The Northern Lights as seen near Tromsø, Norway (Photo/Wikimedia-Sennheiserz CC BY 3.0)
The Northern Lights as seen near Tromsø, Norway (Photo/Wikimedia-Sennheiserz CC BY 3.0)

Norway — Jewish life and survival in the land of the midnight sun

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“You’re Yiddish, aren’t you?” the tall Norwegian man said as he peered down at me.

That was how I met Markus Rotvold, an older gentleman who spoke excellent English, as I wandered through the cemetery of Tromsø, Norway.

It was 1975, and I was 20, working on a Norwegian passenger ship. We had just docked in the seaside town of Tromsø, and I’d gotten off the ship to stretch my legs.

Markus seemed ancient to me. I know now that he was 61, a year younger than I am now. He liked to talk, and I was interested, so he walked me around the cemetery. He showed me the grave of a telegrapher for the Norwegian resistance who had alerted the Royal Air Force to the location of the German battleship Tirpitz, which Hitler had hidden in a nearby fjord.

Markus said, with classic Norwegian understatement, that the day that the Tirpitz was destroyed, “we all went home and had a little drink.”

He invited me home to join him and his wife, Ingebjørg, for coffee and cake. On the way, he told me that his wife had been married, before World War II, to a Jewish man named Caplan. Caplan had “left” Norway, he said, when the Germans occupied the country. The couple had a daughter, and his wife had to take her to the Gestapo office daily so that they could keep track of her.

Ingebjørg Caplan and Markus Rotvold
Ingebjørg Caplan and Markus Rotvold

Over the next 42 years, I have told the story of this meeting many times.

When my wife and I decided to visit Norway with our two daughters this summer, I was reminded of Markus, so I put his name into Google and this came up (translated by Google and slightly edited by me):

Markus Rotvold (born October 2, 1914, died March 30, 2012) was from Tromsø, participated in the fighting around Narvik in 1940 during World War II and was one of those who piloted the Jewish Smith family over to Finland from the Signal Valley in 1940. This incident earned him the Righteous Among the Nations medal in 2006.

Markus began resistance work before the war. He boarded German trawlers in the harbor of Tromsø to tell what Hitler stood for. On April 9, he was arrested by the Germans in Narvik, but managed to escape. He later participated in the fighting around Narvik.

The man I met in 1975 is now listed at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Of all the stories he told me, he never mentioned his involvement in any fighting, and certainly not in saving any lives.

Before our trip to Tromsø, my wife made reservations at a bed and breakfast. I sent an email to the proprietor, telling him about my encounter with Markus Rotvold in 1975 and asking him if he could put me in contact with any of the family.

A few nights later, I received an email from Inger-Adele Caplan Southall, Markus’ step-granddaughter and Caplan’s granddaughter. She told me that Markus had been like a grandfather to her. When I asked about her biological grandfather, Caplan — the man Markus told me had “left” Norway — she responded that he had died in Auschwitz.

In Tromsø, we met up with Inger-Adele at a local restaurant. She walked in with her mother, Anne-Lise Caplan — the little girl that Markus had told me about — now in her 70s.

After the war, Anne-Lise told us, her mother, Ingebjørg, stayed in Tromsø and married Markus in the late 1950s. Anne-Lise opened a lingerie shop in the 1960s, in the same building that had housed the dry goods owned by her grandfather, Daniel Caplan. Although she was raised Lutheran, she put the Caplan name prominently on the shop’s sign, and said that on occasion rocks were thrown through the window. Anne-Lise retired several years ago, and now does volunteer work with refugees through the Salvation Army.

A Caplan
The lingerie shop opened by Anne-Lise Caplan in the 1960s is still run by her daughter, Inger-Adele Caplan Southall.

Inger-Adele continues to run the lingerie shop that her mother started. When I asked her about keeping the name Caplan, when it would have been easy to drop it, she replied, “To choose to put Caplan up at the shop is, of course, a risk. But still we have to be proud of our background and that our beloved suffered and lost their life in such a horrible way to make us want to show that we are still here, and what happened to them shall never be forgotten, and that their experience has not been for nothing.

“I’m proud of my Jewish side and will try to be strong and show it.”

Inger-Adele invited us over to her house for coffee and dessert — the same house in which I drank coffee with Markus and Ingebjørg 42 years before. Anne-Lise was there, as was a non-Jewish man named Henrik Broberg, who had written a book (“The Village was Silent”) about the Jewish population of northern Norway. It was from him that we learned about the Caplan family, and about the fate of the other Jewish families of Tromsø.

Here is what we learned: Hertze Caplan was born in 1913 in Norway. His father, Daniel, had come from Latvia in the late 1800s and was one of several Jewish merchants in town. He married and had three sons: Jacob, Solly and Hertze. The three boys grew up as observant Jews, traveling hundreds of miles south to Trondheim for their bar mitzvahs at what was then the northernmost synagogue in the world.

In 1939, Hertze married Ingebjørg Berg. She was not Jewish, and when the Germans occupied Norway, her husband, Hertze, his two brothers and their father, Daniel, were arrested, put into work camps and eventually sent to Auschwitz.

Here is the story of the Smith family that was helped by Markus Rotvold, with information I found on the Yad Vashem website (some of it is verbatim):

The Smith family lived in Tromsø, in the north of Norway. After the German occupation of Norway, Herman Smith (born 1907) took his family — his non-Jewish wife and his two daughters — and left. Soon after that, the remaining Jews of Tromsø were arrested.
The Smiths headed for Sweden; on the way they came across Markus Rotvold (age 25) and Kåre Kleivan (age 23), who had left their homes in Tromsø to join the Allied forces in order to fight against Nazi Germany.

The Smiths were exhausted from the long trek, and the two Norwegian youngsters helped them by carrying the two girls in their arms. They reached Sweden, then crossed to Finland where Bergliot Smith received word that her sister had died in Tromsø, leaving two young orphans. She was extremely anxious, so Herman returned to Tromsø where, in June 1941, he was arrested along with all the Jewish men in town, and taken to a nearby camp in Sydspissen. In November 1942, Herman was deported to Auschwitz, where he died three months later. Until the end of her life, Bergliot Smith blamed herself for his death by convincing him to return to Norway.

After the war, Bergliot Smith moved to Oslo and joined the Jewish community. The two daughters of her eldest daughter, Eva, immigrated to Israel.
 When Kåre Kleivan reached his 80th birthday, his family and friends asked him what he would like as a present. Kleivan responded that he wanted to have a monument erected in his hometown of Tromsø in memory of the 17 Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust. His wish was fulfilled, and the monument was built in the town’s central square.

On Jan. 22, 2006, Yad Vashem recognized Nikolai and Anny Nilsen and their children (Edmund, Nordal and Jenny) and Pauline and Markus Rotvold and Kåre Kleivan as Righteous Among the Nations.

The story of Tromsø is just one of the millions of horror stories from the Holocaust. But we have to be inspired by the actions of the resisters, the people who did what was right: people like Markus Rotvold, Kåre Kleivan and, later, Henrik Broberg.

Talking to Henrik Broberg, the non-Jew who told the story of the Jews of Tromsø, I got the sense that he was driven to preserve their story because it was important that these people not be forgotten.

He was adamant that we remember they were murdered simply because they were Jews.

Danny Yanow

Danny Yanow grew up in San Francisco and teaches history at a middle school in South San Francisco.