Wreckage of a major Nazi warship that disappeared 80 years ago has been found off the coast of Norway, reopening a little-known chapter about Norway’s Holocaust history and the bitter fate of Norwegian Jews.
In the course of performing a routine inspection of undersea electricity, Norwegian engineers checked out earlier reports detecting a huge underwater structure. What they found was a massive, well-preserved shipwreck deep under the sea.
The length of the sunken ship, its cannons and a Nazi Swastika helped identify it as the Karlsruhe, a sophisticated, state of the art war vessel that was once the crown jewel of Germany’s naval force. The ship played a key role in the Nazi invasion of Norway.
On April 9, 1940, as German forces set out to invade the Scandinavian country, from the coastal cities in the far north to Oslo in the south, the Karlsruhe led a fleet of smaller warships in a surprise attack on the port city of Kristiansand.
With the advantage of the Karlsruhe’s advanced guns and cannons, the fleet destroyed the city’s maritime defenses in just a few hours. The ships then brought ashore thousands of German soldiers as well as tanks and weaponry.
Aided by German warplanes, German forces easily captured Kristiansand and in a matter of weeks, occupied the whole of Norway, forcing the government and the king to flee to Britain.
In the meantime, with its mission of death and destruction complete, the giant warship turned around and headed back to Germany. 13 miles from the Norwegian coast, a hidden British submarine sent two torpedoes crashing into the ship’s hull, shutting off all sources of electricity and power.
As the crew bailed out, the pride of Germany’s naval force sank to the bottom of the ocean where it would remain undetected for the next eight decades.
At the time of the German invasion, Norway’s tiny Jewish community numbered about 2200, including about 200 German and Austrian refugees who had found safe haven there in the 1930s. Few had any clear knowledge, at this early stage of the war, about the extent of Nazi atrocities in Poland, and the secret killing centers of Sobibor, Treblinka and Belzec, where hundreds of thousands of Jews were being slaughtered.
In Norway, despite sporadic violence by the occupying SS as they set about registering Oslo’s Jews and confiscating their property and financial assets, the Jews in their wildest imagination could not conceive of what lay ahead.
With the Norwegian government in exile, a Hitler-admirer named Vidkun Quisling, who in 1933 had founded a fascist organization modeled after Germany’s Nazi Party, proclaimed himself prime minister. The Nazis used him as a figurehead; under his pseudo authority, Norwegian police and paramilitary units carried out a lighting raid against the Jews in the winter of 1942.
In the dark, pre-dawn hours of November 26, 1942 around 300 men from the German SS, Norway’s own state police and the Norwegian Nazi organization known as Hirden gathered in downtown Oslo to launch the aktion.
Historian Johanne Bergkvist wrote in the newspaper Dagsavisen that 100 taxis had been ordered, and they all fanned out to arrest Norwegian Jews in Oslo and neighboring Aker.
The heart of Oslo’s Jewish community lay in two neighboring downtown districts. The Norwegian police sent trucks to these areas, starting at around 4:30am. Those arrested in Oslo that morning were brought to the Oslo harbor, where they were joined by Jewish men and boys who had been arrested a month earlier and imprisoned at the notorious Berg prison camp.
Among this group was the distinguished chief rabbi of Norway, Rabbi Isaac Samuel, who had been tipped off about his imminent arrest but refused to leave his community. Rav Samuel was a student of the renowned Rav Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg (Seridei Aish). After being offered the position of chief rabbi of Norway, he had left his native Berlin and settled in Norway with his family in the early 1930s. The rabbi devoted himself to raising the standards of Yiddishkeit in his adopted country.
At the harbor, all the arrestees including 302 men, 188 women and 42 children along with sick and handicapped people, were ordered aboard the vessel Donau, which sailed to Szczecin in Poland. There the victims were transferred to freight trains that took them to the Auschwitz-Birkenau killing center. Most were dead within the week.
There were a total of five organized deportations by ship that sent a total of 773 Norwegian Jews to Nazi Germany during the war years. “Only 12 souls survived,” testified Mrs. Henrietta Samuel, wife of Rabbi Samuel, at the Eichmann Trial in Jerusalem, May 1961.
