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Norway’s Constitution Day: In Praise of Heroes

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Happy Constitution Day, Norway!

I’ve written about this day, known as Syttende Mai, before, focusing on Norway’s experiences in World War II (here and here).  I’ve also written in the past about some of the heroes of World War II (here) and some of its tragic victims (here).  Today I would like to focus on a small, and sometimes overlooked, segment of the resistance movement in Norway during World War II.

When people join an armed resistance movement, or any organized military group, as many Norwegians did during the war, joining Milorg in country, or escaping to England to fight with British forces or the SOE (Special Operations Executive), they accepted the possibility of a premature, violent, death.  But each such person usually held, deep inside themselves, the somewhat contradictory belief that, while death might come to some of their comrades, it would somehow spare them.  And in truth, no situation, no matter how dismal, no matter how hopeless, guarantees certain death.  Stories are legion of soldiers charging into the face of death and yet somehow miraculously surviving unhurt.  It’s that belief—that miracles can and do occur—that allows many such heroic feats to occur at all.

But there is a smaller group of people touched by war—those who choose to die by suicide.

Not long ago I finished reading a recently published book, Secret Alliances: Special Operations and Intelligence in Norway 1944-1945, by Tony Insall.  I wish I could recommend the book, but that’s not possible.  It is overly dry, repetitive, stuffed with acronyms, and rather disorganized.  Nevertheless, what jumped out at me from the book were the number of stories that ended with a resistance fighter taking their own life.  “[Karl Rasmussen] was taken to Gestapo headquarters in Tromsø, and committed suicide by jumping out of a third floor window.”  “In an exchange of shots when the Gestapo tried to arrest them, [Gregers] Gram was killed and [Edvard] Tallaksen injured.  He committed suicide in prison.”  “[Bjorn] Eriksen, [a student leader in XU, a clandestine intelligence organization] was arrested. . . and committed suicide by jumping out of a fourth floor window.”  Åsmund Færoy parachuted into Norway in early April 1945 to help protect Norway’s harbors against possible destruction by the retreating Germans.  He was apprehended April 9, 1945 and “unsuccessfully tried to hang himself.”

Even Odd Nansen was aware of the number of such deaths.  On August 21, 1943, he relates the story of a fellow cellmate, Knut Eliassen, a navy lieutenant, who had slit his wrists.  “Knut’s attempt at suicide was—as was so many others’—not successful.”*

Why did these men choose to end their own life by suicide?  Certainly, and quite reasonably, they feared torture.  Torture of course could be avoided by telling all they knew.  And yet it was precisely this fear—of talking—and thus harming others, that led each of them to end their own lives, in the knowledge that death was the only sure-fire method of keeping their secrets safe.

And the fear of torture was well placed.  One witness, housed with a resistance fighter, reported on the experience:

“He [the resistance fighter] found great difficulty in talking. . . .  I had to feed and wash him.  The policemen had broken four of his fingers and had pulled out the nails from two of them.  Afterward they had hit him with sticks wrapped in cloth until he collapsed.  Then they turned him on his back and jumped on his stomach.  He stated that he had asked his tormentors to shoot him.  I myself saw that he was bleeding through the mouth and the rectum and that four fingers had been broken and were bent backwards.”

As Odd Nansen observed of the frightful activities at Grini Prison, and at Victoria Terrace, the Gestapo headquarters in Oslo: “People have been beaten up and tortured and tormented beyond all bounds.  Some held, others cracked.  No one dare sit in judgement.  One man cracked and had the death of others on his conscience.” (March 12, 1942).

This conscience, this realization of their own possible weakness, this concern for the lives of others above their own, was what motivated Rasmussen, Tallaksen, Eriksen, Færoy, and many others, known and still unknown, to try and take their own life instead.

It takes a high degree of courage to go into battle, knowing full well there’s a chance of imminent death.  It takes an even higher degree of courage to face the certainty of death for the sake of one’s cause.

So on this day of celebration on behalf of Norway’s constitution—the second oldest in the world—let us honor those who selflessly and willingly made the ultimate sacrifice to protect that constitution.

Jeg hilser deg,** Messrs. Rasmussen, Tallaksen, Eriksen, Færoy, and the many who preceded you, and those that followed in your wake.

[* = This passage is found only in the newly edited 2016 version of Odd Nansen’s diary.]

[** = “I salute you”]

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Book Signings

  • June 22, 2021: Congregation Sha’arei Israel, Raleigh, NC
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  • May 19, 2022: Bat Shalom Hadassah, Jackson, NJ
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