Sunday, August 30, 2015

The War years in Norway, continued.

More from Otto's autobiography.

A brief note. Otto often understates reality. He was the kind of man that would say, "Its only a scratch," although it would need more that a few stitches. The time he fell through the rafters, breaking seven ribs before landing on his back, was the only time I remember him showing that he really was in pain. I know from the stories I could squeeze out of him over the years that the war was really awful, not as nonchalant as he sometimes comes across. He could always make the best of a bad situation.

Soon after the German Occupation, I joined "Barden" a men's choir. The conductor was my old friend Evald Nord. My dear friend Arne Thorsen also sang bass. One of the tenors was Nick Jensen, who worked in a tobacco store in Strandgaten. He kept me well supplied with cigarettes and tobacco through the war years. Some of us from the choir Nick Jensen, Evald Nord, Frode Damm, Alf Hellebø and myself rented a little cabin at Hanevik on Askøy and spent a lot of weekends there. Later we were joined by Anton Andersen who was the laboratorian at the Elephant Apothecary in Bergen. He was our main source of "booze", getting 20 liters of pure alcohol each month for medicines, but most went to himself, his friends and the black market. Tobacco and booze were the two biggest problems, the third was the Germans.

My best friend in all these years was Brynjulv Totland. He also lived in Laksevaag. He was engaged to Randi Sterner. Her mother was a pianist  and voice instructor. So I took lessons from her in voice. Sang a lot of Grieg, Sinding, and a lot of German Lieder. I became quite attached to the family. I still keep up a good correspondence with Randi. Brynjulv died in 1979 or thereabouts in his early sixties.

Food and Fuel

In the early years of the war food was plentiful. The Government had bought a lot. Then the Germans came and I suppose sent a lot to Germany. Everything disappeared slowly and rationing became stricter. After a while if you could get what was on your cards and could get a meal a day, that amounted to 1200 calories a day.

 Fortunately my father working on the dock was able to get some coal or coke from the ships so we managed to keep fairly warm.

With respect to food that was a lot more difficult. My father and Audun managed to get a classification that entitled them to 1/2 lb. of meat per week. So on Sunday we had stew.

The 1941 harvest was a disaster and potatoes were gone by Christmastime. So through the spring we lived on carrots, rutabagas and turnips if you could get them.

About May-June my friend Andreassen who was a salesmen at Fleischer's told me that he had 50kg of potatoes for me. Later  he got another 100 kg. When I told my mother she just sat down and cried. We were the only ones in the neighborhood who had potatoes.

The black market flourished. You needed something to trade with or a lot of money. Since the store were empty most people had money. Fortunately at the lab we had many things we could make and trade with. It was all worth something, especially denatured alcohol. We learned to purify it and it was worth gold. Some of the dentists in town would send their stuff up to us, we would purify it and keep one half of it.

We were probably hungry sometimes, but we survived. Despite the lack of food health was remarkably good.

When somebody got hold of some food (meat mostly) they would invite all their friends and they would have a great feast. And we would sing, like this one. "Brothers and far away across the salty wasters, there raises America with its glorious beaches, Oh how it is wonderful, oh how it is beautiful. Such a shame America shall be so far away."

My Mother was not well, started ailing early 1940*. In 1942 we went to Dale in Sunnfjord for summer vacation. Stayed with old friends of mother's. They had nothing, not even potatoes. "Why didn't you tell us?" mother asked. " We didn't think you should bring anything". So we called Audun who was still in town and hesent us some potatoes. My Father and Kaare were also there with us. After we came back to town Mother went to the hospital and died very shortly thereafter. The date was about August 15th. Was buried at Nygaard Cemetary.

The Floating Dry Dock

In the summer of 1944, the cruiser "Konigsberg" which had been sunk in the Bergen harbour on April 10th, 1940 had been surfaced and was ready to be put in the dock. Bestefar (father) was on vacation, but some young engineer, Arne Martinus Arnesen, would dock her. That engineer was later killed during the bomb attack on the submarine base that fall. The ship was almost dry when she tipped over and there she lay, she and the dock at about a thirty degree angle. Bestefar came to town and got her out of there, but much damage had been done to the dock.

