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Norway: The Courage of a Small Jewish Community; Holocaust Restitution and Anti-Semitism

Filed under: Anti-Semitism, Europe and Israel
Publication: Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism


For many years, Norway has been considered a country friendly to both the Jews and Israel. Recently, however, its image has been tarnished by a variety of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish actions and statements from several leading Norwegian institutions, the media and various personalities.

At the same time, in recent years, Norway’s small Jewish community has made 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 post-war restitution. Flying in the face of traditional procedures, the community’s representatives established an important national precedent by presenting a comprehensive alternative report which 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 and is now working on his Ph.D. Professor Irene Levin is a professor of Social Work at Oslo University College and involved in the debate on how Israel is presented in Norway. This paper discusses both subjects.


Little Post-War Attention to Looted Jewish Assets

Says Bruland: “The looting of Jewish assets during the Second World War received very little attention in Norway until 1995. In May of that year, Bjorn Westlie, journalist for the Norwegian business daily, Dagens Naeringsliv, published an article about the fate of Norwegian Jewry during the Second World War. His much-quoted expose 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 Raoul 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 40 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 1987.

“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, although I had no idea why I couldn’t accept my teacher’s judgment. Then when I scrutinized it, I found Mendelsohn’s book hardly covered economic issues.”


Committee of Inquiry Established

Bruland completed his thesis a few weeks before Westlie published his article. The latter raised the interest of some parliamentarians in the subject. However, only after international pressure began to mount – partly through the efforts of the World Jewish Congress (WJC) – 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 once been a high-ranking official at the Ministry of Justice, and also had chaired other complex inquiry committees.

“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 50 other locations.

“On October 26, 1942 an Act was passed which 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 15 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, 769 Norwegian Jews were deported. Only 29 survived. 21 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 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 50 years in Norway, prior to the war. The Norwegian government initially refused their return to the country, a position which 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.”


Post-War Discrimination

“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 post-war 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. 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.”

Levin remarks that the Jews very much wanted not to stand out. “After what had happened they wanted to live in a way that nobody would see the difference between them and other Norwegians. I learnt from my parents that I should be a person like everybody else. We Jews should be integrated so that nobody will say anything negative against us, they told me. I think there was little talk about money or reparations because what had happened was unbelievable. The most important thing discussed was that it should not happen again.”


The Lenient Punishment of War Criminals

After the war when war criminals were judged, the courts did not pay much attention to what had happened to the Jews. Levin says: “An artist in Norway is now presenting an installation about a policeman who had been in charge of transporting the Jews to Auschwitz. He was later condemned to a prison sentence. When he was released, he once again got his job with the police. In 1965, when he went into retirement, he was praised for his work – including the five years during the war.”

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 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 1948 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 in 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 refused compensation to many Jews for several reasons. One was that a number were not Norwegian citizens. Others were rejected 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 on the curriculum at Norwegian universities. With some exceptions – for example the work of the criminologist Per Ole Johansen – 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, although it was the Norwegian police which 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. We then 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 is 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 600 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 WJC wrote very favorably about Norway’s belated handling of the restitution process.4


The Current Situation

Given this favorable outcome, it is surprising that today so many anti-Israel statements are heard in Norway. Levin says – after pointing out that she does not consider herself to be an expert on anti-Semitism – that one shouldn’t generalize: “The present Norwegian government is by no means anti-Israel, and Norwegian society on the whole is not anti-Semitic.

“It is important to emphasize that the average Norwegian citizen feels positive toward Jews. But since Jews are viewed as Westerners, and Israel is viewed as a democratic state, they have higher expectations, and therefore, the disappointment likewise increases.

“Norway is not a religious country. Many who support Israel in the public debate are religious Christians – who are not trusted by many others – and thus, sometimes do more harm than good. The average Norwegian does not identify himself with them and thinks: ‘If these people support Israel, then I don’t.’

“Also, Jews are categorized as members of a religion and not as a people. Norwegians have little understanding of why a religion should have its own country. As the Norwegian establishment was always very pro-Israel, the current critics have an aura of modernity, since to be politically correct is to be anti-establishment. The same is true for the anti-racism movement which criticizes the United States.”


Associating Israel’s ‘Occupation’ with Germany’s

“Many believe Israel’s ‘occupation’ has caused the Middle East conflict. If this is eliminated, they think the problem will be solved. The ‘occupier,’ they believe, does not have many rights or legitimate demands. The reason behind the Six Day War has long been forgotten by them, along with Israel’s long-term anxiety for its existence.

“The Norwegian public associates the word ‘occupation’ with Germany’s occupation of Norway. The semantics are identical, but the content differs. Norwegians have no idea why Israel rules over the Palestinians; for them, one occupation equals another. Consequently, many Norwegians have accepted the Palestinian version of the conflict as illustrated by the media. Whatever happens is interpreted within this framework. Norwegians are also naïve about Israel’s difficult neighbors, since for them a neighboring country means Sweden.

“The Israeli settlement policy after the Oslo accord – that was looked upon as ‘our Norwegian’ agreement – did enormous damage. First, because it seemed Israel did not keep their part of the agreement; and second, since it was perceived that Israel wanted a ‘Greater Israel.'”


Anti-Israel Media Influence Society

“It is important to note the media’s anti-Israel influence on society. The media view the conflict in black and white. Israel’s ‘occupation’ is blamed for every problem, which leads them to conclude, on all counts, that the Palestinians must be right. The media do not show the complexity of the situation. In addition, Norwegians generally support the weaker side, which the media portrays to be the Palestinians.