Only recently has Norwegian complicity in the mass arrests of Jews been acknowledged. In 2017, at a ceremony marking 75 years since the liquidation of the Norwegian Jewish community, Prime Minister Erna Solberg recalled that “nearly a half of the Jewish population in Norway was brutally killed during the war years, because they were Jews.”
“The Nazis were behind the overall Jewish extermination … but with certainty we contend that the initiative against the Jews in Norway was taken in Norway, not as a directive from Berlin. Norwegians were responsible, and Norwegians were victims,” stated Solberg.
The prime minister noted how her predecessor Jens Stoltenberg in 2012 issued an apology for the role his country played in deporting its own Jewish citizens. Norway’s state police department had apologized as well.
“Norwegians carried out the arrests, Norwegians drove the trucks and it happened in Norway,” Stoltenberg had said in a speech at the dock in Oslo where the Jews were forced aboard the Donau in 1942. “Today I feel it is fitting for me to express our deepest apologies that this could happen on Norwegian soil. It is time for us to acknowledge that Norwegian policemen, civil servants and other Norwegians took part in the arrest and deportation of Jews.”
It was the first time a Norwegian leader had been so explicit about his countrymen’s collusion under Nazi occupation.
Paul Levine, a history professor at Uppsala University in Sweden, likened Norway’s role during the war to that of the Vichy regime in Nazi-occupied France.
“They implemented their own anti-Jewish laws, used their own manpower, confiscated property and discriminated against Jews before the Germans had demanded it,” he told Reuters news agency. “Norway didn’t have to do what it did.”
In the spirit of Holocaust ‘housecleaning” that took hold in Europe in the late 1990s under U.S. pressure, Norway paid some $60 million in restitution to Norwegian Jews and Jewish organizations, as compensation for property confiscated during the Nazi occupation.
The restitution, however, came without an apology for its role in the destruction of Norwegian Jewry.
For most Norwegians, the notion that their Holocaust-era countrymen were complicit with the Nazis is infuriating. At the center of the country’s World War II narrative is the conviction that the Norwegian nation was solely a victim of the Nazis. Most Norwegians were portrayed as having resisted the Germans, with members of the underground enshrined as national heroes.
Historians cast collaborators with the Germans as a treacherous minority who were punished after the war.
Yet, the terrible events of November 26, 1942, a frigid winter day when hundreds of local police turned over to the Nazis hundreds of innocent people, old and young, sick and handicapped, to be deported and murdered, cannot be erased from history or memory.
Even the role of the Resistance continues to be fiercely debated in Norway today, with Norwegians pointing with pride to its heroism in saving half of its Jewish community.
Others say the Resistance did nothing to forewarn the Jews about the impending arrests and deportations, and that smuggling Jews across the Swedish border was done purely as a business at extravagant rates. The wealthy were saved while the poor were left to their fate, critics say.
According to the mainstream version of events, the Norwegian resistance did not find out about the deportations in time to warn the Jews. These moves supposedly came as a total surprise. But documents found over years of research by Norwegian journalist Marte Michelet reflect a more complex picture.
In her book, “What Did The Resistance Know?” Michelet presents evidence that the resistance had advance knowledge about the Germans’ intention to deport Norway’s Jews, months before the arrest order was issued, but took no action to warn people until the eleventh hour.
Using historic documents and articles, Michelet reveals “how historians and Resistance heroes themselves have played down, glossed over or withheld information about the Jewish deportation,” writes Norway News and Views in a review of the book.
The author also discovered documents and testimonies that indicated anti-Semitism was common among members of the resistance. She also learned that despite the resistance’s decision not to help the Jews, some activists were willing to do so anyway for the right price.
Those who needed money to finance their operations against the Germans helped smuggle Jews to Sweden simply for extravagant sums of money. “The rescue operation emerges in her book as a business in every respect that impoverished the Jews,” writes Norway News and Views. “Wealthy people who could pay were saved, and those without means were sent to Auschwitz.”
Some Norwegian historians have confirmed these findings, even revealing sordid details about groups within the resistance that competed to save Jews for money. Archival documents show that in a number of cases, resistance members who were jealous of their colleagues’ profits betrayed their own comrades to the Nazis, writes News and Views.
The fatal consequences were paid of course by any Jews who were being hid by the resistance group that was betrayed.
