SFS Alumnus Brings Holocaust Diary Back to Life 65 Years Later

Tim Boyce and Rev. Dennis McManus, S.J.
Tim Boyce (F'76), left, and Rev. Dennis McManus, S.J., associate director and associate visiting professor for the Center for Jewish Civilization and director of the Jan Karski Institute for Holocaust Education. Photo by Jordan Silverman.

By Kate Colwell

What if publishers had passed on Anne Frank's diary? This idea of forgotten history has motivated Timothy Boyce (F'76) to revive the story of Norwegian Holocaust survivor Odd Nansen in a new edition of From Day to Day: One Man's Diary of Survival in Nazi Concentration Camps.

Boyce's book, which provides a new introduction and numerous historical annotations, presents the diary of Nansen, a prominent friend of Norway's royal family whom the Germans imprisoned in 1942 as a political prisoner because he demonstrated an opposition to Fascism and worked to help Jewish refugees.

For the rest of WWII, Nansen wrote diary entries every night by candlelight with pencil on tissue paper. While imprisoned in the Grini concentration camp in Oslo, Norway, and the Veidal concentration camp above the Arctic Circle, Norwegian sympathizers helped Nansen smuggle his diary pages out hidden in cans, cigarettes, and shoes. When Nansen was transferred to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Germany, he secreted the pages inside hollowed-out breadboards belonging to him and five friends. Almost all of the pages survived, transported over many years to Nansen's wife Kari in Oslo, who compiled them.

replicas of the hollowed-out breadboards Nansen used to hide pages of his diary
Boyce brought a replica of the hollowed-out breadboards that Nansen and his friends used to hide and protect tissue-paper-thin pages of his diary in the concentration camps. Photo by Jordan Silverman.

Nansen's published diary was the bestselling book in Norway in 1947, and when translated into English in 1949, it met rave reviews in the U.S. But the English version of the book was not a commercial success, and it quickly fell out of print. Fast forward to 2010, when Boyce uses the Internet to track down the one of five remaining copies in the world, and makes it his mission to get the book back on shelves.

"When I first decided that I wanted to get this book re-published, I said to my wife, 'I don't know how I'm going to do this, or how one even gets it done, but one way or another, I'm going get this book back in print.'"

What ensued was six years of research, traveling to meet with Nansen's daughter Marit Greve in Oslo and Nansen's dear friend Thomas Buergenthal in Chevy Chase, Maryland as well as visits to various historical archives.

Boyce credits some of his interest in Holocaust studies to his time at Georgetown. Although there were no courses specifically taught in the subject when he attended Georgetown, one of Boyce's professors was the famous Jan Karski, the underground courier for the Polish resistance who smuggled himself into the Warsaw Ghetto and a transit camp in order to report firsthand to Allied leaders on the horrific treatment of Jewish prisoners by the Nazis. Boyce was also part of the Phi Alpha Theta history honor society.

Georgetown's emphasis on social justice compelled Boyce to hunt down Nansen's diary after finding it mentioned in a footnote to a Holocaust memoir he purchased on an impulse in 2010. That book, A Lucky Child, was written by Auschwitz Death March survivor Thomas Buergenthal, who went on to serve as a judge at the International Court of Justice at The Hague. Nansen had helped save Buergenthal's life when ten-year-old Tom was in Sachsenhausen's infirmary recovering from the amputation of several toes following his harrowing march from Auschwitz.

"If I'd never gone to Georgetown, maybe I would have put Nansen's diary back on my shelf after reading it, and left it at that," Boyce said. "But something compelled me to do more."

67 years after the diary was originally published, Boyce achieved his goal. In June 2017, Boyce returned to the Hilltop to discuss this story with Father McManus as part of a book talk series hosted by the Center for Jewish Civilization in the School of Foreign Service. A moderated discussion focused on this story's immediacy and unfiltered honesty (as a diary, not a memoir) and for its unique perspective, that of a non-religious humanitarian with privileges inside the concentration camp searching for morality and humanity in his surroundings.

"It is of the quality of anything that Elie Wiesel or Primo Levi or Anne Frank wrote," Boyce said. "This guy is incredibly eloquent. How he can write these descriptive paragraphs about what he's feeling and experiencing is absolutely beyond me, especially when you think that he's writing in secret in a concentration camp."

Tim Boyce speaking in McGhee Library
In the Intercultural Center's McGhee Library, Boyce told the story of how Nansen saved the life of Thomas Buergenthal, who would grow up to serve as a judge at the International Court of Justice. Photo by Jordan Silverman.

In line with Georgetown's mission to promote a deeper understanding of the world's religious communities and their role in global affairs, Boyce also hopes, in his next project, to shed light on the treatment of Jewish refugees during the interwar period. In his research, Boyce has uncovered harmful anti-refugee rhetoric that he sees repeating in 2017.

"When I look at that research, the exact same arguments are being used now, 60, 70 years later, to deal with refugees, as were used in the 1930s. 'They won't assimilate,' 'they won't know our culture,' 'they'll be a drag on our economy,' 'they might be potential terrorists'—it's the same arguments, same sentences," Boyce said. "It's the exact same issues, just a different demographic group that's involved, but everything is being replayed almost to a T."

Boyce's book has already been put to use by another university's nursing course on patient trauma in order to identify characteristics of resilient people in degrading conditions. He hopes that this human-interest story will gain new life in the U.S.

"I really want people to be inspired by him," Boyce said. "I feel I'm inspired by him. I will sometimes say to myself, 'What would Odd Nansen do in this situation?' If I could match him in terms of his courage and his humanity, I'd be doing pretty darn well."

Boyce is donating all royalties from the sale of the diary: 50 percent to the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. and 50 percent to the Center for the Study of the Holocaust in Oslo.