One of the most enjoyable, and least expected, aspects of my involvement with Odd Nansen’s diary has been the people I have met along the way, many with some personal connection to Nansen’s experience.
Those of you who have read the book and/or heard my presentations know that I heavily annotated the new edition of From Day to Day, including information on places and events mentioned by Nansen. More importantly, I also wanted to tell as much as possible about the people Nansen met during his 40-month odyssey. Odd Nansen’s story is truly remarkable. But so are the stories of his fellow prisoners, whether in the Grini or Veidal camps in Norway, or in Sachsenhausen or Neuengamme in Germany, and these stories deserve to be told if possible.
Recently, my friend Carol Pendergrast introduced me to her friend, Siri Svae Fenson. It turns out that Siri’s uncle, Hjalmar Svae, was also a prisoner for a while in Norway, and is mentioned several times in Nansen’s diary. Here’s what Nansen has to say:
Sunday, February 22, 1942: “I am thinking of my friend Bryn. . .. He was in the surveyor’s gang, along with [Bjørn] Fraser and [Hjalmar] Svae. Those two went off the other day, no doubt to “Bavaria” [the Oslo county jail, so-named from its prior use as a brewery]. That was a melancholy parting. I’m afraid things look bad for them. It was they who stole the German motorboat at Jeløy and sailed for England, but ran aground in Denmark. Their leader [Per] Birkevold, who is now in the hospital, can at any rate have very little chance. These men are fine types of Norwegian patriots.”
Thursday, March 12, 1942: “What is now lying black and heavy in people’s minds is the news that Fraser and Svae have been condemned to death! Now I suppose they are at Akershus, waiting for the time of grace to run out. They can’t have much chance to speak of. And poor Birkevold, their leader, who is lying here in the hospital and has been told. He took it splendidly, we heard from one of the male nurses today. He said he was glad to have been told; it was better than lying there knowing nothing. And so he is one-hundred-percent certain to be shot on his discharge from the hospital, unless something extraordinary happens by then.”
Sunday, April 5, 1942: “Birkevold was lying out in the hospital corridor last night, listening to our entertainment. I waved to him. He smiled back, but he was a different man from when I last saw him. His mates have been condemned to death. Svae managed to escape, indeed, but Fraser is sitting yonder in Akershus. And here lies Birkevold, waiting to be condemned in his turn. He is ill; he has a fever, and never surely has a fever that will not yield been more blessed than this one. [Nansen suspected the fever was the work of a sympathetic prison doctor.] May it only last both spring and summer, yes, and far into the autumn for safety’s sake. This is his one chance. For it doesn’t seem as though they condemn sick people, at all events not yet. One fine day they will probably discover that they can shoot a sick man just as well as a sound one. Birkevold must be lying thinking such thoughts too, poor lad. And the thoughts and griefs that are agonizing him are such as no Easter morning has the power to end or drive away.”
During my research, I was able to determine that Svae’s friends Fraser and Birkevold were never in fact executed—both survived the war. Beyond that, however, I knew nothing of their story, nor did I know if Svae was ever recaptured, or what his ultimate fate was. Siri, who now lives in northern California, was able to provide much additional information regarding his arrest, escape and subsequent career.
First, to return to the crime. Hjalmar Svae (age 25), a former ensign in the Norwegian Navy, worked with Bjørn Fraser and Per Birkevold in a torpedo factory in Horten, Norway, on the western shore of the Oslo fjord. Birkevold had been planning an escape (a capital crime, punishable by death) for several months. On August 23, 1941, the day prior to their planned breakout, Birkevold secured permission from the Germans to take a twenty-four-foot boat, with plenty of gasoline, to the opposite side of the Oslo fjord to be ready to test torpedoes. Everything went according to plan until the escape party was within seventy miles of Newcastle, England. There the engine died and could not be revived, and high winds and rough seas began to drive the small boat backward. After drifting for eight days—with very little food or water packed for what should have been a short trip, the men were driven ashore in German-occupied Denmark. Arrested, returned to Oslo in September 1941 for trial, Svae and Fraser were condemned to death on March 10, 1942.
The very next day, Svae’s wife, Lucille, was scheduled to visit him in “Bavaria.” Svae was taken down to the visitation area by a guard, who then left him alone. As he subsequently wrote in a letter to Lucille: “I thought I’d ‘look around’ a bit. I walked over to the iron gate. It opened to let out two visitors. I didn’t even think . . . I just walked out with them and the gate closed shut behind us. I walked right through the room where I saw you sitting waiting to be called into the visitation area.” Svae walked right past his wife and whispered “I am running,” and she had the presence of mind to remain seated without so much as blinking an eye.
Svae had one more iron gate to get through. As he approached it, a police car was waiting to be let out. Svae hid between the car and the wall. As the gate opened he calmly walked out beside it, to freedom. Ultimately, he made his way to Sweden, where Hjalmar’s brother (and Siri’s father), Per Svae, had a congregation where he served as pastor (Siri, all of one-year old, has no memory of the visit). Although the Germans did not publicize the successful escape, most Norwegians reveled in the good news, courtesy of the BBC from London.
From Sweden Svae made his way to England, and served as the second in command aboard the HNoMS St. Albans, a destroyer which had begun its service in 1919 in the U.S. Navy (as the USS Thomas), was transferred to the Royal British Navy in September 1940 (where it was rechristened the HMS St. Albans) before being transferred yet again to the Royal Norwegian Navy-in-exile in April 1941. Stationed in Halifax, HNoMS St. Albans ran convoy escort missions.
Svae returned to his family in Oslo in 1946, founded a shipping company and took over the Svae’s Dancing School. Having escaped the jaws of death as a youth, like Jens Christian Beck, Svae’s life ended tragically in 1960 when he died by suicide, age forty-four. With his daring escape attempt to England—seventy-six years ago this week—his second, equally daring escape from prison, and his subsequent naval service, Hjalmar Svae was indeed “a fine type of Norwegian patriot.”
Thanks to Siri Svae Fenson, who provided the translations from Resistance and Daily Life in the Moss District during the War, by Erling Ree-Pederson.