My Friday Book: “The Ice Children” or “Isbarnen” by Camilla Lagerqvist

If you have not read the first part of Camilla Lagerqvist’s books about WWII and a little Swedish community close to the Norwegian border, housing the resistance group “The Black Roses”, then you might want to at least read my previous post called “My Friday Book: ‘The Assignment’…”. Book two, “The Ice Children” very much builds on that one, but of course consists of an entirely new adventure for the three now 13 year-olds, Swedish Maja, Norwegian Hilde and half-Swedish/half-Norwegian Benjamin, who happens to also be Jewish.

imageSix months have passed since the youths crossed the border to find Benjamin’s dad’s resistance group, the Frode group, in order to have them warn a resistance woman, called the Black Rose, that she had been betrayed and was to be arrested and executed. An experience which also meant that Maja, got shot by German soldiers, who were pursuing them back towards Sweden.

It is nearing Christmas and the children are happy and content with their substitute teacher Elin Björnsson, who also happens to be the resistance fighter, the Black Rose. But only Maja and her friends know that. On the first day of the book, none of that is occupying the youths’ minds. They are to spend a day out on the frozen lake, with grades 5-7. Elin is alone in charge and all children get their skates on, according to their fortune. Benjamin or Ben as he likes to be called, in borrowed, too large skates, Maja, in the kind that one tied on one’s feet and Hilde, the metal pokers from her mother’s stove. Elin, on the other hand, has skated in championships, so she dons real white figure skating skates. The girls decide to talk her in to showing them the Salchow jump. Elin hesitates since it has been years, but doesn’t want to disappoint. It all ends in her falling really badly though and putting both her shoulder out and breaking her arm in several places. She is rushed to the hospital and there will be no more school that week, since a substitute can not be found.

Benjamin’s mother Greta has left for Stockholm, to help an aunt, who is so ill, that she has to be hospitalized, and Benjamin has to stay with his mother’s cousin. The woman makes him go to bed way too early and after Elin’s accident, he wants to retrieve his book from his desk in school, so that he can read under the covers with a torch. But while they stand in the classroom, the three of them, a telegram boy arrives with a high priority urgent telegram for Elin Björnsson. They tell him she is in hospital, but persuade him to give them the telegram and they promise to give it to her that very day. First they try to phone the hospital  and talk to Elin in person, but they are told that she is in theater and will not be able to communicate with anyone for days. Since they know it is an important telegram, they decide to steam it open in order to know what to do next. They do not fully understand the telegram which says:

The Black Rose new assignment stop

Ice children discovered stopped

Will be sent to Auschwitz stop

Germans arriving tomorrow stop

Fetch ice children and bring them to Sweden stop

N668390

E6790

The children don’t know what to do and what the message means. Benjamin’s only thoughts are whether they are Jewish or not, because he knows exactly how dangerous that is, being one himself and having had to flee Norway before it was decided to kill all Jews living in Norway. Maja wonders if he can get hold of his father, who is still in Norway as a resistance fighter. But he doesn’t know where his father is, his mother having told him he is on assignment. Maja still decides that they must try to get hold of him so they walk to her house, where a telephone has been installed, and Benjamin gets to phone his mum. But she doesn’t answer. Maja sees no other alternative than to suggest that they have to cross the border again and get to Benjamin’s father’s resistance group. They might know what to do and what the numbers mean. Maja tells her mum she is sleeping at Hilde’s and Hilde tells her mum the reverse, both knowing that the mothers will not speak to each other, since Hilde’s mum keeps to herself, having given birth to a German soldier’s baby boy. Benjamin on the other hand, writes a note for his mum’s cousin, telling her that he has taken the train to Stockholm, to stay with his mum, since there is no school anyway.

