NARROW ESCAPE TO AND FROM NORWAY:
My life began on December 27, 1928 in Cologne, Germany. When I was just a very young child I was taught to say my address: “Akkrepiner Hof 4” (which I believe now to be Aggripinaufer), just in case I should get lost. The chances of this happening were almost non-existent since I always had a Fräulein (nanny) to watch over me.
I was very young when my parents and I lived in this apartment, so my memories of this, my first home are shadowy and vague. I believe there were many rooms in the apartment, all with high ceilings and large, tall windows, through which I would stare on rainy days.
My parents, Alice and Max (Markus) Rosenberg had met during a family gathering. They were distantly related through marriage, and I was told that, when met they their attraction for each other was instant. By the time they got married my mother was 21 years old and my father 33. It is said that opposites attract each other and this held true for my parents. My mother was a beautiful young girl, blonde and blue-eyed, perhaps a bit heavier than fashionable today. My father was slim, dark and handsome, somewhat shorter than my mother. Their temperaments were also very different. My mother’s anger would flare up at the slightest provocation, although the storm would blow over quickly. My father, on the other hand, was calm and composed, but his rare outbursts of anger would be much more serious and longer lasting.
Even my parents’ backgrounds were quite different. My mother was an only child, and from what I have been told, her childhood was a happy one. She grew up in a small place called Beul near Bonn where her father was a merchant and made a comfortable living. In keeping with the times her mother stayed at home and looked after the household and her only daughter. Like most German Jews, the family was German first and Jewish second, and religion played a minor role, if any, in their lives. My memories of my mother’s parents are strictly visual: my grandfather a short heavy-set man, my grandmother a gray-haired somewhat stout lady. I saw them rarely, and did not know them well at all. I called them Opa and Oma.
When my son visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington some years ago he looked up a computer register and found both my grandparents’ names. The notation next to the names said that they had been deported first to Theresienstadt and then to Auschwitz, where they perished.
My father’s family was much larger. I cannot say that I knew his parents any better than my mother’s, but I did see them more often. They lived in the same house as some of my father’s siblings, in a town called Wächtersbach, near Frankfurt am Main. My grandfather (Jakob), who died when I was still very young, was wheelchair-bound, and had obviously had a stroke, but even today I can remember him well. My grandmother (Veilchen – Violet) suffered from severe asthma, and in order to relieve her symptoms she would breathe in the fumes from herbs that she would burn in a small plate. In my mind’s eye I can still see her gray-haired head bent over the plate.
The care of the parents fell for the most part to Tante (aunt) Karolinchen, my father’s sister, who lived with her husband Nathan in the family home. They had no children. Another brother, Gustav and his wife Selma and their little girl Elfriede were also part of the household. The men in the family were cattle traders, and my father augmented their income if and when necessary.
My Wächtersbach family was orthodox, and my parents and I would often spend the Jewish holidays with them, which would give my cousin Elfriede and me a chance to get to know each other. As the years went by, we became quite close, since we were both only children.
One of my father’s brothers was killed in the war 1914-1918, where he fought for Germany against France. An older sister, Selma lived in a small town called Neuss with her husband and four children. My cousins Erna and Annie eventually escaped to England where they worked as domestics, Walter the oldest in the family went on Alyiah to Palestine and was one of the co-founders of Kibbutz Hazoreah and Max, the youngest, immigrated to the United States.
Their parents were deported and killed.
When my parents announced to their families that they had decided to get married, I assume that the Wächtersbach family had some objections. Although my father was no longer religious, they must have felt that marriage to a young woman from a completely ‘liberal’ family would further estrange him from the beliefs of his youth. But the die was cast and the two got married. Their first born child was a little boy, who died when he was only six weeks old, in 1926.
I suppose that I must have been a rather lonely little girl in my childhood, at least it seems so now. My companions were an assortment of young women, nannies or Kindermädchen, whom I would call Fräulein, as I mentioned before. My mother would spend her days much like any other well-to-do young woman, shopping and playing bridge, while my father was at work in his paint manufacturing company, Kölner Farbenfabrik. My mother did not do any housework or cooking during those years in Germany.
There seemed to have been comparatively little interaction between my parents, whom I called Mutti (Mommy) and Vati (Daddy) and me. At times I would be allowed to say hello and curtsey to my mother’s bridge friends. My mother would hug and kiss me in front of them, which I remember embarrassed me. On Sundays my father would also often play cards, a game called Skat, and he too would sometimes ask me to come and say hello. However, always sensitive to my needs he would refrain from showing me his affection in his friends’ company.
Another of my early and none too pleasant memories, was the simple act of eating. In keeping with the times I never ate with my parents but with the current Fräulein. Like many children I had a small appetite, but since I had to eat everything that was on my plate, it would often take me hours to finish a meal. In the worst-case scenario my mother would insist that I finish my leftover lunch at dinner, and only my father’s intervention would rescue me.
When I was four years old my father became very ill. He too had been a soldier in World War I and was imprisoned by the French shortly after the war broke out. In exchange for learning French during his captivity he lost his health, which suddenly manifested itself in 1932. The first diagnosis was diabetes, and as if this were not enough, he was somewhat later found to be suffering from tuberculosis as well. Now I saw my parents even less. They traveled frequently to Switzerland, where the air was said to be good for my father. Sometimes I would join them there with the nanny. During the next few years my father had several very serious operations and my mother never left his side. When his health permitted it, my parents would go on business trips, mainly to Scandinavia. Without my mother’s constant and devoted care and attention my father would undoubtedly have succumbed to his illnesses even more prematurely than he ultimately did.
My father’s illness had a profound impact on me. From early childhood on and for years to come I shared my mother’s anxiety and worries. I was no doubt a very quiet little girl, always taking care not to disturb the gentle, loving man who was my Vati. A smile and a kiss from him made it all worth while - I loved him so.
But life was never the same again. The rhythm of our family life always depended on my father’s state of health. There were also other serious changes on the horizon. As we know, Hitler came to power in 1933, and although this event had little impact, if any, on our lives then, it would not be long until we began to feel the consequences of the political upheaval.
When I was six years old, I was enrolled into a neighborhood school. An old photo in my mother’s album shows me on my first day of school: A rather ordinary looking, smiling little girl with brown short hair, proudly displaying a colorful cone-shaped bag filled with candies. At the time every first-grader was handed such a bag upon leaving school the first day.
Before school started the following year, I knew that something very fundamental had changed in my life. I became aware that to be Jewish was to be different, when I had to attend the Cologne Jewish school rather than my old school nearby. It turned out to be a very good change. I loved my teacher, who not only taught us reading, writing and arithmetic but also Ivrit, which opened a whole new world for me. My schoolmates came from all over the city and I formed many new friendships, but it was Vera who became my best friend. As far as I can remember our parents were friendly too, and we were able to see each after school as well. Vera ultimately immigrated to the United States with her parents, got married at an early age and unfortunately contracted polio shortly afterwards. She was in a wheelchair for the rest of her life and died many years ago.
Around 1934-1935 we moved into a new house on Marienburgerstrasse 52, a beautiful tree lined street. Of course I cannot remember how many rooms this house had, but there were several living rooms, a large kitchen and several bedrooms upstairs. One of the downstairs rooms led out to a lovely garden with a fountain. Adjoining the service entrance was a dog kennel that ultimately housed a German shepherd dog, perhaps some kind of guard dog, I do not know.
In retrospect I wonder at my parents’ decision to buy this home at a time of considerable political unrest in Germany. The fact is that this house on Marienburgerstrasse 52 was my father’s dream house. Often he and I would walk in the garden and sit down on a bench and have a quiet conversation – just the two of us.
‘Our’ house, although it was not ‘ours’ any more by then, survived the war which was a miracle. Cologne was bombed extensively by the allies, but Marienburgerstrasse 52 only sustained minor damage. Many years later my husband Steve and I traveled with a tour bus through much of Europe. We chose this particular tour because it would visit Cologne (Köln am Rhein), and while our fellow travelers visited the Dome, we went to Marienburgerstrasse by taxi. A lady, who turned out to be the house sitter while its owners were in America, let us in after I told her that I had once lived in this house, without mentioning dates or times. With the passage of time the kitchen had ‘shrunk’ and so had the garden and there were many more and smaller rooms than I remembered, partly due to the fact that several families had lived in this house after the war, when the housing shortage in Cologne was severe. My visit to the house where I had lived so many years before was, needless to say, a difficult experience, yet I am glad I had this opportunity.
One day a big surprise awaited me. My father took me outside to the dog kennel, where a large cardboard box was standing in one corner. Squeaking noises came from inside the box, and I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw the beautiful little black-haired puppies crawling on top of each other. Where had they come from? I was thrilled and wanted to keep them all, but of course they had to be given away.
By now we had several servants, one of them a cook. The Fräulein, who occupied the room next to mine at the time, was Jewish and the nicest nanny I ever had. She would also be my last.
During the next few years there were still holiday trips to Italy with my parents and Fräulein, and my mother and father continued to travel on business. My father’s health remained frail but manageable. One year a whooping cough epidemic broke out in Cologne, and because the doctor thought I had a mild case of the illness, I was immediately dispatched, together with my nanny, to a region in Germany called Schwarzwald, where the air was supposed to be good for my cough. I can still recall our walks through the woods with their wonderful odor of pine trees.
Ever since I changed schools I had come to realize that there was a certain stigma to being Jewish. I also overheard conversations between my parents about Hitler and the anti-Semitism he preached, even though they did not yet believe that this had anything to do with them. As my father once told me: “Unsere Familie hat hier in Deutschland seit dem sechzehnten Jahrhundert gelebt” (Our family has lived in Germany since the 1600’s), so this could not possibly concern them. He had even received the Iron Cross for bravery during World War I, and our home and business were in Germany. But more and more often Hitler’s voice would be heard on the radio and nothing upset my father more than his ranting and raving, for the most part directed against us Jews.
Our house and garden were set back from the street and a low wall surrounded our property. One day, when I was in the garden playing by myself, a gang of young people gathered outside and started throwing rocks over the wall. When my father appeared, they ran off. That day in 1937 my childhood came to an end, and nothing was ever the same. I was never again allowed to leave our house unaccompanied, and my sense of security was forever gone.
