For my Opa
“Faster, faster, faster!” Carlotta squealed, her eyes shining with excitement. Freja Larsen and Madeline Aaron, best friends since birth, laughed at the silliness of Freja’s younger sister. Giggling and talking, they rode home on Farmer John’s hay cart every day after school. “Three, two, one and . . . jump!” All three of them, Freja holding her little sister’s hand, jumped off the hay cart as they reached their home. Running with the hay cart to give Lily the cow a little pat, they finally waved goodbye to the cart that moved into the distance, dust trailing behind it.
As they walked to the door, Carlotta blabbed on about what they were going to play once they got home. “We can play dolls!” she exclaimed.
“Lotta, no, nobody wants to play dolls.”
“I do.” Carlotta stuck out her tongue, held her nose in the air, and walked toward the house, her arms crossed stubbornly across her chest.
“Lotta, c’mon, can’t we play anything else?”
Slowly, Carlotta turned on her heel and eyed Freja suspiciously.
“Like what?” she asked, squinting at her older sister.
“What about hide-and-seek?” Freja suggested. Carlotta’s face fell then lit up.
“I know where I’m going to hide! In our closet upstairs! The latch right at the back of the closet opens up and a hundred people can fit in!”
“Lotta, you’re not supposed to tell the seeker where you’re going to hide. And anyway, it’s barely big enough for two!”
“I bet you still can’t find me. It’s so . . . hidden!”
Freja’s mother, Marie, was waiting for the girls at home and greeted them warmly as they came in. They walked straight into the kitchen, their mouths watering as the smell of freshly baked wienerbrød filled their noses.
“Oh girls, what have you done?” Marie said, trying to suppress a smile. “Not one day goes by without you getting yourselves dirty. Now, who’s going to help me cook tonight?”
* * *
“And . . . done!” Freja had been helping Madeline get ready for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. This year, 1943, it was on the 29th of September. Freja had helped prepare the apples, pouring honey into a pretty jar big enough to dip the apples in. Madeline’s mother, Grace, had baked honey cake, which Carlotta was trying to nibble. Grace had also baked fresh, round challahs, and the girls couldn’t wait to eat the sweet cinnamon treats. The girls also laid out the head of a fish and some pomegranate and many other goodies. Madeline looked stunning in a beautiful but modest dress, and so did Grace. Now everything was finally set. Grace had invited the Larsens to share the first, special evening of Rosh Hashanah with them, and the best friends were excited for the first time celebrating together.
Ring, Ring, Ring. The doorbell rang and everyone froze. Slowly, her heels clacking, Marie walked to the door and peeked through the keyhole, holding Carlotta by the hand. It was so silent you could hear a pin drop. Marie let out a sigh of relief and mouthed “Kasper.” Freja’s mother was in the modstandsbevægelsen, the Danish resistance, a group of people who fought secretly to protect the lives of Danish Jews. She opened the door a crack and then swiftly let the young man in.
“God aften, Kasper,” she bade him good evening in Danish. Even though he was not who she had feared, Marie didn’t look very pleased. Her face showed no concern, but her eyes were filled with worry.
Kasper talked quickly and secretly to Marie, not taking off his coat or hat or coming any farther than the hallway. He whispered something, and Marie’s face turned pale and her lips dry. She bade him goodbye and moved quickly back into the living room.
“We cannot stay here. You must come with us to our home.”
* * *
Marie drove everyone back to the Larsens’ home—the car was the family’s only piece of luxury—as it was faster than walking. She told Carlotta to stop fussing about wanting to hide in the closet and ordered the girls to go to bed straight away. Madeline and her mother squeezed into the secret back closet that was Lotta’s favorite hiding spot. Freja and Carlotta went straight to bed, as it was late anyway. In their room, Lotta cuddled up to her sister and fell asleep soon, but despite the fact that Freja’s eyes felt like lead, she could not bring herself to sleep.
There was a firm knock on the door about an hour later, and Freja still lay awake. She could hear her mother’s footsteps move across the tiled kitchen floor, out into the furnished living room, down the hallway, and to the door. Muffled sounds of voices and then boots scraping against the burnished wood floorboards. Freja imagined what Carlotta would have thought about this. In her mind, she could hear Carlotta’s young voice stubbornly refusing to let them in without taking off their shoes and throwing a tantrum when she saw how they were treating the beautiful house.
The footsteps came closer, and Carlotta started to fuss. Knowing it would be dangerous if Lotta were to wake, Freja held her close, and Lotta’s breath slowed once more. Freja shut her eyes tight and turned the opposite way of the door. The door opened loudly and light flooded into the room. Two uniformed officers, one stout, one lanky, closed the door and shone their torches on the bed.
“Please, my children are sleeping, don’t wake them.” Marie gripped the lanky soldier’s wrist and moved the torch’s glare away from the bed. Only now did Freja dare to open her eyes.
“We have nothing to hide. Now please—leave my children to sleep.”
The soldiers started to back out but then suddenly walked towards the closet. The uniformed officers opened Lotta’s beloved closet doors with a bang. Freja’s body tightened against her sister’s as the tall Nazi felt around the closet. She could faintly see his fingers streaking the outline of the secret opening where the Jewish mother and her daughter were hiding.
Freja’s body tensed and her heart pounded. She thought: It’s funny: when you play hide-and-seek, the fun in it is being found, but in real life, you hide and pray that they don’t find you. If the officers found Freja’s friend, they would be torn apart forever, but even Freja knew that that would not be the worst part. The lanky Nazi reached toward the dresses that covered the tiny wooden knob, and Freja felt that her heart was going to jump out of her chest. Closer and closer his hand moved, now touching the fine silk embroidery of Carlotta’s favorite princess gown.
As quickly as his partner had opened it, the stout soldier slammed the closet doors shut, and a wave of relief came over Freja. She closed her eyes and heaved a silent sigh of relief. The Nazi shone his torch on the bed once more and then led the way out. The taller one followed behind, still looking suspicious. Mama glanced at the bed and then shut the door, enclosing the room in darkness once more.
* * *
In the morning Freja woke up to find the room exposed to light. Sleepily, she walked into the living room to find Mama and Carlotta sitting at the dining table.
“They are in the basement and have eaten. They will stay with us for a couple of weeks,” Mama explained, without having to be asked. Smiling bleakly, Freja asked her sister: “Do you want to play hide-and-seek?”