Conducted November 18th, 2010
Karen’s memories of occupied Denmark during the war and the resistance efforts
Today I thought we could talk about your education, and first of all I thought I’d ask you about your education in Jutland, from when you were a little girl.
Well, my family have always been great believers in the folk high schools, which were begun by a priest of the name of Grundtvig – well it wouldn’t be a priest because that’s a Catholic name, isn’t it? But the vicar in church, and he wanted to give young people from the country who had not had the opportunity to study much an opportunity to do that in boarding schools and I was one of the lucky ones who went to such a boarding school. The courses were for girls in the summer and for boys in the winter and of course the boys were taught to be good farmers and the girls expected to be farmers wives so we had to learn about hygiene and about cooking sound food.
Healthy food. And it was quite fun, all of it. I enjoyed it very much.
So how old were you when you went there?
I was maybe 16, 17. And of course we were all young and there were lots of things to do and things to learn, it was great.
So tell us about some of the classes that you had there.
Well it’s a long time ago. It would be household things in the morning and embroidery and weaving and dyeing with vegetable dyes in the afternoon. And then there were lectures. It was all about education, of course, and about better standards of life. Of course at that time none of us thought that everything would change very quickly with the war and everything, so we were taught how to run a household with two maids and (laughs) possibly a children’s nurse and we were taught how to cook really fantastic food as well, and also organise other people to cook it for us (laughs) – it was nice, it was good.
Good idea. So what kind of food were you instructed on?
Well it would be of course based on food that was available that we mostly grew ourselves, whether it was animals or gardens or fields.
Are there any dishes that you can remember?
Well I gave Katrina my cook book that we had been writing down, because we had to write it to do it all ourselves. And the teachers had organised that we should write all of the recipes down so that we could really remember and understand.
So they’re somewhere.
I think it’s a good idea – it was the same principal that was used in the art school in Copenhagen.
I’d like to ask you about the classes you had in needlework and weaving. Can you remember those?
Yes and I’ve still got some of those things, I’ve given them to Katrina (laughs) but I don’t know where she’s got them. I’ve still got this tablecloth, a linen table cloth with a design in the middle, because that was deemed to be more practical than having them on the edges all around (laughs). It’s nice.
Now before you went to the school I understand that you already had started to do needlework.
Oh yes, because my mother liked to arrange for the maids and ourselves to sit to do needlework in the winter afternoons. So this was around the dining room table that was used for visitors mainly, but could be left for us to pick up on the next morning. And there we were, sometimes I remember some of our maids had been taught embroidery at home and they were very happy about me wanting to learn from them, which was nice. I was five or six or seven. And I was quite good with a needle from the very beginning, which was nice to think about really. And one of the maids I remember in particular, her name was Mary Østergaard and she had red hair and freckles on her arms and I loved that. And she taught me quite intricate stitches I have used all my life really, except now my hands have gone.
And what kinds of things did you learn to make once you had learnt how to sew?
Ah well it was always pretty things, table cloths, pillow cases, you know, with insets of lace. And I think there was even a couple of aprons once, which was of course more like work (laughs), and I liked the pretty things.
So when you’d started at the housewives school which you were telling us about in the beginning, were you quite interested in weaving and needlework?
Yes I was born like that I think (laughs). From the beginning I was interested. Very unlike my sister who’s ten years younger.
So what did she like doing instead?
She was a bit more militaristic I think than me. Not that we didn’t feel the same about things. Of course we both thought that there shouldn’t be any difference between… that we shouldn’t be treated any different from the boys (laughs).
And did you feel the same way?
Yes of course, very militaristic.
Shall we go back to the school you were sent to? What were you calling it, the Ungdomsskole?
Salling Ungdomsskole, which means youth school.
Was that 1938 to 1939?
No because it was before the war, so 1937 to 1938. Because I remember that one night we decided to stay up all night to listen to the radio about the peace talks in Munich, remember? Of course you don’t.
And what did you hear?
They settled on ‘peace in our time’, all that, which didn’t happen. And then the next year was ’39, and the war started. And that was one of the… that stopped everything that we had been doing. Everything changed.
Can you remember the atmosphere around at that time?
Yes, I can. Because we were in the countryside and young people didn’t really know or understand anything of what was really going on, and if you read in the paper and you think it’s impossible, it isn’t impossible – we really did not know what was going on south of the border, or anything like that.
South of the border would have been which country?
