In recent years Norway’s image has been tarnished by a variety of anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish actions as well as statements from several leading Norwegian institutions, the media, and various personalities.
At the end of the previous century Norway’s small Jewish community, however, took a courageous—but little-known—public stand on another issue where discrimination against Jews was involved. This occurred within the context of the government-appointed commission of inquiry into postwar restitution. Flying in the face of traditional procedures, the community’s representatives established an important national precedent by presenting a comprehensive alternative report that radically disagreed with the commission’s majority opinion. The Norwegian government and parliament subsequently adopted the minority’s recommendations.
Bjarte Bruland is a non-Jewish historian who played a key role in the restitution process. He is now the chief curator at the Jewish Museum in Oslo.
Little Postwar Attention to Looted Jewish Assets
Says Bruland: “The looting of Jewish assets during World War II received very little attention in Norway until 1995. In May of that year, Bjørn Westlie, journalist for the Norwegian business daily Dagens Næringsliv, published an article about the fate of Norwegian Jewry during World War II. His much-quoted exposé was part of a series commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the war.”
Westlie reported that the Norwegian authorities had done very little to help the Jews recover their property after the war, despite the fact that significant amounts of money were found in bank accounts.1
Bruland had already been interested in this subject as a student at Bergen University a few years earlier. “I watched Claude Lanzmann’s movie Shoah a number of times. Then with great difficulty I managed to get Raul Hilberg’s book, The Destruction of the European Jews. There was only one copy in the entire Norwegian library system.
“After that, I thought it would be worthwhile to write my master’s thesis on how the Norwegian bureaucracy had behaved toward the Jews during the war. It seemed particularly interesting to look at the economic liquidation of the Jews. In 1992 when I began my thesis, I was, however, discouraged by my supervisor, who didn’t think it had potential—especially since Oskar Mendelsohn had worked for forty years on his two-volume history in Norwegian entitled The History of the Jews in Norway.2 The first part was published in 1967, the second in 1986.
“It wasn’t expected that anything new on the subject would be discovered or that any significant additional analyses could be made. I disagreed and started work on the subject, though I had no idea why I couldn’t accept my teacher’s judgment. Then when I scrutinized it, I found Mendelsohn’s book hardly dealt with economic issues, as well as that there were archival sources not yet covered.”
Committee of Inquiry Established
Bruland completed his thesis a few weeks before Westlie published his article. As a result of its critique, some parliamentarians showed interest in the subject. However, only after international pressure began to mount—partly through the efforts of the World Jewish Congress—awareness increased that the Norwegian Jews had been mistreated not only during but also after the war. In January 1996, after a Reuters report on the theft of the property of Jews during the war, the Norwegian authorities started to react.3
Says Bruland: “The Norwegian justice minister established a government committee to investigate what had happened to Jewish-owned property during and after the war. Oluf Skarpnes, a county governor from the south of Norway, was appointed chairman. He had worked at the Justice Ministry in the past, was a former justice minister, and also had chaired other committees of inquiry concerning difficult issues.
“I had the feeling Skarpnes was mandated by the bureaucrats of the ministry to silence this problem. I cannot prove it and he certainly never told me about it; yet it seemed clear to me. Skarpnes had no understanding of Jews and couldn’t imagine what it meant to be a Jew after the war.
“The Jewish community was entitled to appoint two of the committee’s seven members. One was Berit Reisel, a Jewish psychologist, who had undertaken research into the fate of Jewish property on behalf of the Oslo Jewish community almost a year before she was appointed. I was the other member the community suggested.”
Quisling’s Confiscation of Jewish Property
“We started to study general source material on the liquidation of Jewish property. We investigated its registration in estate files and reviewed the administration of estates after the war. It soon became clear that much of the material we required was available.
“By 1940 when the Germans conquered Norway, about 2,100 Jews lived in the country, of which 1,500 to 1,600 held Norwegian citizenship. There were two small Jewish communities: one in Oslo and a smaller one in Trondheim. There were also Jews living in more than fifty other locations.
