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Torbjoern’s story continues – with my trip to Norway to meet him in June 2011.

I did mention a while ago that I had plans to visit my home country this summer. A good  friend was willing to join me and we flew over to Norway in the middle of June. We stayed with my cousin Aase and Gunnar, outside Bergen, for 9 days and had a wonderful time. The weather was pleasant most of the week so we had a chance to see and experience a lot during this all too brief stay.

One of the reasons I wanted to go was to meet Torbjoern Oevsttun who is the only one still alive of the seven from Nesttun (the so-called Nesttun-boys) who were arrested in 1941 when the Germans unravelled the Kristian Stein organisation they all worked for during the early part of  WWII. For nearly four long years they were sent from camp to camp in Germany, but the ‘boys’ stayed together. He had stories to tell from that period, and it meant a lot to me being able to see him and have a  chat and hear about my own dad (who died in 1991). When the prisoners were freed by the American army in April 1945 they had to remain in Dachau for several weeks  because everything was so chaotic in Germany.

As I have said in an earlier write-up – Torbjoern was ordered to work in the sewing-room while imprisoned, and he became quite a competent tailor – under the guidance of a Belgian expert who was a ladies dressmaker!

May 17 is the Norwegian Constitution Day, always celebrated in great patriotic style. Of course it was of greater than ever significance for the Norwegians to make the most of such a day when peace came at last. Torbjoern and his mate Arne set to and made a wonderful banner in the red, white and blue of the Norwegian flag. This banner was brought back to Norway and is  kept in a war museum outside Bergen. Telavåg is the name of this place.

Torbjoern is now 91 years old, but a fit,  good-looking and active man, except for poor eyesight. Here are some pictures taken during our visit to Telavåg Museum, and Torbjoern is pictured standing next to the banner he made. It is a well-kept and nice piece of work which I believe will last for many, many years. It is preserved  under a glass frame.

 This is Torbjoern and Elin outside the museum. He looks wonderful for his age.

At this point I want to tell a brief story about Telavåg and why it became an important and unforgettable place during the war-years and afterwards: On the 26th of April 1942 two high-ranking Gestapo officers were shot by two Norwegian agents, who had come over from the Shetland Islands in Scotland. One of the agents, Arne Vaerum, was also killed during the shoot-out that took place in one of the 66 houses in this little fishing village where they  were hiding. Telavåg is located on the fjord-inlet close to the  North Sea. Because of this location it was an ideal place, for people fleeing the Nazis, to come and hope to find transport to Scotland and freedom. The Germans were aware of this and kept their eyes open for any activity. Someone must have informed the head office in Bergen because officers were sent to investigate.

The Germans retaliated in a most horrendous fashion. They took all the males in the village, between the ages of 16-60, prisoners. They were sent to a concentration camp in Germany, where many of them died. All the women and children were interned at a big school near Bergen or a place in Hardanger for two years, and the entire village was burnt to the ground. There was nothing left of a once prosperous fishing village.

We went to Telavåg in late June this year and saw a really gripping and frightening documentary about this terrible event, where both film and still pictures had been used. It was narrated in Norwegian with English subtitles. The museum walls are full of pictures of many brave men who risked their own lives in order to save others. Can you imagine rowing and sailing in open boats across the often wild North Sea? It shows human beings can cope with a lot when our lives depend on it and the situation is desperate.

Telavåg twins with the city of Darmstadt in Germany and some years ago the people of this city donated an engraved stone written in Norwegian and German, where they ask, on behalf of the German people, to be forgiven for this outrages revenge in Telavåg:                   

  Torbjoern and Gunnar by the war memorial.  

The village has been rebuilt and extended after the war. It looks like a happy and well cared for place; rugged and a bit wild I guess, but the Norwegians are a hardy race (used to be anyway!)

I remember my parents talking about Telavåg when I was young, and the rebuilding of it some years later. But for me it was a first visit and an unforgettable one.