Germany. Yes because my home is in Jutland which is the Peninsular that comes… well I’ll have a look at it now (laughs). So, there is a road that runs straight from the border all the way up to the north, up to Viborg, my home town, which is called the ‘War Road’ and traditionally carried all the traffic that went north. Well we were just a few kilometres away from that. And one morning I woke, hearing aircraft coming up over that part of Denmark, very heavy aircraft, you could hear it was heavy and I went to my parents bedroom and my brothers came too. And my father was very very unhappy, and he was trying to… he pushed his pillow very close to his ears, he didn’t want to hear, and we wanted to know what it could be, and he said “it’s the invasion, the Germans are invading us”. And this was the aeroplanes that were carrying German soldiers to Norway. And then shortly after, we heard the heavy trucks come up on the War Road. Right through our house we could hear the shaking of the road. Oh, it was something you could never ever forget – the feeling that everything is breaking up under you, that you don’t know anything any longer, you don’t know what is going on, you don’t understand what is going on.
Were there any radio broadcasts at all?
Yes, but this was very early in the morning, four or five in the morning.
So this happened one particular morning?
Yes, yes, and then, of course, Denmark is a very small country and we have an army but the army was conscripts doing their national service. And the government had deemed it best not to defend the border because there really wasn’t any point. But that didn’t stop some of the young men, some of the young soldiers, they did defend our border and were killed in the attempt and had to be stopped doing this. But my brothers were very keen on helping too so the sabotage began (laughs) more or less straight way, you know, by blowing up trains. I don’t know where they got the dynamite stuff from but they did (laughs), they always knew where to get things. And so they blew up trains together with their friends and this began within a week.
Was this part of an organised resistance?
Not at that time, it wasn’t organised.
So how did it work then?
It didn’t take very long and then it was organised from England. And people knew what they were supposed to do. And people became members of the resistance. I do remember very well our bus driver, a young man, we didn’t know of course, but he was the leader of the group nearest to us, yes. And of course included in the resistance was keeping an eye open, an ear open for what was going on, so the leaders always knew what was going on and helped from behind as well as in front. And so one day, one of the passengers that stepped on board the bus sat next to the driver and said, “you have to get away. Next time we stop, go out with the other passengers”. And he did of course, and he was safe and he got to Sweden and stayed there for the rest of the war. But you see it was as much a question of not letting anybody know what was happening as it was to keep people safe, as safe as it was possible to do. So this was done without any fuss at all. Someone else came and drove the bus on and you wouldn’t know there was anything going on unless you were in it (laughs).
So what was the atmosphere like? What did people talk about to each other?
We talked about the war of course, but not about anything that might possibly cause harm to anybody. That was, you didn’t speak loudly and you didn’t speak to people you didn’t know.
So who could you speak to?
Well, my brothers were very keen on doing their bit. And my father died in 1942. And that of course changed everything even more for us. My youngest brother was 12 and he became a member of the resistance, so he delivered illegal papers and my little brother, he always thought of ways of making things more practical, easier, so he hit on the idea of sending the illegal papers on the wind from the church tower (laughs). To great surprise, everybody found them, he didn’t get caught luckily (laughs), you have to think creatively.
So it sounded like people from all ages were getting involved, was that right?
Oh yes, if they could. And of course it helped to have a family you knew you could trust.
What about in the farmhouse in the farm, could you speak to people that worked on the farm about what was happening?
They knew. They came from similar farms to ourselves, they had come to learn from my parents, both the farm workers and the maids. So we were the same, yes. And there was never any difference. Well it all went as we hoped and the Nazis were defeated. But then years and years later, when I was married and Katrina was a few years old, we were home on holiday and then we discovered that knowledge and valour doesn’t always mean you do the sensible things. My brothers hadn’t thought of tidying up behind them. And one day Katrina came with this nice little pineapple-shaped thing with a pin in it (laughs) and asked her father what that is, “what is that, daddy?” and was fingering the pin. Oh no, we got so upset, we got so angry. You see my brothers had stored all their weapons and stuff round the chimney up at the top of the farmhouse (laughs).
And it was still there after all these years?
So that must have been a hand grenade?
Yes and so by this time it was really not the thing to be handing it in, that should have been done a long time before (laughs), so they decided to find it all and take it down in our little wood. So there’ll be something for an archaeologist of the future.
Absolutely, so that’s buried somewhere near Meldgaard?
(Laughs). But my father and his brother had planted the little wood and it grew and actually the trees were big enough to be used for building the new barn later. Self-sufficient.
Can I ask you, going back to the early days of the war, did you know if there were Nazi sympathisers, some Danish people who were sympathetic towards the invader?
