In October 1940, a spruce tree decorated with ribbon was hoisted to the rafters of Camp Norway’s nearly-completed living quarters.
The Norwegian custom, a first for Lunenburg builders, sent a message from contractor Ralph Corkum to the town’s newest residents that the two communities were in it together.
Just months earlier, over 20 Norwegian ships went out to sea and received a message from home that said they couldn’t come back.
Norway had been invaded by Nazi forces. Without a country to return to, the sailors were told to seek out the closest friendly port.
Approximately 800 of them found refuge in the small fishing town.
Camp Norway was opened that November on Tannery Road, in buildings now owned by ABCO Industries Limited. It was from there the displaced Norwegians could regroup, refit their ships and undergo military training.
But while the names and dates from Camp Norway are well documented, the personal histories of the Norwegians and the community that welcomed them are lesser known.
With “When 800 Norwegians Couldn’t Go Home,” an upcoming documentary film from the South Shore Genealogical Society (SSGS) and Blue Dory Productions, the groups are working to get those stories told.
They’re seeking out family members of those who encountered the men from Camp Norway—whether in service at a restaurant or sharing a pew at church — to piece together a portrait of a unique moment in the town’s history.
“They’re just little snippets, but together they tell the story of 800 people thousands of miles away from home,” said Cheryl Lamerson, SSGS’ program coordinator. “Not knowing whether their families would survive or not, not even knowing what was going to happen to their country.”
Yvonne Mosley of Blue Dory Productions became interested in the idea during the production of “Unsung Heroes,” a live celebration of veterans from diverse backgrounds most recently held at St. John’s Anglican Church in Lunenburg last year.
The history she found intrigued her, but the information she couldn’t find left her anxious to dig for more.
“What it really enforced was the need for more, that this wasn’t even scratching the surface,” she said.
Now, Mosley is enlisting the help of aspiring local storytellers to do it.
The project has been granted $20,000 by the federal government’s New Horizons for Seniors program to see it through.
The deadline for applications is October 21, and while the grant is seniors focused, Mosley says she’s open to young applicants getting in the mix.
Lamerson considers Camp Norway to have been an important moment in the town’s diverse heritage.
To her, it exemplifies an idea raised by Halifax genealogist Terry Punch, who described Lunenburg’s mixture of Mi’kmaq, French and German culture as the beginnings of a multicultural Canada.
“This is a story that’s known within Lunenburg County, but I dare say that people in Nova Scotia, and for sure across Canada don’t know this story,” said Lamerson. “It’s unique, it’s unusual, and I suspect even Canadian war historians don’t know the story of Camp Norway.”
But 70 years after Camp Norway closed, Mosley says they’re running out of time to piece the story together, with families impacted by the camp now three generations removed from the people best suited to tell it.
At stake, says Mosley, is the loss of two heroic stories: of the Norwegians who fought to save their home, and the Lunenburgers who offered up their own.
“Many things are heroic, but what really hits me is the sense of community—the community coming together to be hospitable and to reach out and nurture 800 people,” said Mosley.
“It seems to me too, it’s so much a Maritime kind of thing. You rally around in a time of need.”