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.

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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.–

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.

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.