My father’s family survived – barely — both the Russian Revolution and the Nazi occupation of Norway. This included potential execution, a Nazi concentration camp, lack of food, brutal winters, and the constant threat of disease.
As Russian tanks stream into the Ukraine, the crazy-quilt pattern of history repeats. Politics aside, until recent decades epidemics of smallpox, H1N1 (including the Spanish flu of 1918), diphtheria, typhus, cholera, malaria and the like left a trail of devastation wherever they went. Improved personal hygiene and public health measures like sanitation, vaccines and antibiotics are also recent phenomena.
Case in point: Theodor Abrahamsen, my Uncle Teddy. Even after his hundredth birthday, he lived alone, doing his daily exercises and solving the Rubik’s Cube. He took regular boat trips to the northern tip of Norway and returned once a year to his old school in England. A multi-sport varsity athlete in his youth, he played golf until he was 99.
All this was a miracle considering he barely survived a Nazi concentration camp in his twenties and a bad bicycle-car accident in middle age. To see the picture more clearly, let’s go back further to another man I knew well. Teddy’s father, my grandfather Egil Abrahamsen, was one of 12 children. He grew up in a coastal town in southern Norway as the Age of Sail was transmuting into the Age of Steam.
When a sailing vessel came into port, the boys would climb a mast to the top. New arrivals were challenged to fights that were tough but not serious. Egil was small but athletic. He won most of his fights and as a young teen represented the town in adult gymnastics.
Childhood ended abruptly at age 14 when his father’s timber business collapsed. He left school, became a cabin boy on a ship to Russia in 1908, and didn’t return home for 11 years. He lived with a family so he could learn Russian. Over the next few years, he lived in the woods to learn the timber trade, and later in the village of Onega near Archangel learning how to run a sawmill. He rose rapidly so that in his twenties he managed a large sawmill operation.
Transportation was often on foot or on skis, by horse-drawn wagon and sleigh, by boat on the rivers after ice out, or by rail if you could get to a station. Meeting bears was common, although attacks were rare. It was the same with wolves, who usually, but not always, gave humans a wide berth.
Egil supplemented the limited diet by hunting and fishing and became skilled with a compass. In the woods, much of the work was done by imported contractors who brought their own horses. He had great respect for the culture. Most of the people in the district were Russian Orthodox, largely uneducated but with a strong sense of morality. A quick study with an agile mind, he found time in the long winter evenings to study chess.
Business was interrupted by World War I and then by the Russian Revolution of February 1916. In October, he married Olga, his boss’s daughter, who had spent a year studying music at the conservatory in St. Petersburg. In 1918, under the brutality of Lenin, the Bolsheviks cemented their hold on the revolutionaries. After the Armistice, the European allies moved against Russia, further dividing the country.
Egil and Olga had a son, Leif, my father, who was born in July 1918. Exactly one year later, in 1919, the family had to flee for their lives. The Red Guards had captured the town and the executions of capitalists had begun. Egil, the mill manager, was on the list. Somehow the family made it past gunners of the Red Guard, and, by a miracle, out to an English destroyer and escape back to Norway.
Their second son Theodor (Teddy) was born on Oct. 31 1919 in a small Norwegian town that, according to tradition, was the home of Santa Claus. Over the years, along with the youngest brother Jan, the family returned to Norway for vacations in their home on a fjord south of Oslo.
In the 1930s the family lived a prosperous life in England where Egil was a timber trader. The family was based in London where Egil belonged to a golf club and a chess club. Theodor was sent to St. Edward’s School in Oxford and became head of his class and a top athlete.
The family had settled back in Norway when the country was occupied by the Nazis in April 1940. Egil and Olga lived in their summer place across the fjord from wharf and the village, which they reached by boat or on the ice in winter.
As the war went on, the Germans confiscated blankets, rubber boots, and even food. People suspected of being in the resistance, or even of having a radio, were executed. Food was plentiful in summer but not in winter. Luckily there were plenty of fish. Leif walked across the mountains without map or compass and crossed the border into neutral Sweden to join the Norwegian police, a paramilitary force waiting Jan disappeared into the resistance.
Teddy was in university in Oslo. He played a role in the resistance and was arrested and eventually sent to Buchenwald, the largest death camp in Germany, where he spent about a year late in the war.
Slave laborers in the Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar; many had died from malnutrition when U.S. troops of the 80th Division entered the camp. Second row, seventh from left is Elie Wiesel, political activist, Nobel laureate, and Holocaust survivor.
Considered “Aryans” by the Germans, the Norwegians were treated better than the Jews, the Slavs, the Rom (Gypsies), and others the Nazis were keen to exterminate. Still, they were housed in cramped quarters, spent long hours on the freezing parade grounds, and sent out on work crews in all weather. They watched as new inmates arrived by train, many destined to be sent immediately to the gas chambers.
