Book review: Everyday heroes of WWII, hidden no more

Rosalie Grosch
Arden Hills, Minn.

In this non-fiction collection, stories written in the first person, many told from a child’s perspective, remind the reader of the hardships families in Norway experienced when the Germans invaded the country.

On April 9, 1940, Norway was taken by surprise. Mobilization of the Norwegian military had not happened so the Germans met little resistance. They basically marched in and took over the country. Stories of the heroes of World War II are often recorded, but how will we know the experiences of the everyday people: a mother, a child, or the boy next door, unless we hear them from those who lived through the difficult years?

Jean Bittner, Sons of Norway District 5 cultural director, collected letters from Sons of Norway members in 1997 and 1998, letters that told of experiences living in Norway during the very difficult five years of World War II. Mike Palecek picked 20 of the stories in this revision of the original volume, sharing eyewitness accounts of Norwegians who risked their lives to thwart the Nazi occupation.

There were many secrets in Norway during this difficult time. One didn’t know whether their neighbors had sided with the enemy or with the resistance. In fact, even within a household, one might not know which side a family member was on. Often children became the messengers of secret information, perhaps carrying a message in an instrument case on the way to a music lesson or hidden in a parcel. A fisherman might be hiding a rowboat full of grenades under the seat of a German U-boat captain he was transporting.

When the German soldiers came into a community, they would take over everything. Many families would move in together so that the enemy could occupy the larger homes. Food was scarce for the Norwegians but not for the German military. Radios were confiscated. Risking the consequences if a radio were found, brave Norwegian families hid the radios so they could keep up with the news. Blackout curtains were required for every window in a home. The threat of bombs dropping as airplanes flew low overhead was always present.

Norwegian towns were sometimes destroyed completely. Residents would be forced to flee to the countryside to find refuge with family members or friends who lived away from the cities. The underground movement became stronger as the war continued. In Norway a puppet government was established under a Nazi sympathizer, Vidkun Quisling, a name that came to be a synonym for “traitor.” Anti-Nazism was widespread but very dangerous for those who were caught. Many were sent to concentration camps; others were killed.

The Nazi treatment of teachers who refused to join the newly organized Teacher’s Organization was cruel and inhuman. One of those captured exclaimed, “Do you realize there are over 700 teachers here!” Taken away from their classes, trucked off to a train station where they were packed into a cattle car, standing room only, the teachers were sent away, unsure of where they might be going. No food was provided on the trains, and there were no provisions for extra clothing. They shivered in the cold and endured the stench. Some of the elderly teachers became very ill and others died.

Many who endured the years of World War II have remained silent even though they have unbelievable stories to tell. Dagrun Bennet has written the following: “The real meaning of World War II can only be understood through the stories of how it altered ordinary people’s lives, shaped their understanding of what it means to be human, and how it tested what each one of us can and must do.”

Reading these stories not only informs us but also touches the heart with the meaning of suffering, survival, and sacrifice. For those of us with a Norwegian heritage, this collection of letters gives a deeper meaning to who our “people” were and what they have given to us by their love for country, family, and friends.

Hidden Heroes: World War II in Norway is now available for ordering at

Rosalie Grangaard Grosch was born into a Norwegian/American family in Decorah, Iowa. A graduate of Luther College, she taught music and English in American schools, taught English and developed a team teaching program at Trinity School, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, was a drama/music/English teacher at Balob Teachers’ College, Lae, Papua New Guinea and Activity Director/Consultant for a long term care facility in St. Paul/Minneapolis, MN. She is a contributor to Chicken Soup for the Soul and has written numerous articles for publication.

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 24, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.