Monday, July 13, 2015

Sigurd Becker with a friend - Photo: Private


It was an overwhelming reunion with the past. Sigurd Becker, age 87, returned nearly 70 years later to the attic of a house in downtown Skien where he had hid from the Germans for several weeks during WWII

Sigurd was clearly moved when, for the first time since the War, he was able to once again see the attic where he had hid from the Germans. He was accompanied by Trym Staal Eggen, one of the sons of resistance fighter Kjell Staal Eggen who had rescued his family.

On October 26th, 1942, an order had been issued to arrest all Norwegian Jewish males. Sigurd’s father David and uncle Louis had already been arrested and would later die in the concentration camp Auschwitz. Sigurd and his younger brother Ivar were the only Jewish males left in the whole county of Telemark. 

He was 18 years old and attending the Business College in Sandefjord. His mother Signe, and his two siblings Ivar and Sonja, were thrown out of their home by the Nazis after the arrest of Sigurd’s father and uncle. Fortunately, they were able to move into the home of a hospitable friend at Bakken, a part of Skien.

Sigurd was warned by a policeman about the pending arrests and jumped on the first train home to Skien, where he was picked up at the station and taken to the home of the resistance fighter Kjell Batzer. 

However, this was a very temporary solution because Mr. Batzer was fairly well known in town, and staying with him would not be safe in the long run. Sigurd was then taken to the home of another resistance fighter, Kjell Staal Eggen, where he went into hiding. Mr. Eggen was 23 years old at the time.

The Eggen family owned a large apartment in downtown Lie, which is part of Skien. On the ground floor of the building where they lived was a store which today is called Bikuben. The Eggen family lived on the second floor where Kjell Staal Eggen’s father, a physician, had a private practice in one of the rooms of their apartment. Patients came and went. 

This situation was very unsafe for Sigurd. He was kept hidden in the boys’ room, a small room in the attic where he spent several weeks. “I do not remember any details from this time except that I was pretty tired of listening to the church bells from across the street,” says Sigurd, who was given strict orders to stay away from the window and not to come down to the apartment during office hours.

Then there was a sudden dramatic turn of events. While working in the store in downtown Skien, Sigurd’s mother received a visit from a policeman who told her that there was a warrant for her arrest and that he was going to bring her to the police station. 

She did not surrender, but managed to escape using “seductive” tactics. “I need to take with me some undergarments,” Signe told the policeman. The police waited patiently while she ran across the street to Marie Iversen’s ladies’ apparel, supposedly to run her errand. 

Fortunately, she managed to escape by the back door of the store. Witnesses saw her running for her life through Ibsen Park and to the apartment where her son was hiding. This was extremely risky because she might have compromised her son’s hiding place. Kjell instructed Signe to go the church graveyard in Lundedalen and told her to pretend she was caring for a grave. 

Sigurd Becker - Courtesy Sigurd Becker

Kjell himself feared that someone might have seen her running in panic towards their home where Sigurd was hiding. Kjell found the hiding place unsafe for that reason. He rushed out of the apartment along with Sigurd and brought him to someone he hoped he could trust, a printer named Ragnvald Rasmussen, who kept him hidden overnight.

Children in danger: With Sigurd’s mother on the run, her two youngest children were now in danger too. Kjell picked them up at Harriet Schöne’s home where they were staying as they arrived home from school. It was a very dangerous situation. Just a few seconds after Kjell left Harriet Schöne’s house with the children, a police car arrived and four police officers jumped out of the car and rushed into the house. 

Kjell brought the children to their mother and they all went into hiding at Saniteten, a relief organization, since the Norwegian Resistance movement Milorg refused to have anything to do with the Jewish family Becker. Meanwhile Sigurd was moved to a safer place in the home of a cobbler named Paulus Hansen in Duestien. Paulus was also a minister.

In the first week of November 1942, Signe and her three children were taken care of by a man who lived on the west side of Porsgrunn, in Björndalen. His name was Olaf Holtan. The ultimate goal now was to bring the family to safety in Sweden. 

A Swedish boat captain agreed to bring them on board his vessel, but demanded the payment of 15,000 Swedish Krones. This was an enormous amount of money at the time. The family had no money. The reason for them being out of cash was that David Becker, Sigurd’s father had been robbed of what cash he had put aside. This money was stolen by members of the resistance movement, Milorg, as Kjell first learned in 1979.

