One day in the beginning of May 1943, Aksel came home after an appraising job for the mortgage and loan company he worked for. “I believe I found a house we can afford to buy. Wouldn’t that be great?”
“That would be wonderful. This apartment gets more and more crowded each day. We could use more space. Where is the house located?” I asked.
“Belvederevej number 9, a good location, walking distance from town. It’s a “fixer upper” but that we can handle. You have to use your imagination when you see it. Let’s go and look at it tomorrow afternoon.”
I was on cloud nine and could hardly wait for the next day to see the house. Our own house. It was a dream come true.
The following day Aksel and I, with Lone in the stroller, walked to Belvederevej number 9 to view the house. I didn’t know if I should laugh or cry when I saw it. It looked like a shack, weeds had completely taken over the front yard. I chose to laugh, “You must be joking, Aksel. There is only one way to fix that house up that I can see, with a match.”
Aksel didn’t answer. He walked toward a man who at that moment came out to greet us. It was obvious that he was the owner, Mr. Petersen. He asked us inside to take a look at the house. I kept a low profile. I was in shock.
It was a total mess inside. Aksel was right. It would take imagination, hard work, money of which we didn’t have much. I couldn’t show any enthusiasm at all. Aksel had to decide if this house was worthwhile.
Carl Petersen was a blue collar worker. He looked like he hit the bottle a little too hard. His nose was swollen and red veined. He told us that his wife and five children had moved out. He didn’t go into details but said that the house was too big for him, too much to take care of, more than he could handle. That was obvious. He didn’t have to tell us that. He told us that he had built most of the house himself and added rooms as the family grew. I was on the brink of laughing out loud when a glance from Aksel stopped me.
This of course, was no laughing matter. Even if it was “my dream house” we are talking about. I told them that I would take a walk around the neighborhood to see what that looked like. Aksel was busy writing figures in a notebook. I didn’t have any idea what that was about.
I pushed the stroller around a couple of blocks and I liked what I saw. It was a nice neighborhood except for Mr. Petersen’s house. It stood out like an eyesore. It might just be the right thing to do to buy that house, fix it up, and bring some help to the neighborhood.
Grethe with her children, Lone and Jorgen
When I returned half an hour later to go in and get Aksel, a woman came out from the house next door. “My name is Nora, I guess you are Grethe, Askel Erting’s wife, right?”
The whole town knew Aksel. I wasn’t surprised. Nora seemed like a friendly person.
“Are we going to be neighbors?” she asked.
“Maybe, Aksel is talking to Mr. Petersen now. The house is in a terrible condition from what I can see.” I looked at Nora. She was a large woman. She had a pretty face. I liked her. As it turned out she became one of my best friends. Someone I could count on at all times.
While I talked to Nora Aksel came out. He greeted Nora whom he already knew and told her that there was a possibility that we would buy the house.
“I have some figures to work with now. The house has to be brought into a livable condition. It will of course, cost some money. We will see what happens.”
“Are you ready to go home?” Aksel asked.
“Any time.” I said. “I would like to have you as a neighbor Nora. If that doesn’t happen, I’d like to see you again.”
“Why don’t you come inside and have a cup of coffee and meet my husband Frederik, he should be here any minute,”
We accepted and it turned out to be the beginning of a lasting friendship.
Jorgen and Lone after the war
Aksel decided to buy the house. It took three months to make it livable. When it was done it reminded me of a farm house on the island of Taasinge that I once had visited with my cousin when I was a teenager.
It hadn’t been an easy task to renovate that house but as it happened at the time we bought it Askel had just finished a construction job and would have been forced to lay four men off. Instead he hired them to work for us. We added one more bedroom and enlarged the kitchen. It had the charm of an old fashioned farm kitchen with the wood burning stove, the dining area with a blue painted bench, and chairs around an old pinewood table. We spent most of our time in the kitchen, it was a cozy place to be.
My uncle Charlie did the painting with the help of a young man. Even I gave them a hand at times. To paint was therapy for me. Nora, my new friend looked after Lone while I was painting. Slowly it became the house I had once dreamed to have. It was a highlight in a time when our lives were disrupted, uncertain and filled with anger and fear.
Aksel became more and more involved with the resistance and even though I agreed totally with what he and the others were doing, I couldn’t help being fearful. I knew that someday it would be Aksel’s turn to get caught. Daily we received word about friends who had been caught and sent to prison or to a concentration camp.
A schoolmate of Aksel, Peter Moeller, tried to escape from the squad car that had picked him up on way to a prison. He managed to get the door open and jumped out but was shot dead instantly. He must have preferred to die that way rather than to go to prison.
Many horrible events took place and brought us back to reality after having been thrilled with our new house. In August 1943, about the time we moved into the house, the Nazis took over the Danish military and moved into military barracks such as Kronborg’s castle, also known as Hamlet’s castle. They also took over the police department. Whoever wished to live their lives and cooperate could, the rest had to go underground.
As time went by, our lives became more and more complicated. Curfew became more and more strict. Few people had the special passes that allowed them to go out after dark.
Mr. Krieger, the fire chief in Elsinore was picked up for a reason unknown to me. He was sent to a concentration camp in Jutland close to the German border. Aksel, who worked as the Deputy Fire Chief took over his job as Fire Chief. This was how he obtained a special pass.
The freedom fighters were doing a fabulous job, risking their lives every day, a small army against a gigantic force. Their strength was their intelligence. They were able to outsmart the Nazis. As the war escalated in Europe, Hitler was forced to use younger and younger soldiers in the occupied countries. Fourteen and fifteen year old kids, once trained in the Hitler Jugend were now soldiers in the German army. They were brainwashed and looked up to Hitler as an idol.
