I never got to meet Oscar and Nina Magnusson.
I would have definitely sought them out while I was studying in Bergen in 1983-84 if I had known they were still living in Western Norway.
They are a truly amazing couple who both demonstrated incredible strength and courage in the face of grave danger and at great risk to their lives.
The book I Will Live is careful to point out that the trials and tribulations that Oscar was put through also had a profound effect on his wife and family. But, as you will see in the below article from 1967, Nina never gave up hope and stood firm in her belief that Oscar would survive.
Below is an English translation of a fascinating article written by Eirik Sundvor, which appeared in the Norwegian newspaper, Dagbladet, No. 221, on Saturday, September 23, 1967. I first found and read the article on the website of the Gestapo Museum in Bergen.
I am sharing this English version of the article because it serves as an excellent introduction to Oscar and Nina’s story. Eirik Sundvor skillfully provides highlights from Oscar’s then new book, Jeg vil leve. He refers to Oscar Magnusson as a “Crown Witness” on the torture and horrible treatment given to members of the Norwegian resistance movement at Veiten 3, which was the address of the Gestapo Headquarters in Bergen.
Olav Sundvor is a journalist at BergensAvisen, and he was the one who tipped off the Gestapo Museum about this article, which was written by his uncle.
I have submitted my English translation of the article to the Gestapo Museum and sincerely hope they will publish it on their website so that more non-speakers of Norwegian will be able to read about Oscar and Nina Magnusson and their inspiring story of survival.
Oskar Magnusson’s friends grabbed him off a pile of corpses and hid him under their bunks
(By Eirik Sundvor, Dagbladet, No. 221, Saturday, September 23, 1967).
Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson saved this prisoner of the concentration camps – Disabled War Veteran with a book about his incredible experiences as a prisoner in Germany
Oscar Magnusson cannot possibly be alive.
It is all but scientifically proven that he should be dead, after all that the now 56-year-old Night and Fog prisoner went through during the final four years of the war; not just once, but many times over. However, he wanted to live. He will live, despite torture at Gestapo Headquarters in Bergen, which rendered him a helpless wretch who was unable to walk without assistance, despite the almost indescribable conditions in jam-packed prison cells, during railway transports lasting for days on end in cattle cars in which there was barely standing room for the prisoners, in prisons which were pure hell, and which he longed to return to upon arriving at the next one; and despite the never-ending march among columns of starving, dead tired men making their way across Central Europe during the final, harsh winter of the war. Screaming German guards and bloodthirsty Kapos were the company kept by these Night and Fog prisoners, and Death itself was like a silent companion, always at their side in the cells and on the marches, ready at any given moment to claim its daily tribute.
The final death march began in August 1944 in Sonnenburg and lasted for 9 months. There were 23 Norwegians in that group of Night and Fog prisoners who were sent on a trek eastward. Only three of them were left on the April day in 1945 when the American forces approached the marching column somewhere in Czechoslovakia. The final shot by a German guard rang out just fifteen minutes before the liberation. And then, only two were left alive, Ingebrigt Jensen and Oscar Magnusson – both from Bergen. They are both being transported on a horse cart to the nearest American hospital. Typhus is determined to inflict one final, deadly blow. Oscar Magnusson regains consciousness a few weeks later on May 8th.
He is now all alone.
Of the thousands of men who were sent on this death march, 800 were alive when liberation by the Americans took place. Help came too late for 600 of them; 200 survived. Oscar Magnusson was one of them. He will live. And he is living.
Oscar Magnusson was deeply involved when he got arrested on 7 October 1941. He was an easterner who had settled down in Bergen and given everything he had for the sports community here, in Viking. He was a district champion in skiing, enjoyed his time as a ski instructor for school children, joined the sports administration and was engaged on behalf of the stalwart sporting youth. When the war broke out, it did not take long before the initial, amateurish attempts at weapon smuggling were underway. These efforts eventually evolved into an organization led by – Captain Mons Haukeland, who was the head of Milorg (Norwegian Resistance Movement) for Western Norway and was in charging of training his men, and who later became Chief of the Home Guard.
