Illuminating local Jewish history

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MUSEUM GUIDE: Norway’s capital is packed with museums, and they’re often popping up in the news. We’re following that news, and aim to focus regularly on a specific museum or attraction worthy of a visit.
THIS WEEK: The Oslo Jewish Museum (Jødisk Museum i Oslo), a welcoming,  sobering and relatively new museum exuding spirit and community strength.

The entrance to Oslo's Jewish Museum goes through an apartment building where many Jews once lived. Just ring the bell for the museum. PHOTO: Isabel Coderre

The Jewish festival Hanukkah began on December 1, making a visit to the Oslo Jewish Museum (Jødisk Museum i Oslo) timely during this dark part of the year. The museum’s aim is to shed light on Jewish life in Norway.

The museum portrays the Jewish art and music scene in Norway from the 19th century onwards and explains Jewish holidays. It also offers insight into the Norwegian government’s attitude towards Jews through the years, the experiences of Jews during World War II, and what it’s like to be Jewish in Norway today. Finally, there is a special exhibit about Jewish life in Poland. The current exhibit shows the ways Jews have participated in and contributed to Norwegian society before, during and after the war.

These aspects of Jewish life in Norway are explained in broad terms as well as biographically. One of the exhibits profiles 14 Jews who made an impact on Norway, including German-Norwegian writer and publisher Max Tau, and the caricature artist called Pedro, who worked for newspapers Norsk Tidend and Verdens Gang (VG).

Brass plaques inlaid on the sidewalk outside the museum entrance honor former building residents who were killed in the Holocaust. PHOTO: Isabel Coderre

Newcomers to Norway, and locals as well, can learn a lot at this museum – not only about Jewish life here, but also about the country’s history. While many may know that Norway’s constitution was created in 1814, for example, they may not know that Article 2 of that constitution banned Jews from entering the country. It was only after decades of work by Norwegian poet and social justice advocate Henrik Wergeland that the Constitution was amended in 1851, and Wergeland did not live to see the change. Every year for the past century (with the exception of the years during the Nazi occupation) Norwegian Jews have paid tribute to Wergeland’s efforts by making speeches at his grave on Norway’s Constitution Day (May 17th).

The museum also notes how Jews fought on the Norwegian side during World War II, especially right after the German invasion in April 1940, and many actively resisted the German occupation. In 1942, however, 771 Jews were deported from Norway to Germany and only 34 survived.  Many Jews who had been able to escape before deportation joined Norwegian forces in Canada, the UK, and Sweden, or joined other Allied forces.

The history depicted by the Oslo Jewish Museum is interesting, but so is the history of the building that houses it and its surroundings. It is located near Hausmannsgate, in a neighborhood where many Jews lived before deportation.

The museum itself is housed in a former synagogue. PHOTO: Isabel Coderre

The museum is not visible from the street as it is blocked by an apartment building, but visitors should take care to notice that building: On the sidewalk before it, 19 inlaid brass stones bear the names of the Jews who were taken from those homes and killed in 1942. A German artist began this brass stone initiative 15 years ago, and the Oslo Jewish Museum brought it to Norway.

To access the museum, visitors must pass through the apartment building via a wrought iron gate – the information panels on the other side of the gate are where the museum begins.

The museum itself is a modest building that had been a synagogue from 1921 to 1942. Since then it has been used as a warehouse, a factory, an office and more, during which time much of the original building deteriorated or was destroyed. The welcoming volunteer at the front desk could nonetheless point out a few elements of the synagogue that remain.

Upon entering the building, notice the emerald paint and Hebrew writing on the walls; after painstakingly removing several layers of paint during the restoration process, this original artwork was uncovered. Also, notice the chandeliers that hang above the front desk. These were found during the restoration, and while museum officials believe they hung in the synagogue, they cannot be certain. No photos exist because Orthodox Jews typically visit the synagogue and study the Torah during the Shabbat (day of rest from Friday evening to Saturday night) – which is also when they are also forbidden from using technology such as cameras. The volunteer added that even if a community member had photographed the synagogue during the week, that photograph would have been lost during the deportation to Germany.

The Oslo Jewish Museum, which opened in 2008, is a wonderful addition to the Oslo museum scene. Like the Jewish population in Norway (only around 1,500), the museum is small (only one room) but has 150 years of history in Norway.

Note: Most of the information at this museum is in Norwegian, although the museum distributes an English booklet containing translations.

Oslo Jewish Museum (Jødisk Museum i Oslo) http://www.jodiskmuseumoslo.no/default.asp?m=9238&lang=ENG (external link)
Open: Tuesday 10am-3pm, Thursday 2pm-7pm, Sunday 11am-4pm.
Location: Calmeyers gate 15B. Take the bus or trikk to Hausmannsgate, or the metro to Jernbanetorget and have a five-minute walk.
Admission: Adults NOK 50, students and children NOK 40.

ALSO IN OUR MUSEUM GUIDE:

Oslo City Museum (Bymuseet)

The Museum of Contemporary Art

The Ibsen Museum

The Museum of Decorative Arts and Design (Kunstindustrimuseet)

The National Gallery

Norsk Folkemuseum (The Norwegian Museum of Cultural History)

The Viking Ship Museum

Summertime at The Munch Museum

The Natural History Museum – Botanical Gardens

The National Museum – Architecture

The Kon-Tiki Museum

The Maritime Museum

Oscarsborg Fortress

The Polar Ship Fram Museum

“Be a tourist in your own town”

Views and News from Norway/Isabel Coderre
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