The Center for Dialogue and Prayer (CDP) whose garden we are camping in, is frequently visited by young students. By sitting at the Center daily working on my assignment, I’ve observed that most school groups are either Norwegian, German or Polish.
I’ve asked the workers here and the head receptionist confirmed that there is a majority of Norwegian groups. This matches the impression I got during my own days at Secondary school and through working at one later.
It’s very common that Secondary school pupils go to Poland with a teacher to learn about the Second World War and Holocaust. According to CDP, they’ve got frequent visits from Norway since the 80’s, and the major organisation that have run these tours since the 90’s is called Aktive Fredsreiser (in English Travel for Peace). Visit their webpage here.
Every time a Norwegian group comes in and the pupils and teachers spread out in the cafe where I’m sitting, I find some amusement in observing them and listening to their conversations about what they’ve seen, or what thoughts they have about what they will see. Generally speaking these kids are just that; kids. Teenagers in their puberty thus quite restless, in that emotional, half-confused and pimpled up state most of us over that age remember quite well.
Since getting here I’ve more than once (and together with Ross) reflected over why the school system chooses to do such tour with a bunch of 14/15 year old’s as opposed to when they are 17 or so.. I may be mistaken of course, and I don’t know if the phenomenon ever has been researched, I just get the feeling that the purpose of it all could have better outcomes on slightly more mature kids.
Anyway, today I heard this group in the couch behind me of an old man’s voice mixed together with two other female more polite voices. They talked about the weather and shit and I heard they asked him if he wanted some coffee, what breaks and other needs he may have. He answered politely that they should not worry about him cause he has done this job for years.
I quickly assumed he was what they call a time witness or survivor. Interestingly I had till today not thought about this element of the study trips while being here (though we did indeed learn about it at school when a teacher talked about a potential “White buses trip” for us), but obviously this was something that really interested me.
As mentioned before I had quite an interest in history and WW2 during my school days, and I’ve always had this desire to eat everything there is of stories related to human-experienced tragedies (or beauties and randomnesses for that sake) raw. Text, audio and visuals that describe people’s extreme or extraordinary experiences enabling the audience to get moved just fascinates me, and here I suddenly found myself 1,5 meter away from a person I knew had lived through a freaking concentration camp! And he was Norwegian!
His voice was rough, but his manner of talking made me understand he was one of a kind. I turned over and looked at the group. The man sat with his face towards me and looked me straight in the eyes and smiled, to what I smiled back and he stood up. He came over and said “Do you speak German” in German to what I replied “no, I am Norwegian” in Norwegian. He was tall and good looking, with huge, white eyebrows that went far up his forehead. He gave me his hand with a firm grip and presented himself as Sigurd Syversen and asked what I was doing here.
I explained him the purpose of my visit together with my Scottish friend, and he told me he knew English very well. He was proud of speaking three languages fluently due to his age that he told me was 91. I congratulated him and asked him how he had learned them all. Bluntly he told me he was a prisoner in Germany under WW2 and that his favorite job ever since before retiring from a media position he held at home, was to go on the Travel for Peace tours to tell his story to kids from Norway.
I said I felt honored to meet him and he invited me to come and see him speak in 10 minutes. I thanked him on the offer, and went up with the group to the seminar room shortly after.
Sigurd sat down with a glass of water next to him and looked into the crowd of around sixty people. For one and a half hour he told us a story about a young man. About a 15 year old that rather naively was involved in the work of spreading illegal opposition media during the German Occupation of Norway in 1941 and 42. In fact he felt more proud than afraid of having such a job, and kept pushing the newspapers despite of knowing of frequent arrests of other media workers.
One night when he quite randomly staid over at some friends house (among which one man was considered a suspect for political propaganda), Gestapo showed up the following morning. They didn’t only arrest the suspect, but brought Sigurd too. Apparently the police believed him on not having done anything concretely wrong, but still –in fashion with the time –they locked him in at a Grini, a former Norwegian prison, for being in contact with other suspects.
Sigurd spent one year at Grini, a time he describes as doable and claims he didn’t get tortured at all if comparing to the level of torture others suffered from. He told us that the fear the prisoners lived under was the worst, and that fear regarded being sent to the horrific concentration camps in Poland or Germany that people had started to be aware of. And that fear got realised as the Germans sent Sigurd and a bunch of other prisoners to the labour camp of Sachsenhausen in Oranienburg, Germany in February 1943.
“From this day”, Sigurd said, “I wasn’t an individual anymore, but a number, and it was all about finding the best strategy for one self to not go mad, or die”.
Apparently there was a similar gate to the one of Auschwitz inside of Sachsenhausen, saying “Arbeit macht frei” (work makes you free). But as the smoke from the pipes on the gass chambers got more and more intense, the prisoners understood early that this was just a lie, also because they had all heard stories about the killings from Auschwitz prior to arriving to Sachsenhausen.
