The Jewish Traveler: Oslo
Master seafarers of long ago, Norwegians played a defining role in a daring 1940’s escapade that may have affected the outcome of World War II.
A prize-winning 2003 documentary film, made in Norway by Norwegians and shown during recent years at about 25 international film festivals, made a special Norwegian statement by focusing on a special aspect of the Jewish scene in that country.
Called The Man Who Loved Haugesund, it presented recollections of people who, before World War II, had dealings with a singular Polish immigrant. One Moritz Rabinowitz created in the area a clothing factory that became Norway’s largest. But also significantly, Moritz—or “M” Rabinowitz as he was known—was the only Jew in town.
Specifics, of course, are outdated. A particular one is that in today’s Norway few Jews, except a scattered one or two and a minicommunity in northerly Trondheim, live outside Oslo, the nation’s capital.
Yet in essence, the film offers a subtle but extremely telling metaphor. In exploring the Jewish-Norwegian balance—which comes across as both cautiously accepting and acceptingly cautious—it reflects the traditional wariness of Norwegians toward most other bloodlines.
Jews are not alone in this delicate situation. People from all continents also can find themselves on the country’s doorstep just peeking in.
Yet contemporary Norwegians pride themselves on the XXL size of their welcome mat and, now trying to make up for centuries as isolated and isolationist European stepchildren, they display a burgeoning cosmopolitanism.
Having played the roles of peacemakers and humanitarians many times recently, they often wonder at feuds sometimes festering on their country’s generally kindly roads and byways. But by seeing in a broader context the erstwhile wariness Rabinowitz encountered, we might better understand the situation today.
Except for the Viking period a millennium ago, Norwegians were a dominated and often divided people, with slices of their territory flip-flopping between Danish and Swedish hegemony. The national psyche responded by turning inward.
Enforced by geography, this insularity braced the country against outsiders. Though foreigners did come for business, extended residence was discouraged. In the 17th and 18th centuries when Denmark controlled Norway, Danish Jews gained temporary entry and so-called “Portuguese” Jews possessing letters of safe passage traded with Norwegians as well. Though not all were well received (a Jewish sailor was jailed for being shipwrecked without proper papers), selected upper-crust souls fared better. Among these were Solomon Heine, poet Heinrich’s uncle, who conducted banking business here.
The struggle to add Jews and other nonadherents of Norway’s Lutheran state church to the populace began seriously in the early 19th century when the Napoleonic Wars upturned the social order throughout Europe. Particularly sensitive to change was the country’s foremost poet, Henrik Arnold Wergeland. In 1839 he began lobbying the Norwegian Parliament to permit Jewish settlement and wrote prolifically on the matter.
But only after his death in 1845 did the government win the two-thirds majority vote needed to officially sanction a Jewish presence. Yet the issue remained academic for another three decades until, spurred by Russian pogroms in the 1880’s, Jews began arriving in numbers.
Nonetheless, Norway’s leading international intellectual, Bjornsterne Bjornson, widely championed their cause in print. Not only did he rally Edvard Grieg to their side during the Dreyfus Affair, but scant days after Emile Zola published J’Accuse on January 13, 1898, the French newspaper L’Aurore gave front-page space to an open letter from Bjornson to Zola advocating a boycott of France.
Beginning as minor tradesmen and peddlers, immigrant Jews eventually became business owners with warehouses and factories among their holdings. Though shehita (kosher slaughtering) was banned in 1930, Jews appeared well enough accepted that even before war clouds had fully formed, Norway invited threatened numbers from Czechoslovakia and Germany to safety within its bounds.
But this generosity was for naught. Though Norway sought neutrality similar to its World War I status, this time around it had no choice. On April 8, 1940, Germany attacked.
The partly Jewish Carl Joachim Hambro, then speaker of Norway’s Parliament, was alerted around 3 A.M. He woke the royal family and helped orchestrate their exit.
Even today, the wartime picture remains murky. The country made the list of Hitler’s victim nations. Resistance was strong and ubiquitous, coming from fighters, including Jews, who had fled to neutral Sweden and from those who remained in Norway. Consequently, 50,000 Norwegian nationals were arrested for anti-Nazi activity; 9,000 were shipped to concentration camps, both within the country and beyond.
At the time of the German invasion, there were about 1,700 Jews in Norway. In Oslo and Trondheim the communities operated religious and cultural institutions that ran various educational and welfare programs.
Under German occupation, the Jews were treated as harshly as Jews elsewhere in occupied Europe. Altogether, almost 800 were deported to Auschwitz; about 30 survived.
Yet pockets of fascist supporters existed throughout the country’s 2,000-mile length. And, too, wartime Norway was governed by a Norwegian Nazi puppet so infamous his last name became one of the few Norwegian words to enter the international lingua franca. He was Vidkun Quisling.
But with Hitler’s fall in 1945, Norway almost immediately invited displaced persons to join its citizenry.