While they were repairing the dock, a call came to my father from the front guard house. "We have a couple of bags of firewood. If you want it come and get it". So Bestefar went and while he was away, the dock blew up. If he had been on the dock he would most probably have perished. About twenty persons went down with her.

I was at work. My friend Brynjulv who worked close by called me. "Are you aware of the situation? The floating dock just went down." I borrowed a bike and went out to the shipyard. Audun came a little later. We were looking for our father. They told us he had not been there. Soon after he came, all excited. The German Guard stopped him, but my father pushed him away.* " I am going down to my dock," he said, but by that time the dock was resting on the bottom of the fjord. 

*Note:  Mother (Klara) had tuberculosis. She had been doing pretty well, but the lack of food, stress from the war, etc. was more than she could take.

*Note: This kind of behavior often resulted in a severe beating, but Otto doesn't talk about that here.


  1. This is such a fascinating post, thank you so much for sharing. I was just talking to a friend of mine tonight about the rationing during war time. I told her that even though people had less food available to them, nobody starved, which is a good thing. They learned how to make do with what they had and how to cook meals that were healthy, tasty and inexpensive.

  2. I wonder whether understatement was a reflection that things had become too big to talk about. My father was also a master at it. To the end. His surgeon told us the cancer which killed him was a particularly painful one. Father said it was 'fairly unpleasant'.
    Thank you so much for sharing some more of Otto's story. They were so lucky to have things to trade. It is my understanding that people did starve. And that lack of food made them much more susceptible to disease and illness.

  3. Your father's skill at understatement shows the characteristics of someone who was raised not to complain but to make do and get on with it. Not uncommon among people of his era. Today everyone's just a bunch of whiners by comparison.

  4. It's hard to imagine for us nowadays not to have enough food. My mother sometimes mentioned the time shortly after the war (she was just a kid then) and said she always was grateful that they were farmers who could grow food and had milk, eggs, etc.

  5. I consider myself very fortunate, I have enough food, a roof over my head, warmth in the winter, hot water in the tap. And peace. Otto's remenisences are truly fascinating, and very precious. Thanks for sharing them.
    My favourite sentence so far: "Tobacco and booze were the two biggest problems, the third was the Germans." Love that observation.

  6. Jono, it's hard to respond to all of this. I'm struck by your depth, and your parents'/families' depth of character and furious tenacity. It all reminds me, too, how fortunate I am to exist within all the luxuries I have, if only access to countless potatoes.

    Thank you for sharing. You are working on a book, yes?


  7. It is my understanding as well (to add to EC's comment) that people starved . And I recently read about a study which showed that the trauma experienced by Holocaust survivors was passed on to their offspring - their DNA was actually altered by the experiences they had themselves or even witnessed. And girls born to mothers who experienced a severe shortage of food were more likely to develop schizophrenia as they grew up, even though the war was over by then.

    I think EC's other comment was right on as well - that understatement may have been an indication that things were too awful to talk about. How would one begin to write about such things, especially as there was nothing much that could be done. I find it intriguing that some areas of life went on, like the choir your father joined. Did he keep up with singing in later life?

  8. JACKIESUE, Thanks!

    Linda, Even the U.S. had meatless Mondays and wheatless Wednesdays in WW2. We don't eat meat every day, but it is out of choice not rationing.

    Elephant's Child, You have hit the nail on the head. We now have fast food burgers with more meat than a week's rations during wartime Norway.

    Debra, You are absolutely right. I rarely heard complaints from my father and have noticed that people that have been through very tough times rarely do.

    PP, I know Germany was in horrible condition at the end of the war and having some food production must have seemed like a luxury.

    Shammickite, I imagine having some vices was another way to keep your mind off reality and securing them, also.

