Suddenly I heard a quivering voice whisper, 'Sister, do you think we're going to die?'
'Yes, I whispered back. 'Yes, I think we are going to die.'
'Do you think it will take long?' she asked.
'Maybe,' I replied. 'Maybe. I don't know.'
-from Silence Was My Song:
The Bombing of the French School, by Alice Maud Guldbrandsen
On March 21st, 1945, the Royal Airforce sent a fleet of mosquito bombers toward Copenhagen on a precision bombing mission: to take out the Gestapo headquarters in German-occupied Denmark.
Admirably, under difficult conditions, the RAF managed to destroy Gestapo HQ without killing the Danish resistance prisoners on the top floor of the building, which the Gestapo was using as a human shield. However, as too often happens in such "precision" undertakings, there was "collateral damage." One of the planes hit a light mast and went down beside a school; the smoke that rose from the exploding plane misled those coming just after into mistake the school for their target. Before the mistake was discovered, the school building had been bombed.
The school – the so-called French School – was in session at the time, and many children and teachers were buried beneath the building. Some of the children were boiled alive in the water from burst pipes heated by the fires caused by the bombs. Others drowned in that water. Still others were simply crushed beneath beams and chunks of walls and staircases.
In all, over 100 civilians were killed, 86 of them children. 394 children and 34 adults were rescued – and had to live with the memory of what they went through and witnessed that day.
One five-year-old girl, Alice Maud Guldbrandsen, was buried beneath the rubble, but managed to claw herself halfway out and was saved by heroic rescue workers who risked their own lives to get the children and nuns who were still alive to safety before the building collapsed totally. Alice Guldbrandsen was brought to a hospital in the Frederiksberg section of the city and was told to join a line of children before a desk where a nurse sat writing down their names. When she got to the head of the line, the nurse asked her name, but Alice was unable to speak, so she was sent to the back of the line, but when she got to the desk again, she still could not speak. Finally she was placed under a blanket in a bed in one of the over-filled wards where, finally, after many hours of frantic searching, her father recognized a lock of her blond hair peeking out from beneath the blanket and brought her home.
Then another mistake was made. The parents of the surviving children were told that it would be unhealthy for them to discuss what had happened with the children. If the children tried to speak about it, they should change the subject, or say, "We'll just forget about that now and put it all behind us." But such things can not be forgotten or suppressed. They come back in dreams, in the form of anguish and fear – fear of elevators, of basements, of airplanes, of dust and plaster, a haunting sense of loss… They linger and fester in the forced silence.
Nearly sixty years later, Alice Guldbrandsen decided finally it was time to break that silence. She contacted some of the girls who had been in the school with her – neither had the children who experienced the catastrophe discussed it with one another – and invited them to her home to talk about what had happened to them that day and the after-effects in their lives since then, through the years.
At last the silence was broken, and Alice Guldbrandsen asked the women who had joined her that evening to write down their memories of the day – or she interviewed them and wrote down their recollections. She contacted others – the nuns, some of whom were still alive, up in their 90s, those still living parents of the children who had survived and some who have since died, rescue workers, doctors, nurses, firemen, a photographer. She even got hold of one of the RAF airmen, a navigator, now in his 80s, who wrote his description of the day and told her that the disaster had haunted him for all those years.
Alice Maud Guldbrandsen says, "In the course of time, during my research for the book, I scrutinized very many reports from the period of the war but didn't come upon a single book that told the whole story about that disaster. At most it is dealt with in a single short sentence or two, summed up in a quick phrase – 'The French School in Copenhagen was by a fatal mistake bombed…' So there was still reason for me to put words to this apparently 'forgotten' event."
Out of the thirty-five accounts that she gathered, including her own, the key report, Alice Maud Guldbrandsen put together a mosaic of what occurred that day, creating a record that would for all time defy the silence that had been imposed upon the children who survived those dreadful events. And she discovered that on that very day, in the very hospital to which she had been brought, unable to speak, one of Denmark's most celebrated contemporary poets was born and years later had written a poem about the bombing, which begins, "Like most people, I was born during a war…" Alice Maud Guldbrandsen used that poem as an epigraph to the book she wrote and published in Danish in 2005, entitled (in English translation), Silence Was My Song: The Bombardment of the French School in 1945.
