An Old Love Brings New Courage
March 21, 1945 was approaching. That was the day I had a pass to visit Aksel but I wasn’t looking forward to it. I knew he was expecting me and that it might cheer him up a bit but I wasn’t even sure of that. Perhaps my visit would just make him sad and wistful about a time there once was and that never would return.
The newspapers and Danish Radio were censored and controlled by the Germans. All we heard and read was that Hitler would never surrender and that he would fight to the end. “Wir werden siegen ueber England.” I had him say that as thousands of people were urging him on with their “Sieg Heil.” They still believed in him “Der Fuhrer.” I had a difficult time understanding that. The German people had voted for him in a democratic process but how long can people remain loyal to a criminal like him?
Before the war I had always considered Germans civilized and educated, lacking a sense of humor, but law abiding people and it was said that it was for that very reason that they followed Hitler. I don’t believe “a Hitler” ever would have had a chance in any of the Scandinavian countries.
The BBC and Radio Stockholm told us what really was going on. Unfortunately, very often the Gestapo would use technology to destroy the signal and make it impossible to hear anything but noise.
March 20, I was outside on the south side of our garden and to my pleasant surprise I saw hundreds of white snowdrops and yellow erantis shooting up through the melting snow. It gave me such a feeling of hope. The ground had been frozen solid for more than four months. This was the first sign of spring and maybe there was hope, maybe peace was close.
On the BBC Vera Lynn was singing for the troops:
There will be blue birds over
the white cliffs of Dover,
just you wait and see
There will be love and laughter,
and peace ever after
when the world is free
How I wished for it. I was so tired of living this way. Deep in my heart I knew that some terrible events were still ahead. To this day I don’t know how I got the strength to keep going the way I did after what happened the 21st of March 1945.
My visit at the prison was scheduled at 1 p.m. Very few trains were running and I had to catch an 8 o’clock train. That meant that I would have three hours to spend in Copenhagen before the time of my visit. I made up my mind to walk through Stroget to King’s New Square where I could catch a bus to the prison. The weather was spring like, cool but sunny. I loved to walk and it was good for me and helped me gather my thoughts before I had to face Aksel. There was a small cafe where I treated myself to a piece of Danish pastry and a cup of coffee. It was expensive though and this was a real luxury as my budget was extremely modest. It is hard to imagine today.
I looked at my watch: 11:30 a.m. and there was just enough time to get to the bus stop on the square. Then all hell broke loose. An air raid sounded and I had no choice than to run to the closest bomb shelter. One explosion after another shook the shelter and it sounded and felt very close. A young man who managed to enter the shelter just seconds before the door closed said “My god, they are bombing the Shell house, it’s burning like hell.”
“That’s the Gestapo headquarters so that’s not so bad” I commented calmly.
Then I learned that the Gestapo kept high ranking freedom fighters imprisoned in the rooms at the very top of the building, as a means to protect their archives.
The bombing continued for what seemed an eternity. Then we heard fire sirens and while after a couple of hours it quieted down there were still no “clear-all” sirens. Four hours later, the signal finally sounded.
When I got outside I realized that it would be too late for the visit. All that was left for me to do was to walk back to the train station and catch a train home to Elsinore. The few buses running were already completely filled up and there was no choice but to walk.
I went several blocks out of my way to get to the train station. From a distance I could see the Shell house or rather the smoking ruins of the building. The RAF had done a terrific job.
Later I learned tat most of the prisoners on the top floor in the Shell house had miraculously escaped before the building and the archives had gone up in flames.
Exhausted, depressed and hungry I finally reached the train station to find that I had to wait another hour before my train was leaving. I had brought an apple with me from home and I ate that because I didn’t have enough money to go into the railway restaurant. I sat down on a bench to wait, when I saw someone coming toward me. I couldn’t believe it. It was Mogens, my first love. He was three years older than me. We hadn’t seen each other for six or seven years. He looked the same tall, blond and handsome. My heart stood still for a moment. “Grethe, what are you doing here?” I told him and returned the question.
“I hope to catch a train to Elsinore. I’m going home to see my father. He is very ill.” He said. I told him I’d heard of his father’s illness and that I was very sorry to hear of it.
