It’s the walls that talk at Bergen’s Gestapo Museum
Not just a place of interesting artifacts
Don Pugnetti Jr
Gig Harbor, Wash.
No grand marquee graces this museum. The only mark that it’s there is a small, patinaed metal sign hanging next to the front door entrance, with “Gestapomuseet” in black letters. There is no lobby with eye-popping artifacts beckoning people toward exhibits. Inside the door is simply a narrow stairway to the upper floors.
But on the third floor and through another doorway, visitors encounter a gripping, emotional discovery of what it was like to face Gestapo interrogations and torture during Nazi Germany’s five-year occupation of Norway during World War II.
“This isn’t just a museum of interesting objects,” said Tor Jan Ropeid, who chairs the nonprofit organization that operates the Gestapo Museum located in downtown Bergen. “It’s the walls. In here, the walls talk to us.”
Just down a hallway from the entrance is a row of several dark, closet-sized rooms that served as holding cells for prisoners awaiting brutal interrogations. After the war when the building assumed its original uses, restaurants and a nightclub occupying space on street level used these rooms to store wine and left them unchanged from Gestapo hands.
When the museum ultimately took over the third-floor space in recent years, curators discovered prisoners’ inscriptions carved into the soft concrete walls of the one-time cells. There were names of loved ones, Bible verses, a poem and short messages. Traces of blood were found.
One inscription (translated from Norwegian) said it all: “Here, it is worse than hell.”
Certainly, the museum displays some relics – blackjacks, whips, and other instruments of torture – the Nazis left behind. But the museum is largely a blend of interactive technology and the well-preserved space revealing how this branch of the Nazi secret police carried out its brutal and tyrannical methods.
Ironically, the building itself was only a few months old when the German Wehrmacht invaded Norway on April 9, 1940, capturing and occupying Bergen, the capital, Oslo, and several ports along the west coast in just one day. The Bergen Chamber of Commerce built and owned the building for its offices. But the Gestapo wasted no time displacing the chamber and moving in.
The chamber of commerce’s gleaming new edifice at 10 Christian Michelsensgate in the heart of Bergen became known to Norwegians as Gestapohus, and they eventually dubbed it a “house of horror.”
After the war, the chamber of commerce took back the building for its uses and leased excess space to a variety of businesses and professional offices as well as the restaurants and nightclub. The chamber eventually sold the building in 2012, and a group of local historians and others recognized the historical and educational value of the building.
A private nonprofit foundation, Gestapo Museum Association, formed to lease the notorious third floor and transform it into a museum. It opened in June 2021 after nearly a decade of raising funds, obtaining government recognition and grants, and facing pandemic-related delays. Then-Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg was on hand for the opening ceremony.
The museum is now part of another nonprofit foundation broader in scope, overseeing another World War II museum, the Espeland Prison Camp east of Bergen, as well as the Gestapo Museum.
Ropeid said the Gestapo Museum’s mission is to preserve a troubling but historically important legacy left by Nazi Germany and to paint an accurate picture of the horrors that occurred.
“This is not a museum commemorating the Gestapo,” he said. “It is about the bravery of those brought here and about what others were capable of doing.”
He estimated more than 3,000 Norwegians were questioned at Gestapohus. Most of them were brought there merely for Gestapo’s intelligence-gathering purposes and were released unharmed. But roughly one-third of them were suspected of sabotage, producing and circulating underground newspapers, and carrying out other forms of resistance, and they faced a much harsher fate.
Resistance fighters were interrogated, beaten, and tortured repeatedly over days and weeks as Gestapo agents sought to extract information of their activities, their resistance organizations, and names of other members of the resistance. They then were sent to prisons and concentration camps throughout Norway – some went to Germany – where they suffered more torment and starvation under harsh conditions. Many were executed by firing squads or died in captivity, but others survived the war.
