The year before you were born, a tantalizing bit of news was brought to your father’s attention: the political philosopher H. H. Aall had decided to sell his island in the Oslofjord. Your father didn’t have enough money on hand to buy it, but he knew immediately that he just had to have the island, whatever it took. He wasn’t worried about saddling himself with some crazy project—the only problem was how to raise the 16,000 kroner, on the spot, because Aall was in desperate straits, your mother said; he had debts to pay. Your father didn’t want to ask his Prussian grandparents to lend him the money, and instead he argued the case with your mother’s siblings and their spouses so fervently that eventually everyone was thrilled by the idea.
This idyllic little island, where you and your siblings would later spend your school holidays each year and where we, your children, would tag along with you every summer, afforded us the royal privilege of savoring vast vistas of sea and cliffs and knowing that all this belonged to us. But why didn’t we ever talk to the Isaachsens, why didn’t they ever say hello? It was so normal that we never gave it a second thought. In 1930, they’d retained ownership of their fenced-in grounds and stately white house and sold the rest of the island to the Nazi Aall. Recently, the grandson of the former owner told me that his grandfather had had so much aggravation with meager crops and unreliable tenants that when Aall came along and wanted to buy the island, he was glad to finally be rid of it. When Aall got into trouble two years later and had to sell the property, the arrival of the townspeople must have been quite a spectacle: imposing men in high starched collars, ladies in long overcoats, their faces hidden beneath bucket hats.
I have two photographs from a small procession that took place on May 17, 1933, the Norwegian national holiday. I can make out your parents, your siblings, your aunts and uncles, and a few other familiar faces. When I visited her for the last time in the old-age home, your sister told me that your father had held a rabble-rousing speech in front of the big oak tree right outside Isaachsens’s yard; they must have heard it all from the other side of the hedge while having their cake and coffee, must have registered the very same sentences I was forced to read decades later when I discovered them in the attic in a dust-covered copy of Fritt Folk (Free People), a Norwegian Nazi party publication: the Jews were the enemies of the Nordic race and we had to free ourselves from them and so on. You look to be about three years old, were barely walking, and you must have perceived the holiday gathering with all the flags in red, white, and blue—all the laughing, howling, applauding adults—as pure sunshine, pure happiness. The thought that a large family of ardent Nazis had purchased an island in order to then loudly applaud nationalist speeches rife with anti-Jewish sentiment outside the Isaachsen’s property on the national holiday grew increasingly disturbing to me as I considered whether the Isaachsens might not have been a family of converted Jews. But that is something I will presumably never know with any certainty. Another photograph from the same time, sent to me a few years ago by a distant relative in Canada, proves that you really were a Nazi family, and proud of it: there you all are, standing in front of the newly built vacation home, the house I stayed in every summer until I was sixteen. Smiling radiantly, you raise your arms in the Hitler salute—in Norway.
There are photographs from the year you were born of them picking out the plots of land; in others, probably taken the following summer, they’re seated in front of their brand-new vacation homes, relaxed, satisfied with themselves and the world. It’s as if by acquiring the island they had proclaimed their very own kingdom, where they could now settle and produce abundant offspring. It was their little game, and they laughed at it—after all, these were no more than bungalows, while back in the city they were respectable, successful people who went about their jobs and lived in real houses.
I used to wonder why there were almost no photographs from the early days. They only emerged after you died, creeping out of hiding like shy creatures. All of a sudden, we were able to see what we’d always somehow known: that there was a time when your parents, and with them a whole generation of my predecessors, were extremely happy. Faced with no coercion, and while living in a fully functioning democracy, they’d radicalized and turned themselves into fanatical Nazis.
Again and again, as though by some inner compulsion, my thoughts return to the photograph of your father and his sidekick Thomas Neumann standing in front of the wrecked party bus and struggling to maintain their composure for the photographer, each in his own way. It was 1936, the capital of the German Reich was consumed with euphoria over the Olympic Games, but in Oslo the Nazi party bus windshield had been smashed, along with the sign Nasjonal Samling, which was now illegible. The way they’re standing there, after having returned from a street brawl they’d lost to the communist agitators—your father, standing tall in a three-piece suit with a gold watch chain, and next to him the short, stocky Thomas Neumann in a gray woolen sweater, a large bandage covering his broken nose and a slingshot hanging pointlessly from his hand—I have to think of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. This photograph was only published in 1965, in a book about the Norwegian Nazi Party that your family stoically ignored, but that found its way to Germany in the luggage of your younger sister, who had become a Maoist after your father died. I was eleven, and it was the first time, standing there in our living room, that I was seeing your recently deceased father embroiled in an ugly mess that, to my young mind, he couldn’t possibly have had anything to do with. It was only a few years ago that I had the occasion of seeing several more photographs, from the same roll of film, portraying him standing alone in front of the battered vehicle like an army general, stubborn and unyielding, gathering himself for battles yet to come.