Critics have cast doubt on Michelet’s findings but a former president of the Jewish community in the Norwegian capital, Ervin Kohn, has spoken up in her defense. Most of the author’s revelations have long been known to the Jewish community, Kohn affirmed, adding that the Norwegian “heroism narrative” began to crack years ago.
In stark contrast, the testimony of a survivor, Mrs. Henrietta Samuel, described resistance members who helped her and her children escape across the border to Sweden as “brave and compassionate.”
Excerpts from her testimony, delivered in Jerusalem in 1961 at the war crimes trial of Eichmann Trial, follow below.
A woman of aristocratic bearing with a commanding presence, Mrs. Henrietta Samuel described the harrowing events in Norway that preceded her flight across the border to neutral Sweden with her three children, and the life-saving help of several Norwegian resistance members.
State Attorney Bach: Mrs. Samuel, when did you first come in contact with the Gestapo directly?
- In Trondheim, the northernmost Jewish community [in Norway], there were about 500 Jews. The first Jewish victims died there.
- Can you tell us briefly in what circumstances this happened?
- There was a curfew. One Jew returned home a little late and was shot dead on the street.
- When was your late husband first arrested by the Germans?
- My husband was summoned by the Gestapo for questioning five or six times. At one point, my husband came home and told me he had received hints that he should “disappear.”
- Who gave him the hints?
- One of the Gestapo officials. A Gestapo commander asked him, “Sind Sie noch immer hier?” You’re still here?
- And did he heed this suggestion?
- My husband said to me then as he had repeatedly told me since 1940, “As a rov, I am responsible for my community. I cannot leave them in this dangerous hour.”
- What happened then?
- He was summoned once more to the Gestapo with twelve other men on September 2, 1942. This time he did not return.
- Did you find out where he was?
- The underground movement saw to it that the twelve families concerned were informed the same day. We found out the men were taken to Grini, the Norwegian concentration camp near Oslo.
- Did you try to see your husband there?
- All my efforts to get a visiting permit were in vain. So were the requests of the Jewish community to the Gestapo to allow the Rabbi to officiate at least on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. The very notion that such a request had a chance of being granted shows that in 1942 there was still total ignorance about the Nazis’ true character and intentions.
- Did your husband take anything with him when he went to the Gestapo on that day, September 2, belongings, clothes?
- My husband went with the clothes he was wearing, without saying goodbye to me or the children, because we believed he would return as he had on previous occasions.
- When did you first learn that your husband was no longer in Norway?
- On November 21, Inge, one of the leaders of the Norwegian underground who lived close by, came secretly to visit me. Members of the underground had to operate in utter secrecy in helping Jews. If caught, they could expect to be killed. She told me, “Last night your husband was deported to Germany. I was struggling with myself whether to call you,” she said. “Perhaps this was the last time you could have seen him.”
- Mrs. Samuel, you said your husband was arrested on September 2, together with others. When were the other Jewish men arrested in Norway?
- On October 26, Jewish men were arrested in a lightning operation.
- Presiding Judge: All the Jewish men in the whole of Norway?
- The operation was meant to apply to the whole of Norway, to all Jewish men. However, thanks to the Norwegian underground movement, some went into hiding.
- State Attorney Bach: Who actually made the arrests of the Jewish men in Norway?
- The operation was carried out by the Norwegian police accompanied by the Germans.
- Do you know when and on what ship the Norwegian Jewish men who were arrested in October were deported?
- The men were carried off to Germany together with the women and children who were arrested on November 26. All were taken straight to the ship Donau, with the men from the Berg camp who were arrested one month earlier, on October 26.
- Presiding Judge: Which women and children were arrested? We have not yet heard of this aktion.
- On November 26, a lightning operation, similar to that against men, was carried out in Oslo at 5 o’clock in the morning.
- And the women and children were also arrested at this time?
- In this operation, it was specifically the women and children they were after.
- Q. How many Jews were deported from Norway altogether?
- Half the Jews of Oslo, about 750, were taken to Auschwitz. Twelve survived.
- Tell me, Mrs. Samuel, what happened to the other Jews, those who were not deported and who did not hide inside Norway?
- During the night of November 25, the underground tried to warn as many Jewish persons as possible that danger was imminent and that they had to go into hiding.
- And what happened to these Jews? How did they manage to escape?
- With the opening up of escape trails, these Jews were saved by the underground movement and taken to Sweden. This was a very dangerous operation because the trails and the borders were closely watched by German guards who patrolled there.
