Greater Copenhagen, October 1, 1943
There were twenty of them, huddled together in a truck that Lars Hansen used to transport vegetables from the farm to the market in Copenhagen. Rumbling down the road in the middle of the night, they were en route from Copenhagen to Hansensgård, the Hansen farm in Helsingør.
Annemarie was cradled on her father’s lap. Sitting on the metal bed of the vehicle, he leaned against a sack of onions and garlic, the scent of which tickled Annemarie’s nose. No one had spoken since they had started to drive. Although Annemarie had only just turned seven, she already understood how important it was to remain silent when she was told. She knew their lives depended upon it. Since the Germans had come to Denmark three years ago, she and her family had been living in fear. She heard her parents talk about it when they thought she was sleeping.
The truck stopped after what seemed like hours. Annemarie was tired and had dozed off for a while, so her legs were unsteady as she stood and gazed around.
There was a family of four awaiting them, a father and mother and their two children.
Annemarie’s father helped her out of the truck, holding her in his arms. She wriggled out of them, not wanting to look like a baby in front of the new people, especially the girl who looked to be her age. She had light brown hair, loose around her shoulders, just like Annemarie. She was wearing a blue dress with white stockings and black shoes, just like Annemarie.
The girl smiled and introduced herself. “I’m Elvira, and this is my brother, Ib.”
“I’m Annemarie,” she said, her eyes lit with pleasure at finding a new friend.
Around her, the adults shook hands and introduced one another. Everyone looked tired, gray from stress; Helga Hansen, a stout smiling woman, tried to cheer them with her welcome.
“Come on inside where it’s warm,” she said, putting her arm around one of the women who was holding a baby. “You’ve had a long ride. The kitchen has a fire going and I have a meatball and dumpling soup simmering on the stove.”
Elvira’s older brother helped by carrying their bags inside the house, and Lars Hansen spoke to each of the adults and children as they settled into the kitchen.
“You are the same age as my Elvira,” he said warmly when he shook hands with Annemarie. “She has some dolls you can play with.”
Annemarie looked at her mother, who held a cup of coffee in her hands, and when she nodded, Annemarie almost clapped with glee.
“Let’s go.” Elvira grabbed Annemarie’s hand and led her into her room.
The farmhouse was large and had space for all of them. Everyone slept that first night, scattered around the property. Many slept on beds of hay in the barn, some in the hall of the big house, and two in the large kitchen.
The next day, they’d taken quick baths with cold water in buckets and changed into clothes provided by the Hansens. Annemarie was given a dress that belonged to Elvira. It was white and green, and she loved it. It was now her favorite dress.
That evening they had dinner in the Hansen kitchen, all seated around a big table. It was like a party, Annemarie thought, seeing her parents and their friends happy and smiling for the first time in a long while.
“I wish we could just stay here until the Germans go away,” she told Elvira when they went to the barn to see the new baby goat that had been born just two days before.
“Me too,” Elvira said. “But you have to go on a boat to Sweden to be safe. There have been others who stayed with us and then left by boat. They always leave in the night so the German soldiers can’t find them.”
“I’m scared,” Annemarie confessed. “What do you think the Germans do to the Jews when they catch them? Put them in prison?”
“I don’t know,” Elvira said.
“Will they take me away from my Far and Mor?” she asked. Elvira gave her a hug then. “Don’t worry about anything. You’re going to Sweden and there are no Germans there.”
They were already best friends—in the way only children could be. They spent that evening together and even slept side by side in the stables on the hay, whispering late into the night about what they’d do when the war was over.
“We can go to the town square and eat ice cream,” Elvira said.
“Or even go to the cinema. Wouldn’t that be fun?” Annemarie had agreed that it would be super fun.
They had barely fallen asleep when they heard loud sounds. Annemarie’s mother told Elvira to run to her family in the house. A German officer was asking everyone to stand in a line in German-accented Danish. Rough hands of soldiers pushed them around, shoving them against one another, squeezing them together.
It was cold and they were all shivering, all twenty of them and their hosts, as they stood in front of the main house.
There were nearly ten soldiers surrounding the farm. Annemarie wondered how just ten men could control so many of them. Because they had guns, she thought. Each one of the soldiers was armed and pointing his weapon at them.