That night they meet by the tall stones by Maja’s house, donned with rucksacks and skis. The temperatures are very low. Maja has packed warm chocolate, sandwiches and apples for all tree, in case the others forgot food, but Benjamin arrives with ginger snaps and soda, the only thing he could find at short notice. The food will be useful later on. They set out on the hunting trail which is the closer route to the resistance cottage in Norway. It turns out to be tough skiing when they get to Norway. Maja is traumatized having to travel the same way, as when she got shot. And they realize the danger in them showing their tracks in the snow. They finally have to travel on the road but doesn’t run in to any trouble until they reach the village before the resistance cottage. Suddenly an angry dog appears and the only way to get rid of him, is for Hilde to throw all her packed food to him, consisting of dried meat. Cold and exhausted, they continue till they get to the place where the cottage should have been. But it is not there anymore. The Germans have burned it down.

The children feel at a loss. What to do with the telegram now? And if they stay out in the cold, they will die. But go back to the village with the dog? It doesn’t feel safe. It is 04:30 and they ski deeper in to Norway, till they see the smoke from a chimney and a farm. It looks like a nice place, with snow shoveled up to the door, between apple trees, but Mrs. Kvarnswärd in Maja’s village, had turned out to be a Nazi spy, so who can one really trust? They decide to knock on the door, and a smiling elderly woman opens. Hilde is the one who speaks and tells the woman that their teacher is sick and they decided to go find Hilde’s grandfather, but got lost.

Bergdis invites them inside and calls on her husband Arne to join them. He sits down in the kitchen observing them from a corner, while they sit down at the table, to eat some of Bergdis home-baked bread. Ben whispers to Maja, to get the telegram out and fold it so that only the numbers will show. Arne wonders where Ben’s grandfather lives (sic the author forgetting what Hilde had said???) and Ben lies and says that he has moved and that they do not have an address, just a code. Arne gets up to look at it, but his breath is so foul, that Maja gets nauseous. She stands up quickly and asks for a toilet and is directed to one, down a hallway. On the way there, Maja glances in to a living room and to her horror, she notices a big portrait on the wall, of Adolf Hitler! Maja panics and doesn’t know how to warn her friends, since Bergdis and Arne might be dangerous. She walks back to the kitchen just to see that Arne is unfolding the telegram. She runs in to the kitchen and snatches the telegram from Arne and quickly says to Ben and Hilde, that now she knows where Ben’s grandfather lives. (Noone reacting over her Swedish?) They get out to their ski boots in a hurry and Maja wheezes that the couple are nazis.

Arne demands to see the telegram, but Maja throws herself out the door. Arne has by then grabbed Ben by the neck. Hilde runs by him and kicks Arne as hard as she can, on his knee, so that Ben can escape his grasp. Arne screams after them but they keep on running with their skis in their arms, till they get back to the forest. They need to find someone who can tell them what the code means and then find the ice children themselves. After skiing several kilometers, they finally see smoke from a chimney again, and this time, they have come to an inn. The owner invites them in for breakfast and after a much-needed visit to the loo, Maja falls asleep sitting waiting for the food.

Aage the owner, treats them to all kinds of food and while they eat, they have to make a decision, whether to show Aage the telegram or not. Who can they really trust? They are running out of time. They write the numbers on a napkin and say that they have been given a homework task which they do not know how to solve. Aage says that it looks like coordinates and go off to try to figure out where it might be. But the children get dressed just in case, since he might have gone off to phone the Germans. Right then, two military vehicles pull up outside and the children panic. They run in to an adjacent room which turns out to be a walk in closet, full of clothes, smelling strongly of moth balls. Ben grabs Maja’s hand and she realizes that he is as scared as she is. That is when the moth balls become too much and she sneezes. The Germans in the dining room, turn silent and Maja can see a blue eye in the key hole and hear a silent order whispered. Aage calls out to the Germans, just as Hilde finds another door. They tumble in to what looks like a living room, just as the door to the closet opens from the dining room. But they do not stop. They head through a hall in to the inn’s kitchen. As they run out in to freedom, Aage enters the kitchen and screams for them to stop  and outside a big man named Aksel, grabs hold of Ben.

