The civilian population who lived near the Prisoner of War (POW) camps or who for one reason or another encountered the prisoners, hid their tragic memories and told them to us. Two of the POWs who stayed in Norway after the end of the war were interviewed.
One of them, Ivan Pashkurov, wrote the book “Tapte år” (Lost Years) about his experiences as a POW in Norway. Pashkurov’s stories tie together the elements in the exhibition. With a background in the memorabilia and objects that were made by soldiers in captivity, the exhibition Untermensch was opened in 1998.
If the chief of the prison camp was a pronounced racist who regarded the Russians as “Untermenschen”, life in the prison camp was pure hell, characterised by torture and physical abuse.”
In June 1941, the Soviet Union was invaded by Germany, and many soldiers in the Red Army were taken prisoner. The prisoners were first sent to Poland, and many were thereafter stowed into cargo ships and brought to Norway. At least 90,000 Soviet POWs came to Norway. According to Nazi ideology, these people were “Untermenschen” and belonged to a race best suited as workhorses. “The Aryans could never have managed the first step on the road to their culture if they had not had put in inferior people to do the work”, wrote Hitler in “Mein Kampf”. The prisoners suffered terribly, many died and some stayed in Norway to live when the war was over. We visited two of them: Nikolay Sergeyev and Ivan Pashkurov.
The POWs were placed in camps all over the country, but a great majority came to North Norway, especially to Nordland County, where National Road 50 (E6) and the North Norwegian railway were to be constructed. Many came to Troms County as well. There are many indications that local journalists were correct when they estimated the number of POWS in the county to be around 20,000 during the liberation spring of 1945.
“What did you dream about”, we asked the former POW Nikolay Sergeyev. “To have enough to eat, to survive. That was the dream.”
The living conditions varied from camp to camp, but generally the prisoners had far too little to eat. There are many testimonies about the Russian prisoners’ desperate attempts to get a little extra food – either by mutual exchanges of food, by utilising everything that was edible, or by engaging in illegal barter with the local residents. It was mainly in such situations that the Norwegians became acquainted with the Russian prisoners. The former POW Ivan Pashkurov tells us how he often found packages containing bread, potatoes and fish in the most peculiar places. “These packages meant more than just food. They gave strength, courage, hope and inspiration”.
“The most gratifying part was when Norwegians traded food for our objects, they not only did it out of compassion, but because they appreciated the things we made.”
This is how richly carved boxes, necklaces made from coins, beautiful cigarette cases made from pieces of steel from plane wrecks and artistically carved wooden birds remained here when the war was over.
With the spring of 1945 came the liberation, and in many places, the celebration of Norway’s National Day on 17 May was blended with Russian folk music and Cossack dances. In brilliant sunlight, Nikolay Sergeyev and his good friend Toeres arrived in the small village of Hamnvåg. They were warmly greeted and given accommodation, work and food. This was the beginning of a life-long stay in Norway for both of them.
According to investigations carried out by the Norwegian War Grave Service after the war, around 13,000 of their countrymen were buried in Norwegian soil, but many returned to their native country. On 23 June 1945, the newspaper Tromsø wrote that 2,000 Russian POWs had been sent on the vessel “Kong Haakon VII” to Murmansk.
“They hoped that we would keep the things they had made from all possible and impossible metals as a reminder of them”. Newspaper “Tromsø”, 23 June 1945.
The Russian POWs have left their mark. People have memories. Good memories of friendship and love, of caring and humanity. Bad memories of corporal punishment, emaciation and informing. More tangible are the photographs of young men who were kept hidden in houses and sheds, and the innumerable small and large objects magically created from incidental materials. In the exhibition “Untermensch”, we brought you some of these memories.
In a deeper sense, “Untermensch” is about prejudices and racism. But it is also about indomitable creative enthusiasm and the courage to live. One of the visitors expressed it like this in the exhibition’s guest book: “A strong reminder of inhumanity, and the exact opposite: Vitality and humanity.”
The civilian population who lived near the POW camps or who for one reason or another encountered the prisoners, hid their tragic memories and told them to us. Two of the POWs who stayed in Norway after the end of the war were interviewed. One of them, Ivan Pashkurov, wrote the book “Tapte år” (Lost Years) about his experiences as a POW in Norway. Pashkurov’s stories tie together the elements in the exhibition. With a background in the memorabilia and objects that were made by soldiers in captivity, the exhibition Untermensch was opened in 1998.
Manager: Astri Fremmerlid, Perspektivet Museum
Project Manager: Marianne A. Olsen, Perspektivet Museum