Memories still echo from the tragedy in Telavåg

A story worth telling today

Telavaag

Today, it is a sobering experience to visit the place of the Gestapo landing in Telavåg in the dark days of the Nazi occupation during World War II.

Janet Oakley
Bellingham, Wash.

Telavåg 

My life turns into memories

All my thoughts are gone,

But one thing is burned into me: this

We could never had done

Just out of hatred

Take a child from its mother,

Butcher sixty cows

For one dead soldier,

Take the old men and kill them

With torture that drives you mad,

Burn down poor people’s house—

All that they ever had…

I saw it all in that moment of horror

When the prison boat pulled away:

Everything that children got 

Is deep in them, to stay.

— Sigmund Skard

Norwegian poet Sigmund Skard summarized the tragedy of Telavåg, Norway, in his epic post-World War II poem, “Telavåg.”

I stumbled across the poem and this tragic story while doing my initial research for my novel, The Jøssing Affair. I wondered why the incident was unknown outside of Norway. Except for the commando action against the heavy water plant, World War II in Norway often seems left out of the total European story.

Yet, during my research, news of Norway was a weekly feature in the 1940s editions of Newsweek and Time Magazine, including Telavåg. Some four months after the Telavåg action in there, it was being called “The Lidice of the North.” Then again, after the legal purge in Norway (1945-1947), the story seems to have disappeared from the international scene altogether.

So, what happened at Telåvag? Telavåg was a fishing village of 450 souls on the island of Sotra. In 1940, it had a new schoolhouse, youth center, and two shops. Telavåg was off the beaten track, (there were no cars), and Germans rarely were in the village.

Telavaag

At the North Sea Traffic Museum in Telavåg is a boat that was rowed from Norway to Shetland in June 1940. It was later used as a propaganda piece in exhibitions about the “Spirit of Norway.”

Just one month after the German invasion, Telavåg fisherman, Lauritz Telle, and his son, Lars, began to transport refugees over to Shetland. From May 1940 until January 1942, at least 136 to 500 people fled to Shetland via Telavåg. Agents came back with arms that were often hidden in the Telle home. Telavåg’s proximity to Bergen, Norway’s second largest city, made the village an important drop off and pick up point.

This secret North Sea Traffic continued until April 26, 1942, when the Gestapo arrived to investigate rumors of a hidden radio and possible refugees bound for England. Instead, the party encountered well-trained members of Linge Company.

In the gunfight that followed, two German officers were shot dead and one Norwegian agent killed. In retaliation, on April 30, Reichskommissar Josef Terboven arrived to personally lead the reprisal.

Telavaag

A sign in Norwegian, English, and German tells the story of the reprisal action in Telavåg in 1942.

The Germans blew up all the houses and fishing boats in the village, arrested all men and boys 16 to 60 and sent them to Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Oranienburg, Germany. They imprisoned the women and children at various locations south of Bergen for two years.

Thirty-one of the 71 men deported to the camp died. At war’s end, some of the men and women never recovered from the trauma. It would take three years before the village was rebuilt.

Initially, I included this tragic story in my first novel, The Jøssing Affair, as part of my hero’s backstory. Over time, though, Telavåg has become to me more than a plot point in all the novels. In addition to being a war crime, I grew to understand that it was also the flash point in the destruction of nascent resistance groups all around Norway in 1942. The tragedy of Telavåg has to be told because it has echoes in the current war in Ukraine.

Telavaag

Author Janet Oakley visited with Joakim Gusland (left), educator at the North Sea Traffic Museum in Telavåg, and Ginny Heggvik, director of the museum.

Last June, after corresponding with Joakim Gusland, the educator at the North Sea Traffic Museum in Telavåg (Nordsjøfartmuseet i Telavåg) for months, I finally made the trek to the museum with friends from Trondheim. I wasn’t disappointed.

The small museum tells the story in its exhibits and an excellent film. A side gallery features new exhibits around various World War II subjects. The museum also has a little café and a breathtaking view of the fjord that leads in from the North Sea.

After meeting the director, Ginny Heggvik, Joakim led us on a tour of the village that was rebuilt in 1949. The modern village is charming, dotting the hillside, where 82 years ago, the homes were blown up. Throughout our walk down to the waterfront were the men and later the women and children were loaded onto German boats, informational signs are posted.

One shows the site of the clubhouse where 260 women, children, and the elderly were held from Friday, May 1, until the following night. They could hear the homes being blasted.

Joakim showed us some hidden places easily missed as well as stories he had heard from survivors. It was a wonderful experience I’ll never forget.

I gives me joy when I hear readers tell me that they felt compelled to go Telavåg when they are in the Bergen area because they’ve read my novels. I’m equally honored to hear the North Sea Traffic Museum tell me that they have had an increase in American visitors.

This April is the 82nd anniversary of the German reprisal at Telavåg. On May 31, during the 2024 Bergen International Festival, the Norwegian Naval Forces’ Band will premier Telavågtragedien  by composer Håkon Berge. It’s being marketed as “A new musical work about the terror in the islands.” Joining the band are the Edvard Grieg Vokal­ensemble and six soloists. Joakim and other staff members at the North Sea Traffic Museum said they are going.

You can find out more about this concert at fib.no/en/programme/2024/the-telavag-tragedy.

All photos courtesy of Janet Oakley

This article originally appeared in the May 2024 issue ofThe Norwegian American.

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Janet Oakley

Janet Oakley, writing as J.L., creates award-winning historical fiction that spans the mid-19th century to WW II. In 2016, she received the Goethe Award Grand Prize for her historical novel, The Jøssing Affair, set in WW II Norway. A longtime resident of Bellingham, Wash., when not writing or researching her latest novel, Oakley enjoys gardening and weaving on her loom.