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Home at long last

On the 16th of August 1945, after ten weeks pampering, and the best and most welcoming treatment anyone could offer – it was time to say goodbye and return  home. Their Swiss friends came to the train station to bring flowers and wish them well and the long journey to Norway began. Physically most of them were in good shape. The nutritious food and warm sunshine had given them renewed health and a suntan as well. But the mental scars after all the suffering remained. Many had severe nightmares afterwards and imagined they were back in prison. The journey north took them through Germany, and they had an overnight stop at a school in Hamburg. The city was in ruins. Next day they passed through Denmark and Sweden. Both in Gothenburg and Copenhagen parties were held in their honour. St. Sunniva’s school in Oslo became the last overnight stop before the triumphant journey over the mountains to Bergen began.

Ca 1500 men belonged to the Kristian Stein organisation. 204 were arrested and sent to camps in Germany. 57 died, either from hunger, mistreatment or they were executed.

We didn’t know exactly when the homecoming would take place, but we were told by telephone shortly before. I was staying at Voss (50 miles along the train-route from Bergen) with my cousin Aud-Gerd for a week when a call from my mother  told us to hurry to station – the train was on its way. I packed my bag, and hoped to be allowed to ride home with my father! I’ll never forget my father’s face when he saw his family standing there. He didn’t expect to see his own daughter at Voss and mistook me for my cousin. But once this misunderstanding was resolved he never let go my hand. Yes, I was on the train and it is a journey never to be forgotten. People lined the route and waved and sang. My mother, grandparents, dad’s sisters and all the family were waiting as we left the train at Nesttun (our little town 6 miles south of Bergen). My father had been worried about his parents, thinking they may not have survived the war, but he was pleasantly surprised. Granddad died when I was 11 years old in 1947  and granny when I was 14.

The celebrations continued for quite a while and my father was remarkably well. He found a job with the Electricity Board after a few months, and worked there  until he retired at age 67.

It wasn’t until I became older myself that I really began to take an interest in what went on during those years. If I had done so I am sure I could have written more extensively about this. Why do we always leave it too late? There are so many things I would have liked to ask my father about now. He died in 1991, but there is one man – whose name is Torbjorn who was with my father throughout those prison-years, and he is still alive. My next POST will be his story.

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Pampered in Switzerland – From Hell to Heaven – Summer 1945

Switzerland and Sweden were the only European nations to remain neutral during the second world war, and did not suffer the hardships the rest of Europe had to cope with.  Schaffhausen, a town in nearby Switzerland built a camp and invited the  Norwegian ex-prisoners to spend time there. They were too weak to cope with the journey to Norway at that point. On the 31st of May they left the living hell, called Dachau, behind and were transported to ‘heaven’ according to all the men. After a 2-3 week quarantine they were free to go where they wanted. Many trips were arranged and they saw a lot of this little country’s beauty-spots. Dinners and dances were arranged too. My father was always a stylish and good dancer and he enjoyed every moment. Many of the Swiss people they met remained in touch for many years.

Back home we waited longingly for news. I don’t know how soon after their arrival in Switzerland  we actually were able to hear a broadcast from the camp, where each man said a few words to his family, but probably no more than a couple of weeks. Sadly, one man named Hans Hauge was very ill. He was carried in on a stretcher and managed to say a few words, but  died soon afterwards. The wives whose husbands had died had been notified before the broadcast. I can remember we all met at a friend’s house (where the radio worked) – and the tears ran freely as our loved ones said they were all right and would soon be home.                                                   

Here they all are – Swiss and Norwegians together. My father is standing sixth from the left in the fourth row.

By now they were in good condition physically, but it took a long time to fully recover, and some never did.

Dachau – Hell on Earth – April 1945.

