On May 4, 1945, the German armies in the Netherlands, Denmark, and northern Germany surrendered to the Allies. The next day, British troops under Field Marshal Montgomery marched into Copenhagen, making liberation official. The day after that, May 6, my grandmother (living in the suburb of Frederiksberg) wrote a nine-page letter to her parents in the small city of Kolding describing the events of the previous days. As the letter is long, and so much of it deals with family out of context, I can’t transcribe all of it. But in honor of the 68th anniversary of the liberation, I think a short summary and a few excerpts will be fun.
May 4 was a sunny Friday in Frederiksberg, and in anticipation of the imminent surrender it was difficult for anyone to focus on much of anything. Schools were either closed, or the teachers (such as my grandparents) took their classes to the zoo. And in the afternoon, even though there was an air raid siren, my grandmother let her children play in the sunshine. And, at 8:30 that evening, she turned on the radio to hear the announcer declare: “I have just been handed an important message!” This was the surrender they’d been waiting for all week. My grandmother then opened the door to listen to the instantaneous cheers from the houses all along the street. She woke the children to wait for their father to come home to celebrate. People filled the streets, sang songs, hugged, and waved Danish flags. Others grabbed their suitcases and did their best to leave before the freedom fighters arrived.
After 11:00 on May 4, after the children were once again in bed, my grandparents went out again to celebrate. As my grandmother put it:
“We hadn’t walked far, before there were shots and HIPO cars. We also heard, when we had gone home, that a HIPO had been shot right at the bridge on Peter Bangsvej. Every now and then flares were fired off… A joyous racket spread over the whole city. Those who had revolvers shot a couple of rounds. This continued the whole night, but we were so used to it that we didn’t react much. But when darkness fell, we saw how delightful all the lights were, and how the dark buildings had transformed themselves [with no blackout] into a sea of fire. All the candle lights, that were meant to be emergency lights, sat out in the windows and burned their quiet flames of joy. Over everything you could hear the national songs that sprang forth from the Danish radio… So finally Carl and I went down to the cellar and came back with the dusty bottles that had lain there for so many years waiting for a happy moment. We drank a glass or two or three, and ate a piece of French bread, and listened to the radio until about 1:00.”
The next morning at 8:00 my grandparents planned to go to Amalienborg castle (the king’s residence) to celebrate, but the gates weren’t to be opened until the British army arrived. The German army refused to deliver its weapons to anyone but the British, but until then the Danish resistance forces were the peace keepers. All available vehicles were used to gather the resistance fighters to the city center, and more HIPO members were arrested. Much of the rest of the letter describes the sudden appearance of a veritable army of resistance fighters replete with well-hidden hordes of weapons. These fighters were 16-year old boys, theologians, and everything in between.
Instead of Amalienborg, they walked to Charlottenborg and like so many others, to Strøget. German restaurants had been bombed, and the German publishing house had been destroyed, so that small “white birds” of paper were flying through the air. Some Germans were packing up and leaving, and others had been killed. Once home in Frederiksberg, they collected the children and walked around the neighborhood, and watched the vans continue to drive past with all their prisoners. I will quote my grandmother for the walk home:
“We walked home past Lindevangs School. There wasn’t anyone around. Everything was closed. When we got there we heard a man call out ‘move to the side!’ We threw the children over the wall into the schoolyard and I ran to cover them while the bullets flew down the street. Then we got up and walked home… We asked the boys we met later on, what it was about. ‘Ah, they were after two HIPOs who ran through the yard over there. They would have hidden themselves in the bunkers, there where the children play.'”
One of the themes of my grandmother’s letter is the relief that the truth was now able to be revealed, but also that retributions (fair or not) were also coming. Over the previous five years, it had been dangerous for people like her to know the truth about anyone. Some Danes were secret Nazis, others were secret freedom fighters, and many people had been killed for being too close to either side. But now that the resistance forces were driving through the streets, as my grandmother put it: “I said to Carl [her husband] please let me know all those things I didn’t want to know. There were many people I thought were ‘somebody’ who weren’t at all, and vice versa. Every town has had its witch, and every parish its trolls. Now they will be scapegoated… Honestly, we’ve never been happy to be neighbors with Nazis… If anything had happened to them, we surely would have been forced to go underground. But that day, when it said in the paper that Hitler was dead, there was a moving truck here [at the neighbor’s house] that drove away before 8:30 in the morning.”
Even though the British army entered Denmark on May 5, my grandmother doesn’t mention them. Perhaps they were there, but she only describes the police and the resistance fighters. And to help identify who was a real freedom fighter, there is now a Danish resistance database, where fighters and organizers are searchable by name. Not everyone who assisted the resistance is included of course, but it’s a wonderful place to start. Happy liberation day!