Six men died during imprisonment at the museum site. Three jumped to their deaths, crashing through windows to prevent them from disclosing names and incriminating resistance information under torture. Plaques commemorating their bravery are embedded into the stone street pavers near a rear building entrance where they landed. Another resistance fighter also took his own life in one of the holding cells, slitting his wrists with a razor somehow smuggled into Gestapohus. Besides the four suicide victims, two others succumbed to torture.
Those arrested and suspected of resistance activities and brought to Gestapohus were not just men, according to Inge Bjørnar Eriksen, a historian who co-authored a 2015 book, Sabotører i vest, that provided a comprehensive account of resistance activities in and around Bergen. A number of women were taken into custody, interrogated, and brutalized by the same Gestapo methods that men underwent. They were sent to a special women’s section at Espeland Prison Camp.
“Women played significant roles in resistance activities, and their courage often was left out of the post-war narrative,” said Eriksen, who volunteers auditing the museum’s financial records. “It was important that the museum recognize the price they paid for their involvement.”
During a 2023 visit to the museum by my wife, Wendy, and I, we were especially touched by an interactive display that enabled us to learn the individual stories of those men and women held and interrogated there. By touching individual names from a list of some resistance fighters, their images and stories were projected on a screen. The stories stem from transcripts of their testimonies during post-war interviews. The transcripts were used in trials of Gestapo agents who stood trial, were convicted of war crimes, and served prison sentences. For the most severe crimes, some were executed.
Among the resistance fighters we called up to display was Wendy’s father, Magne. He was arrested in November 1944 for his resistance involvement. He was held in the Bergen city jail rather than Gestapohus, but he was brought there directly to the basement for interrogation. Following about a week of beatings and torture, Magne revealed nothing and ultimately served the final six months of the war in the notorious Oslo prison, Møllergata 19. His post-war testimony helped lead to a lengthy prison sentence for one of his tormentors and an execution by firing squad for another. Magne’s wartime horrors prompted him to subsequently immigrate to Seattle, attempting to escape the memories, but he carried scars with him the rest of his life.
I described a fictional but mostly accurate account of one of his brutal interrogations in my book, A Coat Dyed Black: A Novel of the Norwegian Resistance, published in 2022.
There are other deeply moving aspects to the Gestapo Museum exhibits. Upon entering the museum, visitors are greeted by the simulated sounds of blows by Gestapo torturers followed by grunts and groans of inmates on the receiving end.
At the end of a hallway stands a dull gunmetal-gray door to a now unused elevator. Mugshots of actual prisoners are projected onto the door and scrolled downward. The continuously rotating images symbolize the elevator’s original function to shuttle inmates to the basement where most of the beatings and torture occurred. That part of the building is closed, currently housing heating and cooling systems and other mechanical equipment.
Another display includes a twin-burner hot plate used as a torture method. Instead of heating food, inmates had to sit and even lay on the burners. An old phonograph sits on a table rotating a record and bellowing lively 1940s jazz. The music was intended to muffle the sounds of torture.
Even the Gestapo agents who operated there were featured in one exhibit. An interactive display projects mugshots of some of these men and statements they made at their trials. According to one explanation on why they practiced such evil, “I was serving my country.”
“The Gestapo has faces that have stories,” Ropeid said. “These are important stories to tell. The torturers look like you and me. They were fathers, husbands, even dog lovers.”
Outside the building in a cozy landscaped corner stands a monument, commemorating those imprisoned at Gestapohus. It was placed there in 1990 by Norway’s Ministry of Defense. Inscribed in the stone: “Så Hard En Tid, Så Vond En Strid. Minne Om Dem Som Ble Torturert Av Gestapo I Krigen 1940-1945” (Such a difficult time, such a painful war. In memory of those who were tortured by the Gestapo during the war 1940-1945).
The Gestapo Museum is staffed largely by volunteers, and regular operating hours are limited to summer months. But it encourages visitors to schedule appointments and regularly hosts school students and other groups.
Photos by Wendy Pugnetti
This article originally appeared in the February 2024 issue of The Norwegian American.