Imagine a man eight feet tall, weighing close to 330 pounds, with a head like a grizzly bear’s and a thick, square red beard, with a booming voice too savage for his twinkling gray-blue eyes and shrewd nose; a man who lumbers through New York’s Winter streets hatless and coatless…. and you have pictured to yourself Peter Freuchen, the Danish explorer, trader among the Eskimos, formerly Resident Governor of Phule Colony, Greenland; international lecturer and author. This man, who epitomizes everything we associate with the Vikings, is a Jew, perhaps the most unique Jew alive.
His fame is but recent. Despite a lifetime of exploration and adventure among the Eskimos in the Arctic, Captain Freuchen was for long known chiefly to explorers, adventurers, scientists, anthropologists and others interested in Arctic study. Then he came to America for a brief lecture engagement and managed to arouse interest in his book, “Eskimo,” which had already appeared in several foreign languages. The book was translated and published, but did not create a stir. Although a novel, it was considered too ethnographical for popular consumption. And then some Hollywood genius awoke with the inspiration to do a motion picture about the Eskimos. Freuchen’s book was bought, and he was sent with the MGM expedition to Alaska, where the picture was to be filmed.
BECOMES AN ACTOR
Up to this time Freuchen had no idea he was an actor. But after he had chosen genuine Eskimos for various roles, he could not find an actor who would look like the trader in his book so he played the villain’s role himself! His all-around achievement is motion picture history.
A queer, unconventional man is Freuchen, as I discovered to my discomfiture when I met him here in New York. I was making arrangements to collaborate with him in his English writings (a partnership which has proven signally profitable and pleasant since). We were at the time walking through a miniature blizzard on Sixth avenue, when he suddenly turned to me, roared a few choice cuss-words at the Germans, and said half his income was gone because his books were banned there.
“Your books?” I asked, astonished.
“What then?” he shot back, towering over me like a snow-man. “I’m a Yehudi.”
That was the first inkling I had, that we were racial brothers. At subsequent meetings he told me, piece-meal, something about himself.
HEEDS ADVENTURE’S CALL
Growing up in Denmark he might never have known he was a Jew had it not been for his mother. Certainly his father was not typically Jewishâ€”all his life a seaman and South American merchant, whose comings and goings were great events in Peter’s life. The boy stuck to school until he was almost through college, anxious to obey his mother and become a lawyer or a good business man. But adventure beckoned. One morning his mother found his bed unslept in. He had run off during the night, become a sailor, and shipped to Greenland on a whaler. Already a giant, Peter held his own with men twice his age, and learned to hurl the harpoon unerringly, to trim sail in a storm, and to laugh in the teeth of death.
Returning home after going as meteorologist on the Mylius Ericsen expedition among the smaller Arctic islands, Peter found his father waiting for him. The old man was stern and emphatic. He wanted his son to resume his studies. So Peter went back to college to study medicine, hoping thus to be sent among the Eskimos, whose way of life intrigued him, but who needed hygienic instruction. Alas, he proved such a bad medical student that his dean politely advised his parents to turn their son’s ambitions in another direction. This was all the incentive Peter needed. He jumped his bonds again, and sailed for London, where he undertook the study of surveying, having read in books of exploration how vitally necessary surveyors were in trackless lands.
GOES WITH RASMUSSEN
In 1910 Peter justified his choice of a career. He was chosen to go together with Knud Rasmussen up to the extreme north of Greenland, there to found the station of Thule. It was from there that Peary had left the year before to discover the North Pole, and the two Danish explorers found that Peary had already done much to improve the conditions of the aborigines.
Freuchen, who is a gifted linguist and speaks almost every European tongue including English, had no trouble learning the Eskimo dialect; and soon he was looked upon as an “anagok,” a medicine man in touch with the divine spirits, so that his influence over the natives was great. Recognizing this, the Danish government appointed him Resident Governor of Thule Colony in 1913, a post he held for seven years. During the years of the World War the sea blockade prevented ships from coming up, and Freuchen had to resort to the ways of the Eskimos for survival, since he could get no supplies. Across the Greenland ice cape, and to distant Ellesmereland he went, foraging for food. Hunting, fishing, traveling with the ever-happy Eskimos, he discovered a new philosophy of life that went far beyond the white man’s in providing a life of contentment.
Until 1924 Freuchen continued to accompany Rasmussen on expeditions into the remote north of Canada, learned all the Eskimo dialects, learned to love them.
WEDS ESKIMO GIRL
He married a Canadian Eskimo girl, Navaranna, who bore him two children, who are both living in the farthest north because their father assured them they were far happier as Eskimos than they would be as whites. Freuchen’s wife is dead, but he still speaks of her with glowing affection.
Captain Freuchen is just fifty years old, but is amazingly naive. When he first met the wife of his friend, Rockwell Kent, she exclaimed: “What a wonderful beard!”
“You like it?” and he cut off a great piece and gave it to her.
In 1928 he gave up his various interests, including his extensive farm in Denmark, to lend his lore and experience to the search for Raoul Amundsen, who was lost in the Nobile flight beyond Arctic Russia.
ARRESTED IN GERMANY
Between 1924 and the present day Captain Freuchen has lectured around the world on the subject he knows best: the Eskimo
We saw him off on the ship bound for Denmark, not so very long ago. He was returning to his second wife and his farm for a while.
Three weeks later I learned by cable that he had been temporarily arrested in Germany, his manuscripts and papers confiscated, his journey interrupted as he was passing across from home to the Balkans on a lecture engagement. His cable ended:
“Thank God I have found some people who care that I am a Jew!”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.