Friday, July 10, 2015


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.