I have taken my stories of the scorched earth destruction of wartime Finnmark and the far north of Norway on the road during the past few weeks: opening a literary festival in Merseyside at the beginning of the month and then as a guest of the Manchester and Liverpool Historical Association, an active group of history lovers in the north west of England.
Wherever I’ve taken the book so far in the UK the response has been similar to mine before I wrote it: I knew something of wartime events in Norway, such as the Heroes of Telemark, the Resistance in the south and the sinking of the Tirpitz.
But the stories I gathered on the road in the north of Norway which I tell in ‘Fire and Ice: the Nazis’ scorched earth campaign in Norway’ – of the trauma of the people of Kirkenes from the bombing by the Red Army Air Force and the families scattered by the forced evacuation of Finnmark, to the cruel treatment and suffering of the Soviet prisoners of war worked to death building roads and military bunkers .. this is new to my audiences.
So I boarded a plane for the United States wondering what Norwegian-Americans would make of these stories.
My first stop was Bay Ridge in Brooklyn thanks to the wonderful Victoria Hofmo, who is an active organiser for the Norwegian-American community there and who runs the Scandinavian East Coast Museum (http://www.scandinavian-museum.org/about.html) Victoria was also kind enough to interview me at length for the Norwegian-American Weekly, which she contributes to.
The venue for my ‘Fire and Ice’ talk was a church dead in the centre of one of the largest and oldest populations of Norwegians in America. Bay Ridge was once home to 60,000 Norwegians and Scandinavians and had been established 300 years before by settlers from Denmark, Sweden and Norway, dominating that tip of Brooklyn. At the end of that section of land the enormous Verrazano Narrows Bridge was built, and it was Norwegian homes that had to be cleared for its foundations and approach roads.
Under the auspices of a meeting of the Leif Ericson Society – named after the Viking who first landed in America in 1000 AD and who almost gave his name to that enormous bridge – an audience of Norwegian-Americans gathered, mostly from the south although with one descendant of the former Sheriff of Vadsø, a small settlement in the north near Kirkenes.
I began with extracts of Knut Tharaldsen’s stories of watching the Red Army pushing the German Army out of Jarfjord, witnessing the death of several soldiers at close hand and of others fatally injured waiting to die, and then closing with his assessment of how that immediate trauma affected him and others for the rest of his life.
Then I moved on to Karin Johnsen’s shocking tales of how she and her brother used to collect live ammunition from around Kirkenes and either throw it on fires, when it would explode, or smuggle it into the family home in her rucsac. I could sense the same feeling of utter shock and disbelief among my audience as I had felt when Karin first told me these stories.
Sometimes, when I’ve had a break from these stories and then come back to them, I underestimate the emotional impact they might have on people hearing them for the first time. All of a sudden I realise that what went on in the north of Norway during the war is quite heavy duty material.
The children blown up by live ammunition. The Soviet prisoners starved and worked to death, resorting to cannibalism in their pitiful camps in the mountains near Tromsø. The ‘lebensborn’ children born of German fathers who were badly treated, abused and victimised after the war.
I mentally search for stories that might lift the mood. How about the Norwegian-American hero pilot Bernt Balchen who flew supply drops to the Resistance and later airlifted essential supplies into post-scorched earth Kirkenes? Yes, that anecdote about him watching some Red Army soldiers clearing a section of the airfield with a bulldozer and warning the Colonel in charge that there were mines laid in that area. And no sooner had the words come out of his mouth than the bulldozer hit a mine which exploded, killing the two men.
‘Not to worry,’ said the Colonel. ‘We have plenty of men and the Americans have plenty of bulldozers’.
Hmm. Maybe not. How about a rescue, maybe of Norwegians who defied the Nazi round-up of the population of Finnmark? The biggest rescue happened on the island of Sørøya, when 1,000 people took refuge in caves .. but they thought it would only be a matter of days before the Allies landed and rescued them, and in the end they found themselves starving and completely unprepared for winter, and had to send a boat out for help, which came in the form of Royal Navy destroyers running the gauntlet of German U-boats to get them off the island.