    Robyn, Thanks. I think many people of that generation were affected by the war. As far as books go, I have only tossed around a few ideas. Maybe I really do have a story to tell whether it is my own or not.

    jenny_o,Yes, people did starve. My Uncle (mother's brother) married a wonderful woman who still has her number tattooed on her forearm. Apparently the other starving prisoners in the death camps gave her their rations as she was just a little girl. They have two sons that seem to be okay with a terrific sense of humor.Yes, he kept singing. There were some Scandinavian dignitaries visiting nearby in Florida, where he had retired. He sang the Icelandic, Norwegian, and U.S. national anthems for them and was well received.

  9. Incredibly interesting and heartbreaking.

  10. What a remarkable ability to tell the brutal truth without bitterness and even finding the bright spots.

  11. Dixie, I would not want to live through that, but unfortunately it still goes on and is often much worse.

    Agi T., Most survivors seem to have gotten past any bitterness which gives me hope for humanity on the one hand.

  12. Sorry I'm so late to the party - finally got Book 10 out the door so I can go back to normal life now (or what passes for normal for me, anyway).

    Otto's emotionless reporting sends a shiver down my spine. "1/2 pound of meat a week", and "...potatoes were gone by Christmastime" - simple words that don't do justice to how close they were to starvation. I am so thankful to have always had a safe place to live and enough to eat.

  13. Hi Jono,
    Another very compelling read! My father was the strong silent kind - not the type to write memoirs. You must see an interesting different perspective of your father when you read his memoirs, yes?

  14. Diane, Congrats on Book 10! I have been waiting since there was snow on the ground! Otto was just a matter of fact kind of guy and wasn't one to complain.

    Donna, Thanks, as was your latest.

    AK Coldweather, Thanks for stopping in! I knew some of the stories growing up, but for him to make a point of writing it all down for my brother and I was an act of love.

  15. This was a very interesting read. I enjoyed it very much and I feel like I'm there with them. Having lived 5 years in Bergen I know the ålaces you write about, even if they have changed since the war!

  16. More! More! Will you turn this into a book?
    I am heavy into Russian history and the kind of thing your father (?) described was all too common. It is a wonder people survived.

  17. I think Debra stole the words out of my mouth. Here's a guy whose mother is so happy to have potatoes that she weeps with joy. Having potatoes is the highlight of his day. Meanwhile, I heard a 10 year old in the grocery store last week literally burst into tears because his iPhone battery died.

    The world needs more Ottos.

  18. That was so interesting to read. I think everyone in Europe had a hard time during the war. I remember my mother telling me that she had made a deal with a farmer’s wife. She would repair all their clothes, alter any old ones and so forth if she could get one egg per week for me, which was the only protein I received – I sure was skinny! I loved cheese so for Christmas my grandparents, great uncles and aunts gave my mother their cheese coupons as a Christmas present for me. Both my parents did not talk much about the war, even though my mother did some very dangerous tasks for the Resistance and the Gestapo came to our apartment in Paris. I remember them though and will have to write a post on that someday. One of them kicked my legs very badly with his boots – did not forget that. They did take my father away for several days, but I never was told what they did to him.

  19. thethoughtsandlifeofme, I remembering you mentioning your time in Bergen. While I have only been there about five times it has a feeling of home for me.

    Blog Fodder, It is a wonder when you think that 50 or 60 million people died in that mess. Tens of millions more suffered before, during, and after. I have only entertained the idea of a book for a few moments and don't know if I am up to the task.

    ABFTS,I can't imagine being that needy for food, but I know there are still millions on the planet who would be overjoyed at having enough food.

    Vagabonde, I recall some of the pictures and stories you have shared from your childhood. Many people were involved in the resistance both organized and by individual acts. Most of them rarely wish to talk about those times. I think the Nazis underestimated the resentment and anger of the occupied countries which no doubt shortened the war.

  20. This makes me feel guilty about being persnickety over food. What a raw story told without bitterness. Thanks for sharing this.