Grethe talks about getting by during the war
The Best of Times, the Worst of Times
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” just as Dickens wrote in The Tale of Two Cities. The war got closer and sabotage and bombings had become a daily event. Martial law was enforced. Living a normal life became impossible. If a person had enough inner strength and the ability to adjust to any situation regardless how bad, there was a chance one could come out of this madness a stronger and better person.
Family and friends were more important to us than ever before. I learned to be creative and inventive with the little we had on hand and what I was able to buy.
Every Sunday I cooked dinners for at least ten people. Aksel, Lone and myself, my mother-in-law, Bedste, and Aksel’s three children of his first marriage, Ole, Soren and Nokke, my aunt Agda, and a couple of friends who as usual happened to stop by. I always cooked enough for unexpected guests. Nothing was wasted in our house. Everything would be used one way or another. We had a dog, Peter, an airedale terrier and if any scraps were left, he would finish them.
As a rule we always had Sunday dinners at two o’clock. Everybody helped to set and clear the table and do the dishes. In the long and dreary winter months we played cards and games with the children. When spring arrived we walked or biked in the forest. We made the best out of our time together in spite of occupation and war, although it hung like a black cloud over us at all times.
One Sunday in early spring the family was getting ready to take a walk. The doorbell rang. Soren opened the door. I was right behind him to see who it was. Outside stood a man. I didn’t recognize him until he began to talk: “Hi, Grethe, you look surprised, I’m Jens Larsen. Remember me? I guess you thought I was dead. Here I’m still alive. Can I come in?”
“Of course, I apologize. I’m stunned but happy to see you. Please take your coat off and come inside.” Aksel came into the entry hall with Lone on his arm. He had dressed her for our walk. “You look good but different. Come in the kitchen, sit down. Grethe will take care of you while I get the children organized. We were just about to take a walk when you came. I’ll let the boys walk Peter. I can’t get over that you are here.”
I gave Jens a beer while I made sandwiches with some of the leftover Danish meat balls from dinner. “You look like you could use an Aquavit” I said as I fetched a bottle and three glasses.
Aksel came into the kitchen and sat down at the table. “Lone and Nokke are playing in the living room. I gave them the doll house that will keep them busy for a while. Let’s have an Aquavit. We have to live it up while we can.” Aksel raised his glass and toasted. “To life and better days ahead. Now Jens tell us what has happened to you. To be honest I never expected to see you again. Don’t you have to get out of the country before they catch you?”
“Yes, I do, I have a connection at midnight at the beach. Could I possibly stay here until it’s time for me to go? An ambulance will pick me up a couple of blocks from here at eleven o’clock. I’ll lie down on the sidewalk and pretend I have a broken leg.” I poured each of them another glass of Aquavit and sat down at the table.
“Of course you can stay. You might like to take a nap before it’s time to leave.” I said. “I’ll make us a cup of coffee, of course, it’s only barley coffee, it won’t keep you awake, but then again it won’t harm your heart either. I put the tea kettle on the stove and took out the apple cake left over from dinner, gave Jens a piece.
Jens told us that after he had been picked up at Julebaek beach that horrible night, he had been brought from one hospital to another in different parts of Denmark. He had been patched-up to the best of the doctors’ ability while they risked their own lives helping a freedom fighter. He had grown a beard to cover up some of the scars. He also told us about his ‘out of body experience.’
“It was like I was up in the air looking down on my body, lying on a bed beneath. Then I felt a sharp jolt. I returned to my body. I don’t really know what to make of it. It might have been a dream, but then again they told me that my heart had stopped. Well, it’s not important now. I’m here and alive.”
I was completely stunned. I had heard stories about a white light at the end of a tunnel and other experiences. It was exciting and I would have liked to hear more, but I knew Jens was tired. “I really don’t want to tell you too much in case I don’t get away as planned and they track you guys down for questioning. One thing I feel terrible about is that I have not seen my wife and children since the shooting—it’s almost unbearable.”
“Is there anything I can do?” I asked as I was putting cups on the table. “Thank you Grethe, perhaps you can. I wrote several letters I never mailed them. If I get across safe I certainly would appreciate if you could hand deliver them to Else. I have talked to her on the phone a couple of times. She knows I’m alive.” He handed me a tin box obviously containing the letters. I put it back in a kitchen cabinet among my pots and pans.
“How would we know if you make it across safely?” I asked as I poured all of us a cup of coffee.
“We will know.” Aksel said. “I have a good feeling you’ll make it Jens. Let’s think positively at least. You made it so far you’ll make it the rest of the way, I’m sure.” Peter came storming through the house followed by Ole and Soren who had a hard time controlling him.
Jens asked if he could take a nap somewhere in the house, which we agreed was a good idea. “Lie on top of my bed. I’ll give you a blanket. Turn on the radio and make yourself at home. If you want to undress and borrow my robe you are welcome to do that.” Aksel said.
“Thank you that would be nice. You’ll call me later if I should fall asleep. By the way, you don’t have to worry about them catching me alive. I have these,” he showed us a medicine bottle filled with pills of some kind as he went into the bedroom to get some rest.
Aksel sat down with the boys to play a card game. I went in to check on the girls and watched them play with the doll house until it was time for a light supper before Aksel took them home to their mother.
Jens got safely to Sweden. I delivered the letters to his wife. We didn’t meet again until May 1945, when the war was over. Many more sad events happened in between.