Grete Haagenrud, Norway

Children in Times of War – a Story from Norway

It is a great pleasure for me to be here today.

I’ve written five books about Sofie and Kathrine, two girls living in northern Norway during the last world war, from 1940-45. Sofie is the storyteller. She is five-six years old and her sister Kathrine is two years older. Kathrine always knows how to behave when they are visiting people. She never eats too much and she never speaks about dead people or makes a mess of herself. Sofie is more careless, and Kathrine always makes sure her chair is near Sofie’s chair so she can pinch her thigh when she doesn’t behave correctly.

Sofie was two years old and Kathrine was four when the war started. Therefore, normal everyday life for them was German soldiers, Russian prisoners of war, rationing and air raid alarms. The books are based on my own childhood. When you’re an author, you can of course invent situations, which I have done. But all of the events related to the war are based on historical facts.

Germany attacked Norway the 9th of April 1940. After Norway was forced to surrender, a sort of normal life began under the leadership of the German Reichskommisar Josef Therboven. Of course there was continued Norwegian resistance against the German soldiers, but after a while the daily bombing attacks and battles came to an end.

The war in northern Norway developed in a somewhat different way than in the south. The German military built bunkers and forts along Finnmark’s eastern coast, to protect the German ships transporting nickel and iron-ore to Germany. Germany was dependent on nickel for production of armoured steel, and Russian submarines and bombers attacked the German fortifications. For this reason, Russia, which was allied with Norway, was constantly bombing in the north. Air raids and bombing were therefore part of normal life for people living in northeast Norway during the war.

As a child I did not understand why Russian bombers attacked us. We were friends, and we used to give Russian prisoners of war bread when the German soldiers weren’t looking. We got gifts from the prisoners. They carved little wooden birds and other figures for us.

My family lived close to the prisoners’ camp, and in the evening, when our bedroom window was open, we could hear the Russian prisoners sing. They sang about the Volga and “Stenka Rasin”, a Russian Cossak rebel. It was a sad, very dramatic song. I loved to sing when I was a child and I knew all the verses in Norwegian and sometimes I used to sing the Norwegian translation of “Stenka Rasin” for the prisoners. And I sang “Lilli Marlene”, just like Zarah Leander on the phonograph record we had at home. I played the record again and again until I knew it by heart. Sometimes I even sang it for the German soldiers. I knew they were our enemies, but the German soldiers had candy. I sang for them even though my sister had told me that God the Father in heaven could see and hear everything and God the Father in heaven had very big ears and he could especially hear small girls singing to the enemies.

I felt a little better when I managed to persuade my sister to eat some of the candy, but afterwards we had to fold our hands and ask God the Father in heaven to forgive us.

When our parents and their friends talked about how it was before the war started, when there were all sort of things in the shops, no bombing, no German soldiers and no Russian prisoners, I could not quite comprehend. I remember that one of my aunts laughed when I asked her who used to repair bomb-holes in the streets when there were no Russian prisoners of war who could do that.

Everyday life during the war also meant grandparents talking about trade between Russian and Norwegian people living in the northern area, the so-called Pomor trade. This was before the Russian revolution in 1917. We heard about the Finnish immigration to Norway in the 18th century. A lot of Finnish immigrants established small communities along the Varanger Fjord. This was a part of our own background, and we loved to hear about it.

But during the war, air-raid alarms, bombing, German soldiers and Russian prisoners were the normal situation for my generation. When the air-raid alarm started, we knew we were supposed to run home. If we were far from home, we were to run into the nearest house and into the cellar. But I didn’t like to go into the cellar of people I didn’t know, so I always ran home. But once I did something I never did again.

I loved going to the graveyard to look at the gravestones and the flowers. One summer day when the sun was shining, the flowers blooming and everything was very nice, I was in the graveyard, and suddenly the air-raid alarm started. I was so tired of the alarm and I didn’t want to leave the graveyard where everything was so nice. I crept under a tree and I told myself that the Russian bombers would not be so stupid as to drop bombs on the graveyard, where everyone was already dead. No bombs fell in the graveyard, but they did fall in the neighbourhood. I became very, very scared and started to run home. After that experience, when I heard the air-raid alarm, I ran like an arrow into the nearest cellar.

My five books about Sofie and Kathrine begin in 1943 and end in 1947. The two first books are about everyday life during the war. Book two ends on the 23rd of August 1944, a day no one who lived in Vadsø then will ever forget. Within half an hour the town was completely demolished and Sofie and Kathrine's family had to move, along with all the other citizens. Sofie and Kathrine’s family moved to Tana, a fjord northwest of Vadsø, and they lived there for some weeks until the Germans forced everyone to evacuate the area.

