Norway’s Response to the Holocaust

Norway’s Response to the Holocaust

Norway’s Response to the Holocaust – a historical perspective

by Samuel Abrahamsen

This study – sponsored by Thanks to Scandinavia, a New York organization devoted to documenting and recognizing rescue efforts in Nordic countries during the Holocaust – focuses on the fate of Norway’s Jews during World War II, of whom more than 50 percent were saved. Based on careful research in Norway, Great Britain, the United States, and Israel, Abrahamsen explores German efforts to nazify Norway, cooperation by the Norwegian bureaucracy and police in the persecution and deportation of Jews, and efforts by the Norwegian Resistance to save Jews. Contrary to Johan Vogt’s claim in Det store brennoffer (1966; The Holocaust) that Norwegians were spectators and indifferent to the persecution of the Jews (14-15), Abrahamsen emphasizes the actions of the Norwegian Resistance and of hundreds of Norwegians in helping a majority of intended Jewish victims escape to Sweden.

As the story is little known, it bears telling here. In April 1940, when the Nazis invaded, Norway was home to about 1600 Jews, including two hundred stateless refugees recently arrived from Central Europe. Norway had enacted severe restrictions on refugee immigration, entrance of a person (an alien) into a new country for the purpose of establishing permanent residence, during the 1930s, which continued in force up to the time of the invasion. Motives for immigration, like those for migration generally, are often economic, although religious or political factors may be very important. Jews comprised a tiny portion of Norway’s citizens, only about .05 percent. Half the Jewish population lived in Oslo, with another smaller center of Jewish residence in Trondheim. During World War II, Abrahamsen estimates that 763 of these 1600 Jews were arrested, deported by ship to Stettin, and then sent by cattle cars to Auschwitz. All but 24 of the 763 perished. More than 800 Jews escaped their Nazi/Quisling pursuers, however, and were brought by the Resistance across difficult terrain and winter conditions to Sweden, mostly during a period of mass rescue in October-December 1942. A special organization, the Carl Fredriksen Transport Organization, ran two trucks five evenings weekly to the border during this period. Jews then crossed into Sweden on foot.

Throughout his narrative, Abrahamsen describes how German SS officials, Vidkun Quisling’s National Union party, and Norwegian state police forces cooperated in implementing Nazi anti-Jewish policy. Norwegian authorities began applying the policies to Norway in early 1942; they used lists of the established Evangelical Lutheran Church to assess Aryan descent and registered all Jews in the country. Initially, Jews were removed from the public service and professions and many Jewish-owned stores were confiscated. Jews were arrested, interned in camps, tortured, and a few were killed. Then, without warning, on 25/26 October 1942, and again on 25/26 November 1942, Norwegian authorities (acting under Nazi orders) attempted to round up all Jews in mass arrests–first men, then women and children–to expropriate their property and to deport them to the continent.

Such actions took place in a nation where the established Lutheran church was highly influential, where traditional religious and economic anti-Semitism were real, and from which Jews had been barred constitutionally from entry until the mid-nineteenth century. According to Abrahamsen, many Norwegians appear to have been indifferent to Jews, perhaps viewing them as outside their moral universe. Some were hostile. Nonetheless, few Norwegians responded positively to the vulgar racial appeals of Quisling’s National Union party, and most Norwegians were strongly opposed to the imposition of Nazi rule and coordination. In the face of threats of severe punishment, many engaged in heroic rescue actions in late 1942, warned, sheltered, and assisted Jews, and thereby enabled many to reach Sweden safely.

