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The History of the Jews of Norway

Freda Isaksen

Contents

Introduction
Norwegian History
The First Jews
The Peddlers
The Merchants
The Holocaust
Today
Footnotes

Introduction

Although I was born and raised in England, I have lived some years in Trondheim, Norway and still visit there. I was interested to learn of the Jewish people’s history there, and I have been asked to share some of my knowledge with you.

How many of you know that there are Norwegian Jews? When I tell people that I married a Norwegian, they nearly always say, “He can’t be Jewish.” Yes, he is Jewish, and his family practiced Orthodox Judaism.

Norwegian History

It is not my intention to tell you of Norwegian history, but a little is necessary at this point. Until 1814 Norway was united with Denmark. Denmark lost Norway to Sweden after the Napoleonic Wars, but Norway was allowed to write its own constitution, which they patterned after the democracies of the United States and France. However, the new constitution still stated that Jews could not be allowed to be permanent citizens there. There was actually a limitation set of three months residence.

The union with Sweden lasted until 1905 when Sweden peacefully surrendered Norway to be completely independent. It is the celebration on the new constitution of May 17, 1814, that is celebrated today as Constitution Day.

The First Jews

Since the 17th century, a very small number of Jews had been crossing the border into Norway, but they were not free men there. Any Norwegian recognizing a Jew was required to report him to the authorities. In fact, they were rewarded with money to do this. Then the Jew had to buy a permit which he had to carry at all times. They existed by peddling from door to door. It was these people who gave root to the suspicion that Jews grew horns because the ignorant peasants saw the forelocks and could only interpret them as horns.

It was the Norwegian author Henrik Wergeland who became interested in the plight of the Jews. He appealed to the populace and to the government of Norway to accept them as immigrants as was being done in Denmark, Sweden, and other parts of Europe. His appeal to the people was through his books and articles.

One very famous story told of a Jewish who knocked on the door of a Christian household to sell his wares. They said, “Go away, Jew!” Towards evening the child of the family did not return home, and everyone accused the Jew of kidnapping the child. A storm blew all night, so no one could go out to search for the lost child. The next morning they found the Jew outside the house dead, with the child cradled next to his body. He had found the child in the storm, brought him home, and saved him by the warmth of his body.

Stories such as this did much to change the people’s suspicion of the Jews, but to convince the government was another matter entirely. Wergeland’s father was a priest and a member of the Stortinget, or National Assembly, and he was opposed to his son’s views and was instrumental in delaying a decision in favor of the Jews.

When Norway gained independence from Denmark, the country was in great financial difficulty, and their appeals for financial aid to the neighboring countries of Europe was of no avail. Only a Jewish banker in London by the name of Hambro was willing to loan money to Norway, and it was this act of faith by an English Jew that finally won a favorable vote in the Norwegian government to permit the Jewish people to enter the country legally.

Hambro’s bank still exists in London today, and some of the Hambro family settled in Norway. They became prominent in Norwegian affairs and in the government. Unfortunately, they converted to Christianity.

Henrick Wergeland did not live to see the fruits of his efforts for the Jewish people. But even before the new immigration law was passed, the Jewish people of Sweden arranged for a statue to be erected in his memory in the capital city, Oslo. To make this possible, those responsible were allowed to enter Norway for only a twenty-four hour period to erect the monument. Remember, it was against the law for a Jew to be in Norway without a permit. The statue of Henrick Wergeland still stands today, and on May 17 each year it has always been a tradition for a member of the Jewish youth organization to lay a wreath and give a speech at his grave.

The Peddlers

So the new immigrants from Eastern and Western Europe started to enter Norway after 1850. My husband’s grandparents and their daughter came from Poland about 1880 and my husband, Micael, was of the first generation of Jews to be born in Norway.

The new immigrants were not welcomed with open arms, especially not the Ashkenazis from Poland. The Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal were more readily accepted because they were educated. I don’t think it was anti-semitism; it was more likely a distrust of the unknown. Their appearance was unfamiliar in this Nordic country and their clothing was unlike anything seen before. Don’t we even now tend to stare at those Orthodox Jews we see sometimes, wearing their black coats and long caftans and their forelocks? My in-laws told of people approaching them and asking to see their horns.

Virtually all of the immigrants became peddlers. It took many years before they were allowed to receive a higher education or to be accepted in business or become masters at a trade. Actually, the Jewish peddlers filled a great need amongst the Norwegian farmers. The villages were scattered around the valleys, and a high percentage of the people lived on small farms and could not travel through the difficult terrain to reach the towns for clothing and supplies. So when the peddlers found their way to them on foot or by train, they were a welcomed sight with their packages of wares.