“Norwegians don’t understand much about the Middle East, nor the reasons behind the behavior of the Israeli government. This makes it very difficult for Israel’s defenders to discuss such matters with individuals who only have one-sided information.

“Norway’s media slant the news against Israel more than Sweden’s media. Events are portrayed very differently in these two countries. I particularly recall the time, over a year ago, when a Palestinian drove a bus into an Israeli bus stop, killing a number of people. The Norwegian press presented it as: ‘Now we will wait for Israel to respond.’ Only at the end of the report did they mention that a Palestinian bus-driver had driven into a group of Israelis.

“I then listened to the Swedish report, which began with details of the Palestinian attack, stating the number of Israelis killed. Only at the end did they mention they were waiting for an Israeli response. This was followed by an expert academic discussion, which was absent in Norway.”


Attitudes Toward Norwegian Jews

When asked what this means for Norwegian Jews, Levin responds: “There have been some incidents with school children. Some Jewish children were told they would not be allowed to attend a birthday party because of Israeli actions. When there were anti-Semitic incidents at school, Jewish parents discussed this with some school principals who supported the aggression. One told a Jewish girl to remove her ‘provocative’ Magen David. These incidents are important, but at present remain exceptions.”

At an Anti-Defamation League conference last year, Levin’s son-in-law Martin Bodd, representing the Oslo Jewish community, told attendants that “newspapers have depicted Ariel Sharon, the Prime Minister of Israel, as an SS criminal and have compared Israel’s military actions using similar Holocaust imagery. Children have been harassed in 10 separate incidents, and in some cases parents have felt it necessary to discourage their children from wearing identifiably Jewish clothing.”5

Adds Levin: “Whenever you present information from an Israeli viewpoint, you are perceived as representing the aggressor. It is very difficult to demonstrate the complexity of the situation. In Norway it is very fashionable to be anti-racist. Nowadays, as an anti-racist you can simultaneously be pro-Moslem and anti-Israel which is sometimes anti-Semitic.

“The problem is particularly severe in Norway’s universities. Many colleagues are anti-Israel, but not anti-Semitic. The media are not even making a distinction between opposing the Israeli ‘occupation’ and being against the Jewish state. A cousin of mine went to a dentist and casually said, ‘I haven’t been here for a long time.’ The dentist replied, ‘A lot of things have happened.’ They then discussed the Middle East and Israel. The dentist said that if Israel didn’t exist, there would be no problem. These situations differ from classical anti-Semitism,” Levin points out “and have not properly been researched yet.”


Jews and Israelis Portrayed as Aggressive

“The current situation is dangerous; Jews and Israelis are portrayed as aggressive. I have an apartment in Jerusalem where I come to write. I often bring non-Jewish colleagues with me and show them Israeli society. Usually one of the first things they tell me is that they are shocked to see distraught mothers who have to send their children to the army. Life in Israel is so different from how the Norwegian media present it.

“Norway would like to be viewed favorably and help make peace in the Middle East. They thought Oslo would enable them to play a major role and to bask in its glory. They like conflicts which are presented in black and white. The Balkan wars were too complicated. It was hard to decide whom to support and whom to oppose. In Norway, the Middle East conflict is presented very simply: there is an occupier and there is a victim.

Levin concludes: “In the more distant past, the media portrayed the Jews as greedy and overly-interested in money. Now they are portrayed as aggressors. The consequences remain the same. Anti-Semitism is about scapegoating. This must be fought by showing the diversity and complexity of the situations. This research about anti-Semitism must be more sophisticated. It is very dangerous to term all anti-Israel activities, anti-Semitic.

“Israeli public relations have not managed to convey Israel’s position. This is extremely important since we live in a media world. More people would support Israel if they understood why Israel and Israelis act the way they do. The Norwegian media presents the situation by showing one side as right and the other as wrong. This is very sad because the public is not being given the complete picture to judge for themselves.”

Interview by Manfred Gerstenfeld

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1. Bjorn Westlie, “Coming to Terms with the Past: The Process of Restitution of Jewish Property in Norway,” Policy Forum No. 12, November 1996, Institute of the World Jewish Congress.
2. Jodenes historie I Norge gjennom 300 ar.
3. Westlie, op. cit.
4. Avi Beker, Introductory article, “Unmasking National Myths” p. 18 in Avi Beker’s [editor] The Plunder of Jewish Property During the Holocaust: Confronting European History (Hampshire: Palgrave, 2001).
5. See website:

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Bjarte Bruland earned his Master’s Degree in 1995 with a thesis entitled, “The Attempt to Destroy the Jews of Norway, 1940-1945.” During 1996-97 he was a member of the government committee investigating the fate of Jewish property during and after the war. From 1997-99 he worked for Oslo’s city archives, and from 1999-2001 he was employed as webmaster for the Directorate of Public Management. Thereafter, he was hired by the Oslo Jewish community to organize their historical archives. He is currently working on his doctoral dissertation, “Norway and the Holocaust, 1925-1950,” at Bergen University.

Irene Levin is a professor of Social Work at the Graduate School for Social Work and Social Research at Oslo University College. She is on the board of the Oslo Holocaust Center and a member of the Info-Middle East group that deals with the media’s presentation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She was also involved in activities on behalf of Soviet Jewry.