This is a translation of an article published in Dagens Næringsliv 02.July 2015.
I was granted permission by the author Simen Tveitereid to translate his article.
Fotos: Jan Johannessen.
Original article accessible here
MARTIN MOSES MEHOLM
Age: 99 years (2015).
Marital status: Widower. One child, three grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren, four great-great-grandchildren.
Background: Pikkolo (trainee waiter), porter, waiter.
He spent two and a half years in Berg internment camp in Norway.
For Martin Meholm, it does not matter too much that summer is here. But he really enjoyed the summer. He loved to swim, and when he dived, he always went deep. Once he saw a dead man at the bottom.
Every Tuesday, his son Freddy (77) comes and picks him up. They drive out to Bogstad farm (a historic Manor House and former estate located in the north-west of Oslo) have a sandwich, and continue to drive to Sørkedalen (a valley in the northwestern part of Oslo), maybe to have an ice cream at the country store there.
On nice summer days, if the wind doesn't blow too much, he sits out on the balcony for a while. From there he can spot solid chestnuts and two armed policemen guarding the synagogue on St. Hanshaugen.
Nothing special about it, it has always been like this before in Bergstien in Oslo, which is where he has been living for 22 years. That alone is a kind of a record. 22 years in a retirement home.
It is 43 years ago since Martin Meholm left his job as a waiter at Ullevål (borough of Oslo) Restaurant,. He would have liked to continue working, but struggled to remember the orders.
It is 70 years since Martin Mankowitz was released from Berg internment camp. He spent two and a half years in what was perhaps the worst prison camp in Norway, run by Norwegians. All other 360 Jews who were in Berg have since died.
Now there is only Martin left, 99 years old.
A rainy Wednesday in June.
Meholm has eaten a lentil stew for lunch at 2 pm and follows the Danish election on television.
- "A thriller", he says. "Will it be him or her?"
He is in a t-shirt, offering chocolate and apple juice.
- "Take something sweet", it sharpens the thoughts.
He himself does not take anything.
He has curly, straight hair, and looks a bit like an aging Robert De Niro. He uses a walker, but his arms are strong. Every morning he exercises alone in his room. For 28 years he has been a widower.
He still has nightmares, where he is being chased. He is clear in his head, the memories are still very vivid. He remembers when he fell over on his bike out on Bygdøy (island in central Oslo) and King Haakon who was sitting on his horse asked him if he is okay.
He also remembers a man stepping on his back with military boots, so that his face was pressed further into pig's dung.
THE NORWEGIAN EVIL
On Monday 26th October 1942, Martin received a phone call at Angleterre (hotel in Olso), where he worked as a porter. The police had been infront of the door to his home in Niels Juels gate.
"Now they come down to Karl Johan (street in Oslo where Angleterre is located) to arrest you", said his wife, who called him from the dairy shop on the corner.
"Arrest me? What are they going to do with a regular worker?", thought Martin. He had not even planned any escape.
When I was arrested, I thought: "Oh well, it will probably take a few days, then I'm back home." I had no idea about what was going on in Germany at that time.
All Jewish men over the age of 15 were to be arrested. Via Bredtvet (part of an Oslo borough) they were transported in cow wagons to Berg camp .
Quisling (Nazi collaborator and head of the fascist party Nasjonal Samling) had been annoyed by the May 17 celebrations (Norway's national day) in 1942, where people were wearing red, white and blue chicken rings reflecting Norway's national colours. During a Nasjonal Samling convention in Vestfold (county) a week later, he said:
"We will set up chicken farms for them. Here, near Tønsberg, we will create a large chicken farm. "
The Germans did not want the camp, but Nasjonalsamling got their wishes fulfilled. A camp for opponents of Nazism, which was officially for " lazy workers and negative elements". But it was the Jews who arrived first.
When Martin and the first 60 prisoners arrived, the camp was not finished. The barracks were without any glass in the windows, there were no sanitary facilities, no beds, no kitchens, no stoves, only three empty barracks. It was late autumn and it rained through the roof. They slept on the floor, and were not allowed to go out at night. They only had one bucket inside, and outside the excrement was just flowing everywhere.
When Vestfold's county doctor finally got to visit the camp, he said that "just being in the camp had to be pure torture".
The working day was 12 hours. They built up the camp and dug ditches, they fenced themselves inside with high barbed wire.
I asked them if I could get something to protect on my hands.
"You first need to bleed, for it to seal," was the answer.
Three years ago, Martin broke his femoral neck bone in two places. But he trained again. With a shoehorn he gets his pants off without any help. A peg connected to a long shaft is the tool which he uses to get them back on. His legs are sore, especially at night when he is lying down.