“I headed a group of 110 men,” says Oscar Magnusson, but the organization was structured such that only five men knew who I was. We mostly worked with secret transport to England, and things got extremely busy during the late summer and fall of 1941. I was never out in the coastal villages myself, but I had contacts, and not a single one of our transports was detected. I never kept any notes or anything else that could expose me; not even a receipt for any amounts paid. And when I realized that things were getting sketchy for Kristian Stein’s organization, I almost managed to get hold of Kristian Stein’s index with the names of 250 members in order to burn it. However, even when this organization fell apart, with the consequences that entailed, I still felt safe because I knew that my name was not in there.
Then, one of our guys lost his nerve. I was reported to the Gestapo, who were informed about my involvement with the false passes, and stamps used to make them, and the Gestapo had received a letter that contained a recommendation that the recipient should come to me to get
3000 kroner, which were to be used to purchase a boat.
Thus, Oscar Magnusson wound up in the hands of the Head of the Gestapo in Bergen, Behrens, and in the torture chamber at Veiten. And Behrens had the passes and the 3000 to use as evidence.
In his book, which is now being released by Gyldendal Norsk Forlag, “Jeg vil leve” (Eng. I Will Live, Oscar Magnusson recounts what he had to go through at Veiten, as a member of the “Chain Gang” at Ulven and as a Night and Fog prisoner. It takes strong nerves just to read about it. What must it have been like to endure it all first-hand? At one point, Oscar Magnusson refers to his having to pull down a mental curtain just to keep his mental faculties intact during his own suffering as well as while having to witness all the suffering and death taking place around him on a daily basis. We are also pulling down that mental curtain here.
“But what kind of a person was Behrens?”
“A strange guy, with a split personality; he could be so kind and gentle and make the nicest promises. I had a breakdown, and then he suddenly became nice and pleasant” says Oscar Magnusson. “But when he did not get what he wanted, he would become demon-possessed, he was brutal and sadistic through and through. Like the time he came to Ulven. I was completely helpless, I could not walk, and I had to be carried to the latrine. Harald Skjold was carrying me, but Behrens ordered him to drop me, so I was lying on the ground, and Behrens started kicking me. Of course, he was following the orders of his boss, Blomberg, and I heard him say – I pretended not to understand German – that Behrens was welcome to kill me, but not before getting hold of the passes and stamps. However, the passes and stamps were in safe hands, and they were used throughout the war and saved many lives.
“So, you actually should have been dead way back at that point?”
“Probably. But there were also uplifting moments, and I viewed as a lifesaver when Professor Niels-Henrik Kolderup was able to get me transferred while I was fever-ridden to the German field hospital at Grønnerstølen. It was there that an Austrian doctor, Felix Rauscher – who
said that he hated the Germans as much as I did – got me x-rayed and obtained the iron corset that would serve as a vital support that I had to wear on the journey to come. It must have also been Dr. Rauscher’s requisition that led to me being carried ashore on a stretcher and driven
to the prison in an ambulance when our transport via the “Oldenburg” docked at Kiel. It is unlikely any other Norwegian prisoner was given such an honor. After the war, I have tried to look up Dr. Rauscher, but he was apparently sent to the Eastern Front and never returned. The fact that I did not receive a sentence after Behrens had had me under interrogation was partly due to the fact that Behrens was shot in Telavåg, so he did not get to pursue me any further. It probably saved my life on that occasion. I had given them a sort of confession where I blamed another guy whom I knew was in England. Behrens himself did not believe it, but it kind of did the trick later on.
“It was eventually “only” a sentence of life in prison.
“That sentence came while I was being held at the “Lice Loft” in Küstrin. I could accept that verdict calmly. But what made things much worse was when I contracted a bizarre disease due to being malnourished. My legs swelled up and were useless – my only salvation was rest, and I could only get some in the sick ward. I managed to get sent there, thanks to the help of my cell mates who scrubbed on my skin so that the Germans believed I had scabies. There were some things the Germans truly feared – tuberculosis and scabies. And I ended up in a scabies ward and lay there with my legs elevated for a week – that helped.
