I don’t usually find reasons to grin in World War II museums. But then, I don’t usually see informational signage like this:
I spent several hours yesterday at the Lofoten Krigsminnemuseum, the Lofoten Wartime Museum, in non-bustling downtown Svolvaer. When the volunteer who was staffing it noticed I was actually reading the signage and not just cruising through like the five other tourists who came and went during my time there, he came over and started chatting and pointing out things I might have missed.
And believe me, it was easy to miss stuff.
The museum is actually the obsession of one man who has set about, over some 40 years, acquiring what is believed to be the largest private collection of World War II memorabilia, uniforms and everyday items in the world. It’s all crammed into half a dozen rooms in a 19th century building right next to the
busy bus station lonely central bus stop.
Now, when I hear things like “world’s largest private collection of mostly Nazi memorabilia,” I get a little nervous. I don’t want to be supporting, in any way, any sort of nutball yearning for the days of the Third Reich.
So I am pleased to report that I saw no sign of a pro-Nazi bent to the collection. If anything, it was tremendously even-handed, which is not something I can often say about museum collections tackling difficult issues (I’m still vexed with Liverpool’s International Museum of Slavery for implying North American colonists were the only people ever who engaged in slavery anywhere anytime, completely skipping over, oh, I don’t know, Arabs, Vikings, Egyptians, Romans, and so on, and so on…).
Anyway, I loved the focus on ordinary items made and used in extraordinary circumstances, such as shoes made from paper or POW handicrafts like a guitar made of matches and decorative sword made from the leg of a chair and a soup bone procured from the kitchen.
There were numerous uniforms from all sides as well, some with incredible stories. Divers retrieved a German sailor’s shirt from a wreck off the coast of Norway and the museum’s collector spent five years trying to track down its original owner, whose name was stitched inside the shirt. The man had spent time in Canada as a POW and then settled there after the war. When he was finally located and contacted, he replied with a Christmas card filled with a shaky old man’s hand, offering warm greetings and noting he had some photos he could send to supplement the display.
Yes, the museum had the cyanide capsule container that “may have been the very one Hitler carried!” and also some unexpected illustrations of Disney characters believed to be done by the failed-art-student-turned-Fuhrer himself (apparently, Adolf was a bit of a Disney maniac and particularly enjoyed the movie Snow White).
But most of the collection was focused on how the people who lived through that era in northern Norway–local resistance fighters, innocent children, German soldiers, Russian and Serbian POWs, Croatian prison guards, hapless fishermen–endured.
Aside from the overall focus of the collection, I loved the English translations on the signage. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not mocking the translator. Sure, there were errors, but no more than the average Facebook post from a native English speaker. But there was often a jauntiness to the wording that just tickled me.
And that was a good thing, to have a little levity, because reading for hours about the conditions endured, the savagery exhibited by some and the pain suffered by others, really could have been depressing otherwise. I found the line “man’s blind indifference to his fellow man” from “Willie McBride” running through my head over and over, as well as imagery from the attacks on Western embassies and consulates in the Middle East and Africa.
We as a species never learn, do we?