"My brother stood up so quickly he almost knocked Mama over. 'Why aren't you doing something? Do you know what the British are calling us? Hitler's canary! I've heard it on the radio, on the BBC. They say he has us in a cage and we just sit and sing any tune he wants.'"
Bamse's family are theater people. They don't get involved in politics. "it had nothing to do with us," Bamse tells us. Yet now he must decide: should he take his father's advice and not stir up trouble? Or should he follow his brother into the Resistance and take part in the most demanding role of his life?
About the Author
Born in Copenhagen, Sandi Toksvig now lives in Britain. Her theater credits include seasons with the New Shakespeare Company at Regent's Park. She hosts "The News Quiz" TV show in London.
Sandi Toksvig's theater credits include seasons with the New Shakespeare Company at Regents Park. Her TV credits include various news shows, and she is now the host of "The News Quiz" in London. The author of thirteen books for children and adults, including Hitler's Canary, Sandi has regular columns in the Sunday Telegraph and Good Housekeeping.
Read an Excerpt
By Sandi Toksvig
Roaring Brook PressCopyright © 2005 Sandi Toksvig
All rights reserved.
ACT I, SCENE ONE TIME: April 1940 PLACE: Copenhagen
This is my story. It is my story of when the war came to Denmark in 1940. The Second World War. I can't give you the whole picture of what happened; just what I saw and what people told me. There are hundreds of personal stories from that time, but this is not one in which all Germans were bad and all Danes were good. It didn't work that way. There were just some good people and some bad people and it wasn't always easy to tell the difference.
I often think of Thomas sitting on the throne at the moment the Germans invaded. I wish I had remembered to tell Mama. I'm sure it would have pleased her. Mama lived and breathed drama. As far as she was concerned, there was an appropriate part and costume for everything that happened in life. She believed that it was all part of what she called Livskunt — the art of living.
Mr. Shakespeare once said that "all the world's a stage," but I think even he would have been amazed at how much Mama believed it to be true. To be honest, Mama's insistence that there was an outfit for every event was not always easy for the family. Parents' evenings at my school, for example, could be a nightmare. If she thought I was doing well, she would arrive dressed in gold silk and sequins to draw attention to herself as the mother of a brilliant boy. If I did badly, she came in rags and old shoes like a poor beggar woman with no money to provide her poor boy with even a pencil. Who could blame her if he wasn't at the top of the class? Sometimes it tried my father's patience.
"For goodness' sake, Marie, you must give the boy some sense of the real world as well. You can't keep pretending everything is a performance. You're his mother. Have you no proper advice for him to help him along his way?"
My mother looked at my father and shook her head in disgust. "Of course I have advice for him, Peter," she replied in a soft, low voice that could nonetheless be heard in Sweden. She put her hand out and held my chin so that I looked straight into her face.
"Bamse, darling, if you are ever asked to do Shakespeare in the theater, then always play a king or a queen — royalty always get a chair and they never carry props."
As far as I remember, it's the only guidance in life that my mother ever gave me, yet I learned so much from her.
If Mama was the life and soul of the party, then my father was the one who paid the piper. He was a small, gentle man. He was handsome but he had, as Mama used to say, "a face fit for a coin." From one side he was perfect, but on the other a great red stain spread from his forehead to his chin. It was as though someone had poured a glass of dark red liquid over that side of his face and it had stained it forever. I never really noticed it. It's only when I look at old photographs that I remember the mark was there at all, but I know Father thought about it. All his adult life he looked at my mother in wonder, amazed that someone so beautiful should have married him.
"The swan and the ugly duckling," he would laugh when they hugged, which they did often.
Papa was a wonderful painter. If my mother could play Ibsen better than anyone in the whole of Scandinavia, he could paint something so real you wanted to reach out and grab it. He did the sets at the theater and for extra money he painted people's portraits and did cartoons for the newspapers. I didn't know it then, but her acting and his brushes were to save our lives. I don't think my parents knew anything about war before it came. I probably didn't know anything about anything.
It was cold that winter — bitter cold — and by the time April came, there was still a thick frost in the air. No one thought anything about the great merchant ships steaming right past the Danish security forces to dock at Langelinie Pier in the heart of Copenhagen. Everyone presumed that the ships brought coal. They always brought coal. We needed coal. Like I said, it was cold. The freighters sailed right into the heart of the city: up past the army headquarters, past Amalienborg, the palace where the king lived. But they did not bring coal. The boats were like a modern Trojan horse — you know, the one with all the Greek soldiers inside. Only, these were full of German troops.
The morning I heard the droning sound Mama sent me out to find Father and bring him home. I ran out of the stage door into the street and banged into a man standing with his back to the door. I slipped and fell and lay across his high black boots. I looked up and he laughed.
"What's the hurry?" he asked in German as he reached for my collar and pulled me to my feet. He was wearing a green uniform I had never seen before. It was a dark olive color but seemed to be covered in coal dust. He flicked a cigarette away and went to join three other soldiers standing nearby. A small crowd of Danes had gathered on the corner, looking at them but not saying anything. It was as if they were watching a play.