While they hear the Germans leave, in front of the house, Aage swears that he is not a sympathizer and he says that he can take them to the place, of the coordinates. But they have to wait a couple of hours. Ben gets to help Aage out, while the girls get to rest in the living room. Hilde tells Maja, why she calls her little brother, “the boy” instead of Olaf, which is his name. Hilde and her mum had had a nice life before the Germans arrived. Hilde had had friends in school and her mother had worked as a seamstress. Then the Germans came and her mother went to a dance, where she met German soldier Kurt. The day it was discovered that Hilde’s mother was pregnant, her mother was fired from her job. And when Hilde came to school, some girls held her while some others emptied one of the barrels from the outhouses, over Hilde. Hilde’s best friend Siv had not done anything to help and had laughed with the others and called her German brat and the child of a whore. Even though Kurt was not her father. Had it not been for him and the baby, they could have stayed in Norway. So Hilde “hates” her new brother.

At 10:00, after the girls have taken a nap, it is time for them to leave in Aage’s lorry. The girls get to sit in the back, on the flatbed, while Ben gets to travel inside. The girls are worried but Ben says that he overheard Aage discuss a sabotage made by the resistance, with Aksel, and that he praised the resistance fighters. Aage drives them to the village of Mossfjord, where he points out two farms and says that they should ask their questions at those two farms, since the people there are nice. But he also warns them, that the village is known for having nazi sympathisers. He tells them that if they are in danger, they must ski over the fields, behind one of the farms, to reach his inn.

The children walk up to the first farmer, who is outside with his horse, and says “we are looking for some children…”. He tells them that the only children he know of, are his own grandchildren. But he points them towards the next farm, which Aage had pointed out to them as well. When they are about to leave, he warns them to not walk around asking questions like this, since there are ears listening. As they walk towards the “safe” farm, they see an evil face pressed towards a window, watching them and they feel very frightened.

They can feel the person’s eyes in their backs all the way to the other farm, but they still walk up to the door and knock. A dark-haired woman opens and Ben says “We are looking for some children who are in grave danger”. The woman closes the door but Ben knocks again and this time the woman opens angrily. She tells them she has no children but Maja decides to reveal all, including that she is Swedish, by opening her mouth. She gets the telegram out as she tells the woman of its contents. The woman reads it and turns white in her face. Then she calls for her husband Espen and asks them to come in, since people are spying on them. They see tiny skiing boots in the hallway and realize that the woman lied. Espen reads the telegram and then sends his wife outside, telling her that she knows what to do.

Espen tells them that it is a terrible thing that the resistance cottage was burned down, after a sympathiser told the Germans about it. And that it is the same person who has now betrayed the ice children, it being his neighbour, who spied on Maja, Ben and Hilde just moments ago. Espen decides to introduce them to the ice children and pulls down a ladder, from the ceiling, leading up to the attic. Up there, they are introduced to the Eisenmans. Sara Eisenman shakes their hands and points at her little 3-4 year-old children Philip and Susannah. Espen tells them that they have to leave quickly and Sara grabs a bag and gets her children dressed in a hurry. As they all descend the ladder, they hear the sound of a motor outside. The Germans have arrived and Espen have them running up the ladder again. Espen tells them that he will do his best trying to get the Germans to leave and if they see them leaving, they must run out the back door and run to the barn, where his wife Mette will instruct them what to do.

Through a little window they can see argumenting Germans, the neighbour coming running out of his farm with his grandchildren and the Germans getting in to their car and driving over to that farm. Ben grabs Susannah and Maja Philip and all six of them stumble out of the house and over to the barn, where Mette waits for them. She tells them to run through the barn to the milk room and out a door there, where they will find their skis and a covered sled for the children. Espen comes in and says that the neighbour helped them, but that they need to hurry. Maja needs to tie her boot laces and puts down Philip. Right then, a cat runs by and Philip runs after it, before anyone can stop him. Outside, someone screams in German at him and Hilde decides to run out to fetch him. Maja orders Ben to get out with the other two and she will wait for Hilde. Ben gives her a hug, which of course means a lot to her, but gets ushered out by a now angry Mette. If you want to read the book yourself in Swedish, you might want to quit reading the blog post right here or jump down to the last four paragraphs. Otherwise, enjoy:

imageMaja sees through a window, how Hilde stands and talks to a German soldier and then she comes in to the barn with Philip. While they run over a field, to catch up with the others, Hilde tells Maja that the soldier was Kurt and that he ordered his men to search the house, so that Hilde could get away. But soon they hear dogs barking. They find Ben, Sara and Susannah and Ben puts Philip in the sled with his sister, and straps the ropes around his shoulders, while the others get their skis on. Maja now discovers that there is no way they can take the open fields to Aage’s inn, without the Germans seeing them and shooting them all in the back. They have to ski through the forest, and ski fast, because the Germans and their dogs are right on their tracks. Which is not easy for Sara, who has been in hiding for six months and have not done any kind of exercise. But she tries her best, knowing that her life and her children’s, depend on it.

After an hour, the sky has gone dark and it has started snowing. Sara keeps on falling but the children have fallen asleep in the covered sled. Hilde takes over pulling it, since Ben is getting tired. Suddenly, they discover that they have lost sight of Ben. And when they call out for him, Philip wakes up and wants to get out of the sled while his sister whines about being hungry. Then they suddenly hear Ben calling for them and he has found a little lodge (used by shepherds) where they can shelter from the snow storm. It is necessary for them to break in to it, but Sara knows how to get in through a locked door with a poker, having broken in to her mother’s larder many times as a child, to retrieve cookies. She has kept the playhouse poker as a memory.

After discovering that the lodge has one wood sofa, table, two chairs and a bunk bed, Maja also realizes that she has lost her rucksack with all the food, at the farm. They have to eat a dinner consisting of Ben’s gingersnaps, soda, real coffee, which Hilde’s mum had received from German Kurt, and parts of the bread they had eaten at the inn, which Ben had smuggled in to his rucksack. When they have eaten, Sara makes a bed for herself and the children in the bottom bunk and the children fall asleep. Storytime! Sara explains that they are called the ice children by the resistance, since their name is Eisenman and Eis in German means ice. Right then Philip screams out the name David and Ben wonders if that is the father of the children. But Sara says no. Her husband was taken to a prison and then sent to Auschwitz with 500 other Norwegian Jews. On arrival he was chosen for a work camp but when he tried to save a mother with her two children, all four of them were shot. The woman’s husband had survived at least long enough to smuggle out a letter for Sara, telling her the fate of her husband. Who is David whom Philip calls out for in his sleep? Sara tells them that he is her little brother, who disappeared two days before the Germans started arresting Jewish women and children. He is 13 years old and was living with Sara, but she had to give up her search for him, when the Black Rose came and took them in to hiding. Sara had known Elin for years, having worked in Elin’s father’s clothing shop since she was 19. She had been home with her children for years, but had just started to work again, when the Germans started to arrest the Jewish men. She had continued working, since she needed the money and her mother’s friend Marit had looked after the children. One day, Elin rushed in to the shop and ordered a customer to leave. She told Sara to quickly pack her things. Elin had borrowed her dad’s car and had driven Sara to Marit, where she fetched the children, and then they drove to Elin’s childhood friend’s parents, Mette and Espen. The next day, the nazis started to arrest women and children of the Jewish people. Maja in turn tells Sara why they came to save the Eisenmans and not Elin.

Sara goes to sleep for a while. They have agreed that one person must guard the fire and also make sure no Germans show up. Ben says that Maja should take the top bunk and he can sleep on the hard wood sofa. But Maja doesn’t want Hilde to get to sit by Ben. Her jealousy and infatuation from the first book, is as strong in this book as in the first. Ben suggests that they can sleep in the top bunk together, head to foot, so to speak and Maja readily agrees. Two hours later, Hilde wakes Maja and tells her that it is her turn to sit guard. Maja gets a stomach ache, when Hilde says “He is so beautiful when he is a sleep, don’t you agree?”. Hilde is so beautiful and Maja is sure that Ben would fall in love with her, if he knew how Hilde feels about him. If he is not already. Maja feels miserable and even more so, when Hilde climbs in to the bed and lays down right beside Ben, contrary to what Maja had done, and as close as she can. The two hours go slowly and when Maja wakes Ben, he gets shocked when he sees Hilde beside him. And a little disappointed? In the morning, Ben gets a compass out of his rucksack and tells them, that they need to ski west, since he thinks that is where the border is.

