Thursday, June 5, 2014

Scandinavian Jewish Forum

Kjell Staal Eggen Courtesy Trym Staal Eggen


Trym Staal Eggen, tells the story of his father’s heroic efforts to rescue Jews during the Holocaust. Trym’s story is based on his father’s manuscript (Skammenwhich he found in 2007, almost ten years after his father’s death.

The manuscript was published as a book in Norway in 2008, and recently, Israel’s Holocaust center Yad Vashem has decided to publish the book.

As I said, I have known very few Jews. However, there is one Jewish man I have known all my life. Being a small child, I used to call him ”uncle”, like so many other friends of my parents – they were all ”uncles” and ”aunts”. 

My Jewish”uncle” has a Norwegian given name and a typical German family name. He was born in the Norwegian capital, Oslo, in 1924. His parents were Scandinavian-born Jews, his father born in Norway and his mother in Sweden. He does not practice Judaism, or any other religion.

One day, when I was maybe five years old, in the 1960s, I was together with my father in ”uncle” Sigurd’s shop in Skien. Skien is the main town of Telemark county, some 150 kilometers (100 miles) from Oslo on the southeast coast of Norway. On the wall inside his office there was a portrait painting of a male person. 

When my father and I were alone for a moment, I asked who the man on the picture was. “That is Sigurd’s father,” was the answer. “And where is he?” I wanted to know. Then I was told that Sigurd’s father was dead. “What happened to him then?” “The Germans killed him.” “Why?” I asked. “Because he was a Jew,” was the answer that left me speechless and literally ended the conversation. That answer was incomprehensible to me at that time, and it still is. That short conversation still rings in my ears, more than 40 years later.

As time went on and I grew up, I was to gradually learn the full story about Sigurd, his little brother, his little sister, his parents, his uncle and other relatives, and how they were victims of one of the greatest crimes in human history – the Holocaust, Adolf Hitler’s “The final solution” of the Jewish question. And, how much I hate to say it, their story also includes elements that are nothing short of a national shame. Sigurd’s father, who founded the shop Sigurd would take over after the war was, with his younger brother was murdered in Auschwitz. His wife and three children were miraculously rescued. 

This family of six people were the only known representatives of the “Jewish problem” in the county of Telemark. As I would find out, my father had a central part in the survival of the four lucky members of the family – something we are immensely proud of. 

And the story is ugly to the grotesque, although it has a happy ending for four of the family members – Sigurd, his little brother and little sister are all still alive today. The story is ugly not only because Sigurd’s father and uncle both perished in Holocaust but also because supposedly “good” Norwegians gave the Nazis a helping hand in the horrors.

In Norway, we have mostly been taught the story of Jews being harassed and persecuted by the German occupants, somewhat aided by Norwegian Nazis, while everybody else did their best to help. That is what we are mostly told, in writing and in museums, even in school. Wouldn't it be nice had that been the entire truth?

Yes, that would definitely be nice. But unfortunately, the picture is not quite that black and white. Although there are many examples of good deeds and heroic efforts, there are also stories I wish were not true. For example, in May 1940, while the outdated, long-time neglected, under-equipped and under-maintained Norwegian military forces were still at war against the overwhelmingly superior power of the invaders, the Germans asked the police in Oslo for lists of radio receivers in Jewish homes. 

Without any attempt of sabotaging the request, it took just hours for the chief of police in Oslo to produce and hand over meticulously compiled lists. Shortly after and with no legal right to do so, Norwegian police knocked on the doors of the same homes and confiscated all respective radios. The radios were then handed over to the German occupants.

Later on, in the autumn of 1942, the situation would become much more serious. When all Jews were to be arrested and deported to Auschwitz, it was Norwegian police that carried out the brunt of the arrests. The 1958 Norwegian movie “I slik en natt” (“In such a night”) things were presented differently. The film shows uniformed German military personnel doing all the dirty work.

It should be mentioned that there were many good people in the police who tried their best to warn the victims about what was going to happen. My “uncle” was given a warning by such a police officer. The policeman could not stop what was coming, but he did what he should do despite great personal risk. 

Also, my mother, who is from Oslo, remembers people from the Norwegian resistance rushing into her classroom, picking up a Jewish girl in the class and running away with her. This girl, Erna, came to Sweden along with her mother and other family members. After the war she was reunited with her class. Erna’s father however, was murdered in the death camps.

When it comes to “uncle” Sigurd and his family, their sad story is extremely controversial and has aspects we would like not to tell, aspects we would not even like to imagine. But, for history to be told truthfully, it has to be told. In the autumn of 1942, as the persecution of Jews escalated and culminated, Sigurd was saved by the mentioned policeman who warned him about his imminent arrest, and told him to get into immediate hiding. Sigurd’s mother then handed her son into the custody of a couple of resistance fighters in the town of Skien. These two resistance fighters were Kjell Batzer (1906-1966) and Kjell Staal Eggen (1919-1999), the latter being my father. 

