Black and white photo of farmland with hourses
Østgård family collection

A Road Trip Through Norway Reveals One Family’s Complicated WWII Past

I’m not going to tell you the exact location of my family’s remote cabin in Norway. My Norwegian grandfather wouldn’t have told you either—for very different reasons.

Inge Steen Østgård spoke only a little English, and was a man of few words in any language. It’s cliché that his WWII generation “didn’t talk about the war,” but that certainly wasn’t uncharacteristic in a country brutally occupied for five years by 400,000 German soldiers, a full seventh of Norway’s population. The story that I, his American grandson, had been told was this: My grandfather, who was raised in the farming village of Tolga 200 miles north of Oslo, kept his hunting rifle after the Nazis ordered all weapons surrendered. His own cousin turned him in, and he was imprisoned in a concentration camp. But that story is frustratingly unclear. How could he be betrayed by his own family? And did he really get sent to a concentration camp for a deer rifle?

Cabin on farmland
My grandfather moved an old blacksmith’s house and woodshed from the family farm in 1967 and expanded it to make our cabin. Charles Coxe

I’d long wanted to dig deeper, while at the same time teasing a group of buddies with a trip to Norway to visit my family’s cabin, which has no electricity or running water, but does have a crystal clear trout stream and miles of surrounding mountain wilderness. When cheap shoulder-season airfares suddenly became available last fall, four of them signed on for the journey. Fantastic—I figured I’d have an entertaining excursion with good friends, and research my family’s story along the way. (I just wouldn’t tell them that last part.)

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I fly into Oslo a day early to visit my Norwegian relatives and the Norway Resistance Museum, which provides a solid overview of the country’s WWII history in a perch atop historic Akershus Fortress. To say Norway was caught unprepared when German forces invaded on April 9, 1940, would be a massive understatement. By dawn, paratroopers seized Oslo’s airport and neutralized Norway’s tiny air force; the country’s six largest cities were all captured within the day. Meanwhile, the Norwegian government wasted hours before agreeing to mobilize its armed forces, then sent those orders by mail. It was up to makeshift groups of Norwegian soldiers to slow advancing German divisions just long enough for the government (and its gold) to flee.

Concentration camp with men lined up
My grandfather was one of 20,000 prisoners held at Grini concentration camp outside of Oslo—lucky, he said, because he wasn’t shipped to Auschwitz or Sachsenhausen. U.S. Library of Congress (public domain)

I also visit Grini Museum, just outside Oslo, which preserves part of the concentration camp where my grandfather was held, and discover a perplexing discrepancy: Resistance Museum records indicate my grandfather was held at Grini from June 1942 “for the duration of the war” until 1945, but the Grini logbook lists Inge Østgård as being released in December 1942, after only six months. It also shows a gap of six days between him first being transported to Oslo, then entering Grini. What happened in those six missing days, and if he got out in 1942, where did he go for two and a half years?

When my friends land, I steer our overstuffed Volvo wagon (impressive given the amount of bourbon they’ve smuggled through customs) to downtown Oslo. We stretch our legs in meticulously designed Frogner Park, a stunning showcase of 200 statues by sculptor Gustav Vigeland (best known for designing the Nobel Prize), depicting everything from a man fighting angry babies to a towering monolith of 121 naked bodies climbing each other.

Near the Royal Palace, we pass a white brick building detailed with cupolas and wrought iron that’s home to Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. During WWII, it was the Norwegian headquarters of the infamous Nazi Gestapo, known for interrogations so brutal that prisoners jumped from upper windows rather than being forced to talk. Using information gleaned from museum records and family history, it’s clear this is where my grandfather was taken between June 20 and June 25, 1942.

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Other prisoners described being stripped naked and beaten by Gestapo officers armed with rubber bludgeons, and having their hair and fingernails ripped out, limbs broken and flesh burned off the soles of their feet. When they passed out from pain, they would be revived with ice water to be tortured again. Fellow prisoner Odd Nansen, son of famed polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen, reported torturers sometimes used a “device, which consists of a steel band with a rubber tube, like a small bicycle tube, on the inside. This is strapped tightly around the victim’s head, and the rubber tube is inflated by a small hand bladder…It can cause terrible agony, as it slowly fractures the skull.”

