In an attempt to escape Halloween (I’ll talk about that later) yesterday, I went to a theater play. “Operasjon Almenrausch” (sorry, little info in English) was more like a live docudrama, and what a great way to tell a story! Extremely clever staging, with the action taking place all over and the audience seated in the middle of the floor and in the middle of the action. The director defines the play as an audiovisual hearing. The actors didn’t act anything out; they (and the audience) were told they could never recreate the terror, so just tell the story; just answer the questions. And they did, backed up by vintage film footage and actual recorded interviews from the people involved.
The play was about a couple of unsung war heroes. Norwegian resistance folk who were never invited to ride in any ticker-tape parade nor given a memorial plaque or any medals. Why? Because they were communists. No matter what they had sacrificed on behalf of their country during five years of occupation, most were labelled as traitors afterwards. A huge, nasty conspiracy by all the “good” people.
World War II in Norway wasn’t about soldiers and pilots and sailors moving in masses on foreign fronts, like it was for the US. The war here was a quiet occupation by polite but brutal Germans, and was fought by regular people, often with no military experience, whose main weapon was the Norwegian landscape itself and their own knowledge of it. Though Norway did have a military, run by the Norwegian government from its exile in London, most of the Norwegians affected by and involved in the war and the occupation were civilians. My own maternal grandfather was torpedoed a number of times – while serving on civilian ships.
The whole staging lasted less than two hours. During the brief break after the show itself and a panel discussion to start afterwards, I happen to talk to a couple. The wife told me her father had served in the Norwegian marines. I didn’t think to ask if perhaps his ship had protected the convoys my grandfather sailed in.
The play had a special interest for the folks in Bergen: The story revolves around two men: the Bergen communist leader Peder Furubotn and the resistance man Samuel Titlestad, also from Bergen. Furubotn ignored instructions from Moscow and insisted that the communists demonstrate against faciscism. In Bergen, he managed to accomplish that. After the occupation, the fight to keep Norway non-fascist went underground and now Titlestad joined Furubotn. Both Titlestad and his wife were in the resistance.
Bergen’s favorite author, Gunnar Staalesen, is best known for his mystery novels about the Bergen private detective Varg Veum. Staalesen also wrote a fictionalized trilogy about Bergen’s history through the 20th century, and I remember how he dwelled on the labor movement and the communists during his chapters about the 1930’s. (Staalesen is a darned good read, by the way.) What I didn’t know was that he had befriended the son of the Titlestads in his teen years. Their story colored Staalesen’s outlook, and also their son’s, who became a historian. Now 62, the younger Titlestad sat in the panel next to Staalesen and talked about how history gets fudged too much. Yes, history is written by the victor, but in some cases, we’re not just talking point of view; we’re talking outright lies.
Norway has always been a nation of good, honest people and a government to match. One could forgive a few foibles and injustices; it was war, people were hurting, confused, etc. Take your pick. But in recent years, other stories have surfaced. Sometimes a Norwegian girl would fall for a German soldier; that could cost her her life. It certainly cost her her friends and her family. But who really paid the price? The children. To this day, the Norwegian government has not apologized for labeling them all retards and putting them in institutions. They seem comfortable with letting the children take the blame for their parents’ actions. The now-adult children spent the start of this century fighting for redress. And while it may not have been appropriate to sympathize with them when I was young, now we do. And rightly so.
Speaking of which: Earlier this year, an unknown hero from the day of occupation itself, April 9 1940, was vindicated and awarded years after his death, when correspondence was found telling the truth about the man’s heroic act to help get the prime minister and his cabinet out of Oslo. Who lied about the man’s heroism? A respected member of the cabinet, Trygve Lie. A man whose name I grew up reading in history books and respecting because he was the first secretary-general of the United Nations.
But the dirty deeds that are being made known all these decades later, are not the main reason I feel like writing about my experience last night. No, it’s the spirit of community shared with the others I meet in Norway, by virtue of having had a grandfather in the thick of things in the war, of having grown up in a landscape dotted with solid, German bunkers, and the little hints in the family: “Don’t talk to so-and-so about the war; he was on the wrong side.” Meaning, so-and-so had sympathized with the Nazis. When I think back, I’m amazed Grandpa didn’t turn out bitter or angry. But I think he knew only too well what starts wars, and there’d been enough pain.
I sat next to a woman during the panel discussions, one who just had to whisper comments in my ear. It turned out that her father had also been in the resistance with Titlestad and Furubotn. The young family had to move to Sweden, and her father came and went – much to her mother’s dismay – while the children remained oblivious to what Dad was actually up to. She was now 76 and eagerly telling her story to her grandchildren and anybody else who would listen. The occupation has been one of the most intense experiences the Norwegian people have ever had, and it still affects and defines them.
To me, it is important to keep talking about the war, to share these stories. The scariest thing about World War II is that I don’t know what I would have done if my current government demanded I think a certain way and betray my neighbors. I do believe the US approached a similar behavior with its Patriot Act. And to my horror, nobody stopped it. And nobody stopped George W. Bush’s preemptive strike on Poland Iraq.
If your own government doesn’t say no, what can a regular citizen do? And that sticky question is exactly what faced many people in Europe 70 years ago.