My parents too considered this incident extremely serious. Our home had been violated, and today I am absolutely certain that had we been able to leave Germany just then, we would have. But stringent laws had been passed prohibiting Jews from emigrating from Germany, and just as stringent were the laws and quota systems imposed in most countries banning Jewish immigration. My father’s medical history further complicated our situation.
My favorite Fräulein left, I believe, in 1937. I remember saying a tearful good-bye to her, feeling that my world was truly collapsing. But then – a big surprise. My cousin Erna, my father’s sister’s daughter, joined our household, and she became my all time favorite companion. Erna was eleven years older than I, a young woman with a sweet disposition, who was always ready to pay attention to me. She was pretty, with fine features and beautiful curly hair. What I remember best is that she called me “Gritchen”, which I loved enough to remember after all these years.
Erna, together with her older sister Annie, left for England in 1938. At the time England admitted young Jewish women only with the proviso that they work there as domestics, which both my cousins did until the end of the War. By then they had earned their permanent residency in England. Annie remained in England all her life, married an Englishman, had a daughter Sylvia, and ultimately died in England. At the end of the war Erna went back to Germany as an interpreter for the Allied forces. Here she met her future husband Erwin, also a German Jew, and together they settled in Birmingham, England.
In 1938, for reasons which I have never understood, my parents decided to travel one more time on a short vacation to Italy, this time with me. Letters had reached them from the family in Wächtersbach indicating that anti-Semitic incidents had increased alarmingly. My father feared for their safety and on our way back from Italy to Cologne, we stopped in Waechtersbach. That very night, shortly after my grandmother, Elfriede and I had gone to bed, we heard the now familiar sounds of broken glass. I was terrified. An unruly mob had gathered outside our windows, most likely because they were aware of our presence. The stone bombardment continued for several hours. Almost every window in the house was shattered, and when the following morning a piece of glass was found in my grandmother’s bed, it was obvious that the time for decisions had come.
This is how it happened that our whole family traveled back to Cologne by train the following morning. My uncles and aunts had packed only what was absolutely necessary. In retrospect I realize that this decision must have been extremely traumatic for everyone, except for Elfriede and me. I was so excited about the prospect of living in the same house as my cousin, that nothing else mattered at the time, and for Elfriede too this seemed nothing but a wonderful new adventure.
The reason for this move was that the bigger cities were considered safer than the villages and towns. There were fewer Jews living in the smaller places, which made them more vulnerable, and my parents felt that the family would be safer in Cologne than in the small town that had been their home.
No doubt the next few months were difficult for all the adults in our house. My mother was not used to life with a big family, and all the maids had left because, according to Hitler’s new laws, they could no longer remain in Jewish employ. My aunts were used to doing their own housework and took care of everything, and I remember well how we all ate together around a large table in the dining room. This was a welcome change for me, who was used to having my meals with only my Fraeulein, and for the first time in my life no one paid any attention to how much or how little I ate. Elfriede and I attended school as if everything was normal, and the time we spent together in Cologne so long ago has kept us close throughout our lives.
It was now 1938 and for all of us the situation became more precarious each day. Uncle Gustav had applied for an immigration visa to the United States earlier on and expected to hear from the American Consulate daily. Tante Selma’s brother lived in Bridgeport, Connecticut and it was he who had acted as guarantor for his sister and her family. Without such a guarantor it was virtually impossible to obtain a visa to the States then.
By September 1938 my parents had become very nervous. My father was not strong enough physically to deal effectively with the major problems facing us all, and it was my mother’s decision that she and Vati go on one more business trip, albeit this time with a different purpose – to look for a country in which we could find refuge. It was still possible to leave Germany for short periods of time. My parents decided to bring along the chemical formulas for my father’s own particular brand of house paint, in order to exchange them for possible employment. In my mind’s eye I can still see the slim volumes in black binding that contained probably his most valuable assets at the time. Smuggling the formulas out of the country was dangerous, but my parents had no choice, and fortunately they succeeded.
Cologne was just then in the grip of a polio epidemic, and schools were closed. At dinner the evening before my parents were supposed to leave, I suddenly burst into tears and told them that this time I did not want to be left behind, ostensibly because of the polio epidemic. In truth, there were other reasons too why I could not bear to be separated from my parents then. I did not really know my aunts and uncles too well, and they were ‘different’, and a tight knit family, whereas I felt like an outsider. The entire situation in our household was very unusual and strange. And - being a rather perceptive and grown up little girl, I knew that life in Germany was becoming more dangerous with each day, and I worried that I might never see my parents again.
This was a most unusual behavior for the docile little girl that had been left behind on many occasions with only a nanny as company. I suppose my display of emotion at a time like this impressed upon my parents that it would not be wise to leave me behind, although our destination was still completely unknown. Since my father had business connections in Brussels, this would be our first stop, and the following morning we boarded a train with the hope that Belgium would be the country where we would be able to find our new home. Little did I know that I would not return to Cologne, and that I would never again see my grandmother, Tante Karolinchen and Onkel Nathan. My grandmother died in Cologne in 1940 and is buried there.
Tante Karolinchen and Onkel Nathan were deported to Theresienstadt and then to Auschwitz, from where they never returned.
Brussels – My First “Cruise”
Despite the fact that I left the country of my birth more than a lifetime ago, in my heart I know that the little German Jewish girl I was, still lives deep inside me. My life’s journey has taken me to several countries, but if truth be told I do not feel that any of them is my own. Germany was the country in which I only happened to be born, but when I hear certain Lieder (songs) or German expressions that remind me of my childhood I feel an unexplainable sadness. At times I have been called a ‘Jecke’, a less than flattering expression for a German Jew, because of certain traits I have always had – hardworking, organized etc. True, they are German characteristics, but in my case they are my father’s legacy.
It soon became apparent that there were no business opportunities for my father in Belgium, and my parents decided to continue on to Scandinavia where he was well known. But there was a major problem. Taking me along on a journey such as this was out of the question. My father needed all of my mother’s attention and care and I would simply be an additional burden.
My parents had met the Nussbaum family while they were still living in Germany. The Nussbaums had since been able to leave and had settled in Brussels. A quick solution to our problem had to be found, and my parents got in touch with Herr (Mr.) and Frau (Mrs.) Nussbaum to inquire if they could possibly look after me until such a time that our situation had resolved itself. They agreed. In retrospect I assume that the Nussbaums were well paid for their efforts. After all, they too were refugees, and the extra income was most likely welcome. This was the first time that my parents had to make a most unusual decision that concerned me – to leave me in the hands of virtual strangers. It would by no means be the last time that I was put to the test.
Instead of being with family in Cologne I now ended up with perfect strangers in Brussels, but I quickly adjusted to my new life and soon came to love it. The Nussbaums were an extraordinary family, and nothing like mine. They had three children, a boy older than I, a little girl younger, and a small baby, whose gender I do not remember. Frau Nussbaum was in the early stages of another pregnancy, which none of the children including myself were aware of. They were a warm close-knit orthodox (Jewish) family, where Friday evenings and Shabbat as well as the holidays were strictly observed, and I loved being part of their lives.
I can recall that the Nussbaum apartment was beautifully furnished. Persian carpets covered the floors of the living room and dining room. A piano stood in the corner of the living room. In all likelihood the Nussbaums had left Germany early enough to take with them some of their belongings.
I did not go to school during the three months I stayed in Brussels, but I managed to learn some French - exactly how I do not remember - and spent my days with Frau Nussbaum and the younger children. Frau Nussbaum was a wonderfully patient mother, who obviously enjoyed spending time with us children. She would read to us, play simple little melodies on the piano and take us for walks, while Herr Nussbaum was at work. I did not want to think of the day that I would have to leave my new ‘family’.
In the meantime my parents had visited Sweden and Denmark without any luck. But all that would change when they came to Oslo, Norway. My father contacted Nordiske Destillationsverker, a fairly large company and a customer of Kölner Farbenfabrik, and offered them his paint formulas in exchange for a position. The people at Nordiske obviously recognized the value of such a proposal, and my father was promised the position of director of their new paint manufacturing division. Proof of employment guaranteed a work permit for my father and Norwegian immigration visas for both my parents, and with these documents in hand they returned briefly to Germany to try to salvage some household goods, with which to begin our lives in Norway. The family was still living in our house on Marienburgerstrasse, and it must have been unimaginable painful for my parents to say good-bye to them, not knowing what the future held in store for any of us.
As soon as they were able to, my parents rented a tiny furnished apartment at Kirkeveien 104 in Oslo, consisting of a living room with a bed that folded into the wall (Murphy bed), a bedroom, kitchen and bath. Vati started his new career and so did my mother – housekeeping. It was very difficult for her, since in all her thirty-six years she had never done anything of the sort. Moreover, she was in a foreign country. True, she had been there many times before, but always as a guest in hotels or in people’s homes, and even the language, although it was familiar, was strange once she had to use it on a daily basis. My father adapted quickly to his new surroundings. His colleagues were supportive, and it did not take long for the new paint division to prosper under my father’s leadership.
But I was still in Belgium. Although my father applied for my immigration visa as quickly as he was able to, it took much longer than expected to receive this document. Even then it was unheard of to keep a child separated from his/her parents for any length of time for lack of a visa, but one of the Norwegian immigration officials was rumored to be a Nazi and he caused one delay after another. Finally, in late December 1938 the visa arrived.
As soon as I received my ticket for the crossing to Oslo, Herr Nussbaum began looking for someone who was scheduled to sail to Norway on the same ship as I, and who would be willing to keep an eye on me during the trip. Herr Stern, a middle-aged German Jewish business man fit the bill, that is at least he was booked on the same ship as I. That he seemed to have little or no experience with young children was another matter.
It was a sad little girl that parted from the Nussbaums in early January 1939. They left me at the pier in the care of Herr Stern and the two of us boarded the ship that would take us to Norway. I remember very little of our voyage, except that I was lonely and frightened. Herr Stern’s cabin was on a different deck than mine, so he would check on me once or twice a day, and the rest of the day I would mostly stay in my cabin reading. On the second day of our trip I ventured on deck to look up Herr Stern in his cabin. The wind was blowing and I struggled with the door leading to a different part of the ship. I could not open it, but another passenger came to my rescue and then addressed me in a language I did not know. Fortunately I did not get seasick. On the third day we arrived in Oslo.
