Thursday, May 28, 2015

(1914 - 2011)

(1907 - 1992)


This particular Saturday I searched through the weekly Jewish Chronicle and saw advertised a dance to be held at Boot’s Café in Regent Street in London. I called a school friend to ask if she would accompany me, she too was alone that evening, so we dressed in our best clothes suitable for dancing. Jeans and tee shirts were not customary in those days; girls wore pretty midlength dresses for an evening out. We boarded public transportation for the ride to the West End and to the dance hall.

When Sylvia Delow and I walked into the elevator to go to the dance on the second floor, two fellows followed us in. Later they introduced themselves as Joseph and Micael. It was Joseph who showed an interest in me that evening. He explained that he was visiting for a few days and staying with Micael who was living temporarily in London. He was unfamiliar with the city and asked me if I would be his escort and show him the famous sights of London. 

I was not too favorably impressed with Joseph. He was not a type that I admired physically, and he was too anxious to impress me with his monetary worth. However, I thought that if he was really so well off financially, I might as well take advantage and have a good time for a few days. I really showed him London and spared no expense until he left.

Shortly after, Micael telephoned and asked me to go out with him. Evidently, he had been warned that it was expensive to take me out, so he was wary. On our first date he explained that he was from Trondheim, Norway. He had closed his business temporarily to attend a school for men’s custom tailoring in London. For some unknown reason his funds, left with his brother in order to be sent monthly as an allowance, had not arrived for that month. He was broke and surviving mainly on broken cookies and milk. I felt sorry for him and invited him home for a good meal, which became many good meals. He told my mother that his favorite dish was lokshen kugel, or noodle pudding. 

He was definitely disappointed when my mother made this for him because he was used to a sweet pudding with raisins and my mother’s version was unsweet and used to accompany meat. We dated often, but as he was always broke, our good times consisted of walking around London and the suburbs, which we reached by bus or subway, and drinking cups of tea at Lyon’s Corner House.

After some weeks Micael decided it was time for him to return home, and he suggested that I come to Trondheim for my summer vacation. I did not consider this seriously at the time, but we kept up a correspondence which consisted mainly of his urging me to come and visit him. So I thought that this would be quite an adventure. 

When I broke the news of my intention to my parents, they thought I was crazy. I had met a young man who was obviously half-starved, broke financially, and had maybe told me a pack of lies about his family and business. It was out of the question as far as they were concerned. From my point of view, it would just be a summer vacation, and if I was disappointed, I would return home. Their answer was a definite no, but I was just as stubborn that I would go. My father finally decided that the only way I would be allowed to go was if he accompanied me. I think that I was secretly relieved by his decision.

Although Norway is not so far from England, in those days one did not travel by air. We had to cross the North Sea by boat, and believe me, that was and still is a stormy crossing. On the boat we both thought we were crazy. From Oslo we took the night train to Trondheim, which is in the central part of Norway. I remember we did not lie down in our bunks all night because we were so amazed at the twenty-four hours of daylight in the month of June. 

I was invited to stay at Micael’s mother’s home, and my father stayed in a hotel. After a few days, when he was convinced that everything Micael had told me was true and that he came from a perfectly respectable family, he returned home and allowed me to stay on. He spoke to the rabbi and asked him to keep an eye on me and to give me assistance and advice to return home if I needed it. He realized that I must be serious in my intentions of a future with Micael and told me that I must be out of my right mind to think of leaving a city like London to live in a small provincial city in a strange country.

Trondheim was and still is as unlike London as anything can be. It is possible to walk through the whole town in one hour. But Micael taught me to love hiking in the mountains, the beautiful fjords, and the friendliness of the people. His family of ten brothers and sisters really welcomed me. I learned a completely new set of values that summer.

It was in August of 1936 that we decided to get married. I told my parents. Their reply was a telegram which read, “We insist that you be married in London. Your wedding is arranged for September thirteenth. Return home immediately to make preparations.” I realized that I owed them this wish, so I returned home to London with Micael’s assurance that he would be in London the day before the wedding. Micael, his mother, two brothers, and his best friend Mannie Buchman all arrived in time. We were married in a synagogue with a tea dance reception held afterwards at the Regent Palace Hotel.

The following day Micael and I boarded the train for Newcastle and the boat to my new life. Auntie Eva, Auntie Luba, and of course my parents were at the train station. I can even remember how Eva was dressed and that Luba carried a bouquet of flowers for me. When I was on the train, I remember thinking, “What have I done? I am leaving all those people who have been so good to me.”

I did not leave home empty handed. A middle class family such as mine considered it a responsibility to provide a bride with a trousseau. The past month had been spent not only preparing for the wedding, but also shopping for linens, curtains, and other household supplies which were crated and shipped to Norway. My grandmother had left each grandchild a legacy which would be used to buy furniture in Trondheim. There were also wedding presents, and some of them were quite valuable being of sterling silver. Everything followed us to set up our new home.