Sigurd Becker - Courtesy Sigurd Becker

A Swedish transport vessel was at Menstad’s harbor to load a cargo of fertilizer. Preparations were made to smuggle the refugees onboard. However, the vessel was on the opposite side of the river from where the family was, which meant that they needed to cross the river. This was problematic since it was forbidden to sail on the river at night and the Germans had patrol boats to make sure that nobody crossed the river. Two local residents, Sverre Kvaerne and Arthur Skaare arrived with the rowing boat to bring the family the river. 

However, Sverre and Arthur were discovered by the German police and only got away by pretending to be drunk. They now found the situation too dangerous to bring the refugees across the river. Because of that, Kjell brought them safely across to the Swedish vessel. A hole was made in the cargo to properly hide the refugees, and was then solidified with a panel and a lid covered the space. On top of the lid were layers of bags of fertilizer in order to hide it all.

Near the town of Brevik or Langesund – Sigurd will never know since they were in an enclosed space and prevented from looking out – German patrols came onboard to inspect the boat – at times they were so close that the children could even see the boots of the Germans. His 13 year old brother Ivar was so scared that his teeth were chattering. His mother had to cover him with her coat so that the Germans would not hear him.

In Kjell Staal Eggen’s own words: “Following a dramatic rowboat trip across the Skien river to reach the Swedish vessel, in which we were nearly caught by a German patrol boat equipped with spotlights, the four refugees and I found our way to the Swedish vessel.

The captain showed me a small cage-like hiding place in the cargo area where four people could be placed. This was a narrow and uncomfortable passage to a place of rescue and it could be a deadly entrapment should the ship sink. I went to the wheelhouse. The captain demanded payment up front.

‘The captain wants 15,000 SEK immediately,’ I told the Jewish lady in the cargo area, as she pulled her three scared and frozen children closer. ‘I have no money,’ she desperately tried to explain. ‘But I have these, they are worth at least 50,000 kroner.’ She gave me a handful of jewelry. I took it with trepidation and headed back to the wheelhouse. ‘They are worth 70,000 kroner,’ I said cautiously to the captain and handed him the jewelry. ‘I want 15,000 kroner in cash in Swedish currency. I do not know the value of jewelry. It is either 15,000 kroner cash or you can take the rabble and go to hell!’ the captain wheezed bitterly.

Perhaps it was because of my young age that the captain thought he could pour out a river of irreverent words. He should not have done it. My despair turned to some cold rage. Yet I was rather calm and I still remember most of the words and sentences I concocted at the moment.

‘Well, captain,’ I said and pulled up a small pistol I had in my pocket, ‘you have Jewish refugees onboard this rotten dinghy. You are doomed to be executed by the Germans anyway. If anything happens to my friends in the freight area, you will realize that I am even more dangerous than Gestapo. Not only will you pay with your life, captain, but if the Jewish family does not arrive safely to Sweden, your whole family will be executed as well.’ With those words I turned around with the most severe composure I could muster, took a few steps to the rowing boat and disappeared into the dark.

Fortunately, I never saw him again. I will never know what he thought of me and my threats, but the Jewish family was rescued and arrived safely in Sweden.”

In Swedish territorial waters. Safely in Sweden, the family was able to climb to the deck of the boat. Sigurd will never forget the sight of the lights coming from Strömstad. Most of the ports were closed, so they laid anchor and were brought by rowboat to the shore at the point where the ferry terminal is today. Each one holding a small suitcase, they went to the police station to explain their situation. They were then sent for a physical examination. Sigurd’s mother, who was originally Swedish, had a brother in Sweden who lived in Gothenborg. He became their guarantor. The family was finally allowed in the Norwegian Refugee camp.

The Nazi wash down: After the war ended in 1945, the Becker family returned to their house in Skien, which was occupied during the war by the regional leader of the NS (Nazi) party. He was eventually thrown out of their home and local Nazis were put to the task of cleaning the house. All furniture and personal belongings were gone, most of it forever. However, some of Becker’s friends bought back several of their belongings that had been sold at auctions. The Becker family were thus able to recuperate some of these as a result.

Sigurd is very grateful to the Eggen family who risked their lives to rescue him and his family. “Such deeds were punishable by death,” says Sigurd, who maintains a strong friendship with the family.

Following Kjell’s death in 1999, his son, Trym Staal Eggen came across a box full of handwritten notes labeled “Our national disgrace.” Inside was a near completed manuscript which details Sigurd’s story. This was later published in Norwegian, called “Skammen,” Norgesforlaget AS 2008.

