Friday, June 21, 2013

Abel Abrahamsen, ca. 1944

Z A G A R E  
T R O N D H E I M  
N E W  Y O R K

 A B E L  A B R A H A M S E N

The real story starts in 1898 when my father, Salomon Abrahamsen, a poor peddler, emigrated from a tiny village or shtetl named Zagare in Lithuania to Norway via Memel on the Baltic Sea.

At about the same time, my mother Mirjam Fischer, a Jewish seamstress, arrived from Latzkova, also in Lithuania. She went directly to Trondheim where four of her sisters and three brothers already lived.

Abel Abrahamsen left Trondheim, Norway, when he and his family fled to Sweden to escape the Nazi deportation of Jews.

During his years in Stockholm, Sweden, he studied electrical engineering, and later left for Canada to become a sergeant in the Norwegian Air Force. 

After the war, he studied film making in California and moved to New York in 1950, where he worked eight years with CBS. He became more and more attracted to the business world and started his own store on 57th Street, called Norsk.

In Abel Abrahamsen's own words: 

"This is the story about my happy Abrahamsen family in Trondheim, which became one of the leading Jewish families in Norway.  Happy, yes indeed we were. For as long as I can remember, our harmonious home was almost always filled with laughter and songs by nine brothers and two sisters plus two understanding parents. 

But it was not always that way I was told, as the youngest family member. My immigrant parents, with little or no background to sustain them, struggled to raise eleven kids. Also learning the Norwegian language was not easy. My parents spoke mostly Yiddish at home. We loved hearing about life in their old country, Lithuania, and listening to the melodious Yiddish songs which I in turn sang to my two daughters.

The real story starts in 1898 when my father Salomon Abrahamsen, a poor peddler, emigrated from a tiny village or shtetl named Zagare in Lithuania to Norway, via Memel on the Baltic Sea. 

At about the same time, my mother Mirjam Fischer, a Jewish seamstress, arrived from Latzkova, also in Lithuania. She went directly to Trondheim where four of her sisters and three brothers already lived. They were all part of the large Fischer family that became Kahn, Buchmann, Mendelsohn, Bernstein, Levinsohn, Spilg and of course Abrahamsen.

When Salomon met Mirjam – it sounds like a movie title- they hit it off right away, got engaged and were wed October 12, 1902. Mirjam had by then opened her own fruit, candy and tobacco shop and Salomon’s first meeting with his bride to be took place in her shop. He wanted to buy an orange and paid her 2 øre. He was already so much in love with her that he offered her the orange as a gift. Mirjam accepted with thanks and then put the orange back in stock again! It was already a good beginning for their later partnership!

During the next twenty years, 1903 to 1923, the wedding couple was blessed with eleven children, nine sons and two daughters, also called the Abrahamsen soccer team. In the meantime Salomon’s position in the business world had evolved from a peddler to a pushcart tycoon – that’s how rich he felt, with two pushcarts and a horse and wagon. “Remember, my sons and daughters," he kept telling us, “always keep plenty of stock on hand, because you cannot sell merchandise from an empty wagon!" 

In 1912, he bought a small building in Trondheim, Krambugaten 9, located near the harbor with its large clientele of seamen. Here he opened his first clothing store, with living quarters above the store, which was quite common in those days. 

His location, coupled with his hard work and his pleasant charming personality, made his store so successful that in 1928 he bought and moved to a seventy-foot-high “skyscraper”, with a warehouse nearby, both located at Nidelven (Nid River).

And so the first chapter in the rags-to-riches Abrahamsen story ended with this move. Stocked with high quality rich looking French silk, British woolens, and Egyptian cotton yardage imported from several European countries, the store continued to prosper. 

Because Salomon and Mirjam had had little or no formal education back in their native Lithuania, they decided to make certain that their children were educated. As a matter of fact, my father Salomon had only two years of schooling. The president of my father's bank once exclaimed after a long conference: "Mr. Abrahamsen, if you could only have had five years of schooling, you would have become the Finance Minister of Norway!"

Old Synagogue Courtesy Trondheim Byarkiv 

So, after many years of struggle, the educational status for the Abrahamsen family showed the following result: David, M.D and psychiatrist, author of 16 medical books, Heiman, general manager of three stores, with a degree in business administration, Julius and Jacob, dentist and composers, Leopold interior decorator, Samuel, historian author and professor of Judaic studies at Brooklyn College. 

