Heroes in our backyard
Reflections on the courage of Knut and Haldis Einarsen in occupied Norway
By C.E. Chambers
Ed. Note: April 9 marked the 71st anniversary of the Nazi invasion of Norway. Each spring, we print stories to commemorate the brave men and women in Norwegian resistance movement.
“Don’t mess with Knut Einarsen. At 95 years old, his well-muscled arms and chest put longtime weight lifters to shame, and his daily activities rival the average teenager’s. He’s a former halibut fisherman and proud Norwegian-American who resides in Seattle, Wash. A combination of rugged, land-of-the-midnight-sun upbringing and death-defying work environments.
In the early 1960s, Knut was fishing in the Bering Sea (located between Alaska and Russia) when a hook-leader suddenly swung out-of-control and whipped a razor-sharp, four-inch halibut hook into his nose. The wench wasn’t stopped and the incoming fishing line pulled the 5’8”, 165-pound dynamo toward the railing.
The crew was six hours from the closest shore but it was too risky to head back without removing the germ-infested hook first, and, besides, there was a full catch of halibut to take care of.
Knut, a former resistance fighter during the Nazi occupation of Norway, did what he had to do: He reached inside his right nostril to the lethally barbed hook and slowly pulled it down toward the end of his nose. He kept pulling it down and around, working the arced portion through — then yanked as hard as he could to force the square-shaped eye through his outer nose and down his nostril. The intrepid fisherman then mixed iodine with Lysol and sterilized the gaping hole in his nose with toothpicks soaked in the antiseptic. Fifteen minutes later, he returned to the rigors of commercial fishing for another ten hours.
Knut Einarsen retired from halibut fishing in 1985. His days are now filled with volunteer work and social activities at various Norwegian organizations, entertaining, traveling, and overseeing his house and extensive property. Wrestling with and cleaning huge halibut during 20-hour work-days was a fraught-filled occupation, but it had provided a good living for a former refugee – someone who had escaped on foot in the dead of winter to Sweden.
On April 9, 1940, Hitler’s forces invaded Norway. Knut, 26 years old, born and raised in the northwestern community of Skarstad, had recently been called back into the Norwegian Navy. He was on leave in Narvik, a hub of Swedish-exported ore, fifty miles southeast of his hometown.
He was asleep in his family-owned freighter, the Vandringen (The Wanderer), when the sound of shouting and gunfire roused him. It was 4 a.m.
“Some of those darn Nazis were hiding in a German whaling ship in the Narvik Harbor,” he complains, as indignant as if it had happened yesterday.
It was the largest sea-borne operation in history: A German armada –- 42 warships and 65 other German vessels—had attacked Norway’s main seaports all at once. The Norwegian government, which had been determined to preserve neutrality during the escalating World War II, was now a fly thrashing about in Germany’s web.
Within a few weeks, the German occupiers gave the Einarsen family permission to continue transporting cement up and down the Norwegian coast with the Vandringen. However, Knut, the youngest of nine siblings, joined other family members and friends in working behind the scenes to undermine the invaders. His older brother, Marellius, a member of the secret Norwegian resistance army, was killed while assisting British allies in northern Norway during the first two weeks of the occupation. On June 10, two months after the invasion, Norway officially surrendered to Germany.
The green-uniformed, goose-stepping Nazis (who had installed a Norwegian traitor as premier after King Haakon VII and his cabinet fled to London) began enforcing draconian measures to subdue resistance efforts. Possession of radios, as well as firearms, was now punishable by death. It wasn’t difficult to locate the offenders: radio owners incur an annual tax in socialistic Norway. The disheartened Scandinavians, who knew they would be imprisoned if they were overheard complaining about the German occupiers, trekked to their local law enforcement headquarters with their receivers.
Knut owned two radios, one for the house and one for the Vandringen – but there was no way he was going to let the Nazis have both. He fashioned identical boxes from wood, put a radio inside one of them and a wooden block of similar weight in the other.
Knut hid the forbidden radio in a shack one mile from his parents’ Skarstad home. His oldest brother, Egil, listened in one night to the war news and made the mistake of telling his wife, Anna. She was earning good money by washing the German soldiers’ clothes and betrayed Knut to a high-ranking enemy officer stationed at a submarine listening station.
The defiant Knut had also refused to give up his rifle. He was in the barn one day, oiling it heavily before hiding it under a bridge, when Endre, Anna’s seven-year-old son, unexpectedly walked in. Knut grabbed him by his shirt, lifted him off the ground and shook him.
“If you tell your mother, I’ll knock you in the head!” he warned, sky-blue eyes glaring and sinewy arms bulging under his shirt.
Knut wasn’t the only Norseman who resisted giving up his rifle. One day in 1942, he and Haldis, a blond-haired, rosy-cheeked Kjøpsvik girl from a fjord directly south of Skarstad, were picking lingonberries in the Kjøpsvik woods. They froze in their tracks when they crossed paths with their Lutheran minister, Kolbjørn Varmann. He had a rifle nonchalantly slung over his shoulder.
“Do you dare to do this?” Knut sputtered, not sure if Varmann was hunting game to supplement the near-starvation food rations or Nazis.