My father and his friends were transported from Kaisheim to Dachau, near Munich, on April 9th 1945. There were long delays and detours between Donauworth and Munich. They sat for hours on a crowded train which was meant to bring them straight into the camp, but the line was blocked. The weary men were told to get out and walk. It soon became obvious why they had to walk. A long line of goods wagons were stationary and in front of some they saw piles of dead bodies. More were being thrown from the train as they passed by. As soon as they entered the camp the allied planes flew over, in the direction of Munich. Before long they saw smoke from the burning buildings in the city. The exhausted men stood for hours, and more and more prisoners arrived. Many were barely able to stand upright. Some had come from Austria and had walked for several weeks almost without food and water. Many died during the afternoon.

Late evening they were finally escorted to their barrack. The room measured 10×9 metres and was three metres high. A total of 400 men were stuffed into this room. The bunks were in three tiers and measured 80 cm each,  four men had to share each bed. My poor father, who happened to be placed on the outside of the top bunk, fell to the floor many times. It did some permanent damage to his back later in life!

The food was terrible. Breakfast consisted of 1/2 litre of black coffee, lunch was a thin cabbage soup. The evening meal consisted of more black coffee and a tiny piece of mouldy bread. The men became zombie-like. The desire to survive was still strong, in spite of all the lice and terrible conditions. In their heart they knew the war had to be nearing the end. Every day more and more prisoners arrived and the camp was full to overflow. Piles of dead bodies were left outside most barracks every mornings . Emaciated, but still alive, prisoners had to dig mass graves and bury the dead of the night.

On April 29th the white flag was raised from the administration building. At 6 pm the American forces came through the gates. But some of the SS-men began retaliating. They were soon overpowered, and when asked by the cheering prisoners “What shall we do with them?”, the answer was unanimous – “Shoot the Bastards”, and that’s what they did – then and there.

Firing squad – SS-men being shot.

Some of the guards put on prison uniforms or tried to flee, but to no avail. They were caught and dealt with. The Americans were horrified at what they saw. It has been written about by many of the soldiers present at the time in later life. They found mass graves outside the camp because the aim was to exterminate all the prisoners at Dachau. 400 a day were shot and buried. More about this later, because I have some additional information.

On May 17th my father and his friends were still in Dachau, but the conditions were greatly improved. They had been moved to the former SS-officers quarters and received decent food. Some of the men went to work in the sewing room and made Norwegian flags and a banner. May 17th is Norway’s Constitution-day, and a very important time for all its citizens. The men were gradually getting stronger and feeling better, but not well enough to go straight from Dachau to Norway.

Springtime in Norway and the war ends – 1945

I celebrated my 9th birthday on April 15th 1945. My kind and generous mother let me have a party even though it was hard to find enough ingredients to make a cake. But celebrate we did, and had a great time.

 Everyone became aware that the war was drawing to a rapid close, but the families of the Nesttun-Boys could not feel the same elation. All through the war we had no idea if the men were alive or dead. Never a word about their whereabouts or condition. This was because they were political prisoners and not covered by the Geneva conventions. I can remember telling my mother “I just know dad is alive, I can feel it inside”

The week before peace was declared my mother and Marit’s mother sat for hours sewing and chatting while they tried to get our national costumes ready for the ‘freedom parade’ they knew would soon take place.

 Here is a photo of us taken by a ‘proper’ photographer on May 8th when we went to Bergen with our mothers to watch the parade. People were jubilant, dressed in their national costumes (always popular on special days in Norway) and the red, white and blue flags were blowing in the breeze. Never has a nation been so patriotic and proud.

My grandparents were getting older, but not in bad health. I recall many family parties and much joy during the next few weeks, but the fear and worry about dad and what had happened to him and his friends never left us.

Onwards to Vechta and Kaisheim.

My father and his friends left Kiel on January 17th 1944. The destination was Vechta. They figured it must be quite a long trek because they were given bread and coffee for the journey. They walked through the ruined city and saw dejected and sad people and bomb craters everywhere. It made them aware that they were lucky not to have been hit while in the Kiel Prison! People were dragging their few belongings on carts or in prams with nowhere to go.