Kjell Staal Eggen was awarded the King’s Medal for Courage in the Cause of Freedom after the war.

SJF is grateful for Sigurd Becker's willingness to share his remarkable story. 

SJF is grateful for .the collaboration with Trym Staal Eggen and Kari Gisholt

Friday, July 10, 2015

Else Ramson Ullman 1944 Courtesy: Geoffrey Ward


Else’s grandfather, Elias Ramson (1862), first came to Norway from Lithuania in 1884, to live with his father in Bodø. 

Else’s father Benno Ramson was born in Kristiania (Oslo) in 1896.

Like her husband Bjørn, (see his story here), Else Ullmann hasn’t talked much about her wartime experiences, not to her friends, nor to her children. But in 2009, when three of her nine grandchildren were vacationing in the Norwegian mountains, she felt compelled: “…to try to write down what I remember of what happened to me, my mother and father in those same mountains and at this time some 69 years ago”.

She admitted that some thoughts and facts had been lost, but that most were still vivid in her memory. Sixty-nine years ago, from the time of writing took her back to 1940….…April 9th, 1940, to be exact.

Following a popular Norwegian tradition, the Ramsons, Else, her mother, and father were on Spring-break in the mountains around Easter. From the Høvringen Mountain Hotel they enjoyed long ski tours in the spring sunshine. They had left the younger sister, Sonja, in charge of a relative in Oslo.

Else was six years old and, surprisingly, she had little enthusiasm for her parents’ long ski tours. The reason for her unusual lassitude became clear when a doctor told her that she had chicken pox.

But this was a few days later. Early in the morning on April 9th, a sharp knock on the hotel-room door woke the Ramsons and a voice called for Mr. Ramson to come down to the reception to take a telephone call from Oslo. Else remembers that he rushed to put on his bathrobe and slippers and ran down two flights of stairs to the lobby.

He naturally thought that something must have happened to their daughter Sonja, but no, his brother in-law Leo, over the telephone, had even more troubling tidings: Germany had invaded Norway. German warships had sailed up the Oslofjord during the night and German troops were already marching up the main street of Oslo, Karl Johan street, towards Akershus fortress. War had come to Norway.

Else spoke for most Norwegians when she wrote to her grandchildren 69 years later: “This was a shock for us. Norway was not prepared for war. Neither the news broadcasts, nor the newspapers talked or wrote about war with Germany as being an immediate threat. This meant that the German air force and troop transport ships could move safely into foreign territory – Norway.” She added: “Except for one ship – Blücher.”

She then told them about the timely sinking of this vessel – one of the few redeeming features of Norway’s defense. And she probably spoke for most six-year olds when she wrote: “I did not fully understand what had happened. But I saw the scared faces of my mom and dad and realized that we were all in a terrible situation.

But how horrible the coming 5 years of war were going to be, I, my mom, and dad did not know at the time”. The one thing they did know was that they should get to Oslo as fast as possible.

They started packing immediately and got a ride to the railway station. The train to Oslo was delayed and it finally arrived with passengers packed to overflowing. In Lillehammer it was decided that Else and her mother should leave the train. It was here that a doctor diagnosed chicken pox, but Else soon recovered.

In spite of the comfortable hotel, the magnificent mountains and the superb cross-country skiing, visiting the area later in life brought back only painful memories to Else: “…it is actually a beautiful place, it was just the circumstances that were all wrong.”

Else and her mother went skiing every day, but: “…it was dangerous to be in the mountains where there were no trees or cottages and no place to hide by when the German planes came overhead. We learned to creep under a bush, a tree, or stand totally still against a cottage wall. The sound of the motors from those fighter planes was very loud so we always reached a tree or a cottage before they flew overhead.”

Finally they got the OK to return home and they hitched a ride in a truck going to Oslo. There had been battles between German and Norwegian troops in the districts they had to drive though. Bridges were down, buildings were damaged and detours were unavoidable.

Else and her mother sat beside the driver and suddenly Else saw a dead soldier by the roadside. “Mom had seen him at the same time and she quickly put her hand in front of my eyes, wanting to protect me from such a scary sight. But I had already seen it, and that sight stays with me.” The trip took almost a whole day. Today the same journey would take about two hours.

Being back home felt safe, but almost every night the air-raid sirens screamed out their summons to head for safety. The family lived in a large house, in a fashionable suburb of Oslo. They had many friends and an active cultural life. 
Else had just started school. Her younger sister Sonja stayed at home with mother. 