In 1986 he wrote the book "Norway’s Response to the Holocaust." Aron and Able became electrical engineers and writers, Aron working on a book of our family story and Abel selling Norwegian stories to Readers’ Digest. Aron also worked and lectured on the Apollo space project, “but never made it to the moon.”

During their upbringing, all the siblings were also busy helping out in the three stores. The older children always took care of the younger ones, helping them with their homework, teaching them the sports of skiing, skating swimming track and field, and soccer and also protecting them from being bullied at school.

Name calling however followed by street fighting was difficult to avoid. A Jewish education was necessary and the Orthodox Jewish congregation observed the kosher law with all tits rules and regulations. When the boys reached thirteen years of age, they celebrated their bar mitzvah. They were then considered adults. By 1940 the congregation numbered 260 members. After the war, only half remained.

The first synagogue in Trondheim was located on the second floor in St. Jørgensveita 7 and was inaugurated as the first synagogue in 1899. This was originally built as a railway station in 1864. It had been in use till the Jewish Congregation bought the building. 

After much restoration, the new synagogue was opened in 1925. During the war, the synagogue was confiscated by the Nazis 1941 and much damage was done to it. By fall of 1947 after much restoration, the synagogue was rededicated.

The dedication of the synagogue took place on October 13th, 1925. It started with a procession carrying in the Torah, while the cantor sang "Vajhi binsaua. " Then the ner tomid – the eternal light – was lit. My father Salomon Abrahamsen felt honored as the proud chairman of the building committee when after his opening spec he presented the keys of the synagogue to the Chairman of the Board. 

The ground floor contained meeting rooms and a banquet room with a kitchen, a small library, a classroom to be used as a cheider of Jewish education where small services could be held, a coatroom and apartment for the caretaker. In the late 1930’s a mikva (woman’s ritual and cleansing bath) was added in the basement. In 1997 the only Jewish Museum in Norway was dedicated. 

Upstairs on the second floor, the Sabbath service were held on Friday night and Saturday mornings. Also, all High Holiday services as well as bar mitzvahs and weddings were celebrated there. The second floor could seat 180 men and the third floor gallery cold seat 80 women.

Jacob Abrahamsen 

Aron Abrahamsen 

Oscar Abrahamsen 

Julius Abrahamsen 

David Abrahamsen 

As the children grew up they became Board members, officers of the Jewish clubs and associations and active participants in many cultural events. Every Chanukah you could find the Abrahamsen family not only producing, but also writing composing the music, acting and directing the play. So widespread were the Abrahamsen interests in Jewish as well as non-Jewish, that if a planned project were to become a success, the cry was heard. “Let an Abrahamsen take charge of it!”

Here is an example for our innovative business planning and public service: Since all stores were closed by law on Sunday we decided to show Charlie Chaplin movies using the front door transom as a screen every Sunday at 5pm during December 1938, 1939 and 1940. A microphone with loudspeakers was also hooked up for our commercials.

The movies became so popular and successful that the police had a hard time controlling traffic and the crowds outside the main store. During Christmas 1941, 42, 43 and 44 after we had fled Norway in the fall and winter of 1941, the public gathered outside the store hoping to view more Charlie movies and to show their sympathy for us Jews who had to escape our country, a nice gesture by our non- Jewish friends. However, with all the Abrahamsen gone, no movies could be shown, but still the crowds lingered on.

Nazi Germany invaded Norway on April 9, 1940 and the persecution and harassment of Jews started in May 1940. The Germans through the Nazi controlled State police confiscated all the radio belonging to Jew. Names and address lists were prepared by the State police and we expected the worst to happen to Norway’s 2,200 Jews. 

It did happen when in November 1942 and in the spring of 1943 a total of 767 Jews, men women and children were arrested and deported to German extermination camps and only 29 survived to tell the story. However, through foresight planning an a little luck all the Abrahamsen fled Norway a step ahead of the Nazis and survived in Sweden, England, Canada, and the USA. Seven brothers joined the Norwegian and Allied forces, Air Force, Army, Navy and Marines. In April 1940, Dr. David organized one of the first Norwegian field hospitals in Eastern Gausdal, northwest of Lillehammer. My two brothers, Oskar and Jacob, took part in fighting the Germans south of Trondheim right after the invasion in April. 

