On the Edge with Irene Levin Berman: An apology 70 years after the fact

Irene Levin Berman, author of the book We Are Going to Pick Potatoes: Norway and the Holocaust, the Untold Story

Irene Levin Berman, author of the book "We Are Going to Pick Potatoes: Norway and the Holocaust, the Untold Story"

“On the Edge” is the new opinion column in the Norwegian American Weekly, featuring opinion pieces written by invited contributors who make some comments on the current issues that define modern Norway.

The Prime Minister was the keynote speaker at the International Holocaust Remembrance Day Jan. 27 this year at the same Oslo harbor where almost 500 Jews were deported Nov. 26, 1942. From there the ship Donau brought them to Auschwitz and their ultimate death. Only 34 men survived – no women.

What does it actually mean when a Government offers an apology to its own people?  Is it a political gesture or a genuine attempt at making the recipients feel validated so that closure can be achieved? In this case the Norwegian government’s gesture was delivered 70 years after the fact; a very long time, considering the circumstances that became evident at the end of World War II. However, the issue is complicated. History tells us that the Norwegian citizens were themselves victims of the German invasion April 9, 1940, and that a fierce battle was fought to avoid surrender.  How can some co-victims also have been the perpetrators of devastating actions warranting asking for forgiveness?

The answer has been referred to as the darkest chapter in modern Norwegian history.  In 1940 there were around 2000 Jews living in Norway. The Norwegian constitution had excluded Jews from entering until this law was repealed in 1854 through the efforts of the famous poet Henrik Wergeland.  During the last quarter of the 19th century some 50 Jewish pioneers entered this unknown country.  Within a short period of time they learned the language and how to survive and make a living.  They were integrated culturally through education and co-existence, but for the most part they pursued their own religion by establishing Jewish congregations in Oslo and Trondheim. Larger groups of settlers arrived after the turn of the century.

Germany had invaded Denmark and Norway on April 9, 1940. Denmark surrendered immediately and spent the first three years of the war with a pseudo-German government. Norway retaliated strongly.  Sweden was neutral. The story of the rescue of the approximately 7,000 Danish Jews in 1943 is known in the U.S. They were whisked off to Sweden across the sea. The Danish police, through a concerted effort, managed an almost miraculous feat securing their safety. However, little is known in this country about the fate of the Norwegian Jews.

When the Gestapo initiated the arrest of the Jews in the fall of 1942, they commandeered the Norwegian police to carry out the work for them. On Oct. 25, all Jewish men and boys older than 16 years were suddenly arrested and placed in prison camps temporarily around the country. This was done systematically; achieving the anticipated result as the Norwegian policemen immediately followed their orders. On Nov. 26, the women and children were subsequently arrested and brought down to the Oslo harbor by Norwegian police men who had ordered Norwegian taxi drivers to pick them up. The ship was poised to bring almost 500 men, women and children on to Auschwitz. Three additional transports, also assisted by the police, resulted in almost 40 percent of the Norwegian Jews being murdered, while the remaining Jews managed to escape. As the writer of this article, I am a Norwegian child Holocaust survivor, living in the U.S., who was four years old in 1942. My family managed to escape to Sweden while seven members of my father’s immediate family perished. Sweden will be thanked eternally for allowing the Norwegian Jews to cross the border to freedom. Sweden’s neutrality also meant, however, that German soldiers were allowed to travel through its country into Norway to fight.

As someone who was earmarked for this transport, but “who got away,” I often ponder about this scenario and how it possibly could have happened. Did they have lists, reading out loud, crossing off names?  Was my family’s name read? Was my name read? Were the police afraid of repercussions from the Gestapo? Or were they anti-Semitic? Probably not. Most Norwegians did not even know any Jews. Were they indifferent? Most probably. Did they consider the Norwegian Jews to be strangers exempt from the human decency for which Norwegians pride themselves? Most probably. Did they occasionally suspect that tragedy was waiting for these Jews? Most probably. Did they let it go? Most probably.

During the past few years many books have been published in Norway attacking the policemen for their act of shame. This is a difficult issue with conflicting justifications. Presumably this is why the Norwegian government took 70 years to deliver an official apology to the Norwegian Jews who have lived with the fact that their relatives went to their deaths assisted by other Norwegians.

The apology doesn’t justify the long wait, but it does go a long way in making the Norwegian Jews feel that the request for forgiveness was genuine and sincere, which hopefully will provide closure. As for me, I feel as if the final chapter of the Holocaust and the Norwegian Jews finally has been given the accurate framework for us to accept closure in the memory of our relatives who were annihilated… I have therefore chosen to consider the speech given by Jens Stoltenberg on the Day of Memorial on Jan. 27 as a sign of decency and national honor.

Irene Levin Berman is the author of “We are going to pick potatoes – Norway and the Holocaust, The Untold Story,” in which she writes the story of the settlement of the Jews in Norway at the end of the 19th century.  She tells the story about her own family’s experiences during the Holocaust and what it was like growing up Jewish in Norwegian after the liberation. For more information about her book, visit www.norwayandtheholocaust.com. Irene Levin Berman has recently been invited to join the Board of Directors of the organization Thanks To Scandinavia (www.thankstoscandinavia.org). This gives her an opportunity to help in educating the general public on efforts to alleviate the increased anti-Semitism in Europe.

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 17, 2012 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.

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