The Jewish Connection

Tuesday, July 23, 2013
Travel Writer
Story Includes Video: 
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After only a day and a half in Oslo, I started to recognize people on the street.

Oslo is a small enough capital — population about 600,000 — that I kept running into acquaintances. The waiter who served salad and blueberry juice at the Holocaust Center turned up later at a film institute, where he greeted me from behind the coffee bar with such enthusiasm you’d have thought we were old friends. And by the second time I met Rabbi Shaul Wilhelm, who runs the Oslo Chabad Center, he had already friended me on Facebook and was pulling out photos of his kids.

That same dynamic explains why many of Oslo’s roughly 750 Jews marry outside the faith these days. Paradoxically, the community’s very intimacy is a deterrent to romance. “We all know each other so well,” explained one young, pretty blonde at the Oslo Synagogue, “that it would be like marrying your brother.”

I got that neighborly feeling at the Oslo Jewish Museum, where ruddy-cheeked young people stared out from pictures on the walls: Norwegian Jews lost to the Holocaust. Perhaps because the community never grew beyond a few thousand, it’s an intensely personal display — a celebration of life as well as a sobering consideration of the scale of death.

Only about one-third of Norway’s Jews survived the war, many by escaping to neutral neighbor Sweden. Most of those who perished did so at Auschwitz, having been rounded up by the Norwegian police under Nazi occupation.

But in this compelling exhibit, Jewish Norwegians in snowflake sweaters grin from the ski slopes; young mothers pose with dolled-up toddlers; teenagers picnic amid the fjords and forests; and Jewish violinists cultivate a strong musical legacy, which you can hear at a listening booth. Later, at the Holocaust Center (formally the Norwegian Center for Studies of Holocaust and Religious Minorities), I recognized many of the same names — and even  faces — among the exhibits. I started to feel a connection to people I had never met.

The Jewish Museum’s director, Sidsel Levin, a stylish and eloquent host, has a lineage typical of many Norwegian Jews: her ancestors came from Lithuania, while her family took refuge in Sweden during World War II. She pointed out the faded, lovely Art Nouveau decorations adorning the entrance of the building, evidence of its roots as a prewar synagogue.

The residential district at Oslo’s center is no longer Jewish; its narrow, dark streets are filled with shops selling Turkish burek and Serbian cevapi to a new generation of ethnic minorities. The growing prevalence of these Eastern immigrants — drawn to a country with 2 percent unemployment — lends a modern, pluralistic context to the Holocaust Center’s mission.

Today’s Oslo Synagogue is a graceful white structure tucked into a hilly residential district. Its identity is obvious in the Star of David window and Hebrew inscriptions over an arched doorway, but nowadays that doorway is only for show: concrete barriers allude to anti-Semitic threats the community has faced, and the real entrance is through an alarm-equipped door one building over.

When I visited on a weekday afternoon, a photographer was filming one of the younger congregants reciting his bar mitzvah lines as the proud father stood by. I chatted with a few members, learning that kosher meat is shipped in from abroad because ritual slaughter is banned in Norway, and enjoying the Jewish jokes (printed in English) on the back of the weekly temple newsletter.

But you don’t have to be Jewish to feel that sense of community in small-scale Oslo. Within a half-hour, you can walk nearly anywhere in the city center, which looks typically European but is architecturally unremarkable — a mix of elegant buildings from the 19th century, grimy square ones from the mid-20th century, and the occasional vintage wooden structure. (Because Norway was ruled by foreign empires until 1905, its infrastructure is mostly recent.)

I strolled by the National Gallery, the Royal Palace and the Cathedral, where stained-glass moose hold court next to Jesus. As pleasant as this all was, though, I decided that Oslo’s true magic lies in its natural environment.

Wild forests and lush green hills make up a good deal of the urban landscape; water is visible from almost anywhere. I wouldn’t have known that Oslo’s pretty harbor is actually a fjord, a word I associated with walls of surrounding mountains. But a fjord it is, with views that changed stunningly as I walked the curving shoreline.

Few cities integrate old and new buildings as harmoniously as Oslo. The former dockyards at Tjuvholmen have been redeveloped into a waterfront neighborhood full of art galleries and cutting-edge restaurants and architecture of angular, glittering glass.

Across the sailboat-filled harbor, the striking glass panels of the Opera House reflect a similar aesthetic. Many sightseers never venture inside to look through them, though preferring to contemplate Oslo’s maritime scenery from the sloping roofs.

On the walk back, if you’ve been here longer than 24 hours, you just may see someone familiar. 

editor@jewishweek.org

Oslo’s Holocaust Center features some intensely personal displays. Hilary Larson

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