I suppose we all live in our own dreamlands, which is to say that we all have our personal, idiosyncratic sets of running motifs that characterize our dreams over and over in different guises and settings. Or is that a feature of more of nightmares than other kinds of dreams? It’s hard to say! Some of these themes, of course, we mostly all share and will thus be familiar to most. I myself, for example, have had a set of recurring dreams since adolescence that feature the concept of the visible but inaccessible escape route from disaster and the attendant frustration that comes from seeing a way out that I somehow cannot quite get to or arrive at. That is one of the recurring themes in Shoah nightmares for most of us, I think, but it also surfaces—I speak personally here, but I hope not too personally—in other kinds of dreams set in utterly ahistorical contexts. It’s also interesting to me how reticent most of us are to speak in public about our dreams. Perhaps we have all been a bit over-influenced by the kind of classical Freudian approach that posits deeply personal meaning to our dreams, including at deep psychic levels that we ourselves cannot quite comprehend. Vaguely convinced that this somehow must be so, we then conclude that by telling our dreams we risk revealing secrets to others that we ourselves have yet accurately to identify, let alone successfully to confront. Is that why most people keep their dreams secret? It could be!
Perhaps it is because I have had that particular dream—the one about the inaccessible escape route—a thousand times that I have always been drawn to the stories of heroes who, transcending the concept of escaping from danger, instead choose to run towards it for the sake of serving a higher and more noble end than mere self-preservation. Hannah Szenes, for example, was safe in British Palestine when she volunteered at age twenty-three to parachute into Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia for the sake of participating in the effort to rescue at least some of the Hungarian Jews being deported daily by the tens of thousands to Auschwitz. Of her end, we all know: captured by the Germans, she was executed by a firing squad on November 7, 1944. Gone all these years, she yet lives on in my mind—and I know also in the minds of so many countless others—as the exemplar of the true hero, the one who chooses to risk everything to do good and who ends up paying with his or her life for the privilege of having done so. (Less often mentioned, but equally worthy of mention are the two men who joined her on her mission, Peretz Goldstein and Yoel Palgi. Goldstein was captured and sent to the concentration camp at Oranienburg, where he too died. Palgi escaped capture and managed somehow to return home, eventually writing one of the more extraordinary Shoah-based memoirs, Into the Inferno: The Memoir of a Jewish Paratrooper behind Enemy Lines, first published by Rutgers University Press in 2002. For me personally, all three exemplify heroism at its finest.)
Playing the same tune in a somewhat different key was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, regarding whose 2011 biography by Eric Metaxas (Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, published by Thomas Nelson) I have written to you all in detail. (For readers reading electronically, you can find my review of Metaxas’ book by clicking here.) Bonhoeffer, a Protestant minister, was safe in New York in 1939, teaching theological students at the Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan and children in the Sunday School of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem under the tutelage of the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. Yet he chose to return to Germany, traveling across the ocean on the very last steamship to carry civilian passengers from New York to Hamburg in 1939. Eventually, he became involved in several different plots to assassinate Hitler, which failed efforts culminated in the famous 20 July Plot in 1944 in which Bonhoeffer was a key player. For his troubles, he was arrested, then imprisoned, then sent to the Flossenbürg concentration camp where he was hanged just two weeks before the camp was liberated. Here was a man from a wealthy family who had already escaped, who was free to live his life as he saw fit. But like a fireman rushing into a burning building, he felt called to return to Germany to attempt to do good in the worst of all situations. Had he succeeded, the lives of countless innocents would possibly have been saved. He too was thus a hero and, in my personal estimation, a kind of a saint.
