Sunday, February 7, 2016

L E I F  G R U S D

“As a young boy, 9 years of age, I found it very exciting to observe the arrival of German soldiers marching through the streets of Oslo on April 9th, 1940. We were, as young boys generally are, captivated by their big boots, their uniforms and the number of soldiers parading through the streets.”

The German invasion took the whole nation of Norway by surprise and turned everyone’s life upside down. In 1940 there were 3 million inhabitants. For most Norwegians, the struggle of daily living became most urgent. For Leif Grusd and his family it would be, as it turned out, a story of survival.

“I was born in Norway of Jewish parents, one of which came to Sweden, the other to Norway at the beginning of 20th century. My younger sister and I have lived all our lives in Norway.

Both my parents came from Lithuania, with their parents, from two different villages (schtetles) that were in proximity to each other. The families must have known each other back in Lithuania. There were several close ties between these families. When my mother arrived with her family to Sweden, there had been Jews living there for several generations. Her family worked in the textile business. 

Leif Grusd's sister. Courtesy Leif Grusd ©

My grandfather on my father’s side arrived in Norway already in 1905, as part of the first generation Jews who came to the country. My father, being the youngest of the boys, arrived with his mother and two sisters in 1911. The family of eleven was then reunited, as the other children had arrived in the years between. Also my grandfather, as well as my father worked most of their lives in the textile business.

With the German invasion in April 9th, 1940, the situation was, of course, unsafe. When strong rumors were spread the next day that the Allies were waiting outside and were about to bomb the Germans in Oslo, we tried to leave the city because of this imminent danger. We ran out in the streets and jumped on a lorry that was parked at the street corner. It would soon be filled with many people also wanting to escape. We were driven to a place outside the city called Hadeland, which was, as it turned out, far from being outside the war zone. There were shots being fired from all sides.

Vidkun Quisling had seized power in a Nazi-backed coup d'état. The situation was, of course, unsafe and we decided to go to neutral Sweden. One could still travel by train without major problems. My mother was Swedish as mentioned, and we had family there. My father decided to remain in Oslo, to see how things evolved. 

We spent a couple of months in Sweden. Then we received notice that it would be safe to return to Oslo. We were assured that nothing would happen to us, so we decided to return. We jumped on the train and headed back. 

Vidkun Quisling founded the “National Assembly” party (abbr. NS) in 1933. Before the war, the NS was a minor party. However, during the war years, the membership reached 55,000, called “the Nazis” or ”the Quislings.” These Norwegians believed Germany would win the war and it became important to them to secure Norway's place in what was to become the Great Germanic Empire. Norwegians should adhere to the ideology of the National Assembly. They believed they had a role to play in the “New Europe”.

Almost all the rest of the population were against the Germans and were called “jøssinger” – to be a “jøssing” was to take a distance from everything that had to do with the Nazis, and every effort was made to make that statement. A quiet resistance was born.

Leif Grusd's parents.  Courtesy Leif Grusd ©

We had a couple of kids in our class who were Nazis. They were isolated. We didn't talk to them. We would also not sit beside a German soldier on public transportation. If we got up from our seat, we would get off the bus and get back on the next bus. It would otherwise be perceived as provocation and protest (which it was!), and one would get a serious fine or be arrested and put in jail. And as a Jew, one would have to be even more cautious not to attract any attention. There were 400,000 German soldiers stationed in Norway during the War. They dominated the street picture in all cities throughout Norway, including Oslo.

All households were required to have black-out curtains. No apartment should let any light out through the cracks. It was pitch dark in the streets. German rules were being imposed and increased over time. Public notices were posted on trees and lamp posts. This scared us. Freedom of movement and action were limited. It was frightening and dangerous.

A death penalty was now imposed on people who were caught helping prisoners of war and refugees, or those who would attempt to leave the country. However, more than 3000 Norwegians managed to flee by boats across the North Sea to join the Allied forces, and 1100 Jews were helped over to Sweden by courageous Norwegians who risked their own lives and the lives of their families to help people they did not know. Altogether, there were 50,000 Norwegians in Sweden during the war years. Most of them were men and women from the underground movement who were chased by Germans.

During the spring of 1941, Norwegian citizens were prohibited from owning a radio. Norwegian Jews had their radios confiscated in May, 1940, only one month after the occupation. This was imposed to prevent access to any news coming from the Allies or the Norwegian government in exile, based in London.

There were 40,000 Norwegians arrested during the war. Some were sent to Grini, which was one of several prisons in Norway. Grini was a most overcrowded prison, of which 9,000 were later on sent to labor camps in Germany and Poland. However, many never made it to the labor camps, but were tortured - even to death, in the German prisons in Norway as punishment or reprisal.

In 1940 there were about 2,100 Jews living in Norway. More than 150 Norwegian Jews wore uniform during the war to fight the occupants. Several hundred Jews had arrived recently as refugees from the Nazi regimes in Central Europe. Yet, Jews were harassed and arrested.

All Norwegians were required to carry ID cards. Eventually all Norwegian Jews received identification cards that they had to carry at all times and show if stopped by the German authorities. Later it was decided that the ID cards should also have a “J” stamp. Norwegian Jews were forced to fill out a questionnaire indicating age, occupation, religion and where they came from. The information given from those questionnaires helped the Germans identify us. 