“On 26 October 1942, an act was passed that called for the confiscation of all property belonging to Jews. The law was enacted by the Norwegian Nazi regime, headed by Vidkun Quisling. On the same day, male Jews over the age of fifteen were arrested by Norwegian police and brought to an internment camp near Tonsberg. Women and children were arrested one month later, and on that day the first transport of Jews to Germany took place. In four major transports, 771 Norwegian Jews were deported. Only thirty-four survived. Twenty-one Jews were killed or committed suicide in Norway.”
Liquidation Board and Distribution of Jewish Assets
“In that same month, the Quisling regime appointed a Liquidation Board of Confiscated Jewish Assets. Jewish households and businesses were treated as bankrupt, thus enabling their assets to be sold. The Jewish estates were liquidated but continued to exist as legal entities, thus permitting expenses to continue to be levied against them. This practice remained in effect even after the war, when a democratic government was established again in Norway.
“The belongings of the estates were distributed according to the interests of the Quisling regime. All gold and silver objects and wristwatches were given to the German security police. The assets of Jews originally from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia were given to the German authorities. By the end of the war, the Liquidation Board had used approximately 30 percent of the value of the Jewish properties for its own administration.
“One might say that after the war there were three categories of Jews who were received in Norway in different ways. First of all, there was the small group of camp survivors, not all of whom returned to Norway. The second group consisted of the stateless Jews who had fled to Sweden, some of whom had lived as long as fifty years in Norway before the war. The Norwegian government initially refused their return to the country, a position that only later changed. (They probably looked upon these people as a burden—which was not true—so they wanted Sweden to assume responsibility for them.) The third group, Jewish refugees with Norwegian nationality, returned together with the other Norwegians from Sweden. Most returning Jews had worked in their own businesses and opened these up again as soon as they could.”
“After the war, the Jews were treated like everyone else. That was a major problem because their experience had been so different. It is difficult to assess whether this was intentional or not. If one were to answer this question positively, it would be tantamount to saying that the democratic postwar Norwegian government had anti-Semitic inclinations.
“A non-Jewish Norwegian refugee in Sweden usually had many family members who had taken care of his assets, and thus it was easy for him to reconstruct what he had had. Norwegian groups who had suffered particularly— including seamen and inhabitants of the northern region of Finnmark—were helped by special laws and offices.
“However, no such arrangements were made for the Jews. The only special law made for them was the law of missing persons, i.e., those who had not returned from Auschwitz were declared dead. Even that took two and a half years to legislate. Whenever there were calculations as to how much reparation people should receive, these were done in ways unfavorable to the survivors.”
The Lenient Punishment of War Criminals
Bruland adds: “The lack of compensation and restitution after the war must be seen as part of a larger picture. After the war many key perpetrators in the destruction of the Jews were either not convicted, or they received greatly reduced sentences. In autumn 1942, a Jewish couple, Jacob and Rakel Feldmann—carrying valuables and money—were killed by two Resistance members while trying to escape to Sweden. In 1947, the two murderers admitted their crime but claimed it was to avoid detection of a refugee route to Sweden. They were not convicted.
“The German Wilhelm Wagner, Eichmann’s representative with the head of the German Security Police in Oslo, was first condemned to death, which was later commuted to a life sentence. Then in 1951 he was expelled and returned to Germany where he worked for a bank. There he was very popular, as he wrote wedding songs for the employees.
“In the late 1950s, Norway held talks with the Federal Republic of Germany about compensation for former prisoners in German concentration camps. In these negotiations the Norwegian government used the number of Jewish deaths from Norway as a means of increasing the sum paid by Germany.
