From Quisling's Castle to Holocaust Center

Vivian Eden
Vivian Eden
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Vivian Eden
Vivian Eden

OSLO - The Center for Studies of Holocaust and Religious Minorities here is called a "museum" on some websites, but it isn't really. Though located on the Bygdoy peninsula, the site of many of Oslo's museum attractions - Viking ships, Kon-Tiki - it is more of an educational and research institution.

On a drizzly late summer's day, clinical psychologist Berit Reisel, the daughter of Norwegian Holocaust survivors and a founder of the center, talks about it at breakneck speed in racy English on the short drive from downtown Oslo to the center. She has only an hour to spend.

Before World War II, out of a total population of three million, there were 2,100 Jews living in Norway, of whom 771 were deported to concentration camps and death camps. Only 34 survived. The Jewish population here is currently estimated at about 1,500. The center, relates Reisel, is an outcome of the process for the restitution of Jewish property in Norway.

The initial impetus for that process came from Norwegian journalist Bjorn Westlie after he read the memoir of one of 30 or so Norwegian Jewish Auschwitz survivors, Kai Feinberg. Along with other Norwegian Jews, Feinberg was kept off the "white buses" - transport organized in the spring of 1945 by Count Folke Bernadotte, then of the Swedish Red Cross, to rescue concentration camp inmates (particularly Scandinavians ) in areas under Nazi control and to transport them to Sweden - but, nonetheless, he managed to make his way back to Oslo. Upon arriving at his home, he found other people living in it.

Reisel: "Westlie thought to himself: 'What the f- happened to the belongings of these people?'"

On May 27, 1995, she says, he published an article in the Norwegian business daily Dagens Naeringsliv, which led to the formation of a national commission on restitution of Jewish property - of which Reisel was a member. Part of the reparations money has been dedicated to financing the center.

Since 2005 the center has been housed in the Villa Grande, which during World War II served as the residence of the Norwegian Nazi collaborationist leader, "Minister President" Vidkun Quisling. He called the spacious mansion Gimle, after the place where the gods reside after the apocalypse in Old Norse mythology. To the visitor from Jerusalem, the location of the center here looks like a masterstroke of repurposing that puts to shame the plans to build a "Museum of Tolerance" on the remains of a Muslim cemetery in Israel's capital city.

Now, after some discreet structural changes for safety reasons, the facade of Villa Grande welcomes visitors with a large, permanent installation by Arnold Dreyblatt entitled "Innocent Questions." The work, made of sandblasted glass, features a LED computer punch-card display in red letters, asking for the usual, seemingly innocuous personal details - name, spouse, birthplace and so on - of which the artist has said: "I have chosen to focus on the use of the 'personal questionnaire' in population registration systems as the defining element that thematically connects the Holocaust in Norway with other genocides of the 10th century." Moreover, he added, "The work functions as a mirrored wall that reflects the natural environment: the trees and sky, and the visiting public. The face of the historical building is thereby opened and partially erased."

Reisel explains that the main aesthetic thrust of the exhibition inside is "reflection," not only in the literal sense; the place has been designed with many subtle details to promote both historical and individual reflection, such as stories of Holocaust victims reflected in a window adorned by Quisling with a stained-glass symbol from Old Norse mythology.

According to its website, the HL-Senteret, as the center is known in Norwegian, presents "a modern exhibition on the Holocaust. Images, sounds, film, items and text document the genocide of the European Jews, as well as the Nazi state's mass murder and persecution of other peoples and minorities."

Alas - once inside, international tourists find little to engage them because the exhibition is non-interactive and entirely in Norwegian, with what the museum officials themselves acknowledge to be only a perfunctory audio guide in English. It is directed at teachers and local middle school and high school students who visit there. It is mainly an exhibition of photographs and texts, with a few evocative objects and documents through which visitors receive an overview of the Nazi program and learn the stories of the Norwegian Jews who perished.

Reisel's aspirations for the future of the exhibition include better access for non-Norwegian-speakers, and also featuring and spotlighting the three "good Norwegian people" - a gardener, a plumber and a truck driver, who were not members of any political underground - who helped 600 Jews escape by truck to Sweden. This is a story that has not yet been told and is currently being researched at the center, along with topics such as anti-Semitism in Norway, as well as the considerable collaboration between Norwegians and Nazis during World War II, she explained.

But right now Reisel has other more immediate plans: She has to run off to sew shrouds, part of her service to the approximately 700 people who make up Oslo's Jewish community today.

Vivian Eden is a translator for Haaretz English Edition.

The Center for Studies of Holocaust and Religious Minorities. Photo courtesy of HL-Senteret.