Today is Holocaust Memorial Day. This isn’t a particularly good Holocaust film, or a particularly good film at all, but it deserves credit for telling one of the many lesser-known Holocaust stories. It seems as if every month there’s another new book called The X of Auschwitz or The Y of Auschwitz. I’m not for a moment criticising those books, but there’s a lot of focus on the death camps, and on what happened in certain countries; and there are other stories to be told as well.
The beautiful, historical Norwegian city of Trondheim is probably one of the last places in mainland Europe which you’d associate with the Holocaust, but it was occupied by the Nazis for five years. In the October of 1942, it was placed under martial law. Dozens of people were arrested and executed, and the entire Jewish population of the town rounded up. In this film, our heroine Esther rather improbably escapes, and ends up disguised as a boy and working on a farm run by Nazi sympathisers … before blurting out her true identity in a sauna full of naked Norwegian Nazis (honestly), and escaping by sledge across a frozen lake to Sweden. As I said, it’s not the greatest film ever, and the story’s more than a bit unconvincing, but it does draw attention to the little-told story of the Holocaust in Norway.
The relationship between Esther, or, as she calls herself, Ola, and the family on the farm is complex. She’s originally taken there by the son of the family, Axsel, who’s got cerebral palsy. Axsel and Esther form a close bond. Axsel’s father, Johann, sees Ola/Esther as the strong son he always wanted … apparently not noticing that she’s actually a girl, even though they’re in close physical proximity for a lot of the time. Johann’s wife Anna is having an affair with a Nazi officer, but, when she finds out who Esther really is, is quite sympathetic towards her – and, at the end of the film, when Esther returns to Trondheim and Anna is there, being spat at by locals as a Nazi sympathiser, Esther shows her sympathy in return.
The Nazis are around all the time – the German Nazis, and also the members of the Norwegian far right party led by Vidkun Quisling. There’s no mention of the Resistance. There’s no mention of anyone helping Jews to escape: Norway didn’t see the mass rescue that Denmark did, but about two-thirds of Norwegian Jews were still able to leave. Nobody’s wearing paper clips attached to their clothes. There’s no mention of Telavag, the town destroyed by the Nazis in a horrific atrocity which saw all the men either executed or sent to a concentration camp and all the women and children imprisoned. There’s certainly no reference to the brave Norwegians who sailed from Bergen to Scotland in little boats, to be trained by British forces and return as saboteurs.
That’s very unusual for a story set in wartime Norway: the extent to which there was collaboration is still controversial, but I certainly wasn’t expecting the film to show so many characters as being pro-Nazi, with barely a mention of any who weren’t. It’d be interesting to know how this film was received in Norway, if it’s been shown there.
To get back to the story, after the bit with the naked Nazis in the sauna, Esther and Axsel flee together but, sadly, the ice cracks and Axsel drowns. Esther makes it to Sweden, survives, and returns to Norway after the war. You do wonder why, if neutral Sweden was so close, she didn’t try to escape across the border sooner. But a lot of things about this film don’t bear up to too much scrutiny. The best thing about it is all the glorious shots of snowy Norwegian scenery. But, as I said, it does show one of the many little-known stories of the Holocaust. There are a lot of them.