It was a cold, dark winter day, such as you find in the North in mid winter. I was nervous and apprehensive. Not only was I arriving in a new country, but I knew that my life with my parents would be very different than it had been until now. They had told me that we were ‘poor’ now, so I was wondering what that meant. It would be the very first time for the three of us to live by ourselves, without servants or relatives. Would Mutti still be impatient with me? What would school be like in Norway? A million thoughts whirred through my head while I looked for my parents as the ship approached the wharf.
Finally I saw them, bundled up in their winter clothes, eagerly looking for me. A great feeling of relief surged through me. Everything would be all right.
vi elsker dette landet” – “Yes, we love this country.”
At first my life in Norway was totally confusing. Everything was different than what I had been accustomed to. I slept on the Murphy bed in the living room, instead of in my own room. My mother went food shopping and cooked and cleaned, and when walking on the streets of Oslo I heard a language of which I did not understand one word.
It was imperative that I start school as soon as possible, since I had missed more than four months already. So a few days after I arrived in Oslo my mother took me to a neighborhood school and tried as best she could to explain the situation to the principal. It was suggested that I start 4th grade, which in fact was the right grade for my age (10). I would just listen in the beginning and do as much homework as I could. The principal assured my mother that I would learn the language in no time at all, because I was still very young. Little did he know how quickly I would speak and act like any other Norwegian little girl! At the same time I was enrolled in Cheder, after school Jewish classes. Here I met Jewish children my age, and one of them, Celia Century, became my lifelong friend.
My first day of school was quite an event. All the girls in the class wanted to be my friend, I was a celebrity, a girl who could not speak their language. But it was Else who became my ‘best friend’. She would come to our apartment every afternoon, we would do our homework together, and since there was no other way out, I had to try to speak to her in Norwegian. That was the whole idea of course, and with Else’s encouragement it took only about three months until I was able to speak Norwegian perfectly, without a trace of an accent. It was not long before I refused to speak German to my parents in public, such as on streetcars, in stores etc. I was doing well in school, and was soon a better student than my mentor Else.
On their many business trips to Norway my parents had befriended the Meiranovsky family. Now that we were settled the Meiranovskys, despite their age difference, became my parents’ closest friends. Moritz and Rosa Meiranovsky had five sons, who at the time were already all grown up. One son, Elias, lived in the United States, four sons lived in Oslo, of whom two were married. The youngest, Sigmund, was nineteen years old, and he was my hero. To Sigmund I was the little sister he never had, and he was very proud of me, mainly because of my ‘scholastic achievements’. He taught me how to ski and to hike in the mountainous areas around Oslo. I also became very close to his brother John who had recently married Beks. They lived in a lovely new apartment, and I was always welcome in their home.
The elder Meieranovskys were deported to Auschwitz together with two of their sons and their families. All perished in the camp. Sigmund’s is a long story. Suffice it to say that he left Oslo on April 11, and joined the Norwegian army in an as yet unoccupied area. It was not long until they too had to surrender to the Germans. Sigmund escaped to Sweden, from where he made his way to the United States. Ultimately he decided to get into the fight against the Germans again and went to Toronto, where he joined a contingent of Norwegians who were training to become airmen at a place called “Little Norway”. Upon completion of their training, the airmen went to England, from where they flew bombing missions over Germany. Sigmund was shot down and taken prisoner of war. He managed to hide the fact that he was Jewish and tried to escape numerous times, unfortunately with little success. After liberation he returned to Norway for a short while and then immigrated to the United States. John and Beks fled to Sweden, where their only child, Rene, was born in 1944. They returned to Oslo after the war.
The Meiranovskys introduced me to an entirely new language – Yiddish, a language spoken by mostly East European Jews. The majority of the Jews in Norway (only about 1000 souls) had originally come from East European countries, and the older generation still spoke Yiddish at home. Yiddish is a colorful, expressive and melodious language which was rarely, if ever, heard in Germany at the time.
The descendants of Rosa and Moritz Meiranovsky (changed to Meieran) played a very important role in my life. After the war Beks and John were our closest friends, and when I got married this friendship continued and included my husband. John died in his forties, but I never lost contact with Beks as long as she lived. We wrote letters to each other regularly and I visited her many, many times. When she was no longer able to write, in her eighties, I continued to send her news about my family and called her once a month at least. I know she treasured my letters and would read them over and over again. The last time I saw her was in 2002 on her 90th birthday. She died in December that year. Sigmund too has been part of my life. Our correspondence has died down, simply because he no longer likes to write, and he does not own a computer. Beks’ daughter Renė has taken over where her mother left off. We e-mail each other frequently and I am happy that she too feels that there is a special bond between our two families.
I cannot recall too much of the summer of 1939, my first summer in Norway, other than that it was a calm and quite carefree time – at least for me. We moved into a larger apartment in an adjoining building on Kirkeveien, and now I had a room all to myself. My mother, although losing her patience with me ever so often, seemed to adjust quite well. My father’s health was better than it had been for a long time, despite the fact that he still had a festering wound in his back, which refused to heal because of his diabetes. No one knew about this problem except the family doctor, my mother and I. The wound needed a new dressing every day, and my mother tirelessly took care of it.
The days were long and bright, and for a ten-year old girl there was always something to do. I played hopscotch with my friends on the sidewalk outside our building and often went to see our new neighbor, Fru (Mrs.) Prager, when she was at home. Herr and Fru Prager who were Jewish, were in their late fifties, childless, and seemed to enjoy my visits. During the day Fru Prager often helped out in her mother’s candy store. Beks and John lived very close by, and I would walk over to their apartment on a late afternoon to say hallo. On Sundays we would sometimes take the ferry to Bygdoy, a peninsula in the Oslo Fjord to go swimming. That was the highlight of the week.
In the fall of 1939 I began grade 5 and felt quite grown-up. Norwegian newspapers and radio broadcasts were full of news about the war in Europe. But it was far away, and did not concern me – or so I thought. My parents were in constant touch by letters with the family in Cologne. They were still living in the house on Marienburgerstrasse and Onkel
Gustav was still waiting for his visa. Realizing the danger that the family was in, my mother urged my aunt and uncle to let Elfriede come to Norway, while they waited for their visa. This was an extremely difficult decision for Onkel Gustav and Tante Selma. It was one thing to part from your only child for a few months, knowing that you would see each other again, but quite another to send your daughter off all by herself, while you were unable to leave, and did not know what lay ahead.
But in the end, late in 1939, Elfriede too arrived in Oslo by ship, all by herself as I had before her. The coming months were not easy for her. Although happy to be with me, she was often homesick for her parents. She did not start school, because my parents hoped that my aunt and uncle would receive their visa soon and come to Norway to pick up Elfriede on their way to the United States. It would be more than three months.
By early April the threat of war was palpable even in Norway. Almost by a miracle Tante Selma and Onkel Gustav had received their visa and came to Oslo. We were happy finally to be together again, but we knew it could not last. By then both Elfriede and I were eleven years old and understood that a long separation might be ahead of us. The day of departure came all too soon. The evening before my uncle and my father were inconsolable. They had always been very close and they feared that they would never meet again.
The following morning, I believe it was April 4, 1940 we accompanied my aunt and uncle and Elfriede to the ship. They went onboard only to be told that they would have to disembark and take a train to Bergen, where the ship would meet them. No explanation was given. What could this mean? That evening we were all upset and apprehensive and after a sleepless night we said our goodbyes once again at the train station and they left. Despite the delay they managed to get away in time.
Four days later the war broke out in Norway.
War and Occupation.
By April 8, 1940 my father did not doubt that a German attack on Norway was imminent. Before going to work that morning he asked my mother to go to our bank and withdraw a considerable amount of money in order to be prepared for any eventuality. However, my mother decided to postpone the banking to the following day because she had other plans, a decision that would prove to have very serious consequences.
Norway was ill prepared for an attack. There were no bomb shelters to speak of, and the air raid sirens that woke us in the middle of the following night caught the population of Oslo by surprise. Although my father knew that the makeshift bomb shelter in our building would not protect us should there be a direct hit, he nevertheless insisted that we join the other residents in the basement. It was dark and crowded in the relatively small room, and everyone was nervous and frightened. Now there could no longer be any doubt – our peace had been short lived. What would become of us? Where could we go?
One thing my father knew with absolute certainty: we had to get away. During the past year he had on two occasions ‘visited’ the German consulate. I am not sure why, but I know that while he was there he had lost his temper both times. No doubt our name was blacklisted at the consulate and we could be easily located. Besides, we were former German citizens, albeit declared ‘stateless’ by now, (citizens of no country), and therefore even more vulnerable.
In the cellar during the air raid my father had formulated a vague plan: he would get in touch with someone at Nordiske and prevail upon him to drive us out of the city. As soon as the ‘all clear’ signal sounded, we went upstairs, my father made his phone call and actually reached one of the salesmen at the company, and we started packing. Most importantly, we had to be sure to take with us an adequate supply of insulin and syringes for my father, who injected himself with insulin two or three times a day. We packed only a few pieces of clothing for each of us, since we had no idea of how we would travel, for how long and where we would end up.
While waiting for my father’s colleague my parents realized that, added to all our other problems, there was also the lack of funds. Despite the early hour my mother rang Mr. & Mrs. Prager’s doorbell, and they were able to lend us a few hundred kroner, which was not a large sum of money and did little to alleviate my father’s concerns. I can only guess what my mother felt.
It was still early morning when my father’s colleague arrived in his little car. War was in the air, and many people had already taken to the roads leading to the country side, where it was felt to be safer. In Oslo there had been no snow, but when we got further away from the city, it became apparent that winter had not lost its grip. The lakes were still frozen, there were icy patches on the road, and we were heading further and further into a frozen landscape. After a couple of hours’ drive the car stopped at an inn. My father’s co-worker told us that he had to return to Oslo now to look after his own family. He had done us an enormous favor under difficult circumstances and we were forever grateful to him.
We spent the rest of the day at the country inn, which gradually filled to capacity. Everyone spoke to everyone else, of course about the war. My parents realized soon that the other people in the dayroom had noticed us and begun to wonder about us. Not only were we foreigners, but my parents’ accent betrayed our origin. In a country that was under attack by the Germans, this was a most undesirable position to be in. So my father decided that he had better tell the truth about us, who and what we were, and that we were in urgent need of a safe place to stay.