I want to say a warm thank-you to Torbjoern for this memorable meeting. I also want to say thank-you to  Aase and Gunnar for being such wonderful hosts.  It was much appreciated. We saw  fjords, waterfalls, high mountains and peaceful valleys. We visited with friends and family members and were made to feel very welcome and wanted.

  Telavåg                                                          

Torbjoern’s Story – home again and normal life is resumed.

After the war Torbjoern, who was still a young man, continued his education. He qualified as an engineer at Stockholm University. He has had a long and  interesting life. Until recently he used to meet other survivors once a month. They had lunch at one of Bergen’s best hotels, and reminisced about the war years. “We are getting too old and decrepid to meet now”, he said. He still has his dear wife by his side, whom he married a few years after coming back home. He seems happy and content with life, but “it is impossible to ever forget those dreadful times”, he admits.

The banner Torbjoern and his friends made in May 1945 was brought back to Norway. It was kept at Kronstad Hovedgård – a sort of museum – for many years. But it January 2009 the banner was presented to Telavåg Museum, some miles from Bergen.                                    

  This is Torbjoern (right) with another survivor presenting the banner to the curator of the museum in 2009.

Every ten years, since the war ended, the Norwegians and their Swiss ‘saviours’ have spent time together, either in Norway or Switzerland. A firm and lasting friendship was formed, but they have all become too old to travel these days.

Torbjoern and wife, Liv, on a Rhine cruise in 1985.

Torbjoern and some other ex-prisoners have given extensive interviews to historians from Oslo about the events during that awful period. These records are kept somewhere in the capital  Oslo.

I shall soon be able to have a long chat with Torbjoern and his wife because I am going to Norway for a short holiday. I may well have more to tell when I get back to England.         

Here is a photo of Torbjoern as he is today – still handsome and alert at 90.

Torbjoern’s story, continued – Dachau May 1945 and Switzerland

“The sewing room was a busy place”, Torbjoern said. He and his friend, Arne, were occupied designing and making a banner in readiness for the May 17 celebrations. This is Norway’s Constitution Day, and proud Norwegians everywhere want to participate. For these men, so long imprisoned and starved, it was of particular significance.

Their living quarters had improved greatly since they were relocated to the SS-guards barrack. They found uniforms which had belonged to Norwegian army personnel while looking for material, and set to and stitched and fixed these garments and made them fit the skinny mens bodies. Most of them weighed between 36-40 kg at that time.

This is the banner they made. It is now on display at a war museum in Telavåg – a small community near Bergen which was destroyed by the Germans during the war.

So it was that 78 happy but thin Norwegians marched onto the parade ground in uniforms and wearing rosettes in red, white and blue on their lapels. The Norwegian/American officer in charge gave a moving speech, and it was a day no-one would ever forget.

This is Dachau concentration camp.

Because of their weak physical condition they could not withstand the long journey back to Norway at that point. The Swiss town of Schaffhausen built a camp for the ex-prisoners and invited them all to come there to recuperate. Red Cross buses came to collect them on May 31st 1945, and they spent two-three weeks in quarantine. It was like arriving in Heaven!!

Quarantine  and mealtime in Switzerland.

Once the quarantine was over they were free to roam, and had a wonderful time. Torbjoern talks about going into a restaurant and order coffee and cream cakes. They wanted to pay, but the waiter said -“Oh, no, the ladies over at the next table paid already”. That’s the way it was all the time; they were treated like royalty. Trips to the most scenic places in Switzerland were arranged. There were dances and visits to private homes. The men began to regain their health and weight too! By August they were fit enough to return back to Norway and their families.

Torbjoern’s Story – Kaisheim and Dachau

Kaisheim was by far the best of the concentration camps the men were sent to. The food was better and the weather had improved. The prisoners were served pea soup and half-decent bread  on arrival. “We almost had enough to eat for once” Torbjoern said. This prison was their home for the next eleven months. A group of Belgians  shared a large room with the Norwegians. They were even allowed to exercise, and the Belgians joined them. A choir was formed – much to everyone’s joy. Torbjoern was once again in the sewing room, making uniforms. Two of their Belgian friends were shot whilst in Kaisheim. They had access to machinery and made duplicate keys, leading to the main gate. They were caught and shot immediately. Torbjoern said they were both well-educated university professors and very likeable.  Several people died in Kaisheim due to mistreatment in other camps.

