Politics and Religion
Politics and religion were two subjects people never discussed. Friends remained friends no matter what their convictions were. When Hitler invaded Denmark suddenly we became aware that some of our closest friends and acquaintances were Jewish. That meant that they had to flee Denmark where they were born and had lived their whole lives. If they didn’t get out of the country they would be taken to a concentration camp. Everything they owned would be confiscated.
Sweden which was only few miles away from Denmark across the sound was neutral. The only way to get there was by boat. The ferries stopped running at the time of the occupation but fishing boats were still going out to fish at night in the waters north of Elsinore, returning at dawn filled with fish.
When it became necessary to transport the Danish Jews to Sweden in order to escape concentration camps, the only way possible was by fishing boat and only on nights that were dark and cloudy. On moonlit nights it would be too dangerous. The Germans drove tanks up and down the road along the shore. If a fishing boat was discovered transporting refugees to Sweden, the boat was signaled to return to shore. Everybody, including the fishermen, would be taken prisoner. In some instances, people were killed on the spot. That would happen when the signal to return to shore was ignored.
The escapes were secretly arranged with fishermen up and down the shore close to Elsinore. They were paid well by Danish Jews who had valuables or money. People who didn’t have money were still allowed on board. It was all arranged by men from the resistance. They were not motivated by money. They risked their lives. They were idealists, and believed in helping their fellow countrymen.
Cover of a Danish magazine commemorating the war
Early one evening, Aksel told me that he had to go to an important meeting. He couldn’t tell me where he was going or when he would return. “Don’t worry, I’ll be back,” he said as he left on his bike. I couldn’t do anything but wait and hope that he would return safely.
I was in bed reading when Aksel returned around midnight. I heard him walking around and went out into the kitchen. Aksel was filling a tea kettle with water to put on the stove. He turned around. “Everything went well, thank God. I’ll tell you that was some job.” I noticed his overcoat was lying on a chair dripping wet. Aksel was soaking wet up to his waist. He had removed his shoes and socks and was getting ready to get out of his wet clothes in the warm kitchen,
“Did you fall into the harbor?” I asked jokingly, knowing quite well that it had been more serious than that. “No, I didn’t fall into the harbor. I was in the water for hours. Believe me it was some chore, a matter of life and death. I’ll tell you, but you must promise me not to tell a soul,” he said as he removed his wet clothes. I went in the bedroom to get him dry clothes and his slippers and a robe. I made chamomile tea and sandwiches. We sat down by the kitchen table. Aksel took a sip of hot tea. “Remember Christian’s two Jewish friends he brought here for Sunday dinner about ten days ago?”
“Of course I do.” As if I would have forgotten, I had cooked dinner thinking we would have enough for several days. When two more arrived, I wasn’t even sure we had enough for all of us. I boiled more potatoes and put bread on the table to stretch the meal. I recalled that Aksel made several phone calls after dinner. I didn’t ask any questions. I had a suspicion, but didn’t say anything.
“Well, since that Sunday dinner, they have stayed with different people. Some you know, some you don’t. It is better that you don’t know in case you ever should be questioned. The main thing was for them to be safe until we could arrange to get them out of Denmark. You know what would happen to them and everybody involved,” said Aksel.
“All too well, does that mean that they are safely on their way to freedom?” I asked.
“Yes they should be all right now. At one point we thought it was all over.” Aksel drank the tea and ate his sandwich. I poured him another cup.
“We were ready to push the boat out. The motor can’t be started until we are 100% sure that nobody is approaching on the road. We waited a while and then all hell broke loose. Ten people including the fisherman were already in the boat. Three of us were in the water trying to push the boat out. We lay down as low as we possibly could for at least half an hour. As it turned out, the tanks were heading north to Julebaek beach. We were safe this time“ Aksel said shaking his head.
“What happened at Julebaek?” I asked.
“I really don’t know for certain. We could hear machine gun shots, then screams. Then everything was silent. Their job was done. The tanks returned, passing us on their way back to Elsinore. I can’t tell you anymore. I’m exhausted. I have to get some rest.” Aksel finished his tea. “I’m not sure I should have told you all this. It might make you nervous.”
“Don’t worry about me. I would be right there beside you if it wasn’t for our child. You are doing the right thing. That’s what’s important, remember that.” I hung up the wet clothes and put the dishes away. Aksel went to bed. He was exhausted. I understood and I was proud of him.
