75 years after the liberation, the Arolsen Archives still hold some personal items that were taken from Norwegian prisoners when they were arrested.
Historical journalist Gøril Grov Sørdal could not stop thinking about the fate of these prisoners. She and her team set out in search of their relatives – and, after intensive research, found over 20 families to whom the mementos can now be returned.
For this reason, the Arolsen Archives are now increasingly relying on volunteers who are familiar with different countries and languages and can conduct local research to find relatives – often with great success. Thanks to the support of these volunteers, hundreds of personal items have been returned to the descendants of former concentration camp prisoners in recent years.
All of the personal effects from the Norwegian prisoners come from the Neuengamme concentration camp. Shortly before the end of the war, the Swedish Red Cross assembled Scandinavian prisoners from various camps there to protect them from the fighting and return them to their home countries. The Arolsen Archives hold a small collection of personal items from around 30 of these prisoners.
They all knew about the incarceration of their family members in Germany, of course, but no one would ever have guessed that they had left any items there...Gøril Grov Sørdal ,
Gøril Grov Sørdal is a journalist at NRK, the largest public broadcasting company in Norway. After learning about the personal effects of Norwegian concentration camp prisoners that are still being stored at the Arolsen Archives, she set off on a quest: With extensive research and a great sense of discovery, Gøril and her team found more than 20 families in Norway who will now receive the items that belonged to their relatives. We asked her about her experiences on this special mission.
Gøril, why did you make it your task to return the effects to the families in Norway?
We visited the Arolsen Archives in 2019 when we were researching the ancestry of an Estonian who had ended up in Norway during the Second World War and had died there recently. This was for an episode of our show “Unknown Heir,” where we search for relatives of people who have died and left an inheritance. During our shoot in the archive, we not only learned about the abundance of information about Norwegian victims of Nazi persecution, but also about the 29 effects belonging to concentration camp inmates from Norway that are kept there too. It was so fascinating to hold all these things in my hands, I had no idea that such a collection existed! I made the decision to find the relatives of these people there and then – after all, thanks to “Unknown Heir,” we already possessed vital expertise and tools for ancestry research.
Video: Gøril and her team visiting the Arolsen Archives
How did you tackle the search for the families? Which sources and institutions did you use?
Much of it was internet research, mostly Google. Our national archives were an important place to go, too. I also scanned newspapers and obituaries. Whenever I was stuck, I called in a professional researcher who works for our show and has access to specific databases, like a dedicated state register of all Norwegian people. It was also often helpful to scan the documents about the prisoners in the online archive of the Arolsen Archives. Some of them gave us important clues like variations of names, names of parents and spouses, or addresses. Then, if we found someone who might be a family member, I contacted them directly and asked if they were related to the person concerned. We got most of them right!
How did the people react to your message about the effects?
All of them were very surprised, even shocked sometimes, but in a good way. They all knew about the incarceration of their family members in Germany, of course, but no one would ever have guessed that they had left any items there, let alone that these things are waiting to be collected from an archive. There were many tears, too. It brought back old memories and stories, and many of the people were eager to share what they knew about the fate of their relative as a Nazi victim. I met seven families in person to return the items to them, and these meetings were very intense and emotional.
Gøril returning Egil Hjelde’s ring to his grandson. She also took some copies from the grandfather’s concentration camp documents that are stored in the Arolsen Archives to explain more about his imprisonment.
Was there a story that you found particularly touching?
The fate of Tore Five, whom we featured in our TV show, moved me very much. He was only 24 when he was arrested and sent to the Natzweiler concentration camp: an intelligent, motivated young man with a promising career as an engineer ahead of him. His nieces showed me so many nice photos of him. He returned from Germany, but only to die three years later, at the age of 27 – a long-term consequence of the tuberculosis he had contracted in the camp. I will also never forget the engagement ring of Sophus Hansen: He was about to marry his fiancée Gudrun. Everything was set: the date, the furniture for their new home, and Gudrun had a very nice wedding dress. Shortly before the wedding, the Nazis arrested him. He died of typhus in the Neuengamme concentration camp. We found his relatives here, but we have not yet Gudruns relatives. Maybe her engagement ring still exists too…
Sophus Hansen’s engagement ring
Do you have any tips and tricks for other volunteers who want to help return effects?
