Heroes? They Didn't Think So.
When the Ordinary became Extraordinary
The date was 9th April, 1940, when an ordinary couple - Harry and Wanda, woke up to find themselves in the middle of a war-zone.
The place was Copenhagen, Denmark. Overnight a powerful section of the German Army had parachuted in and stealthily taken over the Danish homeland, in its entirety.
Harry and Wanda were new parents - their first-born son, Kanute, was only three weeks old. They were full of hopes and dreams for his future, like all proud parents. Harry left for work that morning, as every other work day - only to return in moments, saying,
"The street is filled with German soldiers. I don't know why. I think maybe the war is here now!"
Wanda's heart was filled with terror and confusion, and she couldn't help holding Kanute so tightly he squirmed in discomfort.
A small country by comparison
And So Began the Hungry Years
One of the first acts of the German Occupation Army was to issue ration cards for every basic and essential commodity - such things as milk, flour, sugar, tea. And 'real' coffee was one of the first casualties - to be replaced with Chicory throughout the War and for some years afterwards (Anyone who knows a Dane knows that 'real' coffee means coffee beans they grind freshly themselves, every time they make a pot of coffee).
And the amounts of these rationed foods? Barely enough to keep the average person alive and capable of work. Ostensibly to ensure the rich didn't get the 'lion's share' of the food and clothing, the real reason for this rationing would soon emerge. It had been introduced to enable the German authorities to send the majority of food items to Germany for the troops on the front-line of their war, wherever that was at the time. (The German public was not part of this questionable generosity) In time, it would also be revealed that this had been the major reason for the Occupation - to forcefully acquire food.
Of course, rationing existed all over the world during these years - the difference being in unoccupied countries, the food items 'saved' due to rationing were for each country's own fighting men and women, to keep them strong and healthy whilst struggling for their freedom.
A little known fact about rationing in Denmark was that all items came off rationing gradually - mostly one at a time, occasionally more - but ALL of them SO slowly. Near impossible to believe that eleven years after the end of the war, the last items still on rationing were coffee, tea and sugar. Unbelievable, but these were still heavily restricted in 1956, when Harry and Wanda and their two sons migrated to Australia. These commodities were only reinstated to something like 'normal' availability at the end of June of that year.
(Yes, I did say two sons - one born just before WWII began, and one as it ended - planned for peace!)
Followed by the cold years, and the deprivationss
Even the most basic clothing could only be obtained by careful and frugal hoarding of ration tickets until people like Wanda had enough to purchase the item… IF she was ready to wait interminable hours to find out if the item was even available. At last the purchase could be made, and all that was left was to hope and pray there was some value to it.
If all stock were sold out, or no size that could be altered was available, the choice would be to return home and face the waiting time until word spread of the next 'consignment' having arrived. And then start the whole process all over again. Wanda and Harry and all the others like them never saw this as heroism… they would just have called it 'survival'.
One story Wanda would tell to illustrate the heartbreak involved was the time she had saved ration tickets for weeks (with both Harry and herself having gone without all manner of 'necessities'), then queuing for hours in the street in the freezing cold, to purchase a beautiful little velvet(?) suit for her toddler. It was the loveliest thing they had seen or owned in a long time, and little Kanute looked absolutely adorable in it. Sadly, the joy was short-lived. On its first, most careful and gentle hand-washing, it fell apart into tiny fluffy pieces.
It was actually some kind of felt, stuck together with water soluble glue!
In another of the many poignant stories about rationing as it applied to basic clothing - when nothing was available, even after lengthy queuing, Wanda made an undergarment herself for Harry to wear under his work clothes during Winter, in a desperate attempt to keep him warmer.
Can you visualise the only 'material' available to her was newspaper! It's unimaginable . . . but several sheets machine-stitched together in the right shape staved off at least some of the bitter cold Harry suffered painting outdoors.
Heroes from ALL Walks of Life
Suddenly, upper or lower class no longer mattered. Survival was all.
The King of Denmark at that time was King Christian X (grandfather of the present Queen Margrethe) - a proud, courageous and defiant leader, and a passionate lover of all things Danish. Each morning, from 10th April, 1940 (the first day after the occupation, and the very day this photo was taken), he would ride his horse through the streets of Copenhagen, disdainfully ignoring all German soldiers and the salutes they had ALL been ordered to perform. However he would warmly greet every Danish citizen he passed… and would always pause and share a few words with Harry (who was painting park benches for the City Council early in the war). King Christian never stopped clearly demonstrating the love and respect he cherished for his people and his country. There are some today who say this story of King Christian was a myth. How curious that my impeccably honest in-laws witnessed this reality first-hand. It was no myth to them.
