Gunnar Sønsteby. Photo credit: Arnephoto.
I was planning to post something about Occupied Norway today anyway (you’ll find it below), but it happens that one of Norway’s last living Resistance heroes died today. He was named Gunnar Sønsteby, and he was the most decorated man in Norwegian history. If you followed my advice and watched the movie, “Max Manus,” Sønsteby was one of the characters portrayed in it. But he could have carried a movie all on his own.
OK, here’s a strange story.
A while back, I posted a piece I called Survival Story. It concerned a strange character I discovered in a Norwegian-language book I read about my ancestral community, Kvalavåg, in Norway. During World War II, one of the German occupation officers who served there was a Jew named Konrad Grünbaum, who ended up in the Wehrmacht due to a clerical error.
One of the commenters on that post was an actual descendent of Grünbaum’s. He contacted me through Facebook and asked if I had any further information. I didn’t, but promised to check with my relatives over there.
And they came through, past all hope. As it happened, an article on Grünbaum had been published in the Haugesunds Avis newspaper back in 1986. The article was illustrated by a photo of part of Kvalavåg which Grünbaum took during the war. Because of that, my relatives kept a couple copies, and they were happy to send one to me. I have forwarded it to my correspondent, and it’s on its way to him by mail.
My translation of the article can be read below:
THE GERMAN IN KVALAVÅG
By Ida Nydstrøm (July 23, 1986)
Konrad Grünbaum, a Jew by birth, is now 70 years old and a retired city council member in Fürth. He lived in that city before the war as well. He was a metal worker in a factory, and an active member of the SAJ: The Socialist Labor Youth.
* * *
Grünbaum came to Norway in 1941. The troop to which he belonged consisted of 14 men and they had four armored vehicles with 15 cm. cannons.
“We went first to Ålborg in Denmark, where we boarded an 8,000 ton cargo ship (name unknown). The voyage proceeded in a five-ship convoy to Kristiansand. From there to Stavanger, Kopervik, and Haugesund.
“Batteries were installed in Kristiansand and Stavanger. My troop came to Haugesund. After a long delay we were sent over to Karmøy just opposite Utsira. There we, along with some Norwegians, built a battery installation with side-installations in Vikene and Åkrehamn.”
Grünbaum remained in Kvalavåg until the fall of 1943, when the troop was ordered to Lyngen in Troms.
“I had a good relationship with the people of Kvalavåg. They always called me ‘Englishman,’ because I spoke only English to them.
“Russian prisoners of war had to build the positions for us. They came in every day from a camp in Haugesund, and were held under guard by infantrymen. When I observed one day that prisoners were being beaten up, I said to our captain that this was a violation of the Hague Convention, and what would we say if such things were done to our own men? Captain Dr. Stähler immediately called in the [feldwebelen: corporal?] in charge of the punishment detail and forbade the mistreatment of prisoners in the area of his command.”
Grünbaum, a lover of nature and a mountaineer, is busier in his retirement than ever before. He is constantly hiking in Germany and Austria, giving lectures, and participating in seminars concerning the history of the Labor movement, the Weimar Republic, Socialism, etc.
He often visits German schools and reports that the students are attentive enough, but that they often know tragically little of the events of the Second World War. In his lectures Grünbaum tells only the things he himself experienced or saw with his own eyes in “The Third Reich.” He is what is called in German a witness to the times (Zeitseuge). And the ranks of those are beginning to thin out.
The purpose is to bring to youth the knowledge of that dark period in German history, so that what happened then should never happen again.
Grünbaum is one of the sources for a series of historical books published in Germany after the war. Together with his comrades from the Labor movement, who have kept in contact with one another since the war, he has gathered stories and anecdotes minted during Hitler’s regime, which it would have been dangerous to write down at the time. They have recently been published in Germany under the title of Spare the Ones Who Laugh.
Grünbaum himself was imprisoned in Dachau concentration camp before the war, for “activities against the state.” The prosecuter at the high court in Nuremberg charged that he had carried on illegal work as a courier for the KPD. When he was unable to prove otherwise, he was sentenced to three years.
“Once I was released from Dachau, people turned aside to avoid me when I met them; they were afraid of going to Dachau themselves. But when I went out and ate at cafes, the bill was always paid anonymously for me.”
Through a clerical error, Grünbaum came to Norway in 1941. Political convicts were not supposed to go into the Wehrmacht, and his only hope to avoid a return to Dachau when the error was discovered was to be promoted. This occurred when his company commander refused to give orders to destroy navigational lights in a fjord in Troms, and was send to a concentration camp in Germany. Before he left he said to Grünbaum, “So we are in the same boat after all, both convicts.” He knew Grünbaum’s secret.
After the war he was accused of having boycotted his duties, but was let off by the military court in Narvik. The judges were Austrians, and apparently foresaw defeat, Grünbaum thinks.
Grünbaum tells of various episodes from his time in Dachau. It passes comprehension that people can have done such things as he reports, and the impression is of course much greater when the listener knows that he is being told personal experiences.
Grünbaum and his friends have tried time and time again to get one of the SS officers from that time at Dachau brought to trial, but each time the man is [judged] “unfit for trial.”
Once this SS officer asked a newcomer if he had ever ridden a carousel. “Yes,” said the prisoner, a little frightened. “When I was three or four years old.”
“Then it’s about time you rode a carousel again.”
And in the sight of all the others he was pushed into a large cement mixer, and the SS man started it turning.
One of the others lifted a pocket handkerchief to his eyes, and was at once commanded to be “hanged on the tree” (a gruesome method of torture in which a man was hanged by his hands, bound behind him, from a tree trunk) for having broken camp discipline.
In the camp they were subject to completely arbitrary punishment. Any day a man might be shot or, like Dr. Riesenfeld-Breslau, placed in a cement mixer and ground to death. In the end there was danger in nearly everything.
“One of my friends came to me one day and asked for advice. He had gotten a letter from his wife in which she asked if it was true that the prisoners were treated badly by the SS.
“I did not know what advice to give. But two days after he had sent an answer to his wife, he was given chocolate and cigarettes by an SS man.
“’What did you write?’ I asked him.
“’I wrote, “Dear wife, you wish to know how the SS treat us. To that it must be replied that among the SS there are to be found both one kind and the other (solche und solche), but more one kind than the other!”’”
The visit with Grünbaum must close with his bringing out his guitar and singing the Dachau song, “The Day Will Come At Last,” or a labor song.
Grünbaum has only visited Norway once since then. He would like to come back, but his school work takes up his time.
Would he consider coming as a “witness to the times” and speak in Norwegian schools, I ask him.
“More than willingly, but with an interpreter,” Grünbaum replies.