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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                                                          

Bali to Barrier Reef. Kakabia and Banda Islands

On the 23rd of November 1996 the Caledonian Star dropped anchor off the little Kakabia island. It was time to fit in a cruise around this interesting island, and a fleet of small black zodiac, seating about eight people, began the tour. It was a hot and humid day but the rain stayed away. Overhead we saw a frigate bird in all its glory, looking fit and healthy. We felt quite privileged being there and having a knowledgable expert in the boat with us. He knew all about the birds and wildlife in these waters.

Red-footed boobies were spotted on the island. We went ashore for a rather brief visit before heading back to the ship, lunch and a snorkel session for those interested (I was – and saw lots of brilliant coloured fish). It was a wonderful experience. I am no strong swimmer, but we all wore life vests  and simply floated on top of the water admiring the brilliant under-water life we don’t even realise is there.

The next day was spent at sea – just relaxing by the little deck-pool, eating and drinking and chatting with newfound friends. Very pleasant indeed.

On Monday 25th of November we dropped anchor off the Banda islands, in the Banda sea. The Gunung Api volcano overshadows Banda and has erupted many times. The latest eruption took place in 1988. We all gathered on deck as we approached Bandaneria. This is where the majority of the population live, and the active volcano is only 650 metres away! There are ten small attractive island which make up the 60 square km archipelago. The sea here is very deep, more than 6500 meters of ocean water.

We felt very honoured indeed as we approached shore and were met by traditional war canoes. They circled our ship several times. It was a wonderful welcome. Theses colourful little boats and  singing and happy-looking crew seemed glad to see us. Not many visitors come this far. (I really wonder if that has changed now, all these years later?) Little boys dived from the boats and were so at home it the water I felt quite envious.

We went ashore for a guided tour. The oldest couple onboard were presented with gifts, consisting of spices grown on the island. A brass band (not very good!) played for us. Their only ‘properly presented’ tune was ‘Onwards Christian Soldiers’.But it was a great experience. The band followed us around town, and played the same tune over and over again.

 Ron and I walked around the market and chatted with some of the locals, The children were lovely and eager to be photographed.  The parents didn’t mind at least to have their children’s photos taken.   The market was scruffy and the fish on sale full of flies, but people looked fit enough.  The climate here is hot and humid all the year round.

These isolated islands were discovered by the Dutch in 1512  when they went in search of spices. They found an abundance of nutmeg and mace growing there which brought great profits to those who were able to control production and trade. Now a days they hope that tourism and fishing can stop people from leaving. The islands have great potential and will hopefully benefit by  increased tourist trade and the excellent fishing and diving facilities.

An exotic holiday in 1996 – Bali to Barrier Reef – continued – from Medang to Komodo Island.

It was early morning when  we dropped anchor near the tiny Medang Island. I don’t think they were used to having many visitors because people flocked onto the beach when we came ashore in the little zodiacs. Young children came swimming towards us, stark naked, and the young girls had their faces pained white with some kind of rice paint. Medang had, at that time, a population of 1300 of mixed origin. These villagers were all muslims. There was a mosque on the island and one school with four teachers. Chickens and goats were the main source of meat, and coconuts were an essential ingredient of their lives. We saw television masts in various places and  realised they were not totally isolated. The main activity on the island was the collection of Agar-Agar. This algor algae was collected by boat, brought ashore, dried on the beach and split into piles by colour. It was sold to local traders who again sold to companies producing pharmaceutical gel-caps.

I sometimes wonder what it is like there now – I bet many of the children have gone elsewhere and life is very different. It seemed such a remote island, but the modern world is catching up with everybody these days. For us it was a fascinating stopover, and the children were keen to show the visitors their homes and beach – all white and sandy and pristine.

We left Medang and sailed to a nearby  island named Satonda. It is un-inhabited and there is a brackish lake there which was formed in 1815 when the nearby Tambora volcano on Sumbawa island exploded. The lake is said to have ‘rejuvinating’ powers, and will take ten years off a person’s age. Well, you can imagine we all wanted to have a go, but were sorely disappointed – we looked just as old after the swim as we did before!!