There were rumours. But after the war there was a sort of a round up and there were trials. You didn’t like to believe anything like that of our friends and neighbours. Of course unfortunately there were some, but they didn’t last. We’re not quite as harsh as the Vikings (laughs).
True. Karen you mentioned in 1942 when your father died, everything changed for the whole family.
Well my mother was intent on us somehow achieving all the things that we wanted to do. So my eldest brother, he had asthma so couldn’t really be a farmer so he had thought that he wanted to become a veterinary surgeon but he just could not bear not to be there on the farm with my mother, so all that changed. And he and the next brother tried to run the farm together and this worked really quite well, but they all wanted to see the world of course, as boys do. And meanwhile, I had by this time decided that what I wanted to do was to go to the Art School in Copenhagen. I don’t quite know how I found out about it (laughs), but that’s what I wanted to do. And so I was able to begin that next year and I think that was the most marvellous thing ever, because then I could use all the knowledge that I had gained already and I could transform it into something else. I was very lucky in Copenhagen to be invited to live with the librarian at the Museum of the Decorative Arts and her daughter, and eventually her husband, whose name was Kaare Klint. And he was the one who really started the Danish furniture, teaching young furniture architects, and that was the furniture that went round the world during the 50s.
So it was a big decision to leave?
Oh yes it was. But it was the most wonderful thing that happened.
I understand your father wanted you to be a farmer’s wife?
That was what he expected. So it took a little bit when he died for me to know that I should follow my own instincts and not think of trying to please anybody else at that time.
So what helped you make that decision?
(Laughs). Very hard, very hard. I don’t think that I can really explain that. So in Copenhagen of course I had many good friends who were at the art school, and people that I met who were part of it all.
Did they have an interview process at that time?
Yes I suppose so. The teacher had never had a farmer’s daughter from Jutland before (laughs), but she coped. I did too. And then one of the people who came to mean a great deal for me, one of the fellow students was called Ninna Rathje. Ninna had been lucky enough to work with Margrethe Hald, who was the first person in Denmark to take an interest in the techniques of the textiles that were found from Bronze Age tombs and bogs, and Stone Age tombs for that matter, and then later on early Iron Age. And she suggested we should go to the National Museum and visit her and find out more about what the work was like, which we did, it was wonderful. And I suppose that’s where I could see that there was a place for studying the old textiles and how they were made, and how they came about. And I suppose that’s what led to the conservation.
So just taking you back to when you first arrived in Copenhagen if I can. It was during the war and it was 1942, what was it like being in Copenhagen?
It was horrible, because I think it was ‘43 that all the Danish services – army, navy – were interned and they were eventually given freedom again but only by promising not to take part in the resistance, but of course they all thought that a promise extracted under threat is not a promise. One of my friends was a naval cadet and he went to school with my brother in Viborg, and another friend was a policeman, he was a neighbour’s son. And we had to be able to live, even though it was wartime and the restrictions grew harder and harder, including that there were curfews from eight o’clock in the evening until eight o’clock in the morning. Well for young people that means that the party begins at eight and finishes at eight (laughs), which was what we did and we coped very well. But it was really sometimes very difficult because if you were caught out in the street after curfew, you could be shot. Killed. And at first I think the Nazis thought it would be a nice little larder for them. Well the farmers then cut down on their production and that was that.
The farmers cut down on their production as a way of preventing them taking all their produce?
That’s the thing, isn’t it. You have to find a way to do what you think is right.
Do you think that was organised in some way?
No, you don’t need to organise things when you all know what it’s all about. And then, well it all began to come to an end. We knew that it couldn’t last all that long and then on the 19th of September 1944 there was a – well we were meant to believe that there was an air raid on. But of course we all knew the sound of the English Spitfire that had been captured some years before (laughs), so that would never stop us from anything. So at the art school I think it began at 11 o’clock in the morning, and we were supposed to go in the cellars, as you can imagine, and the warders at the museum were supposed to see to it that we did, but we had a way of brushing them so that they could only capture at the most one of us to get across the road to the next street to the restaurant where we could then drink coffee. Well that morning we got to the next road, but it was very strange because there was no quiet, just people standing around looking worried, scared, wondering. And then we saw the first truck come with our policemen sitting with guns held on them. And they couldn’t move and we didn’t know what was wrong, then we realised that they were being removed from their post. Later we discovered that the Germans had planned to intern all our policeman, all our police, and put them in concentration camps in Germany. But there was a milkman out who had seen the first attempt of raiding a police station, and he went around to all the others and to the royal palace where there was police guard.