And that brings me to today’s topic, the death last month of Birger Strømsheim at age 101. Strømsheim was born in 1911 in Alesund, Norway. After the Germans invasion of Norway in 1940 and the subsequent coup d’état that left collaborator Vidkun Quisling in charge of a fascist government more than ready to carry out even the most nefarious of the Nazis’ plans, the Strømsheims fled to England. Soon, Birger Strømsheim became part of the so-called Special Operations Executive invented by the British to coordinate resistance in occupied Europe. And it was from there, from the safe haven he had found for his family in England, that Strømsheim agreed secretly to return to Norway to attempt to blow up the German-controlled Norsk Hydro Facility in which it was suspected, apparently correctly, that the Germans were attempting to create the “heavy water” necessary to create nuclear bombs.
Undertaking the mission must have been a terrifying prospect. The facility was located in Rjukan, in the forbidding, frozen Telemark region of Norway. An earlier effort by a different team of exiled Norwegians had failed; the plan had been for the Norwegians to lay the groundwork for the destruction of the plant by British soldiers who would follow, but those soldiers were captured, tortured, and executed. The Norwegians went into hiding, leaving the Norsk plant operating, and thus creating the need for a follow-up mission. The second mission, the one for which Strømsheim volunteered, parachuted into the Telemark, managed somehow to find the first team, and together both teams proceeded successfully to destroy the building that housed the facility. The team then scattered and Strømsheim managed to ski more than 200 miles to safety in Sweden all by himself. Some of you may have seen the 1965 movie, The Heroes of Telemark, starring Kirk Douglas and Richard Harris, which recounted the stories of both teams’ efforts. But even if you didn’t see it—and I myself never have, although I’d like to—the concept itself is inspiring. (Strømsheim’s obituary in the Times mentioned the amusing detail that he himself didn’t like the movie because he thought it made the mission seem too glamorous!) Nevertheless, here was a man who knew the evils of Nazism, who managed somehow to escape with his family to safety while escape was still possible…and yet who volunteered to return to Nazi-dominated Norway for the sake of doing good and, even more accurately, for the sake of preventing what would surely have been the most unimaginably horrific scenario of them all—Nazi Germany successfully developing nuclear weaponry—from becoming reality.
In my dreams, all I want is to flee from danger. But there are people in the world who, possessed of the sense that they can do good, run toward danger, toward burning buildings, toward the risk of capture and execution.
I’ve occasionally cited Miep Gies in my letters to you. She was the woman who hid Anne Frank and her family and sustained them in hiding—and who coincidentally also died a few years ago almost at age 101—but she always bristled at being called a hero, feeling that moral, decent, just behavior towards those who are in danger or who are suffering should be considered the norm, not something exceptional that only special people would undertake. I see her point—and I feel humbled by her humility—but I also disagree. There are heroes among us…of all stripes and sorts, men and women, Jews and gentiles, older and younger. What unites them is the common willingness they all seem to have to be willing to risk everything to do good. We should do our best to be inspired by their example.
I can’t write about Strømsheim and his seven colleagues, all of whom were true heroes, without pausing to consider the possibility of a nuclear Nazi Germany. Surely no prospect, even this long after the fact, could possibly be more terrifying than the thought of the Nazis having weapons at their disposal that could have turned London and Washington to dust. And yet…how eager the world seems to discount the possibility of the extremists who run Iran actually using nuclear weapons against their enemies—and not only against the greater and lesser Satans but also against other Muslim countries that appear to be drifting away from fanaticism and fundamentalism towards democracy and liberal values. I have written in this space many times about the importance of insisting that our government stick to its commitment to do whatever it takes to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weaponry. (The scenario unfolding in Syria should only make it more clear why the leaders of Iran should not, when the inevitable rebellion begins, have the capacity to annihilate their own people.) All of our leaders, including President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton, have said all the right things in this regard, and repeatedly. Our job is merely to hold them to their word as best we can by supportively writing to the White House and to our representatives in Congress to remind them that no issue of foreign policy matters more than preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power. None of us is being asked to parachute into the Telemark (or into Teheran) and to risk our lives for the sake of preventing a brutal regime from acquiring weapons of truly mass destruction. But, even not on skis, we can still all try to do the right thing!