The Search for Thor

Thor Jensen, 36, moves from Oslo to Hammerfest. He is promoted to bank manager, becomes engaged, and takes a one-month hiking trip through occupied Finnmark in 1941. By the end of the year, he is dead, leaving behind a mystery, a diary, and many questions. This column chronicles his great niece’s attempt to solve that mystery.

While researching historical information about my great-uncle Thor Jensen (1904-1941) trying to determine his cause of death (it took three years to find his death certificate and the cause of death wasn’t listed), some intriguing new facts regarding my family history emerged.

Thor died on Oct. 6, 1941, at the age of 37, and five months later, on March 21, 1942, during my mother’s 4th birthday party, my grandfather Sverre, (Thor’s older brother, 1901-1968) was arrested by a Nazi soldier.

napkin ring

Image: Randi Millman-Brown
Two sides of the napkin ring carved by my grandfather for my mother while in the labor camp in northern Norway in 1942. Elvenes is near Kirkenes. BIJ­—Berit Inger Jensen—was 4 years old.

It was my mother’s first real memory—probably because the arrest interrupted her birthday party. She recalled a knock on the door of their apartment and a Nazi soldier and one of my grandfather’s students (he was a teacher) at the door. He was given a half hour to pack some personal items. My mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother watched from their second-floor apartment as they drove away in a black car.

What happened to him, happened to almost 1,300 other teachers in Norway. More than 12,000 teachers in Norway refused to teach Nazi doctrine, and half of them were shipped off to the farthest place in Norway—Kirkenes—a town only 10 miles from the Russian border. This was what became known as the Teacher’s Protest. From the Global Non-Violent Action Database:

Image: Herlov Åmland
Above: This portrait of my grandfather made by a Norwegian artist and teacher Herlov Åmland, at the labor camp in Kirkenes in 1942—he made drawings of other teacher/prisoners as well. It shows my grandfather as I remember him (even though I was only 8 years old when he passed away)—I remember this pensive look and his pipe.

“In April, the government sent 499 teachers to a concentration camp near Kirkenes, in the Arctic. When news of this action was leaked, crowds of students and farmers gathered along the tracks to sing and offer food as the train passed. The teachers also formed their own choirs and gave lectures in order to maintain their sanity and pass the time.

“Around a month after their arrival in Kirkenes, word came in mid-May that the occupation government’s Church and Education Department had given up on creating a fascist teachers’ organization, and the teachers asked to return to their schools, but they did not receive a response. During their time at Kirkenes, a teacher died and several were injured from the forced labor, but a German soldier secretly showed the teachers how to create beds out of hay to ease their conditions.

“Eventually, it became clear to [Vidkun] Quisling that while the approaching winter might force the teachers to capitulate, he would lose whatever legitimacy he had left in the eyes of the population. By Nov. 4, 1942, the teachers had all returned from the concentration camp. Thanks perhaps in equal measure to Norwegian pride and fascist oppression, the people of Norway had solidified into a resistance movement that successfully defended the schools from incorporation into the fascist state.

“The people would continue to give Quisling so much difficulty that he was ultimately forced to give up on his idea of the Corporative State altogether. Norwegian culture was successfully defended during the occupation.”

Photo: Randi Millman-Brown
Left: In 1942, Randi’s mother, Berit, sent a letter to her dad (far) from the family’s home in Drammen to the internment camp in Kirkenes.

As I have been organizing piles and piles of documents about Thor, I realize I am very lucky because I also have piles and piles of books, journals, letters, artwork, and other items written by my grandfather about our family history.

In fact, on Oct. 20, 2023 (83 years since Thor was buried in Oslo), I found 28 pages of a diary that my grandfather kept during his entire incarceration at the labor camp. Day by day, it outlines his arrest, travels, work, food, deaths, and even the weather.

The diary is full of history. The teachers were kept there for 10 months, and the teachers finally returned home on Nov. 21, 1942. While it wasn’t a concentration camp per se, the teachers were forced to work for sometimes 16 hours/day (according to his account), digging roads and other manual labor tasks. They were teachers—not manual laborers —and this was very difficult for the men. On May 6, 1941, the first teacher in their group died, Olav Hole from Larvik, as he records in the diary.

Diary translations:

  1. I pinched my big toe under a beam
  2. Snowstorm
  3. 2 June – worked for 12 hours – 10 a.m. – 10 p.m.).
  4. 12 June – we received: bread, marmalade, sardines, butter, sugar, cod liver oil, vitamin C, cigars, washing powder, soap.
  5. 18 June – Aase and my engagement day [My grandparents married in 1936]
  6. 8 July – letter [perhaps from my mother —we have several letters she wrote to her father – remember, she was 4 years old].
  7. In the morning, I started as flea removal assistant.
  8. Boiled cod and liver, which we bought.
  9. Box unloading – fine job, exhausting.
  10. Stone carving – fine job.
  11. Made ammunition, fine job.
  12. Cement – horrible job.
  13. Rough digging – 8 hours.
  14. Sept. 28 – Very cold, 7-12 box unloading and unpacking of leather hats – terrible bombing
  15. Oct. 20 – one year since Thor’s burial
  16. Heavy bombing in the day and a good part of the night.
  17. 7 Oct. – I hereby declare my entry into the Teachers’ Union and commit myself, after the recovery, to take up the school services according to the current regulations [Note: This is a lie, he was forced to write this along with all the other teachers.]

Photo: Randi Millman-Brown
This photo shows the first two pages of the 28-page diary (Laereferden = The Teacher’s Journey) kept by Randi’s grandfather in Kirkenes, Norway.

You can find information about all the teachers here at the website fanger.no. My grandfather’s page found here: fanger.no/persons/33910(His entire diary is in PDF format on this page if you click “Sources” and scroll down to Documents.) The entry on the artist Herløv Åmland is found here: fanger.no/persons/37475.

See Randi Millman-Brown’s previous post in her Search for Thor column at The Search for Thor June 2023.

This article originally appeared in the January 2024 issue of The Norwegian American.

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Randi Millman-Brown

Randi Millman-Brown is an art historian, photographer, part-time genealogist, and writer living in Ithaca, N.Y. She can be contacted at rmillmanbrown@gmail.com.