The Danish Resistance

Inspired by my father’s life experiences during WWII, I created the character of Carl Pedersen, featured in The Final Canoe Ride and Elke’s Magic. Modest to a fault, both Carl and my own father underplayed their heroism. During a time of brutal, horrific acts, the following blog details the efforts made by people who simply strove to do what was right for their friends and neighbors. The Danish Jews.

“This is the perfect meal. The best nutrition for the least amount of money. It was what we fed them, you know, while they were in hiding. I think of them, of all of them, whenever I make pea soup!” He was standing in front of the stove, stirring the large pot of soup that he had made from scratch earlier that afternoon. Then, turning off the burner, he began ladling out the thick green creamy soup, handing each of us our servings. Carefully cradling our filled-almost-to-the-brim bowls, we headed into the dining room for supper. A loaf of crusty fresh bread that our mother had baked earlier lay on a cutting board. And we began to eat.

Intrigued, I asked my father to tell me more about the people that he had been hiding. Hesitating a bit at first, he finally agreed to give us more detail. Normally quiet about his past, he didn’t often share. But when he did, it was a cherished, memorable moment.

It was Sunday, and snow was falling outside and the house was warm and cozy. It was the perfect night for story telling. That evening, in his charming Danish-accented English, he took us to another world and to another place in time.

“There are no words intense enough to describe the utter abomination occurring in Europe during World War II. Knowing the horrific things that were happening to the Jewish people in other countries, we could not sit back and allow it to happen in our country. People all around Copenhagen and other cities and towns throughout Denmark organized their efforts in a coordinated yet clandestine manner, figuring out unique ways to hide the Jewish people. And so, we kept them undercover and underground, in our homes and in churches and in many other unique places. Until we could move them to a safe haven.

At that point in time, my student friends (most were also resistance members) were doing our residency at hospitals throughout Copenhagen. It was then that we came up with a brilliant plan to help hide our Jewish neighbors. We knew that the Nazis were terrified of contracting illness. And so our idea was perfect! Literally right under the Germans’ noses, we would sequester our Jewish friends in the quarantine wards of the hospitals. It was safe, though, as there were no actual diseased patients in the wards. It was all a clever ruse, a way to foil the German soldiers as they made their rounds, searching for the Danish Jews. Since they would never dare enter a space with a door clearly marked “Quarantine” they skipped the rooms deemed to be rife with disease! And so, our friends were temporarily safe.”

My dad stopped talking for a bit, cut a few thick slices of bread and passed the board around the table.

“Those poor people! They had had to leave everything behind. They had nothing. And on top of that, they were starving. Feeding so many of them was tricky, but we did our best. We would make soup for them, often pea soup like we are having tonight, in the biggest pots we could find. Food was rationed, but there were some ingredients we could rustle up from the many generous supporters of our cause. But wait. I am getting ahead of myself. I think that I need to give you more of the background history of what led up to the occurrences in 1943. I am certain you have covered the major wars in school, but sometimes one just gets the periphery. Even in my relatively small country, there was so much more going on than your textbooks could possibly cover.”

He went on, drawing deeply into the world in which he had dwelled, so many years ago.

“World War II had been brewing throughout Europe for a few years before the Nazis eventually invaded Denmark. On April 9th, 1940, they arrived. I was nineteen years old, almost twenty, and in the early years of working towards my medical degree at university. So I was young, but I remember every detail. Denmark surrendered to the Germans almost immediately, realizing they were not capable of defeating the much greater forces of the German army. Denmark became an occupied country. Our government began to cooperate with them. And life went on almost normally, despite shortages of food, etcetera.

However some of us were not happy with the situation. Eventually a resistance formed, and we began fighting against the Germans in some not so subtle ways. Sabotage occurred, generated by the members of the resistance. Explosions, bombings and other destruction, caused by us, were meant to get under the Germans’ skin. Needless to say, the Germans were not pleased. By 1943, things changed dramatically. Active fighting then occurred between the Danes, (mostly from people in my age group) and the Nazi soldiers. And, at the same time, striking began. Unrest was everywhere. It was at this point when the Germans demanded that our government cease to operate.

On a personal note, It was an extremely difficult time. My father, you see, had many German friends, and he felt it was best to cooperate with the occupiers. I, on the other hand, was part of the resistance. My father and I did not see eye to eye, so to keep peace, I kept my distance from him.”

I had known this part, as he had told me that he never had a terrific relationship with his father. It was, perhaps, why he was such a kind father. Breaking the chain so to speak. He went on once more.

“The situation in Denmark grew from bad to worse. Up until 1943, the Germans had left our Jewish population untouched. But by then things started to change. And that brings us to the earlier part of my story, of hiding them in the hospitals until we could send them safely across the sea to Sweden. Sweden, you see, was neutral in World War II and would provide a safe haven for the Jewish population. We smuggled most of them safely across the water, mostly hidden in fishing vessels. It took a long time to make all of those trips, but it was a well orchestrated endeavor. And, in the end, we saved more than seven thousand people! However, a small number weren’t so lucky, and they did get captured, only to then be taken to concentration camps. But all in all we were able to save most of the population of the Jewish people in Denmark, and for that we were very grateful.

In the midst of all of this, I managed to find myself in quite a bit of trouble. Resistance members were a nuisance to the Germans, and they started investigating the instigators. The Nazis knew who I was, and they were onto what I was doing with my fellow resisters. Normally careful, to the point of paranoia, I always watched my back. But one day as I left my apartment for the hospital, I noticed I was being followed. Finding my way up to a rooftop, I ran across several roofs, trailed closely by the Nazi soldiers. Knowing the back alleys and such, I was able to escape, but I was not fast enough to avoid being hit by a bullet. A bullet that I had to dig out of my arm myself. Thankfully, I never left home without my pocketknife!”

I knew that bumpy scar. He had briefly explained ages ago that it was a war wound. No more details than that. Hearing that he had had to remove the bullet himself left us dumbstruck. He continued, knowing he needed to keep the rest of the story a bit lighter.

 “I would never have made it as a surgeon! It was a rather crude attempt of mine. But still, I am fine! Escaping my tail, I did finally get to the waterfront, where we had left kayaks for emergencies, handy for my situation at the time. And not to worry! I did manage to stop the bleeding from my wound before beginning my paddle. Anyway, I made my way from the harbor, away from my pursuers. Eventually I ended up in Sweden, with the help of a fishing boat that was also carrying Danish Jews to safety. I stayed in Sweden for a bit, and got my wound treated, more professionally this time! And I decided to lay low for a while, as I was certain they would try to find me again if I were to return to my homeland.”

He stopped, then, for a moment, looking at me carefully through his black rimmed glasses. “And that is my story! Now let’s move on to dessert, shall we?”

My father left this world in May of 1996 after losing his battle with cancer. He was clearly an enigma, a brilliant man and a kind and gentle soul. Every time I eat pea soup, I remember that special, snowy night. That night when I learned that my father, as well as all of his fellow resistance members, were heroes. Unsung war heroes who never wanted recognition. They only wanted to do what was right and just.

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