Seventy-seven years ago last Thursday (August 23, 1941), Per Birkevold, Hjalmar Svae and Bjorn Fraser began their ill-fated quest to steal a German boat and escape from Norway to England. I have written about this episode in prior blogs (here and here). I also wrote about the amazing coincidence of meeting Hjalmar Svae’s niece, Siri Svae Fenson, and Bjorn Fraser’s daughter, Helene Sobol, within days of each other (here).
Well, there’s yet more to the story. After the war Svae ran a dancing school in Oslo, named, appropriately enough, Svae’s Dancing School. Turns out that Helene Sobol, Fraser’s daughter, attended the very same dancing school. Here’s a photo of Helene, age around 9, with her younger sister Jane, all dressed up in their finest ball dresses.
What you cannot tell from the photo is that the two dresses shown were made by Helene’s father out of parachute silk! When Fraser’s death sentence was commuted, he volunteered to work in the prison tailor shop, where he learned—apparently quite well—his tailoring skills. Siri Svae Fenson, Svae’s niece, remembers visiting her uncle’s dancing school as a child, and may even have unknowingly crossed paths with young Helene many years ago.
And wait, there’s still yet another interesting connection. As mentioned in my earlier blog, Bjorn Fraser went on to a very successful career in the Norwegian Air Force. In the early 1960s he commanded the Sola Air Base near Stavanger. There he was visited, in 1964, by Hiltgunt Zassenhaus, who was in the country to receive the Order of St. Olav, the only German ever to be so honored for her wartime heroics. Zassenhaus, in her capacity as a “chaperone/watchdog,” accompanied clergy from the Seamen’s Church who were allowed to visit Norwegian prisoners. While supposedly keeping an eye on the clergy, she was actually secretly smuggling food and vitamins into the prisoners, and keeping track of their exact location, allowing them to rescued in the “White Buses” operation at the end of the war. Ten years later (1974) Hiltgunt was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her work by the Norwegian Parliament (the Storting). I have written about Zassenhaus at more length here.
In the above photo from the 1964 visit, Fraser stands to the far right; Zassenhaus stands next to him (his right, our left); Helene is the young woman in the white dress (fifth from the left); her mother is standing directly in front of her (to our right).
Thanks to Helene Sobol for the photos, and the additional insights. Are there still more connections out there?? Stay tuned.