Stories of Denmark: Tales of a Copenhagen Street Urchin – Part 1

Stories of Denmark

Tales of a Copenhagen Street Urchin – Part 1  

A not so short story by Finn Sander​​

St. Joseph Hospital in Noerrebro.
St. Joseph Hospital in Noerrebro, Denmark.

I CAME INTO THIS WORLD on January 3, 1940, at the St. Joseph Hospital in Noerrebro, a working class, tenement area of Copenhagen.  I arrived heavily jaundiced, and my mother, too, was in very poor shape to the extent that we were both kept in the hospital for over two months before being discharged. My mother subsequently bore another boy and two girls, all of whom died within a few days after birth. My mother, too, was sufficiently ill each time of birth, that for my second sister’s birth in 1946, my mother required a blood transfusion – upon which she promptly contracted double pneumonia and related serious complications. In fact, so bad was her state of health that her doctor informed her that she could expect to die. Naturally, my mother, grasping at straws, inquired whether there was anything or anyone who might save her life. There is, the good doctor replied, but it requires the direct intervention of Christian X, King of Denmark (pictured below). Happily, being a kind old chap, His Royal Highness stepped in and saved my mother’s life.

Christian X, King of Denmark

For the record, these problems arose from the fact that my mother had Rh negative blood and my father Rh positive blood AND that my siblings all had Rh positive blood causing incompatibilities in the womb and their eventual deaths shortly after birth. (Happily, this incompatibility can now be treated with immunoglobulin injections during pregnancy.) I was the lucky one, inasmuch as I was Rh negative like my mother, so didn’t die. And the reason my mother became so desperately sick after giving birth in 1946 was that she was given a transfusion of Rh positive blood by mistake. It was then that her doctor informed her that to have any chance of surviving this ordeal would require an injection of penicillin, a scarce antibiotic at the time. Sadly, he revealed, at that particular time the only available penicillin in all of Denmark, that he was aware of, was assigned to the King to keep him alive during a serious illness. He knew that for a fact, he told her, as he happened to be the King’s personal physician. My mother then implored him to appeal to the King’s sense of generosity by asking him to take pity on her dire predicament and share his supply of this life-saving drug with her. Furthermore, he should also inform His Majesty the King that, as an accomplished teenage ballerina in the 1930s, she had performed in the Royal Theatre for the King and his family. The doctor appealed to the king on my mother’s behalf, and the kind old soul shared his supply of penicillin with her, AND she consequently survived the ordeal – albeit with a stiff leg. Sadly, the King died a few months later in 1947. Hopefully, he didn’t die as a consequence of sharing his medicine with my mother. Incidentally, you might be interested to know that my mother’s birthday was May 4, and that it was on that day in 1945 that my mother, my maternal grandmother, and I celebrated the event by going to see a movie at Nora Bio on Noerrebrogade just around the corner from our tenement building.

“My father, as was often the case then, was out preparing to blow up some a railway line or factory deemed beneficial to the German war effort.  I don’t remember anything about the movie, but I do remember that, suddenly, during the showing, the lights came on and people screamed and rushed en masse towards the exit doors.”

As my mother since told me, she was part of a mass hysteria triggered by the belief that the building was on fire. Instead, when we all broke out the door onto Neorrebrogade, we saw in front of us a stalled streetcar on top of which were a dozen Danes waving Dannebro flags while exuberantly screaming “Danmark er fri! Danmark er fri!” –  which needs no translation. It was my mother’s best birthday present ever.  

I should also mention that while we were at the movie, a downed American pilot, Julius Latimer from Kentucky, had been in hiding from the Nazis in our small apartment for two weeks. Suffice to say that were he discovered, my parents both would have been arrested and shot in Ryparken. No quarters were given by the Gestapo for hiding allied airmen during the war. 

Previous to that, my brave parents hid an anti-Nazi German Wehrmacht sergeant in our flat for a week. I applaud their bravery, and I’m pleased to inform that the latter was subsequently safely shipped across to Sweden. 