“Later however, parliament denied compensation to many Jews for several reasons. One was that a number were not Norwegian citizens. Others were denied because of how the authorities assumed the order of deaths among Jews during the war, which was unfavorable to the survivors. Also, sisters were not allowed to receive the compensation due their brothers and vice versa. The small Jewish communities argued that either the law should be changed or the communities should receive the compensation, but to no avail.
“For many decades, the subject of the Holocaust was not included in the curriculum at Norwegian universities. Hardly any research into the fate of the Jews during the war was undertaken until the mid-1990s. In Norwegian public opinion, the memory of what happened to the Jews is connected to the Germans.
The Norwegians were portrayed as innocent bystanders, though it was the Norwegian police that hunted down Jews, including children.”
Pressure in the Skarpnes Committee
In the Skarpnes Committee the two representatives of the Jewish community were in the minority and under great pressure. Each time they opposed a position, the majority believed that they only wanted to increase the amount to be paid out. Says Bruland: “When we opposed something, the reactions often were: ‘So what do you suggest? Should we increase the amount to be paid?’ I wanted to state principles. I had done the necessary research to prove that the Jews were discriminated against after the war, and I felt that this should be stated clearly.
“After we had argued for a very long time about our views, Reisel and I decided the division between the majority and ourselves was so vast that the gap could not be bridged. We reached that conclusion by February 1997 and decided to write a full minority report; this had never been done before in Norway. The normal procedure in a committee of inquiry is that if you disagree, a small comment on each chapter is written, explaining the points to which there are objections.
“In my view, Skarpnes initially interpreted our silence as a sign that he had won. Later he started to worry. He had instructions that under no circumstances should the representatives of the Jewish community leave the committee. At one point, I did threaten to do so because I couldn’t go along with the way he was handling things. However, resigning would have been the wrong thing to do, because if we had quit, we would have had no further access to the material.
“When individual chapters had to be written, Skarpnes always asked other committee members without ever proposing our names. He did not mind if we complained, but he wanted to write a report that did not include any argument we had made. We understood that whatever remarks we made helped the majority put our arguments in a wrong context.”
Writing a Minority Report
“Reisel and I couldn’t tell him we had started writing an alternative report, much larger than his, more advanced, and more documented. We had worked on this report for a number of months without Skarpnes knowing about it. Then at a certain moment we sent our minority report to him, telling him to include it in the printed report. Thereafter, we were not given any additional information. The members of the majority held a number of meetings to which we were no longer invited. This was normal procedure.
“Skarpnes couldn’t exclude our report because the procedure dictates that if those in the minority want to say something, they have the right to do so. The reactions of the other members were initially very confused. Then they became angry.
“Shortly thereafter, the Norwegian prime minister—the Social Democrat Torbjorn Jagland—visited New York. In a radio interview there, he said his government would accept the minority position. In 1998, this decision was transformed into a proposal of law. By March 1999 it was unanimously accepted by the Norwegian parliament.
“Part of the money was given to individuals who had lived in Norway in 1942, or their heirs. Non-Jews in mixed marriages were also included. There were about six hundred people who received funds. Some funds were also given to the Jewish communities, which used them partly to create a Holocaust Center in Oslo, opened in April 2001. On its board are four members of the University of Oslo, three representatives of the Jewish community, and a director.”
The Norwegian position on restitution was very well received by the international Jewish community. Even though, previously, the country’s behavior had stood out rather poorly if compared with some other Western countries, the World Jewish Congress wrote very favorably about Norway’s belated handling of the restitution process.4
- Bjørn Westlie, “Coming to Terms with the Past: The Process of Restitution of Jewish Property in Norway,” Policy Forum, 12, November 1996 (Institute of the World Jewish Congress).
- Jødenes historie I Norge gjennom 300 år. (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1969/1987). [Norwegian]
- Westlie, “Coming to ”
- Avi Beker, “Unmasking National Myths,” 18, in Avi Beker, , The Plunder of Jewish Property during the Holocaust: Confronting European History (Hampshire: Palgrave, 2001).