The extended Abrahamsen’s family lost 63 members aged four to seventy one years old during the Holocaust. My brother Oskar was arrested by the Gestapo in the fall of 1941, but managed to escape under dramatic circumstances. My sister Beile in Amsterdam was arrested with her husband and daughter in 1942, and sent to Theresienstadt concentration camp for further deportation to the Auschwitz extermination camp. 

Our family had been working with the Swedish Foreign Office in Stockholm and finally Beile and her family were given Swedish citizenship, which meant that they were to be kept at Theresienstadt and not sent to Auschwitz. But three times they were put on the train destined for the extermination camp, and each time the commander of the camp came running out of the railroad station yelling to them: "Get off this train; you are not leaving since you have been made Swedish citizens!" It is an old saying among Jews that “if you are a realist, you have to believe in miracle!”

Now what had happened to my brother Julius, the dentist and composer? He decided to leave from Stockholm via Russian and Japan to get to the USA. He was short of ticket money, so he got a job as a cook on a Japanese ship bound for America. When he arrived in California in December 1940, where he met Samuel and Aron, he could not work as a dentist since he lacked a license to practice dentistry. 

So being an innovative Abrahamsen, he turned instead to his beloved music career. He convinced the famous compose conductor and arranger David Rose ("Holiday for Strings") to perform one of his Norwegian hit songs called "The Old Front Door” (now renamed “Siesta Time in Monterey") over the radio coast to coast. It was very well received when it was published in 1941. Realizing that due to fierce competition in California, he could not make a living in music either. He left for the Norwegian Air Force camp Little Norway in Toronto Canada where they desperately needed a dentist. 

And what about brother Aron? In January 1940 he had brought four steamer trunks with our silver to New York. Mother Mirjam sent it since she did not feel safe in Norway anymore, with threat of war hanging over her head and the possibility that she might have to flee her homeland for the second time in her life. 

David’s wife and children took the train to Sweden and he escaped via Sweden to the north coast of Finland. He had had to give up his field hospital after 4,000 Norwegian soldiers surrendered to the Wehrmacht. He tried to book passage on a small fishing vessel leaving from Petsamo going to Iceland, Greenland and New York, but there were no cabins available, until David told the captain that he was a medical doctor. “Very good” the captain commented, “with a doctor on board I can take six more passengers!”

The rest of the family: Mother, Heiman, Leopold, Jacob, Oskar and myself soon fled to Sweden. On October 21, 1941, three civilians from the Gestapo-controlled State Police showed up in our main store, telling us that they had confiscated our stores, warehouse, bank accounts and safety deposit boxes that contained our life insurance policies and other valuables. It also meant that all our business inventories were seized. They ordered Heiman to turn over all of his business keys and told him to report daily to the new store manager.

At this time ours were the only Jewish owned stores that had been confiscated in Trondheim. They did not arrest us at that time, but four days later one of our trusted sales ladies told us she had overheard that the police were waiting for our arrest orders to be issued. This was the wake-up call that set our escape plans in motion. A reliable taxi driver was hired to take mother, Heiman and me to the southern part of Norway east of Oslo where the terrain was flat. There the Resistance fighters would take us across the border to Sweden. Our remaining three brothers, Leopold, Jacob and Oskar planned to ski across the mountainous route east of Trondheim to Sweden.

At midnight on October 28th the taxi arrived as agreed upon and packed at the back entrance of our building I put on my rucksack and also carried tow small suitcases Heiman. did the same and then I told mother to put on her winter coat. But mother said she was not going. She said she had done nothing wrong and she thought they would not arrest an old woman. I argued with her for five hours before I convinced her to get in to the taxi and leave with us. She finally understood that by going, she was saving not only herself but our lives too.

After a fourteen hours' drive, we crossed over the border to Sweden, well aware that the German guards were patrolling the territory, including the lake we had to row over. The next morning at the Swedish border, we met a Nazi sympathizer a sheriff who told us we could not stay in Sweden. He said he had turned back many Norwegians, but would let our 63 years old mother stay. I cried when I said goodbye to mother.

So Heiman and I returned to Norway. The Norwegian underground was surprised and angry at the Swedish authorities. But Heiman and I would not give up, so we decided to cross the border again. This time further north. The next night we crossed at Charlottenberg. Back in Sweden for the second time we met another Nazi sympathizer sheriff, who contacted the first sheriff. Between them they decided not to let us stay in Sweden. Through the thin office walls, I could hear the second sheriff saying to the first: "I am certainly not letting any Jews in to our beautiful Sweden."

