Calls are rising in Norway to turn November 26 into a national remembrance day, or even an official “day of shame,” to mark the mass arrests and deportations of most of Norway’s Jewish population on that day in 1942. Various memorials were held last week, meanwhile, and heading into the weekend.
“The Norwegian assault on the Jews is in the process of gaining the place in our national conscience that it deserves,” wrote commentator Lars West Johnsen in newspaper Dagsavisen. “November 26 is a day of shame, another year away from our history but also into our history.”
The date prompted special events throughout the past week: Groups were out polishing the brass plaques placed around Oslo outside the homes of Jews who were arrested and deported. The Holocaust Center on Bygdøy offered several programs and memorials. There have also been more launchings of books with ever-emerging information of what happened before, during and after November 26, 1942.
Now they also include one by author Lill Fanny Sæther describing how her mother survived the Holocaust, based on the discovery of her diaries, when she won a reprieve as a British citizen and then later fled to Sweden. All the diaries, papers and letters written before and while Sæther’s mother Else Mendel was a refugee in Sweden have now been donated to the Holocaust Center.
Norway was no longer a safe haven
Many other Jewish families in Norway in the 1930s and early 1940s had already escaped persecution elsewhere in Europe, only to find that suddenly Norway was no longer a safe haven either. More than 500 arrested Jewish Norwegians were thus loaded into the hold of the German vessel Donau on November 26, 1942, shipped first to Szczecin in Poland and then sent by train to Auschwitz, where they were killed in its gas chambers on December 1.
Only nine men survived the war to return to Norway, where they found their homes and businesses expropriated and fortunes gone. All told, 767 Jewish Norwegians were deported during the war years. Only 30, including the nine on the Donau, returned.
The “shame” now attached to November 26 in Norway has arisen after it’s become painfully clear in recent years how it wasn’t only the Nazi German occupiers at the time who rounded up entire families and even tore many who were ill from hospital beds. Norway already had a history of anti-semitism and discrimination against minorities. Norwegian police, neighbourhood informants and thousands of other Norwegians also played a major role in the carefully planned early morning raids on homes and hospitals alike, for which both the government and police have apologized.
The Norwegian complicity has been described in other books and films, and more keep coming. Last year’s film based on author Marte Michelet’s book Den største forbrytelsen (The biggest crime) was finally given its official premiere and a re-launch last week since its release came amidst last year’s Corona restrictions that limited audiences.
There were also some happier events last week, including a delayed ceremony to mark the 100th anniversary of Norway’s first synagogue in Oslo. It actually formally opened in 1920 but its centennial was also marred by Corona restrictions.
On Thursday, the day before November 26, King Harald and Crown Prince Haakon visited the synagogue in Oslo to attend special services and a celebration of both the anniversary and Norway’s “entire Jewish community,” according to Rabbi Joav Melchior. Melchior noted how the royal presence sent “an important signal that we are a welcome part of society.” The mayor of Oslo and a government minister attended the ceremony as well.
Next year will mark the 80th anniversary of the arrests and deportations that sent hundreds of Jewish Norwegians to their deaths. Even more memorials and officials apologies to the Jewish community are expected, and now sought: “Our war history is mostly marked by jubilees, with the battles and heroes living on in popular culture,” wrote Johnsen in Dagsavisen. “Even more important is not to forget the Nazis’ view of humanity every year. The fact that November 26 is now being marked annually is a sign that our national responsibility for the Jewish tragedy is gaining a stronghold in Norwegian public life. The Jews’ fate has received a rightful place in Norwegian history.”