"I sleep for an hour, then I wake up. I need to get up and walk. Back and forth. I turn on the TV, and then sleep a little longer in the chair."
"Strangely enough, I do not get so tired. Nap a little during the day. One does not need so much sleep at my age. And I do not want to sleep away time either. I want to live while I am alive. I do not eat animal fat. No butter, no milk, no potatoes, no bread."
"What are you eating?"
"Herring every morning. On coarse flatbread. Seven varieties of fruit. Tomatoes. Cod liver oil every day. You have to take cod liver oil. Once in a while I treat myself with some cheese. The hunger was bad. To be denied food, as punishment."
He came out of Berg malnourished, with a bloated stomach. At first, the food consisted of bread and thin soup.
"Soup of grass and flowers, sometimes some old fish. One loaf lasted for four days. Oh, how we phantasized about food."
Berg was the only prison camp that had Norwegian commanders. This did not mean that conditions were more humane. Maybe on the contrary. Some guards stopped working here, in protest against the treatment of the prisoners. Most however fulfilled their job and even a little more.
Many of those guards were only 19 or 20 years old and had been given no more than three months of police training. Abuse, punitive exercises and sadistic inventions were common.
The prisoners had to climb a tree and shout like a rooster. Run naked around the barracks in a group of two, hand in hand.
"They enjoyed the torment and to torment us. I had to lift an iron bar until I collapsed. Stand on a tree trunk and shout, "I am a Jew, I am guilty of war."
"We had to eel in the pigsty." During this "eeling", only elbows and toes were allowed to touch the ground.
"If somebody tried to escape, they would shoot ten of us." To show everybody that they were serious, the guards fired shots over the heads of the jews.
"The worst for me were the 14 days in the punishment cell in the basement, with rats on the ground floor. For stealing a kohlrabi."
1. Reads: Aftenposten, VG daily.
2. Watches: Politics and Sports. The TV documentary "Der ingen skulle tru at nokon kunne bu" and maybe a Chaplin movie.
3. Listens to: classical music. Piano pieces of Andsnes and «Allsang på Grensen».
4. Favorite book "The District Doctor" by my son Freddy Meholm.
5. Favourite gadget: Prekestolen, my walker, that is.
6. Drives: The last car I had was a Passat. It was parked in the backyard of my home. Two caravans before that. Now it's Freddy's Volkswagen, every Tuesday.
7. As a 12 year old he wanted to become: a tailor.
8. Afraid of the way I'll die and of flying.
9. Believes in God.
10. Good at singing birthday songs and giving speeches.
11. Not so good in languages.
12. Can not stand: Unfriendliness and envy.
A nice June day in Oslo, a warm afternoon. The first thing he says to me is that he was always outside as a boy.
"We were eight to ten boys in the yard where I grew up, in Christian Krohgs gate. We were always outside. I shouted to my mother on the fourth floor that she had to throw down some food. We spent a lot of time at Jordal (borough of Oslo). We played with a professional ball that weighed 7.5 kilos. We used it for all kinds of exercises."
A gust of wind lifts the curtains in front of the open balcony door.
"Today the kids sit inside too much. They don't play with each other anymore, I have the impression. It's mostly the PC."
He enjoyed handy work at his cabin in Drøbak. But he was never again there after his wife had died. He liked to walk, preferably in the streets of Oslo. Now he watches a lot of TV. Sports and news, reads newspapers with his magnifying glass.
"The exchange rate to the Swedish kroner is 94. Not much point in going to Sweden to shop anymore," he says.
On his walls he has three original Weidemanns. Weidemann was his friend, and he once gave him money for some new shoes when he came barefoot to him. His bedroom is decorated with family photos. On Sunday, one of his great great grandchildren turns four years old , and his birthday will be celebrated.
Martin is also trustee in the retirement home he lives in and gives speeches on birthdays and holidays. He is also the one who reads the prayers in the synagogue every Friday.
"I can read Hebrew, but I do not understand much of what it means."
He believes in God and that the soul lives on, but he is not very religious, he says.
"All those rules, I can not even watch TV on Sabbath, no thanks."
"It is religion that destroys many things."
"What do you think about the conflict in the Middle East?"
"Israel's policy is not right. To take more and more of the Palestinian land. The Palestinians must also have their place, their own state."
He has never been to Israel. He would like to, but he is afraid to fly.
In June 2015 , so-called stumbling blocks were laid in 11 Norwegian cities, in memory of the Norwegian Jews who were killed in the Holocaust. There are soon 50,000 stones, in 18 European countries.
