Friday, 20 April 2018

Life stories: Great-grandfather Torbjørn Johansen (1923-1985)

In this blog post, I will tell the life story of my great-grandfather (oldefar, as we say in Norwegian) Torbjørn Johansen. Torbjørn, often nicknamed "Tobben", is without a doubt the most colourful of my recent ancestors. Before the age of 50 he had experienced life as a sailor, a warrior, an immigrant, a prison inmate. He had been married twice, on two continents, and fathered three children. Torbjørn's life was so adventurous that a full-length book could easily be written about him. As a person, Torbjørn was a very hard working and principled man, and is remembered fondly by his descendants as a kind grandfather with lots of stories to tell. Although he had his faults - as we all do - I admire Torbjørn for his strength and stamina, his open-mindedness and love for adventure, and his sense of purpose in life. Unfortunately I never got to meet him in person (nor did any of his other great-grandchildren), as he died five years before I was born, at only 62 years of age. However, I do believe I have inherited some of his traits, traits that I also see in my mother and others in my close family.

I wish to thank my mother, my mother's sisters, and my mother's cousin Henning for much of the information that I will present in this post.

To my relatives: Please let me know if there is anything in this presentation that is factually wrong or lacking, so I can make the necessary corrections and additions.

Childhood in Oslo

Torbjørn Johansen was born on September 23, 1923 in the borough of Grünerløkka in Oslo's east end. He was the first-born child of Thorleif Alexander Johansen (1899-1970), a factory worker and professional wrestler who went by the nickname "Lille-Bunny" (Little Bunny) because of his strength and small size, and his wife Karoline Amalie Kristiansen (1900-1957), also a factory worker, who went by the nickname "Lucy".

Both of Torbjørn's parents came from the lower working class and grew up in harsh conditions. Torbjørn's mother Karoline grew up constantly on the move in the rural areas just outside Oslo, where her father seems to have been a travelling agricultural labourer and stonemason. Torbjørn's father Thorleif, a native of Oslo, lost his father when he was only five years old, and was placed in foster care at the age of ten because of his widowed mother Mina's heavy partying and "bad lifestyle" ("holder drikkekalas og fører et daarligt liv"). Mina, born in 1865, was of Swedish and Romani descent and had spent much of her childhood in a place known as Gypsy Swamp. In other words, my great-grandfather Torbjørn came from an ethnically mixed family.

Torbjørn grew up in a flat on the fourth floor of Schleppegrells gate 15, near the park Birkelunden (Birch Grove). His father Thorleif had spent his early childhood in the same flat before he was sent out of town into foster care. The east end of Oslo was a tough area for children and grown-ups alike. On the ground floor of Torbjørn's building there lived a butcher, a huge fellow who would turn delirious and dangerous under the influence of alcohol; when that happened, my great-great-grandfather Thorleif would walk down and headbutt him. That usually calmed him down! People were scared of Thorleif; he had a reputation for being "small, but tough", and it is said that the mere thought of having to deal with him was enough to shut people up.

Thorleif was a very successful wrestler, and won the Norwegian championship in the bantamweight class twice, in 1925 and 1926. That, however, was the peak of his sporting career, which seems to have ground to a complete halt after 1931. The textile factory where Thorleif had worked was closed down in 1925, and he was likely left without a job. It was a period of financial crisis, unemployment was on the rise, and without even his wrestling to provide him with an income, Thorleif, probably as a result of depression, developed a problematic drinking habit.

Later in life, Torbjørn recounted to his grandchildren that his father had been violent and abusive during this difficult period. Understandably, Torbjørn spent much time away from home, climbing the facades around Birkelunden Park and arm-swinging along the eaves gutters (to his mother's distress!) He was a real rascal; one time, he even broke into the gymnasium of Lakkegata School with some friends and played with the sports equipment there.

Schleppegrell Street in Grünerløkka, Oslo, photographed by me in 2016. The yellow building is number 15, the childhood home of Torbjørn and his father Thorleif.


Birkelunden Park around 1935, the time when Torbjørn was climbing the facades. Source: Oslobilder.no. License: Creative Commons 3.0. Unmodified.