Benno Ramson owned a factory that designed and produced women’s fashion. It was a successful and highly esteemed business. His creations were sold in the high-end stores in Norway. Because of the air-raids he had prepared a special room in their basement where they could all keep warm. Canned food and water were stored in case a raid lasted longer than normal. A neighboring house was hit and the Ramsons heard sirens of fire engines compete with the air-raid sirens.

Sirens, air-raids, and shortages were now a part of life. Creativity flourished – manufacturers started to make shoes out of fish skins with wooden soles. Women made clothes for their children. Else remembers that her mother made her a winter coat out of an old woolen blanket that she had dyed red. Food was scarce, so nothing, not even stale bread, or breadcrumbs were thrown out. Else’s mom became really good at making bread pudding. They planted vegetables in the garden and kept chickens so that they had eggs. (They didn’t have the heart to kill the chickens however.)

The German invaders confiscated all radios (except those belonging to NS members), so that the only available news was from the Nazi-controlled newspapers. Inevitably this led to hidden radios, illegal news sheets and the growth of organized resistance. These restrictions and hardships occurred gradually during the remainder of 1940 and 1942 and effected almost all the population. For the small Norwegian Jewish population, however, even worse things were in store.

On January 20, 1942, Nazi leaders met in the former Interpol headquarters at Wannsee, near Berlin to discuss ‘The Jewish Problem’. Just 10 days later, Hitler said: “The result of this war will be the obliteration of Jewry in Europe – words that did not bode well for the Ramson family and other Jews in Norway and throughout Europe.

Indeed, on January 21, the day after the Wannsee Conference,  newspapers in Norway were ordered to print an advertisement proclaiming that all Jewish passports must be turned in to be stamped with a ‘J’.

Else’s father, who had built up his business by travelling to France, Austria, and Germany to buy the best materials and to keep abreast of the fashion world, certainly feared the worst. Else wrote to one of her grandchildren: “I am sure he (her father) spent many hours thinking and planning how to secure the economy for his family and save his business in case the Gestapo decided to confiscate his factory because it belonged to a Jew. At the same time it was hard for him to imagine that this could really happen.”

That last sentence described a common sentiment, a sentiment that sealed the fate of many Jews in Norway, they just could not imagine that the Norwegian rule of law could be so completely corrupted, and even worse, that basic human integrity could be so undermined.

Else’s writing continues as an example of the latter: “But just to be on the safe side, he made a ‘Gentleman’s agreement’ with a business associate, AH, giving him 50 percent of the business with the understanding that he should manage the company until the war was over. AH and my father shook hands and my father thought that if the Gestapo wanted to threaten him, his family or his business he would know in advance and manage to escape. 

But that was not going to happen. As soon as my father and AH had made their agreement, AH went back to his office, picked up the phone, and called the Gestapo. He told them to come and pick up my father as soon as possible or he might disappear. Half an hour later, the Gestapo arrived at the Ramson home and arrested Else’s father. She never saw him again.

Benno Ramson was held in custody for two days at Bredveit prison in Oslo and then transferred to Berg prison near Tønsberg.

This prison, constructed by the Quisling ‘government’, was originally intended for civilians from the Tønsberg district, but soon became the transit camp for Jews condemned to concentration camps in Germany and Poland. Another prisoner at Berg was Benno’s younger brother, Abraham.

Uncle Abraham was married to a non-Jewish lady and was the only doctor in the district where he lived. Else wrote: “The prison received a letter asking for his release as they needed him to treat the sick people in his district. The letter was signed by over 100 of his friends and patients. And the unbelievable thing happened: My uncle was released.”

There was much more activity and intrigue behind this release but that’s another story. Before leaving the camp Abraham went to say good-bye to his brother. By this time, Benno had realized, or suspected, what the Germans were planning, and that his chances of being released before the end of the war were slight. He took his gold watch from his wrist, gave it to Abraham, and said: “I don’t need it where I am going, you take care of it in the meantime.” Benno Ramson was murdered in Auschwitz in December, 1942.

In Oslo, alone now, with two small children, Else’s mother hoped they would be left in peace. But Hitler’s plans for the future of Europe did not include peace for Jews. One rainy day in October 1942 Gestapo agents, guns in hands, stormed the Ramson home and gave them 15 minutes to pack and get out. 