Lars, Helga, Ib, and Elvira had been separated from the Jews.
Annemarie and Elvira looked at each other in mutual fear.
“I am Hauptsturmführer Fritz Diekmann,” the soldier said. He was a handsome man, tall and lean with bright yellow hair, but his gray-blue eyes were hard. Turning to Lars, he continued in a calm, cold voice, “Is this your farm?”
“Yes,” Lars said.
“And you’re hiding Jews here,” Captain Diekmann said. “We have guests . . . friends,” Lars said.
“They are Jews,” the German captain said tightly.
Annemarie knew that the Germans thought Jews were bad people. They made the word Jøde sound dirty. Tears filled her eyes, and she tightened her grip on her mother’s waist.
“They are . . . ,” Lars began, but Captain Diekmann raised his hand to silence him. The Gestapo officer then turned and nodded at two soldiers who strode toward the Hansen family. He stared at the twenty Jews and said, “This is what happens to those who help you. I want you to know that this is your fault.”
The two soldiers had handguns with them. They first shot Elvira and Ib in the head. Lars and Helga cried out but before they could rush to their children, the soldiers executed them with cold precision where they stood.
Annemarie couldn’t scream. She cried in silent horror. Her new best friend was dead, and it was because of her.
The Jews were thrust into a truck that drove all night. When it stopped, they were herded into a crowd of Jewish captives waiting beside a long train. Annemarie heard whimpers and moans as each of the many cars was loaded with people. Babies were crying while mothers tried to shush them. Young children clutched the hands of their parents, wide-eyed with fear and fatigue.
They had no food or water. Annemarie didn’t complain—it wasn’t going to make a difference. They were more than fifty people squeezed into a small space; they took turns sitting down because there wasn’t enough room.
For Annemarie it was all a blur.
The train started and stopped. Started and stopped. Started and stopped.
When they reached a place where they got out of the train, it was a relief. Annemarie didn’t know where they were until a German soldier told the grown-ups. He spoke German and Annemarie couldn’t understand him, but she heard whispers among the Danish Jews. They were in Theresienstadt. That name meant nothing to Annemarie.
The German soldiers barked out orders, and Annemarie’s mother clung to her tightly. A soldier started to pull Annemarie away and she screamed for her mother.
All the children were taken away, forcefully.
“What’s happening?” one boy asked in a language that
Annemarie knew wasn’t Danish, but she understood enough of the words to know what he was saying.
“They’re taking us to bathe,” another child said. “Will I see my mother after that?” someone asked. “Yes, once we’re all clean,” someone else replied.
But Annemarie feared she wouldn’t see her mother or father again. She feared she wouldn’t play in the forest again. She feared she wouldn’t hold her doll, open a birthday present, or enjoy an ice cream cone. She feared she was going to die.
I noticed the dark-haired woman as soon as she walked into Mojo on that Friday night in May when it all began.
She was inappropriately dressed for the laid-back blues bar, wearing a severe dark pantsuit, her hair tightly pulled back from her face, black high heels with red soles, which I knew she had a weakness for, and a cool smile. Several eyes, including mine, followed her to the bar, where she ordered a drink from fair-haired Ricky.
She had a striking face. Dark among the blond, blue-eyed Danes. She took her glass of what I guessed was whiskey—she used to be a Johnnie girl—and walked up to the end of the room, right by the smoking booth. She held her drink in one hand, and the other was in her pocket. She leaned against the wall, confidence oozing out of her, as if she were saying, “You sure you want to talk to me?” to the men who wondered if they should try their luck with her.
Mojo, the place you went in Copenhagen if you were into the blues, was anything but fancy or chic. It was a hole in the wall. It was also atmospheric, inexpensive, and had been delivering live blues (or jazz or folk music) every day since the mid-eighties. It was not pretentious, and the only thing you had to worry about was arriving early enough not to get stuck at a table behind a pillar, with a partial view of the stage.
There were almost always musicians milling outside the bar with a beer and a cigarette, awaiting their turn onstage. It was a small community of blues musicians and most of us knew one another. I usually played with my band but others, less established, came by on Blues Jam Night on Thursdays, taking turns to play with familiar and new musicians. There were always one or two who were deemed too drunk to perform and kicked off the stage by Thomas, who ran the joint with an iron fist and a friendly smile on his dark face.
