A Family’s Fight for Survival
in Nazi Occupied Oslo
It is 1942, two years into the German occupation of World War II. Maria and her three daughters are used to coping with the hardships of war, but when Maria’s husband leaves her for another woman and a German officer is billeted to their home, their troubles are only just beginning. Maria and her daughters must stop fighting with each other and find a way to survive through grief, dread and fear.
Later that day, after the girls returned from school, Maria was busy cooking supper. Solveig was trying to tell her the tale of her lost homework. She had spent days writing a story then dropped her schoolbag in a puddle on the way to school. The ink on the paper had blurred and the pages had become a soggy mess. She had been severely reprimanded by her teacher and told she had to write it all out again that evening. While Solveig was recounting this, Maria was preoccupied with converting a whole swede into fine slices which she could deep-fry in the last of the bit of butter she had managed to save.
‘Here, Solveig, you just have to stop being so clumsy and careless. Stop crying and give me a hand. Your father will be home soon and supper is going to be late.’
She called Eva and Inger and gave instructions. Inger went next door to the dining area of the large living room and laid the table with lace mats, silver cutlery, and crystal glasses. She would also put out the silver candlesticks. Even though they had little else but swedes and potatoes to eat, standards still had to be kept up. Maria could make anything look special and on a good day there would be some delicacy bought from the black market at an enormous price. Tonight, she had two pork chops. She had cut them finely, made crackling from the rind and gravy from the juice.
Solveig spent ages shredding some cabbage and then presented it to her mother. Maria scowled, took the knife from her, and went over it again. Solveig slumped herself on a chair and, covering her hand, put her thumb into her mouth. She put her finger in some spilt gravy on the table and made a star with eight long lines.
‘Clear that up at once!’ shouted Maria.
When they had finished their chores, Maria sent the girls away to get changed for supper and went into the main bedroom.
She sat down at her art deco dressing table and looked at herself in the mirror. Her makeup was smudged and her lipstick worn off. Her shoulder-length hair looked greasy and hung limply behind her ears. She looked at her watch and frowned. With deft hands, she brushed her hair back, smoothed it down, pinned it at the back of her head, and fixed it with hair spray. She took out her deep red lipstick and retouched her lips, then applied mascara to her eyelashes. She put on her black high heels and reached down for her perfume. As she sprayed behind her ears and on the inside of her wrists, the room filled with the heavy aroma of Arpêge.
She stood up and looked at herself sideways in the ornately framed fulllength mirror and held her stomach in. With one last pat of her hair and inspection of her face, she walked down the corridor to the sitting room to wait for Johannes. After their last quarrel, he had told her he could not stand it anymore.
She poured herself some brandy and paced up and down, checking her face in the mirror and fiddling with her hair. She picked up a magazine, turned the pages while barely glancing at the pictures, then got up to refill her glass and resume her pacing.
Eventually, the front door opened and Johannes came in. He was an imposing figure in his policeman’s uniform with his heavy black jacket and black cap. His hair was black and his dark brown eyes contrasted with his pale skin. He took his coat off with one arm as he held a huge bouquet of orange lilies, Maria’s favorite, in the other.
‘Hello, I’m here!’
‘Papa,’ shouted the girls as they ran up the corridor. Inger got to him first and threw her arms around him, kissing him three times on each cheek. Solveig got to him just afterward and hugged his legs while Eva walked nonchalantly toward him, flicking her hair and giving one of her brief waves.
‘Hey, steady on,’ he said, laughing and lifting up the bunch of flowers, ‘I’ve only got two arms and these will get squashed. Inger and Solveig, have a look in my coat pockets and, Eva, here’s something for you.’ He took a silk scarf out of his jacket and handed it to her.
‘Oooh,’ shouted Inger and Solveig as they fished out several wrapped chocolates and an assortment of sweets.
Maria emerged from the living room holding a cigarette which she inhaled and blew out with pursed lips, sending the smoke upward in a thin stream.
‘Kind of you to come home, or had you forgotten where we lived?’