In 1941 Germany attacked Russia on the northern front. The German army met the Russian army at the river Litza and fought there until 1944. The Germans were forced to retreat and decided to burn all the houses in northern Norway and evacuate the population by force. Then, when the Russian army crossed the Norwegian border, they would meet an almost totally destroyed countryside at the brink of the polar winter. Eighty percent of all buildings were burned and around 50,000 to 60,000 people had been evacuated. Sofie and Kathrine’s family and their neighbours were transported westward in lorries, and after some days they boarded a German freighter. 1,900 people were forced to go down into the ship’s hold where they were to “camp” on wooden pallets covered with straw.

Because Russia forced the German army to withdraw from the north, the German army took with them as much of their war equipment as possible. The deck was full of cannons. What the children didn’t know was that under the pallets in the hold were cases of ammunition.  I only remember a man shouting that it was forbidden to smoke in the hold. This part is later on referred to as the worst part of the evacuation. A lot of people got dysentery, lice flourished, and some people died. When the ship arrived at Narvik, the Red Cross had to use gas masks when they went into the hold to help the weakest people out.  

To make a long story short, my family finally got to Lillesand in southern Norway, and lived there until the end of the war. Book three ends here. For various reasons, we could not go home to Vadsø and we became refugees in our own country. Life in the south is all right, but Sofie doesn’t feel quite at home. And she is afraid that people up north will forget her if she stays away too long. She starts school and when she has learned to write, she writes a letter to Mrs Jentoft up north. She writes three words aslant – Forget me not – at the bottom of the letter. And Mrs. Jentoft understands Sofie’s situation. She writes back, “I’ve told everyone who knows you that you wrote me a letter, and we are all looking forward to seeing you again”, and Sofie becomes very happy when she receives Mrs. Jentoft’s letter.

New Growth in Burnt Earth is the fifth and final book in the series. We follow Sofie and her family on their way back home. On their way, they stay in Harstad for one year, and then they return to Vadsø. But Sofie becomes confused. She has lost her past and she is afraid to go back and her feelings are mixed. She knows that rebuilding has begun and she knows that the new town will be different from the old one. Will she be able to find her grandfather’s house? Her best friend Klara’s house? And what about the bakery? Will she be a stranger in her own hometown? However, when Sofie finally does get home, things fall into place. She realizes that she will never get her little red teddy bear back. It was destroyed during the bombing. But that’s the way it is.

After having written five books about Sofie and Kathrine, and telling my own story more than forty years after the war, I asked myself: “What did the war do to my generation? What did the war do to me as a child?” I have no answers to these questions, but I do have some reflections to contribute.

Rebuilding had begun when we returned home to the north. Everyone lived in barracks during the first years, but eventually moved into new houses. It was a very optimistic time.

In my last year at high school, we moved into new school buildings. Nobody talked about the past. We were focused on the future.

The first book about Sofie and Kathrine was published in 1991, and since then I’ve toured all over Norway, mostly in the north. And it is in the north I have had the most emotional meetings with readers. After my presentation of the books, people begin to ask questions, and then to tell of their own war experiences.

I often ask them, “Have you ever talked about the war with your friends and your children?”  or  “Have you ever had a chance to process your traumatic experiences?” The answer is often, ”Told others about them? Talked about it? Had a chance to process traumatic experiences?  No. When the war ended, we didn’t talk about it any more. The thoughts came now when you told us about Sofie and Kathrine. That’s how it is”.  

And that’s how it was for me too. No one forbade us to talk about the war when we came back, but we didn’t do it. If we did, we talked about funny things that had happened, safe memories.

As I have said, more than forty years afterwards, while working as a teacher, I suddenly started to write. I didn’t intend to write a book, I just wanted to write. I wanted to tell about my own childhood and give it to my children, Kari and Pål, who were about thirty years old at that time. But I could not tell the story from my own point of view. And I could not tell it as their mother, a grown up woman. However, Sofie, the little girl inside of me, could tell it. That was safe. My middle name is Sofie, but I have never used it. But when Sofie took over the story, it was ok to write about the things we hadn’t talked about.

The great bombing attack on Vadsø the 23rd of August 1944, when Sofie found her little red teddy bear completely destroyed, and the fact that they all forgot about her birthday three days later, are the tragedies Sofie connects to the bombing attacks. She thought she would have to wait another whole year before she could be six years, and that is a tragedy, a very great tragedy for a little girl looking forward to becoming six years old. It is impossible for a little girl to relate to a town that has become a pile of smoking rubble.

When I, as an adult author, allowed Sofie to tell the story, I understood that I myself never noticed all the ruins we passed when we left home after the great bombing attack. I have no visual memory of this. I know that as a young girl, when I saw photographs of Vadsø after the bombing, I asked myself why I didn’t remember all the ruins. I must have seen them when we left home after the bombing. But I didn’t ask my sister if she remembered anything about it. I didn’t ask anybody.

The graveyard was not bombed, and when I now visit my hometown in the north, I usually take a walk there. I no longer curtsy to my grandmother in her grave like I did as a child, but I have the same good feeling inside of me and I smile as I walk around. The graveyard is one of the very few places from my childhood that still exist. I remember that I once hid under a tree and thought that Russian bombers would not be so stupid as to drop their bombs on people who were dead already, but the panic is gone. I’ve put the panic into my books.

