Leif Hovelsen: a truly good person

In the early hours of Sept. 18, Leif Hovelsen died peacefully in his sleep. But the story of his life will live on. Some of the highlights of this Norwegian war hero follow here.

By Erik Solheim, Minister of the Environment and International Development

Leif was born on Nov. 1, 1923. At the age of 19, he was arrested by the Gestapo for smuggling radio sets. The war ended when he was 22. During that period he had been tortured by the Nazis in the very building where I have my office today, which now houses the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He had been threatened with death. He had nearly been sent to the German concentration camp in Sachsenhausen. He had been so severely beaten and abused that his hearing had been damaged. He had experienced some of the worst treatment a young man of his age could. But in 1945, Norway was free again, and he was released from Akershus fortress, which then became a prison for German soldiers, torturers and the cruel guards from the Nazi prison camp at Grini. Many of them tried to hide behind the ordinary soldiers. But one came over to Leif. It was a scorching day. He was very hot and asked for a little water. Leif responded as many of us would have done by throwing a bucket of water into the German’s face.

The years go by, and Leif can’t get this episode out of his mind. While most of us would have thought it was a fairly insignificant incident, he feels that he is really no better than that German torturer. He decides to go to Germany and ask for forgiveness. So he finds the man’s name in the Population Register. He knows which part of Germany he was from, and manages to trace him. But it turns out that he is dead. Leif goes to meet his daughter instead and apologizes to her for the wrong he has done. This eases his conscience, but he also finds out that this torturer had lost his siblings and parents in an Allied air raid on Germany. Perhaps this was part of the explanation for his cruelty.

This is Leif in a nutshell. He met everyone with kindness.

In addition to being a good person, Leif was also a great internationalist. He was particularly engaged in the U.S., Russia and Germany.

The U.S. was always important for him. After all, he was the son of the legendary Karl Hovelsen, known as Carl Howelsen “over there.” In 1913, Carl went to Steamboat Springs, Colo., where he established an important winter sports center. He brought ski jumping all the way from Norway to the U.S., taught many of the young locals to ski jump, and became an important part of American sports history. Leif has followed up this work as “Grand Marshal.” To an American ear, his name sounds like “life,” and that is no bad name. When I met him two weeks before he died, he was still very optimistic, and thought he would be able to take part in the anniversary in 2013. He so much wanted to do so. The whole Steamboat Springs adventure was such an important part of this life.

He went to Germany just a few years after the war. At that time, few Norwegians wanted to have anything to do with the Germans at all. They did not even want to see a German. But Leif wanted to take part in the reconciliation work and the efforts to rebuild Germany as a “nation among nations.” This was a great feat, and Leif was part of it. No other nation has ever confronted its own history in such an absolute, resolute and whole-hearted manner. Yes, of course, Willy Brandt and Konrad Adenauer played a more prominent role. But without people like Leif, this would never have been possible.

He also put in a huge effort to help people in Russia. He knew almost every Russian dissident and human rights defender, and he helped many of them to come to Norway. Just one month before he died, he was trying to get me to take part in various meetings with Russian activists in Oslo.

Few people meet evil and betrayal on the scale that Leif did. He was betrayed by some of his friends in the resistance, who informed on him to the Germans. And he looked evil right in the eye during his abuse and torture at the hands of the Nazis. Leif did not pay people back in their own coin, but responded with kindness. He showed just how honorable a person can be.

Erik Solheim is the Minister of the Environment and International Development, and is a member of the Socialist Left (Sosialistisk Venstreparti). He has worked in politics since 1977, and former positions include Socialist Left party leader (1987-1997) and Storting member (1989-2001). He served in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for five years before joining Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg’s cabinet in 2005.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 14, 2011 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.

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