A Forgotten Heroine of the Norwegian Resistance

by Norman Berdichevsky (August 2012)

The final chapter of my book, The Left is Seldom Right (New English Review– June, 2011 and FrontPage Oct. 31, 2011) deals with three outstanding women journalists and writers who were once saluted by the political Left internationally only to be later abandoned and then subjected to invective which the Left traditionally uses to castigate turncoats and traitors. Their record of integrity and courage deserves to be better known. Last month’s article looked at Catalan journalist Pilar Rahola and her staunch defense of basic rights for women, children, Jews, Gypsies and animals amidst a hostile Spanish culture.

Sigrid Undset (1882-1949) is a name that doesn’t roll off the tongue so easily for English speakers. Although she was a Nobel Prize winner in Literature and one of the most heroic refugees to seek refuge in the United States after her Norwegian homeland fell under Nazi occupation. Unfortunately, she is now largely forgotten. More than that, she has fallen out of favor among those on the political Left who once saw in her the epitome of everything they once admired. Her eldest son Anders, a Lieutenant in the Norwegian Army was killed in action during the first days of the German invasion and she barely escaped with her life – she had long been placed on the Nazi list of forbidden authors due to her criticism of Hitler’s antisemitic madness and visions of a Greater Germany dominating Europe. She and a younger son Hans had managed to reach Sweden and from there took the Soviet Trans-Siberian Railroad and crossed the Eurasian continent to Japan and from there by ship to Hawaii and eventually San Francisco, arriving in August, 1940.  

Few women made more noble sacrifices in the cause of freedom and women’s liberation. Few great writers have had a more difficult struggle in devoting themselves to their art while earning a living and supporting their children. She was born on 20 May 1882, the eldest of three daughters and grew up in Kristiania (Oslo) where her father, Martin, was a respected archaeologist who died at the age of 40 after a prolonged illness when Sigrid was only 11. His scholarly involvement with Norse folklore and the sagas greatly stimulated her fascination with literature but her widowed mother had to cope with raising three young daughters with very little means.

This family tragedy left its mark on Sigrid Undset's childhood and adolescence and all hope of a university education had to be abandoned. She worked full time for the next ten years to help support her mother and sisters although she hated the work, believing that she was wasting her time and her youth. Every free moment she had outside of work and family obligations was devoted to reading and writing, and at barely age 16 she made her first attempt at a novel set in the Nordic Middle Ages. Late at night, and during weekends and holidays, she stole the time to write.

She read the great classics of Shakespeare, Chaucer, contemporary British authors such as Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters as well as the great Scandinavian writers, Ibsen, Strindberg, and George Brandes, acquiring the university level education that had been denied to her. She published her first work at age 22 and twenty-two years later was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature!

At age 25 she made a real literary debut with her book Fru Marta Oulie with a realistic description of a woman with a lower middle class background in contemporary Kristiania. The opening sentence was a real shocker that scandalized readers: “I have been unfaithful to my husband,” the words of the book's main character.

This short realistic novel on adultery created a sensation and she found herself ranked as a promising young author in Norway. Sigrid was one of the first writers to use the technique known as “stream of consciousness” which is why she is still regarded as a “modern” writer.  Her best-known work is Kristin Lavransdatter, a trilogy about life in Scandinavia during the Middle Ages that portrays a humble woman from birth until death.

In Rome, she met Anders Castrus Svarstad, a Norwegian painter. She was then 30, nine years younger than Anders and, most likely, he was her first love. When they met, Svarstad was married, and had three children in Norway. This shocked her public for a while but contributed eventually to her reputation as a free spirit and non-conventional feminist. Their meeting must have been a case of love at first sight. It took three years before Svarstad got his divorce and the couple was married in 1912 and had three children together. They went to live in London. Sigrid’s second child was a girl who was mentally handicapped as was one of his sons.