No one talked about processing trauma during the war or after the war. Nobody spoke about traumatic experiences connected to the war. I don’t know how my generation, and those who were adults during the war, would have been and behaved if there had been no war. And I don’t know either if it has been possible for them to process their traumatic experiences.

Most people in northern Norway live very close to nature. We have midnight sun, we have darkness in the winter, we have a direct way of speaking, words are not wrapped in wool.

But we did not talk about the war. Many years had to pass before it was possible to do that.

But I don’t intend to say that war has no influence on a child. Of course it has. When I wrote about the great bombing attack on Vadsø, I was suddenly back in the cellar. The cellar windows exploded with a huge bang and I felt Sofie’s panic inside of me. But I found words and I could describe the feelings and wrote them down.

Afterwards I stood in the shower for half an hour. More than forty years had passed. We had never talked about the event since it had happened. I never knew I had this sort of panic deep inside of me. I know I couldn’t have told my children or anybody else about it, but Sofie, the little girl, she could tell the story.

And I don’t know how I would have reacted if I, as a child, had known more about the realistic situation of the war. I’ve asked myself how much parents ought to tell their children. Someone, not our parents – I think it was children older than me and my sister – had told us that the German soldiers planned to burn all the houses and force people to leave, but I did not understand it, I could not believe it. And someone had told us that Russian soldiers would cross the border and force the German soldiers to leave our country. The Russian soldiers did cross the border and did force the German soldiers to withdraw from the east of Finnmark, but that happened afterwards, when we had been evacuated by force. Children will always hear rumours, and if they ask their parents I think the best answer is that – when it’s war, you will never know. That’s in any case the truth.  

Now I’ve told you about how it was for me to be a child during the Second World War. As a grown up woman I have no conclusion for this lecture, but I can give you Sofie’s conclusion after coming home. Sofie and Kathrine are on the quay with their father. They see a ship out in the fjord. The ship’s name is “Tanahorn”. Their father was captain on the “Tanahorn” during the war. The ship was bombed just before they were forced to evacuate. But now the ship is restored and is on its way back home.

“Tanahorn!” Kathrine’s voice was very quiet, as though she were talking to herself. “It’s Tanahorn, Sofie. Look, it’s “Tanahorn!” Suddenly her voice was bright and happy. Daddy was captain on the “Tanahorn” during the war, but it got bombed. After the war, it was brought up and towed into Langesund and then to Breivik. And now, “Tanahorn” was as good as new. She was almost like a queen sailing in the fjord.

It was then I felt a special feeling inside. I knew that just like the boat, both Vadsø and Finnmark would become like new again. All the grey barracks would be pulled down. People would plant flowers at the graves and “forget-me-nots” in their gardens.

When you stand on the quay in the rain and just think about graveyard flowers and forget-me-nots and look at the “Tanahorn”, that had never before looked as beautiful, then you know, that even if it would be a long time before Vadsø and Finnmark were rebuilt, some day everything would be in order again.  I wouldn’t ever get my red teddy bear back again, but that’s the way it is.

As an author it was important for me to describe the war as realistically as possible.  The historical facts were important to me. But I was very conscious of not describing dreadful situations. Let me give you an example from the ”Karl Arp”, the German freighter that brought us from Finnmark to Narvik.

I have described the situation on board in the way I remember it as a child. I didn’t tell what I read later on: the story of the lady who lost her little baby into the sea from the gangplank when she left the boat.  I didn’t write about the two small boys who sat beside their dead mother in the loading room. I know the boys were taken care of, but it was so difficult for me as a grown up person to read about this and other dreadful stories from the “Karl Arp”, that even if I had seen these situations as a child, I could not have written about them.

When I came to the end of book two, I was forced mentally to go into the cellar together with Sofie, and stay there while the town was completely demolished. I had to do that because I knew then that I had to continue the story about the two girls and to explain why they had to leave town. I had to write about Sofie’s panic, but I didn’t make it stronger than necessary.

It is important for me as an author to tell the truth, but when you know that the readers are children, dreadful details of the full and whole truth are not necessary. It is possible to write about war and historical facts, without mentioning horrific situations, or if it’s necessary to mention them, I think you can do it in a roundabout way.

The real problem I have met as an author was to tell the young readers that once upon a time, Germany was our enemy. They beat the Russian prisoners, they forced us to evacuate, they burned our houses, etc. I meet a lot of young people in libraries and schools, and I have met pupils who have a close relationship to Germany, even a mother or a father from Germany, and I have met pupils who have told me that they know someone who were friends with German soldiers during the war. They have even told their names before I could stop them.

In these situations I have told the pupils that it is important that we know our history and are able to learn from the experiences of others. I think realistic books concerning war are important books for children, but as an author I feel I have to find the balance between the full and whole truth – and what, from a literary point of view, is necessary to tell.  

Grete Haagenrud, 31st IBBY Congress, Copenhagen, Denmark.

September 2008