Sara insists on pulling the sled, but she is a small and skinny woman, and doesn’t have the strength for it for very long. Maja feeling guilty for not doing her part, offers to take over, but also finds it very heavy. The children are by now whining about hunger and thirst and that is when they hear dogs barking. Ben and Maja skis ahead and notices that not only have they come to the end of the forest, but loads of Germans are walking with dogs over the fields, right towards them. Ben decides that they have to backtrack and travel south instead. The children are now crying and the dogs bark louder and louder. Maja skis as quickly as she can, Hilde and Ben being ahead of her and she doesn’t notice the big branch hanging down. She skis straight in to it and gets a large gash across the forehead. Her friends have not noticed but Sara tells her it is bad and that she is bleeding a lot. They push her beanie down trying to stop the blood flow, but Maja feels dizzy. And nauseous. When she and Sara catch up to the others, Ben is signaling for them to be quiet. There is another noise now, apart from the shouting Germans and barking dogs, that of people skiing. They all hide behind some large stones, but Philip starts crying and soon Maja feels a hand on her shoulder and hears Sara crying out for help. Maja passes out.

When she comes through, Hilde is wiping her forehead and Ben holds her hand. Sara sits with her children in her arms and by her stand two men dressed all in white. Hilde whispers that they are resistance and that they are there to help them. Espen had contacted them but they had been stopped by the snowstorm. They inform the children, that the Germans are out searching for resistance fighters, who blew up a weapons depot during the night, who had disappeared in the same direction as Maja and her group. They get to ski after the white-clad men  through the forest, over a road and on to a smaller road, where a lorry is waiting.  They are promised a ride to the border. Ben tells Maja to come and sit inside the lorry with him and Maja sees how disappointed Hilde looks at that.

Ben is about to climb in to the lorry, when he halts and then he jumps in and embraces the driver. When Maja gets in, Ben turns toward her and smiles a big smile, introducing her to his father Harald. He is Jewish and a resistance fighter, so he lives a very dangerous life and Ben has not seen him for years, even though he has been able to receive a letter now and then, smuggled across the border. Harald drives the lorry to a safe house, where a friend of his, Margret, has decked the table with sausages, fried potatoes, meat and big bread cakes. They all stuff themselves full, till suddenly Margret rushes in and whispers something in Harald’s ear. He tells them they must leave at once. The children wine and don’t want to, so they have to be forced. Hilde is on the way to jumping up in to the back of the lorry and Maja wants to tell her, that she can sit inside with Ben this time, but then she remembers how Hilde told her in the lodge, how easily she could fall in love with Ben, and Maja doesn’t dare to take that risk. (Author forgot that she never wrote that when they were in the lodge.) She feels guilty though. Something is up because Margret rush back in to the house, turn off all lights and then pull all curtains shut.

They drive quickly towards the border, till they suddenly notice five or six vehicles, supplied with skis, travelling across the fields towards the lorry. At the same time an airplane is travelling towards them, shooting through their windscreen. The chase is on and Harald drives as fast as he can, till they suddenly have a German lorry blocking the road. He manages to evade it and drive in on another road. The children don’t understand how the Germans can be so adamant about stopping them, till they find out from Harald, that the lorry was used for the sabotage of the weapons depot and that they had no other lorry to save the children with, nor had they had time to change the license plates. Harald drives like a madman and it is a miracle that they do not crash and that the people in the back don’t die. But they manage to shake off the Germans long enough to get out and put on skis and head for Sweden. Harald having to don snow shoes, since there are no skis for him. The Germans soon find the lorry though and start pursuing the group.

The group can not travel too fast, since Harald who pulls the sled, can’t travel very fast in his snow shoes. The snow is falling heavily and they are all cold and tired. Then they hear a car and get petrified, but Harald gets more and more convinced that they might actually be in Sweden. They get out on a road and stay on it, making sure that they can get off it quickly, if a car approaches. When a car does approach, Harald calls out that it is a Swedish one and he stops it. He tells them that the couple in it, has room for three and that they are close to Gullfors, Maja’s home village! Maja tells the driver to drop Sara and her children off at her house, which will be the first one they arrive to. When Maja and the rest of the group arrive to her house, a strange big special branch police car is parked outside.