“And you still ended up on a pile of corpses?”
“In late spring of 1945 at Sonnenburg. Typhus is rampant; prisoners are dying like flies, guards undress the corpses, write their number on their chest, and heave them onto the pile of corpses. And then it was my turn. The guards declared, despite Ingebrigt Jensen’s protest, that I was dead.
But I was alive. I was fully conscious, hearing and perceiving everything happening around me, but unable to lift a finger or utter a word. Later that night, Ingebrigt Jensen has got hold of the head of our barracks, a Czech prisoner with a hatred for the Frenchmen in the barracks but true affection for the Norwegians – because of Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson and his fight on behalf of the Czech’s cause during the old double monarchy. They realized that I really was alive, brought me back inside, and kept me hidden under a bunk for a whole week until I regained enough energy to stand at assembly. The Czech had obtained both white bread and sardines for me. I have no idea where he stole them from. But it turned out to be Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson who saved me that time, no matter how bizarre that might
“How can a human being get through all of this?
“I was in good physical condition when I got arrested, and I got that way through sports. It had also provided me the ability to maintain self-control and endure more. I never gave up during a cross-country ski race, no matter how poorly I might have waxed my skis. ‘You must not give up!’ was our motto. That was my motto later on during those endless marches when every step was a matter of willpower. I weighed only 59 kilos (about 130 lbs.) when the 9-month march from Sonnenburg began. But I had faith in our Heavenly Father that I would make it home, and I never forget the Lord’s Prayer. I believed that if I trusted in the Lord, then He would help me. Lots of people might think this was a pretty futile rescue plan, a useless straw to hang onto. But I did it! But it is still a wonder that I got through it all without damage to my psyche, without damage to my mind. The pain is still there as I have made countless visits to the hospital and rehabilitation center, and now I have had to crawl back into my iron corset and am once again on sick leave. The doctors will not allow me to work yet.
But this is nothing compared to those people who still have nightmares due to the horrors experienced during the war. As a member of the supervisory council of the Disabled War Veterans Foundation, I am familiar with the fates of many men and their families for whom the Norwegian society has not fulfilled its obligation, and who have been forced to undergo a nonstop and humiliating ordeal. It is not really RTV’s fault – it is the law that must be changed, and that change now truly appears to be in sight. If the Parliament does not adopt it, I will be dumbfounded. It is still not too late; however, many people have died who could have benefited from it.
But on one occasion, Oscar Magnusson was dead. Officially. Mrs. Nina Magnusson got a message via the Red Cross. However, she refused to believe that it was true. Without a very important segment on Nina Magnusson, the story of Oscar Magnusson would not be complete. After her husband’s arrest, she managed to get the false passes and stamps to a safe place; she endured being beaten by Behrens with a club while her husband looked on, and she insisted most assuredly that her husband could not possibly have been involved in any wrongdoing. As the caretaker of an office building that housed a shelter for up to 600 people, he had more than enough to keep him busy. When her husband’s status as a Night and Fog prisoner began, she received a mysterious phone call which she interpreted correctly: her husband had been sent eastward. Together with lawyers, Erik Martens, Schou, and Gunnar Greve, and armed with a letter from the Austrian doctor, Felix Rauscher, stating that Oscar Magnusson required medical treatment, she went to Oslo. There, she got help from Doctor of Sports Medicine, Birger Tvedt but was unable to track down her husband. He was already on board the transport ship, “Oldenburg”.
Oscar Magnusson was a Night and Fog (German: Nacht und Nebel) prisoner, which meant he was supposed to disappear in the darkness. There was no word from him – until the message concerning his death that arrived via the Red Cross.
“While I was at the ‘Lice Loft’ in August 1944, I was assigned to picking turnips. I took a turnip, got caught by the guards and was tossed into a basement and beaten severely. The word in the Lice Loft was that I had been shot – and that was the usual punishment for such thieving. It was this message that reached Bergen, via official channels.”