"What's happening?" I asked one of them.
"We've been occupied," said a woman. She spat on the ground and then walked away, pushing her bicycle.
All across the city, people were going about their business but the atmosphere was strange. It was quiet, as if the play had not yet begun. I headed toward the newspaper offices of Berlingske Tiden on Pilestraede, where I thought I might find my father. Over at the British embassy several trucks full of German soldiers had arrived. They were herding out diplomats and office staff. Once again several Danes stood watching in silence on the other side of the street.
Suddenly a young man about my brother's age called out, "Hurrah for Britain!" and the other Danes nodded in silent agreement.
"Anyone attempting to interfere will be shot!" barked a German soldier in broken Danish to the gathering.
"Hurrah for the Britons!" replied the crowd.
I didn't know why we should cheer the British. I didn't know anything.
I found my father sitting at his drawing board, puffing on his pipe while he finished a drawing. I had seen him there a hundred times, with his jam jars full of pencils and the slight smell of India ink and pipe tobacco that always lingered on his jacket. I was so relieved to find him. Nothing had really happened yet but I could feel the fear in the air and I needed his calm to make everything all right.
"Papa, the Germans have come. Papa!"
My father carried on drawing. Despite my anxiety I couldn't help but stop and watch my father's pen as an elephant appeared on the blank piece of paper.
"The elephant, Bamse," he told me, "is the symbol of the highest order of nobility achievable in Denmark." He matched his words to the careful, slow strokes of his pen. Papa never said anything unless he had a point to make. He said Mother had enough chatter for both of them.
"The Order of the Elephant is given by the king to only a very few. Curious, isn't it, as we Danes have no elephants? It is named for the great battle elephants in the Crusades. Strong but silent they marched." Then he drew a horse beside the large creature and carefully wrote: "No horse, not even a Trojan one, can match an elephant."
I didn't know what it meant. Papa put down his pen and looked at his drawing. "It is done," he said.
"Mama wants you to come home."
"Of course, my boy, and that is where everyone should be."
My father pedalled his old black bicycle through the streets while I perched on the luggage carrier on the back, my legs swinging clear of the turning spokes. We headed north to our flat in the small suburb of Charlottenlund. Along the way we could see German soldiers in olive-green uniforms with shiny weapons marching across Langelinie Bridge, down toward Østerport Station on their way to Nyboder School on ØsterVoldgade.
"They say the school has been taken over as a German barracks," called my father over his shoulder.
It was the only good news I had heard all day. Nyboder wasn't my school but perhaps, I thought, the Germans had taken over others as well and I wouldn't have to go to lessons. As they marched the soldiers sang "Wir Fahren Gegen Engeland" and "Die Fahne Hoch." Above our heads black Stuka planes howled, but there was no fighting that I could see. The invaders were marching where they liked and taking what they liked. Suddenly I felt angry. Why should they come here and march through our city? Even though I didn't really know what was happening, I could feel how upset everyone was and I was angry. I stuck out my tongue at a passing brigade and blew a raspberry. My father jerked his bicycle to a halt and turned on me.
"Don't you ever do that!" he said sharply but in a low voice so that the soldiers wouldn't hear. I was frightened. I had never seen him angry with anyone. "Do you want to get killed? That is not how we will deal with this. We will be calm and we will wait to see what happens."
"I don't want to be a coward," I declared, matching Papa in anger.
He took a deep breath and hugged me to his chest. "Bamse, my boy, you are not a coward but you have to think about the situation we are in. I need you to be sensible. What can a tiny nation like ours do against a mighty nation like Germany? We have but four and a half million people. There are seventy-five million Germans and they have one of the strongest armies in the world. If he chose to, the German leader, Hitler, could simply bomb us into submission. No. You must pick your fights carefully and this one is too big. We shall be calm and go home."
We rode out past the square of the king's palace at Amalienborg. People said there had been a few shots at the palace but within two hours the Danish government had given in.
"Is the king in there making plans?" I asked Papa.
"I hope so," replied my father as he pedalled us home. I tried to imagine King Christian somewhere behind the curtains, making a daring plan. I hoped he was, because I knew my Danish history from school: for the first time in nine hundred years my homeland of Denmark was not free and independent.CHAPTER 2
ACT I, SCENE TWO TIME: April 1940 PLACE: Charlottenlund, Suburb of Copenhagen
You might have thought that the day the Germans invaded would have been quite a big day in history, that the whole family sat around discussing Europe, but when we got home, Mama was trying on hats from Sallie Besiakov's shop in Amager. My mother always used Sallie for her hats, and Thomas was helping her. He seemed to have calmed down since his outburst in the theater. In fact, it was as if he hadn't a care in the world except trying to get feathers to sit at the right angle.
"Now this one, Marie," he declared as he unpacked something pink with flowers on, "this one is so very you."
He and Mama clapped their hands with delight. It was too much for my older brother Orlando. Orlando was not thinking about hats. He practically ran to us as we came through the front door.
"Papa, any news?"
