Outdoor Exhibition: Night and fog prisoners

Arkivet was the Gestapo headquarters in Southern Norway from 1942-45. The building was used as a police station, which included prison cells. Brutal interrogations took place daily at Arkivet. Around 3600 men and women from Agder were arrested and imprisoned from 1940-45. Close to 3000 of them first encountered the Gestapo in Kristiansand, where prisoners were held alternately at the county prison and Arkivet.

Nationwide, around 9000 Norwegians were sent to prison, jail or concentration camps in other countries, including 730 persons from Agder. Most of them were Nacht und Nebel prisoners. They were to be cut off entirely from the outside world and disappear without a trace ‘by night and fog’.

No fewer than 125 prisoners were sent from Arkivet via Grini to the Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp in the Alsace region of France, 71 of them comprising the first transport with Norwegians, who arrived at the camp on 15 June 1943.

When we 71 Southern Norwegians from ‘Laudal’s Group’ arrived in Natzweiler on 15 June 1943, we were the first group of condemned prisoners sent to the newly established NN (Nacht und Nebel) camp. Most of us were in the military and this fact – together with our Nordic size and appearance – attracted quite a bit of attention on our arrival.

- Osmund Faremo, Valle

Illustrator and ad man Rudolf Næss (1914-2003) was imprisoned in Natzweiler from 1943 as a Nacht und Nebel (NN) prisoner. He survived captivity and was rescued by the ‘White Buses’ organised by the Swedish Red Cross in 1945.

After the war, Næss drew 39 images that illustrate various aspects of life as an NN prisoner. His pictures have become a symbol of Norwegians in German captivity. A visual testimony, they give a voice to those who were condemned to disappear into oblivion.

Rudolf Næss’ illustrations have been collected in an album entitled NN under SS. This album is part of the Norwegian legacy documents, established to preserve and highlight unique and irreplaceable documents. The register is part of the UNESCO World Heritage List. The album is owned and kept by the National Library, while the usage rights belong to the Norwegian Natzweiler and Dachau Committee, which assisted in the development of this exhibition. June 1943.

A total of 504 Norwegian prisoners were held in Natzweiler in France, 224 of whom died during transport or in the camp, including 75 persons from Agder.

During the five years of occupation, 162 persons from Agder died in German captivity. Their names are honoured in the ARKIVET memorial stone commemorating the fallen from Agder during World War II. The names of the Natzweiler prisoners and the rest of the around 44,000 Norwegians imprisoned by the Germans during the Second World War are now compiled in the national database Fanger.no. The database was developed by the ARKIVET Peace and Human Rights Centre in collaboration with the Falstad Centre.

Most of the 14 of us ended up at the quarry, which was around a 20-minute march uphill from the camp – forced at a high pace. There were various commanders at the quarry. Some worked outside, others in the galleries and still others on the slopes. The work consisted of breaking, carrying and transporting stone, shovelling snow and cleanup work. It was drudgery of the worst kind.

- Alf Knudsen, Lillesand

I saw several of my friends die. Death often came as a relief. They seldom convulsed in death throes, but simply died in their sleep. The death experienced by most Nacht und Nebel prisoners was not a bad one, but usually a release.

- Alf Knudsen, Lillesand

Apart from abuse and brutal assault, starvation was one of the main causes of prisoner deaths.

In July 1945, Lieutenant Waldemar Aune from Trondheim wrote a letter to Gunhild Birkeland in Lillesand. In it he told about his time spent in Natzweiler together with Birkeland’s deceased brother, Bendix Birkeland.

I was also together with your brother when he passed away. He died on 11 February 1944 in Natzweiler of pneumonia. In reality, he starved to death, as did so many others.

The typical daily ration in Natzweiler did not offer much nutritional value. Breakfast was nothing more than a ladleful of ‘coffee’. The late morning ration was a thin slice of ryebread with an even thinner slice of sausage. For lunch, they served cabbage or turnip soup and, finally, a piece of bread in the evening.

