Soldiers in all but name

Michael
Michael Johansen
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Not all soldiers fight in uniform. Not all soldiers march to a beat. Nor are all battles fought with guns.
Many soldiers fight hidden from view. Many risk their lives and the lives of their families all alone and unarmed in the face of the enemy.
Some battlefields are not torn heaths, burning skies or vast bloody waters.
Some are kitchens and stairwells, dark lofts and family homes.
Some battles are not fought between armies, but between neighbours.
Remembrance Day is foremost a time to honour those who died in uniform while fighting for their countries, soldiers killed striving to protect hearth and homeland.
But Remembrance Day is also a time to thank those who risked everything yet, through hard toil, unflagging dedication and great good fortune, managed to survive and were able to live out their lives in peace and freedom.

Personal remembrances
On Remembrance Day, most people think of particular soldiers. Most, in fact, probably remember family members, some of whom they've known only by name, some of whom they've known in life and perhaps, with luck, still know.
On Remembrance Day, the veteran I think of first is my grandfather - Morfar, as my brother and I properly called him: my mother's father.
Rasmus Friis was born in Denmark in 1904 and lived there all his life.
He was never in the army.
He was too young for the First World War (during which the country remained neutral, since it had recently lost a war and much land to the Prussians) and he was excused from peacetime military service for medical reasons.
So it was that when Nazi Germany made war on Denmark in 1940, my grandfather was not in uniform, but he became a soldier nonetheless.
The small Danish Army stood for two hours against the German Blitzkrieg and what followed was five years of increasingly brutal occupation.
Before he ordered the invasion, Adolf Hitler thought Denmark would be easy to pacify, but even as the Danish Army disbanded and returned to society, in order to survive that society abandoned the distinction between soldier and civilian.
It geared up in every way it could, almost as a whole, to fight a total war against the invaders.
My grandfather's part was to pass on important information and people, relaying messages for the underground and giving refuge to Jews, to resistance fighters and saboteurs, to Allied soldiers, sailors, airmen and spies, to anyone who was sought by the Germans and needed to be smuggled out of the occupied territories across the Sound to neutral Sweden.

Youthful role
My mother was a young girl at the time and most of what was happening was hidden from her, but she remembers when she found papers that had been slipped quietly under the front door of their third-storey flat in Copenhagen she was always supposed to hide them in a secret place behind the electrical panel.
She remembers men being taken up the back stairs and hidden in the attic two floors above them.
Once a man was kept in the flat itself.
She also remembers an explosion one day that rocked the far corner of their large apartment building. Someone from the resistance had thrown hand grenades into a flat because the people living there had been informing to the Germans, endangering the refugees passing through my grandfather's hands, endangering my grandfather, his wife and three children.
In the resistance against the Nazis, lives were always at stake.

They also served
During the Second World War, thousands of men, women and children fought the Axis powers in more than two dozen occupied countries, aiding the global war effort in any way they could, often by sacrificing their own lives and the lives of their families.
So, on Remembrance Day, I not only remember my grandfather, Rasmus Friis, but I also honour my mother, Inge Friis Johansen. The only uniform she ever wore was that of a nurse, but for all she did and risked as a child, for all our sakes, she is no less a living veteran of war than those who dressed in khaki.

Michael Johansen writes from Labrador

Organizations: Danish Army

Geographic location: Denmark, Nazi Germany, Sweden Copenhagen Labrador

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  • duane
    July 02, 2010 - 13:18

    I am collecting material about life in Denmark during the German occupation and would like to know if your grandparents wrote about their experiences during those years, and if so, might I have the chance to read them, noting that my Danish is nonexistent. What the Danes did in 1943 in helping Danish Jews to escape to Sweden is unique and an example to the world, as was their resistance to the Germans. Thanks.
    Duane Schultz

  • duane
    July 01, 2010 - 19:59

    I am collecting material about life in Denmark during the German occupation and would like to know if your grandparents wrote about their experiences during those years, and if so, might I have the chance to read them, noting that my Danish is nonexistent. What the Danes did in 1943 in helping Danish Jews to escape to Sweden is unique and an example to the world, as was their resistance to the Germans. Thanks.
    Duane Schultz