Incidentally, it was at that same Nora Bio theatre a year later that I was allowed to go to an American cowboy movie by myself for the first time. When I returned home my mother inquired about the title of the movie. “The End”,  I said, spelling it out and offering that I had remembered to take note of that title at the end of the movie since I expected her to ask me that question. My mother laughed. Get it?  

I won’t dwell on my father’s heroics as an active member of the Danish resistance during the war. Suffice to say that he wasn’t just one of the many so-called “frihedskaemper” (freedomfighters) who suddenly emerged after the Germans capitulated, donned belted trenchcoats and helmets (sometimes even German ones), and tried to act heroic by hoarding known Danish traitors and German-friendly prostitutes around.  

By contrast, some of the genuine, hard-core underground members, such as my father, were issued proper uniforms and weaponry to help deal with armed Danish traitors such as the Schallburg Korps along with the hard-core Hipo Korps created to police the country after the majority of the Danish police were arrested in 1944 and dispatched to the Buchenwald and Neuengamme concentration camps. But enough already! This account is supposed to be mildly amusing.

In 1946, my father managed to rent a gas station and automotive shop in Bagsvaerd, a pleasant outer suburb in the lake district north of the city.

“For convoluted reasons, my parents decided to yank me out of grade 1 in my old neighbourhood school (in which I was in the very same class as fellow Club member Henny Andersen’s husband, John – what’s the chance of that?) half way through the school year and enrolled me in a school in Bagsvaerd for the duration of the year – six months prior to moving there the following spring.”

This change required that I, barely turned seven, every day got on a streetcar (Linie 16), supposedly paid my fare, dismounted in Soeborg, an inner suburb, then boarded a red bus, paid another fare, and dismounted in Bagsvaerd near my new school. I only mention this to paint a picture of another world, where allowing a seven-year-old to do so was shrugged off as reasonable and safe. Compare that to how kids today are coddled and protected even in their own neighbourhoods. It was a different world, indeed. Sadly, in some measure, it tore me away from my life in my familiar, old neighbourhood. But all was not lost, for it also offered me an opportunity to “snare my fare” on daily streetcar rides.

It worked like this:  In the streetcar, typically packed tightly every morning, a conductor roamed around collecting fares from all riders. However, since I was a little person keeping my head low, I frequently succeeded in staying out of his sight, allowing me to keep the streetcar monies my mother gave me every day. Happily, I was never caught in the act. Of course, this didn’t work on the bus where the driver himself collected the fares as riders entered the vehicle. Incidentally, there must be a God, for at the very spot I dismounted the streetcar on Noerrebrogade on my way home, there was a newly built American-style ice cream parlour. And it was here where I always spent my surplus fares before going home to the apartment. That way, my mother could never accidentally come across my illegal earnings in my coat pocket or school bag. 

Did I mention that my father had a long career racing motorcycles, which largely determined most of my family’s Sunday activities during summer months?  Instead of going to church on the Holy Day, we would join other members of Copenhagen’s Motorcycle Club gathering next to Slangerupbane Station in Noerrebro and venture out onto the hilly countryside where my father competed in “dirt trial” races on his robust Ariel bike.

Other times, he would compete on Gentofte Stadion’s cinder track on his lightweight “Jap” motorcycle. He won many races during his career, but he also had some very nasty spills. Consequently, in 1949, my mother put down her foot and forced him to retire. So it was as a civilian spectator that my father drove his Ariel bike to the annual Danish national dirt bike championship that summer. But then fate reared its ugly head, for it transpired that his best mate, who was scheduled to compete in the event, had a nasty spill during warm ups, and had to withdraw from the race.

Now, for the really bad part: He also persuaded my father to borrow his helmet and take his place in the race on his own dependable Ariel. My father’s hormones beat out his common sense, and he accepted the offer and competed in the race.  Now for the good part: He won the race and was crowned national champion. Back to the bad part: My mother saw his smiley face in the morning newspaper the next day – and there was hell to pay for my old man.

Tales of a Copenhagen Street Urchin - Part 2