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