Norwegian Trygve Lie, the first secretary general of the United Nations, lobbied exhaustively for Jewish nationhood. Norwegian citizenry raised money for Yanuv, a community of North African immigrants to Israel, after a planeload of Tunisian Jewish children, to be tutored in Norway, crashed here on airport approach.
General Odd Bull supervised the United Nations truce operation in Israel from 1963 to 1970. And via a clandestine action still not officially acknowledged but extensively written about, heavy water, so vital to the development of nuclear energy, somehow made its way from the Norwegian mountain plant at Vemork to the beige-brown flats of the Negev.
Yet as Israelis—and Jews in general—have shed their subservient coloration, Norway, too, has begun withholding unqualified support.
A strong though ultimately satisfactory struggle in Parliament ensued in 1996, when the Norwegian Jewish community, led primarily by activist Berit Reisel, petitioned for wartime reparations beyond those allocated decades ago.
However, like most European countries, Norway is not enamored of the current Israeli-Palestinian scene.
Conversation ensued and one visitor asked the man where he was from. “Lillehammer,” he replied, naming a city north of Oslo. “Lillehammer,” repeated an Israeli. “Lillehammer is very famous in Israel.”
“Because of the Olympics?” the man asked. “Oh no,” replied one Israeli as others assented. “Because of Mossad.”
The reference was to a 30-year-old episode known in Hebrew asLeil Hamar (Bitter Night), when Israeli intelligence agents, hunting for the Black September perpetrators of the Munich Olympics massacre, mistakenly killed a local Moroccan bartender.
But the emotion that lingers—possibly fanned by the Oslo peace talk failure—seems less like anger than aggrievedness.
Nevertheless, despite some “unpleasant” covert incidents, the nominally Orthodox community, led by a Swedish rabbi, attempts to present a united front.
At Bergstien 13, Mosaiske Trossamfund (telephone: 011-47-23-205-750; www.dmt.oslo.no) maintains a relatively imposing community center with activities and a synagogue. Additionally, even when elements of Norwegian society have attempted boycotts of Israeli and kosher foods, the center has maintained contact with stores, often run by Muslims, that stock the products Jews seek. Details are available at Koshershop (Waldemar Thranesgate 55; 47-22-353-910). The community will arrange kosher dining for groups and advise hotels on rules of kashrut.
But though membership is miniscule in the only remaining synagogue in town—under 1,000 in Oslo and about 150 in Trondheim—behind-the-scenes dissension flows and ebbs depending on contemporary occurrences.
And while some feud, still others merely wonder where they may ultimately fit in a society now home to a Muslim population officially estimated at between 67,000 and 70,000.
Once, in a time now viewed by some as almost magical, agreements called the Oslo Accords existed. Meant to bring peace between Israelis and Palestinians, these agreements were wrought amid secrecy, skullduggery and also pure farce in various venues in and around Norway’s capital city.
Meetings occurred in muted-yellow government buildings behind Oslo’s Royal Castle around the junction of Drammensveien and Parkveien; in a dark-brown, stand-alone wooden cottage on a hillside near the Holmenkollen ski area overlooking Oslo and its fjord; and in City Hall.
The last, a stolid red-brick structure, deserves viewing since the walls of its main hall are covered with astounding murals of wartime Norway. Created by a Norwegian Auschwitz survivor, Alf Rolfsen, they capture bombs bursting, ships sinking and jackboots pounding with a sensibility known perhaps only to a survivor. Oslo’s Grand Hotel boasts happier scenes. When the Nobel Peace Prizes are awarded, the winners—among them Yitzhak Rabin, Elie Wiesel, Menahem Begin, Henry Kissinger and Shimon Peres—appear on its main balcony overlooking the broad, park-like Karl Johansgate, Oslo’s main thoroughfare.
Also within Oslo proper, in a section of its massive old Akershus Castle, exists Norway’s Resistance Museum (Bygning 21; 47-23-093-280; www.mil. no/felles/nhm) with a section on the wartime fate of Norwegian Jewry.
Outside the walls, along the waterfront’s Vippetangen area, chairs symbolically missing seats have been erected to mark the last spot for rest for those Jews being deported.
More positive is the imminent opening of a Jewish museum located in and around the building at Calmeyersgate 15 that until 1942 housed Oslo’s second synagogue. When it opens next year, it will contain such memorabilia as Norway’s first ketuba (marriage certificate) from 1884 belonging to the great-granddaughter of the first Jewish couple married in the country; an original copy of the 1851 law allowing Jews to reside in Norway; plus pictures, texts and objects relating to the earliest Jews’ first work. While the interior—whose walls have borne Jewish-motif paintings—awaits its displays, an outdoor exhibit running until the end of September is already under way. Covering one wall of the building’s yard, a structure known as The Wailing Wall, are placards and posters showing Jewish life in the days when Oslo was still called Christiania.
