A few years ago, attending a conference for my space consulting business, I ended up siting next to a girl from Norway. Like many writers, I ask too many questions. When one of the answers was “I had no grandfather”, I guess I should have stopped. My first manuscript was not meeting much success with agents, and the story of a forbidden love leading to a life lived apart struck me as a story that needed telling.
Coming home, I found a map that might show me where on earth the Finnmark was. I gazed starry-eyed at pictures of reindeer and lávvus, and of the Northern Lights. They are called guovsahas in Northern Sami language, revontuli in Finnish.
I read stories, on the Internet, in books. At one point during WWII, there was one German in Norway for every eight Norwegians. There were inevitably relationships, and they weren’t all platonic. The Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs estimates the number of children born of relationships between ‘occupier’ and ‘occupied’ to be between 10,000 and 12,000. If the stigma of giving birth to a child fathered by the enemy was not enough, after the war, voices called even for the deportation of ‘war children’ to Germany. A generation of children grew up in shame, guilty only of their genetic heritage.
My curiosity grew. I had thought of myself as fairly well read on matters concerning WWII. I had never heard of the retreat across the Arctic Circle; of the forced evacuation of the Sami; of Hitler’s Arctic Railway.
I read about Karasjok, that holds the Norwegian record for coldest measured tempature at −51.4 °C (−60.5 °F). I learned of Mamma Karasjok, a real woman who smuggled food to the prisoners who were building the Blood Road. She was decorated by Marshall Tito after the war. A story began to take form in my mind, complete with a home for the German lover – Traundorf, loosely based on a little village in Austria near the Bavarian border, a village close to my heart. There is a Traustein, a town in Bavaria near the Chiemsee, and a Traustein mountain in Austria, on the Traunsee (Lake Traun). There is also a Traun River, both in Bavaria and Austria. Traun means trust in old German. It is a variant of trau, which means to be true. I felt this was a good name for Hans’ hometown, and it sounded pretty Bavarian too. You won’t find Traundorf anywhere on a map, but if you want to visit the Clemens Holzmeister church in Revontuli, it does exist, as does the kneipp.
Eventually, the draw was too strong. I travelled to Karasjok and to Tromsø and had a look for myself. I discovered the site of the sinking of the Tirpitz, the greatest ship the Nazis ever built. I met Norwegians and Samis, and discovered that they enjoyed a relationship to the wildness not unlike that we have in Canada. I found a river, the Karasjokka, and marveled at its meandering beauty. I heard of stories, like that of the ‘dog passer’ who would keep dogs out of Reverend Framhuis’ church. I even met the blacksmith, who showed me his smithy, the other building -the only other building- to have survived the burnings in the fall of 1944.
My passion for history is great. I have researched the war in the far north of Norway as best I can. Revontuli is not a true story, but it is inspired from true stories. Yes, someone actually hung sausages from trees. And in the summer of 1942, some 374 Serbians did arrive in a small village in Northern Norway to build the Blood Road. Its not called the Blood Road anymore of course, and you won’t make yourself popular asking about ‘war children’. But in the depths of the endless winter night, you can find the remnants of Germany’s largest field hospital in Skoganvarre, a few kilometers up the road from Karasjok, and if you are lucky, a Sami guide might show you the Northern Lights, and tell you about fox tails and other legends.
All photos by Andrew Eddy