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Kathe: Always Been in Norway - Review

KATHE: Always Been in Norway - The war destiny of an ordinary girl
By Espen Søbye
Krakiel Publishing (Norway, 2003)
Translated to English by Kerri Pierce, 2019
To order: $32.95 (incl shipping), £15.00

Reviewed by Judy Shapiro

Kathe Lasnik was a 15-year-old Jewish Norwegian girl, a pupil in Oslo's Fagerborg School, when she went to the police station to fill out a "Questionnaire for Jews in Norway" in 1942. One of the questions was, "When did you come to Norway?" Kathe, who had been born in the country in 1927, wrote, "Always been in Norway." This meant nothing to the Nazi invaders of Norway, and in 1942 she was herded on to the troopship S/S Donau together with her mother, father and sister and they all perished in the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps. Kathe, an ordinary girl, left no diary, and her family and all their belongings were destroyed. There was nothing with which to remember her and nobody to remember her.

Kathe had been destined for obscurity, were it not for Espen Søbye, a statistician and a writer. Because of his work at Statistics Norway, he was asked by William Seltzer of Fordham University to look into the role statistics played in the deportation of the Jews in Norway. The Nazis kept precise records and Søbye uncovered letters, orders, markings and numbers of their annihilation of Norway's Jews. As a statistician, he also came across questionnaires which had to be filled out by Jews and were still kept and filed in the Ministry of the Police. This is where he found Kathe's form and was intrigued. The official form was not created by the Gestapo but by the pro-German National Unification Party's Statistics Office.

Norway's 1814 Constitution had barred Jews from entering the country. Only in 1851 were Jews allowed to arrive, but they never really felt welcome. They never really integrated into Norwegian society, and the Jewish ritual slaughter of meat was suspect by the authorities. "J" was rubber stamped during the war to mark the papers of Jews. It was therefore not difficult for the Nazis to single out Jews and deport them.

Much like the prophet Ezekiel in his vision of returning life to the bodies of the deceased (Ezekiel 37/ 1-14), Søbye was determined to put bones, sinews and flesh on the posthumous Kathe, to allow her to rise from the dead and tell her story. There were no written memoirs, pictures, diaries or living family or friends, so Søbye employed a biographical technique of source-based accounts. He examined charts and documents, ministerial, legal, police, school, medical and administrative records, and he consulted rental and building archives. He was able to speak to her two elderly, surviving sisters. Kathe would be transformed from being merely a victim, to become a living, breathing personality with the help of statistics.

There are 537 notes listed of sources Søbye used in recreating not only Kathe's story but of Norway's Jews, many who were saved by the Norwegian underground resistance and shipped to Sweden.

Sarah Wildman's introduction to Kathe is excellent, and the difficult, persistent and painstaking work of Søbye is extraordinary. He writes succinctly and as a statistician, very clearly. His modesty together with the mission he took upon himself is both admirable and important. With a keen eye for relevant information and knowing where to go to find it, he has defied the aim of the Nazis to reduce a Jewish life to a number, and has reconstructed a life of a young girl. As Ms Wildman writes, it "…is a heroic effort to rescue a single person from the depths of obscurity, to restore the dignity of individuality stolen from a girl who had not yet made her mark on the world."

This biography is a noble achievement and tribute to the millions who were killed and who did not or could not leave a legacy. It is also a guide to others who wish to research the lives of lost relatives and friends.

In 2011, a park-like area in the district of Oslo where the greatest number of Norwegian Jews lived was named "Kathe Lasnik's Plass"—Kathe Lasnik's Square. 



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