Micael had rented a small apartment with a garden at the back that led to the banks of the Nidelva, the river which runs through Trondheim. This garden and river were much nicer than the not very attractive apartment. I had already, however, made the decision that my standards would have to be lowered. I realized that this was just a temporary home, and after about a year, we moved to a newly built, very nice apartment. Actually, the standard of living was very high in Norway. With my new name, I acquired Norwegian citizenship and gave up my British one. I immediately set about to learn the language of my new country by taking lessons from my teacher, Miss Gundersen. This posed no problem, as I learned very fast from her.

Micael and his brothers owned seven men’s outfitting stores in Trondheim. Their youngest brother was the only one to attend the university, and he became a dental surgeon. The stores were individually owned, and they were therefore in competition with one another. Micael was the least prosperous because he was the youngest and not so well established. Besides, he had closed his store to go to England. They all catered mostly to the working man’s needs. Micael was the only one of the brothers who had been trained as a master tailor. 

In Norway to be a tailor, plumber, electrician, or any other type of craftsman, one must have a certification of training in the chosen field. After Micael’s extra training at the cutting school in London, he opened a store in the better part of town where he hoped to attract a more select clientele with the name of “English Tailoring” on the store front. However, this was not too successful. Evidently the name of Isaksen had been associated for so long with lower priced clothing that the well-dressed man was not willing to try Micael’s new venture. So when his lease expired, he returned to his old store. Still, it was not too easy to get his former customers back, but he was certainly able to make a living.

I helped out in the store in a limited way. I don’t think I was too helpful because I remember a coat, which Micael had just made, being left on the ironing board. I moved the hot iron and placed it on the coat. The coat was ruined and a total loss. Although I did do some dressmaking, I did not make a career of it. I did, however, always make my own clothes.

As a family, the Isaksens were very close and frequent visitors to one another. I got along with all of them very well except Micael’s two youngest sisters. The two girls were the last of the eleven children to be born and therefore were extremely spoiled. Micael’s mother was very good to me. His father was deceased, and I was attached to all my sisters-in-law. At first I was made quite a fuss over. After all, I was a girl who had come all the way from London and caught a very eligible young man. 

The family was very well known in this small city of only fifty thousand people, and many strangers really would notice me on the street with some wonder. There can be a lack of privacy in a small city where one is well known. Sometimes I resented this, but I was happy with my new life.

I can’t remember ever being lonely in Trondheim. There was such a large family, and they were always together for holidays and ready to assist. Consequently, I was never homesick. Besides, every summer some member of my family would come to visit and stay with us. I only remember feeling homesick when I learned that my father had died in early 1940.

Also, I had to learn to dress differently. To go outdoors it was essential to wear heavy boots, coats, hats, and gloves of fur..

All Norwegian Jews were orthodox and kosher. I had been raised in a kosher home, so I understood and continued the practice. In England one went to the butcher and bought the cut of meat desired, but in Norway it was unlawful to slaughter animals in the orthodox manner. The rabbi, who was also the shoykhet or the one who was licensed to slaughter meat, had to travel to Sweden once a month to obtain meat for the congregation. When he returned with it, it would only stay fresh for a few days as refrigeration in the homes was very scarce in those days. Our meat supply was therefore limited and of poor quality. The rabbi was allowed to slaughter chickens, but he sold them to us with the feathers, heads, and insides all intact. I had to learn to clean them and prepare them myself. They were old hens and took hours to cook. It’s a good thing I liked fish!

Even the use of electricity was different. Because the abundance of water was used to make energy, there was plenty of power. No gas was used. One bought a certain amount of electricity, and when that was used up, all the lights went off and the cooking stove stopped cooking. 

War started in Europe, and England was involved. It was assumed that Norway would be left in peace in this new war. I wrote to my family that if life in wartime England became very bad, they should come to Norway. Because so many commodities and much food was imported into Norway, we were rationed for many of life’s necessities, but this was a small price to pay for peace.

During the summer of 1939, Micael’s brother Isidor and his wife Rosa went on a trip. They asked me to stay on a resort farm with their three children Gerd, Leonard, and Harry. I was delighted to do this as it was a paid vacation for both Micael and me. He came there evenings and weekends for he did have his job. Gerd was thirteen, Leonard eleven, and Harry eight years of age. I

 became very attached to the children at that time. Everything was serene and peaceful and nobody ever dreamed that on the night of the following April 8 our secure world would be turned upside down by a man named Adolf Hitler and his accomplice Mr. Quisling, who sold his country to the Nazis. The three children amongst others were deported to Germany and murdered. 

We were awakened that night by the noise of many planes flying overhead. We turned on the radio and heard the repeated announcement that Norway was now a part of the German Reich. We immediately called the rest of the family. David lived in the center of town, and he told us that soldiers wearing swastikas were marching in the streets. We dared not go out at night, but first thing in the morning we all gathered at Micael’s mother’s house. We all felt certain that Great Britain would not allow this invasion to continue. They would surely come to liberate Norway, and there would certainly be a lot of fighting in the port town of Trondheim. 