“Den som ingenting våger, ingenting vinner,” he responded. (“Those who don’t take chances, don’t win anything.”)
Kolbjørn Varmann, who had married Knut and Haldis Rist a few months earlier, had fought in the resistance army in the mountains around Narvik before Norway officially surrendered. He openly spoke against “den forbannende Hitler” (“that damned Hitler”) – even while preaching in the pulpit – but collaborated secretly with Haldis’s father, a member of the underground, to transport Jews and other targets of Nazi wrath to the safety of Sweden.
The irascible Norwegian minister repeatedly ripped the propaganda-filled Nazi banners from his church’s walls and publicly denounced the three German sympathizers who were part of his congregation. German soldiers arrived after one church service to arrest him but he had disappeared. A doctor had hidden him in a coffin. He survived and later became a highly respected administrator over all of northern Norway.
Knut and Haldis, meanwhile, were living under a death sentence of their own. It was early 1943 when the Nazis stationed in Narvik informed Knut that they were confiscating the well-built, 67-foot Vandringen for their personal mail route. Knut, however, remembered his brother, Marellius, who had been killed by the Germans – and lied to the Nazis about its condition.
“The bow is full of dry rot,” he said, fearlessly matching their hardened, hawk-like eyes with his own stony expression.
A shipyard supervisor in Narvik, a friend of the Einarsen family, filed a false report stating that the Vandringen was in need of repair. The Nazis gave Knut one month to make the ship serviceable.
Just a few days later, however, on a blistery, snow-filled Saturday in March, a Nazi officer telephoned Knut and ordered him to report to Narvik the next Monday. An unknown German sympathizer had betrayed him. Knut, who was cutting grass at his mother’s house in Skarstad, used a pay-phone to warn Haldis, who was in Kjøpsvik. He didn’t want to take any chances in case his parents’ phone was tapped.
“I’m going to pick you up; have your skis with you,” was his terse message.
A few hours later, Knut piloted Vandringen back to Skarstad where they were to rendezvous with a man from the Norwegian underground who had agreed to guide them into Sweden. They were shocked to learn that the Nazis had arrested him.
Knut and Haldis were beginning to panic. Fortuitously, one of Knut’s cousins, the captain of the cement freighter, Nordstjernen (Northstar), happened to be in Skarstad at the time and agreed to help them. Twenty-four people, including the Einarsens and two crew members from the Vandringen, were soon hidden on board. During the wee hours of that Sunday morning, the Nordstjernen’s brave pilot navigated without lights through the long, hazardous Tysfjord, desperately avoiding the Nazi patrols that regularly circuited an island in the fjord. Six hours later, the fugitives were dropped off on the shore of a steep mountain.
Wearing white sheets over their woolen clothes, they carved icy steps on the side of the treacherous mountain as they climbed up, carrying skis, extra clothes, food (buttered bread and coffee in insulated containers), five rifles and 800 rounds of ammunition. Four hours later they reached the summit. They were not able to make good speed by skiing—and frequently had to throw themselves facedown on the frozen tundra when German surveillance planes flew close by.
Using a stolen, detailed German map of the area, they skied, walked—and tried to suck on the now-frozen bread—for the next 36 hours. Clothes, rifles and ammunition, everything but their skis and the clothes on their backs, were discarded as the exhausting journey began to take its toll. Haldis, who had begun to hallucinate about her church in Kjøpsvik, sat down on the hard snow and refused to continue.
“Vi har til go over den neste hel, den er vi der,” (We have to go over the next hill, then we are there”) coaxed Knut, again and again.
They knew they were in Swedish territory when they discovered a Laplander’s teepee-shaped grass hut beyond one of the hills; it had a stove and a supply of dry wood. Half of the party spent the night there, the other half slept in another hut a few minutes away. It was the first time they had rested in two days.
They united again the next morning and were skiing across a lake when they spotted four adults and two children laying on the ice. Haldis recognized them: They were neighbors from Kjøpsvik who were also on the run from the Nazis. They had severe frostbite and had given up. The Norwegian refugees now numbered 31. The Einarsens’ group assisted the others; it took six more hours before the exhausted skiers found help—and were assured of safety—at an electrical power station outpost.
The Einarsens and 64,000 other Norwegian refugees lived and worked in Sweden for two and a half years. They returned to Norway soon after May 8, 1945, when Germany fell and the 350,000 German troops occupying their home country had surrendered. Ten thousand Norwegians had died and half of its merchant fleet – approximately 400 ships – had been sunk.
The Vandringen, however, still lay on the harbor in Skarstad… untouched and unmanned by the Nazis. Before escaping the Nazis’ clutches, Knut had hidden some of its motor parts in an elderly man’s kitchen cupboard in a remote area of Skarstad.
Knut and Haldis Einarsen, who emigrated to the U.S. in 1948, will celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary Aug. 16, 2011. Knut Einarsen was recently chosen by the Syttende Mai Committee to serve as one of the Honorary Marshalls of the annual Norwegian Independence Day Parade in Seattle, which will be held May 17.
This article was originally published in the Apr. 22, 2011 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. For more information about the Norwegian American Weekly or to subscribe, call us toll free (800) 305-0217 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.