Norwegian writer Sigrid Undset deserves her place among women held up as models of greatness simply for her accomplishment as the author of Kristin Lavransdatter, the medieval trilogy for which she won a Nobel Prize in 1928. But there is so much more. Part I details her life up to her reception of the prestigious Nobel, but it’s only the first part of her fascinating story. Its most exciting moments were yet to come.
In 1940, the Nazis invaded Undset’s peaceful homeland. “I was advised to leave [Lillehammer] before they came,” Undset would write, recounting her harrowing escape from the land she loved. The invasion changed her life forever.
“I had just enough time to put the most necessary things in a bag,” Undset said. “I had no money in the house, there had been so many evacuees who needed help. And now the banks were closed.”
Why had this literary lady, a prizewinning author, devout Christian and mother of two adult sons (her daughter had died at age 23), been advised to flee the home she loved?
“I had constantly written and spoken against Nazism and had also taken active part in the work of helping refugees from Central Europe,” Undset explained in “My Escape from Norway, ” her tale of escape published in the June 3, 1940 edition of Life magazine.
Moreover it was said that the Germans were in the habit of taking people who had some position in the country and forcing them to speak over the radio, telling about how well the Germans behaved or … Norwegian hostages would be shot.
Undset’s astonishing account begins with a late-night hotel alarm–she’d attended benefit for Finland in Oslo that evening where she donated her Nobel medal to help support Finland’s war effort against Josef Stalin. The alarm had forced the hotel guests into an air-raid shelter where “we joked and laughed and smoked cigarettes in the dark. Not one of us suspected that the Germans were landing in Norway.” Undset returned to her room when the guests were given permission to do so.
But a second alarm, later that night, sent Undset along with the other guests into the hotel lobby where a bellboy entered with handbills describing the German bombing of Norwegian airports and fighting between German battleships and “coast fortifications in the Oslo fjord.”
The next morning Undset walked to St. Olav’s Church to attend the 8:00 mass. Planes cruised back and forth, yet the people of Oslo were on their way to work as usual. “But the school at St. Olav’s had been evacuated, and we were only five elderly women at the mass,” she recounts. Undset was 58.
In a time when many consider Sunday church attendance a nuisance if not a burden, I’m astounded at the humble simplicity of this woman’s practice of her Catholic faith, showing up for a morning mass on a weekday the night after a soiree, night alarms and reports of bombings.
A complete account of Undset’s flight is found in the journal she later published as Return to the Future. This short book reveals Undset’s Norwegian pride and her unflagging grit during an ordeal filled with renunciations and danger. Among them:
·Taking a train from Oslo to her home in Lillehammer: “Just as we left the station some bombs fell so close by that the train shook and lurched as if it would jump the rails.”
·Helping the three exiled Finnish children she had been sheltering find other protection.
·Calling the Commandant in Lillehammer to volunteer. Undset, whose first job had been as a secretary at a local power company, was given the task of censoring mail.
·Learning that Anders, her oldest son and a Second Lieutenant in the Norwegian Army, had been killed by German troops during a battle for a bridge.
·Being escorted by military car: “And all the time we had to keep watch for planes–automobiles were always in danger of being machine-gunned.”
·Lying in a snowbank for two hours during a bombing, while a Norwegian soldier in the next drift regaled her with stories until they were safe enough to continue walking. “At least we can look the Finns in the eyes now,” her companion said when they’d made it to their destination.
In addition to the generosity and courage Undset displayed throughout the ordeal, I’m amazed and inspired that she continued to notice the details of the natural world, rendering them with the same sensitivity she shows in Kristin Lavransdatter:
The needles of the pine trees already had their spring-like snow-washed color tone of yellow-green, and the birches were turning shiny brown and shimmering violet, for the buds were already swelling.
During the last phase of her trek through Norway, where she would take refuge in Sweden with her son Hans, her only remaining child, Undset was to make a four-mile cross-country ski trek, and the sick companion in the group who was being carried on a stretcher was transferred to a sled. When it turned out that Undset, whose weight and fur coat were a considerable hindrance, was having difficulty skiing, she was added to the sled and pulled, along with the sick man, by six young men who sometimes sank up to their knees in the melting ice.
Return to the Future continues with Undset’s description of her exile in Sweden, in hopes of returning to northern Norway. When the heartbreaking news arrived that the Allies had withdrawn their troops from her homeland, Undset decided to make her way, with Hans, to the United States. They went by plane from Stockholm to Moscow, spending two weeks in Russia as they crossed it by train, her eyes wide open and her pen recording every detail. They booked a flight to Kobe, Japan and made reservations to take the President Cleveland to San Francisco.
They would live in America until 1945, when Hitler was finally defeated.
Reads and Other Seeds
Next: American Exile and Return to Norway: Fascinating Facts about Sigrid Unset, Part 3. Undset’s years in America (including a secret assignment from Eleanor Roosevelt and friendship with Dorothy Day) and finally her return to postwar devastation in Norway. Don’t miss it!
If you missed Part 1, see “Fascinating Facts about Kristin Lavransdatter Author Sigrid Undset.”
The June 3, 1940 copy of Life is my own (it’s available on Ebay–pretty cool).
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