We got to the restaurant and were having coffee, and I think we had just ordered the coffee when the first truck came through with the Danish police with Nazi guns held on them and we realised what was happening, it meant that we put down our mugs (laughs), rushed out, down along the side of the museum to the royal palace because we knew that it would be important for the Nazis to take over the guarding of the royal family and we did not want that. And so we rushed to help build barricades and whatever else we could do. And just as we finished the Queen, who had been away, Queen Alexandrine it was then, her limousine came through the street then so we had to move things out again so she could get through (laughs). And then immediately after that, the first contingent of marine soldiers turned into the streets from Langelinie, which is at the other end. And then the shooting began. First people in the street. I had seen there was a door open to a house and we thought there wasn’t time, and I gathered some of my friends from the art school together and we went into this house and up a few flights of stairs. And I had just seen one man being killed, from the other side of the street. He had gone down the cellar, there was a cellar shop where they sold vegetables and things, and I suppose he must have felt in danger. Anyway he should have stayed where he was, but he came up and he was killed, and lay there for the rest of the morning. I looked at my friends and I don’t know what made me take charge, but I just did, and said “lie down on the stairs, lie still”, and they all lay down on the stairs and lay still. But one of the horrible things about having taken charge is that then you become responsible. And so I had to stay by the window to see what was going on, and that wasn’t really very nice at all.
What did you have to do, Karen?
Well, I looked out of the window. By this time the marines, in the black uniforms, had come in front of us, between us and the palace. And they were shooting from both sides of the street which means that the resistance must have been in the buildings on both sides. And there was this young marine who was killed. And he was lying in front, just below the window where I was. At the time I only saw the red hair and the helmet that had rolled off and the crimson blood that came over the grey stones – it sounds very art school like but that was what I saw then. And I didn’t have any feelings about it because at that time, you didn’t have any feelings when the enemy was concerned. You just did not think any further than what you saw.
This is a German soldier?
Yes. And it was many years later that it really sunk in that he was probably only 16, less than that perhaps, because it was near the end of the war and there was panic everywhere. And I then thought of his mother who might only have got his identification tags to say that he was lost. I couldn’t bear to think about that, then everything sort of started working on me.
I think the first part of the battle lasted something like 20 minutes, which doesn’t sound an awful lot when you mention it just like this, but it was awful at the time to be in it. And then suddenly, the shooting stopped. And after a few minutes I thought it would be really good if we could get away from here, all of us, and I’d explained what had happened to my colleagues lying down on the stairs and they came up and I said I think that if we run now, it’s only a couple of minutes to the gates to the museum. And so we decided to make a run for it. And luckily, I don’t know what you call it but they had stopped fighting. And it was a while before it started again. This time we were safely behind the doors of the museum and I had shown my colleagues and friends how to get over the Bredgade, which is the next street, so they could get home, get away, and I went and had coffee (laughs) and that was nice.
I don’t know what happened but, negotiations came in place and it was agreed that the Danish police should guard the royal family for the rest of the war, and so there were some sensible people around. And from then on I spent my evenings collecting cigarettes and chocolate and stuff for people who were guarding the palace (laughs) because I had to walk past them anyway to get home.
So you used to give them cigarettes and chocolate?
Well the road into the palace was barricaded, and so there were Danish police there and of course they needed cheering up, we thought. They were probably quite happy as it was (laughs).
When I first came to Copenhagen it was a question of finding somewhere to live, which was not very easy at that time. And you’d think that it would have been easier than now but I think it was much the same really. Anyway, one of my fellow students knew about a flat that belonged to a young man who had invited two of his friends to stay and they had a room to spare, so perhaps I could go there. So I went to see them. One of the men was a little bit older than us and the other was a bit younger than I. And I thought it looked very nice, attractive. The older young man’s sister was staying there at the time, so I thought that would be nice, and moved in. And we were of course very much concerned with the war and, knowing as many resistance people as we did, we had heard all the stories, knew all the problems that were coming, and of course we weren’t exactly excited about anything because you’re not when you’re in that situation. But we hadn’t really expected to suddenly be singled out for a visit by Gestapo. It took place in the day time, I wasn’t there nor were the two younger men, only Jorgen – the older one – and when we came home he was still white faced and a bit upset as you can imagine, and we wanted to know what it had been like, and he said that they kept asking him questions and he said “I thought I’d better play stupid” (laughs), and we thought that was probably an excellent idea. And he told us that that was how he coped all the way through, but it was quite nerve-racking. But he just did not want to risk saying anything at all that could be misconstrued about anybody or anything outside our little flat.
Do you know what role he played?