In May 1942, Vidkun Quisling reintroduced the paragraph of 1814 Constitution which denied Jews access to the Kingdom of Norway. Several incidents in the country caused us to feel a narrowing of options, but still we did not consider seriously the idea of escape. To where? How? Leave our home and family? Work? Friends? What about German reprisals towards those who stayed behind?

Not until October 23-24th did things change dramatically. My father must have understood somehow that he needed to get away as fast as he could. He went up to the neighbors living on the 3rd floor of our building, a family of four where both parents were teachers, and asked them if he could go into hiding in their apartment. They agreed, knowing that they risked the lives of the whole family if detected. He stayed there 2-3 days and then managed to escape across the border to Sweden.

Escape attempts to Sweden could be exhausting and dangerous. Eventually, the escapes became more organized and many were able to find couriers to guide them across the border. At the time, Leif, now 12 years old, his mother and sister found themselves in a car heading towards the border.

We were approaching Kongsvinger, a city near the border, where we also had to pass Kongsvinger hospital. The driver must have been hesitant about the route. He stopped the car and asked some German soldiers for direction. I think my heart stopped for a second. Our backpacks contained clothing for the whole family and the cover story that we were going to see my father at the hospital was very thin. Why would we bring our clothes if we came to see him? The driver returned to the car and continued driving towards the border.
He left us near a forest entrance and we were told to follow a dirt road, and then take the second path to the left. 

The escape routes were difficult and winding. To walk through dense forest on a narrow path in the dark night is under the best of circumstances difficult. After many hours of walking in the dark forest, we finally reached the right farm, where we were expected and received by the farmer’s wife and daughter. 

For security reasons, we stayed inside the house the next day and left the following night, guided by two young Norwegian brothers, who lived on the farm and whose names we did not know at the time, but would many years later learn that they were Henry Tangen and Einar Solbergseter. They knew the area very well since they had played in these forests all their lives, which made them well fit for this task, to take us through the dark forest and avoid German patrols. They risked their lives to help us. If caught helping Jews, it was punishable by death. 

After many hours walking through a deep forest, we arrived at a lake, 6 miles long (which we many years later learned was called Varaldsjøen), where a rowboat was waiting for us. We were brought by boat across the lake and I vividly remember the floodlight across the western part of the lake. We had to circumvent that by rowing in the darker part. We put a piece of clothing around the oars to avoid making any noise.

We had finally arrived in Sweden. The brothers returned home. All of a sudden we found ourselves in a place of more uncertainty. In the dusk, an army patrol appeared. We were unable to identity the color of his uniform. We got scared, paused, looked at each other and wondered what would happen next, and then we heard: “Välkomna till Sverige!” – “Welcome to Sweden!” I then realized he was a Swedish soldier! 

Over 1,100 Norwegian Jews who were in mortal danger, were able to escape in time with the aid of other Norwegians, all total strangers who risked their lives to save them. As for those who stayed, we did not know of their destiny. We did not know much about concentration camps and the words “gas chamber” were totally unknown.
The first few days in Sweden, I remember we were transported to a place called “Kjesäter”, which was the head quarter for registration of all Norwegians who had fled across the border. We then took the train to Malmö via Stockholm, where we stayed for the next two years as refugees.
Children were usually not informed of family's daily problems, but I seem to recall that we, as with the 50,000 other refugees in Sweden, received financial support while being refugees there, from the Norwegian Legation in Stockholm. 
I was 14 years old when we returned to Norway in 1945. Our return is vague in my memory. I reconnected with my old classmates, started school in the fall, played football (soccer) and became very much involved in sports in general.
Eventually I signed up with Jewish Youth Association (JUF) and later with SJUF (Scandinavian Jewish Youth Association). After my studies, I also served on the board of the Oslo Jewish community (Det Mosaiske Trossamfund, DMT) for many years.

Scandinavian Jewish Youth Association SJUF Jewish Youth Congress 1949

The War was over. Peace. Most Norwegians could return to their families, their friends, to their apartments and homes, to their work. Jews could not. Their homes had been seized. Jobs had been taken over by others. We had nothing, just empty spaces. Most Norwegians were happy and pleased to be able to start a normal life again. 
Jews who returned and knew that friends were gone and job opportunities destroyed. . .I'm not sure that they shared the Norwegians' almost unrestrained joy. The only thing I personally have left from before the War is a ceiling lamp. Everything had been taken by the Germans.” 
Leif Grusd was soon accepted as a student of dentistry in Bonn, Germany.

“I remember when I took the train to Copenhagen, then another train to cross the border to Germany. When I first saw the German police on board who verified my ticket, wearing the same green army uniform, I must say I felt uncomfortable.”

Leif Grusd had four great years with his Norwegian fellow students in Bonn.

“There was just one incident in my recollection with one of the German students in my class. We were talking politics. This student insisted that the Germans had not started the War, but that the Jews had started the war! I could not tolerate it of course, and so I told him that I was a Jew... and if he would please leave the room. He was surprised. He didn't know that I was Jewish, otherwise he probably would not have said it." 

Today, Leif Grusd plays a vital role at the Jewish Museum in Oslo. With great enthusiasm, he skillfully communicates through various personal and general stories, aspects of the rich Jewish narrative of a small country and its obvious strong and remarkable impact this minority group has had on the country’s culture and society.

Published by Scandinavian Jewish Forum