This is just a simulation of
our beloved essayist at work.
We really are not sure what
his creative process involves,
we just print the results.
Chocolate and Cigarettes
Inge missed chocolate during those years, she noted with a big smile as we started to talk. As
a child, I thought this 93-year-old woman was just another boring relative of mine. Yet, the thick accent
that still clung to her from her childhood in Demark should have told me different. She was a close
friend of my grandparents. Even after six decades in America, spent in the small town of Roland, Iowa.
Her old home is still present.
She pulls out a bottle of what the Danes call “the fountain of youth,” Akvavit, a 90 proof
alcohol made from potatoes that one sips at a near freezing temperature. To me it has the kick of a
Missouri mule with the aftertaste of lutefisk left in a sock. It might be the secret of Inge’s vibrancy. I
don’t know if it is the “fountain of youth.” I do know that after a few shots of it a person might not know
if they are alive or dead.
Her parents served it in their Copenhagen restaurant along with open-faced sandwiches. But
her favorite dish they made was a dish containing pickled herring, macaroni, and red beets, along with
a touch of mayo. The corners of her mouth let me know it was her comfort food that she misses to this
day. She came from a family of artisans and woodcarvers. Her grandfather drove the first street car in
the city. Due to the long hours her parents worked at the restaurant, she spent a great deal of time
around her uncles, aunts, and their children. By 7th grade, she had begun to learn how to make hats
for a department store. Her boss was a Jew, who invited her to spend time with his family at their
In many ways it was an ideal childhood. I don’t know if she knew when she saw the bombers
flying overhead on that beautiful spring morning of April 9, 1940 that her world was going to change
dramatically over the next four years. In America, now, she would not have been old enough to drive a
car. It was a surprise attack, the beginning of the Nazi occupation of Demark. There were some small
skirmishes. One of elderly King Christian X’s guards was killed. Due to the flatness of the landscape
and the overwhelming German military might, fearing massive civilian causalities, the government
quickly surrendered with the promise that it would be allowed some degree of political independence.
As time went on, this became less and less. Known as the “Cream Front,” due to the country’s dairy
production, nothing was ever going to be the same.
Take a moment to remember what you were like at fifteen, or what your children or
grandchildren are like. Just a few years earlier she was playing games in the street in front of her
apartment. (One of Inge’s favorite games was being able to juggle six balls. While she does not know if
she could still juggle six balls, she is sure she could keep four up in the air at the same time.)
There are still memories of her 70-year-old king proudly riding his horse unescorted within the
streets of the capital until marital law was declared, a subtle message to the people of their
independence and need to resist. He would die a few months after the war ended.
Inge remembers the long lines, the rationing for the basics like milk and sugar. It would be
four years until she tasted chocolate again. In the restaurant business things got tough. German
soldiers often ate at the restaurant. Some were nice, some weren’t. Sometimes they paid, sometimes
they didn’t. If they didn’t, the owner was supposed to turn them into the police, who were supposed to
deal with the matter. It more often resulted in the restaurant windows being smashed out later on
during the night. So, it was not worth the trouble. You just let them steal.
One of the waitresses at the restaurant was in a relationship with a German soldier. Inge
never liked her. The last time she saw her was just after they were liberated. The waitress was
standing in a long line with other collaborators about to have her head shaved and humiliated by being
forced to run through the streets naked for sleeping her way “to the good life.” Such was the anger of
the Danish people over what they had been through.
There was the false wall that was built in the entryway of the apartment building so her
grandmother could sit in her chair unseen and ring a bell to let everyone in the complex know when
soldiers entered, allowing people to do what needed to be done before the Germans made their way to
their apartment. It didn’t always work perfectly.
There were the fears. Her grandmother was born Jewish, even though she had converted to
Protestantism many years earlier. Would they come for her? Would they be considered Jews? With the
Germans you could never tell. Her older brother was part of the resistance, although they did not know
that at the time. He never told his parents, until after he had disappeared for four days. They did not
know if he was alive or dead.
There was her attempted rape. An ill-advised shortcut, three Germans followed her. They
removed every stitch of Inge’s clothes. They held her down to the ground. A noise, a siren, the soldiers
scattered. She gathered what clothes she could and ran. Almost three quarters of a century later, she
still laments the loss of her beautiful coat that she could not find.
She remembers the explosion. The Germans had learned that an underground paper was
being printed across the street from her parent’s apartment and firebombed the place. She was home
alone. The concussion blew out the apartment’s windows, sending shards of glass into her mother’s
curtains, and costing Inge the ability to speak for several days and some of her hearing for the rest of
Her father hid Jews. It was too dangerous to keep them in the apartment, but he found them
a spot in the restaurant until it was dark enough at night for them to make their way to the harbor
without being seen by the soldiers, especially after curfew had been declared.
Once there, they would be smuggled unto fishing boats, hidden under some floorboards, and
then covered with rotting fish so that the German patrol dogs could not smell them. It was not a long
journey across Øresund Straits to Sweden, but the currents made it impossible to swim. One winter it
froze over, but the Germans set up machine gun nests on the ice to stop anyone who tried to make
their way across.
Most of the Jews her family helped eventually let them know that they were safe. There was
one family that did not. Maybe it was because they had a boy and girl roughly about her age? It still
bothers her and even into the twilight of her life. She still wonders what happened to them.
“Was it stressful?” I asked. “Everyday,” Inge replied. We talked some more. Finally, she said, “I don’t
want to talk about this anymore. Why would anyone want to talk about this?” I asked her what she
thought of Americans. She told me how much she loved them, how polite and good they were.
She then got up and disappeared into her bedroom. She came back with tin wrapped in
plastic. When the Americans rolled into Copenhagen to liberate them she ran into the street to greet
them. The G.I.s gave them chocolate and cigarettes, whatever was in their pockets. Her father got to
smoke for the first time in years. She got chocolates. She still has the tin. Americans are good.
As she poured me some Akvavit, I asked what she had learned from all of it. “Be nice,” she
said with a smile. It think we have forgotten that sometimes. That is why we talk about this stuff.