We were playing one of the last sets of the night. I was on guitar, while Bobby K finished singing, I’m gonna shoot you right down.
It was John Lee Hooker Night.
The woman I couldn’t keep my eyes off sipped her golden whiskey slowly as we began to play one of my favorites, “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer.”
I watched her watch me as my solo wound down and the clapping began.
“Give it up for my man Gabriel Præst on guitar,” Bobby K said, and the crowd applauded. I bowed. “And let’s give a hand to John Reinhardt on bass, the elegant Nuru Kimathi on drums, and my drinking partner Valdemar Vong on the sax.”
Nuru, a Kenyan who had moved to Denmark after she met and married a Dane, smiled and waved at the crowd, leaned into her microphone, and, in a two-pack-a-day voice, said, “Let’s not forget our fearless leader and a man who sings to make angels weep, Bobby K.”
After the applause quieted, Bobby K told the crowd that we would wet our whistles and be right back with “Shake It Baby” and a few other precious gems to close the evening.
I picked up my beer from the bar and walked up to the dark-haired woman.
“Still singing the blues,” she mused.
I smiled and leaned in to give her a perfunctory, almost platonic hug and said, “Hej.”
She didn’t flinch but she didn’t lean into my hug either. I would’ve gone with a handshake, but I perversely wanted to see her response. Now that I had, I had no clue what I was after.
“How are you, Leila?”
She nodded, and something twinkled in her eyes. “When are you done? I need your help.”
I raised my eyebrows. Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine after . . . what, nearly a decade? “My help?” I sipped my beer, simply to have something to do with my hands.
“Yes,” she confirmed.
I gave myself a moment to think before I responded, even though I knew I didn’t need the time. No matter what was or was not there between us, if she was asking for my help, I’d give it to her.
“Okay,” I said. “It’s going to be another hour. If it’s urgent . . .” She shook her head.
“Buy me another Johnnie Walker,” she held up her nearly empty glass, “and I’ll wait.”
“You need my help, but I have to buy the Johnnie?” I waved to Ricky, the barman, and pointed to Leila’s glass. He nodded.
“Yes. After all you are making me wait.” She was lightening the mood between us, asking me to join in and play.
I smiled as I watched the bartender make a beeline for us, Johnnie in hand. “My man Ricky will take care of you.”
As I was leaving, my back turned to her, I heard her softly whisper, “Thank you, Gabriel.”
i walked my bicycle, my guitar strapped to my back, beside Leila to Southern Cross Pub on Løngangstræde close to Mojo and Rådhus, the city hall. I knew the pub well, because it was open until 5:00 a.m., and people like me who stayed out late into the morning went there when they didn’t want to go home. And the bartender made an old-fashioned that could beat the pants off the designer crap they sold in chic Copenhagen bars, where it cost twice as much.
It was three in the morning and the crowd was winding down. Once I parked my bicycle and locked it, we sat at one of the outdoor tables warmed by an overhead infrared heat lamp. I didn’t pick up the blanket that was draped on the chair to cover myself. I was wearing my Burberry trench, because Mojo was a good fifteen-minute ride on my bicycle to my apartment, and even though summer was in the air, the spring chill hadn’t quite left the party. I set my guitar case on the chair next to me.
Smokers stood outside, around the door, their alcohol-laden voices carrying through the night.
Leila draped a blanket across her lap. “You cold?” I asked. “We can go in.”
She shook her head. “I’m fine.”
A waiter came along, and I ordered an old-fashioned while she ordered another Johnnie Walker, still neat. Her third of the night, I counted, and those were the ones I knew about. One thing about Leila, she could drink most people under the table.
“How can I help you?” I asked once we were settled in, waiting for our drinks.
“You’ve gotten better,” she said and then on a smile added, “at the guitar.”
I could’ve responded with a double entendre about other things I’d gotten better at, but it was too easy and a little unsophisticated, so I said, “Time and practice.”
She nodded but didn’t say anything. I didn’t say anything. I waited for her to tell me how I could help her.
