“History Tells Us These Lessons Must be Learned Again and Again”

By: Martha F. Davis,

Photo caption: The main gate at Falstad shortly after Liberation. Above the gate it still says “Strafgefangenenlager”, but “SS” has been removed. The rail track passes through the gate. Credit: The Falstad Centre. Schrøder: 1945

At the end of October, I visited the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (“NTNU”) in Trondheim, Norway. The occasion for my visit was an invitation to speak to Professor Hanna Musiol’s innovative law and literature class, in which students from NTNU coordinate across one ocean and several time zones with a college class from Greensboro, North Carolina, to explore human rights texts.

Among other things, the two classes have shared virtual field trips. The Greensboro class guided NTNU students on a virtual tour of the Greensboro International Civil Rights Center and Museum, which incorporates the Woolworth’s lunch counter that, in 1960, famously triggered a nationwide movement of peaceful sit-ins calling for integration. Perhaps meaningful for the NTNU students, the four African American students who initiated the nonviolent protest by simply sitting down at the “whites only” counter were all students at North Carolina’s technical college.

In turn, the NTNU class introduced the Greensboro students to the Falstad Centre – Memorial and Human Rights Museum, about an hour northeast of central Trondheim. Falstad was originally built as a school for delinquent boys, but beginning in 1941, it served as the Falstad SS prison camp under the direction of the German occupation. Hundreds of prisoners were shot and buried in mass graves in the nearby forest and serious abuse of prisoners was routine, but the Falstad camp was principally a transit camp, a waystation for political prisoners and others who were to be deported to German concentration camps, and Jews deported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp.

My talk at NTNU was on the uncomfortable topic of the Torture Memos written after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, in which top US government lawyers developed legal arguments to support torture of detained prisoners and prolonged detention of terror suspects. Among other things, I argued that the US legal profession must do more to promote human rights education of lawyers in the wake of these vacuous legal analyses, which have since been formally repudiated by the US government.

The following day, I had the opportunity to visit Falstad myself, along with my two children, ages 10 and 13. Our train to the Asen station passed by beautiful, frost-etched wheat fields with the Trondheim fjord just beyond. At Asen, we were met by Falstad’s human rights educator, Sebastian Klein, who generously drove us to the Falstad Centre and guided our visit.

The quiet rural setting for the Centre could scarcely be more peaceful

Yet as we toured the building, Sebastian showed us where the prisoners were kept in solitary confinement, enduring a sort of water torture reminiscent of more contemporary accounts of CIA practices. We looked at the building’s courtyard, and heard that Jewish prisoners were forced to gather up leaves there by inching along on their stomachs and picking up the leaves in their mouths. In one room, a wall was covered with the thousands of names of those who had come through the camp. The Centre knows that the list is incomplete – this is just their best guess based on the evidence that they have. But Sebastian pointed out his own grandfather’s name on the wall.

We then ventured out to the forest. Our route followed a pilgrim trail used today by nuns, priests and others making their muddy way to Trondheim’s Nidaros Cathedral a few days walk south. After 20 minutes through sheep fields and along a small brook, we reached a stately pine forest scattered with memorial stones. Many of the graves were identified after the war when a camp survivor who was forced to dig the gravesites returned to assist in finding and marking them; at the time, a moss carpet had been laid over to disguise the sites. Sebastian told us that, even decades later, many sites have yet to be found and marked.

As we left, Sebastian gave me a collection of recent Centre publications, and told me of ambitious plans to continue to expand the Centre’s outreach to young people, perhaps as a place for making connections across diverse populations.

Back in Lund, I opened up the catalog for the Centre’s permanent exhibit, “Face to Face.” The Forward, written in 2007 by then-Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Store, remarkably ties together threads of my own Trondheim visit. He writes:

“When I hear talk of prisoner treatment where the rights under the Geneva Conventions supposedly ‘do not apply,’ I think of the faces at Falstad, the people who sat there, waiting to be transported into the woods to be executed. They were deprived of all rights and had no protection of any kind.”

Professor Musiol’s class, the Falstsad Centre, the Greensboro Museum, my own efforts to promote human rights education for lawyers, and the work of the Raoul Wallenberg Institute are all designed to join, in the Foreign Minister’s words, “the threads of the past and the future . . . . to build a future where solidarity, human dignity and compassion strengthen their position as fundamental values” – even as history also tells us that these lessons must be taught and learned again and again.

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