Monday, September 22, 2008

Norwegian Resistance in WWII: Uncle Haakon

In continuing the October Viking's feature on Norway's resistance movement during WWII, we have a great story from Tore Haugeto of Staten Islan NY about his uncle, Haakon Somerset. This is an expanded version of the story that ran on page 16 of the October Viking.

My uncle Haakon Sommerset was an elementary teacher in Oslo before WWII. He was an anti-Nazi union leader. His name was listed on the Gestapo index cards that were sunk in the Oslo fjord with the cruiser Blucher on the first day of the Nazi invasion. The sinking only saved Haakon for a short while.

You see, teachers were required to join the Nazi (NS) Norwegian teachers organization if they wanted to continue to teach. By March 1942, 98% of Oslo teachers had quit the compulsory NS teachers union. The four teacher unions protested against
Vidkung Quisling’s Nazi curriculum and they wrote a letter to Norway’s church and education department. The letter said they had to be true to their teacher call and their conscience and could not teach Nazi curriculum to the youth of Norway. 8,000 envelopes and letters were sent out to the male and female teachers throughout the land. Nearly all the teachers signed the letter.

In April, 1942, over 1,100 teachers, including my uncle Haakon, were arrested because they had quit the NS teachers union. They came from the elementary and high schools as well as professors from the
University of Oslo. The 650 male teachers were put into concentration camps in Finnmark. Reichskommisar Terboven said the teachers action was no longer and internal Norwegian problem. The Wermacht, SS and Gestapo would handle the problem.

My uncle, and 650 other teachers, were sent to
Grini, a huge concentration camp near Oslo. The next day they were put in cattle cars and sent northward. They spent 18 hours in the cattle cars before they were in Trondheim. Then they were put on the MS Skjerstad and sailed to Kirkenes. The stink on the ship was terrible. The men felt they couldn’t get enough air. The boat was stopped at Bodo for six days and the Red Cross was allowed to give the teachers some sandwiches. On April 28th, they arrived in Kirkenes, which was the most northern concentration camp on the German Reich. Kirkenes was a mining city with enormous iron ores, so it was valuable to the Nazi war effort. The Norwegian teachers then had to make a 10 kilometer march to their barracks, which were unbelievably dirty but the teachers cleaned them up. They were put on forced labor teams for 12 hours a day and received little to eat. My uncle lost 60 lbs during his imprisonment.

Because my uncle Haakon spoke German, and had been a
labor party (Arbeiterpartei) political and a union leader before the war, the other prisoners elected him to be the spokesman for all the teachers in the camp. He spoke to many German army officers at the camp, a few of whom said that it was shameful that Norwegian teachers were arrested.

Life in the camp was hard for uncle Haakon and the other prisoners. The camp was ice cold, being so far north, and the barracks walls were made of pressed paper. My uncle stole some potato sacks to make a sleeping bag, but if he’d been caught stealing the sacks he would have been shot. However, if he hadn’t stolen the bags he would have frozen to death. I

n the camp, some teachers became deathly ill, so my uncle, who headed the camp committee, advised the sick to recognize the new order and the NS so they could go home. Years later my uncle would have to write letters on their behalf to the education department, explaining these sick men and women had not really been
Nazi collaborators.

Then, in September of 1943, Quisling finally realized that he couldn’t break the teachers unions, and since the teachers were greatly needed in the schools, three hundred men were sent south again. Two months later the remaining imprisoned teachers were released. In the end, most teachers returned to their classrooms and resumed teaching their regular Norwegian curriculum.

But this was not the end of the story for my uncle Haakon. After his release from the concentration camp, he joined the
civorg (the civilian resistance movement). It was his job to collect and distribute vital information from Britain and the home front. Along with his compatriots, he had to secretly listen to British radio broadcasts and run off newspaper articles.

When the war finally ended, uncle Haakon was appointed principal of Majorstua, the largest elementary school in Oslo.

Coming up tomorrow we have a great story about a chance encounter with Norwegian resistance fighters in Chicago, Ill. And don't forget, if you want to read all the stories we've run so far on the Norwegian Resistance, you can click here to view them.

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