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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                                                          

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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.

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!

The families they left behind.

After my father’s arrest, and that eventful day he was sent by train into the unknown, we settled down to some sort of normal life again. The future was uncertain and times were hard. Rationing was really biting by now -1942 – and money was, for us, in very short supply.

I loved my grandparents, and was particularly fond of granddad Ole, my father’s dad. He was jolly and kind. He also had a lovely voice and I often sat by his side when he sang to me. But it was my mother who had to take charge of the household and make all the decisions after my father ‘s arrest.  The Germans treated us reasonably well, as long as we ‘towed the line’. It was forbidden to keep a radio in the house, so my grandfather buried our set near a big tree in the garden. It never worked once it was dug up after the war. So, you see, we had no idea about world events and how the war was going, except for those brave souls who listened to shortwave radios in secret and related the latest news. 

My aunt Selma, who was in charge of a hotel in Stavanger, asked my mother to help out during the summer holiday in 1942. This hotel was occupied by German officers, but my aunt and all the staff were ordered to remain. She did her best and found that some of the officers were kind and understanding and were not Nazi-friendly. In fact many hated the war and lost their own families during the numerous bombing raids over Germany.

 Late one evening my mother and I boarded a ship in Bergen and sailed overnight to Stavanger in convoy. All went well but I was very ill. For days before we departed I was in bed with a high fever. It turned out that I had contracted diphtheria. As soon as we disembarked  it was straight to hospital for young Elin, and there I remained for three weeks. The isolation ward I was in was full of sick children, and some died. I was lucky and had no lasting problems afterwards. We stayed in Stavanger for several weeks after I had recovered. My mother worked hard but we loved being with aunt Selma.

Local opposition after the invasion.

Most of the fighting took place in the north of Norway. Many people lost their lives in towns like Narvik, well-known for its iron ore production. This was a product the Germans were in great need of. The Swedish border is only a few miles away, and the iron ore was sent by train across to neutral Sweden. Honningsvåg, which is one of Norway’s most northern towns, was burnt down, and had to be completely rebuilt after the war. On a cruise to the far north in 2003 we stopped at Honningsvåg, now a thriving community full of colourful houses. Only the church – a miracle really – was still standing after the great fire destroyed the town. The British and Norwegian forces fought hard and sank a few warships. But the Germans were too strong and on June 10th 1940 they capitulated and all of Norway was under German command.

King Håkon VII, Crown Prince Olav and the Norwegian Parliament fled to England. They ruled, unofficially, from London until the war ended.

Vidkun Quisling was Norway’s most hated man. He was appointed by Hitler himself to be Prime Minister of Norway.

 Here is Quisling with his hero – Hitler

 King Håkon VII was a Danish Prince before being asked to become King of Norway in 1905.           

It was strange how life almost ‘became normal’ in spite of being occupied. My friends and I were very young, and accepted the situation, like children normally do. Our parents were there and we were well looked after. The Germans were not brutal in their approach towards the general population, and tried to make friends with us children. This would naturally benefit them in the long run. We were blond, blue-eyed and of the same Germanic race. But the story was quite different for those – who in German eyes – became traitors. As soon as the started the Norwegian resistance movement came into being and groups were formed, ready to fight the intruders.