The Search for Thor
By Randi Millman-Brown
Thor Jensen, 36, moves from Oslo to Hammerfest. He is promoted to bank manager, becomes engaged, and takes a one-month hiking trip through occupied Finnmark in 1941. By the end of the year, he is dead, leaving behind a mystery, a diary, and many questions. This column chronicles his great niece’s attempt to solve that mystery.
Archives can be overwhelming places to work in, and it can often be extremely difficult to find the exact documents you are hoping to find. Working in archives in a foreign country can be even more challenging, the difficulties exacerbated by language barriers and databases that are often not user-friendly.
I have worked in archives throughout Norway, where I have found some documents I had been searching for (bank records) and been totally frustrated by not finding the main thing I am looking for (my great-uncle Thor’s cause of death). This summer, I decided to focus my latest inquiry in one of the last archives I thought might have been useful, this one in Hamburg, Germany, the M.M. Warburg Bank archives.
In 1928, when Thor was 24 years old, he was awarded a scholarship from Norges Bank (The Central Bank of Norway) to work in Hamburg for one year at the prestigious M.M. Warburg Bank. This private bank, still in existence today (it has been in business since 1798), is in the exact same location as when Thor worked there, at Ferndinandstrasse 75 in downtown Hamburg.
At the beginning of 1928, the King of Norway tried to establish a minority government, but this action caused the Norwegian currency to lose value, and of course, this coincided with the volatility of the American banks leading to the Wall Street crash of 1929. Thor was in Hamburg from 1928 through 1929, during this crucial period in world history.
In January, as part of my ongoing research into the death of my great-uncle, I contacted the bank and their archivist, hoping to find any mention of Thor. I thought it would be interesting to learn what his actual position might have been. Norges Bank had an international cooperation with other central banks, including the Bank of Warburg. Through this arrangement, all employees had the opportunity to visit or work at these institutions. According to an expert on Norwegian banking practices during WWII, Harald Espeli, I learned that Norges Bank needed employees with experience from large international commercial banks such as Warburg. Most likely they would have sent a young well-educated man like Thor, and others like him, to Hamburg to learn as much as possible from this bank.
I received an email indicating the archive had not yet been fully digitized and that an initial search had not turned up anything on Thor. The director assured me if anything came up (she would continue to search), she would let me know, but I never heard anything back from her regarding any new documents or information.
In July, I decided to fly to Hamburg to search the archive myself. I emailed the director and asked for an appointment to visit the archives. I was told a few days before my arrival that the archive was actually located quite a distance from downtown Hamburg and that I should plan to take an Uber to get there (30 minutes west of downtown). My daughter, who now lives in Berlin, took a train to Hamburg, and we planned to go to the archives together.
The “archive” was not at all what I was expecting. It was located in the basement of a house on a large estate on Kösterbergstrasse in the Blankenese neighborhood of Hamburg. We had to call to be let into the estate through a large electric security gate.
There were two other researchers already there working, so we did not have her full attention at first. She helped locate a few items, which we had to retrieve from a storage facility on the estate and bring them back to the basement work space. We quickly learned that if we did not have a specific question, there was no offer to help or suggest other avenues. After we had been there several hours, I finally asked if there were any photographs of the bank from the 1920s or 1930s, and luckily, she pulled a couple of volumes of photographs from a nearby shelf. There were wonderful photographs in these books (I have included one here) of the interior working spaces of the bank. Nonetheless, to date, I have still not found any mention of Norwegian bankers working in the M.M. Warburg Bank and what their roles might have been.
I had previously communicated with Norges Bank in Oslo to see if they had any specific documents that might indicate why they sent him to Hamburg and this was their reply:
“There is no document in the archives that could specify the reason for Thor Jensen’s stay at this institution.”
To be honest, I find this hard to believe—to be continued.
Randi Millman-Brown is an art historian, photographer, part-time genealogist, and writer living in Ithaca, N.Y. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared in the October 18, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.