No, we still don’t. He never found out why they came. Someone must have suggested that they could benefit. And then it was a bit horrible. I didn’t much like staying there after that. But then it all ended well and we didn’t hear any more about it, but our friend stayed away for a bit, just in case (laughs). It was horrible.
So did you talk about the resistance much in your flat to each other?
No, only when we were alone and then not very much because we didn’t really want to [risk being] overheard, and at the same time we were so used to not talking about things. I think that was the chief thing. And I think that’s really the most horrible part of the occupation, that you had to keep on suppressing your instincts.
What effect do you think it had on you?
I think It took me a long time to get over that, to talk freely about anything. You were always worried in case something could be misconstrued.
Before we broke, you told us about a battle that happened one day in Copenhagen when they took people away, and I think you said that someone you knew was taken away.
Oh yes, because it was the Danish police, the whole of the Danish police were meant to have been interned and taken to a concentration camp. Luckily an observant milkman found out quite early on what was going on and he managed to get to most of the police stations. I mean a milkman is not noticeable in the street, that’s the thing isn’t it? So he went to as many police stations as he knew and he especially went to the royal palace, because we were very very aware that if things were not handled right that the Germans could move in to take charge of the policing of the palace and of people who came, and we didn’t want that. So by the time they got started only those police stations that hadn’t been told in advance. And one of them was one nearest to us where my friend was serving. He was an old friend from home, a neighbour’s son, and he was amongst the people who were interned that day. I didn’t see him leave but I found out right away that he was amongst the people taken.
Where did they take him?
First of all they put them in the trucks and took them to the harbour where a ship was waiting to take them to Germany. I’ve got a picture that shows an artistic impression of the people being herded to the ship. Because 40 years later, the surviving police decided to have a kind of Jubilee, if you like. They had continued to be in touch and Peder was involved with setting up a magazine, and he sent copies of that to me. With annotations here and there. And I think that was the most horrible thing, when we actually saw them sitting in the truck with the Germans holding guns on them.
Where were you when you saw them?
Well the day, this whole thing, began about 11 o’clock in the morning. It began with an air raid signal. And then we heard the plane which was truly English, a Spitfire even, but it was one that the Germans had captured years before so we knew the sound very well, and we knew that this was a fake air raid. As with all air raids we went straight to the restaurant across the road from the museum.
And you saw them from there?
And that was when we knew that the next place of call would have to be the royal palaces.
What was the name of your friend that you told us about that was arrested?
Peder Mørup. And our other friend who had been interned years before, but had been let out, his name was Knud Kjærgaard. He was a Royal Navy cadet and he had to actually promise not to get involved with the resistance, but you know promises under duress are not real promises are they? Anyway he got himself a job as a messenger boy with a three wheel bike and a space in front to carry things – it was meant to be shoes, but of course you can put a lot of things in shoe boxes, including weapons of all kinds. Well of course, being a messenger meant that he could get around to anywhere in Copenhagen and be unnoticed. So he carried all sorts of things in his bike and when he saw us he would usually whistle (laughs). He taught himself to whistle the proper way, you know, that messenger boys do, so we always knew when he was near and saw his yellow curls and his lovely blue eyes. And we worried, as you can imagine. He didn’t get caught until I think it was two months before the end of the war. He was the only one in his group who didn’t have a weapon on him, which was very lucky. But he was imprisoned. And the last two weeks just before the war ended were the most horrible that we went through because, as you can imagine, it was hard on everybody and the Nazis were very restless, shall we say, and we had absolutely no way of knowing whether they would kill all the prisoners they had taken. We feared that they would and that was why we were so worried. So on the day after, on the 5th of May, we all went to the prisons all around to be ready to welcome the people when they came out, hoping that they would come out. And in this case they did.
That must have been quite an event.
That was horrible, that was horrible, especially of course for his girlfriend who was faced with them putting Knud in prison for three months, well it was two, two and a half months he was in prison.
Can you describe what that was like?
I think that is really really difficult because it is just a question of knowing uncertainty that you can’t ever get away from, whatever you do, worrying, thinking. Just before that my eldest brother, his friends at school, there was a group of them, 11 of them, and they had been taken. And they were put in a van, a truck, supposedly to be taken to prison. When they were well away from towns, or even buildings, they stopped. And the Germans said you can go out now and have a smoke or rest your legs. And they did and all of them were killed. That’s something that you can’t get over. I knew some of them. You can’t ever forget. One was a poet, and he’d had a book published. I mean that takes quite a bit, for poetry especially. It’s a horrible waste.