World War II had an impact on almost everyone in Norway since the country was occupied. Some of my family history from this period, on the maternal side, is set in Rjukan, Telemark. Rjukan, along with the nearby town of Notodden, is now a UNESCO World heritage site due to their industrial history.
The first story is my mother’s evacuation in the first days of the war as a 12-year-old. A German plane flew by when she was walking a road to where she was evacuated and shot around her. She ran into the woods and was not hurt.
The second story is my grandmother’s refusal to join the Nazi teacher’s union (Norges Lærersamband). Around 1000 teachers were arrested, and 600 of them sent to labour camps in Northern Norway where the climate is very tough. My grandmother was spared and continued her work as a teacher.
The third story involving family is my grandfather being taken as a hostage, arrested and sent to Grini prison camp in December 1942. From there some prisoners were sent to German concentration camps and I believe that would have been fatal for my grandfather as his health was not that good. To try to set these events in perspective and investigate the severity of it, I have decided to make a timeline of events of this industrial town.
But first some facts about the place: Rjukan is situated in western Telemark, established between 1905 and 1916. The company that later became Norsk Hydro produced fertilizer there, this was possible because of the abundant supply of hydro-electric power. Vemork is on the outskirts of Rjukan, and back then the world’s largest waterpower plant was built there. In the 1930’s a plant producing hydrogen was built. A by-product was heavy water which was necessary to produce the atom bomb. When the Germans occupied Norway, they took an interest in this. In the first years of the war, the Norwegian executives managed to sell the heavy water to France, but then the Germans took it for their experimental production of the atom bomb. That is why the allied forces staged many sabotage actions and activities in Rjukan.
I have made a timeline of events:
Rjukan’s 3-volume history is written by Helge Dahl. The war is extensively covered. By making the timeline and reading the history, I found that Rjukan’s history is more complex than I first envisioned. But I managed to make better sense of my grandfather’s history and when it happened among all the other events. I believe it will be a major project to understand my family history from the five years of the war. Reading a lot of background material and the book by Helge Dahl made me realize that this takes more time than I first thought.
If you want to learn more:
- In 2015 a Norwegian TV-series was made called The Heavy Water War.
- In 2003 The Real Heroes of Telemark was launched, it focused on the survival skills of the men who completed the mission.
- In 1965 the film Heroes of Telemark was released with Kirk Douglas as the main character, a physics professor.
- In 1948 the French-Norwegian film Operation Swallow was made. Some of the participants played themselves.