I have very few recollections of the war. I was pretty young, and I had nothing to compare; I didn’t know what life had been like before – I assumed that was the way the world was. I was born in a small apartment in Soeren Moellersgade across from the Elementary School I would eventually attend. When I was about 2 years old, we moved from almost the centre of town to a “modern” apartment a couple of km away. In retrospect, the war wasn’t that bad from a small child’s viewpoint. The one thing I learned pretty quickly was the Air Raid Alarm. There were speakers mounted everywhere, and when the alarm went – day or night – everybody sprang into action. Denmark did not have the huge bombings that England and Germany had, but we were being bombed just the same, and by both sides. But the air raids were great social events for us kids. If they happened in the middle of the night, as they seemed to prefer, we had everything ready to leave for our bomb shelter: Blankets, pillows, food and thermos bottles with coffee. In our case, we all went to the basement of the apartment building. We lived on the fourth floor and the way the apartment buildings were arranged, there was a set of front stairs and a set of back stairs with an apartment on either side of it; so in our case, it meant we had 8 apartments with probably an average of three people per apartment.
The basement was totally dark as the small high set windows had been painted black for the black-outs, so it was always dark. Down there was an old-fashioned wash house with a wood-burning boiler made of concrete for boiling the family wash. There were small lockers for each apartment, and then there was a fairly large room for hanging clothes to dry when it was too wet and cold to hang them outside as well as bicycle storage. This was where the big boiler for the building’ central heating was stored so it was generally nice and warm. My recollection of the boiler was that it was about the size of a small truck and it was about a foot and a half off the floor. For some reason they had figured out that the space under the hot water tank was the safest place for all us kids. They had placed some thin mattresses on the floor there, and all the little kids were generally just yanked out of their bed and carried down. But everything was in readiness for this sometimes nightly trek. There were thermoses with hot drinks sitting ready, food and whatever else might be needed. Sometimes we got the “All Clear” almost before we got ready to go, and other times it could last all night. The whole time we were there, we would be waiting for the explosions and there would be speculation as to how far away it was. There was a Primus stove down there as well. It was just a one burner affair, but it was put to good use when the wait was a long one. But there seemed to be a lot of camaraderie and in later years, it seemed to me to be a much happier time. Everybody was in this mess together, and everybody was coping. There was next to nothing for anybody to buy, so we all had to be very creative, and there was a certain amount of satisfaction in that.
During the war there were shortages of everything. Our apartment was very modern by the standards of the day. We actually had a bathroom right in the apartment, and both our kitchen sink and bathroom sink had two taps, one for hot water and one for cold water. All through the war, we never did have hot water. Fuel was at a premium. The government actually passed a law that no one was to heat their house to more than 18 degrees. We were very fortunate. My Dad worked as a salesman for a company that sold wood to carpentry shops, so he would come home with wood ends that could be used for burning. There was a bit of a problem with that though. We did not have a wood-burning fireplace or stove. We were cooking with gas. This did not deter my Dad. The chimney for the boiler down below ran right by our bedroom, so he smashed a hole in the chimney and put in a pipe and found an old Franklin type stove and – voila – we had a wood-burning stove and cook top. We even thought the food tasted much better having been cooked in this manner. It also had the advantage that we went to bed in a warmed room in the wintertime, something that was unheard of in Denmark. We did have radiators in the bedroom, but you certainly didn’t waste heat on a bedroom. – It also helped on our quarter situation. Our gas burners were on a meter, and we would have to plug something like a quarter into the meter to keep the gas coming. Many are the times when we would have to eat food that wasn’t fully cooked because we ran out of quarters. But that was just the way things were!