Life at sea

When Torbjørn was in his teens (at 14 or 16 years old, depending on whom you ask), deciding that he wanted to get away from his violent father, he became a sailor. Torbjørn's nickname at sea was "Oslo". I do not know much about the details of his early years as a sailor, but what I do know is that Torbjørn travelled very long distances and had many adventures in various parts of the world, which he later recounted in stories to his young grandchildren. He also learned to play the harmonica, which I find significant because I too play it; indeed, it is one of my favourite instruments.

Torbjørn was at sea when World War II broke out in 1939. From 1940 onward, the Norwegian merchant fleet, of which Torbjørn was part, was administered from London and would make significant contributions to the Allied war effort. We know that Torbjørn sailed with the Murmansk convoys, shipping supplies to the Soviet Union between 1941 and 1945, and he was present at several sea battles, including the Battle of the North Cape on December 26, 1943. Torbjørn's wartime experiences gave him severe emotional trauma. I have heard several stories about the things he witnessed, but I will not recount them here.

Ruby and Alexander

Torbjørn's convoy activity took him as far afield as the United States. In our family, there have always been rumours that Torbjørn got married in the US and had a child there. For a very long time I was convinced that this story was pure imagination, and it was only a couple of years ago that I stumbled upon a record that proved the story true.

In early 1943, Torbjørn filed an intention of marriage with a woman named Ruby Elizabeth Rockwell O'Driscoll, in the town of Keene, New Hampshire. The actual wedding date seems to have been January 11, 1943. Ruby was 19 years old and worked in a shoe shop, and in spite of her young age, she was already a divorcée. Her parents were George Tozier Rockwell from Boston, Massachusetts and Helen May Chapin from Sullivan, New Hampshire, neither of whom were Norwegian-Americans. Torbjørn listed his birth city and the names of his parents correctly, but claimed - wrongly - that they were both deceased. I wonder if he actually believed that they were dead (it was wartime after all, and Norway was under Nazi occupation), or if he was simply trying to cut all ties with his past.


According to the story told in our family, Torbjørn and Ruby moved to Brooklyn, New York, and had a son named Alexander. I have not been able to verify the existence of Alexander, but if he did exist, he must have been born between early 1943 and early 1945. The story then takes a tragic turn. When Alexander was still a baby, Torbjørn and Ruby went out one evening and left their son in the care of Ruby's mother, who accidentally left Alexander sleeping under an open window. He fell ill from the cold and died.

Is this a true story? Since the story about Torbjørn's marriage to Ruby turned out to be true, I am prepared to believe that the story of Alexander is also true, even though concrete evidence has yet to be uncovered. Perhaps Alexander was so young that he wasn't properly registered in official records yet, or perhaps he wasn't born in Brooklyn at all (other sources say the family lived in East Boston, Massachusetts). It is said that Torbjørn never stopped grieving the death of his first child and only son.


D-Day and the return to Norway

After Alexander's death, Torbjørn left his settled life in the United States for good. I don't know if he got an official divorce from Ruby, but I hope he did, and from what else I know about him, I believe it is unlikely that Torbjørn would have deliberately abandoned his wife.

Torbjørn's war did not end with his marriage to Ruby in 1943. It has been said in our family that he was shanghaied in Scotland in 1944 and taken aboard a ship bound for Normandy to join the Allied invasion force. This story, too, has proven true. There is in fact a record of Torbjørn shipping aboard D/S Heien in Glasgow on April 18, 1944. This ship took part in the Normandy landings on June 6, the so-called D-Day. I have heard no concrete stories about what happened to my great-grandfather on this fateful day; I only know that his ship was damaged. Torbjørn went ashore on July 21 in an unknown harbour. I'm still a novice when it comes to war history, but one day I'm going to find out more details about all this.

D-Day seems to have been the climax of Torbjørn's war experience; indeed, it is hard to imagine a bigger climax! I don't know if he was still married to Ruby at that time, but he is recorded in the United States for more than a year after Normandy, finally leaving for Norway in the summer of 1945. By that time he had been abroad most of the time for either six or eight years. I wonder what it would have been like, coming back to his native Oslo after the devastating world war, seeing people celebrating the end of the occupation. Torbjørn brought with him his own memories of war, infinitely more dramatic than anything most people in Oslo had experienced. What was it like for him to see once again the country and the way of life that he had been risking his life to protect? What was it like for him to be surrounded, yet again, by people speaking Norwegian?

