Norways top Jewish politico to speak in San Francisco

Jo Benkow, the most prominent and influential Jewish politician in the history of Norway, is scheduled to speak next Friday at the Commonwealth Club of California in San Francisco.

The topic of the program is "World War II in Norway: The Resistance Movement, Norwegian Jews and the Holocaust."

Born Josef Benkowitz in 1924 to a father who was a Russian emigre in Norway, Benkow served as the speaker of the Norwegian Parliament from 1985 to 1993.

That position in Norway is often referred to as "president" and is second in the official chain of command behind the king. However, in actuality, the prime minister is the country's leader.

Benkow "had an incredibly central role in Norwegian politics from 1965 through 1993, especially for the last 20 of those years," said Hans Urstad, consul general at the Royal Norwegian Consulate in San Francisco. "Without a doubt, he was the most influential Jewish politician ever in Norway."

A municipal politician in the early 1960s who began a 28-year run in parliament in 1965, Benkow has also written several books.

His most famous book in Norway is a biography of King Olaf and he also wrote a highly acclaimed diatribe against racism titled "Det ellevte bud" (The Eleventh Commandment).

Another popular Benkow tome is his autobiography, with a title that translates as "From the Synagogue to Lion Hill." The book, which is not available in English, traces his path from his Russian Jewish roots to "Lion Hill," a reference to the Norwegian Parliament.

The autobiography "describes how almost all of the women of his family [in Russia] were taken to Auschwitz and killed," said Urstad. Benkow's family was from Grodno in Belarus, about 20 miles from the Polish border.

"He explains his whole background: How he grew up, how strict his mother was on the Jewish rituals and that his father was a bit more relaxed on those things," Urstad said. "It's very interesting. The book created a lot more understanding in Norway of Jews."

Benkow was very active in restitution issues, and he also has spoken to a lot of young people about the Holocaust, the five-year Nazi occupation of Norway and about being Jewish, Urstad said.

"He lived as a Jew, but he was not a man who will all the time go to the synagogue," said Urstad, a former chief of staff of the foreign affairs committee who worked closely with Benkow for four years. "He was very secular in many ways."

Benkow was the head of the opposition Conservative Party in Norway from 1980 to 1984. Because Labor has long been the majority party, Benkow was never in a position to become prime minister, Urstad said.

Benkow also headed the parliamentary committee on judicial affairs from 1977 to 1980 and served as president of the Nordic Council from 1983 to 1984. He was also the president of the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights.

He served in the Norwegian Air Force and was stationed in England during World War II. He went to training camp for pilots in a remote area outside Ottawa.

Benkow will be speaking along with Gunnar Sønsteby, a Norwegian Resistance leader known as "Agent No. 24." His book "Report from Agent No. 24" was extremely popular in Norway.

"I am close to 50 now, and almost everyone in my generation has read that book," Urstad said. "He's a real hero in Norway."

Sønsteby, who is in his 80s, fought against the Nazis in Norway's underground movement during World War II. He blew up munitions factories and the labor exchange office, among other acts of insurgency.

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.