The Search for Thor
By Randi Millman-Brown
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.
It was my son’s 28th birthday last week, and I had an interesting idea: to ask him what some of his earliest childhood memories were. It took some time, and he did remember a few random things, but they were all rather vague memories. It was difficult to separate if his memories were tied to photographs or real events, which made me start thinking about the role of photographs in our lives and how they affect one’s recollection of the past.
The only other person alive who has ever met Thor, my great-uncle—the subject of this column—is my mother. Thor died, however, when she was 3 years old, in 1941. She has a vague memory of him and her father (Thor’s brother), but that’s all. Unfortunately, the only photograph of the two brothers together that I am aware of is from when they were 9½ and 6½ in 1910.
As I begin to write my novel based on Thor’s short life (he died at the age of 37), I have to create a realistic backstory for him. I have a few details of his life already, like his love of art, photography, hiking, pipe-smoking, and travel. But other specifics I have to make up. I have a few photographs that I can look at to extrapolate some ideas about him, and I’ve talked to my mother about her father, which has helped to get some sense of who Thor was.
While talking to her about her father, I decided to also ask her about her earliest memories. Hers is quite dramatic and it is probably why she clearly remembers it, almost 80 years later.
Her earliest memory took place five months after Thor died in October 1941. It was March 1942, and her family was having a birthday party for her. She remembers an interrupting knock on their apartment door during the party. At the door stood a Nazi solider. Behind him, was one of her father’s students (my grandfather was a teacher, and the student turned him in to the Nazi authorities for not teaching Nazi subject matter). He was given a half-hour to grab some clothes and his backpack from the attic and to say goodbye, before he was taken away. She remembers standing by the window with her mother and grandmother, watching her father being driven away, not knowing if they would ever see him again.
Years later, she learned the real story. On March 20, 1942, over 1,000 teachers were arrested and jailed, and then 499 of these men were sent to a concentration camp in the town of Kirkenes, 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle, over 1,242 miles from Oslo. Her father was one of those 499 male teachers.
The teachers were first put on cattle cars to Trondheim, a 16-hour journey with no food, and then, the rest of the journey took 17 days by boat to Kirkenes. For over eight months they endured starvation, forced labor, and extremely harsh living conditions. They were sent home on Nov. 4, 1942. These teachers were part of a larger non-violent resistance movement to refuse to participate in teaching Nazi education and to help prevent a fascist takeover of schools in Norway. They did not want to join the “Nazi Teacher’s League.” Over 10,000 of about 14,000 teachers nationwide refused to participate.
I believe my great-uncle died resisting the Nazi invasion of Norway. I do not know how exactly, but that is why I am writing a novel and not a real account of his life. But understanding that Thor’s brother also refused to participate in the Nazi infiltration of schools, makes me sure that he, too, would have participated in some type of resistance, perhaps ultimately leading to his death.
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Images courtesy of Randi Millman-Brown
This article originally appeared in the March 26, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.