‘Noráci’ project traces fate of Czech men forcibly deployed in Norway during WWII
‘Noráci’ project traces fate of Czech men forcibly deployed in Norway during WWII
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During the Second World War, approximately 600,000 Czechs were forced into slave labour for Nazi Germany. However, a few thousand Czechs were also forcibly deployed in Norway. A new project called Noráci, carried out by a group of Czech and Norwegian scholars, traces the fate of these men, based on their memorabilia as well as on the memories of their descendants.
A group of scholars from the Department of Scandinavian Studies at Charles University and the Institute of Modern History at the University of Trondheim have been researching the topic of Czech forced labour in Norway since 2019.
The initial idea for the project came from Vendula Hingarová. When looking for a topic that would connect Czech and Norwegian history, she came across an extensive Norwegian study on forced labour in Norway and decided to bring out the stories of the individual people hidden behind the figures.
“After returning home, many maintained written contact with their Norwegian friends, and many of them wished to visit Norway again.”
I met with Mrs Hingarová and her colleague, Zdenko Maršálek, a military historian from the Institute of Contemporary History at the Czech Academy of Sciences, to find out more about the project and I started by asking Mr Maršálek why Germany needed Czech labourers in Norway in the first place:
“Norway as such had a unique position in Germany’s war plans due to its geographical location. It was to serve as a base for German naval and air operations in the North Sea and in the Atlantic Ocean. Therefore it was to become a large military base.
“Harbours were expanded, massive concrete shelters for submarines were built as well as batteries of coastal artillery and so on. And one of the greatest challenges was a railway line that would go all the way to the north, to the Finnish border. So the plans were huge and so were the demands for a big workforce.”
The total number of Czech forced labourers in Norway is not known, but according to available documents, around 1,400 Czechs were sent to the country in the course of the war.
The first large transport from Czechoslovakia, comprising around 600 people, arrived in Norway in early December 1942. Zdenko Maršálek again:
“Several of them stayed in Oslo, but the majority of them were sent to Trondheim, which became the main transit station from which they were forwarded to various places all over Norway.
“Most of them were sent to the north, to the vicinity of Narvik, but also to the Arctic areas of Tromsø, Alta or Kirkenes, at the Finnish borders.
“Czechs worked there in larger or smaller groups, sometimes there were dozens of them, sometimes only a few and in some cases they were completely alone among workers of other nationalities.”
Working conditions were generally quite harsh and in their letters and diaries, Czech labourers complained especially about the lack of food and poor accommodation. Nevertheless, they were still better off than workers from other Eastern European countries, says Mr Maršálek:
“In general, the Germans treated Czech labourers better. They got more food, they even received a salary for their work and could get leave to visit their families. However, all labourers, despite their nationalities, were forced to serve the Nazis against their will.”
One of the biggest challenges they faced upon their arrival in Norway, especially in the northern locations, was the Arctic winter, when temperatures dropped as low as minus 36 degrees Celsius, says Vendula Hingarová:
“The memories of forced labourers speak of bitter snowstorms and inadequate clothing and housing conditions, so that was a big challenge for them.
“But at the same time, the Artic is not remembered only for harsh winters and long nights but also for the beautiful nature, long summer days and never-setting sun.”
“The Artic is not remembered only for harsh winters and long nights but also for the beautiful nature, long summer days and never-setting sun.”
Despite the obstacles, Norway was a relatively safe country, with no risk of carpet bombing from the Allies. According to the available documents, only four Czechs died during their deployment.
What is also important to say is that Czech labourers in Norway, unlike their compatriots in Germany, were very well treated by the local people.
“In Germany the population was hostile against foreign labourers but in Norway the population was under occupation as well, so they felt a relatively strong solidarity with the foreign labourers.
“Forced labourers of all nationalities mentioned the huge amount of support they received from the Norwegian locals.”
Most of the labourers lived in wooden barracks close to the work place. They worked on average ten to twelve hours, six days a week, but they were allowed to spend their free time as they wanted, says Mrs Hingarová:
“Many of them, especially in big cities, such as Trondheim or Narvik, established contacts with local young people.
“The most intensive socializing with the locals happened after the capitulation, because the Czechs had to wait three to four months for their repatriation.
“It was something like a long post-war holiday, so not surprisingly, 20 of them got acquainted with their future wives during this time and brought them to Czechoslovakia.”
Upon their return to Czechoslovakia, most of the men resumed their former lives, started working or went back to their studies. It was only as they got older that they started to renew their wartime friendships.
In the 1980s, when most of them reached retirement age, they started to organize regular gatherings, calling themselves Noráci. The last such meeting took place in 2005 in the town of Havlíčkův Brod, when most of the men had reached their 80s.
When Vendula Hingarová from Charles University launched her project dedicated to Noráci, most of the men had died, so there were no direct witnesses she could speak to.
To find more information, she tried to contact their relatives, sending letters to the wartime addresses and to the addresses collected at the gatherings. The response was quite overwhelming, she says:
“We sent letters to those addresses hoping that we would be able to get in touch with the descendants and we did get many responses, some of them very nice.
“We sent those letters during the second Covid lockdown, when people were sitting at home and had time to go through piles of old documents. So we got some very nice materials, including diaries, photo albums and written stories.
“It was really surprising that even 78 years after the war and many years after the survivors died, the families still keep the materials at home.”
Although the Czech labourers regretted spending the best years of their lives in forced labour, they had a very warm relationship to the country and many considered Norway their second home, says Mrs Hingarová.
One of the things that they highlighted in their memories was the warm and friendly relationship with the local people:
“Actually, after returning home, many maintained written contact with their Norwegian friends, and many of them wished to visit Norway again. However, that was no longer possible after 1948.
“Most of the descendants we spoke to told us how much they wished to visit Norway after the Velvet Revolution in the 1990s. However, most of them, for various reasons, did not see their wish come true.”
One of the outcomes of the project Noráci is an extensive website called noraci.cz, featuring a database of all the Czech men deployed in Norway, as well as historical documents, photographs and maps. Vendula Hingarová says work on the website will continue in the future:
“Since we got in touch with so many of the descendants, there are still plenty of materials to be published. We also have to process the new acquisitions.
“This site is not interesting only for the descendants, but it is also followed in Norway, especially by the Norwegian museums, which really appreciate materials from wartime Norway.
“These are often unique photographs of places that no longer exist, such as labour camps and bunkers and wartime buildings.
“It is the first time they can see images from wartime Norway from the perspective of forced labourers, and that is unique for them.”
Another outcome of the project is a travelling exhibition, which is currently on display at the building of the Philosophical Faculty at Prague’s Palachovo Náměstí.
Apart from large-scale panels mapping the life journey of the men deployed on forced labour in Norway, it also features black-and white photographs of the descendants, holding a picture of their ancestor.
Vendula Hingarová says many of the so-called Noráci wished for their stories to be heard. Although they didn’t live to see it, the project dedicated to their memory still means a lot to their families.