My Grandparents Celebrate Liberation from the Nazis

Strøget after liberation

Strøget in May 1945. Image liberated from Nationalmuseet’s Facebook page.

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!

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Fire at the Resistance Museum

On the morning of April 28th, a fire broke out at the Museum of Danish Resistance, which documents the activities of loyal Danes during WWII. Thankfully, no items were irretrievably damaged, but the building might need to be torn down completely and rebuilt. And, as a result of the fire and damage, the museum’s records and artifacts won’t be available for the annual May 5 celebration of Denmark’s liberation from the Germans. Current signs point to arson in a toilet.

One small thing that interests me is the name of the museum. In English it’s the “resistance” museum. But in Danish, it’s just “Frihedsmuseet,” or “the Freedom Museum.” Of course freedom from Nazis isn’t the only kind of Danish freedom, but the name is a sure a sign of the occupation’s shadow over the Danish psyche.

I have in my possession a letter that my grandmother wrote to her family on May 5, 1945, documenting the events of the day. I may transcribe some of that later this week, as the events she describes are absolutely chaotic.

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The Beheaded Virgin’s Legacy

Danish demons, witches, and the bonfire.

Danish demons, witches, and the bonfire.

The other day I came across the interesting case of Christenze Kruckow, a Danish woman executed for witchcraft in the 17th century. Like other noble adolescents, Kruckow was sent to be raised in the household of another family, in her case that of Eller Brockenhuus and his wife Berte Friis at Nakkebølle, on the island of Funen.  After his wife died in 1582, Brockenhuus remarried, and Kruckow left the picture. Unfortunately for Brockenhuus and his  new wife, Anne Bille, they never managed to raise any children, losing 17 pregnancies and infants in 15 years.

Eventually Anne Bille suspected witchcraft, and after a trial in 1596 two women were burnt alive for cursing her marriage bed. During their trial, these women accused Kruckow of being the ringleader, on account of jealousy toward Anne Bille. In case you were wondering, here is how (according to trial summaries) Kruckow managed to thwart all those pregnancies: Kruckow, a demon named Gunder Kældersvends, and a serving devil named Jeronimus measured Anne Bille’s marriage bed with a rope, and tied a knot during the marriage ceremony. Kruckow then gave Anne Bille a glass of sheep’s milk containing a spider from that marriage bed. Then Kruckow carried around a wax baby for 40 weeks and “sacrificed” it at the high altar of the local church. And just to be sure, she and the other witches put an iron cross and samples of their hair under the foot of Anne Bille’s bed. And so on with more wax babies, dancing senseless on the hills under the moonlight, etc.

Nevertheless, because of her high social status, Kruckow herself managed to escape an official trial, and by 1811 had she quietly moved to the city of Aalborg to live with her sister. Here fate caught up with her, and she once again was accused of witchcraft, this time for cursing the wife of a city alderman. Again, two women were burned alive, and again Kruckow managed to escape with her life. The third time, however, was not the charm, and in 1621 Christenze Kruckow was finally executed for cursing the wife of the local priest. Aalborg at the time was the scene of a witchcraft epidemic, and as King Christian IV took a personal interest in the case, it was all over for Christenze. But because she was a member of a noble family (unlike four fellow members of her suspected coven), Kruckow was not burnt alive but beheaded.

Historians seem to agree that Christenze Kruckow was herself innocent of all charges, and that far from being the chief witch of any coven, she was merely a victim of circumstances. Nonetheless, it’s still curious that she should have been accused of witchcraft three different times over a period of 25 years, escaping the bonfire on two entirely separate occasions. Entire books have been written about her story, but perhaps the most wonderful detail (did I mention the devil named “Black Shinbone”?) of the whole story is Christenze Krukow’s scholarship fund. That’s right–one of 17th century Denmark’s most notorious witches left 1000 rigsdaler (minus 500 for trial expenses!) for the benefit of poor university students. Amazingly, this fund, known as “the Beheaded Virgin’s Legacy” still exists!

More information about Christenze Kruckow (in Danish) is at Historie-Online and Dansk Kvindebiografisk Leksikon. Details about the devils and wax babies was gleaned from Om Satanismen: Djaevlebesaettelse og Hexevaesen, by Hans Sophus Kaarsberg (1896).

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King Gorm’s Bones and DNA

Jelling runestones. To the left is "Denmark's birth certificate," on the right Gorm's memory stone for his wife, Thyra.

Jelling runestones. To the left is “Denmark’s birth certificate,” on the right Gorm’s memory stone for his wife, Thyra.

After the exciting discovery of King Richard III’s bones in a parking lot in England, and the DNA tests to support that identity, it seems that other old bones are being seen in a new light. Some of Denmark’s oldest royal bones may be getting similar treatment. It is thought that these bones, discovered under Jelling church in the 1970s, might belong to the first (by tradition) Danish king, Gorm the Old. This church is adjacent to the famous Jelling burial mounds, and it is presumed that Gorm’s Christian son, Harald Bluetooth, removed these remains from the mounds and consecrated them by reinterring them under the church. The bones, however, might also belong to Harald. In any case, it is assumed that these bones belong to a male member of Gorm’s family.