It was a terribly hard life for the peddlers. Anyone who has travelled in Norway knows of the hard terrain through the mountains and of the harsh climate. These peddlers had to carry what they had to sell, for transportation was far different to what we see today. They were away from home most of the time, returning to their families twice a year. It is interesting that they had such large families. One can calculate that the father returned home at the same month each year because the births were always during certain months.

There were definite seasons when the Jewish merchants could easily sell their merchandise. When the Norwegian fisherman had a good bountiful catch of herring or cod, they sold it to buyers from other parts of Europe on the open seas or on the fishing piers. Therefore, money was plentiful at this time. The Jews who watched and waited for this opportunity would sometimes travel many miles for the extra business.

The Merchants

So the peasants and fishermen began to welcome them and trust them for they supplied something that had been lacking in their lives, and because their wares were in great demand, the Jewish peddlers flourished financially and were eventually able to start their own businesses in the cities and towns. As more roads and railroads were built, the peasants came to them, and there was virtually no anti-semitism in Norway.

The Jews settled in Oslo and Trondheim. Although Bergen was the second largest city and a very beautiful and interesting place, not enough Jews ever settled there to even make a minion. Eventually in about 1800 Jews lived in Norway; all were orthodox. No professionals immigrated there. There were never more than two synagogues in Oslo and one in Trondheim, which is still the most northern synagogue in the world. The rabbis were, of course, immigrants themselves and served also as cantors, educators, shoykhet [kosher butcher], and whatever else was necessary for the congregation.

To observe the kosher laws was very difficult because all of the kosher foods had to be imported. The slaughtering of animals was forbidden by a shoykhet for humane reasons. So the rabbis would travel to Sweden once a month where slaughtering was allowed to obtain meat for their congregations. As refrigeration was not used in the early 1900’s, meat was a rare item, and it was of poor quality. But as fish is the main food of Norway and of Jews in Europe, this was not a hard adjustment. In the 1930’s when I lived there, kosher meat was still brought in by the rabbis.

Until the 1920’s finances did not stretch for higher education, so the new generation born would usually enter the father’s business which was mostly the retail selling of clothing. As they prospered, the ambition of the parents would be the same as Jews everywhere, to educate the offspring. By the late 1930’s there were Jewish graduates in every profession. No Norwegian Jews ever became prominent enough to receive attention outside the country. There were two or three well known in government affairs.

Interest was always high for Zionist organizations. All of the women were active in Wizo. Of course, there were no Jewish publications, but in smaller cities there is always an active grapevine, and short wave radios in later years kept the people well informed of world Jewry.

By the late 1930’s the Jewish people were well established and prosperous in Norway.

The Holocaust

Norway had been neutral during World War I and although the Jews took an active interest in the disturbing events of the 1930’s, there was no thought that Germany would covet Norway. Not until April 9, 1940, when Germany invaded Norway and Denmark overnight was this realized. Most of the Jewish citizens were sure they would be exempt from Hitler’s persecutions, and did not take advantage of the opportunities to escape. But as we all know, no Jew was exempt and about half of the population perished.

My husband and I left Norway, together with his family, soon after the occupation. The Swedish government allowed anyone who could escape across the border to remain there. Unfortunately, some of our family returned to Norway and were later shot or died in the concentration camps. We saved our lives by coming to the United States. It was hard to live in Sweden during the war for it was like living on a keg of dynamite with the threat that the country might be invaded at any time. They did remain neutral, of course.1

Many Jews who had immigrated to Norway in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s to escape persecution did not survive the persecution by Hitler.

After the war, most of those who had escaped returned to Norway and were able to reestablish their lives. Beautiful memorials have been erected in the Jewish cemeteries in Trondheim and Oslo to commemorate those who were murdered in the holocaust.

Today

Unfortunately, in the years since 1945 there has been a great deal of assimilation, and I am sorry to say that if this trend continues, eventually there will be no more Jews in Norway. In our home town of Trondheim they are no longer able to maintain a minion on a weekly basis. There is no longer a rabbi employed in the synagogue there, and the layman must educate the children in religious studies.

I fear that in about fifteen years there will no longer be practicing Jews in Trondheim. 2 So for that reason it is with a note of regret that I conclude. We can only hope that in the future there won’t be cause to say a Norwegian can’t be Jewish.

Footnotes

  1. For more details about Freda’s personal experiences during World War II, see her Autobiography.
  2. In fact, twenty years after this text was written, the synagogue in Trondheim continues to serve its purpose.


Copyright Freda Isaksen 1986–2006. Permission to reuse for non-commercial purposes is granted, provided that the text is unaltered and the original source is acknowledged. For more information, contact isaksen at math.wayne.edu.

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