Sigurd repeated however, that as there were mostly political prisoners and not that many Jews in this camp, the conditions were slightly better in Sachsenhausen than in Auschwitz and Birkenau. Still, they were all exposed for typical manipulative and torture-like mechanism daily, and Sigurd claims that the SS solders were known as the harshest.
During the first year he spent in Saschenhausen nearly a third of the 225 Norwegian he came with had died. Prisoners died from cold, hunger, exhaustion and illnesses that broke out.
It was common that solders were killed for any suspected crime or opposition/ sabotage, and despite of the cruel system Sigurd definitely experienced first-handed, he categories himself as one of the lucky ones. He was young and strong and early got to work in a Mechanic Industry fabric as a rotation worker a bit outside the main camp.
Fortunately the owner of that fabric was fairly human, wanting his workers to get enough food to maintain strong in order to deliver a good service. From the two years in Saschenhausen, Sigurd said he could tell in length about both shocking and tragic, survivor-instinctual and humorist anecdotes from his stay, but he chose this one:
One morning before work he couldn’t find his clothes. Luckily he managed to get some rags on to get out to alignment in time in front of the solders. During the long working day he spotted another worker in a double set of clothes, “and well, I couldn’t blame him”, he giggles, “because it was in deed freezing”! That night two solders picked Sigurd up in his barrack and took him out to the court yard, where the ‘guilty guy’ was standing. The skinny man stood there terrified, looking down to the ground. The solders told Sigurd if the extra set of clothes the man had used were his, to what Sigurd had to say yes as he knew they already knew, and “God knows what a lie could do with the situation… Someone must had informed them”.
One of the solders told Sigurd to hit the other man in punishment, to what he replied “We Norwegians don’t hit people”. The solder grinned and said he could show him how to hit a man, if he refused. Then Sigurd looked at the man, their eyes met, and he gave him a slap in the face. He was terrified for what could come from the solders, and therefore got delighted when they just rolled their eyes and accepted Sigurd’s form of punishment. The two men were taken back to their barracks while the solders haggled them in insulting comments “you are all idiots”, “you week pigs”.
Sigurd told this story with great amusement. I giggled back at him through my tears.
Early 1945, rumors about how the war was going to an end got stronger every week, and prisoners talked about the Red Cross buses they had heard were picking up prisoners around. In March 1945, the day had come for Sigurd and the other Scandinavian inmates at Saschenhausen, and they were called for to start a day long march back to the main camp.
He can’t recall the moment too well, but remember the white Red Cross buses standing there with Swedish flags on them, and thought the nurses looked like angels.
When the WW2 was over and the Saschenhausen concentration camp prisoners were released, over half of the men he had got there with had died, and there were less than 70 Norwegians left. The transportation through Denmark towards Sweden started on March 20th 1045. He arrived to Sweden on May 1st and to Oslo in Norway on May 28th, where his family was among the crowd at the welcoming ceremony.
He tells us that the society had tagged former prisoners with sort of a hero status that he never felt he understood much, or liked at all. In fact, Sigurd didn’t want to talk about his two years in Saschenhausen after he was a free man, yet he struggled with some traumas like any other former prisoner. He reminds us that the Norwegian authorities at the time could not offer war victims any shrinks or psychologists at the time. “That welfare system came later, remember that”, he said.
Unlike other previous WW2 prisoners that seemed to need to share their memories and tell their stories early after returning to Norway, Sigurd didn’t feel that way. He says he didn’t even speak to his own wife about it until he was in his ’60s, and claims to not have suffered from too many traumas, part from some sleepless nights and memories of sounds and smells.
However, two decades later and through his work for a Norwegian broad casting company, he got to travel to Germany were he met German people and could practice his language skills, as well as telling a little about his story. In 1970 he visited Saschenhausen for the first time because “somehow he always wanted to go back there to see”.
Though the visit reminded him about the many horrific things he experienced there, he also felt a weird healing, and later therefore chose to gather traveling groups of former prisoners as well as start working for Travel for Peace.
During his talk today, he also said that this job has helped him a lot in life; “going back time after time has filled a whole inside of me. Maybe I didn’t know it was there all those years, but anyway… I want to keep doing this til I can’t walk any longer”.
So, just like one can read about many other concentration camp survivors, Sigurd Syversen has also been able to find healing in living through the memories, despite how unbelievably awful they are. Sad, but through though, him and hundreds of other previous inmates (from many different countries) are the dying generation of a well established network of travelers and teachers that spend of their time and energy to visit Germany’s and Poland’s memorial sites with young people. Just by writing it I get goosebumps! Seldom have I felt more admiration for a person in front of me.
The purpose Sigurd finds by doing this still at an age of 91, is clear. As a life witness, he hopes that he can add value to the young visitors understanding of Holocaust and WW2. He hopes that the stories about cruelty and knowledge about Nationalism and dangerous ideologies (put in system) can live long after the currently alive survivors have died.
He hopes that the insight in human survivor instincts and ability to reconciliation can inspire yes, but more importantly that the young generations in charge of our common future, educate themselves, and unite in love. To never, ever again allow anything similar to Holocaust and WW2 happen.