Try to imagine the shock, the disbelief, the horror: What should we take? Where will we go? What will happen to us? Else wrote: “…my sister, mother, and I tried to collect what we could of warm clothing and before we knew it, we were standing outside on the street in the pouring rain with a small suitcase each. …Good neighbors helped us.” For a few weeks they lived in one room in a house up the road.

Neighbors were not the only helpers. Else’s parents had many good friends. Among them were parents of children in the same class as Else at school and some of these were active in the Resistance movement. Else is not sure who it was, but someone strongly advised her mother to flee the country to avoid being arrested. She took the advice and with Else and Sonja was guided by Resistance workers to “someplace in Oslo.”

The couple who gave them shelter and a hiding place, risked imprisonment and almost certain death, the punishment for sheltering Jews and Resistance workers. Else remembers the week spent in the couple’s apartment as: “…a very difficult time. The couple…had no children and they worked all day. That meant that we had to be extremely quiet during the day so that the neighbors would not suspect that anyone was in the apartment. You never knew who to trust. We could not wear shoes, we had to whisper, and we could not flush the toilet.

Finally, we were told that tomorrow we would be helped over the border to Sweden. But when the time came, nothing happened. I asked my mother why? And she would not answer me. Much later I was told that the escape route we were supposed to follow had been discovered by the German border-patrol and the Norwegians hoping to seek refuge in Sweden that night were all taken prisoners.”

After two more days of silent waiting, the Ramson family made their way through the darkened streets and boarded an old truck where several shadowy figures were already cowering under a heavy tarpaulin. The hopeful refugees had no idea in which direction they drove but they were fully aware of the consequences if they were discovered.

The truck stopped close to the Swedish border – but it didn’t seem close for two small girls: “…we had to walk on our own through the woods in the snow, until we passed the border. I remember it as a night that was terribly cold and with a heavy snowfall. We walked for many hours, not finding our way, as everything looked white. But we were lucky, and finally we saw a small cottage with a candle-light burning in the window. Here we were met with open arms and helped to safety.”*

Between 45000 and 50000 thousand Norwegians; young men and women hastening to join in the fight for freedom, and men, women and children fleeing in fear of their lives, crossed the border into Sweden during the war. Many of them breathed heartfelt sighs of relief at the sight of lit candles and lamps in welcoming Swedish windows.

Else, Sonja and their mother lived in Stockholm and Uppsala for the remainder of the war. When the war ended they returned to Norway as quickly as possible. It was a memorable train journey: “At every station on the Swedish side of the border, people came and gave us big bags of clothing and food.

When we had passed the border it was just the opposite, in Norway people were waiting at every station to get much needed help. After 5 years of war, food and clothing were scarce. So we emptied all our bags into the arms of grateful fellow Norwegians.

In Oslo they found that their home had been occupied by uncaring German soldiers who had ruined all the furniture and fixtures. The summer of 1945 was warm and pleasant, but Else remembers only: “Mother was now a ‘war-widow’ and we had lived through so much sadness and despair that it was difficult to be really happy.

I often say that the war ‘stole my childhood’. I had to grow up so fast, to be my mother’s helping hand…but we had each other and many good friends who came to wish us welcome home.

So, in 2009, Else could write, and again speak for many: “Because of the Second World War and what I had to live through, I have become a stronger person, and now being a mother of three and a grandmother of 9, I think I extend that strength on to all of them and hopefully they have gained and will gain from it.”

Picking up the threads of Else's life in Oslo was not easy, but she finished junior and part of high-school before emigrating to Canada in 1950, and continued on to the USA in 1951 where she studied at the Whitman School of Interior Design.

But Norway called and during a summer visit in 1953, she met Bjørn Ullmann who was studying at the Norwegian Business Institute in Bergen. The following year Norway called again. Bjørn and Else became engaged. In the summer of 1955 they were married at the Synagogue in Oslo.

After Bjørn finished his studies in Bergen, they moved to New York, which had been so much a part of Else’s teenage-years, and where her mother and sister still lived.

Bjørn and Else had three pleasant years in the United States. Their first child was born at the Long Island Jewish Hospital in April, 1959. In the summer of 1960, the little family of three decided to return to Norway. 