Prisoner after prison stood in front of the steps, put their hands under their knee, lifted it up and put down their foot. They then had to try to get their hands under their other knee. (...) Not everyone managed this alone. It was good to have a prisoner mate a little stronger than yourself to help out.

- Kristian Ottosen, Bergen

In the concentration camps, there was a constant fear of illness and the spread of infection.

On arrival, all body hair was removed to prevent the spread of lice, since lice could spread disease. All the same, lice were prevalent in the camps.

Experiments were conducted on inmates to develop a vaccine for typhus and spotted fever, but a consequence of this was that several epidemics erupted in Natzweiler of not only typhus, but also tuberculosis and spotted fever, in the spring of 1944. Even though the camp had an infirmary, there was little help to be had if a prisoner fell ill.

This was due to a lack of medicine and medical equipment.

When Natzweiler was evacuated in September 1944, several of the prisoners ended up in Dachau. In February 1945,

typhus fever broke out in the camp. The disease spread quickly and had a high mortality rate. In the course of February and March, around 12,000 prisoners died in Dachau.

There was no real hospital in Natzweiler, but an area where prisoners could lie down and die.

- Waldemar Aune, Trondheim

NN prisoners were not allowed to write home, nor did they receive letters or packages from home. All contact with family and friends was cut off. No one was to know where these prisoners were being held. They were to disappear. But many of them fought against the fate dictated to them in hopes to one day follow the migratory birds northwards.

Our thoughts followed the birds. These birds were to fly north, home. (...) Just imagine being able to send a letter with them that they could drop to my mother and sisters at home.

- Sverre Landøy, Askvoll

On several occasions, the prisoners witnessed large numbers of allied planes flying towards the front lines. This made the sense of loneliness and hopelessness in the camp a little less infinite. The prisoners felt less alone in the world.

We knew that for every plane that headed east, we were one day closer to peace and the end of all the misery.

- Tom Arnfinn Olsen, Lillesand

We constantly encouraged each other to hold out another three months, as the war was sure to come to an end within this time.

- Alf Knudsen, Lillesand

Natzweiler was evacuated in early September 1944. But a number of endless transports and new overcrowded camps with miserable conditions awaited the prisoners: Dachau, Ottobrunn,

Dautmergen, Mauthausen, Melk. The constant movements and uncertainties were unbearable.

The prisoners were overcome with a fear that affected the lives of the survivors, even after the war. Yet they still made every attempt to keep their spirits up throughout their captivity.

Many prisoners died because they gave up. They lost faith and the will to fight.

After all, when placed in a hopeless place a long way from home without any prospects other than misery and suffering, how does one maintain hope and faith in the future? What does a sense of community mean in such a place?

A means to stay warm while nurturing solidarity and hope was to stand close together in heat cylinders.

Two prisoners would stand back to back and more prisoners would then stand with their back towards the middle, huddled together. The exhausted prisoners swayed in rhythm to generate heat, while singing Norwegian songs.

There was only one song that was never sung or mentioned. It was ‘Ja, vi elsker dette landet’ (Norwegian national anthem). But it was always there in our consciousness. Personally, I hummed it in my head. But it was simply too much for us. We did not dare let it in. We would sing it when the time came.

- Trygve Wyller, Stavanger

After an inhuman amount of time, peace finally arrived. When surviving NN prisoners talk about their experiences, they always include numbers – of Norwegians in the same camp, of Southern Norwegians, of fellow villagers, and so on. Fellow prisoners are mentioned by name, not prisoner number. Solidarity and belonging were important.

This was a way to ensure that no one would be forgotten and that the story of each individual would be told when peace arrived. None of them disappeared by night and fog.

I’m not bitter. I don’t feel hate and have never sought revenge. We have to forgive our fellow human beings, but we must never forget what happened. Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.

- Alf Knudsen, Lillesand