The Untold Story of a Norwegian WWII Resistance Fighter
AAUW prepared for the end of World War II by raising funds before Victory in Europe Day on May 8, 1945, to bring students from formerly occupied European countries to study in the United States under International Fellowships. By September 1945, just in time for the start of the American school year, six women were brought to the United States with the help of AAUW.
One of these first International Fellows was Anne Sofie Østvedt of Norway. Her life seems like legend or heart-pounding fiction. But every bit of it is true, from commanding thousands of underground resistance members to running from the Gestapo — from disguises to a love story.
Østvedt was born on January 2, 1920, in Norway. When German forces invaded in 1940, she was a 20-year-old chemistry student at the University of Oslo. Østvedt wasted no time in becoming involved in the Norwegian resistance, first by writing, editing, and distributing an underground, illegal newspaper and later by formally joining the resistance. In her application to AAUW, Østvedt explained that she continued with her studies until 1942 when she “had to stop when chased by the Gestapo.”
Østvedt quickly rose through the ranks to become the deputy commander of the underground intelligence-gathering resistance group XU. According to the top-secret document in her AAUW file, “As from the summer of 1943, she functioned as the proxy of the chief and in that capacity had contacts with the leading underground organizations. During the stays abroad and inspection trips of her chief, she was the acting leader of the whole system, comprising that whole of south Norway (about 3,000 men).” The chief mentioned was Øistein Strømnæs, Østvedt’s future husband, whom she married in 1946 while they were both graduate students in California.
While it was common for women to be couriers and spies in resistance movements throughout Europe, it was far less common for women to be recognized resistance leaders (the highly secret and compartmentalized structure of XU meant that most people didn’t even know the second in command was female). Østvedt is among a small group of women who were top commanders of the various resistance movements throughout Europe during World War II.
To get a sense of just how important Østvedt was and just how much constant stress she was under for five years, two stories need to be shared. Soon after taking on a bigger role with XU, she had to abandon her education and her life as she knew it. When one of her collaborators was arrested by the Gestapo, a multi-city manhunt began for Østvedt. Some 45 officers blocked all entrances to her house, guarding all the staircases and the apartment itself. When she was not found, the Gestapo took her sister as a hostage.
Despite it all, Østvedt insisted on staying in Norway and continuing to work with the resistance. To do this, she had to assume a new identity by breaking all ties with friends, family, and colleagues and by altering her physical appearance. For more than two and a half years she spent all her time with fellow underground workers, completely devoid of a private life and friendships.
Østvedt was so committed to the cause and to protecting her fellow resistance fighters that she never slipped up to reach out to family members. Once she stood next to her father on a tram car without revealing herself and without him recognizing her. The unbelievable strain, pressure, and isolation she must have felt for years while still working full time with the resistance is hard to comprehend.
When she finally arrived in the United States, Østvedt was malnourished, exhausted, and ready to make up for lost time. In her AAUW application she wrote, “After five years of complete isolation and undernourishment … it is of great importance for our country to try to rebuild the health of the nation on a sound scientific basis.” She completed her master’s degree in food chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley, and in 1951 returned to Norway, where she lived with her husband. She died in 2009.
May 8 marks the anniversary of Victory in Europe (VE) Day. Today, we celebrate the amazing life of one of Norway’s greatest resistance leaders, AAUW fellow Anne Sofie Østvedt Strømnæs.
This post was written by Fellowships and Grants Intern Emily McGranachan.