S W E D E N
MARGRIT ROSENBERG STENGE
MARGRIT ROSENBERG STENGE
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 Alingsås, 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 emigrated 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 Alingsås, 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 Malmö 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 suit, 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 emigrated 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 learned 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 four grandsons and two 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.
With kind permission from
Memoirs of Holocaust Survivors in Canada. Published by the