The men became aware that the war was not going well for the Germans. There were constant bombing raids and rumours about advancing allied troops. That last Christmas in a prison was not quite as bad previous ones. The feeling was that there would soon be  change, and freedom may be on its way. But the worst was still to come.

Dachau concentration camp, near Munich was their final destination. On the 9th of April 1945 they were sent south by train. There were many stops along the way because of bombed rail lines and general chaos. The German guards left the train when the bombs began to fall and hid in the forest. But eventually they arrived in Dachau, and the sights they were greeted with were ‘almost to horrendous to talk about’. They saw wagons full of what looked like sticks of wood from a distance, but turned out to be human bodies. Wagon after wagon full of emaciated dead men and women. Exhausted prisoner were given the gruesome task of unloading the bodies from the train. Many died whilst doing this job. There were several mass-graves in Dachau.

American troops discovered train loads of dead men when they freed the camp.

An area about a kilometre outside their camp, called Hermansplatz, was the place of execution. Doomed prisoners were marched to this site daily. A few managed to escape, but not  many. Torbjoern talked about the daily massacre of hundreds of men. There were 400 prisoners in each barrack, measuring 10×9 metres. When the Norwegians arrived in Dachau there were 30.000 prisoners in the camp and more arrived every day. It looked like the Germans were determined to exterminate as many people as possible. They began with the outermost barracks and worked their way systematically – killing 400 a day. It sends chills down my spine when I heard Torbjoern say that their barrack was one day away from being the next target. But that’s when the Americans arrived. The day was 29th of April 1945.

Here are the American troops at the main gate.

 ” If you stood on the uppermost bunk and looked through the air-vents you could just about see Munich in the distance”, said Torbjoern. At 6 am on the 29th of April they saw the Americans enter the camp, and jubilant prisoners met them at the barbed wire fences.

The Germans raised the white flag in surrender, and the joy the emaciated men felt cannot be described. Some of the guards in the watchtower continued to fire their guns. “That‘s the last thing they should have done” said Torbjoern. They were soon captured, and when the officer in charge said: “What shall we do with them?” – the answer was unanimous “Shoot them all” – which they did then and there. 

Here we can see the firing squad in action.

Torbjoern’s story – Rendsburg, Vechta and onwards to Kaisheim

Torbjoern was the only one of the seven Nesttun-Boys to be sent to Rendsburg while they were imprisoned in Kiel. He spent six dreadful months there. It was midwinter and the temperature plummeted to minus 20 degrees. He says it is a wonder they survived because they had to strip naked and stand outside for at least an hour a day as punishment for ‘bad behaviour’. Most of the men were so emaciated and weak they could hardly walk. Many never recovered from this experience. But Torbjoern did survive and met up with his friends at Vechta, where they had come directly from Kiel, and they remained together for the rest of the war years.

Vechta is north of Hannover and the prison they arrived at was a terrible place. My father, having recovered from his illness, was still very depressed and refused to leave his cell. He couldn’t speak or understand German, and the guards were getting annoyed with him. All he wanted to do was stay in bed all day, which was not allowed. Torbjoern shared a cell with five others so I don’t know why my father was on his own. My impression is that he was mentally unstable at that point and found it impossible to come to terms with the present conditions. Who could blame him? This was pure hell! One of the more pleasant guards asked if anyone knew Lars Bratlid. Torbjoern said “I do”, and was told to come and talk to him. Seeing someone he knew made my father feel a lot better, and he gradually became more like the happy, outgoing, man he used to be, although Torbjoern said he would stare into the distance and not communicate with anyone for long periods.

Torbjoern told Gunnar and Aase he was rather reluctant to talk about this episode because he was afraid I would be upset. But that’s life, and we all differ in how we cope and reach breaking-point. We never know what our reaction will be until we get into an unbearable situation.

