When I was in Norway researching for my scorched earth book ‘Fire and Ice’ I knew how powerful the stories were, but it’s surprising how a little distance and a different audience can make a writer realise the depth of the emotions involved in what people have told them.
The second stop of my ‘Fire and Ice’ speaking tour of the East Coast USA was a library in a pretty town called Newtown PA, an hour south of New York. This was an event organised by my friend Alisa Myles, a specialist reading teacher in schools in the area who has close links to the library, run by a wonderful group of very motivated, well organised and generous women.
Newtown is what you might call ‘Small Town America’. It’s a town in the Pennsylvania countryside an hour north west out of Philadelphia: the kind of place where you can hear freight trains coming from a long distance away.
Alisa and I had circulated the details around the local community and the Norwegian organisations in the area and we were delighted when a small but significant crowd of representatives of both groups of people turned up for my talk.
Because this was a local event rather than a Norwegian occasion, I switched some of the topics in my talk so non-Norwegians would be able to relate to them.
We began with a couple of stories from Kirkenes, liberated by the Russians in October 1944, six months before the rest of Norway. The town, Norway’s most north-easterly settlement, had been attacked repeatedly for years by the Red Air Force as it was a supply port for the Nazi offensive into the Soviet Union.
Ships brought men, machines and munitions into Kirkenes all year round as its waters didn’t freeze, so the Soviets launched round-the-clock air attacks during the summer of 1944 to try to halt the build-up of troops ahead of their devastating and successful assault involving nearly 100,000 men on the German front line just west of Murmansk. This is known as the ‘Petsamo-Kirkenes Offensive’.
The bombing absolutely traumatised the civilian population, the children of Kirkenes told me when I visited. I read a couple of stories told to me by the remarkable Karin Johnsen, who roamed the area as a youngster in the 1960s with her brother and their gang looking for old ammunition to blow up.
‘You would get a crisis psychiatrist or medical help if you went through that kind of traumatic experience nowadays,’ Karin said. ‘You’d be in therapy for years. But there was nothing. That’s why the kids took over, and we were ruling the town. Because we knew the grown-ups had their problems with screaming and shouting and drinking and everybody was more or less nuts, so that’s what happens.
‘When it was a clear sky in the winter, my grandmother would say, ‘Look out, it’s bomb weather.’ And when there was a thunderstorm she’d say, ‘Put your boots on and go to the basement because now we are going to die.’ She’d have these flashbacks and if there was a big explosion or planes passing low over town, she’d be hysterical. I’m still scared of thunderstorms.
‘My grandfather was crazy too. He taught me how to use a Luger. He said I had to bend my arm or the recoil from it would break my arm. He had a bayonet that he’d stolen from the Germans during the war. He sent me home once with it to scare my grandmother after getting me drunk.’
I can see shudders in the audience. What did the scorched earth destruction in the north of Norway actually mean for tens of thousands of people, I asked them? In reality they were ordered out of their homes at short notice into an Arctic winter and either forced onto boats heading south or they walked, cycled or made their own way out of the area. As they walked, they could see behind them the smoke rising from where they used to live as their homes burned.
One place that I visited during my research was a beautiful area alongside the Lyngenfjord, to the north west of Tromso. There I met an artist, Grethe Gunneng, and she showed me the area alongside the coast where her family had lived for generations. This town, Djupvik, had been occupied quickly after the German invasion in 1940 and heavily fortified. Checkpoints had been thrown across roads, barbed wire and minefields were laid along approaches from the fjord, anti-aircraft positions had been constructed and enormous gun batteries were built along the coast to shell any approaching invasion force. The gun positions are still there in Djupvik. Have a look at the paintings of the British war artist Stephen Bone who was there just as the war ended.
I told my audience about events in Djupvik, and the stories Grethe had told me about how everyday life gradually got darker and darker under German rule from the initial occupation of 1940 to the point where the prisoners of war were brought in to do the construction work.
The prison camp was built to hold them and local people could see how they were becoming malnourished so they’d leave food out ‘for the animals’ so the prisoners could eat it, despite the Germans having strict orders not to allow this. And then local officials like Grethe’s grandfather, the postmaster, would get invitations from the German commandant to go up to the camp on a Saturday evening to witness the hanging of prisoners – a sick night out which he tried to decline.
That was everyday life: going through checkpoints, being ordered around, witnessing the maltreatment of Soviet prisoners – and all this in a part of Norway that is picture book beautiful. This fjord is transformed during the summer months nowadays as motorists cruise around it enjoying the Midnight Sun. It’s one of the big modern tourist destinations, but it has such a sad recent past.
