R E F U G E E I N N O R W A Y:
T H E S T O R Y O F M R. M.
A new category of refugees emerged in the wake of World War II: Jewish displaced persons, from the Nazi concentration camps or from wartime hiding. It is estimated that there were about 250,000 Jewish displaced persons (DP’s) at the war’s end. In their book Waiting for Hope, Angelika Konigseder, and Juliana Wetzel (Northwestern Universities Press, 2001) richly detail the realities and complexities of the DP’s postwar path towards rehabilitation.
Refugees were financially aided by UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration) and from 1948, the International Relief Organization and various Jewish relief organizations, American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (Joint) and the British Jewish Relief Unit (JRU). Many were very ill with TB and so handicapped that they were unfit for labor. Most of them did not believe they would be able to start a new life in a new country.
I had the privilege of interviewing one such displaced person—a Jew, who as a youngster came with his parents to Norway in 1952 and is now a Norwegian citizen. He consented to the interview with full realization that it would be painful for him to reflect on the many traumatic events he experienced, a past that remains a strong part of his life.
But he has resiliently insisted on regaining life, and found ways to live and move on from an almost zero- if not the so-called minus- place he started from. Silence is one means of survival and it is accepted – by some. However, in sharing his story Mr. M has also said yes to recreate the vulnerable. I will for the sake of this article, call him Mr. M, as he has expressed a wish to remain anonymous.
Mr. M: My parents escaped from Poland when WWII broke out. We arrived in Russia where I was born in 1941 during the escape. After the war, we decided not to return to Poland, but had to pass through in order to arrive at a European refugees’ repatriation camp, a camp for Displaced Persons. We arrived at Reichenbach in Austria. Later in 1946/47, we were relocated to Dachau near Munich, Germany. My mother tells me how terrible it was during one of our travels to hear natives standing on the railway platform in Poland shouting: “Are there really that many Jews still remaining?” This stayed with me. I personally remember another incident when we arrived in Munich. We had to leave the train with our luggage. German soldiers were waving and shouting forcefully: “Hurry up! Schnell! Get off quickly..!” and I thought: “The war is over. We do our best. Why do they have to be so angry?”
Most of the refugees in Germany and elsewhere wanted to settle in USA, Canada or Israel – but in order to do so, one of the criteria was that one was healthy. I will never forget waving good-bye to the many of our Jewish friends that we met in Dachau. They were all transported in a truck with all their belongings on their way to Israel. My mother wept deeply. She never told me why, but a five years old boy understands. .
As a matter of fact, we had prepared to leave for Israel as well. We had bought items that were difficult to get hold of in Israel. We built a trunk for our personal belongings and started to pack. However, a last routine medical check before departure showed that father had TB. Hence my parents, my sibling and I were unable to leave and remained in Dachau for 6 more years. We lived in a one room apartment, without water, while father was at the sanatorium for a longer period of time without recovering.
I started school and learned German easily as we spoke German-like Yiddish at home. I made many friends among classmates, in the school yard as well as in my neighborhood. The teachers were very nice. I was automatically exempt from religion classes where Christianity was taught. On my way home, I experienced a few times anti-Semitic mobbing by boys, but was protected by my always loyal German schoolmates. My parents also developed close German friendships, but even so, we did not want to remain in Germany.
The Norwegian Refugee Commission was tasked with placing active TB cases in Norwegian sanatoria selecting those they felt would benefit most. Because Norway is a small country, it could not possibly take them all. Furthermore, Norway was recovering from the war. A choice had to be made. They had ongoing discussions concerning the possibility of giving at least some displaced people of Jewish origin (many of whom were traumatized and left with scars on their lungs and their minds) permission to enter Norway, to settle and finally to become citizens. Norway was well equipped to receive TB patients. A TB prevention law had been voted at the turn of the century that made it mandatory to treat a human carrier of the disease. There were two key scientists in the field of TB, Olaf Scheel and Johannes Heimbeck, both affiliated with Ullevål hospital, Oslo. They were leading researchers and by 1947 had made medical history in the treatment of TB.
Mr. M’s father, suffering from TB, was among those selected on humanitarian grounds—along with his wife and children. In Norway there had already been several cases of TB. The selection of refugees in 1952 happened as far as I understand in collaboration with the Joint and the Norwegian authorities.
Marcus Levin from the Jewish Congregation in Oslo was one of several appointees who picked our contingent of about 10 families with TB from Dachau/Munich. We would be sent to Stavanger, as we understood it. Apparently the employment and housing opportunities there were better than other places.
Markus Levin was a Norwegian Jew, born in the small town of Rjukan. He was actively involved in the community, as member of the only Jewish family in town. He went into hiding shortly before the arrest in October 1943, and later fled to Sweden. He returned from exile after three years, all the while actively involved with the refugee work and in the lives of the refugees who arrived in Sweden.
