Norway’s Holocaust museum symbolically located
By Ira Sharkansky
OSLO–Neither Varda nor I are Holocaust mavens. We know what happened. Varda lights candles each year for her uncle and grandmother, whose name she carries and who last wrote to the family from Theresienstadt on her way elsewhere. Neither of us have visited Yad Vashem in decades, since the site added several new buildings. I have written cynically about the Wiesenthal “Museum of Tolerance,” meant to compete with Yad Vashem, and being built over protests on the site of a Muslim cemetery. Insofar as any construction over what are thought to be Jewish graves brings the rabbis and their students out in force, the creation of a Jewish Museum of Tolerance on a Muslim cemetery would best be designated as a Museum of Hypocrisy.
All that being said, we could not ignore the notation on an Oslo map of a Holocaust Center. I knew something about the Nazi occupation and its impact on a small Jewish community. Norway has always been marginal to things Jewish. Jews made their way here long ago, but never in impressive numbers. The history includes some minor pogroms, and a ban on Jews that was not enforced with great rigor, insofar as there never was much of a reason for authorities to pay serious attention to a few Jews.
Shortly before our trip, a religious Israeli asked why we were going to Bergen, where there were no Jews and nothing Jewish. There are direct flights from Israel to lots of provincial places in the former Soviet Union, but none to Norway or Sweden. In both Oslo and Bergen we heard fellow tourists chattering in Hebrew only a couple or three times. There is much more at other tourist sites during the summer travel season.
Some years ago we violated the boycott still then in existence that rabbis had declared against Jews visiting the city of York, due to a slaughter of its community in the early Middle Ages. Norwegian Jews never merited any such rabbinical edict.
Nonetheless, we found that anti-Semitism is possible without Jews, or without many of them. There are something like ten times the number of Jews in French Hill as in all of Norway. The Nazis managed to round up close to 800, with the assistance of the Norwegian police, and almost all of them died. That was perhaps a quarter of the country’s Jewish population. Most of the rest escaped to Sweden, some of them warned the night before by Norwegians who were to take part in the roundup the next day.
Compensation for what the Germans and others did in Norway and other places is a knotty and emotional issue.
After the war, Norway was hard pressed on account of considerable losses and destruction. The government provided for the return of property and other assets confiscated. An official report issued years later included majority and minority opinions about the fairness of what the Jews received. Among the findings: Jews’ losses were calculated like the losses of other people, despite acknowledgement that Jews were singled out because of their “race.” Jews who had escaped were allowed back into the country, but–in contrast to non-Jews–the government did not pay for their transportation. Nowhere in the report is there an indication that Jews ought to have been compensated for the loss of family members or their own suffering. In this, Norway stands like other countries occupied by the Nazis, and perhaps somewhat better than some others, where the local authorities also did some of the dirty work.
If one is looking for a country that has paid a great deal for the pain and suffering of the Jews, including pensions paid for lost career opportunities, one can start and finish with Germany, noting that its most generous payments were for German Jews.
Oslo’s Holocaust Center is part of the government’s compensation to the Jewish community for families with no surviving members. Vidkun Quisling built the structure as his official residence, and it remained empty with no takers among Norwegians until it became the Holocaust Center. Its few exhibits have explanations in Norwegian only, but it provides an English-language summary of the community’s history, its experience during the war, and recent episodes of anti-Semitism. Some appear to have been the work of the city’s Muslim immigrants, and some no more destructive than tasteless comments of night club comedians.
Of doubtful merit in any discussion of Norwegian Jews is Anders Behring Breivek, responsible for a killing spree at a summer camp outside of Oslo in 2011. Among his angry, and perhaps mad writings (that point has been a matter of professional dispute) was testimony to strong feelings against Muslims, and in favor of Zionism.
Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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