So the married men decided to take their families across the Swedish border. Those brothers still unmarried would stay to join the Norwegian army. Micael decided to stay on to serve his country and urged me to go with the rest of the family. I refused, and likewise, Micael’s mother, Rebekka, who had left Poland in her youth because of Jewish persecution by the Russians, refused to leave her home again. 

So Isidor, David, Bernard, and their families left Trondheim and took the train across the border to Storlien. I was about three months pregnant, and the next days were extremely difficult. Although the Germans assured us that no changes would take place and everything would continue as normal, I was afraid to leave my home or talk on the telephone. With my English accent, I thought I was a double enemy of the invaders. Micael persuaded me to follow the others to Sweden as he knew that as soon as the British came, he would have to leave and join with them. I would not leave Micael’s mother and sister behind, so they consented to go also. We were not aware at that time that we took the last train allowed to cross the Swedish border. 

I vividly remember standing at the train window waving goodbye to Micael and Rudolf realizing that I might never see them again. Not expecting to be gone for the rest of my life, I had packed a bag with just about one change of clothing. As I left, Micael handed me a suitcase in which he had put our sterling silver wedding presents. He said that I might have to sell them because all bank deposits had been frozen, and I had to leave with only petty cash.

We crossed the border into Storlien and only had to ask for the whereabouts of the Isaksen family. Here again they were well known as Storlien was a resort town where they had often gone skiing, but whereas before they had always stayed at the hotel, now they had taken into a farmhouse where we joined them. Everything was very primitive. There was only one bed for nineteen people, the toilets didn’t flush so we had to pour water into them, there was only cold water, and we used a wood burning stove. They decided that I should have the bed since I was pregnant, but after one night on that lumpy bed, I joined them on the floor.

Strangely enough I remember this as a time of good spirits. We felt that we were only waiting for the British to come and liberate Norway, and soon we would return home. There was a great feeling of love and helpfulness for one another. Adele kept our spirits high with her good humor and song. One day I was amazed to see Micael and Rudolf approaching with their skis. In Norway they had abandoned hope that the country would be liberated and had travelled for seven days on skis hoping to be able to cross the border undetected by the Germans. They were lucky to have made it safely because otherwise it would have been certain death.

Now our spirits were very low. It was Passover, and we decided to observe our heritage by observing the seder. Someone in Stockholm had sent us matzos and salami, so this was our seder meal. To keep the holiday kosher, we ate off paper napkins and colored the water red to make believe it was wine. We also recited the haggadah to the best of our memories. All this helped us with the will to survive as our ancestors had done. I remember this seder as the most meaningful one of my life.

We could not stay in Storlien indefinitely, for we had no financial resources. So we all took the train to Stockholm. The Norwegian government had also fled to Stockholm, and they were eager to assist any refugees. The Jewish community there was also very helpful. We found an apartment large enough for twenty-one people and acquired some used furniture. The furniture was very old and not at all what we were accustomed to, but we managed. The brothers had been businessmen independently all their lives and now had no way of earning a living. Micael was the only one able to get a job for he had a craft. Therefore, money was extremely scarce. I remember that Bernard had holes in the soles of his shoes and had to stuff them with newspaper. The men became very restless and unhappy with no hope of supporting their families, but we got along surprisingly well.

The months in Stockholm were tragic, but certain humorous events remain as memories and are important as such. The news coming out of Norway indicated that everything was continuing normally. There was no persecution of the Jews, businesses were open, and the only evidence of occupation was the German troops. My sisters-in-law had left parents and families that they were anxious about, and the men thought that they could return and open up their stores again. So gradually the family became homesick and longed to return. They would just ignore the Germans, and the Germans would ignore them. I begged them that this would not be so and assured them that I would never return to Norway as long as one German soldier remained there. To this day they remind me how right I was. Well, they did return. Golda had become ill so she and her mother remained in Stockholm. This undoubtedly saved both of their lives.

Later on, Isidor, his wife Rosa, and their three children were deported to Germany and died in the gas chambers. David and Wolf were taken out of their homes and shot for listening to short wave radio. This was reported on the radio in Stockholm, and their mother heard the announcement on the news. Seeing many of her children killed before her own death, it is very distressing to realize the pain Rebekka went through. Micael’s sister, Rosa, died in Norway of a brain tumor, no doubt brought about by the terrible circumstances there. Her three year old daughter and husband were deported to Germany and died in the concentration camp. The rest of the family and children escaped with the help of the farmers who smuggled them from one village to another until finally across the border. There was an active underground army who helped make this possible. When they returned to Stockholm, Micael and I had already left for a new life.


With thanks to Freda and Micael's grandson, Dan Isaksen for permission to publish part of Freda's writing.

For futher reading on Freda Isaksen's
biography, click here.
For further reading on Family History, click here