When the Germans invaded Norway the Norwegian authorities had recently completed a women’s prison at Grini, just outside Oslo. The modern structure, designed for 700 prisoners, was first used by the Germans to house Norwegian officers captured during the initial fighting in 1940.
On June 14, 1941 a convoy of trucks unloaded 150 men who had been arrested for various anti-German activities. These were the first of almost 20.000 men and women who experienced imprisonment under German conditions at Grini.
Grini was designated as a Police Detention Camp rather than a Concentration Camp. The rules and treatment were harsh but they never approached the barbaric inhumanity of the concentration camps in Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia. Compared to these, Grini was a holiday camp. 1) Grini prisoners were given responsibility for their own administration – under strict German control of course: control which meant Gestapo leaders and SS guards. Norwegians always comprised the majority of prisoners but citizens from other occupied countries and from Britain, Russia and America were sometimes incarcerated there.
As the Resistance Movement grew, and the number of arrests increased, the capacity at Grini had to be expanded. Prison labour cleared away the surrounding trees and built huts each with 9 rooms with space for 14 prisoners. An electric fence surrounded the entire area so that the ‘new’ Grini looked even more like a German concentration camp – but the accommodations were marginally better. The main building became partly the women’s prison (some 600 women spent time at Grini), and partly a confined section, Cell 415 for prisoners who had committed the most serious crimes (in the eyes of the Gestapo).
Cell 415, an isolation cell, was known as “Fallskjermen” (The Parachute – because of its 4-tiered bunks), or “Dødens veteværelse” (Death’s waiting room), because it was here the prisoners who were condemned, or were about to be, condemned to death, were kept. In spite of the supposed isolation, Grini’s secret intelligence organization kept the prisoners in “Fallskjermen” fully informed of news – both of the camp and the world at large.
Death was a frequent visitor to Grini – both direct and by way of transportation to concentration camps in Germany. In nearby Trandum Woods the graves of 194 prisoners (including 15 Russians and 6 Britons) were found after the war. Of the many traumatic events experienced by the prisoners, perhaps the worst was the frequent selections for transportation.
It has been said that Grini was a microcosm of Norway during the war. Certainly the prisoners came from all walks of life and brought with them all manner of trades and professions. Some of them were already well known: Francis Bull, Einar Gerhardsen, Johan Borgen and Arnulf Øverland, to name a few. Others became famous after the war – Odd Hassel received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1969, for example. (Hassel is also credited with the delivery to the British Embassy of the “Oslo Report.”) 2)
Perhaps it was this diversity – and quality – that made Grini so special. The inmates forged a superb organization, (W/25/X) and created an undercurrent of culture, communications, assistance, and active resistance – that completely escaped the notice of the Germans.
After the war Grini returned to its role as a civilian prison – with a new name – Ila. Close by is a simple building which houses the Grini Museum. The museum is operated by a voluntary group and is well worth a visit. You should also pay silent homage at the statue of Lauritz Sand – a founder of XU; (The secret intelligence organization) and, after his arrest in 1941, ‘Norway’s most tortured man.’