Monica Beresford Wichfeld lived life on her terms and without apology. As a young woman, she socialized with some of the most famous people of her era—Noel Coward, Tallulah Bankhead, Coco Chanel—using her connections to build a business that would save her husband’s familial estate from bankruptcy. Born in Great Britain, she married a Danish aristocrat and landowner and moved to his lavish estate on the island of Lolland, south of Copenhagen. Shortly after settling there, she began a nine-year affair with a neighbor (with the sanction of her husband) and raised three children. But Monica’s most defiant act came when she was in her forties and the Nazis invaded her adopted homeland. A woman without fear, she made the estate available as a haven for the Resistance and as a drop point for the weapons and supplies meant to arm them for their fight. In 1944, at the age of fifty, she was betrayed by a fellow resistor—codename ‘Jacob’–and was sentenced to death by hanging.
Targeted Age Group:: Adult
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
I came across an article about Monica several years ago after traveling in Denmark, and immediately wanted to know more. Knowing there have been many novels about WWII resistance fighters in recent years, I was curious to learn how Monica's story might be different. Once I wrote the novel I realized that for Monica, her "war" went well beyond being a part of the fight for her adopted country's freedom.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
This is a bio-fiction novel in that I have taken the story of Monica Beresford Wichfeld and fictionalized it, keeping as many of the actual details as close to truth as I could. There were, of course, times when I had to imagine what a conversation or reaction might be, but hopefully I have captured the essence of this remarkable woman.
They arrived in the blackness of predawn on this bitterly cold January morning—two men. Shadowy figures dressed in the belted overcoats and fedoras that were the customary garb for those of their ilk, bursting into my bedroom shouting orders and brandishing pistols. Rude, boorish—Gestapo.
And I thought: Well, here it is.
I had been expecting them, of course. Not in exactly these circumstances to be sure, but I had been warned. Still, I refused to allow them to intimidate me. There are times when having lived an entitled life prepares one for situations such as this—situations where others believe they are in control. At such times, the natural reaction of someone like me is to be momentarily stunned by their very daring, followed by getting immediately to the business of reminding them of their place.
Pushing myself to a half-sitting position, I leaned on pillows piled against the deeply carved headboard and switched on the bedside lamp. From elsewhere in the house I heard voices and movement and knew these two were not alone. Reaching for my cigarettes, I kept my eyes on their faces. “Gentlemen, are you lost?” I snapped the lighter closed, inhaled, and slowly blew out a thin line of smoke.
They blinked under the sudden flare of light and glared at me. Over time I had learned those who use threats, intimidation, and humiliation to get their way are far more comfortable in the shadows. Bullies always are.
I heard others moving through the downstairs rooms of the house—angry voices mingled with exclamations of surprise.
What followed was worthy of a Charlie Chaplin film, had the realities of the circumstances been less dire. One of the men straightened to his full height—which was unimpressive—and cleared his throat. “Monica Beresford Wichfeld,” he intoned, “you are under arrest and ordered to come with us at once.”
“In my nightgown then.” I made a move to throw back the covers as they glanced uncomfortably at each other.
“You may dress, but be quick about it,” the one in charge said.
“And do not think of escape,” the other chimed in, pushing aside the draperies and raising the blackout shade.
From my position in bed, I could see the grounds surrounding the house, now illuminated by bright lights backlighting helmeted soldiers with machine guns pointed at the house. I made no other move to rise, further irritating my “guests.” Sighing with exasperation at their failure to grasp even the simplest elements of common courtesy, I stubbed out my cigarette. “Some privacy, if you please?” My tone was harsher than I intended, but now that they were here, I was impatient to get on with it. There was much to be sorted out. My husband, Jorgen, knew nothing of why these men had come for me, and Viggo, the youngest of our three children—home from university—would be equally as perplexed.
Finally, one of the two I had privately labeled Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum jerked his head toward the door. “We’ll be just outside. Be quick.”
“Five minutes,” Tweedle Dee called out as the two of them positioned themselves in the hall without bothering to close the door.
I will confess that once they were out of sight, I gave in to the stew of panic and fear and uncertainty that churned in my stomach. I had certainly had ample warning to go into hiding. So, why had I elected to stay? I had always known that decision would come with a price—hours of questioning, possibly torture, even death. Feeling the sour taste of bile rising, I swallowed, forcing it back, its sting burning my throat and filling my chest. Throwing back the bedcovers, I crossed the room on bare feet, savoring the silky warmth of the Oriental rug that covered most of the floor, catching a whiff of my favorite perfume as I stepped past my dressing table. But once I opened the double doors of the wardrobe, I found myself frozen with indecision. What did one wear to an interrogation? Something practical and warm. Something heavy that might blunt the blows should they beat me. My favorite tweed walking suit with a caramel-colored matching cashmere sweater seemed appropriate. A pair of the heavy wool stockings Jorgen gave me last Christmas and my most comfortable thick-soled shoes. Dressing quickly, I turned my attention to the details that would be key to the impression I would make on these underlings and their superiors—hair, makeup.
From the hallway I could hear the two agents conferring in low voices. “One minute,” one of them suddenly shouted in German, as if calling troops to attention. I leaned into my reflection in the full-length easel mirror to apply some lip rouge, then stepped away and stared at the woman looking back at me. I looked every bit the middle-aged matron I had become, with streaks of silver in my hair, thickening around my middle. I understood that the lines accenting my mouth and eyes could no longer be hidden with cosmetics. But despite my fear of what might lie ahead, I had no doubt I had done what I could to at least shorten this horrid war. My children and their futures were what I saw as important, and the work I had done had all been with that in mind. Whatever was in store for me, I had had nearly half a century of happiness along with adventures I could not have imagined or predicted. Frankly, I viewed these changes in my appearance as hard-earned marks of a life lived without regret—or apology.