Norwegian rescuers responded to no civil directive from the Home Front to assist Jews. Nor did the Norwegian Government-in-Exile in London issue any special appeal. Apparently, concerted Norwegian opposition was initially aroused by German efforts to Nazify Norwegian institutions during 1940-1941. The brutal treatment of Jews in late 1942 then stirred many to additional resistance and action on behalf of Jews. The Lutheran Church played a key role in generating resistance, first against nazification efforts, then against the treatment of Jews. On 10 November 1942, after the first mass round-up, the Lutheran bishops in a letter to Quisling openly protested the arrests and deportations, arguing that Jews had had a legal right to live in Norway for ninety-one years and should be protected by law. Failure to do so violated the Christian commandment

Then on 15 and 22 November, Lutheran clergy read this letter from church pulpits throughout the country. Hence, the rescuers did not wait for special directives from the Home Front or abroad but acted independently with moral courage, spurred on by church actions. Jews were hidden in private homes and in hospitals. Rescuers provided food, clothing, money, documents, direct assistance, and transport.

While Jews who had earlier been interned in camps or were caught in the police sweeps were deported, many Jews who were warned and aided by rescuers made it to Sweden. One witness was Mrs. Henrietta Samuel, wife of Norway’s chief rabbi. Julius Isak Samuel (who died in Auschwitz) testified at the Eichmann trial how she and her three children were brought to safety, hidden first outside Oslo in a private home, then taken by truck in a large group to the Swedish border. Leon Bodd, from Trondheim, recalled how he was hidden by the Home Front in Oslo’s Lovisenbery Hospital, then transported to the border. A group of fourteen refugee children who had arrived at Oslo’s Jewish Children’s Hospital in 1938-39 were gathered up by Resistance members one night before the November roundup and taken to Sweden.

Rescue of a bare majority of Norway’s Jews, therefore, was largely possible because of several factors: Norwegian and Lutheran Church resistance to Nazi rule, the benevolent policy of nearby neutral Sweden, and the relatively small number of people to be saved. The Norwegian Government-in-Exile retained the mantle of legitimate national authority in Norway, the Lutheran Church accepted disestablishment rather than support the Nazis, and Church leaders spoke sharply, if belatedly against Nazi treatment of the Jews–yet more sharply than many church authorities elsewhere. In addition, some members of the Resistance had infiltrated the police and were able to warn many Jews before the late November arrests and then assist them. The small number of Jews in Norway had also not been segregated from the populace in ghettos or marked off as outcasts by yellow stars and placed under rule by a Judenrat. Still, it should be emphasized that public opposition and resistance to Nazi Jewish policy was minimal until after the first roundup and, while neither specially concentrated or organized, a large minority of the Jews were arrested by the Nazis and their Norwegian henchmen and gassed at Auschwitz.

Abrahamsen’s analysis provides extensive information about Nazi persecution and deportation of the Jews, the role of varied SS officers and Norwegian political and police agencies in implementing the Final Solution in Norway, and the broad dynamics of Norwegian resistance. The book’s key contribution is in telling the tale. A bit disappointingly, though, the voices of resisters are absent from Norway’s Response and there is insufficient exploration of their motives and outlooks. Abrahamsen conducted no interviews with surviving Resistance members nor made any effort to place their behavior in the context of recent studies of rescuers in Poland, France, and Denmark, which have probed the political, religious, and humanitarian roots of engagement in rescue action.

Additionally, this reader believes it would have been instructive to compare Norway’s experience with that of other nations under Nazi control. Norway belongs to a category of countries, including Denmark, France, Poland, and others, where national resistance forces organized rescue action during the Holocaust–at different times and with divergent outcomes. In Norway, which the Germans governed tightly for strategic reasons, where a Quisling regime existed, and where police collaborated in the attempted roundups of Jews in late 1942, rescue action was stirred earliest in Europe and produced the salutary Healthy, beneficial but mixed results Abrahamsen describes. In Denmark, where Nazi rule was initially much looser than in Norway, where no Quisling regime existed, and where–when the Germans sought to arrest Jews in October 1943–the police worked closely with the Resistance, rescue action helped save more than 95 percent of Denmark’s seventy-eight hundred Jews, despite a lengthier, more difficult sea route to Sweden. Such comparison would highlight key factors that shaped the fate of Jews in these nations, including direct German control and administrative collaboration, as well as the strength of national resistance.

COPYRIGHT 1994 Society for the Advancement of Scandinavian Study with permission from SASS.

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