11 July 1943

I never met my grandfather. All I know about him comes from others. With the exception of a kayak he built himself. Hanging from the ceiling and secured with ropes, as if it were out on a journey. And in my dreams I am taken out onto the open sea.

My grandfather paddled between the islands in the north. He paddled across stretches of ocean where the wind comes from several directions to trap the boat between the waves.

He paddled between Tromsø and the island of Helgøy. Holy Island, far to the north on the border of Finnmark. People have lived there since the Stone Age. Sami settlements. A parish dating back to the 13th century. Heritage, Helgøy kings and a German emperor.

World War II. Enemy forces have control over all areas. Checkpoints at all entry and exit fairways. Before the war, people felt that things had picked up again, that better times lay ahead. And then the Germans arrived.

It has happened time and again. Objects that float in the sea and rise to the surface. The Gulf Stream has carried driftwood and other necessities at all times. It has saved families and delighted others by offering treasures like wine or cognac. Scouring the seashore during low tide, gazing out towards the sea … knowing that something will turn up.

The sun was shining that weekend. Sun all day and night. A cold sun. Church weekend. Confirmation. The confirmands were scattered among the homes of local residents, and had to undergo three weeks of courses before the big day. The place was brimming with people from the surrounding islands who wanted to witness the event.

Every single drop had been scrimped and saved, second-rate alcohol bought with rationing stamps in the city. Suddenly there is no more, the demand has been great. Laughter flows easily, it’s been a long time. But some have been thrifty, secretly saving an item found drifting in the sea. A few weekends earlier it had been put to the test at a christening, and everything had gone well. The bash begins on Saturday morning. The young people will be confirmed on Sunday, 11 July. There are rumours about men too drunk to walk up the church steps and being refused to enter by the priest. The sun shines bright. At night, the festivities will continue.

Some have reason to quaff down more than others. Unresolved issues are lying in wait. Some of them know that this will be a weekend to remember. Some have reason to shout it out loud. One man fears for his wife …

Accordion playing and dance. They brought it along, the barrel they had found at sea. They drink its contents and many want to try, both men and women. Children skulk behind the house corners; they should have been in bed, but who cares? The island is a safe place.

People lie sick inside homes and on the grass. Two men die on Helgøy. The local police have been contacted and boats have been sent from Tromsø. The boats are being loaded with people that are sick and dying. Three men die on the journey to the city. Two men die on the quay in Tromsø. The hospital is filled to capacity. Rumour has it that a German patrol boat is on its way to the island to pick up the sickest among them. They refused to be transported by the enemy. There are so many rumours …

The funeral takes place on the following weekend in the church on Helgøy. The men are placed in coffins, seven of them in a row. As they have sinned against God, the priest refuses to hold a sermon for the dead. They have done wrong by drinking poison. When a woman stands up in church and takes the priest to task, he relents and officiates the funeral. The dead can be buried in consecrated ground.

My oldest aunt had been installed on Helgøy to help her grandmother. That is how she became an eyewitness. Through the windows she could see people writhing in pain and men being carried down to the pier, only to die. She saw her grandmother’s despair when her sons died right before her eyes. Although she wants to talk, she has been threatened into silence. After 70 years, it is still too early to talk about.

That same year, 1943, a committee was appointed, consisting of representatives from the Norwegian Academy of Science and The Norwegian Chemical Society (NKS). On July 24, the newspaper Nordlys writes:

The most important thing is to find a denaturation process that separates wood spirit from all other alcohol. … Chemists have therefore been assigned the task of adding colouring and fragrance to wood spirits, so it cannot be mistaken for anything else. The issue of adding colour has now been solved, although it is not as simple as one may believe. The other issue of adding fragrance is being worked on, and will certainly be solved by chemists in the near future.

Statoil operates Europe’s largest methanol plant. The plant produces 900,000 tons of methanol per year, meeting 13 per cent of European demand.

In 2012, 25 people die and many become sick from methanol poisoning in the Czech Republic. In 2013, 100 people die and 1,000 are taken sick in Libya. In Cuba, seven people die and 41 get sick, many for life.

They deliver it right to your doorstep, to the homes of alcoholics, to young people in the park. Hard liquor, delivered by “booze-taxi”. No one knows where the booze comes from. My son is named after my grandfather. He has drunk liquor in the park together with his friends. Liquor delivered by Anonymous. He had to be carried home.  

Text Hanne Lydia Opøien Figenschou ©

Photos by Kjell Ove Storvik