Grethe with daughter, Lone
The following morning Aksel asked me if we could have an early dinner. He had to attend an important meeting at 6 p.m. That wasn’t any problem. I asked if he would find out what had happened the previous night at Julebaek beach.
“That’s what the meeting is all about.”
“I just can’t believe that those bastards shoot people like that and leave them to die. What kind of monsters are they anyway?” I asked indignant.
“They have been known to do just that. It sounds unbelievable but it’s true. The freedom fighters move the bodies and advise their next of kin if possible. Would you believe that there have been times when somebody left on the beach wasn’t dead, but in a coma and severely wounded. In cases like that a physician from the resistance would take over. The patient might be moved from hospital to hospital, in and out of back doors, patched up a little here and a little there. Everything happens in secret. It’s a very dangerous job. Sometimes they get caught and then you can imagine what happens.”
“Will you have to go out and pick anybody up Aksel?” I asked him as I served him his breakfast. I took our small daughter on my lap and fed her oatmeal.
“This time, I won’t, but who knows. My turn will come, but then again it might not happen.” Aksel finished his breakfast and left for work.
I did my usual chores around the apartment, the dishes, beds and laundry. I did everything as usual, I dressed myself and my daughter Lone, to take our daily round along the coast to the harbor to buy fish for dinner. I walked back through the main street, Stengade, where the grocery store was located.
Lone was in a stroller all wrapped up. It was early spring, 1943. I walked two to three miles every day. It was good for me, as well as for Lone. She got lots of fresh air and my head got cleared. I was able to deal with some of the terrible things going on in our world, at least for a little while.
Dinner was ready at five o’clock. After dinner Aksel left on his bike for his meeting. “Don’t wait up.” He kissed me good-bye. “I’ll probably be back in a couple of hours. Don’t worry. We must be positive.”
I put Lone to bed at eight o’clock as usual when suddenly it hit me. I felt exhausted. I lay down on the bed to rest or take a nap. Every time I closed my eyes I saw scenes of all the terrible events that had happened and possibly would happen before this war was over.
I listened to the radio. It made things worse. The news just confirmed what I already knew. I took out a deck of cards and sat down by the kitchen table to play solitaire. If I can make it come out, I win and everything will improve. The war will end and we can live a normal life. I gave myself three chances to try to finish the game. It didn’t and I gave up.
I went in to the living room and looked at the books in the book case. Every time a crisis had occurred in my life, I had buried myself in a book I chose to read. I wasn’t looking for answers, just a book that could take my mind off the war. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina kept me captivated for an hour. I looked at the clock. Ten o’clock. Aksel wasn’t home yet. Why not? My mind started to wander. I was tired but at the same time all wired and couldn’t concentrate on my book. I sat down in our most comfortable chair, closed my eyes and waited.
A little past eleven o’clock I heard the key in the front door. I raced to open the door for Aksel. He removed his coat and fell down in a chair, looking tired and drawn.
“Would you like a glass of cognac?” I asked as I took out a bottle of Courvoisier I had hidden behind some books in the bookcase. I poured each of us a glass. Aksel smiled as he lifted his glass for a toast: “You certainly are full of nice surprises. Let’s drink to a more normal life.” He emptied his glass. I poured another glass for him and put the bottle away in its hiding place.
“Tell me what happened out there at Julebaek?” I asked.
“I’m sorry that you have to worry about all the terrible things that are happening but I suppose it’s unavoidable.” He emptied his glass and said “This was good of you, it helped.”
“Don’t worry about me. I’m strong. I can handle it. You are doing the right thing. I must admit I hate to wait for you to return from meetings or wherever you have to go. I’m worried that you may not come back alive.”
“Of course you do, I’m sorry” Aksel said. Then he told me about the Jewish family of five. All died on the beach. The children, age three to ten had been drugged so they wouldn’t make any noise or cry. They hadn’t felt anything at all when the shooting took place. Three freedom fighters were there waiting for the boat, which by the way never made it to the beach. The fisherman had discovered the search lights and continued north to open water like he was going fishing.”
“It sounds unbelievable but one of the freedom fighters, Jens Larsen survived. He was in my group. You have met him. He has been here several times.”
“He was police detective, right?” I asked, thinking of all the people whom over the years had been coming in our home. “What happened? Where is he now?”
“Nobody knows, I hope he is safe in a hospital somewhere and that he gets the help he needs. It’s complicated. Nobody can keep track of a person when he is wounded. He gets moved from one hospital to another.”
Aksel stopped talking. “We both need rest let’s go to bed.”