When Hitler ordered the scorched earth clearances in October 1944, all the people in the towns around Djupvik were ordered to report to Birtavarre, a small settlement a little further south on the fjord where there was a landing stage big enough to take a reasonable-sized boat.
Many people started to walk the 20 kms to Birtavarre with their animals in the cold weather but one of Grethe’s uncles wasn’t going to let the Germans have his much-loved horse, Guri.
He couldn’t face the prospect of Guri being badly treated by the Germans, so he took an awful decision to spare her this. This is how Grethe told the story in ‘Fire and Ice’.
“My uncle told me about the time they had to go as refugees. The Germans told them to bring all their animals to Birtavarre [a town on the same fjord about 10 km south] so they went there along the road. But he didn’t want the Nazis to take his horse Guri, because he loved her so much. He said he would prefer to shoot Guri himself than let the Germans take her and maybe mistreat her.
“So he took a gun and walked with Guri to the field and shot her. Afterwards, some of the neighbours said they wished they’d done that to their animals too. My uncle was 70 when he told me this story and he was crying as he told me.”
As I was telling this story I realised I was becoming a bit upset myself. Imagine a young lad shooting his own horse so the Nazis wouldn’t have her? I looked up and saw a couple of people in the audience were dabbing away tears too.
At Birtavarre, there were scenes from hell. The animals the people living in the area had brought were being slaughtered for food and the river flowing into the fjord was running red with blood. In the middle of all this activity – houses being set on fire, soldiers ordering people to leave animals here and line up there, children probably upset and bewildered crying – people were being loaded onto boats away from this.
One of the most powerful moments of my research trip to Norway came when Grethe and I were standing looking out across the Lyngenfjord. She told the story of a boatload of refugees from Djupvik being sent to Tromso who realised they were sailing past the small area of coastline that had been their home for so many years; a picturesque stretch of land edged with mountains alongside a fjord that had been transformed by war from a place of natural beauty to a nightmare.
As the boat drew level with Djupvik one of the men in the boat, a teacher, began to sing one of the songs of the north which everyone knew and which is, in effect, a northern national anthem: ‘Oh I know a land far up north’ [A eg veit meg eit land’].
And as he sang, everyone in the boat being torn from the the land they loved, the place they had grown up in, sang too:
‘Oh, I know of a land far away to the north
With a shimmering beach between mountains and fjords
Where my heart wants to stay, when I’m far, far away
Tied with the finest, finest bands.
Oh, I remember, I remember
I remember this land so well!
And I long to see this land so often, and it tugs at me gently when I am far away.
With awakening spring my longing turns strong
So that all I can do is cry
All I can do is cry’
I remember at the time Grethe was telling me this story that the emotion – quite naturally – seemed to be getting to her. I wrote about an extraordinary moment that happened at this time.
“We both gaze at the spot in the fjord where such a dramatic and emotional moment happened. As we look, a shard of sunlight breaks through the clouds and lights up the waves exactly where we’re looking. It’s like a scene from a film: a boat carrying people forced to leave their village – their world – having shot their much-loved animals themselves to spare them cruelty and mistreatment, their homes burned or destroyed, possessions buried, having walked to Birtavarre where the fjord is running red with the blood of butchered animals.
As they sail past the homes they had to leave, the teacher bursts into a song of their much-loved homeland they are now leaving and they all start singing too. It’s impossibly heart-rending and powerful against the backdrop of this grey, misty fjord with its single ray of sunlight. Grethe stares out across the fjord with a faraway look in her eyes and says: ‘My mother says to me: “When I die, play this song at my funeral.”’
Now, as I’m telling this powerful story to a room full of people on the other side of the world. I can feel the emotion is rather getting to me too, not least because of Guri the horse. I stop, and pause, and notice that one or two people in the room seem to be feeling the same way.
So not only did the story of Guri the horse have Grethe’s uncle crying 70 years after he spared her mistreatment at the hands of the Nazis, it had Grethe crying as she told me. It’s had me crying ever since and now I’m telling people and they are crying.
Guri’s unfortunate end in a field high up in the Arctic Circle 71 years ago hasn’t lost the power to touch people.
At the end of the talk I was delighted to meet several Norwegian ladies who live near Newtown who have quite an active group and then after a couple of photographs we all enjoyed the cakes and refreshments that Alise and the library staff have so kindly laid on. Then it was back to the station for Martins and myself for a late train to Philadelphia, where we had a day off to look around a city about to be voted UNESCO most important city in American history just a day or two later.
Next and final stop: With the Sons of Norway, Fairfax, Virginia (a Metro ride to the edge of Washington DC then a short ride in a car.)
With many thanks to the Board and staff at Newtown library, Alisa Myles and daughter Violet.