December 16, 1942, was the day that Isaak Julius Samuel, the chief rabbi of the tiny Jewish community of Norway, died in Auschwitz. He was one of the country’s 740 Jews — about half the community — who perished in the Holocaust.
Although he had the opportunity to flee Norway before the anticipated German deportations, Samuel chose to stay put, telling his wife, “I, as a rabbi, shall not leave my community in this dangerous hour.”
Isaak Julius Samuel was born on December 19, 1902, in the western German town of Freudenberg, near Trier. His parents were Samuel Samuel and Yocheved Weil. After graduating from Kaiser Wilhelm Gymnasium in Trier, he studied in a yeshiva in Frankfurt and was ordained as a rabbi in 1929 at Berlin’s Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary.
Samuel also studied psychology and philosophy at Humboldt University in Berlin, and became active in the Mizrachi religious Zionist movement. In 1927 and 1929, he served as a delegate to the World Zionist Congress. He also took a leadership role in the World Congress of Sabbath Observers.
In 1930, Samuel married Henriette-Jetty Pollak, a descendant of rabbis.
Half a century before their marriage, one of her uncles had written a prescient article warning the continent’s Jews that it would be dangerous for them to remain in Europe in the decades to come, and suggesting that they ought to depart for Palestine.
Samuel and Henriette, however, moved across the North Sea, to Norway, where he was offered a rabbinical pulpit the same year the couple married.
He quickly learned Norwegian, and began lecturing and teaching in it. He contributed frequently to Jewish publications and was active in the Jewish National Fund. The couple had three children: Elchanan, Amos and Ester.
‘Are you still here?’
On the night between April 8 and April 9, 1940, the Germans invaded and occupied Norway, anticipating a British advance into the country. At the time, between 1,600 and 1,700 Jews were living there (Jews had been permitted to live in the country just since the mid-19th century), approximately 200 of whom were stateless refugees from other parts of Europe.
In 1942, Jews had to be identified as such in their identity cards, and by late summer, the first steps to arrest and deport Jews were taken. Samuel was among the first group of Jewish men to be called in by the Gestapo for questioning.
Testifying in Jerusalem in 1961 at the Adolf Eichmann trial, Henriette Samuel said her husband understood that he was being warned to flee when the Gestapo commander asked him, one of the times he was questioned, “Are you still here?”
That is when Samuel told his wife that he had no intention of leaving his flock.
On September 2, 1942, Samuel was told to report for the fifth or sixth time to the Gestapo office in Oslo. This time he did not return, nor was he ever heard from again.
On November 21 of that year, a member of the Norwegian resistance, Ingebjorg Sletten-Fosstvedt, told Henriette Samuel that the previous day, Isaak Samuel and the other dozen men arrested with him had been taken from the Grini concentration camp outside Oslo and deported to Germany. In 1945, after the war, the family confirmed that Samuel had been sent from Germany to Auschwitz, where he died a short time later, on December 16, 1942.
It’s not clear whether he was murdered in the gas chambers, as the Bad Arolsen tracing service says, or collapsed and died after a day of hard labor, as an Auschwitz survivor has testified.
The rest of the family survived the Holocaust. Aided by the same woman who informed Henriette Samuel that her husband had been deported, along with Sigrid Hellieson-Lund — both of whom were later recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Gentiles — Henriette and her three children escaped to Sweden on the night of December 3, 1942. That was the way another 850 Norwegian Jews survived the war.
The surviving Samuels immigrated to Palestine in 1946.
In 2004, Ester Samuel-Cahn, the daughter of Isaak and Henriette, won the Israel Prize for her work in statistics.