On the ninth of April 1940 around 5:30 a.m. the sound of airplanes flying over awakened me. I lived in Copenhagen close to the airport. I was used to hearing planes coming in from landing all the time. This sounded different. I rushed to the window, gaped at the sky. Hundreds of airplanes like a swarm of giant, gray birds were flying over the roofs on their way to the airport.
“What in heavens name is going on?” I turned on the radio, maybe the answer would be in the news. A stern voice kept repeating over and over, “This morning, the ninth of April 1940, the German army and air force invaded Denmark. We ask you to remain calm and cooperative then nothing will happen to you. Then more news, “thirty-five Danish soldiers were killed at the German border as they tried to stop Hitler’s army.” I kept the radio on while I got ready to go to work in a nearby nursery school and as I continued to listen, I felt hatred inside me, a hatred I still feel to this day, when I recall those years.
On my way to work I saw jeeps and tanks filled with German soldiers racing through the streets. Posters were put up everywhere. “Be calm, cooperate, etc.” When I arrived at school, my coworkers were all there but no children had arrived. The parents had called and canceled.
There was nothing for us to do and after a short meeting we closed the school and went home. I was anxious to get home and listen to the radio for further developments. On my way home I stopped at my usual grocery store to pick up a few items.
A long line had formed outside. People were hoarding. I saw people leaving the store with suitcases and baskets filled up. After waiting in line for an hour I got inside. The shelves were practically empty. Coffee had been bought in no time. Flour, sugar, margarine, milk, cream and butter had disappeared. I managed to get a small loaf of bread, some tea, two hot dogs, a couple of apples. In the first place, I didn’t have much money but even if I’d had money I am totally against hoarding. I believe in sharing. I was raised during the depression. We didn’t have much, we had enough if we shared. To this day, I still believe that.
As a rule, my fiance Aksel called me from Elsinore every evening around six. To my surprise this evening was no different. The telephones were working as usual. When he asked me how I was doing, I told him how upset I was, and that I didn’t feel like being calm and cooperative.
Grethe in Copenhagen before the war
Aksel understood but he also told me to have patience. Things would be taken care of in due time. The resistance had to be handled in a clever way not to raise suspicion. He reminded me of the soldiers killed at the border the same morning. He asked me to come to Elsinore the following weekend. I agreed.
I hung up feeling a lot better and in spirit of what was going on in Denmark, I looked forward to the weekend.
When I arrived at the train station in Copenhagen the following Saturday to catch the nine o’clock train I almost turned around to go back home, and call Aksel to ask him to come to Copenhagen instead. The train station was packed with German soldiers waiting for a train. I was afraid I would be on the same train. I couldn’t stand to be around them. I didn’t see them as human beings. I saw them as faceless monsters, dressed in green uniforms, armbands with swastikas, helmets and black boots.
As I was about to make up my mind, a troop train pulled up and all the soldiers boarded. What a relief!
My train pulled up. I sat down by the window to watch the countryside. I had some serious thinking to do. All kinds of thoughts swirled around in my head, the invasion, the uncertainty about the future. Above everything else, was I doing the right thing to marry a man seventeen years older than me? Aksel was more in love with me than I was with him. I had been extremely vulnerable when I met Aksel, shortly after my parents had died. He comforted me and gave me back the self-esteem I lost along the way. His sense of humor had helped me. He made me laugh. He taught me to laugh at myself when I at times got fired up about unimportant things. He often said, “You should hear and see yourself, you are comical.” I would then realize I was being ridiculous and end up laughing with him.
Maybe I was in love with love. One thing I knew for certain, I respected and admired Aksel’s intelligence and knowledge of life. The time when I thought I knew it all had long passed.
As the train got closer to Elsinore, I began to feel better and realized how lucky I was to have found a man like Aksel to share my life with and by the time the train pulled into the station and I saw his smiling face greeting me, I felt happy and secure.
Aksel suggested that we walk to a nearby small restaurant by the harbor to have breakfast and make plans for the day. We were seated by a window with a view of Sweden, which by ferry is twenty minutes away. The day was sunny and clear, the houses and the coast line over there looked very inviting. “Today would have been perfect for a trip to Sweden,” Aksel commented as he looked out the window. “Suddenly, I’m aware, that we aren’t able to go anywhere outside Denmark. Of course that should be the least of our worries,” he said shaking his head as he took hold of my hand and squeezed it. “We’ll just have to make the best of what we have here. Let’s walk to Snekkersten and have lunch at the old inn there.”
Elsinore's Kronborg Castle--immortalized in Shakespeare's Hamlet
It was a beautiful walk along the Danish Riviera. The sun was shining but the air was still cool. In Denmark spring comes very slowly. We enjoyed walking. We were dressed for cool weather. Aksel held my hand like I was a child. I didn’t mind that, it gave me a feeling of security.
Snekkersten is a small fishing village, an hour and a half walk from Elsinore. When we reached the inn we were ready for lunch but the second we stepped inside, I lost my appetite. The front room was filled with noisy German soldiers.
I felt anger rising inside me. “Let’s go some other place Aksel,” I said, “I can’t sit down among those pigs. Just look at them, the way they are gobbling their food down.”
As always he managed to calm me down. “It’s the same wherever we go. We’d better get used to seeing them around. Just ignore them. There is already a resistance movement in motion. Trust me, we aren’t just going to sit back and let them take over. Now, just pretend that you can’t understand or speak any German. Let’s find a table in one of the other rooms.”
I felt like the child I once was, being told what to do. In a way, I liked it. He was right. We ate lunch for two hours, talked only about pleasant things. We also had Aquavit with our lunch and if nothing else, that makes you feel good.
Aksel decided to splurge. We took a cab to his place in Elsinore. We spent a wonderful weekend in spite of all the horrible things going on in Denmark and the world.