December 16, 2018

Judaism in Norway: The longest Shabbat

Every summer, Nikolaj Kahn faces a major Jewish problem.

“It never gets dark,” Kahn said during a walkthrough of the Jewish Museum in Trondheim, Norway, located about 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle. “We get desperate calls from the cruise ships asking when Shabbat starts. We just say 5:30.”

Such are the challenges of being a religious Jew in the land of the midnight sun, where it doesn’t seem to get really dark during a summer visit, even when the clock strikes midnight.

Trondheim, located on an inlet of the Norwegian Sea, is the nation’s third-largest city. It is home to Norway’s crown jewels, its national museum of popular music, as well as one of the country’s two synagogues. The other is in Norway’s capital, Oslo, and, combined, the communities of affiliated Jews only add up to somewhere around 1,000 out of a national population of 5 million.

For many Jews living here, being Jewish is about maintaining a meaningful connection to the faith, more so than adhering to halacha.

“I don’t think there’s a religious Jew in Trondheim,” Kahn said. “It’s more of a cultural identity. The religious part is fading away.”

The country’s chief rabbi, Michael Melchior, lives in Israel and only visits a few times a year; his son, also a rabbi, visits more often but is not a regular presence. Furthermore, kosher meat is hard to come by as it must be imported — ritual slaughter has been banned here since 1929, something the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center protested this past May. 

Because of the Holocaust and the presence of Nazi collaborators, even the Jews can be few and far between. In 1940, Norway was home to 2,100 Jews. By the end of the war, 1,100 had fled — mostly to neighboring Sweden — and more than 750 were deported to death camps. Of those, 34 survived.

Never forget

Perhaps that’s why the pervasive thinking today is as much “never forget” as “never again,” as this writer discovered while touring the country as a guest of Joseph Jacobs Advertising and Innovation Norway.

Just a short walk from where Kahn was speaking, a Trondheim park prominently features a statue of 13-year-old Cissi Klein, who was arrested in class and sent to her death in Auschwitz. Shown seated on a bench and clutching a small luggage piece inscribed with a Jewish star, Klein’s likeness is often adorned with flowers or wreaths by local residents.

In Oslo, a harbor city more than 300 miles south of Trondheim, there’s the Oslo Jewish Museum, a mud-red building that was once a synagogue in the city’s Hausmann quarter. Outside, bronze cobblestones are embedded in the sidewalk with the names of residents deported to Auschwitz. These stolpersteine (literally “stumbling blocks”), created by German artist Gunter Demnig, appear elsewhere in the city, as well as places where Jewish victims once lived.

Inside the museum are two main displays, one offering a general survey of Jewish holidays and customs and the other telling the very personal stories of Norwegian Jews during and leading up to World War II. The former is for educational purposes, as most of the museum’s guests are not Jewish.

“Here in Norway, they don’t know anything about the Jews,” one guide said. “It’s not like in the United States where you have Chanukah in all the department stores.”

The latter exhibition, titled “Remember Us Unto Life,” uses family histories, artifacts and black-and-white photographs of smiling men, women and children during happier times to tell the story of the nation’s Jews, who for so long wanted nothing more than to fit in with their countrymen. Among those featured is the family of Jo Benkow, the former president of parliament who died last year.

“There are no other people to hang these pictures, so we have to hang them on our wall,” said Sidsel Levin, the museum’s director. “In Norway, everyone lost someone, and some families just disappeared. There are no tracks left.”

Or, as Kahn put it a bit more bluntly: “If you stayed in Norway, you were dead.”

Surrounding this exhibition, which is provided in English, are the decorations of the old synagogue. Selections from scripture adorn the walls, as do Stars of David — all discovered in recent years under layers of paint.

A small fire in December forced the museum to close its exhibitions temporarily, but Levin said she expects most items to be back on display and open to the public by the end of March.

A park in Trondheim, Norway, features this memorial statue of 13-year-old Cissi Klein, who died in Auschwitz. Photo by Ryan E. Smith

Memory and irony

In a country that loves to fill museums with the accomplishments of its adventurous, almost legendary heroes — think the Vikings, Thor Heyerdahl (Kon-Tiki) and Roald Amundsen (first to reach the South Pole) — the Norwegian government has made a conscious effort to be part of the Jewish community’s outreach and rebuilding efforts.

In the 1990s, it made restitution payments totaling many millions of dollars to Holocaust victims or their surviving relatives, as well as the country’s two synagogues. That money also established the Center for Studies of the Holocaust and Religious Minorities in Oslo, which every student in the city must visit.

The center opened in 2006 and is located — not coincidentally — in Villa Grande, the same monumental building that served as the home of Norwegian Nazi collaborator Vidkun Quisling during World War II. Today, there’s one major addition to the entrance: a three-story version of the form once used to determine if someone was Jewish, recreated in glass and lights.

An audio guide is available in English, but in many places it isn’t necessary, such as the room filled with drawings and cartoon propaganda depicting Jews as devils — a sharp contrast to the buildings’ romantic leaded windows and the bright greenery outside. (Even on gray, rainy days, there always seem to be 30 shades of green in Norway.)

The exhibition in the basement follows the story of the country’s victims and Holocaust perpetrators and displays a Torah found at Auschwitz. Look closely and you’ll note that it’s opened to Parsha Beshalach, where the Israelites sing to God after crossing the Red Sea. Such a reminder of the Jewish people’s survival is a welcome pick-me-up, especially when around the corner is a small, white room with the name of every Jewish Norwegian Holocaust victim inscribed on the wall.

Modern Judaism

This is not to say that everything about Norwegian Jewish life is about looking back. There are, after all, the country’s two surviving Orthodox congregations and a Chabad-Lubavitch presence that claims to be in touch with a few hundred more people as well.

In Oslo, the turreted, stucco temple from 1920, with its circular window circumscribing a Star of David, is located on a steep hill. The victim of a gunfire attack a number of years ago — pockmarks are still visible on the exterior — it is now noticeably protected by concrete barricades.

In the sanctuary, the words to “Ma Tovu” are painted in giant, arching letters over the bimah with beautifully carved woodwork throughout. The congregation may not be the most religious — “No one’s really interested. It’s more the cultural aspects,” one person there said — but members have assisted in community-wide education efforts by, for example, filming a piece about b’nai mitzvah.

Downstairs is a small kosher pantry that is open twice a week. Its offerings include challah, beef from Holland and chicken from England.

In Trondheim, the Jewish Museum and synagogue are located in a light-blue building, which was once the city’s first train station. Here, too, there is an exhibition dedicated to the Holocaust. Its basement, however, is full of artifacts that tell of the area’s first Jews, many of them peddlers from Eastern Europe who were prohibited by law from opening stores. (The constitution didn’t even allow Jews or Jesuits to enter the country until 1851.) Most exhibits are accompanied by English text.

The second-floor sanctuary has a soothing, disco-blue light emanating from the ceiling. Here, women sit with men, no one keeps kosher and there is no rabbi, Kahn said. Still, the mostly intermarried membership celebrates the holidays and organizes summer parties. 

They also take pride in their claim to be the northernmost shul in the world. There may be naysayers — that includes you, Fairbanks, Alaska! — but that doesn’t bother Kahn.

“We don’t believe them.”