On the Bygdoy Peninsula, jutting into Oslo Fjord, are such singular attractions as the Viking Ship Museum (Huk Aveny 35; 47-22-135-280; www.khm. uio.no/english/viking_ship_museum); the Norwegian Museum of Cultural History (Museumsveien 10; 47-22-123-700; www.norskfolke.museum. no); the polar ship Fram(Bygdoynes veien 36; 47-23-282-950; www.fram. museum.no) and the Kon-Tiki Museum (Bygdoynesveien 36; 47-23-086-767; www.kon-tiki.no).
Additionally, there is a glorious mansion, once the home of a shipowner, aptly named the Villa Grande (Huk Aveny 36; 47-22-242-800; www.holocaust.no). It was commandeered during World War II by Quisling.
But now, putting such ghosts to rest, the place will be home to the Center for Holocaust and Religious Minority Studies, a place for study and conferences dedicated to delving into the roots of prejudice and mass political violence with the dream of one day eradicating the problems.
Among other sights are the Edvard Munch Museum (Toyengata 53; 47-23-493-500; www.munch.museum. no), devoted to the Norwegian artist whose works are often said to have foreshadowed Hitlerian horrors; the National Gallery (Universitetsgate 13; 47-22-200-404; www.nasjonalmuseet.no), also housing some Munch works, including one version of his iconistic The Scream; Frogner Park (Nobelsgate 32; 47-22-542-530) is home to the weird and convoluted sculptures of Gustav Vigeland.
Apart from Lillehammer’s fun-to-walk-around downtown and the way the city has put to other uses such Olympic sites as its bobsled run—an exciting ride for children and the sturdy of heart—it now boasts a new Olympic Museum. While concentrated on Norway’s involvement in the event, at least two exhibits touch on Jewish experiences. One involves a three-dimensional swastika utilized in the 1936 Berlin games. And the other is a life-size presentation of that black-hooded terrorist figure at the 1972 Munich games. Exceedingly chilling is a shard of glass from the scene.
Overnighters may enjoy The Molla (Elvegt 12), a cozy inn that the locals consider the best in town.
Also about three hours from Oslo lies a plant whose output was so coveted by the Germans that, had it not been for the actions of teams of daring Norwegians with British and American assistance, World War II’s course might have been very different. Still standing stolidly is the building that once made the heavy water the Germans thought would enable them to win the race to build an atomic bomb.
The structure reigns in the southern Norway region of Telemark. More precisely, it looms over a ravine at Vemork, seven miles outside the village of Rjukan, on a steep mountain slope, alone against a dark greenness verging almost on black. The deep valleys became, at the 20th-century’s start, important for their industrial value. Specifically, the water pouring down the mountainsides provided a splendid source of electrical power.
Four decades later, this water would become, as David Bodanis writes in his award-winning book, E=mc2 (Berkeley), “the furthermost ripple of what had begun in Einstein’s quiet thoughts….”
While the building still houses its power plant remains and goes by the name Norsk Industriarbeidermuseet, its greater significance is devoted to the history of the bomb’s creation and the Norwegian attempts to prevent it.
Along with the film If Hitler Had the Bomb, there are sections of the museum devoted to those who helped split the atom, including such Jews as Otto Frisch, Lise Meitner and Lotte Hahn, not to mention Albert Einstein, shown both as a young man and together with another scientist of Jewish blood, the Dane Niels Bohr. A Los Alamos section shows Jews too, including J. Robert Oppenheimer.
The wartime episode at Vemork was—despite The Heroes of Telemark, a popular 1960’s film starring Kirk Douglas—not a subject of intense scrutiny until recently. The Norwegians, though, made their own movie, The Heavy Water Sabotage, re-creating the event, available at the museum along with Skis Against the Atom, a book by Lt. Col. Knut Haukelid, its latest edition copyrighted in 1989 by the North American Heritage Press.
More recently, the larger question of the Germans’ rush for the bomb has played to wide audiences, thanks to Copenhagen, Michael Frayn’s prize-winning play.
The hike along the saboteurs’ trail runs through the now-quiet hills, golden in early autumn, the woods along the way occasionally harboring wayward ponies. Ask about guides at the Park Hotell Rjukan (47-35-082-188; firstname.lastname@example.org).
Hikes along the resistance trail leading to neutral Sweden are offered elsewhere in Norway. Go to www.visit oslo.com/attractions for further information on the city’s sights.
SAS, Scandinavia’s primary airline, continues its efficient and pleasant servicing of a widespread region. Among its particular touristic advantages are add-on tickets, available in conjunction with trans-Atlantic passage, at rates lower than individually purchased tickets. These are particularly useful for rapid travel up and down Norway’s considerable length.
For shorter hauls, the rail or bus networks afford an up-close sense of the countryside. Radisson SAS Scandinavia Hotels are usually good bets; in Oslo, the Royal Christiania (Biskop Gunnerusgate 3), across from the main train station, is convenient for getting into and out of town.
Though political winds are ever-changing, Norway’s citizenry has a generally low-key character. Additionally, the scenery beyond Oslo is incredibly striking. Consequently, despite some anti-Semitism, Norway currently should make the Jewish traveler’s “O.K. to go” list.