The wind was howling as the men marched from Vechta station to their ‘new home’. It was mid-winter and freezing cold. They were divided into groups of 4-6 depending on the size of the cells. The cold was overwhelming and they put on all the clothing available and went to bed. The treatment was much like Kiel prison, but the soup was thinner and the mouldy bread slices smaller. They  thought they had lost all the weight it was possible to lose, but a further 4-5 kilo- disappeared during the four months they spent in this terrible place. The work handed out was different too. Some were told to make brushes, others became tailors, and a third group helped build a new barrack. My father’s friend, Kåre, was in this third group. He died later on, in Kaisheim, and they knew it was due to the harsh conditions he had suffered in Vechta.

The men became aware that the war was not going the way the Germans wanted. There were daily bombing raids, and the local people suffered dreadfully. There is no mercy in war-time!

The prisoners were loaded onto a train on May 17th 1944. This is Norway’s Independence Day, and one can only imagine how they all felt – not knowing what was in store. The windows were tightly shut, and they sat there like ‘sardines in a tin’ for 48 hours. It was pure torture and when they arrived at their destination several men collapsed. The city they had arrived at was Donauworth. The new prison was an old monastery in Kaisheim. The thick walls made the place feel very cold inside, whilst the nice warm weather had arrived and outside was pleasant. Kaisheim, in Bavaria, was the best prison they stayed in, by far. The food was better and they had the companionship of friends. During the eleven months there several men dies. They were all nice family men with wives and children at home.

After two weeks with no work, and too much time on their hands, they were finally let out. Belgian prisoners, who had also come from Vechta, joined them. Together they set up a choir and were even allowed to start exercise classes. The poet – Alf Seljenes, recited a poem about Bergen and all the things he was going to do when he was free again.

Towards Christmas 1944 they were moved to a large room and were pleased to see they were able to sleep on proper beds again. The atmosphere was easier than it had been because everyone realised the war had to be drawing to a close. The signs were all around them, and even the German guards were less hostile.

On the 7th of April 1945 private belongings were handed over – they were on the move again – but where to? By now the Allies had moved so close and bombed Donauworth so often that the whole town was one big ruin. If their journey had been delayed by just one day the awful place, Dachau,  – the next destination could have been avoided. The Americans took control of Donauworth shortly after they left.

Back home in Bergen – 1942 – 1943 – 1944.

For those left behind, wondering if husbands or fathers were still alive, the daily routine continued (as it has to).

Bergen is a main port, and because of this it was often under attack. The Allies were on constant alert because the Germans considered the city and its location to be  of  importance. They built a U-boat base and had ‘floating dock’  near Bergen.

On the 4th of October 1944, as the children of Holen School had arrived for their lessons, British planes flew over Bergen. The intended target was the U-boat base, but the bombs went astray and the school took a direct hit. Panic broke out, and many did not reach the safety of the bomb shelter. 61 children, 2 teachers and the caretaker were killed, and many injured. The Germans lost 12 men. My cousin, Odd, was one of the many volunteers who help dig out the dead and injured children.

Sometimes it was  accidental, and not deliberate bombing, which shook our old city. On April 20th 1944 at 8.30 in the morning, a Dutch ship, ‘Voorbode’, heavily laden with explosives, was being repaired in Bergen harbour when it suddenly exploded. Many people were killed immediately and some were badly hurt or blinded. The ship’s anchor was blown 400 metres up the mountain and landed in a private garden. Fires broke out many places, and the old Hanseatic Houses in the harbour caught fire. The blast created a tsunami-like effect. People said they could briefly see the bottom of the fjord before the waves spouted up in the air.

The worst act of reprisal was the assault on the small fishing village of Telavåg in the spring of 1942. Two Gestapo officers had been shot and killed by two men who had been brought over from the Shetland Islands. The whole grown-up male population were sent to concentration camps, where 31 died. The women and children was  interned and Telavåg was levelled to the ground. It was rebuilt after the war, and a museum in honour and remembrance of the people  has been created.

But as a family we survived. My mother and her friends complained about the lack of good coffee. Food was certainly in short supply and sugar unobtainable. The wives of the Nesttun-Boys met regularly, which helped them all. For us it was a constant struggle to make ends meet. My grandparents meagre pension didn’t go far, but from time to time a man, I was told was uncle Bjarne, came to our house and gave my mother a few kroner. I was never allowed to tell anyone about this. To this day I don’t know where the money came from, and who the man was. Could it have been someone from the Stein-organisation? Those who managed to avoid being captured continued to work illegally throughout the war-years.