It is said that Torbjørn and his father Thorleif reconciled, and that they remained good pals for the rest of Thorleif's life.

Marriage to Gerd

Very shortly after arriving in Oslo, Torbjørn met a woman from his past. Gerd Ovidia Hansen, (1924-2005) a year younger than him, had been his childhood sweetheart, but as he had gone off to sea at such a young age, their relationship had never had the opportunity to develop. During the war, Gerd had been engaged to another man, and had taken part in the war effort in her own way by working in the illegal press in Oslo. Caught by the Nazis, she spent the rest of the war in bondage, doing hard labour on a farm outside the city.

Gerd and Torbjørn immediately reconnected, and the old spark was rekindled. On February 23, 1946, the couple got married in Paulus Church in Grünerløkka. Gerd was already several months pregnant. On July 7, 1946, she gave birth to her first child, a daughter who was named Kari - my grandmother. Two years later, Gerd gave birth to a second daughter, Mette.

At first, Torbjørn and Gerd lived in Grünerløkka, but they soon moved to Lørenskog, a town right next to Oslo, where Gerd's brother was running a small business. Although she was born in Oslo, Lørenskog is where my grandmother Kari grew up, going crayfishing in the nearby lake and exploring the locality with her friends. Lørenskog had a significant resident population of Romani people, and my grandmother connected with them on several occasions. My memory might be playing tricks on me, but I do believe I have heard that some of them knew that my grandmother was of Romani descent, and that they told her she was their relative. This is not an unlikely story, in light of recent research which shows that we are in fact distantly related to prominent Romani families in that area of Norway.

Torbjørn and Gerd were not well-off, and both had to work full hours to support their little family. Torbjørn started out as a factory worker and later worked as a window-cleaner in the city. Gerd was a housewife by day and a factory worker by night, stretching herself to the limits to provide her children with the ideal comforts of 1950s family life. Sometimes both parents would be away from the house at the same time, leaving the daughters home alone at night.

We are moving closer to our own time, and I will not recount Torbjørn's later life in detail, since others can do this much better than me. Having married Gerd and settled down in Lørenskog, Torbjørn seemed to live like an ordinary working-class man. That, indeed, is mostly how he spent the rest of his life. Torbjørn's last adventure happened in 1968, when he spent several months in Kongsvinger prison. I am not sure what his crime was, as none in our family remembers, and I have not seen the court documents. In our family we have always assumed that it was some kind of theft. My mother was three years old at the time, and she still remembers how my great-grandmother took her to visit Torbjørn in prison. While there, he did carpentry work, and among the things he made were a footstool and a doll bed for my mother, both of which are still in her possession.

Torbjørn wrote many letters to his wife from prison, describing his great love for her and their children and grandchildren (of whom only my mother and one of her sisters had been born at that time). He also described everyday life in prison, as well as the crimes of the other inmates, some of which were truly horrible. Torbjørn wrote that he repented his own crime very much, and that he felt he had betrayed Gerd; he wanted to be at home with his family, spending time with them and providing for them. He was released soon enough, and was never again convicted of any crime.

On December 23, 1985, Torbjørn passed away. Due to his traumatic experiences in the war, he had developed alcoholism, which had taken its toll on his health. Torbjørn was one of the many Norwegian krigsseilere, war sailors, who were not properly acknowledged for their effort during the war, and part of whose wages were actually held back until 1972. Although Torbjørn did eventually receive a medal near the end of his life (and another one posthumously), he refused to shake hands with the King. In 2013, the Minister of Defence, Anne-Grete Strøm Erichsen, gave a formal apology to the war sailors on behalf of the Norwegian government. Those words were also directed at Torbjørn, and by extension, to his family and descendants.

Torbjørn is remembered fondly by all who knew him. He is a grandfather and great-grandfather we can be very proud of.

Torbjørn Johansen is listed in Krigsseilerregisteret, the online War Sailor Register, which was established in 2016.

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