My grandfather never disclosed what exactly he endured from this menu of horrors, but we do know he was beaten so badly that his kidney was dislodged. Decades later he sometimes woke up screaming from flashbacks. After a surgery in the 1980s, he saw hospital uniforms and started thrashing so violently he had to be sedated.

Whaleship wheelhouse on rocky island
In its previous life, our lodging on the tiny island of Beinskjær had been to Antarctica as a whaleship wheelhouse. Charles Coxe

Fire and heavy water

We’re at the same latitude as Anchorage, Alaska, but late-September sunshine is tough to resist, so we dive off a tiny island for a swim in the Gulf Stream-warmed waters of Oslofjord. This clump of stone and grass, reached via Zodiac-type tender, wouldn’t be remarkable except for the steel wheelhouse of an old whaleboat bolted to the rock as a weatherproof cabin. (It serves my cousin’s environmental nonprofit EntrepreneurShipOne as an in-the-field HQ.)

 

Soon we’re prying oysters off waterline rocks and building a fire to grill reindeer sausages. Hours later, we’re still perched on the rocks under more stars than we’ve ever seen, crisp Norwegian beer and aquavit in our bellies, singing by the campfire so loud they can probably hear us across the Skagerrak Strait in Denmark. Not bad for our first night in-country. It would be perfect if one member of our crew didn’t excuse himself for a piss and tumble ass-over-teakettle down the rocks, spraining his ankle so severely he’ll barely manage a limp for the next week. It could have been worse—if he’d gone into the water in the dark, we definitely weren’t going in after him.

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Since I can’t lure four Americans to Norway without some Viking history, the next day we return to shore and hit two nearby burial grounds: Istrehågan, a secluded clearing in the woods filled with standing stones in the outline of ships, and Mølen, a windswept, rocky beach with more than 230 cairn-style burial mounds as far as the eye can see.

Norway delivers postcard views almost everywhere you look, but its most famous scenery is its west coast—glacier-topped peaks towering over deep blue fjords make it a bucket list road-trip destination. (Assuming, that is, you can stomach the crazy gas prices and repressive speed limits: I was pulled over for driving the equivalent of 53 mph in a 37-mph zone, which earned a $930 ticket. That is not a typo.)

Remains of heavy water cellar
The heavy water cellar at Vemork, blown up by Norwegian commandos in 1943, was finally excavated and opened to the public as a museum in 2022. Charles Coxe

I plot a northwesterly course to the imposing Norsk Hydro plant in Vemork, which at the outset of WWII, was the largest hydroelectric generator in the world—and the only facility producing heavy water, which Hitler’s physicists needed to build an atomic bomb. That never happened, in part because Norwegian commandos skied down under cover of darkness, scaled an icy cliff face to avoid German guards, planted explosives in the basement, blew up the machinery, then escaped into the mountains without firing a shot. The heavy water cellar was excavated and opened as a museum just last year.

View from world’s steepest skylift in Norway
In fjord country on the west coast, postcard views like this one, from the skylift above Loen, become comically commonplace. Charles Coxe

Although our next leg is detoured by not-uncommon landslides, we still nab a couple of memorable moments. We stage an impromptu lunch at the base of Jostedalsbreen, the largest glacier in Europe. (Pro tip: Submerge your beers in glacial melt and they’ll be ice-cold by the time you’ve made your first sandwich.) And, after boarding an early morning ferry to the village of Loen, we ride the world’s steepest skylift to the top of Mount Hoven, where a bar awaits that resembles the lair of a Bond villain. While we sip single malt and gawp at the 360-degree view, we witness a surprise running leap off the cliff by a BASE jumper. Cheers to him.

War comes to Tolga

When the Germans invaded, my grandfather was 20 years old, working as a clerk and helping on the family farm in Tolga, where his father was the respected local sheriff. On April 23, 1940, the desperate Norwegian military called on all young men in shooting clubs, including my grandfather, to climb the surrounding mountains to defend against Nazi paratroopers and planes. (His brother Erling, Tolga’s deputy sheriff, shot at the low-flying planes, but to no effect.) The German advance guard soon pushed up the muddy road past his farm. “The first soldiers drove in open cars and motorcycles with sidecars, standing with their guns in the ready position,” remembered Erling. “They saw us standing in the window behind the curtains and pointed their guns at us, ready to shoot.” Behind them came trucks loaded with more soldiers.