All the prisoners in the camp received the same meager rations: vegetable soup with a scrap of bread and a small piece of meat on the weekend. Everyone was slowly starving. Disease was everywhere. If you became ill or injured and could not work, you would be executed.
Theodor was part of a group of Norwegians sent on a long march later in the war. With almost no food they walked at night as the Allies controlled the skies. At one point, Teddy lay down in the wet mud and slept just long enough to regain enough energy to continue. “My ability to sleep has been an asset at several times in my life,” he said.
On the same trip he was on a prisoner train that was bombed by the Allies. He heard screams as some of the cars were hit and prisoners were killed and wounded. Once again, he figured that his time was up. “The Allies must have known some of these trains carried prisoners,” he said.
Despite being anti-Nazi, Teddy was not anti-German. At one point he contracted diphtheria in the camp, and said his life was saved by a “kind German doctor.” In fact, many of the guards were harmless, he said. The SS guards were another thing. Some of them were sadists who would shoot you if you so much looked at them. He recalled one incident where he turned his back on a guard, sure that his end had come.
After his group was rescued by Count Bernadotte, the founder of the Red Cross, he was sent to Sweden for a month to recuperate, then he was sent home on a train. When he arrived, the former athlete was so was so thin and sickly his mother did not recognize him. Then life turned around. During his convalescence, he met Astrid. They married, had three children, and made a great life together.
Mid-life was more sedate. An advocate for world peace, he lived in Montreal and obtained a Fulbright scholarship to teach in Seattle. In Norway, he taught languages at the university level and was head of the country’s oldest and largest secondary school. An avid amateur astronomer, be built his own telescopes and travelled the world to photograph eclipses.
Then, more drama. The bike he was riding in the snow slid into a delivery van and his face smashed into a headlamp. He went into a coma and the doctors did not know if he would survive. After a slow recovery from a severe head injury, he still tended to be the sharpest guy in the room.
Later, he attended reunions of Buchenwald, Class of ’45. These were great moments, but later he was plagued by nightmares. He once passed me a red-leather reunion yearbook but would not look at the gruesome pictures in the back. Until the end of his life, he remained critical of his own country’s lack of interest in protecting its Jewish population during the war.
As an adult he re-learned Russian, which he had spoken as a boy, and led school trips to Russia to re-connect with family there. He saw that religion was still flourishing in that Communist country and made a video of a Russian Orthodox wedding in an onion-domed church. In retirement he studied Arabic, which came in handy when a granddaughter married a man from Iraq. After his wife died, he made many boat trips with his girlfriend Marta to the northern tip of Norway.
When Teddy was 95, I played nine holes with him in a cold rain on a country course in Norway. We were the only two on the course. He laughed his way around, partly because of the absurdity of the adventure.
When my wife Donna and I visited Teddy for his 100th birthday celebration in Norway in the fall of 2019 I came to see him in the evening after a long flight. I was tired and Teddy soon lost interest in the little I had to say and went back to watching TV. He was following a chess match with Magnus Carlsson, the world champion, a Norwegian.
Theodor at his 100th birthday celebration in Norway, with representatives of St. Edward’s School in Oxford, England, which he attended in the 1930s.
Teddy had a wicked sense of humor but was also tough and had little time for self-deception. He knew evil firsthand and had no doubts about the depths to which humans could sink. Still, like his father, he remained optimistic if only a glimmer of light remained in the darkness.
On that trip he showed us some large cards on which he had written commands for his dog: sit, stay, lie down, etc. With these cards he taught his golden lab to read some Norwegian. “As a language teacher, I know that we don’t read letters,” Teddy told me. “Rather, each word is a picture.”
Later, the dog wandered off to school. Teddy followed and showed the kindergarten students that his dog could read better than they could. While this was amusing, it was also an experiment conjured up by a scientific mind.
Teddy caught pneumonia in December 2021. He was taken to hospital, rallied, then taken to a retirement home. Just before Christmas he took a turn for the worse and slipped away. He was 102. A practicing Christian all his life, he was not afraid to go, as his son Thor told me on the phone.
That afternoon I went to the post office. There was a Christmas card and letter from Teddy: a painting of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus in the manger. On the back it said “Inspiration.”
The letter read:
“I am gradually sinking in my old age and will not long be able to continue living in on my own in my flat. My health is good and I manage pretty well, but everything takes more time and requires more than I have health and strength for.
“At present it looks unlikely that we will ever see each other again with this pandemic everywhere. But we do have our memories and our family events and photo albums, etc. With my love and best wishes, Teddy”
Discover More: Check out this great article on madness and power from David.