People are beginning to contact us with their memories of the 1942- 45 teachers protest. We will try to add these to this page.
We were really honoured that Jorid Gerd Borgvin Weiss came to the screening at NEU on Friday with her daughter Nina and granddaughter Beatrice. Jorid remembers the protest and has written this invaluable account of her father’s involvement when teaching in the Lofoten Islands.
Norwegian Teachers’ Protest
At the outbreak of the second world war in Norway, I was 10 years old and living in a small town called Svolvær in the Lofoten Islands. The islands are situated in north Norway inside the Arctic Circle. Svolvær, on the island of Østvågøy, was a small town with a population of a few thousand. However, during the cod and herring seasons, the town population increased by thousands and the harbour was packed full of fishing boats. There were fishermen wherever you looked!
My father, Ole Borgvin, was one of the many Norwegian teachers who refused to educate his students in the new Nazi ideology and, as a result, was one of those who was arrested.
The Education Ministry had sent an instruction to the teachers, telling them that they had to work actively and positively with their students to create an understanding of the new order and the beliefs expressed in the programme of the Quisling government. The teachers had to do this not only in school but also in daily life outside school. Many threats were made towards the teachers, one being that if they refused this instruction, they would be dismissed. A great many of the teachers would not sign and were consequently without employment.
When war broke out, the town of Svolvær had two schools. The elementary school (for children from 7 to 14) consisted of several buildings. There was a fairly large old building housing classrooms and a doctor’s room, a handicraft building for girls and another building purely for gymnastics. There was also a new building with modern classrooms and separate rooms for domestic science for the girls and woodwork for the boys. It was soon after the new building was finished that my father took me round and proudly showed me the special rooms: one contained maps and geography-related items; another contained stuffed animals, birds and shells etc; there was a chemistry room; and of course there were rooms for domestic science and woodwork. It seemed so wonderful to have a school with so many modern facilities! The elementary school classes were mainly single-sex and my father, who taught the boys, had a classroom with windows facing onto the school playground.
There was also a small private secondary school teaching up to ‘gymnasium’ standard – the level needed for university entrance. This was attended by both local children and children from neighbouring islands who sometimes lodged in town.
When I started school, I remember my classroom being first in the new school building, later in the old one. One of my most vivid memories is of my beloved class teacher, Miss Huss, being sent to Grini – a concentration camp near Oslo. But this is another story.
However, the unexpected March 1941 English/Norwegian raid on the Lofoten Islands, whilst successful in its mission, had dire consequences for local people. A large number of German troops arrived in Svolvær and the new school building was occupied by German soldiers, so no longer available for the education of the town’s children. After that, due to a shortage of classrooms, teaching took place in any available space such as the church vestry, religious meeting houses, community buildings and teachers’ houses. The school had to fit in with the everyday use of these buildings so some classes were held in the morning and others in the afternoon or evening. Some students found it difficult to find their way home in the dark, particularly in the winter blackout!
In such a small town, it was only natural for the population to know the teachers personally or by sight and, when out walking, my father frequently had to lift his hat in order to make or return greetings from people he met. This was often in freezing weather!
I know that the arrest of teachers from all parts of Norway began in March 1942 but I cannot remember the exact date when my father was arrested. Having refused to collaborate with Nazi instructions to teach their fascist ideology to his students, my father had become unemployed and needed to earn money for his wife and three children. Consequently, on the day he was arrested, he was working at a refrigeration plant making ice to freeze fish and whale-meat. I particularly remember visiting him and speaking to him in this new workplace and, for some reason, I remember a dead whale floating in the sea before being taken to the factory. I don’t know why I remember this meeting so vividly but it was unusual to see my dad working in overalls, rather than in a suit.
I think his arrest must have taken place quietly by local police, collaborating with the occupying Germans, but there were no German soldiers present at his arrest. I recall that he was allowed to return home to collect any belongings he might need in prison and to say goodbye to his wife and children. He did not know for how long this would be, but secret information was being circulated about teachers being sent to prisons around Norway or to Finnmark.
In Svolvær, as everywhere else, most of the population was sympathetic; they believed fully in what the teachers had done – namely saying ‘no’ to Quisling and the Germans. When father was in prison, people came quietly to my mother and offered help, including money.
Svolvær, being a small and fairly new town, had no prison, but there was one in Kabelvåg which was a much older settlement and trading centre. It had a large church with a bishop and many long-established institutions. The distance then from Svolvær to Kabelvåg was, I think, about 10km, with the old road winding uphill and downhill between sea-coast and mountains. There was an infrequent bus connection between the two places.