It is vital to know the language of the country where you are searching, and to have some local knowledge. Sometimes, the names of the former concentration camp prisoners are spelled incorrectly in the documents of the Arolsen Archives, so you should try variations of the name during your search. It is always good to collaborate with others, for instance hobby genealogists who might share knowledge about ancestry research. Also, practice your internet research. Be persistent and smart – this is like detective work, you need to connect the dots!
A ring and its history
Thorvald Michelsen was 28 years old when the Gestapo raided his family’s home in Trondheim in October 1943 and took him away. Thorvald, his wife Gunvor and their one-year-old son Bjørn lived on the upper floor. Thorvald’s parents lived downstairs with Tore, his nephew. 77 years later, the Norwegian journalist Gøril Grov Sørdal met Tore and Thorvald’s three children in the same house.
From left to right: Thorvald’s children Toril, Rolf and Bjørn, their cousin Tore and the journalist Gøril.
Tore recounted his memory of Thorvald’s arrest. Tore himself was six years old at the time: “I was having breakfast with my grandfather when the Gestapo men ran through the house and stormed upstairs to get Uncle Thorvald.” The Gestapo also found a friend of Thorvald’s in the house, Kolbjørn Wiggen, who was also in the resistance and was hiding there. Wiggen and eight other resistance fighters were executed one month later. Thorvald and several others were deported to Germany to carry out forced labor.
He had to give up his wedding ring
Thorvald had distributed an underground newspaper for the resistance, among other things. “After the Gestapo left the house, my grandmother ran upstairs, gathered up everything that could have incriminated him, hid the papers under her clothing and left the house to get rid of them,” Tore explained.
Thorvald and around 60 other Norwegians were taken to the Natzweiler concentration camp, where many Scandinavians were held. He was imprisoned there for nearly a year and had to work in a quarry. When he arrived, Thorvald had to give up his wedding ring, which had his wife’s name engraved inside. It was preserved by the Arolsen Archives until recently.
Liberated by the Red Cross
In September 1944, Thorvald was taken to the Dachau concentration camp. He was liberated there in the spring of 1945 with other Scandinavian prisoners as part of the “White Buses” rescue operation carried out by the Swedish Red Cross.
They were first taken with other prisoners from various concentration camps to an assembly camp set up especially for Danish and Norwegian citizens at the Neuengamme concentration camp near Hamburg. From there, Thorvald was brought via Denmark to a sanatorium in Sweden, where he recuperated. On May 27, 1945, he returned home by train.
He pasted his prisoner numbers from the three concentration camps in an album to save them (photo left).
The old and the new ring
Thorvald and Gunvor continued to live in Trondheim, where Thorvald was politically active in the Norwegian Labor Party. Their daughter Toril was born a year after he returned home, and their youngest son Rolf followed in 1952. Gunvor died in 1992. Thorvald died in 2008 at the age of 93.
Thorvald had a replica of his wedding ring made after he returned from Germany. No one suspected that the original still existed.
When Gøril returned the “old new ring,” the three siblings shared many photos and memories of their parents. They also explained how they eventually found out about their father’s arrest and his experiences in the concentration camps. They didn’t learn much to begin with.
40 years passed before he told his story
“For a long time, our father almost never talked about his imprisonment in Germany,” said his oldest son, Bjørn. It was only after fellow prisoner and acquaintance Trygve Bratteli – Norway’s prime minister in the 1970s – published the bestseller Prisoner in Night and Fog in 1980 about his own time as a prisoner that Thorvald began to speak more about his experiences.
He not only told his children about what his experiences in the concentration camps meant to him, he also gave a few interviews – as did many other former prisoners from Norway around this time. In one of these interviews, he described a scene in Natzweiler that Norwegian illustrator Rudolf Næss, a fellow prisoner, had also captured in a striking drawing:
“On December 26th, two prisoners disappeared on the way back from the quarry. They were quickly found, beaten and hung. The gallows were visible from everywhere in the camp, and we all had to march past the two men and look at them. They were like wax dolls, and it was hard to believe they had ever been alive.”
Thorvald was still able to remember many details. In the same interview, he explained why he now found it easier to talk about the war and what was important to him about it: “Young people have to learn what happened. Our democracy is too valuable to lose. We have to fight to preserve it.”