They all missed their homes and families, but having friends to talk to made the difficult times easier to bear. Torbjoern and a few others were assigned to the sewing room. One of the men was a qualified tailor. Under his guidance they learned a new trade! Torbjoern considered himself very lucky to be placed there because others had to work outside in freezing weather. One of the Nesttun-Boys, Kåre Bergesen, was an unlucky one and his health suffered. He didn’t die in Vechta but in Kaisheim in Bavaria which was their next destination. They arrived there on May 17th 1944 – Norway’s Constitution Day.

Torbjoern’s Story – Underground work, and Kiel Concentration Camp

This is Torbjoern as he is today – 90 years old and still going strong.In 1940 he was very young, but he wanted to do his bit and make Norway free again. Like many others he joined the Kristian Stein organisation. Torbjoern became one of the brave young men who transported people, by rowing boat from a hidden cove, to small vessels that were anchored ready to cross the North Sea to England and safety. These were men the Germans suspected of participating in sabotage against them, and they had to get away. He and a friend also hid in the undergrowth and photographed the German ships arriving. These pictures and necessary data were sent over to the UK. He was arrested the same night as the other Nesttun-Boys, October 23rd 1941. They all spent the next nine months at Ulven Leir (camp). Torbjoern was arrested because he was a member of the Kristian Stein organisation which was illegal, but did not carry a death sentence. They didn’t know about his other activities. If they had he would not be alive today.

I have already written about the journey to Oslo in ‘My Father’s Story’ so I will concentrate my writing to what was different for Torbjoern, and his memories.

He recalls that my father was taken ill with Typhoid fever while in Kiel and that he spent several weeks or months in a prison hospital. They were all placed in solitary confinement and this was a dreadful experience for everybody. The cells had to be scrubbed and polished every day, and some of the guards were particularly brutal and always found faults with the work they had done. Torbjoern never knew what he had done to upset one of these fanatical guards, but as punishment he was brought to the basement and thrown into a pitch-dark cell with no windows. Electric light was not permitted, and he had to strip naked every night, neatly fold his clothes and place them by the cell door. His bed was the bare floor – he was not even provided with a straw mattress or a blanket.  His days  and nights were spent daydreaming about home and family, fishing trips and the good times. He was beginning to lose touch with reality and had no idea how long he was there. One slice og mouldy bread and some bad tasting coffee was the day’s food ration. Suddenly one day the person in overall charge of the cells opened the door and asked: “Why are you here?”  Torbjoern didn’t know  and his answer was: “I have no idea”. He was  escorted back to his previous cell  and was given another job to do. He says this ‘rescuer’ is the only man he would have liked to shake hands with after the war ended.

A photo of Kiel jail in 1945, after it was destroyed by the Allies.

Golden Wedding and introduction to Torbjoern’s Story

Ron and I celebrated our golden wedding in September 2010. We had a big party with family and friends. My cousin Aase and her husband, Gunnar, came from Norway to be with us which made it special. Gunnar noticed the seven names on the back of  a wooden carving. This was made when ‘the Nesttun-Boys’ were imprisoned at Ulven Leir (camp) for nine months in 1941/42. He looked at the names and said one of the men is still alive and well, and he knew of him. His name is Torbjoern Oevsttun and he  is  90 years old. He was by far the youngest of the group, only 20 when war broke out. After they returned to Bergen Gunnar contacted Torbjoern and asked if he was willing to chat with them about the war years. He agreed willingly, and Aase and Gunnar went to see Torbjoern and his wife one afternoon. They brought an audio recorder along, and after the chat sent the whole two-hour recording to me on a CD.

 I have listened to it many times, and decided to write about his experiences. Most of the time the seven men were together – sent from one concentration camp to the next. However, there were things I never had heard before, and it was interesting to get a personal view from a man who lived through such terrible times and is still alive in 2011, and can remember in such detail. My father died in 1991, age 87. I never asked him enough questions when I was younger. It is amazing how we change as we age! Being young but having the wisdom and understanding of the old would be wonderful.–