Later in the War, Harry's painting skills were employed for the important job of painting the insides of fuel storage tanks (and a cruel postscript was that he would die of lung cancer, caused by the lead in the paint of the day, and the confined area he worked in… 42 years later, thankfully).
King Christian's personal valour was shown clearly when all Jewish Danes were forced to wear the yellow Star of David prominently sewn on their sleeves, for supposedly easier 'identification' purposes. On the first morning of this new regime, King Christian appeared on his horse as normal, sporting the yellow Star on his sleeve - even though he was not Jewish - but to show his solidarity with ALL of his people. What an inspiration to the man in the street! Another myth, according to some. What is the age-old saying - The first casualty of War is Truth? Hmm-mm.
Are we then surprised to learn the Danes have a proud record of hiding and rescuing several thousand of their Jewish citizens?
Harry belonged to the 'Friheds Bekaemper' (Freedom Fighters) - the Danish Resistance fighters. (He is the handsome fellow in the leather coat standing on the far right of the photo.)
Proud names of some of the most valiant, hard-core and memorable Underground groups included Radiser, Citronen, Flammen. We know a cousin of Harry's belonged to one of these groups until his capture, torture and execution. He never 'confessed' and nor did Harry talk about his own involvement - so much was 'top secret with many lives 'on the line' - but Wanda always knew he owned weaponry – just as she knew the special places they were hidden.
A moment of triumph in the midst of the pain and suffering came when it was learnt that many of the most important Danish Underground members, Freedom Fighters and other high-ranking Danish officials were being held prisoners on the top floor of the Shell (petroleum) building in Copenhagen (to ensure the safety of the building against bombing).
A cunning plan was devised, and somehow, the Resistance, in collaboration with the Allies, managed to infiltrate the building and release the prisoners to safety - just before British bombers flew over and almost totally destroyed it. The prisoners were saved but the bombing caused major losses of records, and many highly-placed personnel. How this was done remains a mystery!
Freedom Fighters' Newspaper
We own a precious copy of this illegal but illuminating paper. Translated, it reads -
'Sign of the Times'
And the message in the right hand corner is really something -
If only you could get people to understand
That freedom is not something you just have.
It has to be fought for, again and again,
every hour of every day.
It is the 2nd publication, the month/year is May 1945, and the Price: 50c for Issue 9
***This particular issue was a pictorial variety, with captions and descriptions underneath. The first photo is of Englishmen who had been prisoners for five years in Buchenwald Concentration Camp. The second photo is of 'The Three Mr. Bigs' (the newspaper caption) at their last meeting at the Yalta Conference in Russia, February 1944. These are Winston Churchill, 'Teddy' Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin.
Trust me - you don't want to see the rest of the recorded images.
And the literal 'bottom line' of the paper states -
THE PROFITS FROM THE SALE OF THIS PAPER GOES TO THE CONTINUING FIGHT FOR DENMARK'S FREEDOM,
Near to where Harry and Wanda lived is Ryvangen Park - dedicated to the memory of captured Freedom Fighters, who were tied to posts and executed by a firing squad. Their tradition was to loudly and proudly sing a special song of defiance until they died. They were truly a breed apart.
After War ended, every ex-Freedom Fighter had this sung at his or her funeral. It was one of the hymns we had for Harry's funeral, together with his Resistance armband (pictured) on top of his coffin. For some time now this hymn has been sung at every Danish funeral (much like our 'Lest We Forget' poem), and so we chose this poignant memorial to be part of Wanda's funeral, also. There is never a dry eye when the stirring words of the Freedom Fighters' song are heard. Translated, they are:-
"Always triumphant when you leave -
God knows your road...
Even if you don't reach your goal
Until the World's end.
Never fear the threat of darkness...
The stars will always shine
With the promise of the Lord's prayer,
You shall never despair.
Fight for Everything you hold dear...
Die if you have to...
Then Life is not so hard,
And nor is Death."
And there were many women also involved in sabotage and provision of intelligence to the Allies. One famous Freedom Fighter and spy was Monica Wichfeld - a spirited and indomitable woman, daughter of an Irish aristocratic family. She died in a German concentration camp after assisting the Danish resistance movement.
