Monday, April 6, 2015

My heart beats faster

Seventy years ago today Kim Malthe-Bruun, a brave young Dane, only 21 years of age, was executed by the Nazis for being involved with the Danish resistance movement. Soon after his death, his mother published some of Kim’s writings, including letters and diary material written during his incarceration. In one moving piece, written just a month before his death, he writes about feeling no fear while his heart beats faster every time someone stops outside his door.

Kim Malthe-Bruun was born in Fort Saskatchewan, near Edmonton, Canada, in 1923. His mother, Vibeke, originally from Denmark, decided to move back home with Kim, then nine years old, and his younger sister. When still young he signed up with the merchant navy, and then, after the German occupation of Denmark, he joined the Danish resistance. In 1944, he was arrested by the Germans for being involved in the shipping of weapons from Sweden to Denmark. He was tortured, and then, on 6 April 1945, he was executed. A little further information is available from Wikipedia or The Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center of Florida.

After the war, Vibeke edited a selection of her son’s diary-like letters, some written when he was still a seaman and some written from prison, as well as diary material found hidden in the Copenhagen prison. These were published by Thaning & Appel soon after Kim’s death. They received a wider audience when, in 1955, Random House published a translation (by Gerry Bothmer) into English titled Heroic Heart: The diary and letters of Kim Malthe-Bruun 1941-1945. More recently, in 1996, substantial excerpts from Kim’s diary appeared in Children in the Holocaust and World War II: Their Secret Diaries by Laurel Holliday (Simon and Schuster). Much of this latter - which was reissued in 2014 - is available to read online at Googlebooks (and is the source of the extract below).

In general, Kim’s published letters are diary-like, factual, about his daily life, trials and tribulations, but the following text (3 March 1945) was found, after the German capitulation, in Vestre prison. It was written in microscopic writing on the back of a letter Kim had received toward the end of February 1945. Around this period, it is known that Kim was being tortured and, at least once, was sent back to his cell in an unconscious state.

3 March 1945
‘Yesterday I was sitting at the table. I looked at my hands in amazement. They were trembling. I thought about it for a moment. There are some things which produce a purely physical reaction. Suddenly, as I was sitting here, I was possessed by the desire to draw something. I got up and started to sketch on the wall. I was fascinated and became more and more absorbed. Under my hand suddenly appeared a farmer, standing by a barbed-wire fence. I sat down, got up and made some changes, sat down again and felt much better. All day I worked on it. There were so many things which I couldn’t make come out the way I wanted them to. I studied it, stretched my imagination to the utmost and was suddenly completely exhausted. I erased all of it and since then even the idea of drawing makes me sick.

I’ve been thinking about this strange experience a good deal. Right afterwards I had such a wonderful feeling of relief, a sense of having won a victory and such intense happiness that I felt quite numb. It seemed as if body and soul became separated, one in a wild and soaring freedom beyond the reach of the world, and the other doubled up in a horrible cramp which held it to the earth. I suddenly realized how terrifically strong I am (but perhaps I only tried to talk myself into this). When the body and soul rejoined forces, it was as if all the joys of the world were right there for me. But it was as with so many stimulants; when the effect wore off the reaction set in. I saw that my hands were shaking, something had given inside. It was as if there had been a short circuit in the roots of my heart which drained it of all strength. I was like a man hungry for pleasure and consumed by desire. But still I was calm and in better spirits than ever before.

Although I feel no fear, my heart beats faster every time someone stops outside my door. It’s a physical reaction.

Strange, but I don’t feel any resentment or hatred at all. Something happened to my body, which is only the body of an adolescent, and it reacted as such, but my mind was elsewhere. It was aware of the small creatures who were busying themselves with my body, but it was in a world of its own and too engrossed to pay much attention to them.

I’ve learned something by being alone. It is as if I’d reached rock bottom in myself, which usually can’t be seen for all the layers of egotism, conceit, love, and all the ups and downs of daily life. It is this which makes me feel as if I’d had a short circuit within me. When I’m with the other people, their interests, their conversation, act as a balm, covering the rock bottom in myself with a warm compress. When I’m alone, it is as if layers of skin were being scraped away. Your mind is not at ease, you can’t concentrate on reading, the spirit as well as the body must keep pacing up and down. I suddenly understood what insanity must be, but I knew that this was like everything else which has happened to me, and in a couple of days I’ll be myself again.’

The Diary Junction

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