OPINION | Conscience and courage


Works of art can pose moral questions in unique ways. In the case of the Holocaust, vexing moral issues continue to provoke us more than 65 years after the liberation of the death camps. A stylishly made documentary, Strictly Confidential, which is screening as part of the 2011 Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival, probes the secrets of a Norwegian family with a rather gruesome skeleton in the closet.

Benedicte Maria Orvung was studying filmmaking in Stockholm, Sweden, when she happened to read a newspaper story about Karl Marthinsen, an infamous collaborator during the Nazi occupation of Norway. She recognized the family name, and learned that the man who would eventually head the Norwegian secret police and then lead all of the country’s police departments, in cooperation with Gestapo officials, was her great-uncle.

Reticence is something of a Norwegian national trait; but it seems incredible that a bright young woman would not apprehend one of her family’s shameful secrets until she was 30 years old. The Marthinsens came from a small fishing village in the north called Mehamn, which is referred to in the film as housing a “nest” of Nazi collaborators. When the German troops occupied Norway in April 1940, Marthinsen saw his opportunity to be of service to the Third Reich. As a feared police official, according to the documentary’s narrative, Marthinsen coordinated the roundup of Norwegian Jews, who were turned over to the Germans and eventually transported to Auschwitz. Around 40 percent of Norwegian Jewry were turned over to the Nazis. Marthinsen also allegedly supervised the brutal torture of suspected resistance movement activists.

Gunnar Sønsteby, one of Norway’s great resistance heroes during the Nazi occupation, appears in Strictly Confidential and testifies to the menace posed by Marthinsen. (I interviewed Sønsteby when he visited the Twin Cities in March 2000, along with Jo Benkow, the Jewish former leader of Norway’s Conservative Party.) The resistance movement marked Marthinsen for “liquidation,” and he was shot to death in his car during an Oslo street ambush.

Americans, who mainly have enjoyed the fruits of peace on the home front, have not had to grapple with the moral dilemmas faced by populations under foreign occupation. Indeed, the history of the U.S.A., regarding the conquest of the domestic Indian nations and then gunboat diplomacy in the Western Hemisphere and beyond, continues to get short shrift or is misleadingly mythologized.

So we wonder if we would resist evil if it came to our town. The Shoah provides a stark case for making moral judgments. It is likely best not to impose the history of the Holocaust on contemporary political issues; at the American Jewish World we try to restrict references to Nazis and Hitler to the Nazis and Hitler. But there is no denying that the Shoah continues to resonate in the popular imagination, as attested to by the unending series of books and films about this great malign chapter of the 20th century.

The 2011 Twin Cities Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) Commemoration will take place 7 p.m. Sunday, May 1 at Bet Shalom Congregation in Minnetonka. Open to the community, it is always a moving event, which combines sadness and hope for renewal.

The documentary Strictly Confidential screens 12:30 p.m. Saturday, April 30, and again 9:15 p.m. Wednesday, May 4 at the St. Anthony Main Theater. It is a documentary that is worth your time.