As I mentioned before, there were only about 1000 Jewish people in Norway at the time, and many Norwegians that we encountered then and later on during the war had never even met a Jew. But in the tense atmosphere of the little inn people did understand our plight and a man came forward and told us that he knew of an electrician in a remote village who might be willing to take us in to augment his income. The name of the village was Rogne located in the Valdres region.
We had never heard of this area, but now we had a destination, a goal, although we did not know the outcome of our search. However, the following day we were able to get rides on a truck, a milk wagon and a horse and carriage, until late in the day we arrived in Rogne. The electrician, Nils Granli and his wife Alma, were well known in the village and soon we had made our way to their house. A steep dirt road led up to a comfortable looking green painted house above the highway.
Alma had obviously seen our approach through the window and opened the door before we even had a chance to knock. When we told her that we had regards from one of Nils’ customers, she immediately let us in.
At the time Nils was approximately forty-five years old. Alma was a few years his junior and they had a little girl, then about a year and a half. We never found out how this lovely, cultured woman ended up in a remote place like Rogne and married to Nils. She had been a governess in France when she was younger, and she was surprised and delighted when she heard that my father spoke French too. The common language immediately forged a bond between the two of them.
We told the Granlis who and what we were, yet both Nils and Alma readily agreed to rent us a room in their house with kitchen privileges. I don’t think that they quite realized how dangerous to them our presence in their home might ultimately become. Nils did understand, however that our situation warranted the protection of the policeman (lensmann) in the village, whom he considered completely trustworthy. He went to see him immediately and returned with the assurance that indeed the lensmann would not give us away, and that he would do everything in his power to protect us. We had no choice but trust his judgment.
Alma’s life was a difficult one. As we discovered somewhat later, Nils was an alcoholic, with the unpredictable temper and behavior of the addicted person. When he drank we would keep away from him, but Alma had no such escape. For this reason I believe that our presence in their home might have been somewhat of a comfort to Alma and a distraction from her worries. Nils and Alma were not farmers, but kept a cow and a pig in the barn adjacent to their house. The cow supplied our milk and each Christmas a pig was slaughtered and a new one arrived. There was never any shortage of food in their household.
That night we gathered around the radio and listened to the news. The war was raging on several fronts, but it seemed to us that the situation was desperate and that it would not be long until Norway too would be under Hitler’s rule.
The following day brought the war close to Rogne. Around noon the air raid siren sounded in the village, and neighbors and friends ran into the dense forest close to ‘our’ house, which had to serve as a shelter. Suddenly overhead an airplane appeared, and before we realized fully what was happening, the sound of gunfire tore through the air. I looked up for a minute and saw to my horror the face of the German pilot, so low was he flying. And just as suddenly I was lying on the ground with my father’s body protecting me, while he ordered everyone else to lie down wherever they were. By some miracle only one person was injured. That day my father became my hero forever, and he gained the respect of all the people that were with us in the forest.
Somewhat later that day my parents went for a walk along the highway. A German plane flew overhead and when the pilot saw them he began shooting. Only my father’s presence of mind saved their lives; they both jumped into the ditch next to the highway and escaped injury.
That night some friends and neighbors of the Granlis suggested that we all move to an area higher up in the mountains. Equipped with knapsacks filled with provisions, we set out during the night and walked for miles through the deep snow. Besides all our other concerns my mother and I worried and wondered if my father would be able to keep up the pace. But as usual, Vati did not complain and eventually we all reached our destination, a small cabin, where we spent the rest of the night and part of the next day. Then word reached us that the fighting in Norway was over and that the Norwegians had capitulated. We all returned to Rogne.
Now that the fighting was officially over I was allowed to play with the other children on the road below the Granli house. This road was also the main highway in the area. I did not quite understand the dialect of the region, ‘new Norwegian’, but the games children play are the same everywhere, and after the tension of the last week it felt wonderful to run around with my new playmates. Schools were still closed because of the war, although the German occupation was now a fact.
A few days later, on a balmy spring day with the sun melting the snow on the road, I was again playing with my friends on the road. Suddenly a jeep with four German officers approached. Imagine my horror when they stopped and asked me in German for directions to the Policeman in the village. German was my mother tongue, which I spoke with my parents every day. But now it was spoken by the enemy, and I knew that if I answered in German the officers would immediately become suspicious. How could a little girl in a mountain village speak German so well? With my heart almost jumping out of my chest I pretended not to understand and they drove off. I think those few minutes ended my childhood, although I was just a little 11-year old girl. All I could think of in that moment was to tell my parents what had happened and I ran up the hill to the house.
A few days later the lensmann paid us a visit. He reiterated what Nils had already told us, that we would be quite safe in Rogne and that we would have nothing to fear from the villagers in the area. He did not know of anyone who had ever met a Jewish person, let alone was a Nazi. No one here would understand our particular situation. As far as he was concerned, he had no intentions of becoming a collaborator, and he would give us ample warning should the situation warrant it. We agreed with Nils that the lensmann could be trusted, and in fact he was. Unfortunately for him, he made a very unwise decision a few years later – he joined the Nazi party. His reasoning was that if he did not join the Party, the occupation forces would remove him and appoint a real Nazi to his position, which would be much worse for the villagers. What he had not realized was that in his capacity he would at times have to arrest people, and even his own personal friends, who were known to be anti-Nazi, in this case mostly teachers. This caused him to be treated like any other war criminal after the war, and he was ultimately brought to trial. My parents were called as witnesses for the defense and he was not imprisoned, but his life was ruined just the same. He had lost face.
Although the village school re-opened shortly after this incident, my parents worried that it would be too dangerous for us if they allowed me go to school. So for me grade 5 lasted from August 1939 until April 8, 1940. I missed going to school with the other children. At this point all I wanted was to be like everyone else. But of course I was not.
Our most serious immediate problem was the lack of money. Nils and Alma deserved to get paid, and we needed money to buy groceries. It soon became apparent that something had to be done, since no one could foresee how long the occupation would last. My parents were faced with a most serious decision. One of us had to return to Oslo to withdraw our savings. My father was completely ruled out, because of his dark hair and prominent ‘Jewish’ nose. He would be much too conspicuous. My mother did not look like a foreigner with her blond hair and blue eyes, but as I mentioned before, she as well as my father spoke Norwegian with a German accent. Should she fall into the hands of a Norwegian policeman, he might consider her the enemy and treat her accordingly. An encounter with a German would have disastrous results. This only left me. I have often wondered how my parents could send their only child on such a mission. Was it desperation? My answer is yes, it must have been, because surely they both knew that I might not succeed, and worse yet that I might never return.
A truck driver was found who had to drive to Oslo and back the following day. Equipped with a Power of Attorney for Mrs. Prager (our neighbor) and the telephone number of Nordiske Destillationsverker I climbed into the cab with the driver. We traveled in complete silence, mainly I suppose because the driver did not quite know what to say to me. Also, both of us worried about being stopped on the road. What was he doing with a little girl without any kind of identification? When he let me off on Kirkeveien I was greatly relieved. My parents had advised Mrs. Prager that I was coming to Oslo, so she was waiting for me in her apartment. We did not lose any time and headed for the neighborhood bank immediately. I was nervous and fearful when we entered the bank and I was sure everyone could hear the loud pounding of my heart. I need not have worried. Mrs. Prager gave the bank clerk the Power of Attorney and we withdrew our savings without any diffibulties.
Later that day Mrs. Prager told me that my father’s intuition had been right; a few days after the takeover two Germans in civilian clothes had come to our apartment to look for us. When they did not find anyone there, they asked some of the neighbors if they knew where we were, which they did not. The Pragers had not been at home at the time.
Mrs. Prager phoned Nordiske to advise them of our whereabouts. My father’s colleagues were relieved when they heard that we were safe. Subsequently, throughout the next almost three years that we spent in hiding in Rogne my father’s co-workers would take turns coming to see us, always bringing enough money until the next visit. Although we needed this money desperately, my father always felt embarrassed when the envelope was handed to him. How would he ever repay Nordiske? His colleagues insisted, however, that these moneys were mere royalties derived from his formulas - and his due. No doubt the generosity of Nordiske Destillationsverker was instrumental in saving our lives.
In May 1940 the lensmann came to see us again, this time with the news that he had received directives from the occupation forces that every person in his area had to be registered and issued identification papers. Since this posed a certain danger to us, he suggested that we move to the mountain range above Rogne for the summer. It would be safer there and by the time we returned in the fall no one would be looking for people to register – at least this is what he hoped.
The Norwegian farmers move with their cattle to the mountains above their villages during the summer months. Here the cows and the goats graze freely on the lush mountain grass in the higher elevations. These little mountain villages were and are still called ‘seter’ and they consisted mainly of small primitive cabins without electricity or other amenities.
We had heard of a nice log cabin at a ‘seter’ called Buahaugen that was for rent, and one fine day in June Nils drove us there in his truck. Like all the other cabins ours was without running water or electricity and there was an outhouse behind the cabin. Buahaugen lay above the tree line, which meant that only low bushes were growing there with just an occasional small birch tree. The cabin was overlooking two lakes, the Vannsjoe and the Royri, which were joined by a brook and surrounded by mountains. All that had changed when in 1994 I returned to Buahaugen for the first time in fifty years, even the ecology. Veritable forests of birch trees surround cottages that have sprung up and that belong mainly to city dwellers. Now only a few farmers bring their cattle up to Buahaugen, other ‘seters’ are found to be more convenient. Many of the cabins and cottages still have no electricity, but complicated installations are providing running water to most of the summer homes and electricity has been promised for the near future. Buahaugen has become a popular summer and spring skiing resort of sorts and is easily accessible from the highway that goes to Rogne, only about 20 minutes by car. In the winter the gravel road from Rogne is closed.
