Jo Benkow was much loved and respected in all of the Norwegian society, political friends and foes – which bizarrely mainly consisted of a former PM, also from the conservative party – paid homage to a man who has given unselfishly of himself to create a better society for all Norwegians, no matter their origin or sexual preferences.
Jo Benkow’s funeral was an obvious public affair because of the high offices he held in his life time, so on this merit, was widely reported in Norwegian press. His Jewish value base was pointed out, and how this made him all the more respected in the Norwegian society, as documented by his best selling book – From the Synagogue to the Lion’s Hill (another name for our Parliament), which somehow never grew out of fashion.
But journalists also reflected on the simplicity of the Jewish burial ritual. The absence of external gloss, the commonness of death and how we are all equal in our death (as we indeed should be in life too?), the simple casket and the burial ritual itself, where the diseased’s family themselves throw earth on the grave.
I do believe that Jo Benkow in his death also taught us something invaluable – no matter how glorious we have been in life, we shall all become dust in our death.
FAREWELL WITH BENKOW
Dagsavisen 2013 05 23 p 16
Kjell T. Barøy, Pay wall
On the funeral of Jo Benkow; making a presentation of those who attended, and speeches made. The presence of the Israeli and US ambassador is noted, as is the fact that his funeral was on the Storting’s expense. The character of the late Mr. Benkow received praise by all quarters of Norwegian politics; also the King sent his respect.
BENKOW HAD ALL THE REASONS IN THE WORLD TO HATE. HE NEVER DID.
Verdens Gang 2013 05 23 p 28, Jon Selås
VG’s homage to Jo Benkow.
The Foreigner 2012 05 22, Michael Sandelson
The Late Jo Benkow’s funeral brings a unique political era to a sad close, particularly for Norway’s minority Jewish community, Wednesday.
Josef Elias Benkow (b. 1924, Trondheim, d. 2013, Oslo) was the sole Jew in Norway ever to be elected as MP when this happened in 1965.
A leading anti-Semitism fighter, he also served two four-year terms as President of the Parliament between 1985 and 1993 during his some 28 years in politics for the Conservative Party (H).
Prolific and highly decorated
Mr Benkow, who passed last week, aged 88, also served on many Parliamentary Standing Committees. These include Justice, Defence, and Foreign Affairs.
For the 30 years from 1969, he was part of Parliament’s Nordic Council delegation, and a caretaker for Norway on the UN General Assembly between 1971 and 1972.
His list of political Offices and other honours is long. Among others, he received the Norwegian Defence Participation Medal (Deltakermedaljen) in 1945 – he fled to Sweden under WWII in 1942 during Nazi Germany’s occupation of Norway, together with his father and brother. The women in his family left behind were gassed at Auschwitz.
The Order of the White Rose of Finland was bestowed upon him in 1990. In 1993, a wood was planted in his name in Israel, the same year he received B’nai Brith’s diploma and gold medal.
Being given an honorary Doctorate at the University of Boston in 1995, the following year, Mr Benkow then received the Grand Decoration in Gold for Services to the Republic of Austria (Das Grosse Goldene Ehrenzeichen für Verdienste um die Republik Österreich).
He was made Commander of the Royal Norwegian Order of St. Olav (Kommandør av St. Olavs Orden) in 1998.
Mr Benkow also authored several books. Some are his self-biography ‘From the Synagogue to Parliament’ (‘Fra synagogen til Løvebakken’) – Gyldendal, 1985 – and one on TRH King Haakon VII of Norway, Britain’s Queen Maud, and Norwegian King Olav V (‘Haakon, Maud og Olav. Et minnealbum i tekst og bilde’) – Gyldendal, 1989.
The same publisher released his ‘The Eleventh Commandment’ (‘Det Ellevte Bud’) in 1994. This contains an epilogue by fellow author, and also Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel.
Judaism and politics
Jo Benkow, son of photographer Ivan Benkow (1885-1955) and businessperson Annie Louise Florence (1895-1942), was the only Jew to hold political Office in Norway, however.