“There I sat with a letter indicating that Oscar was dead,” says Mrs. Magnusson. But I refused to believe that it was true. I flat out denied it. While everyone else was saying it was a fact. I knew deep within me that he would return one day. Peace came. No sign of life. The months passed. Still no news. But I remained just as certain that he would come back. Then, on July 26th, two telegrams arrived. I opened one of them; it was from Paris and was written in French. It contained the name Oscar Magnusson. I dashed, shaking, to the phone and got it translated. Oscar was alive and would be coming home. Once I calmed down again, I remembered about the other telegram – it contained the same message, in Norwegian! I then departed for Oslo and lived there for 30 days in a small studio apartment. Each day I went to Fornebu Airport and waited for Oscar. But he did not arrive. The Mayor of Bergen, Asbjørn Stensaker, relayed an invitation from the Mayor of Paris to travel to Paris and meet my husband there.
Then something happened which I feel I must tell Dagbladet as it was the first and only time I have been in your editorial offices. Airline travel was restricted so I would have to fly via London, which meant I needed a passport, and it was urgent. This would require the signature
of a well-known person in my passport. And where would I obtain that in a rush? I asked if the signature of the editor of Dagbladet, Einar Skavlan, would suffice, and was told that it would. Of course, I had never seen Einar Skavlan before, but his brother was married to one of my sisters-in-law, so that could help me get an introduction. And it was not all that far from Møllergata to Akersgata. However, there was a red light turned on above the editor’s door. He was extremely busy, so I would have to return later. Now, time was precious. Down at the gate, a woman popped up carrying a stack of newspapers. I asked her if there was a back door to the editor’s office. And there was. I headed up the stairs and barged in. Einar Skavlan was actually very busy, but after a quick explanation, I got the signature I needed. With Einar Skavlan’s name on the document, I made my way back to Møllergata, and obtained the passport. It was the first civilian passport that was issued after the end of the war in Oslo. But I ended up not making the trip to Paris after all.
“Someone advised against traveling, and it is the first time that anyone has ever persuaded me not to do something I was bound and determined to do,” says Mrs. Nina. However, Oscar arrived home on September 3rd, and was brought from Paris to Fornebu on a plane belonging to the Danish Sonekorpset. Due to his weakened heart, the plane was not able to fly above an altitude of 1,000 feet.
Oscar Magnusson and Mrs. Nina spend most of the year out at their summer cabin at Holmen on Lake Nordåsvatn – an idyllic place on this Earth which must be very soothing for one’s nerves. The dark shadows of the war have been driven away, and they prefer to focus on the
pleasant side of life as they flip through the scrap book. And there have been odd occurrences among all the misery.
“Like the time I was convalescing at the American hospital at Cham in Bavaria,” says Oscar Magnusson. I have to smile when I look back on it. Five Greek prisoners had stolen guns from the guards and headed off into the town. Thanks to the rifles, they withdrew half a million Reichsmark from the bank and were passing out the money at the hospital. Someone stuck 20,000 to 30,000 marks under my pillow. I was not in any shape to be spending it, but I kept some of the bills as a souvenir and still have them.”
I had an especially weird experience after being transferred from the Hospital in Nancy. I awoke upon hearing someone ask:
Kordan står de te med deg, farr? (Eng. How are you doing there, lad?)
A nurse is standing beside me, and I must ask her:
“Am I back home, in Bergen?”
I was certain that the voice I was hearing belonged to someone from Bergen. However, the voice belonged to an American nurse named Esther Jacobsen who was born and raised in America. Her grandfather, Jacobsen, had come from Ask near Bergen. Her parents spoke Norwegian at home, but she had herself never been in Norway. But her western dialect was so genuine that it is no wonder that I was mistaken. And there I lay in a hospital housing 2,400 American soldiers, and I just happened to be the only Norwegian, and I ended up in precisely
(By Eirik Sundvor, Dagbladet, No. 221, Saturday, September 23, 1967).
Be sure to visit the website of the Gestapo Museum in Bergen where you can read this article in Norwegian and learn all about Veiten 3.