Harald tells them to not tell the truth when the police is there. That they must say that they got lost and slept in a lodge, which is not that far from the truth. When they enter the house, Hilde’s and Ben’s mothers are both there, as well as Hilde’s baby brother and the police. Hilde’s mum leaves right away with Hilde. Maja finds Sara, Philip and Susannah sitting on a sofa in the kitchen and as they all enter it, Greta says ‘loudly’ “Isn’t it great that my cousin and her children heard from the neighbour that I was here?”. Ben walks up to Sara and shakes her hand, telling her how nice it is to see her again. The police act suspicious and ask the youths if they know that they have been reported missing. They tell them that normally they do not go out on such an errand, but since there was a a sabotage in Norway the night before and they had indications that the youths had crossed the border, they came, since there was a fear for their safety. The police leave reluctantly after Greta tries to explain it all away.

Greta wants to know exactly where they have been, after the police has left and who on earth Sara and the children are. Harald keeps the fact that they were shot at, a secret as well as the information about the sabotage, and Maja and Ben try to say as little as possible too. But Maja makes sure to tell, that Kurt helped them, in order to make Hilde’s mum look a little bit better.

Two days before Christmas the youths meet up to go and see Elin in the hospital. Ben is waiting for Maja and tells her that she looks really nice in her new beanie. She of course would have loved it, if he had kissed her, but he just moves some hair out of her eyes and then Hilde arrives and pushes herself in between them. On the bus they see a mum and her two children and Maja thinks about how Sara now has moved to Karlstad with her children, in to a flat Greta has organized for them. In the hospital they tell Elin EVERYTHING and she is mighty impressed. She also has information for them. David is in Sweden somewhere.  Elin’s sources lost track of him and he needs to be found, so he can be told that his sister and niece and nephew are safe. Maja, Ben and Hilde all nod. It will be their next assignment even though they have promised to never do anything dangerous again.

Like the previous book, the author have added some background information to the book. Like the fact that a lot of resistance groups were formed in Norway, in order to save the Jews, after the Germans announced that the Jews were to be arrested and sent to camps. A newspaper article shows proof of how much was actually known at the time in Sweden:

Dagens Nyheter (biggest morning paper and considered right-wing) 2 December 1942

“Not only in the private houses, but also in the nursing homes, the hospitals and mental institutions, did the city police enter to fetch Norwegian Jews for deportation. There were new upsetting scenes in the harbour, when the Jewish families were hoarded aboard the ships. Women were separated from their husbands and children from their parents. Eyewitnesses explained that what they witnessed on the 26 November where the most horrific things they had ever experienced.”

Did I like the book? Yes, I did. It was very exciting, more so than the first one actually, since they had more to lose this time. A mother and her two children, but also Benjamin. I also do have my objections. The book would have been better, had there been some sort of map to follow. As a person who sees everything in front of me, when I read, I really got confused over how they travelled. It finally sounded like they just went around and around in circles and that they were far away from the border. Which can hardly have been the case. I also do object to the obvious mistakes the author has done, in claiming in latter chapters that people have said certain things in earlier ones, which they never did. And making silly mistakes like saying they were looking for Hilde’s grandfather and then suddenly it is Ben’s grandfather they are looking for. Or how about Maja opening her mouth in Swedish and noone noticing!

My third objection is the same one I had for the first book. The author insists on feeding her Jewish characters sausage. The Jews do not eat pig, no matter how secular they are, they never will touch pig meat and sausage is made out of pig. Benjamin, Harald and Sara would never have touched Margret’s sausages and Sara would never ever have let her children touch them either, no matter how much they screamed. It is such a small matter but if you try to be correct in all other information and try to stay as close to the truth as possible, then this should be changed. Swedish children should be taught that Jewish people do not eat pig. It has to do with common knowledge really and treating other religions with respect and tolerance.

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