In the end I settle for a story told to me by Gunnar Jaklin, son of a Tromsø newspaper editor who fled with his family to Sweden when he discovered the Gestapo wanted to question him for a second time following a spell in a prison camp. Mr Jaklin volunteered for the Norwegian ‘police’ set up in exile in Sweden and sent into the north of Norway to re-establish Norwegian sovereignty in Finnmark, which seem in actual fact not far short of special forces commandos.
He told me a funny story about rounding up Gestapo agents after the capitulation and transporting them by boat to Narvik for further processing. The Gestapo men were lined up on either side of the boat’s main hall and as one of Mr Jaklin’s colleagues came through the door he accidentally caught his thumb in the trigger of his semi-automatic machine gun and fired a burst of bullets through the roof of the boat.
But the Gestapo agents thought this was simply a burst of gunfire before they were executed and dumped into the sea, and they began to cry and beg for their lives.
‘Can you believe it?’ Mr Jaklin said. ‘Gestapo?’
The story has the desired effect and a ripple of laughter spreads through my audience. I’m relieved. Perhaps I have under-estimated the content of my talk….
All of the stories in ‘Fire and Ice’ affected me deeply – that’s why I included them. But perhaps the story that affected me the most, and increasingly chokes me up, is that of the 23 year old Luftwaffe ‘helferin’ or secretary Erika Schöne, who died in what remains the worst crash in Norwegian aviation history, that of an overloaded Luftwaffe Condor which broke up over a fjord in the north in October 1944 killing all 51 people on board, most of whom were women.
Erika’s story was told to me by Lakselv author Roger Albrigtsen who runs a website piecing together the historical landscape of the war in Finnmark and the north called FKLF.no which can be found at the website (http://krigshistorisklandskap.blogspot.co.uk/). This was a resource I relied on heavily when researching ‘Fire and Ice’ and Roger – part of a network of military historians and enthusiasts in the north – was extremely generous with his help.
Erika died in the plane crash but her family contacted Roger quite recently and asked if he’d take a picture of her grave when he was next in Narvik, where there is a German cemetery. This he did, laying a rose on her grave before taking the picture. Erika’s family were very grateful and shared with him the contents of Erika’s last letter home to her sister and young niece in which she described how she’d grown to love the north of Norway and if she didn’t make it back she would be buried there. It’s almost as if she knew. Roger was interested in this as the book he was writing at the time was called ‘Last Letters’.
The part of the story which chokes me up though is how the family reacted to Erika’s death. For years afterwards her father would scan the skies, as if looking for Erika’s plane to come back. There’s a grave for Erika in Germany, but of course, she’s in Norway. To me this shows how grief and loss lasts a lifetime and that the theme of remembrance can reduce war to individuals caught up in it – and a tragedy like that of Erika Schöne is a tragedy we can all as humans relate to.
After the talk, author and audience sat down to a meal of Swedish meatballs, pasta, salad and cakes which was delicious and very welcome, before my son Martins and I walked back to our hotel through Bay Ridge, once a bustling area of Scandinavian life which – 40 minutes from Manhattan on the ‘R’ subway – is mentally miles away from the frantic pace of life in New York.
I would certainly love to go back to Bay Ridge again, and I’m very grateful to Victoria and the Leif Ericson Society for hosting my talk. The next day we moved on to Philadelphia and then to Washington DC, so stay with my blog for details of our visit there.
‘Fire and Ice’ is published by The History Press and distributed in the US by Trafalgar Square Publishing (www.ipgbook.com) It is available online and in all good bookshops. More details at http://www.vincenthunt.co.uk/ Buy the book here: http://bit.ly/1ONpYON Read a fascinating in-depth author interview with writer Roz DeKett at her blog: Tweets about the book at: @scorchedvh and a Facebook page too where you can contact the author.