Reflections on a Norwegian childhood
Looking back on the German occupation, April 1940 – May 1945
THOR A. LARSEN
As we approach the 2020 Norwegian Constitution Day, I start to think of the 80th anniversary of the German invasion of peaceful Norway and the impact of that event on my childhood.
In April 1940, my mother and I lived with my grandmother, and my mother’s sister in a new house in a section of Stavanger called Paradis. It was located about 1.5 miles from downtown Stavanger on a hilly peninsula surrounded by water on three sides. The side closest to the city is a long bay where boats are kept, and the other two sides are surrounded by the fjord.
Paradis in the late 1930s consisted of a number of newly built two-family homes in the vicinity of two farms and some open land: a perfect environment for children to run around and play. In addition to playing in our respective backyards, we would play on vacant lots and at the farm, where we visited the animals. There were bathing areas along the fjord, where we would go swimming with the adults. The main street, Godalsveien, was a long hill, perfect for sleigh rides in the winter.
Since this was a “new” neighborhood in the mid-1930s, many of the families were relatively young parents in their 30s and 40s. This meant that there were many children of almost the same ages. I had four very close friends, all within two years of me. Not only were they close friends through the war years, they remained so over the years, even after I left Norway and settled in the New York area. I have returned to Stavanger many times since we immigrated in 1948. In addition to those close friends from when I started school in 1944, I gained two additional close friends, with whom I have stayed in touch. These days, we even communicate via social media.
As I reflect on my personal memories from my childhood during the war years, I do my best to tune out all I have read about the war in Stavanger and Norway in later years, so as not to muddy my personal memories via interactions with my mother, grandmother, aunt, and uncle, as well as my close friends at the time.
When the Germans invaded Norway, a number of people chose to leave Stavanger and go to friends or family in the country. My family went to relatives in Helle in the county of Rogaland in western Norway. It is from there that I have my only frightening memory, albeit distant, as I was only 2 ½ years old.
The houses in Paradis were two-family dwellings with front and backyards. The owners were middle class (maybe some upper-middle class). People in our neighborhood were shopkeepers, carpenters, or lumberers, as well as professionals such as bankers. But some had more limited means, including one of my friends, whose father had been a merchant seaman. He died, leaving his wife and three sons to take care of themselves with limited means.
My family, like most owners, had tenants in the upstairs apartment and, an additional tenant couple in the attic apartment. In addition to rental income, my grandmother had her own dressmaking business, and my aunt worked for her. My mother was able to stay home and care for me. My father had left for New York for work in late 1939 and was therefore separated from us for the duration of the war. My uncle had a leather shoe business that he shared with his two brothers. My uncle and aunt married during the war, in 1943.
Of course, there were rations, and the quality of foods available was limited. Fish was the main staple of our diet, due to Stavanger’s location and many fishermen. The bread was awful, and meat was limited to occasional lamb. Fortunately, my uncle’s brother had a farm, and my uncle could sometimes sneak us extra milk and eggs. We had adequate clothing for the damp and sometimes cold Stavanger weather.
There was a German troop presence in our neighborhood of Paradis throughout the war. At its highest point, there were anti-aircraft batteries, and at least a couple of homes were housing German officers. As young boys, we interacted with the German soldiers periodically. Some of the soldiers made the effort to be friendly by offering us chocolate or letting us ride on their horse-drawn carriages at times.
None of my friends and I ever experienced any violent behavior in these soldiers, in fact, during the entire war, we were unaware of any violence against anyone in our neighborhood. As children, we respected the soldiers, and we felt safe throughout the war. Of course, none of our parents shared negative information about the Germans and the Norwegian Nazi party with us.
There were, however, a couple of incidents that were cause to ponder. One night the Norwegian Nazis came to our house to arrest my grandmother, because she was an American citizen. Somehow, my mother was able to prove that she wasn’t, and that fear went away. Another time, during the middle of the night, the Nazis were looking for a partisan who apparently had killed a senior military officer. Again, nothing came of that incident. In later years, I learned that when such an incident occurred, the Germans would line up a number of Norwegian citizens and execute them as payback. This response caused the members of the resistance to stop military killings.
I recall one specific humanitarian incident toward a German soldier very well. This occurred in the summer, when many of us were at the swimming area on the fjord. The water in the fjord is quite cold, and a young German soldier was swimming not too far from shore in deep water, when he suddenly suffered severe cramps and started to sink. Several Norwegian men jumped in and pulled him to the shore and saved him.
How was information about the war so easily kept from the children? Remember, there were no TV, no radio (the Germans took them all!), no newspapers, and no traveling, as people had to stay in their homes and places of work with minimal local travel. Limited travel was easily enforced by the fact that no one had a car and got around with bicycles.
As young boys, my friends and I had a great childhood, shielded from the negative news by our parents and neighbors. At school, although the principal was a Nazi, we all received an excellent education in the basic subjects, including arithmetic, as well and reading and writing the Norwegian language. My close friend Haakon and I were in the same grade and always went to school together. We, as well as rest of the pupils, did not have to make any Nazi salutes, and I do not believe there were photos of Hitler in our classrooms. Our teacher was a fine woman and a good teacher. She was an important part of an excellent education I received for my first four years at school. I found myself well ahead of my fellow American students when I started school in New York City.
As far as my education goes, I was fortunate that my mother could be home, since my aunt, grandmother, and uncle were the breadwinners, while my mother did the housework and cooking. She was very engaged in my education before and during my time in school during the war. My grandmother and my aunt also valued and encouraged learning.
It is important to consider age when one tries to assess the child’s impression of German occupation. I am sure older children, including teenagers, had a different experience. They were more mobile and heard much more than the younger ones. Young people in their late teens and early 20s had serious concerns. The Germans even conscripted some of them to send to the Eastern front. I even know of two young men in their early 20s who joined the local police during the war, most likely because they were coerced. Some young women of dating age did go out with German soldiers. They were criticized, and some even had their hair sheared off as punishment for their behavior. After the war, the men mentioned served time in prison, and women who gave birth to children with German fathers suffered repercussions—as did the children. Personally, when I was questioned years later by a daughter of one of the men who was jailed for his role as a Nazi police officer, I told her that there was no way I could condemn his behavior, because the times were extremely difficult for young men, and I had been too young and too blessed.
During those war years, my friends and I thrived in our neighborhood of Paradis. We were happy at school, and while food was limited, it was adequate. We were fortunate to not have any nearby bombings, and we didn’t experience any violence during those years. I have visited Stavanger by myself and later with my wife and family over the years, and I have made several assessments that I think are valid. All my friends from the war years grew up as solid citizens, with stable marriages blessed with children, and now grandchildren. At least 10 such friends come to mind. Somehow, the stress of those years did not have a lasting effect on any of us.
I cannot, however, make the same observation when I reflect on the adults who shielded their children during this period. Separated from my father, who was in the United States, my mother developed insecurities that persisted long after she reunited with my father, and my aunt remained depressed for several years after the war. I was able to remain close to my aunt and uncle as my second set of parents until they passed away. With his long absence from the family, I didn’t get to know my father until a year after the war, and we never became very close.
My family and friends in Stavanger were lucky during the war, but that has not changed how I feel about the war. When I later learned of all its horror in Norway and especially elsewhere, I have never agreed that there is any justification for any war.
Born in Stavanger, Thor A. Larsen immigrated to New York with his parents in 1948. Now retired from a 40-year career as physicist and engineer, Thor draws and paints, and writes travel and arts articles for a local publication. He and his wife, Arlene, have two adult children and three grandsons.
This article originally appeared in the May 8, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.