Norways top Jewish politico draws rapt audience in S.F.

Jo Benkow called the suggestion "just nonsense."

The most prominent Jewish politician in Norwegian history had just finished giving a speech in San Francisco last month when an audience member asked him the following question:

What character trait among Norwegians could account for Norway losing "only" 43 or 44 percent of its Jews to Nazi death camps?

The questioner suggested that Norway was "less indifferent" than most European countries when the Nazis started rounding up Jews. She said the rate of attrition of Norway's Jews was the lowest among occupied countries.

"With all due respect, madam, I think you have got that all wrong," Benkow said softly but forcefully into the microphone. "The Nazi party in Norway was just as tough as it was anywhere else…They killed as many [Jews] as it was possible to get ahold of.

"So you may think that things were maybe a little more lenient in Norway, but that's not true."

Benkow, 76, spoke at the Commonwealth Club in downtown San Francisco on Feb. 18, addressing "World War II in Norway: The Resistance Movement, Norwegian Jews and the Holocaust."

The appearance of the speaker of the Norwegian Parliament from 1985 to 1993 drew an unexpected overflow audience of more than 200. Extra chairs were hastily set up to accommodate the rare mix of Scandinavians and Jews.

Warm, witty and grandfatherly, Benkow jokingly pointed out during his speech that he rose to great political heights with no thanks to Norway's Jewish voting bloc. After all, there are only about 1,800 Jews among Norway's 4.4 million residents.

"The very day I was elected to parliament, we [Jews] were overrepresented," Benkow joked in nearly impeccable English.

The number of Jews in Norway six decades ago was about the same as today, roughly 1,700, according to several sources. That was in 1940, the year the Germans invaded.

An armada of 370 ships carrying 107,000 troops attacked from the sea, and the Germans used air transport to land 8,000 men to attack the defending Norwegians from behind.

According to the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, Hitler boasted that it was "one of the sauciest undertakings in the history of modern warfare."

The Germans took command of Norway's long coastline on the North Sea, which was strategically ideal for their fleet of ships and submarines. They also tapped into Norway's rich iron ore deposits for munitions production.

Benkow, who lost much of his family, talked slowly and with a lump in his throat as he recounted the five years of Nazi occupation and the rounding up of Jews in 1942.

"Seven-hundred and fifty-eight Jews were deported to concentration camps," he said, pausing to let the emotion pass through him. "Twenty-five survived."

Benkow was 18 at the time and was active in Norway's underground resistance. He praised the movement for helping about 900 Jews — including himself — sneak across the Swedish border to safety.

"It was really a daring undertaking because to help a Jew in Norway in those days meant certain death if they were caught," Benkow said.

Benkow sneaked into Sweden because he had friends in the right places. His family, however, lived 10 miles outside of Oslo and was "taken by surprise" when the Nazis went on a two-day round-up rampage. Almost all of the women in his family, including his mother, died at Auschwitz.

"I remember the day my father came to terms with the situation," Benkow said. "He said, 'My son, forget it, we go on.'"

In the end, the resistance couldn't prevent more than 700 Jews — about 44 percent of the Jewish population — from perishing.

After returning to Norway in the mid-'40s, Benkow wound up in municipal government in the early 1960s and then was elected to parliament in 1965. When he became speaker in 1985, he became second-in-command behind the king, although the prime minister is actually the country's leader. He is now retired from politics.

Benkow's grandparents — named Benkowitz — immigrated to Norway from Belarus. He remembered an Orthodox childhood and "having nothing but kosher foods, which meant that I [rarely] had any meat. It was forbidden by Jewish law to eat meat that was killed by Norwegian authorities."

Then as now, there are only two synagogues in Norway, Benkow said. One is in the capital, Oslo, where about half of the country's Jewish population resides. The other synagogue is in Trondheim, Norway's third-largest city; it claims to be the northernmost synagogue in the world.

Benkow prides himself on being an affiliated Jew, but he said his Judaism was never on the front burner during his days in parliament. "When I was first elected, it was not a sensation, although it did represent something new," Benkow said. "But it was quite sensational for a Jew to become the speaker. In the end, though, they accept you just as a public figure. I have never been aggressive [about being Jewish]."

However, Benkow did go to bat for restitution settlements. Norway's government has set aside about $60 million for Norwegian survivors. "We got a wonderful, extremely generous restitution," Benkow said. "It has been extremely satisfying to know that the authorities of my own country have taken the lead in seeking to make moral and financial amends…They have shown themselves to be a shining example for other countries with far greater reason to make amends than Norway."

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.