Resistance Fighters in Denmark During WWII
On the 4th and 5th of May, We celebrated our 74th anniversary for our liberation from the German occupation. The hated blackout curtains were thrown out and spontaneously candles lit up in windowsills. A custom still kept alive today by the older generations.
In 1975, I had completed my education as a staff nurse at Bispebjerg Hospital in Copenhagen. Little did I know then that thirty years earlier it had played a significant role in saving many lives of Jews and resistance fighters who were hidden there as patients before they were guided away to safe and neutral Sweden on trains and boats. The following story is a free translation from an article in my Nursing Magazine from 2000 written by Anne Vesterdal.
The Nurse and ”The Citroen”
In 1953, nurse Ellen Christensen got the Florence Nightingale medal as a recognition for her work to save Jews, and people in the resistance during the German occupation in Denmark. She nursed “Citroen”, a famous Danish saboteur and she was present during the dramatic scenes of his death in October 1944.
Ellen Christensen was a member of the illegal group called “Free Denmark”. Later on, centrally placed she took part in the leadership. Free Denmark was a centre for the illicit press, evacuation of Jews, saboteurs and allied airmen to Sweden.
Ellen hardly ever talked about her deeds during the entire hectic and insecure and fearful life she led during the war. A former nurse colleague luckily got hold of her story and gathered material about her.
Ellen Christensen worked as an operation nurse at Bispebjerg Hospital in Copenhagen. In October 1943, German razzias started to round up our Danish Jews. Shortly before that, most of our Danish Jews had a warning about it, and many gathered at the hospital and were admitted to the wards with false diagnosis and identities or hidden in nursing school rooms. During a few weeks, about 2000 Jews got away from there. Ellen Christensen travelled with them, and at times she was awake for five days in a row.
After the evacuation of the Jews, the staff at Bispebjerg Hospital continued to help saboteurs with injuries from fights with the Germans.
Medical personnel hastily left the hospital to be first responders to wounded saboteurs and that’s how Ellen got to know many of the involved people. She helped wanted resistance fighters and some allied airmen to find the most secure routes to Sweden and worked on duplicating and printing illegal information to be spread out among people.
She got hold of everything needed for the illicit groups as clothing, weapons and stimulating drugs for worn out freedom fighters and places for weapon drops. Her illegal work began to take up all the time that she got the leave of absence from her nursing.
In October 1944, Ellen got involved in one of the most dramatic episodes of our occupation. She took care of injured Jorgen Haagen Schmith, alias Citronen/Citroen (The Lemon). He had become heavily wounded during an escape attempt.
Together with “The Flame”, Citronen born in 1910, was one of our famous and mythical saboteurs in Denmark and Germans searched him intensively. As a child, Citroen showed an individualistic character who was quick to manage difficulties. Early on the handling of weapon and creation of gunpowder had his interest. He became an ironmonger but hated the regularity of a daily work routine. For an extended period, he had many different jobs, and when the war started, he was a janitor to soon after become a stage manager in a theatre.
His original qualities, love of freedom and being off in the day time helped him early on to become involved in the Danish resistance fight.
For a short time, he worked at the Citroen factory in a Copenhagen harbour where he damaged the German cars instead of repairing them. Later on, he took part in destroying the Citroen factory by sabotage. That was the fate of many firms and factories who made business with the Germans.
His code name comes from that episode. As his fame rose and the Germans searched him intensively, he escaped to Sweden for a while. Too restless to stay there he returned to Denmark and continued his participation in the resistance. Often he disguised himself during the actions, sometimes in a Danish police uniform or a Nazi shirt.
Once he made a propaganda performance on the top of a high building at the Copenhagen Town Hall Square close to the Gestapo Head Quarter called Dagmar Hus. From amplifiers and a record player on the rooftop, he loudly played the voice of someone who proclaimed the “German Surrender” followed by the British melody “It’s a long way to Tipperary”. On a more serious level, he worked with transports of fugitives to Sweden.
19 September 1944
The day our Danish police corps was captured by the Germans during a false air raid warning. My father was taken prisoner that same day but was fortunately later released.
Citroen got caught by accident on that day. He and some people from his group in false police uniforms had not taken note of the air warning and drove through Copenhagen with a lot of weapons. They got halted by a chain of German soldiers and ordered to get out of the car. They were guided to a schoolyard nearby to stand with their hands up. Citroen would for sure get executed if found out, so his friends made some distraction to let Citroen run to a fence. Halfway over he was shot in his back and fell back unconscious in the yard.
His friends managed to slip away in the turbulence. By a lucky chance, a first responder had recognised him at the arrest on the street and quickly called his ambulance central from a telephone box. They sent an ambulance to the area, and the Germans shouted at the ambulance to halt and ordered them to take the injured to the German lazaret not far away. An armed guard was following along. Citroen had his consciousness back and started to moan for pain and thirst. The guard asked the first responders to stop at a pharmacy to get some water. Citroen managed to shoot the guard, and the ambulance men took the bleeding Jorgen (Citroen) to a hospital before they continued to the lazaret with the dead guard. Citroen had kept a pistol in his boots.
The ambulance drivers went through a lengthy interrogation and succeeded, at last, to convince the Germans that Citroen had shot his way out and run away on his own.
At the hospital, they found that the bullet had gone through his left lung. A blood transfusion stabilised him and soon after the operation, another ambulance took him to a private villa in the outskirts of Copenhagen. The doctors knew there would soon be a razzia looking for him. Ellen, the nurse, went along with him.
Weeks went by, and he started to recover slowly. His wife and small child came to visit now and then.
In the middle of the night of 15 October, there was a hard knock on the door. Ellen opened the door. Two men confronted her with a machine gun.
Who is in the house they asked? I am alone, but they didn’t believe her. They went towards the bedroom, and a shot hit one of the Germans in the shoulder. The other one screamed who is that man?
He is my fiancé, and there are other men in the house, one on the roof and one in the basement.
They still didn’t know the wanted Citroen was there. The shooting occurred again, and the gunfight escalated. Citroen threw a hand grenade which started a fire in the house. The nurse was taken outside where she shouted to signal to Jorgen that she was out and that he could shoot freely. In the confused situation, she was able to flee to the neighbourhood in the darkness. Citroen’s room stood in flames and leaving the house that was the last thing she saw.
People woke up in the area, and Ellen tried to get help by knocking doors after running through bushes and entering fences. She was rejected everywhere as people would think she was a traitor. At the 6th house, she was let in by a pale shaking man who borrowed her a coat and some money. Again she was out in the street and understood that she had run in circles and was too close to the burning house. Ten metres from her a man was held by the Gestapo. Behind her, a window opened, and she whispered if she could be allowed to get shelter?
She came to an underprivileged family and they met her with the utmost kindness in their poverty house. At about three o’clock in the morning, the gunfire silenced, and she believed that Citroen was dead. Neighbours had seen a man in pyjamas shooting with a machine gun running a few steps out of the house. Shots soon hit him. He would not be taken alive, and in his death, he brought with him eight to eleven Germans and others were injured.
The Germans found Ellen’s handbag with four different identity cards and a card for a Department Store in Copenhagen. They now knew who she was and though she was wanted they never found her. She continued her life as if nothing had happened to do nursing as a first responder in many conflicted areas. She never talked about her involvement in the war.
Many of our freedom fighters didn’t live to see the triumphal procession of Montgomery and his men in our streets May 12, 1945
I will conclude with the famous BBC transmission that came through the illegal radio on May 4 at 8: 25 PM. Only those who had collaborated with the enemy were not happy.