The Search for Thor

Hammerfest

Hammerfest

Source: Wikimedia
Hammerfest is Norway’s northernmost city.

by Randi Millman-Brown

Hammerfest was the next destination on my journey to find out what happened to my great-uncle Thor Jensen. Thor moved to Hammerfest in December 1940, after accepting the position of fullmektig av 1. Klasse (department head or senior supervisor) at a bank. This is where things get complicated.

Hammerfest is considered the world’s northernmost town (965 kilometers or 600 miles north of the Arctic Circle), and one of the oldest towns in Norway. I arrived in Alta, Norway, to catch the ferry to Hammerfest on a sunny afternoon after a short flight from Oslo. I took the ferry because I wanted to experience the landscape, just as Thor did when he took the ferry from Hammerfest to Alta at the start of his 700-mile hiking trip in the summer of 1941. The landscape must have looked almost identical to what I saw on my trip, barren mountains and hillsides along the entire route. Not much had changed in 76 years.

Several places were on my list to visit: The Museum of Reconstruction for Finnmark and Northern Troms, the church records office, and the Finnmark Dagbladet office (the local newspaper). I made arrangements to visit the museum, and the museum’s host, Doris Wøhncke, let me set up a work area in the café. I visited the museum several times over the course of my stay in Hammerfest and was graciously provided with vafler and kaffe. The museum had quite a few interesting maps and displays, which I photographed and used for my research. This information was helpful, since Hammerfest was burned to the ground in the scorched-earth campaign by the retreating Nazis, and most town records were lost. All police and hospital records were destroyed, or at least that is what I have been told by both the local police and hospital administrations. I had hoped to find out how Thor died in these records.

The only building left standing after the scorched-earth campaign was the town’s chapel. I thought perhaps the church office might have some records, and after speaking to one of the pastors (their office was upstairs in the museum building), it became clear any records that might be helpful were not there but held in the archives in Tromsø.

At the newspaper office, I tried to find the obituary for Thor or at least a notice about an accident (we do not know how he died—there was a theory that he committed suicide but no evidence of it). I looked through the newspaper for Oct. 6, 1941, the day he died, and for the following week, but there were no obituaries or accident notices. The employee at the newspaper office suggested I contact the Oslo newspaper since that is where Thor was from. I contacted Aftenposten via chat and was lucky to be able to make contact with someone who found Thor’s obituary (see photo). But it didn’t have the one piece of information I needed, his cause of death—it only said he died plutselig (suddenly).

But before I left Hammerfest to visit the national archives in Tromsø, I needed to understand how Thor was able to go on an extensive 700-mile hiking trip throughout Finnmark while under Nazi occupation, while there were travel restrictions and food rationing. I have the journal he wrote about his fottur, and I have so many questions. Wasn’t he nervous about the Nazi soldiers throughout Finnmark? Who was the woman he met, Ruth? Why did he ask her to marry him after knowing her for only a few days? And why and how did he die two weeks before their wedding? Mysteries abound.

Randi is an art historian, photographer, part-time genealogist, and writer living in Ithaca, N.Y. She can be contacted at rmillmanbrown@gmail.com.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 29, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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