanderbilt University Press, 2016) by Odd Nansen is the real-time diary of a Norwegian architect who survived a World War II concentration camp. Nansen describes the casual brutality and random terror that faced camp prisoners over the course of three and a half years. This excerpt from the foreward describes how Nansen was able to keep his diary a secret as well as the arrest that eventually led to his time in the concentration camps.

To find more books that pique our interest, visit the Utne Reader Bookshelf.

Introduction

This 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.

The manuscript of the diary from August [22] to October 4, 1943, was unfortunately lost. As this period was of decisive importance to me, and for what happened later, I have restored it from memory. Otherwise the diary is the original text, with nothing added, corrected, or rewritten.

As time went by inside the barbed wire, writing became a great help to me. It was like confiding in a close friend and relieving my mind of all that weighed on it — it became a private manner of forgetting. I was happy in my invention and grew more and more inventive when it came to hiding it and disposing of what I wrote. At Grini, where I very soon made myself at home, there was no great difficulty. There were hundreds of hiding places that no German ever found out. We had a main storehouse of “illegalities” in the main drain which opened out from the furnace room through a secret tunnel. In pipe shafts in the main building, behind pipes and wires, we had “inflammable” objects, hanging up in bags between the stories. We had hiding places on the farm, in the workshops, under stumps and stones out in the fields, in hollow table tops and legs, in shelves with double bottoms, and in floors, ceilings, and walls in all the buildings in the camp. None of the many searches carried out in my time led to the discovery of anything really vital. Not a single page of the diary ever fell into the wrong hands, not a single important letter or single news bulletin.

We had channels out as well — many and good ones. Many an express message and many a vitally important letter that might mean life or death to those concerned found its way out to freedom in the double bottom of a matchbox, or rolled into a cigarette, or in one of the bits of piping that were always having to go into Oslo for repair. Many hundreds of pages of this diary were gotten out of the camp in the same way. At the Fossum works [a nearby farm and wood mill], at Lysaker station, and in many other places where we called for materials for the Bauabteilung [building department] or had other duties, there were good friends who forwarded both mail and parcels and who, with the contact men in Oslo, kept the channels open. And the channels were our vital nerves. It would take too long to mention all who helped, so I mention no one. But honor to them all for their share.

In Germany things were not so good. And I had to go on writing. Not that safekeeping was so difficult in that camp. There were fewer searches there. Nor was it difficult to find an opportunity for writing. But the problem was how to take it with me if we were to leave the camp. For that involved a Filzing — a search — of body and soul, and nothing illegal might go through. Almost everything was “illegal,” and we should probably be going on a transport sooner or later.

This problem occupied me for a long time, but didn’t keep me from writing. Even if I were compelled to bury the diary in German soil, I would and must write. Then I made a discovery. Most of the “Muselmenn” and others who arrived at or left Sachsenhausen in transports had a breadboard in their luggage. It was like this — the bread ration allotted to each man for the transport was distributed at starting, and it was usual to have a breadboard, or table end, to cut it up on. And that went through the Filzing. No greenhorn, however much on the spot, would regard it as suspicious. Of course! There was the solution. The diary would be inside the breadboard.

I went to work right away. At that time I was in the joinery, and with the aid of my friend Birger Bjerkeng, who was among other things a first-class joiner, I made some breadboards that would serve the purpose. A table end was cut into two leaves with the circular saw. In one a groove was made, the exact size of the manuscript. The two leaves were trimmed and fitted together with the precision of a master-joiner. The manuscript was placed in the groove and pressed down, whereupon the sections were glued together and trimmed off at the edges. No devil could perceive the board to be glued or hollow.

The first board was for me, the second for Frode [Rinnan], the third for Scott [Isaksen], the fourth for Erik [Magelssen], the fifth for Arvid [Johansen], and the sixth for Leif [Jensen]. I carved our names on them and we used them every day until they were covered with knife scratches and spots of grease. In these six breadboards the diary was conveyed to Norway, except for the part I wrote after we left Sachsenhausen, which I sewed into my sleeping bag.

The illustrations in the book I drew partly in the concentration camps, and partly afterward, from sketches I made there. Unfortunately many were lost, and therefore the selection is rather unequal. But I felt that such a big book must have a few pictures here and there.

I dare not vouch for the spelling of the German names. If the specimens of the German language are not up to “high German” standards, that is only partly my fault. Nor has it seemed to me of great importance. The Norwegian is more so, and I apologize for any Norwegian names I may have spelled wrong. No harm was meant.

Odd Nansen
Lysaker
November 1946

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 Wang’s 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.


Reprinted with permission from From Day to Day: One Man's Diary of Survival in Nazi Concentration Camps by Odd Nansen and published by Vanderbilt University Press, 2016.