He was also a representative of the Joint Commission, an agency of the United Jewish Appeal of Norway: “The spirit of humanity which has followed a straight course from the days of Henrik Wergeland to our present day is so firmly rooted among the people of Norway that any organized anti Semitism will never arise there. And as the job of reconstruction continues to go forward, Norway will no doubt again become the secure country for Norwegian Jews, which it was before Germany brought fatal destruction to these people” These are the words of Markus Levin, written in 1946. His strong involvement in the earlier and post war work has left marks, in archives, in personal renderings, in lives that still today has direct ties to his name, as they remember his life.
The refugee center in Stavanger was well organized, supported by professionals. The adults learned the native language and were given lectures in Norwegian history and culture. Norway was at the time a homogeneous protestant society, a society that is geographically in the periphery of Europe. The ordinary employees at the center were generally very kind, but rather unsophisticated and uneducated and were generally skeptical of other cultures. My impression was that they generally pity people who were not Christians. It made a big impression that the center, with the best of intent, arranged a Christmas party with food and gifts and so on. We were even encouraged to walk around the Christmas tree and sing songs along with the staff. And we did!
My meeting with school: We were 3 children at the center at the age of primary school and we started in different regular classes with Norwegian students at an East End school in Stavanger. Before we left for Stavanger, my father had spoken highly of Norway as a good nation where people were kind and honest. He had bought a dictionary so that I could learn Norwegian and I looked forward to it.
However, the school experience was a cultural shock for me. I was used to order and discipline in the German school environment, with kids who respected adults. Norwegian children seemed unruly, loud, ran around in the school bus and in the school yard. Some did their homework on the sidewalk before class. The teachers in the school yard were few and passive.
During the first breaks, the students noticed me as being a newcomer. They gathered around me, came close, very close and treated me as if I was a monkey. They laughed at my accent, and teased me with love notes on the wall when I talked with girls. One day my purse was stolen from a wardrobe by an unknown student during a sports-event. I reported it and his mother returned it much later to my parents, weeping, ashamed.
Among the teachers, only one was informed by the headmaster about my background. Some of the other teachers ignored me and never explained anything about subjects I was unfamiliar with from previous schooling in Germany (such as crafts and sports). One got mad at me because I did not understand his instructions. Classmates had to cool him down and inform him about my background. Other teachers were too kind and gave me undeserved good marks. The level among the students was low. I was soon one of the best in mathematics and writing. I did not tell to my parents about all my problems. I later developed an ulcer from the stress and was sent to the children’s hospital in Bergen. Things turned far better once I changed school as we moved to another part of town.
One year later, all families had to start looking for work and a place to live. It was not easy to do in the postwar era. We experienced isolation. Families were scattered in settlements around Stavanger. A childless couple was offered a non-insulated garage in the countryside, with very bad bus connections, as a place to live. We were all used to city dwelling. We all wanted to go to Oslo so that we could have contact with other Jews – not only for religious reasons, but for social reasons as well.
Only 4 out of 8 families remained in Stavanger/Sandnes area. There was only one religious fellow among us. Housing was lacking everywhere in Norway. We felt that the Jewish Congregation in Oslo could have done more to bring us closer to Oslo. Those families who took charge of their own destiny, managed to get both work and home in Oslo.
Housing shortage was a fact. We moved several times the first 1-2 years and lived in low quality housing. We shared kitchen and bath with others. New apartments were being built in Stavanger and we got one, allegedly in unfair competition with Norwegians who had longer seniority. - It was difficult to get suitable work for everyone. It seemed to be easier with jobs for craftsmen such as painters and electricians.
Mr. R from Sandnes had to work in a factory on Saturdays, even though he was observant. Before the war my father had started medical studies, but had neither energy nor money to complete. His first employment was in a confectionery factory, but had to resign because of his lung condition and fearing the lifting that was required. His knowledge of Norwegian was adequate and he started as a clerk in a municipal office without possibility of promotion.
My father developed stress-related diseases. Firstly he was operated for stomach ulcer, later he underwent a major lung operation. Treatment at a sanatorium and medication did not relieve his pain. He then had a heart attack and was operated four times for a blood clot. His prostate was removed and, finally, he was treated for depression and weight loss. Mother was a well-read, happy and warm person who created a harmonious home environment and had friends everywhere. Migraine and arthritis did not distract her from all her activities.
It was difficult to be integrated into the Norwegian society that after all was not totally integrated itself into the European mindset. It suffered post-war poverty, it was a Christian nation and quite homogeneous. None of us felt at home. We felt we were foreigners. When I heard or read references to us as ‘you Jews,’ it meant I was still not classified as a Norwegian. It was a difficult time.
The four Jewish families in the Stavanger/Sandnes area met at intervals and talked about problems with the “natives”, their insecurity, skepticism and lack of knowledge about people from a non-Christian culture. It took a long time before the families were accepted in the workplace and in the communities.