In the beginning we were almost alone up there, but towards the middle of June the farmers began moving up and we were glad to have people around. Living at the ‘seter’ was not easy and our whole lifestyle changed dramatically. We had to fetch water from the brook - fresh and cold water – which my mother and I did. My father cut the wood for heating and cooking. Who in Germany would ever have believed that he would be able to do such physical hard work ever again? By some miracle he felt really well in the fresh mountain air, although the sore in his back never healed. Fortunately we were able to get his insulin from an apothecary in Fagernes, a small town not far from Rogne, who sent the preparation to Nils Granli at regular intervals. Exactly how this had been arranged I do not remember.
We were very fortunate to be able to spend the summer months at Buahaugen. It was a quiet, tranquil life. Each morning we were awoken by the tinkle of cow bells as the cows were led out to their pastures. A young girl, Martha, who became one of my best friends at the ‘seter’ delivered fresh milk every morning. I played on the rocks at the water’s edge with all the other children, and sometimes in real hot weather we went swimming in the ice cold lakes. We watched the women make goat cheese in huge black kettles, and when they were finished we scraped the kettles clean. This was a delicacy. Midsummer night we would feast on ‘roemmegroet’, a type of porridge made from sour cream. I cannot possibly describe its wonderful taste. We would climb the mountain above Buahaugen and pick blueberries later in the summer and cloudberries, yellow berries that resemble raspberries but taste completely differently. The women made jam and the cloudberries were mixed with whipped cream for Sunday desert.
My parents learnt to fish for trout and other kinds of fish in the lake. They would fish from a row boat, and on balmy summer evenings the three of us would take our fishing rods to the large stones protruding into the lakes, and fish for smaller fish from there. Together with a neighbor my father built a makeshift oven of rocks outside our cabin, in which he smoked some of the trout he caught, and my mother would store some of this fish for the winter months ahead. We were never short on food. On my trip to Buahaugen in 1994 I could still see the remnants of the primitive oven in the underbrush near the steps of our burnt-down cottage. During a raid in the summer of 1943 the Germans set fire to all the cabins in Buahaugen.
In the fall of 1940 we had no other choice but move back to Rogne and Nils and Alma. Despite the inconveniences of living in a primitive log cabin, we had been more comfortable there. I had my own bedroom, we had a spacious living room and kitchen, and it was difficult getting used to the one room we shared at the Granlis. It was, however, impossible to stay at the ‘seter’ in the winter because of the snow, the difficulty in getting provisions, and last but not least the utter isolation.
In September my parents decided that I could not afford to miss any more schooling, and so I began grade 6 in a one-room schoolhouse in the next village called Volbu. Volbu lay across the lake that we could see from the Granli house, and could be reached by walking or bicycling around it in the spring and fall, or crossing it on skis or with a spark in the winter. In my dictionary the translation of a spark is a kick sled. A spark is built like a chair on runners, and in order to move it along, its rider has to stand behind it and kick it forward. It was a very useful mode of transportation on icy or snow packed surfaces, and in those days they were extensively used as baby carriages in the winter.
To my surprise we went to school only every other day. By this time I understood the dialect of the region perfectly, but now had to learn to write it as well. I loved school; it lent some normalcy to my life.
News travels fast in the countryside, and when I started school many of the villagers knew that we were Jewish, although they really did not know what that meant. Nor do I believe that any of them had ever met a Jew. We heard that there were now a few Nazi sympathizers in the village, but it was thought that they would not pose any danger, and in fact they did not. Gudrun, a very intelligent girl in my grade, was the daughter of such a sympathizer and when one day she invited me for dinner to her house it became a dilemma for us. Should I be allowed to go? Was there a sinister motivation behind the invitation? In the end my parents thought that it might do more harm than good not to accept the invitation. Perhaps her parents had been curious about the Jewish girl that had become their daughter’s schoolmate, never having met a Jewish person before? I must admit that I was somewhat uneasy in their company, although they were very pleasant and did not even ask any unusual questions. On my trip to Buahaugen in 1994 I met a man, who actually remembered that he had gone to school with me, although he was a few years younger than I. I asked him if he knew anything about Gudrun, and he told me that she was now living in Lillehammer (the place where the Winter Olympics were held some years ago) with her family, and that she had been a teacher That was all the information he had about her.
My parents’ lives were difficult. They were totally isolated, with Nils and Alma as their only company. My father was at times very depressed. Even though he would have required regular medical check-ups, he did not dare to go to a doctor; neither did we have dental care during those years, and it was my mother who had to pry off the braces I wore on my teeth when the war broke out. To pass the time my parents went for walks weather permitting, my mother knitted endlessly and they read voraciously anything they could get hold of.
Although my life was far from normal, I still had some kind of routine. I did my homework of which there was a lot, on alternate days, my mother taught me how to knit, and I too read a great deal. Alma taught me how to milk the cow, so I would from time to time relieve her of this work. I actually liked to help her with her chores, because she was always pleasant company. But nothing was more fun than the Christmas preparations. The house filled up with the most delicious fragrance of freshly baked cookies mixed with the smell of wood from the woodstove. Alma cleaned house from morning till night, until everything sparkled. In the living room the lights of the Christmas tree were blinking and the house looked peaceful and pleasant. How I wished that I could be a part of all the celebration surrounding Christmas! But of course I could not. I turned 12 years old that winter, and for all intents and purposes I was now a Jewish ‘woman’, and I was quite aware that I had different obligations.
That winter I participated in skiing competitions, downhill and slalom. I was never any good at it, because I was scared to fall. As a matter of fact, when I came down the hills, some of my friends would exclaim: “Here comes the lensmann”, because our Chief of Police was known to be slow. It upset me that I could not be better at this popular sport, because I was always ambitious. But no matter how hard I tried, I never succeeded in winning anything close to a medal. Cross country skiing was a way of life in the village and never considered a ‘sport’.
So, while the war was raging in Europe we lived in relative tranquility in our secluded village. My parents were of course never at ease. Coupled with their concerns about our own future were the worries about the family they had left behind in Germany. Somehow they had found out that Tante Selma, Onkel Gustav and Elfriede had arrived safely in the United States. I cannot recall how this news reached us, but it was a great relief.
The Germans were stationed in Fagernes and only communicated with the lensmann from time to time. Now we were no longer permitted to own radios, but we did anyway and on dark winter nights we would sit around the radio trying to tune into BBC London. Sometimes we would hear Hitler speak, which totally infuriated my father and would depress him for hours on end. The war was not going well.
We were happy to return to Buahaugen in the summer of 1941. It had been a long and difficult winter with the Granlis. From time to time Nils went on drinking binges and we were always worried that he would one day talk too much when under the influence of alcohol. ‘Our’ log cabin was waiting for us, and now that we knew what to expect the summer seemed like a welcome reprieve.
That summer we had a visitor. Mr. Meiranovsky arrived from Oslo to spend a week with us. What a welcome surprise! For my parents it was a shot in the arm and their pleasure at being with their longtime friend was palpable. But this was also a time for reflection, and in my mind’s eye I can see my father and Mr. Meiranovsky sitting on a large stone overlooking the Vannsjoe (lake) while my father warned his friend of the danger that he, and for that matter, the entire Norwegian Jewish population, would face if they remained in Norway. I happened to overhear this conversation. He advised him to persuade his whole family to try to escape to Sweden with him. Sweden was a neutral country and many Norwegians had already crossed the borders between the two countries to escape the German occupation. Like so many others Mr. Meieranovsky did not believe that any harm would come to the Jews. They were Norwegians and the Germans would not dare to persecute them. How wrong he was! That was the last time we saw Moritz Meiranovsky.
A neighboring cottage in Buahaugen was owned by an attorney, Mr. Wellen, whose nephew Einar came to visit each summer. My father often spoke to the elder Wellen and that summer of 1941 he was also introduced to Einar, then 19 years old and a tall gangly law student. Little did we know how important the young man my father met that day would be for the future of our family.
In the fall of 1941 we moved back to the Granlis and an uneasy co-existence. I suppose that the money we paid Nils each month was still an incentive for him to try to be civil around us. Alma was as always kind and patient, but the tense situation in the household aggravated by Nils’ heavy drinking took its toll on all of us. Fortunately I was able to go to school and escape the situation at home every other day. Even Christmas was no longer the same that year. Although we still had plenty of food, rationing of sugar, flour, butter etc. was now in effect, and curtailed the Christmas baking. Moreover, the prolonged occupation with no end in sight affected all of us, and no one seemed to be in the mood to celebrate.
By February 1942 it had become obvious to my parents that we would have to find a place of our own to return to in the fall after spending the summer in Buahaugen. We were now really afraid of Nils when he was inebriated and never knew what to expect.
My parents’ stay at the Granlis would come to an unexpected and abrupt end. In March of 1942 the lensmann paid us a visit with some very disturbing news. A German raid of the villages in his district was imminent, and he urged us to leave for Buahaugen immediately. This was a terrifying prospect. How would we be able to manage all by ourselves? How would we get the necessary provisions? Nils Granli promised to look for someone to bring us what we needed at regular intervals, and we had no choice but believe him. So on a bright, sunny day we set out on skis together with one of our neighbors, each of us carrying as many supplies as we could.
It took several hours of skiing through deep and heavy snow to reach the ‘seter’, but since there were four of us we now made tracks in the snow. We could hardly recognize Buahaugen when we arrived; the landscape looked like it was frozen in time. Our neighbor helped us to carry wood inside and start a fire in the fireplace and the stove to warm up the cottage. And then he left, and we were all alone in the great expanse of snow and ice.
The brook was frozen too, except for a small opening, where we were able to fetch drinking water – on skis of course. When we needed water with which to wash ourselves and our clothes we melted snow in a large pot. At night the cottage got freezing cold, and it was usually my mother who got a fire going before my father and I got up. We could not go outside without putting our skies on. It was almost inconceivable that we could stay here all alone until the farmers came up for the summer. But that is what we did – at least my parents.
After a few days in the mountains I did something which was probably the most selfish thing I have ever done in my whole life. My only excuse is that I was only 13 years old. I told my parents that I wanted to go back to Rogne, stay with Nils and Alma go to school. Their reaction was predictable. I was their only link to the village in the event that something happened to my father, and now I wanted to leave them completely on their own. However, in the end they let me go, provided that I would return to the mountains every weekend with provisions.