As far as I know, most prison warders were friendly and some may have been sympathetic with the teachers’ actions. I did not hear of the prisoners having to do heavy work, neither can I remember any talk of starvation or punishments. I don’t know whether prisoners were made to do any kind of labour, whether or not they were allowed to read or play games or to write or receive letters. I was extremely fond of my father and I wonder now whether I was kept in ignorance to avoid upsetting and frightening me.
Although father was, of course, very anxious about the future and what would happen to his wife, his children and himself, he was not idle and must have been allowed to spend some of his time doing woodwork. He was one of those people who could put their hand to most things and make a good job of it, and wood-working was a favourite hobby. While in prison he made two wooden dolls’ cots – one for my sister and the other for me. They were beautifully made and decorated with painted animals and flowers. They have since been passed down through generations of the family and are still intact. Father also made a model fishing boat for my brother which looked just like the boats we so often travelled on between islands. In addition he made two beautifully carved wooden decorative dishes, one looking like a flounder with fins and tail and a protruding eye.
During father’s stay in prison, my mother, Ingrid, and other wives visited their husbands to bring fresh clothes and food although I don’t know whether or not they were allowed conversations with their husbands. The wives packed their bags and skied from Svolvær to Kabelvåg, returning physically and mentally exhausted by the hard-going through the snow and the worry about what the future would bring. Food was, of course, rationed. At that time, before recent climate change, fruit trees did not grow so far north and vegetables were of the very basic root variety. Fish and potatoes were our staple diet. Bread was of a very poor standard, like dark wet dough, often containing pieces of shell and sand. There was very little butter or margarine and we used melted down whale fat which had a terrible smell. We were told that our supplies of fish would compensate for the dreadful bread but we heard that bread in the capital, Oslo, was far superior to ours!
Transport between Svolvær and Kabelvåg was difficult but, on one occasion, my mother took me and my siblings by bus to see our father in the prison. We were allowed to stand outside the prison where it had been arranged for my father to appear at a third-floor barred window some distance away, so we got the chance to see each other and wave. It was good to see each other but also very sad, especially for my father. It must have been quite an upsetting event. We all wondered when father would come home again so we could see him and talk to him although, as children, we didn’t have a full appreciation of why he was there. On reflection, this event could not have taken place without meticulous arrangement between the prison and my mother.
I think perhaps most of the prison warders were sympathetic and considered the teachers’ actions to be commendable and brave. On the whole, as far as I know, the prisoners were treated well, but on one occasion my father was taken to visit a dentist which turned out to be an act of subterfuge as it had been secretly arranged that my mother would visit him while he was there. When the prison guard found out, he was furious, attacked my father and gave him “a good kicking”. Clearly this was one warder who did not share the sympathetic outlook of his colleagues. I am well aware though that the treatment received by my father was nothing in comparison to what happened to so many other teachers.
In Kabelvåg prison, the prisoners waited for a ship with around 500 other teachers from the south of Norway, via Trondheim, to arrive and transport them up to the very north of Norway to a prison camp in Kirkenes in Finnmark. The expected ship was a cargo ship, not the familiar coastal boat run by the Hurtigruten company which plied the coast north and south and regularly stopped at Svolvær.
… And then, one day, the Kabelvåg prisoners were released and sent home. The reason existing in family memory is that a raging storm had made it impossible for boats to enter the harbour, but there are other theories too. Perhaps the Germans did not consider it worth the bother of picking up a few teachers from Kabelvåg on their way north, or perhaps the boat was already overloaded and could not accommodate any more prisoners. I am not sure of the date that father and his colleagues were released and returned to their families but there was great happiness and relief, not just in the families but also on the part of everyone in the population who had wished them well. Father was home and stayed safe for the rest of the war, continuing to teach in Svolvær.
I know that schools in Oslo re-opened on 7 th May, without the signing of the new contract, and Norwegian teachers returned to work. The actions took their toll though and I recall two of my teachers in post-war Oslo (where I moved in 1947) having been physically and mentally damaged by their experiences in the Kirkenes prison camp. This showed in their behaviour in the classroom and in their personal lives too. But who can blame them after their ordeal?
Ten years ago, in 2009, I visited a Svolvær school friend, then living in Kirkenes, who had become a teacher herself. She and her husband were our guides and showed us places where the imprisoned teachers had worked in 1942. At that time, I was still not fully aware of the hardships suffered by those teachers. It was only after my visit and reading a fascinating book, “Kirkenesferda 1942” (“The Journey to Kirkenes 1942”) that I really understood the nightmare that my father had escaped. This book, with contributions by one of my own teachers outlines, in amazing detail and drawings, the cruelty experienced by these brave people who refused to teach a fascist ideology.
My father remained a teacher for the rest of his working life. This particular battle against fascism had been won through the brave actions of educators in Norway. Following in my father’s footsteps, I too became a teacher – teaching in a Primary School in the London Borough of Brent until my retirement.
Jorid Gerd Borgvin Weiss