Papa shook his head. "Just what I guess you already know. They came in coal boats. They say the German ship Hansestadt Danzig, which is down at the harbor, brought a whole battalion."
"I heard that the whole air force is gone. The planes were at Vaerloese airfield and the Germans destroyed them all in just a few minutes. What shall we do?" moaned Orlando.
"I don't know, son. Nothing for the moment." Papa sighed and took his pipe out of his jacket pocket. It was the only sign of tension in the house. Papa wasn't allowed to smoke inside but he chewed the stem of his pipe when he had something on his mind.
"Shouldn't we get a gun?" demanded my brother.
"No," replied Papa rather sharply. "The government and the king are still in place. For the moment, we wait. It won't help anyone, Orlando, if we just go off the deep end."
"Oh, let's try the green one, Thomas!" declared Mama, paying no attention to the conversation.
Orlando was furious. "Mother, this is not the time to be frivolous."
"Don't be silly, Orlando. This is precisely the time," replied Mama, looking in the mirror. She was wearing a smart tunic and black trousers. She looked like the tin soldier in the Hans Christian Andersen story. Maybe she had decided it would be her military outfit for the war.
"Marie —" began Papa.
"I don't think green is right for a war," interrupted Thomas. "We need something less military. More cheerful. Oh, red — red is always good."
We all watched while Thomas fussed and helped change the angle of Mother's hat. We had seen him do it a million times. Thomas was Mother's greatest professional support, but he seemed to do quite a lot of it at home as well. He was a slight man who always dressed in brilliant colors, like a butterfly with only one day to live but making the most of it. Sometimes when Papa's brother, our Uncle Johann, had been drinking, he would say that Thomas seemed more like Mama's sister than a friend. Papa's teeth ground down on the stem of his pipe.
Orlando looked desperately to our father, who shrugged and went to see about dinner. Our housekeeper was not the best and sometimes she seemed to forget that we hadn't eaten. I didn't know what to do, so I sat down on the floor and began to lay out my toy soldiers.
"Mother, you don't seem to understand, we have been invaded," Orlando tried again.
"And what do you want me to do about it, Orlando?" she muttered as she tried different poses in a large cerise picture hat.
"We should all stick to doing what we do well," lisped Thomas.
"Oh, what do you know, you silly man!" yelled Orlando, who at sixteen seemed to me so nearly a man. "All you know about is theater and powder and paint. That's not what we need. We need real men now, not some ninny with —"
Mama rose up to her full height and threw the hat to one side. She was a tall, elegant woman and could get the attention of an entire theater with the flick of an eye. Now she thrust back her head. In her military togs she looked as if she was about to charge us.
"Orlando, don't you dare," she boomed. "In this house we respect and cherish differences. Let me tell you that the very atrocities you are worrying about occur when people are obsessed by their differences, and that will not be happening in my home."
"He ought to be a man," dared Orlando against this onslaught.
"What ought a man to be? What ought a man to be?" Mother repeated, building herself up to a crescendo. "Well, my short answer is: himself."
It was the second time in one day I had seen one of my parents angry.
Mama sat down and took a deep breath. Thomas clapped his hands silently and mouthed, "Brilliant." He picked up another hat. "Peer Gynt, wasn't it?" he asked, as if they hadn't even been interrupted in their work.
Mama nodded. She was always quoting from different plays she had been in. You could never tell if she was saying something she had thought of herself or whether it was Mr. Ibsen or whoever. Whatever it was, she made it sound good.
Thomas clapped his hands. "I've got one — I've got one: 'When the first baby laughed for the first time, the laugh broke into a thousand pieces and they all went skipping about, and that was the beginning of fairies.'"
"Peter Panl" screamed Mama, and the serious conversation was over as she and Thomas drifted off into a series of anecdotes about high wires and green stockings. "Do you remember that dreadful production where ...?"
It was too much for Orlando. He stormed out of the flat, nearly knocking over my sister, Masha as she came in. Normally both Papa and Mama would have wanted to know where she had been. She looked flushed and hot, as if she had been running, but no one said a word. Nothing seemed normal and I felt afraid.
That evening my father sat chewing on his pipe while I sat on the floor, laying my armies out in front of the fire.
"You know," said Papa as if he had just thought of it, "Sallie Besiakov — Mama's hat maker — her grandfather came to Denmark in nineteen hundred and five. Came all the way from Russia."
"Why?" asked my big sister, Masha. She was fourteen and she had seen too many Russian plays not to think it rather a romantic place to live.
"He was Jewish and the Russians had something called a pogrom. They decided they didn't like the Jews and so they would kill them all."
"Why?" I asked.
Papa took his pipe from his mouth and looked at it for a moment. "People are strange. When things are going wrong for them, they like to have someone to blame. At that time the Russians decided to pick on the Jews. As indeed Mr. Hitler has decided now."
"So why didn't they kill the grandfather?" I asked.
Excerpted from Hitler's Canary by Sandi Toksvig. Copyright © 2005 Sandi Toksvig. Excerpted by permission of Roaring Brook Press.
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