WAR AND OCCUPATION
MARGRIT ROSENBERG STENGE
MARGRIT ROSENBERG STENGE
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 day room 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 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 difficulties.
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 wood stove. 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 long time 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 made deep 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 the 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.
With kind permission from
Memoirs of Holocaust Survivors in Canada. Published by the
Memoirs of Holocaust Survivors in Canada. Published by the