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U of M Alumni Association: A Norwegian synagogue


Standing on the corner of 28th Street and Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis, I tried to imagine the old, brick block of a building where West High School once stood. I was transported to the second-floor classroom where, in 1968, I was a 10th-grade student in world history. The day’s lesson was on the world’s religions and it began with the teacher reviewing religious symbols. “Now, we all know the cross is the symbol of Christianity, but you may not know that the crescent moon and star represent the Islamic faith,” she said. “Does anyone here know what the symbol of Judaism is?”
As one of only two dozen Jews in a school of about 1,200 students, I felt it my responsibility to raise my hand and proclaim, “Star of David.” But I was preempted by a student blurting out, “big noses,” to which the class thundered its approval. After a fleeting glance in my direction, the teacher fixed an angry glare on the student followed with a stern, “That will be just about enough of that.”

Like many Jews, my identity was steeped in family tradition rather than community. It is out of necessity, I suppose, that you cling to family when you are part of a 2 percent minority, as I was in high school and as Jews are in the United States. About 20 years later, I accepted a position as a professor at a university in a small, rural town in western Michigan. My wife, Fran, and I and our three children were one of only three Jewish families in the town. In the public schools in December, strains of Christmas carols filtered through the hallways between classes. One time, a history teacher shockingly and emphatically argued that Hitler was a genius. No one except our 15-year-old daughter challenged the outrageous contention. So, naturally, our children struggled with their Jewishness in this homogeneous environment, a world where school closed for the opening day of deer-hunting season.

Still, my wife and I continued to observe the traditions in our home and did our best to convey the ethics of our faith. I taught the Hebrew that prepared the children for their bar and bat mitzvahs and my wife taught Sunday school, both of us driving nearly 100 miles roundtrip to the distant synagogue. We did what we felt we had to do.

Then something wonderful happened. Something life-changing. Five years after we moved to that sleepy little Michigan town, I was awarded a Fulbright lectureship to the Norwegian Institute of Technology in Trondheim. For the next two years we lived as Norwegians, acquiring a taste for fish and cultivating a good-natured and traditional distaste for the neighboring Swedes. As Jews living in Norway, however, we were able to experience something to which most in this Land of Lutherans are oblivious.

In 1940, Trondheim, the ancient Viking capital, was swarmed by the Nazi invasion. When an 82-year-old Norwegian recalled the occupation to me, I was stunned that his memory of these events did not stir images of horror. Instead, he offered a rather innocuous and detached assessment that “the soldiers were like everybody else. There were good Nazis and bad Nazis.” Like many Norwegians, he was unaware of the Trondheim Jewish community that was nearly exterminated right under their noses.

The Mosaic Faith, in downtown Trondheim, is touted as “the world’s most northerly synagogue.” A one-time railway station, it is a nondescript, boxy building surrounded by a wall and sits directly across the street from — and literally in the shadow of — the famous Nidaros Cathedral, built on the burial site of King Olav Haraldsson between the 12th and 14th centuries. In stark contrast to the spectacular gothic architecture of the palatial cathedral stands this turn-of-the-century, two-story blue building with white trim. Its plain walls and modest stained glass preserve a tragic and inspirational story.

In 1941, a year after the German invasion, the Nazis occupied and desecrated the synagogue, using the sanctuary as an army barracks and a stable for their horses. The sacred Torah scrolls were defiled by horse manure. During this time, the Jews of Trondheim were also singled out for harassment by the Nazi soldiers. A year later, on Nov. 26, 1942, the Gestapo placed all of the city’s Jews under arrest, identifying them from the synagogue’s membership rosters, and shipped them off to Auschwitz, the notorious death camp in Poland. Some were able to escape capture by crossing the border to the safety of neutral Sweden.

In all, 130 of Trondheim’s Jews, half of the Jewish population, were murdered by the Nazis. Only a very few survived the death camp, returning home after the war. In the words of one member of the congregation, “We lost a whole generation of Jews here in Trondheim.” And the wider community was hardly aware of it.

Every day, hundreds drive past the synagogue, oblivious to its history and indeed its very existence. It does not welcome visitors. In 1992, on the High Holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, exactly 50 years after the Jews were taken to the death camp, our family walked up to the large barricaded gate, attempting to gain entrance. Security was tight. There was a peephole in the heavy door and we spoke into the speaker of an electronic security system before being admitted. The synagogue remained locked even during services.

The service was conducted in Norwegian and Hebrew, and upon hearing the familiar and mournful Hebraic melodies, I felt strangely comforted in this foreign place. Until that time, my identity was insulated by family. But now there was something more and it was intensely personal. Looking at the faces of the elderly in the congregation, I began to wonder about the atrocities they had witnessed, the pain they had endured, and the losses they had suffered. And when I was called up to the pulpit to recite the traditional Hebrew blessings on the Torah, I was reminded of the destruction of this temple and desecration of the Torah half a century earlier. There we were, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, praying in the very hall that housed those who sent the Jews to their deaths. Standing with my young family, thoughts harkened back to my history — grandparents who left Romania to escape persecution, eventually settling in a growing Romanian Jewish community in Minneapolis.

By 1947, the synagogue that the Germans sought to destroy was completely restored. After several decades, Trondheim’s Jewish population was still only 120, never recovering its prewar numbers. The synagogue stands, unpretentiously, as a monument to the resiliency of the human spirit, a testimony to the depth of faith.

Stepping out of the synagogue and into the drizzling rain of that September afternoon, I looked across the street at the Nidaros Cathedral. The ubiquitous tourists with their umbrellas were walking the grounds, photographing and marveling at the cathedral’s richly beautiful stained glass and rows of stone-carved figures depicting biblical scenes. How ironic, I thought, that a magnificent cathedral, an ornate jewel that adorns Trondheim and all of Norway, faces this modest little cube of architecture, a quiet symbol of an indefatigable people. Years later I realized that what I had witnessed was the intersection of family and community. To this day, it is a source of strength and inspiration.   

Andy Kantar (B.S. ’75, M.A. ’82, Ph.D. ’88) is a professor of English at Ferris State University and the author of two books on Great Lakes shipwrecks, “29 Missing” and “Black November.” His latest book, “Deadly Voyage,” is forthcoming from Michigan State University Press in 2009.

First Person features personal essays written by alumni, faculty, students, or anyone with a U of M connection. Find out more about First Person.

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