The Righteous in Norway
60% of Norwegian Jewry escaped to Sweden during the War. Some fled with no assistance at all, some were aided by friends, others by private entrepreneurs. Most of the Jews, however, were assisted by groups connected to the organised resistance in one way or another.
Invasion and occupation
Norway was thrown into the whirlwind of WWII when Nazi Germany attacked without warning on 9th April 1940. The inadequately armed Norwegian forces fought for sixty two days, but despite being aided by British, French and Polish forces, they were forced to lay down their arms in early June.
The King and the Norwegian Government evacuated to England and re-established as a Government-in-exile. In Norway, Hitler appointed Josef Terboven as his personal envoy (Reichskommissar). Early attempts to cooperate with the remnants of the Norwegian bureaucracy ended in early autumn of 1940, and the small Norwegian Nazi Party, headed Vidkun Quisling, was given increasing power. The failed attempts of the Norwegian Nazis to “Nazify” large segments of the Norwegian society, such as the church and the schools, were to become the main driver behind the emerging civilian and military resistance movement.
The Jewish minority
At the time of the German invasion, there were approximately 2,200 Jews living in Norway, about 500 of whom were not Norwegian citizens. Directly after the invasion, some 15,000 Norwegians sought refuge in Sweden, with many Jews among them. After the fighting in Norway ceased and the situation appeared calmer, many chose to return to Norway. This included many of the Jews. The approximately 100 Jews who stayed in Sweden largely comprised those who had come to Norway as refugees from Central Europe. Norway was not their homeland, and they had little to lose by leaving it. And most of all, they knew first-hand of the cost of living as Jews under a Nazi regime.
Jews had their radios confiscated in May 1940, one year earlier than the rest of the population. In that same month, the two Jewish congregations had to submit their membership lists. Apart from individual actions from the Germans and the local Nazis, the situation was stable with few excesses towards the Jews. The Jewish minority was not separated from the rest of the population, and Jews were not forced to wear identifying signs on their clothes. From 1941, antisemitic propaganda became more and more vocal in the Nazi-controlled press.
Prior to the German attack on the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, male Jews in northern Norway were arrested, together with some active Communists and Social Democrat politicians. The German perpetrators and their Norwegian collaborators were afraid that harsh measures against the Jews would lead to protests from the rest of Norwegian society, but in January 1942, all Jews were ordered to have their ID-cards stamped with a red letter “J”.
Destruction and deception
1942 saw a new level of German aggression in Norway. In late October, the “Nazified” part of the Norwegian police planned and executed the arrest of Jewish men aged fifteen years and older in a blitz-like operation during a single night. The men were detained in prison camps and the oldest remaining member of the family, in practice a woman, was required to report daily to the local police station. After a few weeks, men over the age of sixty five were released, leading the community to hope, yet again, that the situation would pass. Undoubtedly this was an orchestrated part of the perpetrators’ policy of deception.
This pattern of arrest left hundreds of Jewish families in an untenable situation. Two weeks before the arrests of the men, several laws was tightened by the occupiers. From now on, attempting to escape the country or helping others to do the same, could lead to the death penalty. If an individual escaped, reprisals could be taken against family members or even close friends. This last factor locked several families in the country when women hesitated to escape, knowing that their detained loved ones would be made to pay if anyone else in the family tried to flee. And it was hard enough for the women to keep things afloat as it was. They helped the detainees by bringing them food, clothing, shoes and other items. The prisoners were allowed to correspond with their families by postcard, where they could list what they needed.
Attempting to escape became an even more dangerous, high-risk option. Moreover, in the autumn of 1942, there were strong rumours that the war would soon be over. One month later, on 26th November 1942, Jewish women and children were arrested and the majority were deported from the country that same day, reaching Auschwitz on the 1st December.
Most of Norway’s Jewish population was accustomed to living in a democratic society ruled by law. The idea that they could be stripped of that protection was inconceivable. The measures used in Norway, with a time-compressed, concentrated final action phase, in which mass arrests and economic liquidation took place simultaneously or in very close succession, also made it difficult for the Jews here to take steps in relation to the threats they faced. Many thought that it was just the men who were at risk of being arrested. No one knew about the systematic extermination effort in Europe that was targeting all the Jews - women, children, the elderly and the infirm. That such atrocities could take place was completely beyond their perception, let alone imagine that something of that nature could actually happen “here”.
In the summer and autumn of 1942, the main military underground movement, called Milorg, had experienced several critical blows, with hundreds of arrests. Various groups were forced to stop all activity in order to continue to survive as clandestine organisations. At the time of the arrests of the Jewish population, the military resistance was engaged in re-establishing its leadership and lines of communication overall. The civilian resistance groups and those who were connected to the communists were also dealing with similar problems. They were also largely affected by similar problems, as the crossing networks of the different clandestine organisations had been many, and had therefore left them vulnerable to infiltration.
The resistance organizations had to get hundreds of exposed members out of harm’s way, preferably to Sweden. Simultaneously, the Jews who evaded arrest went into hiding with an imminent need of transport across the border. The resistance members were mostly young and fit men and women.