So I set out on my skies, retracing the tracks we had made a few days earlier. I felt free as a bird – for a little while. Then I began to realize that I was now all alone in the great snowy expanse I had to cover. What would happen if I fell and could not get up? It was a frightening thought, one that I had to put quickly out of my mind. Only when I arrived at the bend where the mountains and villages on the other side of the Volbu lake came into view did I feel safe. I still had to ski downhill before I got to the main road, but at least now I passed some farms and knew that I was almost ‘home’.
Alma in particular was happy to see me and have me stay with them. I went to school as if everything was normal, but nothing was. The enormity of what I had done weighed heavily on me, and every night I would look up at the sky and in the direction of Buahaugen and wonder and worry how my parents were doing. This was a most difficult time for the three of us. Every weekend, when I skied back up to the mountains the loneliness of the slow climb, first through dense snowy woods and then across the wilderness of the higher plateau almost overwhelmed me, coupled with the fear of what I would find in Buahaugen. Moreover, I worried from one week to the next that the trail would no longer be visible and that I would have to rely on clearings in the woods and the frozen lakes to guide me.
When, years later, I returned to Buahaugen with my son Marvin and my husband Steve, they were incredulous when they saw the distance I had skied all by myself when I was only 13 years old. But, although I was nervous and scared at the time, I knew that I was just doing my duty, and every weekend when I saw my parents and I had convinced myself that all was well, I was grateful and able to go on for another week. By May, when it had become too difficult to ski because of the spring thaw I left school and the Granlis and stayed at the ‘seter’.
I never saw Nils again, and Alma only many, many years later, when in 1974 I traveled to Norway on my own and took a tour to the fjords, where I had never been before. I had told our guide, a young Norwegian student, a bit about my past. I don’t think she ever had a tourist quite like me, a non-Norwegian who spoke Norwegian perfectly. On the last day of the tour the guide told us that we would have lunch in Fagernes. This was something I had not been prepared for, but I immediately decided that while the rest of the group was having lunch, I would somehow get to Rogne and back. As soon as the bus stopped I ran into the hotel (the one and only) and asked for a taxi, only to be told that there were none available that day. I was upset, and told the receptionist that I had to get to Rogne and the reason why. A lady was standing next to me, and was so moved by my story that she offered to drive me. In the end her teenagers did. As we came closer to Rogne they kept asking me if I knew how far we still had to go, but all I could tell them was that the house was facing the Volbu Lake.
Of course I recognized the green house with its steep approach. I ran up the hill and outside the house an elderly woman came to meet me. Knowing immediately that she was Alma and not wanting to shock her I simply asked: “Do you remember a family that lived here during the war?” She looked at me and with tears filling her eyes she said: “You are not Margrit Rosenberg, are you?” That made me cry to, and we embraced each other and could barely talk. In the few minutes I was able to spend with Alma I found out that Nils had died a few years earlier. Her daughter, the little girl I remembered from the wartime, also came out of the house and was quickly told who I was. And then I had to leave. Two teenagers were waiting in the car and a busload of people in Fagernes. What a day this had been! That was the last time I saw Alma.
Somehow the spring months of 1942 passed. If it was hard to maneuver outside with skis on in March, it became if possible, even harder to manage without when the snow was melting in May. Instead of skiing we were now wading through deep, loose and wet snow and it was almost impossible to carry the buckets of water from the brook up to the cabin. But the sun is strong in the mountains in springtime and by the end of May all the snow had disappeared and life became easier. The last months had, however, taken its toll. The three of us had suffered a serious set-back psychologically, and our nerves were completely on edge. Even when the farmers returned to their seters, Buahaugen somehow did not feel the same as in previous years. Perhaps we knew subconsciously that this would be the last summer we would spend in the mountains.
Two people visited us that summer. An engineer from Nordiske arrived with the usual envelope and stayed with us for a few days. He urged us to leave Norway as soon as possible because the Germans had begun escalating the persecution of the Jewish population in Oslo, Bergen and Trondheim. My father told him that we had no connections to the underground in the area and without their help we would not be able to escape. The engineer left with the promise that he would do everything in his power to help us.
The second visitor was Einar Wellen, our neighbor’s young nephew. He had the same message as the engineer from Nordiske, and when he heard that we were literally trapped in Rogne he mentioned that he had a friend in the Norwegian underground, and that with his help he hoped to make our escape to Sweden possible.
During the summer we were able to arrange to rent a furnished house at the outskirts of Rogne. Although it should have been a relief to live in larger quarters and on our own, we were too nervous to appreciate it. I could no longer go to school; it was considered too dangerous, and I made no effort to change my parents’ mind. We tried to stay as close to the house as possible, and only I did the necessary shopping. In the winter, when new ration cards were issued, I traveled quite a distance with our spark to pick them up, and with my heart pounding in my chest, I asked for and received the ration cards. The engineer from Nordiske appeared one day and brought us the terrible news of the deportation of the Norwegian Jews. He promised to be back in January to fetch us and bring us to safety. We did not hear from Einar Wellen. My father’s depression and violent outbursts became more frequent. We felt caught in a trap with no way out. My fourteenth birthday on December 27 was like any other day, and when I complained that we did not even have a small celebration, my father completely lost his temper. I had never seen him that furious and was really frightened when he lifted up a chair and threw it against the wall. My poor father, his helplessness and frustration needed an outlet, and my complaints triggered this violent outburst.
We had almost given up hope, when in the early morning hours of January 14, 1943 there was a knock on the door. Fearing the worst I opened the door. Relief surged through me when I recognized Einar Wellen with another young man, who turned out to be his friend Arne Myhrvold. Both were exhausted and frozen, because they had spent the night traveling, the last part on an open truck bed. The two young men wasted no time in telling us that everything was arranged for our escape and that we would be leaving early the following morning.. They advised us how to dress and what to bring in our knapsacks. What I remember best from that day, was standing over a kitchen sink, dying my hair blonde. Much depended on us and how we would be able to handle the situation. We would travel by truck to a small place near Fagernes, where we would board a train headed for Oslo. We would leave the train in a suburb of Oslo. A minister, recognizable by his clerical collar would meet us at the station and take us to his home where we would stay until the next transport to Sweden.
This plan sounded easy enough, but we all knew that danger would be lurking in every corner. The truck could easily be stopped for an inspection, and what was even more likely was, that we would be asked for identification papers on the train, but these were risks we had to take to save our lives.
While we were preparing to leave there was another knock on the door. We stared in disbelief at our new visitors, the engineer from Nordiske with a companion. They too had come to rescue us. After some discussion it was decided that we follow Einar’s and Arne’s plan, since that seemed to be the better one. Arne had been working in the Norwegian underground movement for quite some time and had helped many people to cross the border into Sweden via the route we were scheduled to take. It was an unbelievable coincidence that these four people arrived the same day.
We left Rogne at dawn the following day. Our truck made it without incident in time for the train to Oslo. Einar and Arne traveled on the same train as we, but in a different compartment, and in fact we did not see them again. My father hid behind a newspaper, my mother and I tried to look as relaxed as possible. Not one word was spoken between us. By some miracle we were not asked for identification papers. When we reached the suburb of Oslo, where we were to meet the minister, we got off the train and looked anxiously around. But he was there, a car drove up immediately, and we were off to the minister’s home.
It was a lovely house, a home such as I had not seen in a long time, beautifully furnished with paintings on the wall and a piano in the corner of the living room. Coffee and sandwiches were ready for us and we were shown to a room to rest. The minister told us that we might have to spend the night there, because there might not be a transport to the border that day. The apparent delay made us very nervous, but at the end of the day a message was received that we should leave immediately.
We were driven by car to a farm and shown into the barn, where some other people were sitting in the hay waiting, including an elderly Jewish lady who had been rescued from a hospital. It was then that we found out that the three of us were the last Jews to leave Norway. When there were about 30 people in the barn, a truck drove up and the Jewish lady and my parents and I were told to get in first, closest to the cab. Eventually a tarpaulin was stretched across the truck bed and covered with grass. My father immediately realized that he would not be able to stay in such a confining space, because he was severely claustrophobic. He moved slowly forward to the other end of the truck, where he could see some light through the slits of the tarpaulin and disappeared from our view.
This was the ultimate agony. Not to have my father close-by during these most dangerous hours ahead, was unthinkable. I called “Vati, Vati” many times over, but there was no reply. Now I began to imagine that he had gotten off the truck and been left behind accidentally. The man next to me told me to be quiet as I would otherwise endanger the whole transport. I was so nervous and upset that my whole body shook and I could not keep my teeth from chattering. During the next couple of hours I hardly thought about the danger we were in. All I could think of was, whether my father was on the truck and what we would do if he were not.
Suddenly the truck stopped, and so almost did my heart. Loud voices were heard outside, but soon we were on our way again. All of us breathed an audible sigh of relief, but not a word was spoken. When next time the truck came to a stop, we were told that this was the end of our drive and that we would have to walk the rest of the way to the Swedish border. A guide would accompany us. Slowly the truck bed emptied out, and when at last I saw my father and put my hand into his, I was oblivious to the danger we were in; all that mattered was that my father was with us. We walked through the snowy woods, quickly and in absolute silence. Suddenly a small cabin appeared as if from nowhere with lights blinking through its windows. And then we heard: “Welcome to Sweden, come inside”, and saw the outlines of two Swedish soldiers coming towards us.
Our long odyssey, beginning in Oslo on April 9, 1940 had ended.
Einar Wellen and Arne Myhrvold eventually had to leave Norway too and escaped to Sweden. Einar married Marit in 1946 and they had three children, two sons and a daughter. He became a well-known lawyer and prominent businessman. In 1996 he received a medal from Yad Vashem for the role he had played in saving my life. That day, April 16, 1996, Yom Hashoa (Holocaust Remembrance Day), was one of the most important days of my life. It had taken me one and a half years to have my application for Einar’s medal approved, and when I stood in the very same synagogue in which my husband and I got married nearly 47 years earlier, and spoke to a full synagogue, I felt that my life had come full circle. Einar’s name is now engraved in the garden of the Righteous Gentiles at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Einar died in 1998. His wife Marit and I are still in constant touch.
Through a most regrettable oversight on my part, Arne Myhrvold’s efforts were never recognized. Arne became an engineer and C.E.O. of a large company. He and his wife Reidunn still live in the suburbs of Oslo. Until Einar’s death he and Arne remained close friends.