I took a moment to straighten the covers on the bed before placing my cigarettes and gold Dunhill lighter in a jacket pocket. Then I strode past my captors, pausing a moment at the top of the stairway leading down to the sitting room I had turned into a library. Along with the private office I had set up in an outbuilding that held the servants’ quarters, this room had become my refuge in this beautiful house where I had lived most of my adult life. Realizing there was every possibility I might be seeing it for the last time, I once again felt my throat close and my chest constrict. I squeezed my eyes shut and took a couple of deep breaths, knowing the key to getting through these next hours and days would be maintaining my composure.
One of the men gave me such a rough shove that I had to tighten my grip on the bannister to stop myself from tumbling down the spiral staircase. Just then Jorgen and Viggo were ushered into the room at gunpoint. Both were fully dressed. Jorgen even sported his signature monocle. The years fell away, and I was back in London, at the party where Jorgen and I met during the first war. Back then I had seen the monocle as an affectation. Now I found it endearing. But as my eyes filled with tears, I realized this was not about a monocle. This was about me collecting the images that would get me through the hours of interrogation I was certain to face and comfort me in my imprisonment. I met my husband’s gaze, memorizing details—his pale golden hair streaked with silver, his blue eyes, bleary with confusion and, at the same time, icy with indignation. A decade older than my own forty-nine years, he looked drawn, his fair complexion turned sallow and his hair thinning. In just over a quarter century of marriage, we had been more companions than lovers, and yet, despite the difference in our ages and our contrasting desires and interests, it had been a good union. From its beginning we each got what we needed from the marriage—Jorgen, the heirs necessary to keep his centuries-old familial estate going and the life of leisure he treasured, his time taken up with his beloved gardening, bridge, tennis, and socializing. In return he had never wavered from the promise he had made that I would have the freedom to live life on my sometimes-unconventional terms.
Having followed me down the stairs, the Gestapo agents pushed past me to confront Jorgen, their belted overcoats protecting them from the chill of a room where the fire had not yet been lit. Dear Jorgen. As many times as I had tried to persuade him otherwise, he had refused to have central heating installed. “The fireplaces and stoves have worked perfectly well for over three centuries,” he had insisted.
“You are this woman’s husband?” Tweedle Dum barked as he took a step closer to Jorgen in an attempt to intimidate him.
“My family has nothing to do with this,” I protested. Of course, it was only a half truth. Our daughter, Varinka, was even now hopefully being whisked to some haven of safety. “You can see for yourself,” I continued. “My husband and son are completely perplexed by your presence in our home at this hour. It is me you have come for. Why muddy the waters?”
“We have our orders,” Tweedle Dee retorted, swinging around to face me.
I knotted my fingers into fists. They were so tiresome, these pathetic beings who refused to even consider thinking for themselves. “And, naturally, you will follow those orders blindly as you and your like have done throughout this horrid war,” I snapped. “Did you never once question the morality of those orders—the sheer madness of what your superiors demand of you, of others who are innocent?”
It was hardly surprising to observe the way the man’s eyes widened in shock that anyone—much less a woman—would talk to him in this manner. Jorgen was equally stunned. Of course, it was foolhardy of me to speak to these men in such a way. They could have me shot—have all of us shot—and no one would say a word.
Jorgen stepped between us. “What precisely is this about? Why have you and your men invaded my home?” he demanded, just as our housekeeper arrived with an armload of kindling and knelt to light the fire.
While Jorgen assumed the role of outraged Danish aristocrat, I gave my attention to deciphering the sounds of heavy boot steps tramping about in the rooms above and beyond the library. Rooms were being searched—drawers and cupboards roughly opened and rifled through, glass shattering, soldiers shouting directions to one another, their voices high-pitched with the excitement of the hunt. I shuddered to think of the mess these hooligans were leaving in their wake—a mess others would need to put right once they took me away. I mentally ran through every cabinet and drawer and closet, hoping I had not failed to conceal the documents and other items that might provide the proof they needed for my arrest.
And in that instant, I finally abandoned any idea that I would ever return to Engestofte—this vast Danish estate I had come to think of as home. The home where we raised three incredible children; the home where we hosted parties and celebrated holidays; the home we had shared for over a quarter of a century. But these Nazis were not here because we had been one of a few wealthy aristocratic Danish families. They were not here because of Jorgen or our children.
They were here because of me.
They were here because Jacob Jensen had betrayed me and dozens of others. I had received that news shortly after his arrest. I had never fully trusted the man.
Of course, that was but the start of it, and who can say where the nightmare will end?
I write this from my new home—a cramped and dank prison cell that would easily fit inside my wardrobe. I am surrounded by unfamiliar sounds and smells. Scratching noises in the dark—rats, I think. Stale air and the overpowering odor of urine rising from the torn mattress on the cot. The slamming of a door down the way, jackboots pounding out their dance of power as orders are barked out in German.
The muffled sound of someone sobbing…
another someone screaming…
someone in pain or perhaps dying?
Later as I looked up at the small, barred window through which I could just see a sliver of the waning moon, I heard the key in the lock and the protest of rusty hinges as the door to my cell swung open and a guard motioned me forward.
I am ready, I tell myself as the guard took a grip on my upper arm.
I have lived my life at full throttle, and I believe I have made at least some difference.
And so, it begins….
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