The Heroes of Telemark by Mark Samuels

In 1943, during the Second World War, a heroic team of men in Norway carried out a daring mission against the Nazis. In 1993, fifty years later, I attended a ceremony to honor them in the small Norwegian town of Rjukan.

I discovered that the lives and adventures of these men resonated with my own life in a profound, although unusual way.

The Heroes of Telemark were a group of soldiers who scuttled a major German military operation during the early months of 1943. In the small town of Rjukan, Norway, in the region of Telemark  (famous for the telemark-style of skiing), heavy water* was being generated as a side-product in the manufacture of chemical fertilizers at a local factory. The Nazis wanted it, and were sending it back to Germany for use in nuclear experiments as part of Hitler’s atomic bomb effort. American physicists, including Einstein, took the threat of Nazi atom bombs seriously, and warned the Allied governments that the heavy water facility in Norway should be a high priority military target.

Attempts to destroy the Rjukan factory by air failed. The town lies deep in the mountainous heart of Norway. In an early attempt, specially trained Norwegian commandos, or ‘saboteurs’, secretly parachuted down in the depths of winter and camped on the desolate glacial plateau above the town. They skied down from the plateau, entered the factory and managed to place explosives, partially destroying it. Chased by German patrols, they escaped back to the plateau.

The plant was partially rebuilt but it was bombed again. Finally the Nazis decided to move the critical equipment and heavy water reserves back to Germany by train. This time, the saboteurs sank the train with timed explosives while it travelled on a ferry across a lake from Rjukan. The German atomic bomb effort never succeeded, and the American effort did, developing a weapon to end the war in the Pacific.

The exploits of these Norwegian men have mostly been forgotten in America, although a Hollywood movie about the mission was made starring Kirk Douglas. But in Norway the saboteurs are national heroes. In 1993, Norway honored these heroes of Telemark with a 50th anniversary peace celebration in Rjukan.

I arrived in Norway through an indirect route. My interest in things Norwegian began years earlier when I developed a love for the traditional dances of Scandinavia. In Telemark, couples dance the telespringar to the music of a special instrument, the Hardanger fiddle or hardingfele.** Hardingfele music is subtle and dense, with a continuous flow that induces a trance-like state in the dancers as they weave and circle each other for hours. The dance is strong with the men leading their partners through intricate turning patterns, but the release of energy is careful and precise, in a style that I found difficult to emulate, as I usually dance more exuberantly.

Thus I went to Rjukan to study the telespringar at a workshop with local dance experts. We stayed at a ski resort just outside of the town. Mornings we practiced the dance, afternoons we cross-country skied on the paths winding around the valley. In Norway everyone skis, and in the mountains skiing is a part of life. We met families towing small sleds, skiing into town to shop. Old women who in America might be frail, sedentary or retired were on the trail, perhaps making a social call to a neighbor’s house. In the evenings, we rested from the day’s activity, yet when the fiddles called we were not too tired to dance.

The story of the Telemark heroes moved me because I am a child of the war. My father spent those years at Oak Ridge National Laboratories in Tennessee as a young engineer working on the crucial purification of bomb-grade uranium. My mother experienced the war more directly. She was born and spent her childhood in Warsaw, Poland, and until the war lived in the cheerful and busy life of a prosperous urban Jewish family. She had a French governess and spent summer vacations at resorts. When the Nazis occupied Poland at the onset of World War II, her family fled, and their wanderings took them through eastern Europe, until they were finally caught and deported to the concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen. In the camp my mother’s own mother died. My grandfather, though trained as a physician, could not save his wife. My mother and her father survived two years in the camp until the war ended, making their way to Israel and eventually America. My parents met in New York, and I was born in 1957.

I can’t remember a time when I was not intensely aware of our war-related family history. Hearing their stories as a boy, even though they were suitably edited for a child’s understanding, meant life never felt as easy for me as it was for my friends. I soldiered with my playmates, but in my imagination I wanted to be a hero who saved the day. Sometimes in our playing, I felt I had to sacrifice myself, perhaps through some dimly felt survivor’s guilt.

The Rjukan 50th anniversary celebration took place midway through our ski dance week. In the evening, the whole town walked up the winding road to the factory-turned-museum, holding torches aloft to light the way. From the top I saw a sea of candles as the crowd entered the factory. A chamber orchestra performed, Grieg of course, and important state ministers spoke, although I understood little Norwegian. The seriousness of the occasion was belied by brightly colored ski jackets. The saboteurs themselves, most still alive although aged, received the applause in the same way energy is released in the telespringar, carefully and precisely. Some of the men needed to sit, but their leader still stood straight and tall, ready that moment to ski down another mountain if need be. I have a photo in which he looks up and away from the crowd, as if towards another deed. I did not meet the men in person, but joined the crowd in celebrating their accomplishment.

Since that winter, I have thought less often about the events that took place in Europe more than fifty years ago. Perhaps the ceremony started a healing process for me. My father passed away several years ago; my mother is more than eighty and going strong. The memories are slowing releasing their hold.

For me, a small circle of history is now closed. In 1943 my mother was trapped in Nazi Europe while my father was at Oak Ridge helping build the atom bomb, unknowingly working to save her. And 50 years later I was in Rjukan to say thank you.

* Heavy water is not actually radioactive; deuterium is a stable isotope
though rare. Tritium, another hydrogen isotope with two neutrons plus
the one proton, is radioactive, but it is only present in very trace
amounts in water so was not relevant to the Nazi war effort. Also, the
heavy water was not used in the manufacture, it was an irrelevant side
product – until its value in nuclear research was recognized. By the
way, the factory was using the Haber process, invented by a German
chemist and still the main source of ammonia that has fuelled the
entire green revolution in human agriculture. But that’s not part of the story.

** a type of violin with an elaborately carved body inlaid with decorative designs, and sympathetic strings vibrating beneath the bowed strings like a baroque viola d’amore.

I am a research scientist with a PhD in Biology and more than 40 published peer review articles in professional journals. I study basic human genetics as an Associate Professor in Medicine at the University of Montreal since 2006. In my personal life, I enjoy music and dance, especially European ethnic styles, as well as classical chamber music. As an amateur I play folk lutes such as the turkish saz and oud, and recently have studied classical viola (alto).

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