‘Maria, how could I forget where the most beautiful woman in the world lives? I have counted the days and now I am home with my four favorite girls,’ he said, swinging Inger and Solveig around with the flowers squashed in one hand, and Inger and Solveig laughing and stumbling as they danced around him. Eva folded her arms and could not help laughing as well.
‘The flowers, careful!’ said Maria as she grabbed the bouquet. She held them at arm’s length with her head on one side, then took them into the kitchen and took out her largest porcelain vase. While she was arranging them, Johannes came in and went up behind her, putting his arms around her waist. He leant his head on top of hers and inhaled. ‘Mmmm, Arpêge. Smells divine.’
‘I’ll give you “divine,” you old snake charmer. Think you can “divine” your way into my good books with your wily words?’
She tried to suppress a smile and frowned. He drew her closer and kissed her behind her ear.
‘Just stop it,’ she said, ‘and get the girls to sit down at the table. Tell Eva to come and help me serve up.’ She leant back into him for a moment then quickly moved over to the cooker where the fried swede slices and pork were keeping warm. She shouted out of the door.
Soon they were all seated and Johannes picked up his knife and fork.
‘Please start,’ said Maria.
Before she had barely taken a mouthful, Solveig started up.
‘Mr. Gulbrand threw a piece of chalk at Ivar in math today,’ Solveig said. ‘He was drawing a picture of Hitler on his exercise book—you know, with a moustache—then he drew a machine gun with lots of bullets going to his head and a big spurt of blood coming out.’
‘How absolutely fascinating,’ said Eva as she mimed a massive yawn and rolled her eyes upward. The chattering continued as they emptied their plates while Johannes concentrated on his Aquavit more than his food, refilling his glass several times. The girls finished their first course and left their plates so well scraped they could almost see their own reflections in them.
‘Eva, can you help me get the cake out?’ shouted Maria. Eva followed her into the kitchen.
‘Who wants some chocolate cake?’ said Maria as she came back in. Eva was behind her with a crystal bowl full of whipped cream. Maria had queued for six hours to buy that.
‘Ooh yes, me,’ said Inger.
‘And me,’ said Solveig, clapping her hands and bouncing in her chair.
Maria sat down and took out a silver cake slicer, looking at Johannes questioningly. Inger and Solveig were laughing about Mr. Gulbrand, who apparently had holes in his jacket elbows and was wearing odd socks that day.
‘I can’t hear myself think,’ shouted Eva. ‘Little girls like to chatter; big girls know better.’ Solveig stuck her tongue out at Eva and Inger laughed.
‘I saw that Solveig,’ said Maria, ‘I will not have this at the dinner table. Go to your room!’
‘But Mama, I haven’t had my cake.’
‘Well, you should learn better manners and remember next time. Go on.’
‘Maria, she didn’t mean it. I’m sure she is sorry,’ said Johannes.
‘Yes, I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Eva,’ said Solveig as her face crumpled into tears.
‘Johannes, you can’t just turn up after weeks away and tell me Solveig doesn’t mean it. You don’t know what I have to put up with. I would have thought you could support me for once.’
Then turning to Solveig, she stared at her and pointed to the door. Solveig got up slowly and dragged herself to the door. Silence descended on the family group. Eva ate her cake, taking second helpings of cream despite protesting she did not want any. Inger ate her cake very slowly. Maria pushed her plate away, having only taken a bite while Johannes stared morosely at his glass, which he filled with Aquavit yet again and drank down in one go.
Solveig trudged down the long, dark corridor to her room. She had the small room at the end with its tiny window. If she stood up on her bed, she could see down to the wide street below and to the block of flats across. Her room was bare apart from a few books on her shelf, and her small wardrobe contained only four dresses: one was for school, two were for play, and one was for best. Three of them were her sister’s cast-offs, two were made in the same design and same dark green color. Her mother used to make Eva and Inger’s dresses match as if they were twins.
She had a small writing desk and wooden chair where she was supposed to do her homework every night. Under her bed, she had a baby-size wooden stool with a green peasant design which she liked to sit on when she played with her dolls. Her three dolls were now kept hidden as Eva called her a ‘big baby’ for still having them now that she was ten.
