The Bird Catcher


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.


The Constant Queen by Joanna Courtney


Word PressThe “Constant Queen” of the title is Elizaveta of Kiev, daughter of Yaroslav the Wise and, as the wife of Harald Hardrada, Queen of Norway.  Harald Hardrada is, of course, famed here for invading England in 1066 and being defeated and killed at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, which several generations of teachers have had to explain is near York and nothing to do with Chelsea, but, in doing so, weakening Harold Godwinson’s chances at the Battle of Hastings.  Before that, he’d had a very eventful life, fighting against Denmark, being a mercenary in Kievan Rus, serving in the famous Varangian Guard in Constantinople, fighting with the Varangians in Sicily and possibly even in the Holy Land, and then retaking Norway and founding Oslo.

A lot of this comes into the book. Unfortunately, not all that much is known about Elizaveta (Elisiv in Old Norse, but the Slavic “Elizaveta” sounds so much nicer!), or about Harald’s other wife (mistress? Handfast wife?) Tora, but Joanna Courtney’s created two very interesting characters with what we do know about them, and it’s a very entertaining book.  From a historical viewpoint, the most interesting thing is the reminder of how influential Kiev (yes, I know we’re supposed to say “Kyiv” now, but no-one ever says “Kyiv” when talking about Rurikid Kievan Rus) was in Yaroslav’s time.  One of Elisaveta’s sisters became Queen of France, another became Queen of Hungary, and one of her brothers married a daughter of the Emperor of Byzantium.   In this book, Agatha, the wife of Edward the Exile and mother of Edgar the Atheling and St Margaret, is also one of Elizaveta’s sisters.  No-one’s sure about that, and there are alternative theories that Agatha was from Hungary, one of the German states or even Bulgaria, but it’s certainly possible that she was a princess of Kiev.

Who would have thought, then, that Kievan Rus would decline so soon, and that its successor state(s) would fall under the “Tatar yoke” and be pretty much cut off from the rest of Europe for so long?  Or that England, with its close ties to Norway and Denmark, would, after 1066 spend four (or you could even say) five centuries getting entangled with affairs in France and have very little further involvement with the Scandinavian countries?   England, Scotland, Ireland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Greenland, the Faroe Islands, the Isle of Man, and the trade routes via Kiev to Constantinople … and Vinland too, with Erik the Red making a guest appearance in the book and meeting up with Harald and Elizaveta!

There was some talk, around the time of the Scottish referendum, that Northern England and Scotland (the Shetland and Orkney Isles remained under Norwegian rule until the mid 15th century, of course) should try to rebuild closer ties with the Scandinavian countries.  Sounds like a very good idea to me!  Really, you’d think that the Normans would have maintained close ties with Denmark, with King Rollo (not the cartoon character!) being of Danish origin; but it didn’t seem to happen.

A few annoying things.  Joanna Courtney has this bizarre habit of changing people’s names – usually to something completely inappropriate.  She’s renamed Sveyn, son of “Canute the Dane”, as Steven.  I mean, could she not have picked something Danish-sounding?!  And she’s renamed all Elizaveta’s brothers.  For example, Iziaslav’s become Ivan, and Vyacheslav’s become Yuri.  Ivan and Yuri are names which belong to Muscovy, not to Kievan Rus.  It’s all wrong!  Very annoying.  And very patronising to the reader, as apparently she changes the names as she thinks readers cannot cope with either names that aren’t familiar or two characters sharing a name.  Also, there were repeated descriptions of men as “blonde”, Miklagard was spelt “Miklegard”, and the Norwegian women were given patronymics ending in “son” instead of “datter”.  But, OK, those aren’t major gripes!

1066 is the best-known year in English history.  But it’s also a crucial year outside England: Harald Hardarda is usually described as being the last great Viking king.  And Elizaveta was his queen.  It’s such  a shame that we don’t know more about her, but Joanna Courtney’s made a very entertaining book out of what is known.  A refreshing change from all those books about the Tudors!!

The Saboteurs – More 4


Word PressThis, the first episode in a series of six required a fair bit of concentration for a Friday night, being partly in English, partly in Norwegian and partly in German (it’s OK, there were subtitles!), but it was worth the “effort”!  It tells the story of the sabotage by a heroic group of Norwegians, trained in Britain, of Nazi German attempts to use the “heavy water” produced by a chemical plant at Vemork, outside Rjukan in the Telemark region of Norway, to help them to produce an atomic bomb.

The chemical plant, the largest in the world when it was built, produced the fertiliser which was of crucial importance in an area with harsh terrain and a harsh climate.  The “heavy water” was a by-product.  The plant itself is now a museum, and I was fortunate enough to be able to visit it last year.  What a beautiful part of the world – but the challenges of waging that sort of mission there, especially in winter, are almost unimaginable.  The series hasn’t got that far yet, but it will be doing.  The existing stock of heavy water was taken away to Britain and France before the Nazis invaded Norway, but, once the Nazis were in control of the country, production started up again.  It’s now known that their atomic bomb programme wasn’t all that advanced, but at the time there were genuine fears that they were well on the way to producing a bomb of the sort which was eventually dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki … and would probably drop it on Britain.

The actions of the Norwegian Resistance during the Nazi occupation, of which the operations against the heavy water programme are the best known, are incredibly important in the culture of Norway, a country which had been independent for barely 35 years when German warships came sailing up the Oslofjord, and I gather that the series attracted very high ratings in Norway.  It won’t have the same impact here, but I hope that it attracts some attention, given the potential importance of the events and Britain’s role in them.

There were several different attacks on the heavy water operations.  Some ended in tragedy and some achieved little, but some succeeded.  The bravery of those involved, in horrendous conditions, will hopefully come across in the later episodes.  And presumably, although things have been glammed up a bit for the sake of TV, it’ll be rather more accurate than the Kirk Douglas/Michael Redgrave film on the subject was!  The first episode was certainly promising, apart from it being slightly annoying that all the British characters spoke in cut-glass accents.  It’s a shame that it’s been shoved on More 4 and not one of the main channels, but there’s some good stuff on More 4 these days, and this is a prime example of it.