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On May 2, they moved against the neighboring town of Os, where my grandfather had mobilized with other shooting club members. Norwegian soldiers had rigged the main bridge with a roadblock and explosives; the plan was to wait for the Germans to hit the barrier and ambush them. But overeager volunteers opened fire on the first motorcycle, ruining the element of surprise. German tanks and bombers soon arrived, forcing the defenders to abandon the town.

When a dead shooting club member was found wearing a Norwegian flag armband instead of a full military uniform, the German commander ordered reprisals against civilians. They rounded up 30 townspeople as hostages, set fire to their farms, and slaughtered their animals. Fearing more retaliation, the shooting clubs went home. By June 10, open fighting ended in Norway. But the king had escaped to England, and gave the order from exile: Resist.

Black and white photo of three men burning town
Although the Nazi advance was slowed, the Norwegians were hopelessly outgunned—and where locals fought back with hunting rifles, the Nazis often burned towns in retribution. Erich Borchert/German Federal Archives (public domain)

German soldiers requisitioned our family farm, sleeping in the meeting hall over the sheriff’s office. Life under occupation was a delicate balance for my great-grandfather Jon, who was charged with keeping the peace, but refused to pledge loyalty to the Nazis. Norway’s fascist National Samling (NS) party held rallies down the road at the farm of a nationalist writer, featuring collaborationist leader Vidkun Quisling as guest speaker. The area was dubbed “Naziland,” a hotbed for Nazi sympathizers; BBC radio warned “good Norwegians” to beware of traitors in town. But that support evaporated outside of town, where the mountains and valleys sheltered resistance safehouses.

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My grandfather, meanwhile, kept quietly working as a clerk and in his own resistance cell, helping people escape to neutral Sweden and smuggle weapons back in. Easter is traditionally a ski holiday in Norway, and a World War wasn’t going to stop my outdoorsman grandfather, who later said that Easter 1941 was the best snow he’d ever seen. Together with two friends, he headed south from the farm on cross-country skis before dawn, summiting, then skiing down the other side of Rødsjøkletten, Elgspiggen and Sålekinna mountains before spending the night at his father’s cabin in the valley. The next morning, they climbed to the top of Håmmålfjell, then skied back to the farm, having covered 60 rugged miles in just two days.

Although he never said why he did it, the route offered unobstructed observation of activity in the surrounding towns and valleys, as well as paths that resistance veterans would map out after the war as their main supply and escape routes to and from Sweden—three of which converged at a spot just downstream from his father’s cabin.

Black and white photo of three men posing in front of cabin and skis
My grandfather (center) with two unknown friends at his father’s cabin, after the first day of their intense ski trek over the mountains. Jon Østgård

This core of my family’s history is where I now drag my road trip crew. Leaving the western fjords, we navigate Trollstigen (Troll Path), a steep, narrow, serpentine road that will soon become impassable for the duration of winter. Despite hairpin turns and sheer drop-offs, the road is heavily traveled in tourist season, but we encounter virtually no traffic. Fall is a wise time to visit Norway, though there can be drawbacks. When I opt to take another remote scenic route, we drive a single-lane dirt road for an hour before finding a locked iron gate blocking our way. I drive back down the mountain in pitch darkness while my buddies take turns busting my balls. It’s a relief to finally reach my family’s rustic, three-room cabin, complete with a Norwegian-style grass roof and convivial firepit.

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As remote and pastoral as this area feels today, by April 1942 the Germans were tightening their leash, with resistance-squashing clampdowns that saw the population of an entire town executed or shipped to prison camps. On May 5, a group of NS soldiers appeared at our farm to remove my great-grandfather as sheriff for refusing to pledge allegiance to the Nazi party. His own quiet resistance protecting the people of his town, where four generations of Østgårds had served as sheriff, was over. As the soldiers tore through his office seizing his records, one of his sons noted it was the only time he ever saw tears in his father’s eyes.

Black and white photo of four men having snack while hiking
My grandfather (far left), having a snack with his brother, father and cousin on a hike up the mountain behind our cabin—a route he followed on skis in 1942, and we would hike in 2022. Jon Østgård

The worst was still to come. As aforementioned, my grandfather was spotted at his hunting cabin on Håmmålfjell mountain by a cousin who saw him hiding guns and reported him to Nazi authorities. When they arrived on June 19, they knew to pull a stone from the foundation under the front door to find his stash of weapons. After the war, my grandfather wrote a third-person story describing the soldiers beating him unconscious: “Like a dog he curled up to protect himself from the blows and kicks…he pressed his broken lips together to keep a sound from his suffering body as blood pooled in his mouth.”