But when these two resistance fighters approached the regional leadership of the main national resistance organisation Milorg, they received the most shocking reply: “Kick him out in the street and let the Germans take over! This case has no interest to a military organisation!” My father would later sourly comment: “I would later find out that the so-called “military organisation” at that time still had not acquired as much as a toy pistol to liberate the country.” 

Later on, after the regional leadership of Milorg had been replaced with people my father respected in the summer of 1943, my father reluctantly accepted to be engaged as leader in the resistance. He was responsible for sabotage and airdrops in southern Telemark, thus being instrumental in supplies of arms and equipment to Milorg.

The rescuers improvised an impressive and amazing apparatus. Sigurd was placed on an extra bed in the bedroom of one of the two rescuers – my father – in the apartment of my grandparents. As the apartment was right in the center of town and also housed the medical office of my grandfather, the boy was instructed never to leave the room and stay far away from the window. The rescuers made big efforts to find help to evacuate the young refugee.

My father was “editor” of one of the larger illegal newspapers in the region. The “edition” used to be contacted by various representatives of organizations who wanted paroles and messages printed. Now the same representatives were contacted with pleas for help. One of them was a well-known politician who self-importantly presented himself as the regional representative for the exiled government in London. Nobody could help. They either showed a total lack of interest, or they appeared to be embarrassed to admit that they were unable to help. Even the “regional representative of the legal government” had no ace up his sleeve.

Travelling was difficult, as the occupants had imposed strict restrictions. Still, long trips were made to various towns and places, in hope of getting in touch with any organization that could help. Among all the travelling activities, my father made two trips to Oslo, staying several days each time, trawling through addresses on a memorized list. 

It was all in vain – nobody showed any interest or ability to do anything about this local “Jewish problem”. There was one single exception: on the last Oslo trip my father met one man who showed a ray of hope – a book dealer who was connected with the organizers of an escape route that was momentarily suspended, but that might get active again.

After the rescuers had struggled for about one month to evacuate just one teenager, the police then decided to arrest Sigurd’s mother and little siblings. Dramatically, the rescuers succeeded in picking them all up right under the nose of Norwegian police trying to arrest them. This started a new era of the rescue operation. As if the rescuers did not have enough with one refugee, they now found themselves with four. Secret shelters had to be found – Sigurd had to be moved as there was a risk that his hiding in my father’s bedroom had been discovered.

Another month passed with fruitless efforts. Out of despair, new advances were made towards the regional Milorg leadership. Milorg remained merciless. When new approaches were made, the answer was like before: “Kick them out in the street, let the Germans take over!”

The whole matter was eventually solved under dramatic and improvised circumstances. The four family members were smuggled out of the country in the cargo of a Swedish freight vessel. The captain of the vessel can in no way be said to have acted on idealistic motives. He asked an outrageous price for the crossing, corresponding with years of average salaries at the time. The captain had to be threatened at gunpoint by my father in order to reach an “agreement”.

On top of all the grief already mentioned, it was found out around 1980 that the family’s economic possessions had been stolen – by nobody else than Milorg. The very organization that insistently had refused to help the family to escape had confiscated it all. Being fully aware that other resistance fighters were in a desperate and lonely struggle to save the family and could have made good use of the money, did not seem to bother Milorg. 

Mr David Becker, Sigurd’s father, who used to give financial aid to Milorg up till his arrest on June 2nd 1942, had over the last few years put aside money in case of crises like what they now faced. Not until 1981, after the press had brought up the case, the Norwegian government recognized a certain responsibility and paid a symbolic but not adequate compensation to the family.

This grotesque story is laid out in detail in my father’s posthumous publication “Skammen” (“The Shame”) published in 2008. The book is based on a complete script written in the early 1990s, which I stumbled over while browsing through a box containing some of the papers my father left behind. 

The script was totally unknown to all of us. There is also correspondence showing that my father made approaches to a couple of well-known publishers in order to have the story published. The same correspondence says that the manuscript, “although very interesting, is probably a bit too special to be published in Norway today.

” It is also well known that “the establishment” made significant efforts going out of their way to silence my father as he started speaking out about his experiences about 30 years ago. “Uncle” Sigurd has contributed an epilogue to the book. Sigurd and his siblings are all alive today. Still, more than a dozen years after my father’s passing, Sigurd knocks on my mother’s door at Christmas time every year and puts a gift on the table. I still call him “uncle”.

Yad Vashem has awarded the title of "Righteous Among the Nations" post mortem to Kjell Staal Eggen and his parents Staal Olaf and Anna Christiane Eggen for saving the lives of The Becker family during the Holocaust.