* This was one of the last groups of Jews to escape before the trap being planned by the Gestapo snapped shut. As Else described it to one of her grandchildren: “… A few weeks later all the Jews who had not managed to escape across the border to Sweden and were left in Norway, were transported by the ship “Donau” to concentration-camps in Poland and Germany to a fate so horrible it is almost unbelievable. Out of more than 770 Norwegian Jews who were deported, only 26 survived. My father, (your Great-Grandfather) did not survive, but died in the concentration-camp of Auschwitz in December 1942.”

The figures Else quotes are the total number deported. In retrospect we now know that on Sunday October 25th, 1942, the Norwegian Chief of Police, Karl A. Marthinsen, telegraphed all police stations advising them that all Jewish males over 15 whose identity papers were stamped with a J should be arrested.

In addition, their assets were to be confiscated, bank accounts blocked and bank-boxes emptied. All Jewish women were to report daily with their identity papers to the nearest police station. The ‘law’ which ‘authorized’ these arrests had been signed by Quisling just one day earlier, on October 24. The ‘J’ imprinting earlier that year, at which all personal details had to be filled out on a form, in triplicate, was one of several preparatory steps in the recording and identifying of all Jewish inhabitants.

On Monday, October 26th, the mass arrests of male Jews took place. Imagine the lot of the women and children left alone at home, without income, savings, or any form of sustenance….

The November 26th action was also planned to the last detail and ‘masterminded’ by Marthinsen who directed the 300 participating Norwegian policemen.

Oslo had been divided into three zones, the name-lists were ready, as were 100 taxis. From the questionnaires filed when the identity cards were stamped with a J, the hunters knew the exact address of each of their prey.

From these two actions, a total of 532 men, women, and children were deported and arrived at Auschwitz on December 1 1942. Benno Ramson was one of them.

186 able-bodied men were registered as prisoners, the remaining 116 men, 188 women and 42 children were murdered shortly after arrival. Nine men survived.

Karl A. Marthinsen was assassinated by members of the Resistance movement on February 8, 1945.


I have known Bjørn and Else Ullmann for almost as long as I have lived in Norway. My wife Else has known Else Ullmann since they were both six years old. At our many meetings through the years, neither Bjørn nor Else spoke about their experiences during the war. We knew that these experiences had been dramatic, to say the least. We understood that it was almost impossible for Bjørn to talk about them – even when asked directly. However, in May 2010, we were together at a party and for the first time Bjørn, unprompted, spoke of his memories.

Else and Geoff Ward

With gratitude to Else and Geoff Ward for permission to publish the story.


Bjørn’s maternal grandfather, Aisik Grusd, emigrated from Lithuania to Norway in 1905. He arrived alone, without his family, in order to see if he could make a living in Kristiania. The rest of the family joined him eventually.

His wife, Ida (1894- 1962), came around 1910. Isak Ullmann, an orphan and a friend of Ida’s brother Aron, came about the same time. They had all decided that emigration was the only way to escape the increasing intolerance and oppression in the Baltic.

The original plan may have been to continue to the United States, but Ida’s father watched a parade on the Norwegian Independence Day on May 17th. He was so impressed with the sense of freedom in Norway that he decided to stay. They made their home in Kristiania.

Ida Grusd and Isak Ullmann became friends and later married in 1914. Isak worked as an assistant in a clothing store, but he had greater ambitions, which were not limited to Kristiania.

The newly wed looked around and decided to take their chances in Moss, a vibrant, industrial town some 50 km south of the capital of Norway. In 1916 they established a clothing store, Moss Varehus.

Business as it turned out, was good. The Ullmann's became respected members of the community, and the firm prospered.

As the business grew, so did the Ullmann family who settled in Vårli. Isak and Ida had seven children: Paul, Rubin, Sonja, Alf, Rosa, Bjørn and Astri. They filled their large home in Vårli with the usual mixture of tears, laughter, friends and guests.

Ida, who was the family’s focal point, ruled the roost. With her hospitality, her friendly and generous nature, she was able to combine the time-consuming tasks of rearing seven children and take active part in running the family business, Moss Varehus.

Her loyal housekeeper Elin was an indispensable help and confidant. Elin had come to the family when Bjørn was born and remained with them for many years, sharing their troubles and plans, until mother and children had to leave the country.

This almost ideal image of a happy, healthy, and successful family was shredded after the Germans invaded Norway on April 9, 1940.

The Ullmann's second son, Rubin, took part in the brief, and futile, battles to hold the enemy at bay. He and many of his companions were later interned in Sweden for a while, but soon returned to Norway.