My parents were perhaps more extroverted and took the initiative to speak with neighbors and invited people to our home. We had great friends. We had interesting discussions about cultural and social issues. With one of the family friends, however, we sensed a hidden missionary zeal.
I myself had few friends. I was not into school games or sports like the other children. I also became more cautious as I experienced poor loyalty from a classmate whom I regarded as my best friend: After bickering with another kid, my “friend” was teaching me how to behave, in front of surrounding classmates! Also, I refrained from speaking with girls, as it could be a source of mockery.
A nice class-mate who wanted my best told me that he prayed for me every night that I would convert to Christianity. A nice family from Bergen heard about me and invited me and an orphan several times to a summer camp for three weeks on a small island they owned. I brought my accordion. These were unforgettable weeks. We went rowing, fishing and doing all sorts of fun things on the island.
My parents were emancipated and non-religious. They knew the Jewish Holidays very well, but celebrated none of them. Our home was filled with books and records. We met frequently with Norwegian and Jewish friends. I listened to the adults’ political, cultural, historical and religious discussions and read many books, among them of course on Zionism, Hitler and the Holocaust.
An aunt who had survived Auschwitz and lived in Paris visited us often. Another aunt had, due to the restrictive British policies, smuggled herself into Israel prior to 1948, but her son, age 4, was temporarily left behind in Cyprus, to be cared for unintended by strict ultra-orthodox Jews. As it turned out, her son refused to speak with his parents for a long time following their reunion. We were born during the war and were ourselves witnesses.
I spent my youth in Norway but did not feel “at home” in Norway at that time. A girl my age, who had come with us to the country in 1952 felt the same and decided early to immigrate to Israel following the gymnasium. I had made similar plans as hers, but felt compelled to stay closer to my parents. Two Jewish brothers at our age who came to Stavanger with their family in 1948 also decided to immigrate to Israel later on.
Most Jewish refugees were members of the Jewish Congregation in Oslo. Oslo however, was 600 km (372 miles) away! The leaders of the Congregation thought it was time that the youth in Stavanger area approaching the age of Bar Mitzvah receive some Cheder education. Mr. R. from Sandnes was the appointed religion teacher. The girl, the two brothers and I met at our home once a week for a period of 1-2 years. We were schooled in Jewish traditions and the High Holiday rituals in Hebrew. All this did not appeal to us. Zionism did. The Congregation’s recreation center outside Oslo gathered children, adults and guests from other Scandinavian Congregations. It was wonderful, we were swimming, singing and dancing. There was a strong sense of camaraderie. We had great teachers; some of them even came from Israel.
One of the Congregational leaders got the great idea that I should study for Bar Mitzvah with the rabbi during the summer heat, while the other kids were busy with other activities. Marcus Levin invited the whole family to his private home in Oslo, with several other guests to celebrate my Bar Mitzvah following the ceremony in the synagogue. I will always be grateful to him for that.
We also had annual get-togethers in various cities in Scandinavia under the auspices of Scandinavian Jewish Youth Organization that offered very popular and interesting programs. One would feel at home, we would make new friends. We acquired knowledge and strengthened our identities. Many fell in love there.
I still had very little social interaction with the Norwegian youth of my age. My daily routine was school work, helping around the house and gardening, private tutoring and doing odd jobs to support the family economy.
Following graduation from the gymnasium, I started academic studies at University of Oslo. It was good for me to leave Stavanger. Together with broad minded students coming from all over the country, I felt being integrated and respected and hence became more social and extroverted.
The Jewish community granted me a bed-sit in a new-built community house. It was easy then to attend many of the meetings at the Congregation, Youth Organization and other associations. I was often invited to Jewish families who had children my age.
There is a long tradition of Jewish Youth Organization in Oslo giving homage to Henrik Wergeland on the Norwegian Constitution day, May 17th. He worked so hard to remove an anti-Semitic paragraph in the Constitution of 1814, which did not allow Jews to enter Norway. A lot of people, both Jews and non-Jews, celebrate the day in the way Wergeland started that tradition, with children’s parades in all corners of the nation, joyful songs and school orchestras. All children are included, immigrants and handicapped. This is unique in the world, Norwegians, once Vikings, now peace-loving people… I am moved to tears each year.
Besides being member of several humanitarian and peace-moving organizations, in the 1970s, I was involved with Soviet Jewry Action Group and led a demonstration at the Russian Embassy in Oslo because of Russia’s bad treatment of Jews that attempted to leave Russia for Israel.
The Jewish Congregation in Oslo built a senior center for Jewish citizens in 1985. My parents were getting older and on my recommendation, they moved there in 1987. They said good bye to their friends once again. It was a sad departure for my parents to separate from good friends and neighbors, after 35 years in Stavanger and leave for something completely unknown. But things turned out well. They got their own tiny apt, like-minded people to converse with, excellent care and a son who lived nearby.