Odd Westeng

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Odd's Border Pass.
Odd's Border Pass.

Russian Interlude

It was a glorious day in mid-October. The sun was shining up, and I had taken to my favourite pastime at Lingen, chopping wood and attending to the peaceful, but less important details of our everyday life in the forest of Ljoner.

Being alone for a change, with the stillness of nature in complete command, the deepest thoughts came to the surface as if they wanted to speak to me and remind me of old friends from peacetime and also of all those whose friendship meant so much in the vicious world of the Nazi concentration camp at Grini. When I was arrested in February 1942, Grini was a small prison camp and the numbers of prisoners had hardly exceeded 2000 in all. Subsequently it went up into many thousands, I believe by the end of the war some 25,000 prisoners had passed through the gates of Grini.

I remembered the Norwegian Jews who had to wear the yellow star for identification. The Gestapo selected work for the Jews that was purposely designed to humiliate and destroy the spirit of those people. When I met my friend Herman, with whom I had played soccer since my schooldays, I found him filling two buckets brimful of water down in the basement of the main prison building. He then had to run with the full buckets up to the fifth floor where he emptied the buckets, run down again to the basement, fill the buckets and once again run to the fifth floor and empty the buckets - up and down - up and down - fill and empty - fill and empty - all day and every day for ten hours. When I first saw him I called, "Herman, what are you doing?" he answered, "Can't stop. Can't stop. Can't talk to you." It was distressing to see a friend in such torment. He and the other Jews were shipped out to Germany the following week and placed in a concentration camp there. They never came back - not one of them.

For a short period I was assigned to an indoor job, washing the floors of the corridors in the German section, and also the floors in the hospital. There I met a man who had been in the hospital for nine months and was still unable to walk around his bed because of the injuries inflicted upon him by the Gestapo during interrogation. They had broken just about every bone in his body, but not his spirit. He had held firm and at 67 he was accepted by all his fellow prisoners as the symbol of fortitude and courage, and they continually found new ways of helping him to recover.

I was pulled away from my thoughts of Grini when I heard Brede return. "Hey," he said as he came through the door, "the job is on for tomorrow. The message came through just before I left - seventeen people all told including six foreigners, four of whom are Russian POWs."

(The next morning) we left Lingen about 10 o'clock and arrived at our rendez-vous with ten minutes to spare; a good thing too because we hardly reached the knoll before we saw a long column of 17 people coming up the path.

We identified the Russians by their clothing - a mixture of Norwegian garments and remnants of Russian military coats. On their feet they had tied strips of military coat in a woven pattern and they also carried some strange looking weapons with them. They seemed alert and keen and moved with energetic strides even though they had been on the run from the German POW camp for about three weeks.

The leader of the column had already started on his return journey when we decided to descend the knoll. Within minutes we were surrounded by four Russians, full of smiles, and handshakes. They spoke to us in broken German, but after a while we understood each other perfectly well. They were full of praise for all the help they had been given along the route and they said they knew that Norwegians would be executed if they were caught helping Russians to escape.

The Norwegians had hardly slept for three days and one had a twisted ankle which was very painful and they were worried about slowing down the column.

As Brede and I were leaving the cabin, two young men aged about 20, got up and followed us outside. They spoke to us in English and explained that they were Polish students from Warsaw. They wanted to know how long the journey would take and smiled happily when we told them they would be in Sweden within seven hours. They had escaped from Warsaw five months earlier when they had heard on their way home from school that their homes had been raided and their parents taken away. They had taken a train to Gdansk planning to stow away on a ship bound for Sweden, but they were arrested leaving the train. Eventually they were sent to Norway with ten other students as slave labour.

They escaped on a goods train and reached a town called Elverum, where they got a taxi and simply asked for help. Luck was with them because the taxi driver happened to be a member of the Resistance and he did indeed organise their escape to Sweden. What they didn't know was that Elverum was a garrison town for the Nazis and 5,000 troops were stationed there!

Returning to the cabin we were astonished to meet four stark naked Russians in the doorway heading for the little lake 100 yards away. The lake was still covered with a thin layer of ice after the frost the previous night.

Shortly after one o'clock we got ready to leave. I was very pleased to see that the Norwegians had recovered well but the man with the damaged ankle could not walk and thought he would have to stay behind. Everything went quiet in the cabin and I called out, "Does anybody know how to make a stretcher?" one of the Russians came over and simply said, "We will make one. This used to be our work on the Leningrad front. We carried a lot of wounded comrades this way and we would like to carry him also."

Brede joined the Russians with his axe and they found a young rowan, pliable and strong enough to take the weight. The stretcher was made and the patient put on it.

At long last the column was ready with Brede up front. We changed our route to minimise the problem of carrying the stretcher and the journey began.

We passed the eight mile mark before Brede gave us a danger signal and within seconds the column had merged with the undergrowth of the forest. We soon heard the reason for the alarm; it was a slow truck climbing the hills from Ljoner, burning charcoal and coming our way for a load of lumber. The danger soon passed and we continued, the smell of charcoal a reminder that danger could come when least expected - Brede and I had not seen a truck on this road for at least three months!

We bypassed Ljoner and joined the derelict road for another mile. Just to make certain I slowed down to check on the stretcher and was pleased to find the Russians in good spirits and seemingly unaffected by the arduous job. I resumed my scout position just as we were reaching the point of crossing the main road. Once again we had to take cover from trucks, but this time vehicles of a much more sinister nature. There were four German military transports full of soldiers! Soon they were gone and Brede and I felt gratified that our scout signal system seemed to keep us safe from such dangers.

We passed Rudsvika after a careful survey, this being the spot on the route most frequently used by the Border Police for interception of refugees. It was all clear. The last 200 yards were quickly covered, and there it was, the coveted strip of land which for so many had meant the gateway to freedom from the Nazis. The Russians handed over the stretcher to the Norwegians, we said farewell and they parted with grateful smiles and handshakes.

Turning around we saw the Russians sitting down on the actual frontier and Brede and I went over and joined them. Then one of them said: "We would like to do the things you do - helping other people to escape. Can you let us come with you and work with you? We would like to do that because we don't want to go home".

As a soldier during the war, winter 1944/45. I am the one to the left and the others two friends of mine.
As a soldier during the war, winter 1944/45. I am the one to the left and the others two friends of mine.

"Why not?" I said.

" It's difficult to explain. There is a Russian Commissar in Sweden and we think that we will be sent to Siberia because we were taken prisoner."

" You can't mean that."

" Yes," came the answer, "Sometimes that's the way it is."

" Well, we could most certainly do with your help, but unfortunately we live in a community where everybody knows us, and we would have no chance of keeping you hidden."

" We hoped, but we understand," they said. Then they brightened up, smiles came over their faces and they said: "These are presents for both of you," and they gave us two beautiful carved cigarette boxes.

"For you to remember us by as friends - friends forever." Then they came across and gave us Russian bear hugs before disappearing down the path into Sweden.

In Oslo, May 1945, at the Parade Ground of Akershus Castle, we practised the Victory Parade with the other Allied Forces. A Russian Company passed us close by, singing beautifully, and there we saw our Russian friends and we smiled and waved and smiled and waved, but no. There was no recognition. "Friends forever," they said to us on the border. Could anything have changed that?