- And what happened to you and the children?
- During the night of November 25, I received a call from Inge: “Tonight it is very cold. I advise you to cover the children well.” That was enough for me. Telephone conversations were monitored. I understood the language, I understood there was danger and we would need to flee. I woke my children and dressed them warmly.
- Please tell us what happened.
- Inge came to us an hour later. My sister-in-law with her two children and I with my three children were transferred by Inge to another neighbor, Mrs. Helliesen Lund, in a house nearby. We could stay for only one day, however, as there were children in the house who might tell others ‘Jews are living with us.’
- After that day, how long did you remain in Norway?
- We were housed in an empty villa outside Oslo for eight days. We were five children and two grownups, and a staff organized by Inge kept us supplied with food and clothing. They were all Home-front fighters (resistance members) who worked during the day, followed their professions, and used the nights to fight for the Home-front.
[In recognition of their rescue of Jews at the risk of their lives, both women were recognized as “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem. Mrs. Helliesen Lund was recognized in 2006. Mrs. Ingebjorg Sletten Fosstvedt had been awarded this title in the 60s at a ceremony in Jerusalem.]
- When did you cross the border into Sweden?
- During the night of December 3, 1942, the first night of Chanuka. It was 20 degrees below zero. We walked for hours.
- How old were your children, Mrs. Samuel?
- They were 3, 9 and 10 years old.
- Did the whole group reach Sweden safely?
- Thank G-d, we managed to cross into Sweden safely. Sheer miracles. Swedish police permitted us to go to a refugee camp in Alingsaas, east of Gothenburg, where we stayed a few days.
- Do you know how many Jews altogether reached Sweden with the help of the Norwegian underground?
- About 850 Norwegian Jews were saved by the underground and taken to Sweden.
- Mrs. Samuel, did you ever hear from your husband after he had been taken to Germany?
- In 1943, in January or February, I received an exchange immigration certificate to Palestine, sent to Sweden through my brothers, thanks to the help of the late Chief Rabbi Herzog, of blessed memory. I applied to the Swedish Foreign Ministry, which tried to have my husband sent to an exchange camp. But nothing came of it.
- So you never received word from him?
- No. We never heard from him after he was taken away.
- I am sorry. Thank you, Mrs. Samuel. That is all for now.
In her own Holocaust testimonial many years later, daughter Esther (nee Samuel) Cahn, who was ten at the time of the Samuels’ flight from Norway, revisited those terrifying days.
“In the summer of 1945 in Sweden, we found out that my father had been murdered in Auschwitz on December 16, 1942,” she recalls on the videotape. “There was some kind of letter from an agency. But even after we arrived in Eretz Yisroel a year later, when I was thirteen, I would constantly scan the faces of people in the street, looking for him…Perhaps it had been a dreadful mistake and he had somehow survived and was trying to find us… I had been so attached to him, I couldn’t accept that he was gone.”
Mini Hitler In Norway
In April 1940, with the German invasion of Norway underway, delusional Hitler-admirer Vidkun Quisling attempted to seize power, proclaiming himself prime minister in the world’s first radio-broadcast coup d’etat.
When the Nazis refused to support his government, he was forced to back down but from 1942 to 1945, the Germans decided he could be useful to them, and installed him as head of a puppet government. Quisling eagerly carried out all SS orders including those against fellow Norwegians. He led his regime in taking an active role in the genocidal roundup and deportation of Norwegian Jews.
On May 8, 1945, German forces in Norway surrendered to the Allies. Quisling was put on trial during the purge of pro-Nazi collaborators, found guilty of murder and high treason against the Norwegian state, and sentenced to death.
One of the first Nazi war criminals to receive the death penalty, Quisling was executed by firing squad on October 24, 1945 at Akershus Fortress, where the Jews of Norway had been incarcerated prior to deportation.
“Let history reach its own verdict,” the mini-Hitler announced prior to his execution. “Believe me, in ten years, I will be another St. Olaf.” (Olaf Harolldson ruled Norway from 1015-1028, and was posthumously given the title, “Eternal King of Norway.” –Wikepedia)
Far from living on in history as a saint, “Quisling” has become a byword for “traitor” in several languages including English, reflecting people’s utter contempt for the man and his conduct both during the war and since his death.