By SRO Kjell Michelsen
Tomorrow, Oct. 31, marks the 75th anniversary of the forced evacuation of civilians from Northern Norway that took place in 1944.
The German occupying forces in Northern Norway realized that the Soviet Red Army’s attacks in what is known as The Petsamo-Kirkenes Offensive, became too strong for them to withstand. On Oct. 31, 1944, the German high command issued an order of forced evacuation of all civilians. The Germans also decided that they would burn all houses and kill most of the livestock, leaving little or nothing behind that could, in some way, aid the Soviet forces.
My grandfather, Johan Michelsen, and wife Esther with nine kids, were forced at gunpoint out of their home, loaded onto trucks, and transported westwards away from the Soviet forces. Three of their oldest sons, one of them my father, Alex Michelsen, decided to escape into the mountains to avoid the Germans until the Soviet forces had taken control. The journey west with other families was hard after all; this was in late October, so winter weather, snow, and frost had set in.
They ended up in a small town on the Northern Norway’s west coast. There the 11 of them and 1,900 other evacuees were made to stay in the cargo room of the German transport ship “Karl Arp.” Their journey south soon turned into a living nightmare. There were only three restrooms available, and all of them were clogged up. There was little or no drinking water, and soon people started to suffer from diarrhea and Typhoid, resulting in 35 people, many of them children, dying on this voyage.
My grandfathers’ family all survived the journey and ended up living in an old school building in the south of Norway until the German surrender in May of 1945. But their stay there was anything but easy. Lack of food and proper clothing was always an issue. Some of the locals wrongfully thought they were on the German side. Since they had escaped with the German forces, not realizing that they all at gunpoint had been forced to leave.
Up north, the situation during that time was grim, to put it mildly. Towns, villages, really any place people lived, were burned to the ground. Some people who escaped were living in tunnels, caves, and makeshift huts and cabins up in the mountains away from German forces.
One of the hardest-hit towns was Hammerfest, where virtually every structure burned to the ground. Other small towns, like Kirkenes, Vadsø, and Vardø, were also hit hard.
After the war, the many who had been forced to leave their homes came back. People started to rebuild slowly but surely, and life after a few hard years began to resemble what it had been before the war.
Growing up, I remember as kids, we used to play in what was left of the many German fortresses along the coast. We would find remnants of German helmets, pieces of weapons and ammunition.
My grandparents, my mom, and dad have long passed away. However, their memories, what they had to go through lives on, and is a reminder that freedom is a perilous thing that should not be taken for granted.
Until next time, be safe, be happy, and cherish our freedom.