Eventually they separated in 1919, and she settled on a farm in Lillehammer, Norway with her daughter and two sons. Anders and stepchildren were frequent visitors to the farm, called Bjerkebæk. Before 1919, she had published a number of novels set in contemporary Kristiania based on her experiences as a lonely secretary working in an impersonal office, the result of her familiarity with the lives of ordinary people who strove to find some happiness in life. Sigrid Unset won respect as an author who could observe people accurately and see through them.

Both her parents had been intellectuals and atheists who were nominal members of the State Lutheran Church. Sigrid’s early adult years were spent under the influence of the general agnosticism that prevailed in much of Europe even before World War I but a growing crisis of faith and her deep uneasiness about the ethical decline of the age led her to convert to Catholicism, an unheard of move for anyone already known and respected in Norwegian public life. She was received into the Roman Catholic Church in November 1924, after thorough instruction when she was 42 years old and became a lay Dominican. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1928 and her writing more and more developed a deep regard for the mystery of life and all that cannot be explained by reason and human intelligence.

She gave her Nobel Prize money away, 156,000 kroner, part of it going to a foundation established to help families with mentally disabled children. Later in 1940 she also sold her Nobel medal, giving the money to the relief effort for Finnish children after the outbreak of the Winter War between Finland and the Soviet Union. Her books had long been banned in Germany for her outspoken criticism of Nazism and active defense of the Jews. After the death of her son Anders, she joined the Resistance movement but was strongly advised by Norwegian authorities to flee the country. After her departure, the Germans occupied her home and chopped up her writing desk.

Immediately after her arrival in San Francisco, she pleaded for American entry into the war to save “Freedom” – the “Wine of Democracy” in her words. She made an immediate impression even upon Americans resistant to the idea of eventual involvement in European affairs and what they called a “European War.” The San Francisco Chronicle wrote of her first interview with the press that “Her grief is too great for tears.”

Due to connections with American publishers Alfred and Blanche Knopf, she received support to live and work in a rented accommodation – the small Hotel Margaret at 97 Columbia Heights in Brooklyn. She would often walk along the beautiful path in Brooklyn Heights to observe the great harbor and lower Manhattan, often continuing her strolls by walking across the Brooklyn Bridge. For her, the daily view of the Statue of Liberty filled her with an inspiration that enabled her to go on with her mission. She lectured and traveled across the country, even though it meant that she would never really get back to writing another great novel for Knopf.   

There, she worked to plead her occupied country's cause and that of Europe's Jews, in writings, speeches and interviews. In February 1941, she participated in a weekly radio program hosted by Eleanor Roosevelt together with a group of writers and actors and was asked to write a book for American schoolchildren about life in pre-war Norway.

She was happy to do so. It was titled Happy Days in Norway and was published shortly after her own memoirs of flight from Norway, Return to the Future. She was proud to refer to herself as a “propaganda soldier” and remarked that she also wanted very much to offset the mistaken impression in the United States that Norway had not resisted the German invasion and the negative influence of Norway’s other great Nobel Prize winner who had spent time in America during his youth, Knut Hamsun, a naïve and confused old man who had welcomed the German invasion and collaborated with the Nazis.

She was active in St. Ansgar's Scandinavian Catholic League near her Brooklyn home but at the end of the war, Undset returned to Norway, where she was awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of St. Olav in 1947, for her “distinguished literary work and for her service to her country.” She died in Lillehammer, on June 10, 1949.

The Left, both home and abroad, that once regarded her work as an expression of a great artist who championed feminism and rose to international recognition from a humble background, turned its back on her in spite of her heroic stand against Nazism. Her rejection of crass materialism, deep spirituality and her “incorrect” emphasis as a feminist on biological destiny with motherhood as the highest duty a woman can aspire to, are all out of fashion now. Were she alive today, what would she think of her native land that has now fallen prey to the political correctness of the Left and its grotesque anti-Israel stance?

Norman Berdichevsky's latest book is The Left is Seldom Right.

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Norman Berdichevsky contributes regularly to The Iconoclast, our Community Blog. Click here to see all his contributions, on which comments are welcome.


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