In Moss the occupation began to make itself felt, especially for the Jewish inhabitants. On May 17th – Norway’s Constitution Day – the Fredrikstad Gestapo ordered that a notice be hung in the window of Moss Varehus: “This store is owned by Jews.” 

A local professed anti-Semite, who later became the Nazi-installed mayor, tore the sign down – Jews were one thing, but the Ullmann's were his neighbors – he respected them. The office of Jo Benkow's brother, Harry, was similarly ’decorated’ with a large yellow poster bearing a Star of David and the words “Jewish Dentist” – in both Norwegian and German.1

Other indications of change began to appear: The police was ordered to collect radios from all Jewish homes in Oslo and Trondheim.

Jewish organizations had to submit lists of all members to the police. The Jewish Aid Society in Oslo had to submit a list of all Jewish refugees in Norway to whom they had given assistance, and, finally, the list of Jewish businesses – which the Nazis had been collecting clandestinely for several years – was checked and brought up to date.

Not all these actions were immediately apparent to the Ullmann family, nor, indeed, to the population in general. Ida and Isak’s eldest daughter Sonja, who was engaged to a Swedish dentist, got permission to leave Norway to be married in Sweden.

One of Ida and Isak's sons, Rubin, continued his studies in medicine at the University of Oslo upon his return from Sweden. He soon became very active in the Resistance movement. The family had been proud of Rubin’s participation in the April 1940 campaigns but, of course, knew nothing of his highly dangerous activities in Oslo.

In the early phase of the Resistance movement, it was mostly an enthusiastic, amateurish enterprise. The well-trained and ruthless German Gestapo had little difficulty in infiltrating various groups and arresting key members.

Rubin was arrested in November, 1941. At the time of Rubin’s arrest, his brother Alf was attending a high school near Moss. Fearing that he, too, would be arrested, Alf managed to flee across the border to Sweden.

Alf’s flight and Rubin’s Resistance work triggered another Gestapo reaction: In December Rubin's father and oldest brother, Paul were arrested and were held hostages. They were imprisoned at the local jail in Moss.

Bjørn, who was the youngest son, was now in charge of daily visits to the prison and would bring extra food and other supplies to his father and brothers. His visits were only made possible because of a ‘Jøssing’ (anti-Nazi) guard. Sometimes, when the prisoners were outside, in the courtyard, this friendly guard left a gate open and Bjørn was able to slip in so that he could be with his father and brothers.

The loving wife and mother Ida Ullmann had no such contact with her family. It is therefore difficult to imagine how she coped with the sole responsibility of caring for three small children, the uncertainty surrounding her fractured family and the fear of the future. The only redeeming feature in her desperate situation was the friendliness and support she had in so many of her neighbors in Moss.

The worst was yet to come. In March 1942, came the news that the Ullmann prisoners were to be transferred to Grini, the German ‘concentration camp’ near Oslo. The people of Moss gathered in support and sympathy at the railway station. Civilian guards gave them permission to give chocolate and other small gifts to the prisoners before they boarded the train.

Rubin kissed his younger brother Bjørn farewell on the cheek– something he had never done before. As it turned out, Bjørn would never see his brothers, nor his father again.

His mother and sister traveled to Oslo on the train with the prisoners and there, they too, said their final farewell.

Two months later, Isak, Paul and Rubin Ullmann were transported from Grini to Sachsenhausen. The simple words ‘transported from Grini to Sachsenhausen’ would normally have a simple meaning. But today the words automatically convey horror. The transportation itself, was just a prelude to the concentration camps and their paramount examples of man’s inhumanity to man. We can only hope that the families and friends of those innocent travelers did not know – and could not guess – the nature of their journey.

Ida Ullmann, in any event, bore her misfortunes stoically until one autumn day in 1942, when a Gestapo officer came to her house and told her that Rubin had ‘died’ of an ‘illness’ in Sachsenhausen. This was too much for Ida. In Bjørn’s words she was “beside herself”. So intense was her reaction, that Astri, concerned on her mother's behalf, who became hysterical, ran out of the house to stay with a girlfriend. By a stroke of luck, as it turned out, this girlfriend was ill with mumps, a highly infectious disease. She infected Astri who, on her return home, infected Bjørn and Rosa.

Throughout eastern and southern Norway, the Nazis were arresting Jews prior to the mass deportation on November 26, 1942. But now, for once, fate was favorable to Ida Ullmann. The Nazi members of the ‘master race’ were notoriously afraid of contagious diseases.