In February 2015, a synagogue in Denmark was attacked, a Jewish man killed. In 2006, 13 shots were fired at the synagogue in Bergstien / Oslo. Arfan Bhatti was convicted.
"I was up, snuck out on the porch and crouched down. He fired with a fairly coarse-grained caliber."
Now the street is again blocked with concrete pillars and a police car. Surveys have even shown that there have been quite a few people with anti-semitic views in Norway.
"The pogroms probably never end," says Meholm.
It is 100 years since his father came to Norway. Max Mankowitz grew up in the small town of Shebes in Belarus, fled to Sweden in 1911, came to Oslo in 1915. He was a tailor, like his father. The hope was that Martin would also be a tailor.
"I failed the test. Thank God. Sitting there sewing and weaving, that is not me."
Martin's father Max also ended up in the Berg camp. So that in the middle of the night November 26, 1942, father and son had to stand in two different rows.
Martin Meholm had a Norwegian wife, who later fled to Sweden with his son Freddy. His father was married to a jewish woman. When his father Max and 531 other Jews had to board the ship "Donau" from Oslo, he was given two loaves of bread and ten canned fish cakes.
Max Mankowitz was deported and killed in Auschwitz.
From the clothes left behind by those that were deported, Meholm got a new pair of underpants, which he exchanged for a loaf of bread, in order to once again feel full.
Eventually they managed to steal potatoes from a cellar. Luckily there were stoves in the rooms, so that at night they put potatoes in the ashes, while one kept watch outside.
Conditions improved over the last year.
Other prisoners described the internal humor, camaraderie and unity. They talk about the good conscience no one could take from them, and acting so that self-respect persisted.
But Meholm does not talk about fond memories or funny anecdotes.
"We did not have the strength. We smuggled in a deck of cards and played some bridge in the evenings. But we were weak and lax."
His voice changes as he talks about the camp. The sentences are spit out, his eyes become angry.
"All we thought about was how to get out of there, alive."
It happened on May 2, 1945.
The commanding officer shouted that everyone will be shot, but another commander made sure that instead the order to transport them away in buses was executed. Meholm however still thought they were going to be shot.
"We came to Victoria Terrace, where the Gestapo was, but we drove past. Then it's probably at the fortress where it's going to happen, I thought. "But we drove past that too. Out to Lillestrøm station. We understood nothing."
They were all put on a train and in came the people of the Red Cross with muffins and chocolate. This train was taking them to Stockholm. There his wife and his seven-year-old son waited for him.
There are no words that can describe this moment.
"I got Vival from the doctor. He said: 'Take 14 days off. Then I think the best thing is for you to start working. "
His first job had been as a piccolo (trainee waiter) at Parkcafeen (cafe in Oslo). He was then 14. He had had small jobs before that, saved money, bought a sailing boat.
One day there was a pleasant wind across the fjord, but unfortunately so calm that he did not get on time to his job the next morning. He was then told to choose between the sailing boat and his job. He decided for the job, passed the certificate as a waiter, so that he was able to get a job at the Restaurant Scandinavie.
"You had to have a license at the time, to be a waiter. A tipsy man for instance should not be served. Today, I think you can serve anybody until it's all falling out of their hands"
He bought a gun from a customer, a Browning.
"Next time, I should be prepared", he said. It was hidden in the basement at home.
He never talked about Berg, wanted to spare the family. But he could not hide his anxiety from them. His son remembers him being very impulsive, tense and hypochondriac during that time. At night he could howl loudly.
For a couple of years he went to get treated at the Vinderen Psychiatric clinic.
In 1953 he changed his name from Mankowitz to Meholm.
The boss of the restaurant Scandinavie he worked in was German and had also taken up a Norwegian name. He suggested to Martin should consider to change his name as well.
"It was so awkward for customers to shout "Mankowitz", he said. "Oh well. I got a book with last names to choose from. Took one on M."
On May 8, 2015, Martin was back at Berg camp, for the third time since the war.
As was a guest of honour. As the last witness.
Samuel Steinmann, who was sent on to Auschwitz and survived, was the most famous contemporary witness.
He died May 1st 2015.
Recently, Meholm joined his sister-in-law's 80s birthday, where he got up and sang her a birthday song; " of course she will live, for 120 years ..." he sang. A Jewish greeting, in memory of Moses.
It was completely quiet, before everyone clapped so hard that Meholm was completely baffled.
"I thank God every time I wake up to a new day. One should not imagine that it is so long left now."
"Are you scared?"
"Yes. I'm afraid of how I will die and If I will experience torment."