Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Quiet Man



During World War II, my father was a member of the Danish resistance. He never spoke much about the experience; not even when I tried to delicately steer the conversation in that direction. He wouldn’t go there. Perhaps he couldn’t. Eventually I let it go, hoping some day he would overcome whatever fears or painful memories held him back, and tell me this story. That day never came.

In the 1980’s, as a project for a writing class, I wrote a story based on one of the few stories I knew of my father’s exploits. It told of a dark, misty night when he helped smuggle an old Jewish man and his granddaughter onto a small fishing boat on the northeast coast of Denmark and sent them across to safety in Sweden. He had never met the old man and his daughter before that evening, and throughout the story, says very little to them. When I submitted this story to my writing teacher for evaluation, he remarked sternly, "Why so quiet?" The words stung. Not so much because of the criticism, but because I didn't have an answer. Having my father’s character remain so quiet in the story wasn’t a conscious choice, and yet it seemed right. I didn’t change it.

Several years ago, I visited relatives in Denmark. My father had recently died, so I was eager to hear any stories my relatives could recall about his exploits. Without knowing it, I had stumbled into one of the most important endeavors of my life. Every conversation unveiled things I never knew about my father, and each shed more light on this previously unknown (to me) chapter in his life. I became increasingly aware that I had grown up in the presence of a true hero, a young man who (with his brothers) turned the family home into a secret "fortress" where guns were made and/or hidden for resistance fighters (when discovered, the house was blown up). He eventually led groups of escaping Jews to fishing boats which would then take them to Sweden and freedom. In one instance, he hid a group of escapees in a church attic as German soldiers searched the small coastal village for them. I learned on a later visit that that town now holds an annual commemoration of the event, to this day. In the end, he was caught and sent to prison camp.

My amazement grew, as did a sense of loss at learning there was so much about my father I didn't know when he was alive. So many questions I’d have liked to ask. So much pride I would have liked to express.

My visit was quickly transforming from a relaxing vacation to a personal quest—healthy, healing and somewhat exciting, but also very heavy. And, just as my heart started feeling like it could take no more, a cousin casually mentioned that the prison camp still existed as sort of a museum. I was speechless.

The next day I drove to the little village of Froslev. At mid-day, after a couple of hours searching the beautiful countryside near the German border, I found the camp. My heart was in my throat as I passed though the old, wooden gate and gazed out at scene that was strikingly familiar. I had seen it many times in old photos of Nazi prison camps--dozens of long low buildings, arranged in tidy rows oriented toward a central parade ground. Unlike the old photos, however, this scene wasn’t in black and white. The freshly painted burgundy buildings, with crisp white trim were set off by a neatly cropped lawn of a succulence and greenness that is only possible in cooler northern climates.

As I strolled through the complex, I found that two of the bunkers had been preserved just as they were during the war. They contained a full collection of photos and artifacts of the Froslev prison camp. The curator, a short, white-haired gentleman, whose ruddy complexion made me think he was probably a retired sailor, explained that they had records of some prisoners but, since hundreds of them had come through during the war, chances were slim that he’d find anything about my father. But he'd try.

Ten minutes later he returned, beaming with childlike amazement as he held out an old, tattered slip of paper. I glanced at the name and birth date and knew immediately I was holding my father's admission records into the prison. Speaking over the growing lump in my throat, I asked the curator if I could have a copy. He eagerly obliged.

For the next few hours, I explored the compound and imagined how it would have looked over six decades earlier. I walked along the barbed wire fence, strolled through the bunk houses and climbed the watchtowers; all still amazingly intact. I sat beside the fire pit outside my father's bunk house—saddened at the thought of the lonely moments he must have spent on this exact spot.

Walking quietly through the rooms of the museum, I read the information displays, imagining my father in every event described. Behind the glass display cases were dozens of items fashioned by the prisoners to make their life more tolerable. I was especially interested in the tiny little signatures that the prisoners wrote on any item that could be smuggled out of camp – tiny shreds of paper, cloth, cap linings. I laughed at myself for daring to foolishly hope to see my father's tiny signature on some item. As I made my way down the wall, nose close to the glass to see the tiny signatures and search for his face in the crowds of faces, I moved from one frame to the next when suddenly, l found myself face to face with a photo of my father.
There, in the same long wool coat and dark Fedora hat I had seen in other photos, was my father. He was standing in the barb-wired prison yard with an unknown man at his side. Behind them, the Danish flag flying on a makeshift mast left no doubt that this was the morning of liberation. He was a free man. Yet, he wasn't whooping and hollering like one might expect. His calm, gentle smile gave no clue to the suffering he had endured.

Staring in disbelief – as though looking at a ghost – I labored to breathe as I moved close to study the picture. Blinking rapidly to clear my blurry eyes, I studied the photo for any details that would shed some light about the camp; about the day the photo was taken; about the conditions in which he lived. But mostly, I looked at his face. I looked for clues – anything. And, the only words I could utter, as I stood staring into the kind, smiling face of the 21 year old boy who was my father, was "Why, dad? Why so quiet?"


Thorkild Andersen and unknown friend on day of liberation from Froslev Prison Camp 

















2 comments:

JS Clark said...

Amazing and beautifully written story, Lars!

Lori Raines said...

"Those things that are precious are only saved through sacrifice."- David K. Webster