A brief history of Judaism in Norway
Norway’s small Jewish community has come a long way from Article Two
M. Michael Brady
Historically, Judaism was long repressed in Norway. In 1687, King Christian V (of Denmark and Norway) enacted the Norwegian Law in which it was stated that Jews could stay in Norway only with a Royal Letter of Safe Conduct. The Second Article of the Norwegian Constitution of 1814 furthered that restriction and tightened it by banning Jews outright, with no legal recourse, as to a Letter of Safe Conduct. In 1845, a “Nonconformist Law” (permitting worship not conforming to the constitutional specification of Evangelical Lutheranism as the state religion) granted religious freedom to Christian faiths but not to non-Christian ones. For Jews, the constitutional ban remained in force six more years, until it was rescinded in 1851.
In 1852, the first Jew, Abraham Vollman from Lübeck, settled in Christiania (now Oslo) and opened a shop. In 1892, the country’s first “nonconformist congregation,” the Mosaiske Trossamfund (The Mosaic Community) was founded in Oslo. The Jewish population then grew steadily to 2,100 in 1940.
After the German invasion of April 9, 1940, the government capitulated and left Oslo to set up the Norwegian Government in Exile in London. In Norway, a collaborationist government headed by Norwegian politician Vidkun Quisling and Reichkommissar Josef Terboven took over the country. In 1942, the occupying Germans required that Jews be sent to concentration camps. The collaborationist government complied. It willingly participated in the Holocaust by deporting 772 Jews to the Auschwitz death camp.
Only 32 Norwegian Jews survived Auschwitz to return to Norway. As most had been in their 20s when Auschwitz was freed in January 1945, in time they passed away, one by one. The last was Samuel Steinmann, who died at the age of 91 on May 1 this year. On May 4, he was buried with honor at a state funeral attended by King Harald, Prime Minister Erna Solberg, Defense Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide, and Storting President Olemic Thommessen. The presence of the notables reflected respect for Steinmann’s considerable contributions to making the history of the Holocaust known to postwar generations, for which in 2012 he had been awarded the King’s Medal of Merit in Gold, eighth in the Order of Precedence of 48 Norwegian Decorations. Moreover, in that year he had witnessed then Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg’s formal apology on behalf of the Norwegian government for the Nazi-organized deportation of Jews to death camps in 1942.
Ruth Maier: a legacy in words and bronze
Ruth Maier was born in 1920 into a Jewish family in Vienna. Following the Anchluss of Austria in 1938, she fled to Norway. She took up writing and became a close friend of Gunvor Hofmo, a native Norwegian who was to become a recognized poet. She began keeping dairies in 1933 in Vienna and continued in Norway until she was deported to Auchwitz and killed a few days after arriving there in 1942.
Gunvor Hofmo kept Ruth Maier’s dairies. Years later she showed them to fellow poet Jon Erik Vold, who set about translating and compiling them into a book. It was slow work, as to understand Ruth’s words fully, poet Vold consulted various sources and visited Ruth’s sister, who had escaped the Holocaust by fleeing to England. Some ten years after he started, Vold published Ruth Maiers dagbok, and three years later, the English translation, Ruth Maier’s Dairy: A Young Girl’s Life Under Nazism was published.
Before her arrest, Ruth Maier stood as a model for sculptor Gustav Vigeland, for “Overrrasket” (Surprised) depicting a nude girl. It long was one of the uncast works in the Vigeland Museum basement, but in 2002 it was cast in bronze and now stands alongside other Vigeland works in Frogner Park.
Even as it happened, there had been widespread recognition of the horrific wrong of the deportation at the hands of the collaborationist government. During the war, the Norwegian home front had successfully smuggled 925 Jews across the Swedish border to safety. In Trondheim, the Methodist congregation gave Jews a place to secretly worship after their synagogue was occupied and throughout the occupation hid the Jewish congregation’s books and papers.
After the war, in 1947 the Norwegian government agreed to accept 600 Jewish refugees, most of whom emigrated in 1948 to Israel or other countries. In 1956, a large group of Jews fled the Soviet invasion of Hungary by immigrating to Norway. Likewise, in 1967 many Jews fled the anti-Semitic unrest in Poland by immigrating to Norway.
Today, most of the 1,500-some Jews in the country live in the greater Oslo area, which has the country’s principal synagogue, the Mosaiske Trossamfund. There is also a small community of about 120 in Trondheim, whose synagogue is the only one known to have once served as a railway station. It is the world’s fifth northernmost synagogue, behind the northernmost one in Murmansk and the synagogues in Fairbanks and Nome, Alaska. In the Oslo area there are two smaller assemblies, Lubavitch of Norway, an Orthodox Hasidic movement, and B’nei Akiva Oslo, a Zionist youth movement.
Norwegian Jewish culture and history are well documented in two museums. The Jewish Museum in Trondheim is located in the same building as the synagogue; when opened in 1997, it was Norway’s first immigrant museum. The Jewish Museum in Oslo is located in a former synagogue in the central downtown area. Both offer publications in Norwegian, Hebrew, and English.
Further reading, viewing, and visiting
• What Happened in Norway, a printed version of the Remember Us Unto Life exhibition of the wartime plight of the Jews that opened November 26, 2012, in the Jewish Museum in Oslo, 48 pages, European A4 format (about 8 x 11½ in.), with many color illustrations, available on the museum website at www.jodiskmuseumoslo.no.
• The Saturday, February 21, 2015 Ring of Peace event, when at the initiative of Muslim youth of the city, 1,300 people joined hands to form a ring at the Oslo Synagogue, to “say no to Antisemitism and no to Islamophobia,” was covered by NRK TV, text in English and video with English subtitles at: www.nrk.no/norge/1.300-people-formed-_ring-of-peace_-outside-oslo-synagogue-after-young-muslims-initiative-1.12222956.
• The Center for Studies of the Holocaust and Religious Minorities on the Bygdøy peninsula in Oslo has a permanent exhibition of images, items, and exhibitions relevant to the Holocaust and acts as a meeting place for research on relevant matters of repression.
This article originally appeared in the July 3, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.