Victory and survival

My crew makes the most of our self-imposed rusticity at the cabin. There is a dare to shower in a bone-chilling waterfall, gamely accepted. There are late-night poker games, hotly contested. There is trout angling, largely unrewarded. So instead there is a huge pot of moose chili, heartily consumed around an even larger fire. After three days, my buddies are itching for a last night out in Oslo, and perhaps a bit weary of the frosty outhouse; I stay behind to ponder the final piece to the puzzle of this family war story, a piece that’s difficult to fit.

After my grandfather was caught, he was actually imprisoned by his own father, the deposed sheriff, in the local jail, a log building on the family farm 50 yards from the house he grew up in. Today the old jail is a family museum, allowing me to sit in the cell my grandfather spent his last night in before being handed over to the Nazis. Among the messages scrawled on the walls is one from a prisoner arrested just days later: “I was caught at the border and am waiting now to be taken to Grini in Oslo and I dread it like a dog.”

Image of jail cell on left with wood carving of man and woman on right
This old jail cell, preserved on my family’s farm as it was in 1942, held my grandfather before he was sent to Gestapo headquarters in Oslo, and then to the Grini concentration camp (left). My grandfather dreamed of happier times when he carved this while imprisoned at Grini concentration camp (right). Charles Coxe

Compared to Gestapo headquarters, life at Grini concentration camp was relatively lenient. Although my grandfather once spoke of being beaten and kept awake by screams from torture rooms, most prisoners described the camp as quiet, as long as one could endure punishments and hard labor. He worked in the woodshop, where he carved a wistful scene of a man courting a young woman and an intricate knife handle adorned with a lion that he kept with him. One fellow woodworker was Odd Nansen, who had helped Jews and other refugees flee mainland Europe, who hid diary pages in secret compartments inside breadboards that he crafted. The best explanation for why my grandfather never talked much about his experience matches what Nansen and other Grini prisoners reported: They felt guilty for surviving. If they were released, others were left behind. If they spent the war at Grini, others were shipped to death camps like Sachsenhausen or Auschwitz. My mother remembers her father saying he was “lucky”—he was never sent to Germany.

Hunting cabin in woods
My grandfather used this one-man hunting cabin during the war—moving a stone from the foundation under the doorway revealed the hollow area underneath where the Nazis found his stash of weapons. Charles Coxe

The question of why my grandfather was released from Grini after just six months is unresolved. It’s possible his sheriff father exerted some influence, but it’s just as possible that freedom came randomly, as was often the case. What is clear is that his work with the resistance didn’t end, he just got better at keeping secrets. A certificate signed by Crown Prince Olav thanked him for his service from 1944-1945 in a district 200 miles south of Tolga, where he lived when the war ended. In the peace that followed, he got married and built a new life in southern Norway, and kept a family tradition: He became a sheriff in the coastal town of Tjølling, and eventually moved an old blacksmith’s hut just across the road from his father’s cabin that he had skied to during the war, as a retreat for his own family. When he had a son, he even named him after his father. Despite his horrific experience, my grandfather clearly didn’t blame his father. It seems likely his father, though no longer sheriff, had stepped in to protect his son, possibly saving him from being executed on the spot.

Panoramic views of hike with man
Even on a rainy day, the panoramic views from my grandfather’s route extend almost all the way to Sweden, covering all of the surrounding resistance smuggling routes and hideouts. Charles Coxe / Backgrid

My cousins and I take a trek up the mountain behind the cabin. Generations of our family have walked this path, including our grandfather on skis with his compatriots, then 40 years later as an old man leading his grandkids. There’s no snow on this drizzly September day, but as we clear the tree line, the slope is covered with a blanket of white reindeer moss splashed with autumn-red blueberry bushes. Standing on the peak, admiring a panorama of mountains he crossed to help people flee to Sweden and smuggle weapons back, I understand why he risked everything for this land.

Before I leave to catch up to my friends in Oslo, I soak in the quiet solitude of my grandfather’s old cabin hideout. I feel more connected to him than I ever have before, though the legacy of his stoicism hasn’t made it easy. I know I’ve only scratched the surface of his remarkable story. I guess that will await my next trip.

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