While I waited for the sheriff to fill out some papers, I was able to get to a phone to call my sister Asne. She had left for Sweden a week after the invasion in mid April 1940 and was living in Stockholm with her Swedish husband. He was a lawyer. They were both out, so I left a note with their maid to tell my brother-in-law that we were in Charlottenberg and that he should catch the first train to this border station and come to our hotel.

The next morning Heiman and I were ready to go back to Norway again when our brother-in-law Arne arrived. After assessing our situation, he banged on the desk in front of the sheriff and yelled at him: "If you send Heiman and Abel back to Norway and if anything happens to them, I will, as a Swedish citizen, hold you personally responsible for your actions. Remember the war is not over yet!" I watched the sheriff’s face turned white. He quickly backed off and said, “yes, yes, yes, I will let them stay.”

So we went to Oreryd a Norwegian transit refugee camp and after three weeks there we came to Stockholm where we were reunited with mother, my sister Asne and many other relatives and friends. During November and December 1941, my three remaining brothers, Leopold, Jacob and Oskar arrived in Sweden on skis, after having experienced violent snowstorms along the way.

My two and a half years in Stockholm were filled with joy and sadness. There was joy because so many of our relatives and friends were still alive, having safely escaped to Sweden, but also sadness due to the disappearance of so many loved ones, aunts uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, and so on. We hoped constantly to see the familiar faces again, but as time went on, we had to realize the inevitable that so many were gone forever. 

Our missing relatives were constantly on our minds – wherever we went, whenever we met refugees. We were always searching for them and hoping to hear some news. I will never, never forget my mother’s conversation with her nieces and nephews when she asked them: “Why didn’t you save your mothers, my three sisters? Why didn’t you take them across the Swedish border like two of my sons did with me?

After a while though, when I had listened to these accusation so many times and seen the unhappy faces of my cousins, I asked mother to stop repeating her questions to them. “It does not do any good," I told her. "They feel horribly guilty for leaving their loved ones behind in Norway, the same way you feel the sorrow in mourning your losses." Mother understood and from that day on, her questioning stopped.

Although mother never again brought up this matter to my cousins, she could never quite forget it. When she returned to Trondheim after the war, she used to disappear for a few hours every day. None of us knew where she went, until one of us followed her. She visited the railroad station when the train arrived from Oslo. Then walked over to the local shipping lines where the ships arrived from various coastal villages, towns and cities. Her purpose was obvious. She was still looking for her missing relatives, but they never showed up. We never told mother that we knew the reason for her disappearance.

In Stockholm I studied electrical engineering at the Technical Institute and graduated in 1943. Then I signed up with the Royal Norwegian Air Force at Camp Little Norway in Toronto. I got my wings as navigator bombarded in June 1945 at the aviation training camp at Prince Edward Island. But by then it was too late to get involved I any war action. The only action I ever saw was when peace broke out in Picadilly Circus London England on V-J Day in August 1945!"

Courtesy Archives of Ontario 

Many young Norwegians trained to become pilots and air crews at "Little Norway" in Ontario, before returning to the battlefields side by side with Allied troops. In June 1940, the Norwegian Government-in-exile had plans for reorganization of the Royal Norwegian Air Force. Plans for a training center in France were abandoned and negotiations begun with Canadian authorities resulting in the establishment of a main training centre in Toronto. By November the camp opened. 3,300 officers and other personnel of the air force were trained at the bases in at the Muskoka airport north of Toronto.

"My father died in January 1938 at the age of sixty. My mother died in December 1974 at the age of 96. My brother David died at the age of 99. Julius was 93 and Heiman was 90 when they passed away. 

Since 1902, a total of 98 direct descendants of Mirjam and Salomon Abrahamsen have been born. The third and fourth generations show the same artistic and creative talents for research study and show business as well as regular business. Thus the tradition continues with all the Abrahamsen’s descendants living in Norway, Sweden, Holland, Israel, Canada, China and the USA. 

All of them look forward to keeping the family’s spirit alive with the same energy that Mirjam and Salomon possessed when they arrived in Norway 105 years ago."

Photos and article courtesy of Abel Abrahamsen