You laughed and said that your father, when he sent you and your siblings to bed, used to warn you to turn off the light, otherwise Trotsky would come and get you. After fleeing the Soviet Union, where he’d been sentenced to death in absentia by Stalin, and following various sojourns in different locations, the real Trotsky had found political asylum in Norway. In 1937, with the help of his party cronies, your father arranged for documents to be stolen from Trotsky’s study, which were supposed to serve as evidence that he’d been engaging in illegal political activity in Norway. A court case ensued; while the defendants, including your father, received mild sentences due to the judge’s political leanings, the victim’s passport was confiscated. Trotsky was forced to leave the country; later, in Mexican exile, he was hunted down and murdered by Stalin’s henchmen. During the course of the trial, one of the accused mentioned something about a list of names of Norwegian Nazi party members that had been forwarded to the Gestapo ahead of the trial. Only one witness, Sverre Riisnæs, one of your father’s opponents, pressed the point. He was sure that your father was the mastermind and had taken his orders from higher up, but he remained alone with his suspicions. He couldn’t have known about a previous meeting between your father and Himmler.
A few years later, your father, offering no resistance but holding his head up high, was led away by men in black leather coats. They told your stunned mother they were taking him to a conference and that he’d be home for dinner. From the moment their black car pulled out of the driveway, your father was gone. He didn’t come back, neither that evening, nor the next day, nor in the few weeks and months that followed. His “special relationship” with Himmler seemed to have soured. When he was released after six months in prison and you saw him getting out of the car, you were shocked: you’d never seen him so thin. His face was gaunt, the cheeks sunken in, the stubble no longer red but gray, while his suit, whose fabric your mother had woven by hand, hung loosely from his limbs.
He was released because his brother-in-law had pulled a few strings. There was a condition: that the whole family move to Germany and remain there in an empty manor house belonging to Prussian relatives until the war was over. Arriving at Wannsee station, you waited in anxious anticipation. You were told the last leg of the trip would take just under an hour; the car passed through Potsdam and from there drove along country lanes toward Lehnin, passing by lakes, orchards, and beautiful gardens. The chauffeur maneuvered the large automobile down the bumpy roads. At the honk of the approaching vehicle, villagers backed away toward the curb and, seeing the flags, raised their arms in the Hitler salute, a sight that reminded you of wind-up toys. As much as you wanted to sink into the ground in mortification, it didn’t change the fact that the salute was directed at you as you rode past the villagers in the black car. You were close enough to look into each other’s eyes with unabashed curiosity. And even though you tried to avoid their gaze, whether you liked it or not, they saw you as emissaries of the powers that be, particularly as the manor house the Horch was headed for, where you and your family would spend the next few years, belonged to a higher realm of power that had been out of reach to them for generations.
Apart from a few half-hearted attempts on your mother’s part to homeschool you, which soon petered out because, as you quickly discovered, she herself didn’t understand the material she was trying to teach, you were finished with schooling by the age of twelve and were on your own. So that the days wouldn’t drag on for you, and because there was only one thing you really wanted, your father purchased an old piano from his German relatives, a large black upright with the name J.L. Duysen inlaid in brass, which you loved at first sight and considered yours alone.
You knew early on, you told me, that the Germans were systematically killing Jews. You used to sit in the living room and listen to Mr. and Mrs. Seip and their daughter talking at length about these things with your parents and siblings. Even if you weren’t part of the conversation, you took it all in because the reality around you was incomprehensible and you were trying to somehow understand.
While your twenty-year-old sister and brothers were on their way to Sachsenhausen or Berlin, busy compiling detailed lists of Norwegian inmates with their names, dates of birth, and prisoner numbers; while your mother was in the kitchen transforming the meager food rations into family meals as well as lomper, a kind of potato pancake, for the prisoners; while your father was out with your little sister trying to trade food stamps or cigarettes for some vegetables or a bit of lettuce from the local farmers, you were sitting at the piano, practicing. The dramatic events seemed to drift past you, like clouds in the Brandenburg sky. You spent so much time at the piano that your family grew used to seeing you from behind. There was almost nothing else to say about you apart from the music that could be heard all throughout the manor house and courtyards, which is why you’re almost entirely absent from the stories they later told, although you were just as much a member of the family as anyone else. As for your sister, it took her forty years to speak about the “White Buses” she helped organize close to the war’s end, a risky campaign that freed over 15,000 Scandinavian prisoners and carried them to safety across the border.