At this writing, I am nearly finished translating the book into English. A major excerpt from the translation was published in The Literary Review (Vol. 49, No. 2, Winter 2006, pages 23-48), including the poem by Henrik Nordbrandt. The book sold well in Danish, its hardcover edition sold out and a paperback version was issued in 2007. The English version is now ready to be offered on the English-language market.
Alice Maud Guldbrandsen tells that her reason for writing this book was not merely to give words to the dark silent song within her, but to put a face on human catastrophes of this sort, including those that occur now, everywhere in the world. So that when one reads in the newspapers and sees on television, as one does weekly, daily even, about civilian collateral damage during military conflicts, terrorism, torture, persecution and other violent abuses – the bombing of a school, a hospital, a refugee camp – that it will not be seen as one undifferentiated lump of a mistake. But as a series of individual human beings and their families and their friends who suffer the loss of their lives, whose bodies are damaged, their minds and spirits hurt for all time.
"Fortunately there were many who survived," says Ms Guldbrandsen, "but most of them have since then carried the burden of that experience in their bodies and minds – some of which might have been avoided if they had not been met by silence in response to their inner suffering. That was the only 'crisis help' offered in those days – when the best advice given to the shocked parents of the shocked children was, 'Don't talk about it – they'll forget.' But none of them forgot."
Reading and translating this profoundly moving book, I was struck by the fact that each of the 35 stories of this same event had its own distinct character – even when recounting the same or similar details and responses to it, the individual personality of each of the girls – now women – shone through and demonstrated unforgettably how this was not a single tragedy but more than 100 tragedies – more, it was a tragedy for those lost as well as for all of those who were deprived of all those loved ones and for all of the children who survived as well and the adults who witnessed the terrible sight of children broken and dying because of the predictable imprecision of a so-called "precision" bombing..
Of course, the Second World War was different than most wars. Perhaps it was inevitable. There was an honorable cause. But what about all the wars which could be avoided, which are pure and unadulterated stupidity? What about all the victims of those wars?
Personally, after reading this book, I will never feel the same about any catastrophe I read about in the newspapers. It will never be a plane that went down or a hospital or school or bus that was bombed; it will be a plane full of people, a school full of children, a hospital or bus full of human beings.
I know Alice Maud Guldbrandsen personally. She is a beautiful, kind and loving human being. And her beauty and compassion are reflected through her book. One can be thankful she survived that tragedy as well as the silence that followed it, that she lived to find the words for this darkly beautiful song – a song of sorrow but also of hope.
If any readers are interested in more information or if publishers are interested in seeing the manuscript of the translation for possible publication or if magazines are interested in publishing excerpts from the book or in interviewing the author, please do not hesitate to contact me through this blog or through my website (www.thomasekennedy.com).
Greetings from this ancient kingdom!
Thomas E. Kennedy
See also www.copenhagenquartet.com for information on four independent novels about the souls and seasons of Copenhagen, each written in a different style and set in a different season and which can be read independently of one another or together in any order desired: Kerrigan's Copenhagen, A Love Story (2002), which is a novel disguised as a guide to the bars of Copenhagen, each chapter unfolding in a different serving house; Bluett's Blue Hours (2003), a noir tale about the deep dark of Copenhagen winter and the seamier sides of life in this beautiful capital; Greene's Summer (2004), about a Chilean torture survivor who comes to Copenhagen to be treated in a torture rehabilitation center and meets a Danish woman who has herself survived a violent marriage; and Danish Fall (2005), a satire about 12 people connected to a Danish firm which is being downsized. Also available, free of charge while they last, is a 29-minute DVD documentary about these books: "The Making of Thomas E. Kennedy's Copenhagen Quartet." Preview film-clips of the DVD can be accessed on www.copenhagenquartet.com