Beautiful Norway has its dark side

The entrance to the Jewish Museum of Oslo. Photo by Alexander Shaland
The entrance to the Jewish Museum of Oslo. Photo by Alexander Shaland

Last May, when my husband and I visited Norway, everything there looked beautiful and surreal. However, as I discovered during our visit, this highly sophisticated, perfectly organized civilization has its dark side.

The history of government-decreed anti-Semitism in Norway goes back over a millennium. In 1,000 A.D, King Olav forbade non-Christians from living in Norway. In 1436, the day of rest on Saturday was abolished, lest Christians replicate the “way of Jews.” In 1687, Christian V banned Jews from Norway entirely, a ban that persisted until 1851.

When the Nazis invaded Norway in 1940, some 2,100 Jews lived in the country, almost all of them as fully assimilated Norwegian citizens. After the Norwegian collaborationist government took over, Nazi anti-Jewish legislation was implemented. The government identified Jewish Norwegians based on police and telegraph records, and ordered synagogues and Jewish burial societies to produce full rosters of members and nonmembers. In 1942, government-organized deportation sent 772 Jews to Auschwitz, 740 of who were murdered. To their credit, the Norwegian resistance movement smuggled about 900 Jews to Sweden.

Today, around 1,400 Jews call Norway home, a tiny minority within a population of 5 million. However, Jews are frequently being “noticed.” For example, in January 2004, a cartoon in the Norwegian newspaper Dagsavisen that an Orthodox Jew rewriting the Ten Commandments to include “thou shall murder.” In September 2006, the synagogue in Oslo was sprayed with bullets. The shooter was convicted and received a few years of prison for “serious vandalism.” The Oslo city court judge could not find sufficient evidence that shooting at the synagogue amounted to a terrorist act.

In January 2013, Dagsavisen interviewed leaders of the Muslim community and cited their claim that the existing hostility between Muslims and Christians is caused by Jewish influence; the reason the Nazis were killing Jews was that [Jews] make other peoples fear them.

So what does it mean today to be a Jewish Norwegian?

To answer this question, we went to Oslo’s Jewish Museum and the Holocaust Research Center.

The Jewish Museum of Oslo is located in an old synagogue on Calmeyer Street. This area was traditionally an immigrant enclave: fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe, about 100 Jews settled here. Most Jews who lived on this street during the 1940s were sent to Auschwitz. Today, only the “Stolpersteine” or memorial brass cobblestones with the victims’ names, dates of birth, and deportation attest to the destruction of Oslo’s Jewry.

The museum houses an excellent exhibit, Remember us unto life – Jews in Norway 1940-45, dedicated to Norwegian Jews deported and sent to Auschwitz. All signs are in Norwegian and English as you follow the stories of those who were murdered and those who survived.

Lior Habash, an architecture student who works at the museum, met us upon our arrival. A delightful young man, Habash personifies modern diverse Norway. He is an Israeli by birth with a Norwegian Jewish mother and a Yemenite Israeli father. His maternal grandparents emigrated from Belorussia (Belarus); some of their immediate family members perished during the Holocaust.

Habash is painfully aware of the often-irreconcilable duality of his own nature. “I love Oslo,” he says,” but I feel split between two worlds, an Israeli and a Norwegian. It is very important for me to be a Norwegian, but I am a Jew first of all.”

Asked if he feels safe going to work at the Jewish museum located in a Muslim neighborhood, Habash says “No. I do not.” When unlocking the always-locked gate, he often looks over his shoulder, to check if anyone is watching him. Though Lior has a diverse group of acquaintances of Norwegians, Jews, and Muslims, he feels that Norwegians are generally very reserved, not really open to those who they see as outsiders.

Next, we head to the Center for Studies of Holocaust and Religious Minorities located in Bygdoy, near downtown Oslo. Opened in 2006, the center houses a Holocaust museum and is engaged in research, documentation and education.

In 1941, it was occupied by the leader of the Norwegian Nazi party, Vidkun Quisling, who lived there until his arrest and execution in May 1945. In front of the center, there is a giant sculpture that resembles a punch card. Created by Arnold Dreyblatt, the artwork is called “Innocent Questions.” The shifting words and phrases of a giant punch card are connected to personal data used to facilitate the mass murder of Norwegian Jews.

Inside, we meet Ann Elizabeth Mellbye, deputy head of administration, who guided us through the exhibit. The high-tech interactive exhibition documents the destruction of the Norwegian Jewish community during the Nazi occupation. What makes this exhibit different, Mellbye explained, is its focus on the role Norwegians played in the mass murder of their former neighbors and co-workers. Traditionally, the Germans were presented as villains, while Norwegians were resistance fighters, partisans and heroes who risked their lives trying to smuggle Jews to Sweden. While 40 percent of the Jewish population was helped to escape across the border, Norwegians collected data on, arrested, and deported Jews.

The ground floor documents the history of anti-Semitism and racism in Europe, Norwegian Holocaust history is presented in the basement, and the Contemporary Reflections exhibit is located one floor above the entrance. A newly opened exhibit is dedicated to the history of the constitutional expulsion of Jews from Norway.

Mellbye brought us a copy of Anti-Semitism in Norway? – the first extensive population survey focusing on the attitudes towards Jews and other minorities. The center undertook this project in 2012 and analyzed and published the results in 2013. It concluded that “compared to the rest of Europe, the prevalence of anti-Semitic views in Norway is not really high and is close to those in the UK, Denmark, and Sweden.” The survey reveals that 9.7 percent of respondents feel antipathy towards Jews, while 8 percent do not want Jews as neighbors or friends. Respondents often explained that their negative attitudes towards Jews are due to the role played by Israel in the Middle East conflict and almost never with specific reference to Norwegian society.

Mellbye felt positive about the future of the Jews in Norway. The center’s establishment, along with the restitutions paid by the government to Holocaust victims or their descendants, testifies to attitudes changing toward the Jews, she told us. Educational programs for schools and training for teachers will prepare a new generation of open-minded, tolerant citizens.

Did I get my answers? I was not quite sure. Is the Jewish story of today’s Norway all about young people leaving the country to build their lives elsewhere? Is it a narrative of a comfortable life punctuated now and then by examples of rabid Jew-hatred? Does it promote belief in education as the best way to fight bigotry and to open hearts and minds?

I left Norway with more questions than answers.

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