He told me he was a reporter at one of the big newspapers in Copenhagen and had worked there for a couple of years. “It’s not an interesting job. I’m keeping a very low profile. Now what happened to you?”
I told him my story and that I had been on the way to the prison to visit Aksel when I was forced to spend four hours in a bomb shelter because of the bombing of the Shell house.
“You haven’t heard? It wasn’t only the Shell house which was destroyed. One bomber was shot down and fell flaming down over the French School on Frederiksberg. 250-300 children and nuns were killed. The school was completely destroyed.”
I hadn’t heard about that and I was shocked. It seemed unreal and all I could say was, “Do you have children?”
“No, I’m not married either. Still I can understand how terrible it must be to lose a child and even worse to lose one in this way. It shouldn’t have happened. I know peace is around the corner but it’s far from over yet.” I looked at him while he was talking, thinking what a different world we lived in now. How beautiful and promising our future had seemed years ago, when we were young adults.
Mogens and I had practically spent every day together over a period of two years. We had been in love, never lovers. We would walk in the woods, on beaches, play tennis in the summers. We would skate and ski in the winters but most importantly Mogens introduced me to, what I consider the best literature ever written after Shakespeare, the author Isak Dinesen as well as art and music. He opened my eyes and ears to a world I otherwise never would have known and more than that, we were soul mates. He influenced my way of thinking in so many different ways.
Once we shared dreams about the future. He was going to be a foreign correspondent and travel the world and I was going to be a nurse. The war and the occupation changed it all.
The loudspeaker announced that our train would be late due to unexpected circumstances.
After hearing that, Morgens suggested that we go into the restaurant to have something to eat. At that point I was starving. Morgens ordered whatever was on the menu and could be served fast. “We can’t take a chance and miss our train. Would you like a beer?”
“Would I ever.” No meal or no beer in the world tasted better than what I was served a few minutes later. For a short while our lives were put on hold. We ate and drank and more importantly, we talked. We talked about what could have been if only...
We talked when we boarded the train and we talked all the way to Elsinore.
“I’ll walk you home.” Morgens said and as he grabbed my elbow I felt an electric shock going through me. I pulled myself together and we walked side by side until we reached my garden gate.
Bedste, Aksel’s mother was in the house taking care of Lone. In a way, I was glad of this as I couldn’t ask Morgens to come in.
He held my head in his hands and kissed my forehead. “You know you are very special there will always be a place in my heart for you. What we once had together, can never be changed or taken away.” He pointed to the North star “Remember, we claimed that star once it’s ours, forever.”
My knees were trembling. For a moment I wished I could have turned the clock back and start my life over. Of course, that was not possible and instead I said “I remember, I always will, but we are two romantics and you and I know that a cold reality is awaiting us.” I forced myself to walk away. We never met again. He wrote me a beautiful letter, it was like a poem. I had to tear it up but kept it in my heart. As ironic as it may sound that gave me the strength I needed to carry on with life.
The following week I went to the Red Cross to get a visitors pass for April 1945. I told them about my experience on the 21st of March when I had spent four hours in a bomb shelter and lost my chance to visit my husband.
They informed me that I could write a letter and mail it through them. They also warned me that it would be censored which meant that I had to be careful of the content. The earliest date for another visit would be the 21st of April, 1945, almost a month away. I had no choice than to accept it.
Life continued and it became more and more difficult to make ends meet hard as I tried.
Listening to BBC, I learned that every day peace was getting closer. General Montgomery’s British army was getting closer to the Danish border and was preparing to bring freedom to our country. It sounded full of promise even if the wait was almost unbearable.
The occupation had lasted five years and destroyed our lives in so many ways. Friends and families had been jailed some were killed. Life would never be the same for any of us that we knew for certain.
As bad as it was some good things also happened. Steve, the foreman stopped by the house one day to tell me that one of our customers had called him and wanted him to do a variety of work on his house.
They had offered to pay an advance which would enable us to buy the materials to use. Things began to look up insofar as business was concerned, and with the promising news we kept hearing on the radio, adrenalin began to flow again.
Nora and I, who shared everything decided to spend this time of waiting in a constructive way. We helped each other to thoroughly spring clean our houses. We worked from morning to dusk for two weeks. Spring and hope were in the air. Aksel would be home soon and life would return to normal.