Want to know more about this subject? For more information and further reading, have a look sometime at -
More 'Ordinary' People
An elderly lady - a 'needlewoman' whose identity remains unknown to us, created and hand stitched this magnificent cross-stitch record of so many important events/aspects of World War II. Pictured is a part of her war-time 'sampler' – another 'extraordinary' demonstration of love and pride. And here is a translation of parts of it:
'All Danes - join the Resistance
All men as one, and make Denmark free'
- and -
'Sweep all the withered green away,
And let us see our fresh green land again'
- and -
'And they thought they could break our hearts,
And they thought they could take away our rights'
Through all the horror, there were moments of humour. Acts of defiance (and small 'wins') like the following, provided much delight to many Danes.
In Copenhagen's 'industrial' area, Danish trucks would deliver goods to factories commandeered by the Germans, be paid, somehow keep the goods on the truck, drive out, load them onto another truck, and deliver the same goods back to the same place - again and again - and be paid every time!
A priest (or monk) called Kai - the main organiser of the escape of so many Jewish Danes (much like Schindler and his amazing List!!) and also a number of nuns hid these unfortunate people, and cared for them until they were able to be smuggled out of Denmark. Sweden had remained neutral during the war - so many Jewish Danes escaped through this route and many other similar and equally complex ways.
This courageous and sympathetic co-operation enabled the Danish people to overlook the 'neutral' stance Swedes had chosen, early in the war, when they had permitted German Forces to travel across their country by train in secret, in closed goods wagons, in order to occupy Norway.
(The main intention of the German occupation of Norway was to control the 'heavy water' supplies needed for development of German nuclear armaments. A short-lived gain that was unsuccessful however, as the processing plant was destroyed by the Allies in 1943)
Many moments of hope and support against all odds, were provided by the BBC (British Broadcasting Commission) in London, and an intrepid broadcaster, Johannes Sorensen, who constantly broadcasted inspirational messages throughout the War. (These broadcasts were only able to be received by illegal 'ham' operators - and passed on to the Danish public to lift their spirits and courage.)
War Ends in Denmark
On the 5th May 1945, the Germans capitulated to General Bernard Law Montgomery - English Commander of European Forces. (For some unknown reason, he was the only person they would officially surrender to).
Immediately the news became public, there was pandemonium of a different kind from the past five years and one month of weary war. Can we imagine the jubilation and dancing in the streets; joyous firing of rifles, cheering, singing, etc.?
Little wonder that Wanda couldn't contain her excitement and joy, and was irresistibly drawn down to the street and the celebrations from their first floor flat. She agonised over the wisdom of joining the celebrations just briefly whilst Kanute (now 5 years old) was having a morning nap - finally deciding he would surely be perfectly safe alone, while he slept.
However, with all the commotion going on, he awoke, and not knowing what the noise and shooting was all about, hid behind a cupboard in fear of some terrible event happening. By the time Wanda returned (maybe 15 minutes later), Kanute was hysterical. Wanda said it took a long time of cuddling and reassuring before he could settle down to any semblance of normal. From that moment onwards, he stuttered - quite badly to start with, but gradually improving until it was finally ended before our marriage in 1965. And Wanda never stopped blaming herself.
And World War II Ended
In the recent past there has been a tendency for a few to disclaim and deny the truth of the type of stories above... to attempt to 'rewrite history'- as if they could.
But look at the photo of just one of the newspapers we possess, with their tragic but true stories. This particular one was published in the newspaper POLITIKEN on 3rd May, 1945. The translation of the headlines is:-
COPENHAGEN IN JUBILATION AND PARTYING WHEN FREEDOM CAME!
Hundreds of Thousands left their Homes and tracked through the City with Flags and Birch branches, and lit bonfires in the streets.
The Town filled with Song. The People could again Smile
And then there's the photos. I don't wish to share these here. Too much pain for too many people. And whilst there are many who believe we should never forget - we should always remember we ALL share this world and the potential to live in harmony... not war; with forgiveness... not censure; with love... not hate.
Importantly to us, we have heard the actual stories from two honest witnesses, Harry and Wanda. We believe, unequivocally, in the eyewitness accounts and testimonials of these two 'ordinary/extraordinary' people'... of their losses of family and friends; their pain and suffering; their deprivation of SO many things the human spirit needs to survive.
And who are 'we'? I am Christine, the wife of Kanute, and the loving daughter-in-law of the late Harry and Wanda Larsen.
And this is our tribute to those two people who meant everything to us.
Lest We Forget - WWII was then...and this is NOW!