Another prominent Norwegian Conservative politician and Parliamentary President, Carl Joachim ‘C.J.’ Hambro (1885-1964) – related to Hambro’s Bank in London co-founder, Joseph Hambro – had Jewish ancestry but was a Christian.
“His grandfather [Calmer Joachim Hambro (1747–1806)] converted whilst living in Denmark. There were no pogroms there, but many Jewish families did convert,” Ervin Kohn, president of an spokesperson for Oslo’s Jewish community told The Foreigner.
“He [Calmer] wanted to come to Norway, and that might have been the reason, though this is not fact,” continued Mr Kohn.
Norway’s Constitution at that time contained what was known as ‘Paragraph 2’. The legislation imposed restrictions on both Jews and Jesuits.
“The Evangelical-Lutheran religion remains the public religion of the State. Those inhabitants, who confess thereto, are bound to raise their children to the same Jesuits and monastic orders are not permitted. Jews are still prohibited from entry to the Realm,” it read.
Norwegian writer and independence fighter Henrik Wergeland (1808-1845) got this removed in 1851 and 1892, respectively. Jews remember him at his grave in Oslo every 17th May, to whom Jews pay homage for getting this struck from the law. The penultimate sentence was struck in 1897, but the ban on Jesuits was not lifted until 1956.
Talking of C.J. Hambro, Ervin Kohn added that “he planned and saved the Government and Parliament during the early stages of German WWII occupation, getting them away to abroad.”
“He and Jo Benkow shared many of the same qualities – the orator, the sense of humour” said Mr Kohn.
Today, one politician also with Jewish ancestry is former Liberal (V) MP Odd Einar Dørum, halachically Jewish on his birth mother’s side. He is now chairperson of the Friends of Oslo’s Holocaust Centre. According to Mr Kohn, he is raised as a Christian.
The Jews of Norway, though a minority, have, and are still are contributing in other ways.
Further prominent Jewish origin personages are lawyer, businessman and Liberal politician Leon Bodd (b. 1924), as well as Socialist Left (SV) member and academic Theo Koritzinsky (b. 1941), whose father was Jewish.
Moreover, amongst the names of those the Nazis murdered during the Holocaust were labour organiser Benjamin Bild, Helene Strand-Johansen and Mirjam Kristiansen – both Communists – as well as Morris Rabinowitz.
As well as being a columnist, he was also a successful businessman, explained Ervin Kohn.
“He had a buoyant clothing store in western Norway’s Haugesund, and was very active in the papers and politically,” Mr Kohn said.
“A better country”
Prominent politicians and religious leaders gathered at Josef Elias Benkow’s funeral today, which took place at Østre Gravlund Jewish cemetery located in Oslo’s Helsfyr district at 12:00.
Amongst those paying their respects were Conservative Party leader Erna Solberg, Kristin Halvorsen – Minister of Education and Research for the Socialist Left – some members of Oslo’s Jewish community, and President of the Parliament Dag Terje Andersen.
Rabbi Joav Melchior, who oversaw and conducted the ceremony, told The Foreigner Mr Benkow will not be forgotten.
“We have lost an important member of our congregation who has contributed tremendously to Jewish life and to Norway as such,” he wrote in an email.
“Jo Benkow was first and foremost a good human being who cared, who helped others,” the Rabbi continued. “He used his engagement in Norwegian politics to make Norway a better country and was a role model for others with a minority background.”
“He showed how such a person could even have an important role by leading the country. He will be missed.”
Leading politicians from most of Norway’s seven Parties held a memorial ceremony with speeches at Oslo’s Hotel Bristol afterwards.
They were joined by Guri Hjeltnes from the Holocaust Centre and Sissel Levin on behalf of the Jewish Museum in Oslo.
Mr Benkow’s widow, Annelise Høegh, spoke at the end of the memorial ceremony.