The fireplace was never used. Her mother would not allow coal in their bedrooms as it ‘just made a lot of dust and all the ashes have to be cleared out.’ She was already busy enough. Solveig was accustomed to her bedroom being cold in the winter, but she would snuggle under her thick duvet and wrap her hot water bottle up in her moth-eaten lilac shawl and soon feel warm.
This evening her room was cold again and, still hungry, she climbed into her bed and pulled her duvet up over her ears. She leant down under her bed and took out the library book she was reading, Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales, and turned to ‘The Little Match Girl,’ her favorite. She sniffed and wiped her eyes, which were now swollen and dry as she had no more tears left for that day.
She was just finding her place when she heard a familiar knock on the door. Inger came in with something hidden under her cardigan, which she had draped over her shoulders. ‘Shush, quickly, before Mother hears me,’ whispered Inger as she brought out a plate with the piece of cake her mother had left and a spoon.
‘How did you get this?’
‘Shush, never mind. She’ll just think that Father ate it. You know what he’s like.’
‘What are they doing?’
‘Inger, I’m, er, I’m so scared, and I’m scared all the time.’
‘You’ll be safe here. Papa won’t let anything happen to you.’ Inger stepped across the room and gave her a kiss on her cheek and a quick hug. She then put the cake on the stool beside the bed and hurried out closing the door carefully behind her. Solveig came out of bed, wrapped her soft shawl around her, took out her dolls, and sat them around her while she sat on the stool.
‘If you are good, I’ll let you have some of my cake,’ she said ‘You’ll be safe now. Papa is here.’
Inger walked back unnoticed. They had moved to the comfort of the settee and arm chairs in the lounge area. Maria was fiddling with her necklace and Johannes was staring out of the window, seemingly oblivious to his surroundings.
As soon as Maria saw Inger, she told her and Eva to go to bed.
‘But it’s only quarter to nine,’ cried Inger.
‘Can’t we stay up and chat? We haven’t seen Papa for ages,’ said Eva.
‘Go on, your father and I have to talk,’ said Maria.
‘Please can we stay,’ began Inger, but she stopped as her mother sent her a stony glare.
‘Okay, okay, off you go,’ said Maria, flinching as Inger kissed her goodnight.
Eva flicked her hair back and scowled as she moved to the door without saying good night. Johannes nodded at them and went back into his reverie.
* * * *
When they had left, Johannes walked over to the mantelpiece, took another cigarette out of the silver case, and lit it.
‘There’s something I need to tell you, Maria.’
Maria walked over to the gramophone. The moment she had been dreading was coming, but she was not ready to hear it spoken. She wanted to obliterate her dread and anger just to feel close to him for a moment. She put on a record and turned up the volume as a heavy beat and sultry voice sang out. She paced in long, slow strides to the center of the room, closed her eyes, and swayed slowly with one hand on her hip and the other held out. As her head lifted, Johannes walked over and took hold of her waist. He placed his face close to hers and inhaled the musky scent of the Arpêge.
They danced close together, spinning occasionally until the record was played out and they danced some more without it. Maria disentangled herself and looked at him intently. She went over to the cocktail cabinet and took out two crystal glasses and a bottle of brandy.
‘There’s some of the Remy Martin left. Here, let’s have a toast,’ said Maria as she poured out two large shots. ‘Here’s to us.’
‘Skal,’ said Johannes as he drank down the brandy in one draft.
‘Hey, that’s our best brandy! It’s supposed to be savored, not gulped down.’
‘Savored slowly, like savoring a beautiful woman?’ He got up and pulled her toward him, kissing her full on the lips. She pushed him away momentarily then returned the kiss. She closed her eyes, which were suffused with a longing that washed away all her anger as if the last ten years had never happened.
‘Hey, stop! One of the children might come in,’ said Maria.
‘No, they won’t,’ said Johannes. Maria pushed him away properly this time.
‘Yes, they might. It’s bedtime for the grown-ups now, isn’t it?’
‘Now that’s the best thing anyone has said to me all day.’
* * * *
After completing an Open University course in creative writing, she wrote her first novel Reluctant Courage. Although her novel is fictional, it is based on much research and inspired by haunting stories from her mother’s childhood in Nazi occupied Oslo.