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.