Knowing Leila, coming to me was a last resort. The relationship hadn’t ended well. There had been yelling and screaming, and plenty of fighting. She had thrown a few things at me. I had maybe made a few churlish and snide remarks, which had instigated the throwing of things at me. That had been a decade ago. We’d both grown up since then. I didn’t enter relationships anymore, so I hadn’t had to end any—there was always less drama with relationships that lasted a couple of months than there was for ones that lasted a couple of years and rocked your world.
“If I could have gotten anyone else to do it, trust me . . . ,” she trailed off, telling me she was as uncomfortable as I had thought she might be, coming to me for help. It didn’t sit well with me. I didn’t know why.
The waiter brought our drinks. I took the first sip and sighed in pleasure. I was pumped after playing, as I usually was, and knew that I wouldn’t be able to sleep for another hour or so. I was in no rush to get her talking. She’d get there when she got there. In the meantime, I was sitting across from one of the most beautiful women I had ever had the pleasure of seeing naked, with a perfect cocktail in my hand—it was a very good moment.
She toyed with her whiskey glass, took a sip, and then announced, “Yousef Ahmed.”
“You know who he is?” she asked.
“Yes, as I don’t live under a stone.”
“I’ve taken him on as a client. We intend to appeal.”
My eyebrows rose. “Appeal what? The case is over, Leila. The man has been convicted.”
She looked me in the eyes, straight, focused, and clear. “I don’t think he did it.”
“Well, skat, they’re all innocent, except they’re not,” I provoked her by calling her darling. The irony of the Danish language is that skat also means “tax,” very apropos.
She didn’t take the bait. “He didn’t do it.”
“A jury found him guilty. There’s nothing left to do except work on an early release,” I retorted. “Which I don’t see happening.”
“I was in London when the trial took place and I couldn’t help him then.” Her voice was a hoarse whisper. She was affected. “But I intend to help him now.”
“How?” I was baffled.
Leila took a deep breath. “I need you to investigate this.”
“This? As in the murder of Sanne Melgaard?”
I didn’t want to once again say that such an investigation was pointless so I went another route. “Okay. What if I find out he did it?”
She raised her hands, palms up. “Then that’s that.”
She finished her drink, set the empty glass on the table, and waved at the waiter.
“Why are you doing this?” I asked. “Why even take him on?”
“I know . . . knew his son,” Leila explained. “I know the family. It’s been devastating for them.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I shut up. I had never gone wrong shutting up.
Someone called out to an Andreas, who was apparently a son of a bitch, followed by a string of obscenities and drunken laughter. The waiter came back with a fresh drink and took Leila’s empty glass away. He looked at me pointedly and I shook my head. If I drank any more, I wouldn’t be able to bicycle home—this was my third and final drink of the evening. Leila, as always, held her liquor better than I did.
“If you knew him, you’d know he couldn’t have killed Sanne Melgaard. He’s not that man. And I don’t give a shit who says what about him. It’s like Muslim man plus angry equals murderer,” she hissed, and I recognized the fire in her that had drawn me to her. Leila was a passionate woman. When she believed in something, she went all out. For a short time there, she’d believed in us.
“My law firm will pay you.”
“I wasn’t planning to do this for free, if I was planning to do it.”
“And are you planning to do it?” she asked.
“There’s a good chance of that happening,” I offered, and she smiled, as I wanted her to. Even after a decade, I still wanted to make her happy, I realized, more than a little disturbed by that thought.
“You can talk to your police friends, just make sure they did everything the way it was supposed to be done,” she pleaded.
“You know I don’t have many police friends.” When you ratted out the national chief of police, your former colleagues tended to feel sore about you.
“Meet his daughter,” Leila suggested. “She was thirteen when they took him away. She’s Sophie’s age.”
Which made her about eighteen now. Sophie, my daughter, had just turned twenty. Leila certainly had the violins out for this one. “I can bring her to your office next week. Just meet her and . . . ,”
I raised a hand. “I’ll do it. I mean, I’ll meet her. I’m saying yes, I’ll look into the case.”
“Because you asked me to,” I said truthfully.
From A DEATH IN DENMARK by Amulya Malladi, published by William Morrow & Company. Copyright © 2023 by Amulya Malladi.