[Glimpses of people of the Finnmark Heath and their stories, no. 3; English version]
When I stayed overnight at Joatkajávri Lodge in the old days, I found it interesting to talk with the researchers there, but it was nonetheless more interesting to talk with manager Helge Romsdal. He had vigorous opinions on most things and talked with capital letters and exclamation marks – and disarming humor. I myself never got to take a picture of Helge, but here is a photo taken by others, of him and Brita in front of the main house at Joatka (reproduced with the permission of Brita Turi Romsdal and Lisa Romsdal Kristensen). It is from the very time when I started frequenting the Lodge:
Nonetheless, when I now, in my old age, think of my conversations with Helge at Joatka, I feel a sense of regret. Certainly we discussed a lot of current topics, and our talks were both entertaining and lively. But I did not ask him about more personal stuff. Stuff that ultimately means more. And this, well, lack of curiosity on my part I remember with a twinge of remorse.
When you are in your twenties or thirties – and even in your forties in my case – you have your hands full simply trying to cope. With a job and often a spouse and children and the rest, the everyday time squeeze has you gasping for air. This is, however, no excuse for not being interested in other people’s lives. But now, in my old age, I find myself increasingly inquisitive. My curiosity seems to grow stronger year by year. About plants and animals in my natural surroundings, or about people that I meet.
But my inquisitiveness about Helge Romsdal’s life came too late. He died in 2008. And, as far as my own parents were concerned, my desire to learn about them cropped up far, far too late. Not that I blame myself too much in that regard, as my father died already when I was twenty-one (in 1965), and my mother when I was thirty-three. In both cases long before my questions began to trouble me: Who were they, really? What was it like to live in Oslo when they were young? What did they think about the choices they had made? How did they feel about their own life?
(The first photo is from 1952 and shows my father and myself when he was thirty-eight; the other picture is of my mother when she was around forty. My parents were divorced when I was four, and I grew up with my father.)
How was it Arnulf Øverland put it in his poem “En hustavle” [“House Rules”] – about the regret of realizing things too late? In English translation, loosely: “No one can ever after, stand by a grave and gaze. The day has many hours. The year has many days.”
But in the case of Helge, I was after all in my late forties when I began staying overnight at Joatka. Why in the world did I not ask him about things that had to do with his own life? I have long felt deep respect for those who make their living on the Finnmark Heath and have to comply with its conditions. Be it the very few people that live here all year round, or the Sami reindeer herders that cross the heath during spring and fall with their migrating herds. They possess a knowledge about living in and from nature that I think most of us should heed. Helge had this knowledge as well, although his income came from tourism. If the guests were to eat fish, then fish had to be fished. And if they were to have berries for dessert, then berries had to be picked. And if something broke, then it had to be repaired. And if the houses were to be heated, then trees had to be cut and wood had to be chopped (like in this picture of Helge in the mountain birch forest at Joatka, reproduced with the permission of Brita Turi Romsdal and Lisa Romsdal Kristensen):
Why in the world did I not ask Helge more questions about what life was like on the Heath in the old days?
In some ways, I think, I had a sense that Helge and I were kindred spirits. My ex-wife used to call me a social hermit, and Helge had perhaps similar leanings. He was also a modest man. Brita has told me that when Helge received the King’s Award for Meritorious Services, she herself definitely wanted to go, but Helge had no wish to travel anywhere. He declared that the King was sure to have more important things to do than to be introduced to him.
Helge was, it seems, now and then troubled by nerves on account of his experiences during the [Second World] War. But when it comes to the topic of the War, I would probably have hesitated, in any case, to bring it up. My own father never said a word about his experiences in the years of German occupation. Both he and his own father – my grandfather – were arrested and interned at the Grini Prison Camp near Oslo. My grandfather was imprisoned for more than a year (from 1941 to 1942) as a “University hostage” when he and several other professors at the University of Oslo resisted the German directives. And my father, who as a writer, was imprisoned at Grini for half a year (in 1942-43) because of illegal newspaper work. The physical health of both my father and grandfather was impaired by the internment. They were both sensitive men and their experiences in the prison camp had also marked them mentally – in the post-war period as well. But they never talked about it.
With regard to the population in Finnmark and northern Troms during the War, most Norwegians still have too little awareness and knowledge of the ordeals and ills suffered by both the Norwegian and Sami population there, not least during the forced evacuation of the autumn of 1944, when people were driven by force from their homes and their houses burned. Nothing on such a monstrous scale happened in southern Norway 1940–45.
This picture is of a burned-down farm in Kautokeino in November 1944 (photo: Ole Friele Backer / Riksarkivet [National Archive], PA-1209 NTBs krigsarkiv [War Archive]).
About 23.000 people in Finnmark and northern Troms resisted the evacuation order by hiding in fjords and valleys, in the mountains and on the Heath, in turf huts and caves, through the severe winter in 1944, many from October and all the way to May 1945.
Helge Romsdal was only 18 years old when he resisted the German evacuation order for Tverrelvdalen and fled into the mountains together with other youngsters. They had a rough winter there, but were helped by the Sami. Helge was nonetheless then caught by the Germans and detained in Masi – ironically enough in the annexed house owned by Ture Nilsen Turi, the father of Brita Turi who was later to become his wife. He and ten others nonetheless managed to escape on skis – Helge on only one ski, the only one he could find.
Brita has told me that Helge during his flight sought shelter in Ragesluoppal, with Mikkel and Gunhild Sara on the heath. He was served meat stew, but despite his hunger he did not quite dare to have more than two helpings. His body still screamed for food, so he snuck in at night and ate all the meat in the pot. Something that the people of Ragesluoppal of course would discover the next morning. He was so embarrassed by his own behavior that he dashed off at the crack of dawn before the Rages-people got up.
Later, when he had become manager of the Joatka Lodge and encountered youngster than were unable to pay for food, he always said to Brita: ”Let them eat!” His war experiences at the age of eighteen in 1944–45 had left their marks.
One could be tempted to speculate whether some of the ideas of solidarity and common welfare that Norwegians instigated after the war, were connected with their readiness to care about and help others at that time. They knew what it meant not to have enough food – and in some cases, lack a roof over one’s head and a warm hearth. Such experiences were most probably one of the driving forces behind the foundation of the Norwegian welfare state.
Today, more than half a century later, things are different. Today there are more and more Norwegians who think that we should receive and help as few people as possible – people who flee from starvation and oppression. This is sad. It is as if we are beginning to lose our capacity for empathy. Perhaps it is possible for one’s life to become too good and safe and comfortable?
The information about the around 23.000 people that defied the German evacuation directive is from Arvid Petterson, “Tvangsevakuering og overvintring i Finnmark og Nord-Troms” [Evacuation by force and wintering in Finnmark and northern Troms],” University of Oslo: Norgeshistorie.no, http://www.norgeshistorie.no/andre-verdenskrig/artikler/1736-tvangsevakuering-og-overvinting-i-finnmark-og-nord-troms-1944-45.html.
The information about the flight onto the Finnmark Heath of Helge and other youngsters in the fall and winter of 1944–45 to escape the German directive of total evacuation, I have found in Sofie Stiberg’s book Joatkajávris fjellstues historie [”The history of Joatkajávri Lodge”] (2016), p. 87. Confer also the story in her book about the flight of the people at Joatka and some others from the German evacuation directive in her chapter “Joatka unngikk flammene i 1944” [“Joatka escaped the flames in 1944”], pp. 94–105.