When I was in Oslo in 1996 a member of the Jewish Community, Ken Harris, asked me if I remembered anything about the driver of the truck that took us to the Swedish border. He had found out that this driver was still alive and would be entitled to be recognized as a Righteous Gentile. So far no one had been able to identify him with certainty. I really did not remember anything about this man, but offered to go and see him if he felt it would serve a purpose. I was given his name, Torleif Halvorsen, and his phone number. His wife Kirsten answered the phone and when she heard what the call was about, she was surprised and very happy.
The following morning I sat on the train headed for a small place called Askim. Kirsten and Torleif met me at the station and drove me to their home in their van. Torleif seemed sick, coughing continuously and it was obvious that he was ill at ease. After a warm lunch he offered to take me to the farm where we had gathered in 1943. During the drive he became a great deal more talkative with Kirsten filling in the blank spaces. It turned out that none of the people he had transported in his truck had ever taken the trouble to contact him after the war. He was extremely touched that I had made the effort, and I really did not have the heart to tell him that I was not at all sure that I had been one of his ‘passengers’. What I did realize though, was that he was in no condition to go through any kind of ceremony, and that if nothing else, I had provided him with a pleasant memory. Torleif died a few years after my visit, and I have since lost touch with Kirsten.
The soldiers’ cottage was warm and equipped with several bunks. My parents and I were assigned to a bunk each and my father immediately fell into an exhausted sleep. When one of the soldiers wanted to give him a cup of coffee, I motioned to him not to wake him up. I, although just as tired as everyone else, simply could not fall asleep. Too much had happened in a short time and it was impossible for me to relax.
The following morning we were transported to a small city called Alingsås, where we were quarantined, I believe in an old school. Here we met a few other Jewish people from Oslo, who had recently escaped to Sweden, among them Gerd and Charles Philipsohn and their mother. Gerd was a year younger than I and always clinging to her mother’s skirts and was soon rumored to be a spoilt young girl. I also met four Czech girls, who had lived in Norway the last few years, been adopted by Norwegians and converted to Christianity. Under Hitler’s laws they were still Jewish. They had lost their biological parents and now they were separated from their adoptive parents too, and they were quite lost. All they had was each other.
While we were in quarantine we were allocated some clothing and examined by doctors. The doctor who examined my father was astonished when he saw the small but deep wound in his back, and recommended that he be operated at once, to close the wound.
About two weeks later we moved to a rooming house in Alingsås. Once again my parents and I lived in one room. Here we had to share the bathroom and the kitchen with many other people. The two persons I remember from this place were Fröken (Miss) Potovsky and her mother, who had a different name. The two were also refugees, but seemed to have been living at the rooming house for some time. Fröken Potovsky had a piano in her room and played Chopin incessantly – almost from morning till night. The mother was her daughter’s greatest admirer and let it be known that she had been a concert pianist in her native country (I believe Poland). Even today, when I hear Chopin’s music I always think of Ms. Potovsky.
My father decided to heed the doctor’s advice and have the surgery he had suggested. The prospect of being operated in a small town in Sweden, after all he had been through, was extremely stressful for him. My mother knew that she would not leave his side during his hospital stay, and that she would be unable to look after me during that time, so a solution had to be found.
A Jewish orphanage had been established in Alingsås for refugee children who needed a place to stay. I fit into that category, albeit temporarily. Not all the children here had lost their parents, but for reasons of their own they were unable to look after them. Living with so many children was a new experience for me, but one I enjoyed. The atmosphere in the ‘home’ was cheerful thanks to the leadership of the wonderful person in charge, Nina. Nina had a heart of gold, she scolded where it was needed, she comforted when tears were flowing, she intervened when disagreements erupted, in short she was on the go from morning till night. Nina was a psychologist by profession and herself a refugee. Most of the children had come from a Jewish orphanage in Oslo that was established a few years before the outbreak of the war. When the persecution of the Jews escalated in Germany, some parents chose to be parted from their children rather than risking their lives and sent them to Norway where they thought they would be safe. The Oslo Jewish community had supported the orphanage. Eventually the Norwegian underground smuggled the children across the border to Sweden.
Two of the children I remember best are Ruth Elias and Josef Fenster. Ruth was a cute young girl my age, who had been sent from Germany to Sweden together with her younger brother. After spending several years in various foster homes, Ruth was sent to the orphanage in Alingsaas, while her brother was in a ‘boys’ home’ in a different Swedish town. When I met Ruth she had gone through so much hardship that, as a result, she had become a difficult teenager. At times Nina had to be very strict with her. That same year, when she was only 14 years old, Ruth began working in a photo shop in Alingsås.
Ruth’s parents were deported from Germany to Theresienstadt concentration camp, where her mother remained until she was liberated in 1945. Her father had been sent to Auschwitz, but died on the transport. When Ruth was reunited with her mother, the two did not get along – 6 years’ separation was impossible to overcome. Eventually she met her husband Amek, also a survivor, in Stockholm. The two immigrated to Canada more than 50 years ago and live in Toronto. Amek became a successful salesman, and although Ruth is scarred for life by her past, she succeeded in overcoming most of her old fears and lives a productive life as a wife, mother and grandmother. We met again last summer after having been out of touch for more than eighteen years.
Josef Fenster was a quiet boy, about my age. He was also born in Germany and was one of the children who had been in the orphanage in Oslo. His parents died in concentration camp. When the war was over he returned to Oslo, became a baker and tried to blend into the Norwegian Jewish society, which took him many years. The Norwegian Jews, although those who survived the war had been refugees themselves in Sweden, still felt somewhat superior to those whose background was different than theirs. Josef is one of the most generous people I know, in terms of giving of himself. He never married, is now retired and devotes all his free time to the Jewish community. He has become one of its esteemed and prominent members. I have met Josef each time I have visited Norway, and saw him last on my visit in 2002.
While I easily adjusted to the routine at the ‘home’ my father had his operation. On my visits to the hospital I was shocked to see him pale and weak and feared for his future. After a week he was able to return to the rooming house, but it took five more weeks for him to recover and - the operation had been unsuccessful. When my father was strong enough I returned to my parents. I had spent six weeks at the orphanage.
The Salomons were old friends of my parents. They were originally from Frankfurt am Main, a city close to Wächtersbach. The Jews in Frankfurt were generally orthodox, and this is the environment Hermann Salomon came from. His marriage to a beautiful non-Jewish divorcee shocked his parents and the whole Frankfurt Jewish community, despite the fact that she converted to Judaism. When we arrived in Sweden, the Salomons had been living in Stockholm for several years and were well established. They had no children. Now my father contacted them, and they were so happy to hear from us that soon afterwards they came to Alingsås to see us. Their visit was a shot in the arm for my parents. I too was included in the warmth of their reunion and when the Salomons asked me to call them ‘Onkel’ and ‘Tante’ I readily agreed, although I had always been reluctant to make strangers an uncle or an aunt. But the Salomons seemed like family and became Tante Ruth and Onkel Hermann without any reluctance on my part. Before they left they not only loaned us money but offered to help us with whatever else might become necessary for our relocation in Sweden. They also invited me to come to visit them in Stockholm whenever possible.
My father had advised Nordiske Destillationsverker in Oslo of our safe arrival in Alingsaas, and they suggested that he get in touch with their branch in Malmö, a city located in Southern Sweden. On the request of the head office, a position was created for my father at Nordiske in that city, and after packing up our meager belongings we went to Malmoe by train, happy to leave Alingsås and the rooming house behind.
It did not take us long to settle in Malmö. We rented a nice, modern one bedroom apartment in a quiet neighborhood and bought some second hand furniture. I was given the small bedroom, my parents slept on a hide-a-bed in the living room. Life assumed some normalcy. My father went to work in the mornings, my mother did the grocery shopping in new and strange stores and took care of the apartment and I went to school.
Since I had missed about five months of schooling again, and my education in Rogne had left much to be desired, I was quite nervous about starting yet another school. The Norwegian and Swedish spoken languages (as well as the Danish language) are quite similar. The written languages are another matter entirely. Going from Norwegian as it was spoken and written in Oslo, to the ‘new Norwegian’ in Rogne, and now to Swedish was not easy. The school in Malmö to which I was admitted without losing a year, was a vocational high school, where I studied not only the usual subjects, but was also taught typing and shorthand. One of my teachers, a lady in her fifties, took pity on me and volunteered to tutor me in Swedish. Since I seemed to have a certain gift for languages I was soon able to express myself fairly well in Swedish. It did not take long before I had caught up with my contemporaries and even my written Swedish was acceptable.
Actually I very much enjoyed the typing and shorthand lessons. I felt this gave me something practical to fall back on in case it should be needed in future. Despite the fact that my father’s health was manageable again, I always feared that something would happen to him. The wound in his back had opened up again soon after the surgery in Alingsås, and my mother continued to tend to it. When she wanted to teach me to cleanse and bandage the wound, she was not too successful however. I was too squeamish. Although things were finally going quite well for us, I was always nervous and apprehensive. I suppose the past had caught up with me.
The Jewish community in Malmö was small. Rabbi Berlinger was in charge of the synagogue and the Sunday morning ‘cheder’ (Jewish school). My Jewish education had been put on hold in April 1940 and it was important for my father that I resume where I had left off. So instead of enjoying some free time on Sundays I was off to ‘cheder’. I immediately loved the Jewish environment and felt completely at ease with the other children there. Ultimately I became friendly with the Rabbi’s three children, a daughter, Yetta, a year older than I, a son exactly my age and a younger daughter. It was Yetta who became my special friend. Often on Shabbat, after attending synagogue, I would be invited at the Berlinger home for lunch, and once again Orthodox Judaism held a certain attraction for me. But I never acted on it.
Malmö is a port city and has wonderful beaches. The sand is almost white and the beach is kept spotlessly clean. It was here that I finally learnt to swim properly. A long wooden pier led from the beach to two large seawater swimming pools that were separated by a wall but not covered. One pool was for men and the other for women, and everyone swam in the nude. Although I was rather shy I loved the sensation of swimming without a bathing suite, and gladly paid the few öre (Swedish pennies) admission.
It takes about two hours by boat to reach Copenhagen from Malmö, and on a clear day one can see the skyline of Copenhagen from the beaches in Malmö. Knowing that the Germans were in such close proximity always gave me an eerie and unsettled feeling.