The existing export organisations were insufficient under the pressure from hundreds of people in desperate need to leave the country. New organizations were hastily formed, and they were to perform the bulk of the operation and largely save the situation.
New rescue organizations
The most important of these was a group calling itself Carl Fredriksens Transport, headed by a suspended police officer, a gardener and an inspector at a transport distribution central. The police officer’s wife also played a key role in the organisation. This large-scale operation was initiated by the leader of the military resistance. Carl Fredriksens Transport subsequently received financial help from the civilian segment of the Norwegian resistance. Over the course of six weeks, from the end of November 1942 to mid-January 1943, this group succeeded in smuggling roughly several hundred people to the Swedish border. Approximately 300-400 of these people were Jewish themselves, or had Jewish affiliations. Carl Fredriksens Transport managed to do the impossible – carrying refugees hidden in trucks safely out of Oslo and nearly all the way to the border. Without this escape organisation, it would not have been possible to save so many children, or elderly or ill individuals. Another organization linked to the Communists also helped to transport many Jews in a similar fashion, but by a different route.
One of the most well known rescue operations was the evacuation of the Jewish orphanage with fourteen children in Oslo. Most of the rescuers were women. The story about the orphanage was depicted in a movie in 1958 and a documentary in 2016.
A new group of refugees
Most of the 1,200 Jews who escaped from Norway to Sweden went into hiding prior to the two major arrest actions in October and November 1942. The Jewish group consisted of all ages, from infants to the elderly. This was a completely new situation for the rescuers. The existing rescue organisations were unable to cope with the pressure of so many people desperate to leave the country. New, hastily formed organisations ended up carrying out the bulk of the task and saving the situation. The new group of refugees caused some tension and stress in parts of the rescue network and in some places this led to anti-Jewish sentiments.
The mass arrests of Jewish men in late of October 1942 took place with little warning, but some managed nonetheless to get away. One month later, however, when a similar action to arrest women, children and the elderly was scheduled, word was spread more widely beforehand. It is difficult to estimate how many people helped to sound the alarm, but several hundred people must have been warned in the days or hours leading up to the imminent arrests on 26th November 1942. Police officers, members of the resistance movement and ordinary civilians all took active part in these efforts.
Going into hiding
Many fled their apartments and went into hiding at the homes of friends and colleagues. They were later taken to other hiding places. Upstanding citizens had their first encounter with illegal activities in the autumn of 1942 when they opened their doors to the Jews who were fleeing for their lives. Many of these same people continued to help other groups and individuals who needed refuge later on during the War, at great risk to themselves and their families.
Several legs on the way to rescue
Intermediary helpers were often used to put the Jews in hiding in contact with people who could help them escape. The larger refugee transport groups usually provided assistance for moving them from their hiding places to the gathering points for transport. Many people helped by notifying the transports of obstacles or dangers along the routes. Some routes had several legs. These were often arduous, with hours of hiking through dense forest and hilly terrain. Children and the elderly also had to traverse these strenuous routes sometimes. The journey could involve spending the night at remote farms, where the farmers provided food and shelter. The final leg towards and across the border was often led by border guides with intimate knowledge of the areas. But sometimes the refugees had to walk the final part alone, blindly following the directions given to them by the guide.
A few private entrepreneurs undoubtedly benefitted financially from aiding Jews, but research thus far suggests that personal gain played a minor role in motivating the many helpers. The larger illegal rescue organizations had fixed prices ranging from roughly 100 to 300 Norwegian kroner for those refugees who were able to pay. The average annual salary in Norway in 1942 was 3900 Norwegian kroner. Money was a vital component in securing the escapes. Lorries had to be rented and fuel had to be obtained from the illegal market. For the larger organisations, money received from the refugees was not enough. Financial support also had to be channeled from other parts of the resistance and from the exile government. In some cases, refugees with no money at all were given some cash to manage the first few days in Sweden.
Comparison with Denmark
Since the end of the War, the discussion regarding the extent to which Norwegians were willing to help their fellow Jewish citizens has flared up from time to time. Norway has, at least in domestic discussions, often been compared with Denmark in this matter. In an unbalanced comparison, the Norwegian effort naturally falls short - certainly if the focus is on sheer numbers and survival rates. Danish civilians and members of various resistance groups managed to help 95% of the Jewish population in Denmark to escape across the Sound to Sweden in October 1943. However, the situation in the two countries differed completely in almost all aspects, and any comparison is consequently problematic at best.
Recognizing the rescuers
In recent years, a growing number of Norwegian helpers have been honoured. Little interest was shown in the many individuals involved in the escape organisations following the War. A few were acknowledged, but the large majority will always remain anonymous helpers in a time of great need. One group of helpers that is often forgotten consists of the many ordinary people who opened their homes to strangers right after warnings were given. In 1977, Yad Vashem gave a collective “Righteous among the Nations” award to the “helpers of the Jews within the Norwegian resistance movement.”
Mats Tangestuen, Jewish Museum in Oslo