According to the researchers and experts quoted in the article linked above, it makes sense to conduct genetic tests on these bones to compare them with other remains. However, since written records of the Iron Age are so scarce, there are no proven direct descendants (and certainly no male ones) with which to compare the results.* The best the researchers are hoping for is to compare any DNA results with those of the remains of members of other powerful families of the time.

*The current queen of Denmark, Margrethe II claims descent from King Gorm through a somewhat circuitous path. I don’t know whether this claim could be proved through the DNA test, but it would certainly be interesting.

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Genealogy DNA and Meaning

The same day my father received his Genographic DNA results, I saw an interesting column in the Guardian by geneticist Mark Thomas stating that deep ancestry genealogical DNA claims were “storytelling” and largely bunk.  His argument is that to say anyone is descended from any one historical individual (e.g., Oprah descended from a Zulu warrior) is meaningless, because if one of us is descended from a Zulu warrior, then the rest of us are also descended from him as well.

This is true, as far as I can tell. One computer model from 2004 calculated that the most recent common ancestor of us all lived as recently as 3500 years ago! This concept is hard to conceive on an intuitive level, and the model is just that, and not an analysis of actual human migration. But the math itself is straightforward; if we go back 40 generations to the year 800, each person will have roughly 1 trillion ancestors living at that time! And since there were roughly 220 million people alive in the year 800, and since not all of those people had children, and more of them  had children who didn’t have children (and so on), then logic dictates that all of us must have had the same set of ancestors. If not at the year 800, then at some still very recent past.

But I think this analysis avoids two important points. The first is that “storytelling,” as Thomas calls it, is extremely important to our social construction of meaning. Even though we may all be descended from Charlemagne (Genghis Khan, or Mohammed, or Confucius), it’s the path between those points that makes the interesting genealogical puzzle. I know that I am descended from these people in an abstract way; what I want to know is how. After all, my “how” is different from everyone else’s “how,” and even though at some point we do have all the same batch of ancestors, we have the same batch in billions of different combinations.

The second point is that knowing my haplogroup tells me nothing about an individual person, but it does provide the smallest bit context within the enormous and ancient history of human migration. My Y haplogroup may only represent the tiniest fraction of my ancestry, but it’s the only fraction that can even attempt to be mapped. I’m reminded of the work by Brian Sykes in his 2001 book The Seven Daughters of Eve. Sykes uses a large part of the book to imagine the lives of seven European “clan mothers” who lived at one point during the last 25,000 years or so. These people are entirely fictional, but their mitochondria is not. So while the narrative can be exceptionally cheesy, it also provides a structure within which regular people can begin to understand their own genetic history.

All that said, though, I’m not sure how meaningful my father’s DNA results are to me at this point. I’m still constructing the meaning and it will probably take a while to figure out all the angles to approach it.

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Deep Kinship

I mentioned in a previous post the book Deep History by Shryock and Smail and the authors’ atempts to reframe history in terms that will place modern humanity in the same narrative context with prehistorical societies. Along with ecology, food, and political systems, the authors address the idea of “deep kinship,” which can be thought of as how people establish personal relationships with others across space and time. Kinship is in this sense is not just about immediate, familial relations such as with other primates, but is also an abstract notion that allows for the development of complex societies. Examples given include indigenous peoples of Australia and the Americas, who over many generations were able to create sophisticated networks of clans spanning tribal and linguistic groups. These clan networks made it possible for groups to trade and intermarry peacefully over long distances, providing cultural structures to support large, international societies such as our own.

This idea of kinshipping is of course not new for anthropologists and sociologists. But for me deep kinship is an interesting way to look at genealogy. Professional historians tend to dismiss genealogical research as an egocentric, superficial exercise, but for a lot of people (including myself) family history is a way to establish personal context in a rootless world. Genealogy can certainly be an exercise in exclusivity (some lineage societies, for example), but the reverse can also be true. The current fascination with haplogroups is a wonderful example of using the deep history of human migrations to establish kinship with millions of other people around the world. In his 2001 book, The Seven Daughters of Eve, geneticist Brian Sykes even refers to these haplogroups as “clans.” And even though the idea of haplogroups is mostly meaningless for genealogical purposes, it’s a hugely powerful inspiration for finding personal connections to other people across space and time.

So instead of being an exercise in self-aggrandizement, ancestor worship, and the legitimization of patriarchy, the practice of genealogy can also be a hugely democratizing undertaking. The larger our circle of kin grows, the less we are likely to use superficial distinctions to think of strangers as  such, or as the Other. Even the practice of genealogy itself ties generations together across time and space.

That’s about all I have to say on this topic for now, but as it’s so interesting to me, I plan on developing these ideas more as I continue to read and think about them.

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Genographic Project Reference Populations

In an earlier post I mentioned that my father submitted a sample to the National Geographic Genographic Project DNA test, and I then speculated on the expected regional percentages. Well, today I discovered the Genographic Project listing of reference populations, which renders that speculation moot. The British sample–my father’s ancestors were largely immigrants from England–consists of 33% Mediterranean, 17% Southwest Asian, and 50% Northern European. And for comparison, the Danish sample is almost identical, with just a slight bit more on the Northern European side.

According to the web site, the sample ought to be finished in a couple of weeks, and then we can get the final results.

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