A new wave of refugees began to arrive in Malmö, Danish Jews from Copenhagen and its surrounding areas. For the most part they made their escape in Danish fishing boats. The fishermen stowed their Jewish passengers in the holds of their boats and left Denmark under the guise of darkness. Many people were saved in this manner. My parents became friendly with several couples, friendships that in many instances lasted all their lives. Stories were told of the heroism of the Danish people during the German occupation, and how even the King protected his Jewish citizens. Only a small number of Danish Jews were deported to Theresienstadt concentration camp, of whom very few perished due to the King’s influence and interference.
It should be mentioned here that Theresienstadt was not an extermination camp. The Germans called it a ‘model’ camp, where no one starved or was mistreated, which was of course exaggerated. Neither did they disclose that many of those who did come to Theresienstadt were subsequently transported to Auschwitz and other extermination camps. When my husband and I were in Czechoslovakia in 1992 we visited Theresienstadt, or Terezin, which is located about one and a half hour’s drive from Prague. We were a diverse group of people, two young men from as far away as Australia, but whatever our origin, Theresienstadt would never be forgotten by any of us.
Returning from synagogue on a Friday evening, my father brought home a guest. Jack Ganz was a Norwegian Jew, in his early forties, a small man with a pronounced nose in his narrow face and an easy friendly smile. He was a bachelor and became a steady fixture in our home. Both my parents enjoyed his company. He was a most helpful and generous person, who would remain in our lives for years to come.
One day a letter arrived in the mail, addressed to me. To my great surprise it was from Sigmund. He was in a German prisoner of war camp and had obtained his brother John’s address in Sweden through the efforts of the Red Cross. John, in turn, had sent Sigmund our address. Now my personal ‘war effort’ began. Many letters between Sigmund and me crossed the oceans, and when we met at the end of the war he told me that the arrival of a letter from me always made that day a brighter one.
In the spring of 1944 I went to visit John and Beks in Norrkjöping. Beks was pregnant with Rene and quite unwell, but we still made the most of the few days we had together. Also that same spring I visited Tante Ruth and Onkel Hermann in Stockholm. It was Onkel Hermann who became my guide. We visited museums, beautiful parks and dined in fancy restaurants, all of which was a novelty for me. Onkel Hermann made a deep impression on me with his knowledge of art and his interest in anything and everything around him. Although older than my father he appeared much more youthful and except for my father he would be the most important person in my life for some time to come.
When school was over in the spring of 1944 I decided to make use of my new skills, typing and stenography and began looking for work. I was certainly not a fast typist and my shorthand left a lot to be desired, so I was overjoyed when I was offered a job in a small office. It turned out that all I had to do was to answer an occasional phone call, and I was left alone in the little narrow office, from the time I arrived in the morning until 4 o’clock in the afternoon. A typewriter was my only company. Two weeks later I had to admit to myself that this venture had been unsuccessful and I left. An ad in the newspaper attracted my attention. A small company was looking for a Girl Friday and I could not believe my luck when I was hired. The office consisted of only two people, the owner of the company and his secretary. In my opinion the secretary, a young woman with an engagement ring on her finger, was the most efficient and smart woman I had ever met, and I was completely in awe of her.
Things went really well at the office for a while, until one day I committed a blunder I have never forgotten. I was handed a stack of letters to mail, one of which was, however, a registered letter and had to be taken to the post office. Instead, I mailed all the letters in a mailbox, and when I realized what I had done, all I could do was stare at the mailbox hoping against hope that it would regurgitate the registered letter. I ran back to the office and confessed to my boss what had happened, expecting to be fired on the spot. But he calmly went to the post office and the letter was retrieved without any problems. I became, if possible, even more eager to please, and at the end of the summer I regretfully left my first employ and the two people who had shown me such kindness and consideration.
The construction of a beautiful theatre complex had recently been completed in Malmö. I saw my very first play on an outing with my class and loved it. To my great surprise Yetta’s brother asked me one day if I wanted to go with him to a performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. My first date! It would also be my last with him.
At the end of 1944 it was obvious that the Germans were losing the war, and in the spring of 1945 it was only a question of time when Hitler would have to capitulate. The allied forces were beginning to land in Germany and rumors of concentration camps and atrocities abounded. But nothing could have prepared us for what we were about to witness.
In April 1945 we were told by the teacher who had tutored me in Swedish, that we would be relocated for the remainder of the school year and that we would be going to school in shifts. Our school would be used to house concentration camp prisoners who would be liberated shortly through the efforts of Sweden’s Count Folke Bernadotte. At the same time the teacher expressed her regret that the graduating class would be unnecessarily inconvenienced by this move, and that she found the whole thing grossly unfair. I was shocked. This woman who I thought was so kind, had no compassion at all for the unfortunate people who were about to come to Sweden! In anticipation of their arrival many schools in Malmö were converted into temporary hospitals, and the Malmö museum, a reconstructed fort, located in a lovely park and surrounded by a moat, was prepared to house the more or less healthy survivors.
And then they started to come. The museum was soon filled to capacity with Jewish men and women of many origins. Few were from Germany. For my parents it became a daily ritual to go to the museum to make inquiries about our family, but no one had any information. One day they spoke to a young boy from Cologne. Although conversation across the moat was difficult, they were able to find out that he was sixteen years old and the sole survivor of his family, except for an older brother who was in the United States. My father suggested that, since we were the same age, it might benefit the young boy to have a friend visit, and from then on until the end of his quarantine I went to see him every day. Even though we had to shout across the moat we managed to become good friends and when he was able to leave the museum he came to our apartment several times before leaving for the United States.
Although Sweden had remained neutral, many Swedes had secretly sided with the Germans. Not so secret were the transports of German weapons that were allowed to go through Sweden. Although the Jewish population was negligible many of the Swedes were anti-Semites, something I experienced first hand and in a very unpleasant way. I was visiting my friend and shouting across the moat in German as usual, when a man passed by and yelled at me that I was nothing but a whore. I was in shock and too young to have the presence of mind to react. Now I had one more thing to worry about. Would the man be there the next day? He never came back.
In the meantime the schools too began to fill up. In the schoolyards where kids had been playing until recently, pitiful victims of Hitler’s concentration camps walked aimlessly about. The bony hands reaching for the bread and chocolate that people brought them, the emaciated faces staring through the fences begging for food, the fights that sometimes erupted over a piece of bread – it all made me almost physically ill. Yet I returned every free minute with more bread and chocolate that turned out to do more harm than good. Soon it became strictly forbidden to bring food from the outside, as many of the former prisoners had gotten seriously ill from the unaccustomed caloric intake. They had been starving too long and their digestive system could only handle small portions of food at one time that were now apportioned by the doctors in charge. I cannot describe the deep sorrow and despair I felt that spring of 1945 and even now, a lifetime later, I can still feel the pain of the 16-year old I was then.
Once the former prisoners were healthy enough they were released from the different quarantines in Malmö. The majority headed for the larger cities in Sweden, Stockholm and Göteborg (Gothenburg), in search of work. Ultimately many immigrated to Canada and the United States, but no matter how their lives turned out, the memories of the horrors of the camps would always be with them.
As we know, the Germans finally capitulated on May 7, 1945. My parents went out that night to spend the evenings with friends, but I was in no mood to celebrate. The events of the past weeks had depressed me so much that all I wanted was to crawl into bed. Since we were living on the ground floor, I always rolled down my blind before getting undressed. That evening I did not. A face in my window almost paralyzed me. I screamed. He ran, but he had seen me partially undressed and I felt completely violated. I never told my parents.
The end of World War II also signaled the end of our life in Malmö as well as a new beginning. We had come to Sweden as refugees and could, therefore, only stay as long as there was a need for it. Both Norway and Denmark had been liberated, and all of us who had settled in Sweden during the war had to return to our respective countries. The good news was that Nordiske in Oslo were anxiously waiting for my father to resume his position as director of their paint division, but the bad news was that they had only been able to find a small studio apartment for us. That was the best they could do under the circumstances. Since we had been living in Malmö for more than two years my mother, in particular, became busy winding up our affairs, having our furniture shipped to Oslo to be placed in storage and packing up our personal belongings. Finally, in the fall of 1945 we said good-bye to all our friends and went by train to Oslo, the city we had left so long ago, on April 9, 1940.
Like any other country that had been occupied by the Germans, Norway had been left in shambles. Rationing of certain foods was still in place and the housing shortage was critical. Only two years after we returned to Norway were we finally able to leave our studio apartment. Nordiske had once again lent a helping hand by paying for a long lease for a newly constructed apartment in one of the suburbs of Oslo. Our new home positively rejuvenated my parents, but it would not be for long. On November 11, 1947 my father passed away suddenly. He was only 57 years old.
That same year a contingent of about 400 Jews arrived from Europe on the invitation of the Norwegian government. The intention was to replace those that had fallen victim to the concentration camps. Among the 400 immigrants was my future husband Stefan Szilagyi, a survivor from Hungary. We met in November 1948 and got married in Oslo in December 1949. While we were engaged, Stefan decided to change his name to a more Norwegian sounding name and one that was easier to pronounce. Stenge (which means ‘to close’ in Norwegian) was acceptable to the authorities.
Stefan and I immigrated to Canada in 1951 and our first child, a boy. was born in 1954. That year my mother decided that she did not want to be separated from her grandchild and moved to Montreal. Our son Marvin was followed by a little girl, Helen, in 1957.
My mother adjusted well to life in Canada. She learnt to speak and read English, became part of a circle of German Jews, played bridge and traveled all over the world. She died in 1980 at the age of 79.
Stefan and I are the grandparents of 4 grandsons and 2 granddaughters. Our oldest grandson Motti is married to Sara. They live in Israel.
In my speech at the medal ceremony in Oslo in honor of Einar Wellen I said: “… The passage of the years serves to illustrate what it means to save one life. Because of Einar I survived the Holocaust and was able to bring two children into the world, who in turn have all together six children, eight Jewish lives in two generations….”
The Nazis did not succeed.
editorial assistance from Dr. Karin Doerr
© Copyright Judy Cohen, 200
© Copyright Judy Cohen, 200
All rights reserved.