In our apartment building we had a big loft as well. The whole block was connected through this loft. It was reached through the back stairs and connected to the next series of 8 apartments and their back stairs. Up there were more storage lockers and a row of small rooms under the roof as well as a large bare room that was just framed in. It had small windows in the roof which was made of red clay roof- tiles. These roof-tiles were placed on narrow strips of wood going across the rafters and there were several places where you could glimpse the sky through the roof. But all roofs were like that then, and they generally did not leak as the tiles were curved in such a way that the water just went down the middle of them. This room served many purposes – most of the time it was used for drying clothes for the whole complex, but when there were special occasions such as a wedding or a confirmation or baptism it could be transformed into a party room. It would be strung with crepe paper in appropriate colours and long tables and benches would be set up with white table-cloths, candles and flowers and everyone’s best china. Both my confirmation, and that of my brother Per and his baptism were celebrated here. – But during the war a whole new purpose sprang up. There was a great shortage of tobacco, in fact, I am not even sure there was any. So there were all kinds of concoctions created. One of the most popular thing was using dried cherry leaves, as I recall. They were strung together on thread and hung up there to dry. I know several other experiments took place that all involved drying things. – So many things were rationed and quite severely so. Coffee was a good example – I think we got stamps for about a quarter pound a week. There were many ways discovered to stretch this measly amount of coffee. We could buy Chicory. It was rationed as well, but not nearly as much, so it was added to the coffee, and by the end of the war, most Danes were so used to the “full bodied” taste of the chicory that it took probably 20 years before most people gave it up. The chicory came in two brands, Richs and Danmark, and the feelings ran high as to the superiority of one over the other. The added bonus was that each package contained a collector’s card. Towards the end of the war, I was an avid collector of the Danmark movie star collection. You could send away for an album to paste them into. I think you had to send so many end flaps in to get this album. Of course, there was brisk trading going on as well to complete your set. Most of the movie stars were unknown to us since we did not see any new movies during the war.
When Denmark was occupied, it was like our borders were closed to the rest of the world. The Germans imposed very strict censorships on all forms of communication. They appointed a state sensor who had to approve all newspaper and magazine articles, and any infraction was heavily fined. – By the middle of the war, we were starting to get news bulletins from England on short wave radio, but most of the time, we really did not know how the war was going. Both sides were feeding us propaganda, but most of us tended to believe the British.
Big business in Denmark was very torn on which way to go. It was in their financial interest to cooperate with the Germans in order to preserve their businesses. The Germans needed them to help rebuild all their conquered countries, so many of the large business leaders got themselves involved in the war-time cabinet, and at about the time Germany was on their way across Russia, and apparently on the way to taking over all of Eastern Europe, a delegation from Denmark was negotiating the complete absorbtion of Denmark into Germany and adopting the German Mark as the currency in Denmark as well.
Another thing I remember from the war was the shortage of glass and lead. Very few things came in tubes. But the tubes were made of lead, probably with some kind of coating on it or we would have been dead, I guess. At any rate, if you wanted to buy something in a tube, you had to hand in an empty one to get a new one. I also remember going to the grocery store with an empty glass bottle and getting half a bottle of vinegar, and at Christmas time when we were baking, I would go to the store with an ordinary glass and get syrup for the gingerbread cookies. Not all of it made it home – one had to have a little taste on the way home.
During the war most people that had had cars before the war were forced to park them and put them up on blocks because gasoline was rationed to such an extent that only emergency vehicles such as for doctors and officials could get their hands on it. My Dad had just started as a salesman when the war started and had bought an old Willys. I would suspect from around 1930. Now it was parked and he used the train to go around to his customers throughout the countryside. It must have been difficult. I remember at that time he also started representing a wooden toy manufacturer; so along with his sample case of wood, he had a huge suitcase of wooden toys. – I think that was the beginning of my Dad’s downfall. The socializing on the trains. Beer was available everywhere, and it was a part of life in Denmark. I think it was the one thing that wasn’t rationed. Maybe the Germans thought they would at least keep us happy, and we might not fight them as much. I have no idea. – At any rate, it was around this time that I remember Dad coming home and having to have a nap on the sofa before, during and after dinner. The job as a salesman in those days always involved lunch and sometimes lunch carried on all day. There must have been a lot of pressure on people despite all the bravado. We were all powerless.
It was a difficult time. Five years is a very long time. We were not actively at war. Our army and police was taken over by the Germans. Any resistance was instantly put down. Dissidents were persecuted. No one knew whether this was a temporary thing or a new way of life. Most Danes remained passive and just carried on their lives as best they could under difficult circumstances. Some people joined the Resistance Movement. It was an underground organization that was constantly in danger; and others again must have wondered if they might be better off by joining our oppressors. One of my uncles was in the Resistance, and many nights I know my Grandmother knew he was out somewhere on a mission. Many disappeared and sometimes one of them had to find a small boat and get ferried over to Sweden. They were neutral, so they helped both the Danes and the Germans. Denmark had a small Jewish population and throughout the war they were smuggled across the small strait between Denmark and Sweden. A great many lives were saved. When the Germans decreed that all Jews in Denmark had to wear an armband with a Star of David at all time, every Dane, starting with the King of Denmark were wearing them.
Hang in there – we will get there.