February 4, 2023

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Asbjorn Svarstad, prisoner of war officers in the forgotten captivity

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Retired veteran Ronning Tolfsen, 80, found a piece of almost forgotten war history when he came across his uncle’s diary from the war.

Asbjørn Tollefsen (1900–1953) was a farmer in Maalslev, but he also trained as an officer and lieutenant in the Norwegian Armed Forces. When the Germans attacked in 1940, he served – during the two months of war in Narvik – among other things as a second man in a machine-gun company.

Asbjorn Svarstad

Asbjørn Svarstad started writing for the local newspaper Dagningen, and for a few years was associated with VG. From 1987, Stringer Dagbladet in Copenhagen. Since 1996 he has been living permanently in Berlin, where he has worked with several Scandinavian media outlets. He works mostly with historical articles and political commentary and is a licensed guide in Sachsenhausen.

Signature

Tolfsen was one of the many officers in Northern Norway who escaped from German captivity – despite the fact that they had never signed that they would not take up arms against the Germans as long as the war was going on. In southern Norway, many fellows have chosen to make the pledge – also on the advice of their parents.

In 1943, the German occupiers decided that very few officers – despite taking the oath of honor – appeared to be engaged in active resistance. Many fled to Sweden or England.

Over the summer, almost everyone was called upon to sign again. But the vast majority – those who were not active in the NS or who held a job in the Nazi Labor Service – refused. So they were captured and sent south.

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After a month of waiting in Oslo, the flight went to a small town in western Poland, where 1,150 Norwegians were finally housed in the school and two other buildings. This particular camp at Osterzyszow/Schildberg for officers was primarily characterized by boredom and poor food. But in the end supplies of food parcels were sorted from the Red Cross of Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland.

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In his book, Officers Behind the Barbed Wire, Runing Tolfsen tells how he and the others energized themselves and each other—to avoid just loitering and dying of boredom. Some were engaged in growing vegetables, while others were engaged in the production of home baked goods.

letters from his wife

Almost all the prisoners were homesick and all looked forward to the soon arrival of letters with news from home.

In the case of Asbjørn Tollefsen, the letters from his wife were often about cattle that had to be put on a neighboring farm—and the father’s farm, which had been taken over by the Germans. She talked about children growing up and about practical problems in everyday life.

In January 1945 it was clear that the Red Army would soon reach Scheldberg. So the Norwegians were told they would be evacuated west. They can bring what they can afford. The first long distance had to be covered on foot in subzero temperatures and on bad roads.

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Very quickly, the officers threw away the bags and other belongings that were too heavy to carry. After an exciting week, they arrive at the huge prisoner-of-war camp at Luckenwald, south of Berlin.

“white buses”

Conditions in Luckenwalde were difficult, with little space and cold houses. When aid packages arrived from the Red Cross on a rare occasion, the Norwegians were used to sharing them with prisoners far worse than the Soviet Union. Eventually the camp was liberated by the Soviets.

But then a long period of uncertainty began. There were rumors that they would be put into cow carts and sent on a three-month journey by train to Murmansk, whence they could be sent across the Norwegian border.

Many felt owls in the swamp, and opposition to the planned trip was great. General Otto Rogge himself believes that it was he who, during his stay in Moscow, managed to prevent the implementation of the plan.

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The “white buses” picked up 240 elderly and sick officers who arrived home in Oslo on May 27, while the rest came to Norway via Denmark a week later.

Rønning Tollefsen took his uncle’s diary with him last year and traveled to both Schildberg/Ostrzeszow and Luckenwalde, talking to people and looking for the remains of “Norwegian” camps. In Schildberg there is a small museum with things from the time of the Norwegians there.

Era eaten

I was there in 2007, when Thorvald Stoltenberg (1931-2018) was a tour guide for his son and grandson who wanted to learn the story of Emil Stoltenberg’s (1900-1998) period as a prisoner. Thorvald’s father himself didn’t tell much about this period, and in the museum they didn’t know much more about Lieutenant-Colonel Emil Stoltenberg’s time at the Scheldenberg than that he was obviously the head of the house distillery.

Thorvald often used to show off his old watch, which he received as a gift from his father on the day Emil Stoltenberg returned home from captivity.

The other day I was asked to instruct Jens Stoltenberg and his sister Camilla, as well as Anken Huitfeldt and Ambassador Hilda Haraldstadt – also the grandchildren of officers who spent the last three months of the war in Luckenwald. We had a pleasant 1 1/2 hour bus ride south from Berlin.

Despite the fact that since the beginning of the war in 1939, thousands and thousands of prisoners of war were held there, this era was lost with a small and thin room in the local museum. (So ​​we dropped that).

Cemetery

The camp itself is pretty much gone, with the exception of two barracks located nowadays in the middle of an industrial estate.

In contrast, there are four huge memorials at a place in the woods where the Germans buried those who died. Soviet prisoners in particular – who were not protected by the international laws of war – died in droves and were dumped in mass graves. They have their own area, while there is a separate support for the French, Italians and Yugoslavs – as well as a central memorial to all those who lost their lives there.

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(Camilla and Jens Stoltenberg had already visited Luckenwalde on a summer holiday trip in 1973 with Thorvald in charge. He puts on all his charms, but the Soviet guards refuse them entry to the camp.)

I learned Russian

The foreign minister spoke of his grandfather, Ote Hoytveldt (1908-1996), who used his time at Schildberg to learn Russian. It was this knowledge that now came in handy, as the Norwegian officers needed a man who could speak the language to negotiate with the Soviet officers.

The three grandchildren took the opportunity to lay an appropriate wreath at the memorial.

And their guide sent a more than friendly clue all the way to Running Tollefsen in Maalslev, who had previously supplied me with the brand-new book on his Uncle Asbjørn’s experiences as a prisoner of war.

PS: That sparked a slightly awkward situation, when Anneken Huitfeldt welcomed her fellow Russian — Serge Lavrov — in Tromso last fall. During the dinner, the Norwegian foreign minister displayed what she called a “dear family souvenir”. Lavrov thought the casket—which Ote Hoytveldt had received from his fellow Soviet prisoners at Luckenwald—was a gift and immediately promised to give it an honorable place in the Museum of the Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow.

It required some clarifying work, before the misunderstanding got out of the world. Toward the end of his life, Huitveldt said, his grandfather, who had been for many years chief resident in Sarpsborg, liked to recite poems in Russian to his grandchildren.