A Prison Camp in Germany

Once the prisoners had disembarked they were driven through a big city. It was only a short journey, and soon the gates of their new ‘home’  opened. It was a huge camp with a large watch  tower in the middle. It turned out to be Kiel they had been brought to. Most of them were placed in single cells which lined a long corridor, on the fourth floor. My father inspected his cell as soon as it was light enough to see. It was tiny, the walls were white-washed and the room measured ca 2 x 3.5 metres. A toilet bucket stood in the corner and he saw a wash basin and a soap dish plus a narrow bed. They were left in solitary confinement 23 hours a day, but were let out for short periods. No communication was allowed and they had to walk around in circles, one metre apart, until they became dizzy. One of the mindless jobs the guards told them to perform was to rub two bricks together and collect the dust in a bowl. They were all very lonely and sad, but somehow managed to talk to each other after the lights had been turned off.

My father kept these photos of mother and me during the hard times, and he said it kept him going.

That first Christmas in the camp was dreadful for all the men. On Christmas Eve (which is the main day for Norwegians) Alf Seljenes, a poet amongst the men, recited a poem he had composed. They stood by the windows facing the corridor and listened until tears ran freely. This is what he said (translated, but impossible to rhyme) by me.

“What have you done for Norway, for Norway the sacred ground?

What have you done for Norway, where your mother and father were born?

Unfortunately I did very little, because prison camp was my fate, but maybe that is the hardest and most difficult of all to come to terms with?

To sit here with bars across the windows, totally alone, is real torture. Oh, how I wish to be back in Norway and to be free.

Celebrating Christmas behind the prison walls in a foreign land can make one question and wonder, and also makes a poor man feel miserable and sad.

Try to be steadfast and strong, and remember the bough that bends is better than the bough that breaks.

This should teach us all, even though it is hard to do, to love your fellow-man, and forgive the enemy too.

And so, we wish all our loved ones a happy and joyful Christmas, and hope your stomachs are not as empty and hollow as ours are.

Accept our very best greetings, and we know we have yours too – Every beating heart at home will wish us peace for Christmas.

So, forget all your sorrows, both physical and mental anguish. We shall all meet again in Norway when the world is free.”

Seljenes survived the war and some of his many poems have been written down and kept. It was forbidden to have pen and paper which made it more difficult of course, but a good memory helped.

Alf Seljenes wrote this prologue in memory of their friends and fellow countrymen who had been condemned to death or already been shot, on New Year’s Eve in 1942.

After all the lights had been turned off, and the windows were tightly shut and dark, Seljenes recited by memory, and everyone could hear him:

Prologue in honour of our condemned friends. 

Friends! On this, the last day of the year, I think you will all agree it is a day we will never forget.

Please my friends, stay with me and fulfil my wish – let us honour those who have been killed. So, I will say, as we stand all alone by our windows, in exactly two minutes, remember the fallen. Straighten your backs and keep still when you hear my voice:

Rasmussen, Gjertsen and Offerdal – we remember you in our hearts. All of those, who never faltered, but were taken away: Iversen, Johnsen and Svanevik. We remember Garbo and Skjold. Many more have fallen and suffered and gave their lives. We remember Duesund and Vang and many more.

 I don’t believe anyone, from pole to pole, has been honoured like this. We stand here by our prison window and ‘give them our soul’.

Friends! Stand at attention – let the torches of honour shine.

We wish to say Rest in Peace.

The days and months passed slowly. The long, light spring evenings came and the cherry tree in the prison yard was in full bloom. Kristian Stein, the leader of the organisation, plus five others were condemned to death and executed. My father contracted typhoid fever and spent many weeks in a prison hospital. Cod liver oil, given by a kind guard, saved his life, he reckons, and he was eventually returned to his lonely cell. For a while he was plumper than the others, but the weight soon dropped off once he was back on meagre rations!