by Robert Murphree
November the 26, 2012 marked the 70th anniversary of the deportations of Jews from Norway. The current Norwegian police chief, Odd Reidar Humlegård, issued an official apology on that day for the role that the Norwegian police played in arresting Jews during the fall of 1942. It came on the heels of a steady stream of public voices criticizing the role of Norwegian policemen during the occupation, most recently and specifically through the new book Merciless Norwegiansthe State Police 1940-1945 by Eirik Veum. It even listed the names of the Norwegian perpetrators in the State police, which was a small, but feared group under the Gestapo mainly responsible for the Jewish arrests. The book also stated that the regular national police were under the control of the SS. This effectively placed its legacy under an organization widely despised for its war crimes. Consequently, the sole focus of the media has been to question why it took so long for the Norwegian police to apologize, even though the long since dismantled State police were the chief perpetrators. Was the Norwegian police chief correct to apologize for the Jewish arrests in 2012? I believe not and here is why.
During the past year, two historians with the Jewish museum and I have filmed interviews of Norwegian Jews who managed to escape to neutral Sweden during the arrests and deportations in the fall of 1942. The project has been a remarkable journey through the bleak landscape of mankind’s worst atrocities. But one thing surprised us. The Jewish interview subjects did not say much about the Norwegian perpetrators in the State police, even though most had lost close family members in Auschwitz after the being arrested by them. The surprising, if not shocking, red thread throughout the interviews was that of the twenty Jews we interviewed, nineteen had been warned of the impending arrests by policemen. They would frequently become emotional when mentioning these brave souls whom they rarely knew or never saw again. Although we knew that some policeman gave warnings to the Jews, it now became clear that this was not a few random incidents, but a concerted effort on a large scale.
Reidar Tørmoen, a 102-year-old former policeman whom we interviewed, filled in another piece of this puzzle. He had in previous years stated that he warned two Jewish families of the impending arrests and now we were curious if he could shed more light on the extent of warnings from the police. Tørmoen was still lucid and told of how he had warned two Jews in his neighborhood, but they did not heed the warning. In 2012 this of course seems incomprehensible. However, these two incidents are not unique, as we found numerous accounts of Jewish families that did not heed specific warnings given by police, resistance members, friends or even relatives. The reasons for this are several. First of all, no one knew of extermination camps and the risk of attempting a hazardous escape to Sweden under the threat of the death penalty seemed a much greater risk than that of being arrested and probably sent to a labor camp. In addition, some of the Jewish males were already in Norwegian custody and it was unthinkable for the wives to leave the country without them. Consequently many stayed.
Tørmoen went on to explain an interesting piece of history that explained the role of policemen in the interviewee’s stories. As for the policemen who were connected to the resistance, it was a standing order to warn Norwegian citizens who were in danger of arrest. The general mode of operation was to cooperate with the Nazi arrest warrants regarding the arrests of Norwegians over minor matters. However, if an arrest warrant was issued for a Norwegian for having engaged in resistance related activities, he was to be warned beforehand. The Jewish arrests came under this category. Not all in the police cooperated with the resistance, but several hundred across the country clearly did.
And this explains a great deal.
As resistance veteran and historian Ragnar Ulstein has stated, there was a reason that the success rate for Jewish arrests in Norway compared to the Jewish population, as a whole, was a failure. Norway did not have the more benign conditions of occupied Denmark, but was subjected to a heavy-handed totalitarian rule under Quisling and Terboven. In the end, less than 40% of the registered Jews in Norway were arrested and sent to concentration camps. Without the warnings by the Norwegian policemen the success rate would have almost certainly been near 100%.
So contrary to recent media emphasis, the Norwegian police played a decisive role in saving probably thousands of resistance members, Jews, and other civilians that came on the wrong side of the Nazified authorities. Fiftysix policemen in Oslo alone died from German bullets when they refused to obey orders or were caught helping the resistance. It is very likely that many of them warned Jews of the upcoming arrests, but their voices were forever silenced.
The generation that lived through the terrorizing days of the German occupation never pressed the police for an apology in the decades after the war. They knew the situation the police was in all too well, often from their own experiences of having to engage in work that indirectly helped the enemy’s war effort. Fisherman and farmers had to contribute to the feeding of German soldiers and many factories supplied the Wehrmacht. Under the terror regime that the Germans instituted in Norway, the choice was to cooperate or face imprisonment or execution. It is a situation that was incomprehensible for most in 2012.
If a Norwegian apology is warranted for the arrest and murder of the deported Jews of Norway, it should have come from those in power at the time who were totally unprepared for the German invasion and did not deter it and could not stop it. This brought on staggering human suffering for two generations of Norwegians that the third generation is still trying to come to terms with.