 Something rather extraordinarily happened just before the tropical darkness descended . We were anchored  near Satonda Island and looked towards land, and saw a large colony of fruit bats (flying foxes) taking off from the island. They have a wing span of 5.6 feet. They roost here during the day and fly across to the nearby Sumbawa island  where they feast on the fruit trees. These bats are reddish-brown in colour and are said to be not true bats, but primates that have developed the ability to fly. Their sense of smell and eye sight are well-developed, and they use sonar to navigate and hunt their prey.

After a swim or snorkel in the warm blue waters, it was time to meet the captain and crew during the evening’s cocktail party, and a chance to dress up and ‘look pretty’.

Friday 22nd of November: This was the main highlight for many of the passengers! We arrived at Komodo Island – famed for its giant beasts – the Komodo Dragons! This monitor lizard can grow up to eight feet in length, is exceedingly ferocious and will eat anything it can get hold of. This particular type is found only on Komodo and a near-by island. Their main preys are deer, goats  and ground nesting birds. But they are known to eat a straying person or two as well! People live in a few small villages on the island and have to be on the look-out because the Dragons come very close to their houses looking for food – and a small straying child!

A native guide came to the ship and led the 45 minute walk to the viewing platform, where we could safely observe the dragons. It was a very hot and humid morning, I remember. We saw interesting birds and nervous-looking deer as we trotted along. Poor things, they come at the top of the dragon’s gourmet menu. What a precarious existence. The viewing platform has been erected for the visiting tourists, and a small lake created in order to attract the Rusa deer, which the dragons prefer to eat. The way it is done is to bite the deer with their bacterial-filled mouth. This will poison the poor creatures and they die a slow and horrible death. That’s when the dragons come to enjoy their dinner! Not a very endearing animal I must say, but it was a fascinating visit. The guide carried a ‘forked tool’ in case a straying dragon came across our path. No-one appeared, fortunately, but we did see the tail end of some as they rested in a hole (lair) under a shady tree.

 After a delicious lunch onboard some of us went snorkelling in the afternoon. The sea was lovely, warm and blue. It was a great place to see the coral reef and the colourful fish beneath us. Next stop: Kakabia Island.

This is Komodo Island as seen from the ship.

An exotic holiday – from Bali to Barrier Reef

After all this writing about the Second World War I think it is time I try to produce a more cheerful story. Ron and I made up our minds some years ago that we wanted to ‘see the world’ and visit foreign lands while we could still afford it and were fit and well. After all, seeing new places and meeting people with different customs and outlook would  be exciting and beneficial we felt. I always dreamt about tropical countries  as a child so this would be ‘a dream come true’ for a lass from Norway. The book that made me want to travel was one called ‘Betty on a Coral Island’ which I read as an eleven year old girl. Fancy that – I still remember, and in my mind I can  picture this girl and wanting to experience her adventures.

 We lost our beloved dog Mac in 1996 and felt sad and upset. So we decided to treat ourselves and have a very expensive and different holiday. The Daily Telegraph had an add in the travel section about a cruise on board a small 120 passenger ship. This cruise originated in Bali and ended up in Cairns, Australia sailing through Indonesia. (It was quite safe at that time). I don’t like the big ‘monster-ship’ they have these days – too big and impersonal for my liking.

 In late November, when the weather was horrible and wet in England, we flew to Bali from London. Hilton Hotel, in the exclusive resort of Nusa Dua, was our home for three nights. What luxury!! It was so grand and big and warm. Yes, we thought, we like this! Various trips were arranged from the hotel and we saw as much as possible. We sat under the palm trees and listened to the birdsong and enjoyed a drink or two. Bali is full of temples and shrines and the people worship many Gods. Everywhere we went  people were welcoming and friendly.

This was our route – sailing through Indonesia and entering the Barrier Reef. 

On Wednesday the 20th of November, late afternoon, we boarded our ship MS Caledonian Star  and were escorted to our little cabin. I must say, this ship was quite old and not  as grand as some, but the places we visited made it all worth while. Many of the passengers had come straight from the airport and were tired after the long flight. We were served coffee in the lounge,  had the lifeboat drill, and relaxed for the evening.

As you know, Indonesia is full of islands, small and large. We left Bali and headed for a tiny island called Medang. In the next instalment I will carry on with our various stops!

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.