On the recommendation of a local doctor, the Ullmann household was isolated for 14 days. Their arrest was postponed, but Ida knew the Gestapo would be back as soon as the infection was gone.

The pressure must have been enormous, her children were sick, her fear of arrest, deportation and certain death, daily reporting to the Gestapo Head Quarter, and the latest blow – Nazi expropriation of Moss Varehus. Lesser mortals would have given up, but not Ida! She had to do something.

Ida realized that the only solution was to follow in the footsteps of the many Jews who had fled to Sweden. She had connections with many prominent people in Moss. However, the Chief Fireman refused to drive them to Sweden in an ambulance. Neither would Hans S. Jacobsen, the NS man who had torn down the sign in the store, help her.

It was a courageous, lonely woman who herself stood before the Head of the Gestapo and pleaded for assistance. Impressed and surprised by the brave woman, he said that nothing could be done, but he allowed her to leave his office, despite the fact that he should have arrested her on the spot. She returned home, hope now almost abandoned.

A few evenings later, at the end of the month of November, 1942, the doorbell rang on Ida's door. She answered and was facing a man who said he had come to help her. He confirmed his story by giving details of how he had helped Ida’s mother and sister escape to Sweden from Oslo.

The man, Peter Gabrielsen was a member of the resistance movement, Milorg. Peter returned the next day with train tickets to Oslo and a single plan: He would accompany them on the train, they should be dressed as inconspicuously as possible, he would sit far away from them, and if either he or they were questioned, they wouldn’t recognize or acknowledge the other. They arrived in Oslo without incident.

In Oslo, after two weeks ‘under cover’ at Gabrielsen’s apartment, together with several other Jewish ‘refugees’, the actual escape began. About 20 men, women, and children were packed in the back of a truck,  covered with a tarpaulin. The truck was authorized to carry freight to the border zone and they were told not to move and remain quiet.

After an uneventful couple of hours the truck stopped and the passengers were told that they would have to walk the rest of the way – this time without a guide. The only thing they knew was that they were ‘near the city of Kongsvinger’

Even in the best of circumstances – in spring, autumn and summer – walking in the deep forest at the border crossing, is not entirely easy. In the middle of winter, fighting freezing wind and deep snow, encouraging three young children, one with a fever and a cough – it was a formidable task.

Ida began to lose hope after 10 hours of walk. They had separated from the main group who would be crossing the border and must have been going around in circles. Suddenly she saw a light in a small farm. She told Bjørn to go and ask for a glass of water and to confirm directions to Sweden.

Bjørn returned and said the man had not been very pleasant, but had confirmed that they were still on the  Norwegian side. Ida was determined to get more information and marched up to the house. The man remained truculent, but pointed out the direction towards Sweden and warned that they had to pass through a minefield. At this stage, even a minefield did not deter them, they crossed safely. Shortly afterwards they met up with the other refugees who shouted, “Welcome to Sweden – now we are safe.”

During the two and a half years in Sweden, Ida Ullmann and her three children lived in Malmø – where Bjørn’s sister, Sonja, lived.

Ida Ullmann never lost hope that her husband and son would return. In the days after the capitulation, several ships carrying returning Norwegian prisoners, came to the port of Malmø. On these occasions, Bjørn hurried down to the port and ran ceaselessly up and down the dock asking if anyone had been in contact with Isak and Paul Ullmann. Nobody had. The truth had to be faced. They would never come home. They had been murdered in October, 1942 at the concentration camp in Lublin.

Even this was not the end of the tragedy for Ida Ullmann and her decimated family. The destiny of her son Alf was a deep tragedy. At the time of his flight to Sweden, he was only 17 years old - a tall, handsome boy who was active in the Boy Scouts. After the war, he was unable to cope with the burden of thinking that he had caused the arrest of his father and his brother Paul. His mind became totally darkened by imagined guilt and thoughts of self-destruction. He died shortly after the war.


I have known Bjørn and Else Ullmann for almost as long as I have lived in Norway. My wife Else has known Else Ullmann since they were both six years old. At our many meetings through the years, neither Bjørn nor Else spoke about their experiences during the war. We knew that these experiences had been dramatic, to say the least. We understood that it was almost impossible for Bjørn to talk about them – even when asked directly. However, in May 2010, we were together at a party and for the first time Bjørn, unprompted, spoke of his memories.

Else and Geoff Ward

With gratitude to Else and Geoff Ward for permission to publish the story.