My eldest brother was the only one who wasn’t afraid to voice what had always been so conspicuously absent from the family lore: when Himmler allowed our grandfather to be released from prison, he said, it must have been on some condition. And then there was the matter of how he’d been able to support such a large family in exile. Sometime in the early 2000s, a German historian I arranged to meet in a café in Berlin-Mitte was equally curious. I had come across a footnote in one of her articles that mentioned a meeting between our grandfather and Himmler in June of 1937. She posed the question soberly: how, actually, did your grandfather earn a living during the years the family spent in Germany? I’m afraid I have to pass, I told her, but my eldest brother once asked the very same thing. But since we all found him difficult to deal with, we never took what he said seriously. I must have given her the impression that we considered our brother, who’d tormented us as children, difficult because he asked awkward questions. How to explain that the Norwegian side of the family had always defined itself through its professional success, even during the war years, but in your father’s case they maintained a stubborn silence? In the reports for 1942 to 1945, the career that would otherwise fill a man’s biography during the so-called best years of his life is entirely missing. And yet, as I’ve heard your mother say countless times, he was a dedicated worker by nature, a man for whom idleness would have been a disgrace.
His brother-in-law, one of a small circle of Wehrwirtschaftsführer or Military Economics Leaders, succeeded in getting him released from captivity. Rereading his memoirs one evening, I found a single brief sentence mentioning that part of the plan to rescue our grandfather entailed creating a position for him at Kontinental Öl to look after Swedish oil shale interests in Estonia. In the course of my research, I learned that the Nazis’ investment in this method of oil production was part of a larger German plan to gain independence from American oil, which was globally dominant at the time. As I continued reading, I was surprised to find several leading figures from the German Nazi business elite on Kontinental Öl’s supervisory board, including both the banker Hermann Josef Abs, who was a friend of the brother-in-law’s younger brother, as well as the brother-in-law himself. There was no mention online about Swedish interests, but I learned that during the three years excavations were carried out there, several thousand Soviet prisoners of war and Jewish concentration camp inmates had perished of exhaustion, malnutrition, and disease, or were executed.
Perhaps, I thought, the brother-in-law was mistaken about the Swedish interests, or perhaps he was deflecting in his memoirs from his own true activities during the war. On the other hand, Abs had helped the younger brother get appointed as Wehrwirtschaftsoffizier or Military Economics Officer at the German Embassy in Stockholm, where he represented Deutsche Bank. Perhaps the Wallenbergs, the Swedish industrial tycoons he was friends with, had invested in the Estonian shale oil project your father administered from Berlin, but it’s unlikely I’ll ever know for sure. It was always said that the two brothers broke off contact with one other after 1942. I want to believe that your father carried out his work and kept his mouth shut and supported his eldest daughter, who, at considerable risk to herself and the family and quite likely in defiance of his authority, was building up a growing resistance network. I will probably never find out if their activities were connected in any way, or whether he might have been influencing things behind the scenes; the fact that his family never mentioned his service to Kontinental Öl in the later lore, but vividly described the key role they’d played in rescuing thousands of Scandinavians’ lives, is easily enough explained, since the family mythology was written after the war, in Norway, where they’d left Germany and the past behind. They were, after all, heroes and not Nazis.
All throughout my childhood and adolescence, I witnessed the solemn mood that descended over my Norwegian relatives every time the conversation turned to April 9, 1940, the day the Germans invaded Norway. Theirs was a magisterial gravity, one I could never be a part of. All I’d ever wanted to be was Norwegian, and to my young mind, this was the touchstone that tormented me. I was German, and I wondered if they could ever really accept that. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the Okkupasjonen represented the darkest chapter in their nation’s history, an eternal reminder that every Norwegian had internalized even before he or she had learned to read or write. We were the only ones who didn’t mark the anniversary each year, and you never spoke about it, Mama, as if it hadn’t been part of your life but only the lives of the others, the Norwegians. You’d left and no longer belonged; you lived, in fact, in enemy territory, something they still joked about when we were young. Yet there was probably no other event that had changed your life as abruptly and irrevocably as that April 9th, even if its direct impact only arrived two years later, when the family was banished to Grosskreuz.
Translation: Andrea Scrima
Read an essay by Christian von der Goltz on the early days of the Corona pandemic here.
Read about Wanda Hjort Heger here.