Unfortunately as it turned out it was not that simple. We could hope and dream as much as we wanted but there was more misery to come.
The Nazis got more and more desperate. Prisoners from various prisons in Denmark were shipped to concentration camps like Neuengamme and Dachau, or they were simply being executed. It’s unbelievable to me what men in uniforms can and will do to other human beings. I’ll never understand or accept it but I suppose one would have to be brainwashed in order to do that.
I recall part of an English poem which goes:
I didn’t raise my son to be a soldier
To learn to kill another mother’s son
Unfortunately that’s all I can remember, but those words are imprinted in my mind.
As the 21st of April got closer, I prepared myself for a possible disappointment and that I might never get to the prison. Every day there was either bombing or sabotage in various parts of Copenhagen and I had to consider that I would end up spending my time in a bomb shelter.
On April 18th, I was forced to go to bed with a case of influenza with a temperature of 102 and I could barely move. I suppose my immune system was severely compromised at this point. I called our doctor who came to the house. I pleaded with him to get a shot of something, anything that would enable me to at least make an attempt to get in and see Aksel on April 21.
“I’ll give you a shot, Grethe. You should not get out of bed and get some rest. That’s what you need more than anything.” He turned to Nora who was in the room.
“Will you see that she doesn’t get up? I know you are close friends. This is serious. I have known Grethe for years. She thinks she is a superwoman who can handle everything without breaking down or giving up but this time she has to stay put.” He gave me a shot and all I know is that it put me to sleep. I heard Dr. Ganzel say as he was leaving that he’d be back the next day.
Bedste and Nora took care of me for the week I was in bed. The doctor stopped by daily. When my temperature went down to normal he allowed me to get up. Unfortunately, I had missed the visit to Aksel. I learned later that Bedste and Nora had written a letter to Aksel and mailed it through the Red Cross.
What would we have done without the Red Cross? I can’t praise them enough for what they did all during the war and after.
Count Bernadotte of Sweden who was the head of the Red Cross went personally to Germany as the war was coming to an end. He organized the sending of buses, white buses with red crosses, to pick up the sick and dying prisoners in the concentration camps—even wounded German soldiers were being brought to hospitals in Denmark and Sweden.
It was toward the end of April 1945, when Nora stormed into our house. “Thank God you are home, you must come over immediately, I know you speak and understand German better than I do.”
“What happened, have the Nazis invaded your house?” I asked jokingly as I followed Nora next door. “Close enough, yes. So far as I understand, they are here to take our truck.
“Who is here? Oh, I see these two clowns.” I nodded toward two German teenagers in uniforms that were at least two-three sizes too big for them. They were leaning against the wall smoking cigarettes which they put out when they saw us coming.
They looked pathetic and comical at the same time. I would have laughed had the situation not been so serious.
“What are you two doing here” I asked them in German.
“We are here to pick up that truck there” they answered, pointing to Fredrik’s truck parked in the driveway.
“Who told you to do that?” I asked. “Our superior” one of them answered.
“Well you can tell your superior that you are not getting this truck. This family make their living with this truck, picking up goods at the train station and delivering them to the merchants around town. By the way, don’t you know that Hitler is in the process of surrendering.”
“Hitler will never surrender.” They both spoke with the conviction of those brainwashed into continued belief in the cause.
I wasn’t going to waste much time on these kids. In a way, I felt sorry for them. They were only following orders and trying to do their job. My guess is that they were only around fifteen, the same age of Ole and Soren, Aksel’s two boys.
Suddenly it dawned on me and I said “The reason you are going around picking up people’s trucks is so you can get out of town in a hurry when “der Fuhrer” surrenders. That’s it, isn’t it? You don’t have much time left here and I can tell you this much, the Allies are on the way to liberate Denmark and get you out.
That did it, they looked at me and walked away without a world. I was stunned as I went into the house with Nora and sat down on a kitchen chair.
“That was easier than I expected, I’m sure you won’t hear from them anymore. They might not know it but their superiors do. It’s all coming to an end I know it for a fact, I listen to the BBC all the time” I said. “Gosh, you were good, I was scared. Thank you Grethe” Nora said. I told her that oddly enough I hadn’t been scared for a second, I didn’t feel threatened at all, it was pity for them that I felt more than anything else.