Northern (Jewish) Exposure
I woke up every couple of hours during my first night in Trondheim, Norway. I couldn’t resist peeking out the window to see if it ever got dark. And no, it didn’t.
Trondheim, the Scandinavian country’s third-largest city (after Oslo and Bergen), is only 200 miles north of the capital. But it’s far enough that while Oslo was finally black as I tucked into bed, Trondheim maintained a cool, silvery glow throughout the late-May night.
That glow may create confusion for visitors wondering when to light Shabbat candles. But extremes of darkness and light are part of life for what may be the world’s (and certainly Europe’s) northernmost Jewish community, whose hundred-plus members maintain a synagogue and historical museum well worth the trek north.
During the 19th century, their ancestors fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe to make a new life in this onetime Scandinavian capital. Today, Trondheim still has a certain pioneer feel. The city is Norway’s technology hub and a university town, and its spirit is infused with youthful innovation: industrial-chic architecture down by the waterfront, the multimedia museum Rockheim, and sustainable neighborhoods still under construction.
As I rode into town on a drizzly morning, Trondheim’s famous wooden wharves came into view. Vivid red, yellow and blue, these circa-1700s buildings shimmered in reflection along the Nidelva River.
I had corn chowder and blueberry pie — both local specialties — at a restaurant in Bakklandet, an 18th-century district a cobblestone’s throw from those wharves. Then I strolled across the Old Town Bridge to Midtbyen, Trondheim’s historic core, which is almost entirely surrounded by water.
Europe’s northernmost synagogue is tucked into a corner of this district — inside a former railway station. The community purchased the site in the 1920s and adorned the sanctuary in the elegant geometric patterns of Art Deco.
The Jewish Museum, in the same building, illuminates both the community’s roots and its devastation during World War II. On display are photographs of weddings, proud merchants and Jewish skiers alongside wares from those early Trondheim schmatte shops, and even a turn-of-the-century Shabbat table setting.
Upstairs, a newer exhibition brings the sobering fate of Trondheim Jewry into sharp focus. Half the local community perished in the Holocaust; in such a close-knit group, every individual and family was a searing loss. Intimate photos and stories instill their memory in succeeding generations, including one particularly moving story of a German-born cantor whose operatic skills first charmed his adopted Trondheim community, then entertained the Nazis under duress until he, too, perished in the camps.
Modern Trondheim is a rigorously secular place. But Jewish families maintain a proud identity and an active school, and their historical memory serves as a reminder of Norway’s checkered wartime history.
Every year on Oct. 6, Norwegian schoolchildren commemorate the Holocaust by laying flowers at a statue of Cissi Klein in a park near the synagogue. Klein was arrested at her Trondheim school on Oct. 6, 1942, and perished on the day she arrived in Auschwitz at age 13; the serves as a poignant local symbol of Holocaust loss.
While Protestantism is Norway’s defining faith, it is actually a Catholic saint, Olav, who serves as the nation’s patron. The Viking king and Christianizer of Norway died nearly 1,000 years ago; his remains are buried inside Trondheim’s Nidaros Cathedral.
Grand, gloomy Nidaros is perpetually under construction. A priest explained that the builders kept using wood, and the wood kept catching fire, which explains why little of the 1,000-year-old institution actually dates back that far. But Nidaros still serves as the national cathedral, and the Norwegian crown jewels — fittingly modest for this opulence-averse nation — are on view next door.
Apart from technology, Trondheim is also known as Norway’s music city. The elegant Ringve Museum, set amid a botanical garden in the woods above the city, is a temple for longhairs; the Guitar Hero set heads to Rockheim, a flashy new multimedia museum on Brattora (Trondheim’s newest neighborhood).
I decided to skip Rockheim, which apparently was a mistake: “Coolest thing in Trondheim,” was the consensus of my colleagues as we met up for dinner. One described it as “like walking into an iPad.”
Maybe so, but did it have a guitar with three sets of strings or a hybrid trumpet-violin? These were just a few of the items at Ringve, Norway’s national music museum, housed in a 19th-century villa. Most instrument collections are strictly for viewing, but you can actually hear what these sound like: the tour guides play many of the instruments for visitors. If music makes you hungry, Ringve’s café offers delicious waffles and cakes and views over the Trondheim Fjord.
On a Saturday morning, the sky was overcast, but the mood was sunny. Trondheimers of all ages filled the streets with a happy whirl of weekend activity, biking along the river, watching hip-hop dancers perform on a plaza, and picnicking by the cathedral. Suddenly the sun came out, and it was as though someone had switched on the Technicolor. Trondheim’s red and yellow buildings fairly gleamed against a brilliant blue sky; children threw off their jackets, and couples took outdoor seats at the cafés. In the land of midnight sun, a golden afternoon is a treasure to be savored.