Niels Bohr and the Sleeping Dane
By Jonathon Sullivan
25 July 2005
Part 2 of 2
Hans had made arrangements with the engineer, who stopped the train a kilometer shy of Elsinore Station. Seventeen Jews, including the Bohrs, disembarked at this unscheduled stop. Hans and his children led us to a nearby bus stand. There we caught a ride to Kronborg Castle, where Claudius had murdered Hamlet's father and Hamlet had murdered Claudius.
The fortress of stone and timber overlooks the Elsinore Sound at its narrowest point. From this vantage, Denmark had once imposed her will on all naval traffic through the Baltic. But Danish power had long since ebbed, and Kronborg Castle, with its wide moats and towers topped with spires of bluing copper, had become a museum. The Nazis had not closed the castle, just as they had not interfered in most aspects of Danish life—until now.
The bus pulled up to a wide bridge of wood and iron, half a kilometer from the castle. Our party joined a dozen sightseers who had already gathered around a tour guide. She was a plump woman with thick glasses and the bearing of a schoolmistress. While she collected the tour fee she lectured us in a nasal, singsong voice. Stay with me. The tour must end on time, because of the curfew. No photos. Don't touch.
Hans stood behind Papa and me. "She is our contact," he told us. "But you stay with me, not her, understand? Just before the tour enters the courtyard we split off and go to the old stables."
He moved on, whispering into other ears, including Bohr's. Hans's son and daughter stood on either side of the group, scanning the area.
My gaze kept wandering past the gorgeous mass of the castle, across the gray waters of the Sound, to the swelling of land on the other side.
Sweden. Neutral Sweden.
Our guide led us through a wooden gate and over a cobblestone footpath to the castle, lecturing all the way. Somebody built this in that year, over there was the residence of so-and-so. As we approached Kronborg, the majesty of the structure became more imposing, and for a moment I forgot our peril. I had seen my share of German castles—outside our home town of Heidelberg sits a seventeenth-century ruin of lichened stone. But Kronborg was huge, well-preserved, and graceful. The sun broke through the clouds, and I craned my neck to watch the spires rise into the bright sky. It was a perfect moment. I looked over at Papa, and he smiled.
We crossed the moat, our feet drumming the ancient drawbridge like the hooves of cattle. The guide continued her jabbering, leading us into a broad cobblestone courtyard, with a grand fountain at the center. I was sorry I wouldn't get to see more. But now Hans gave us a grim nod over his shoulder. As the rest of the group filtered into the sunlit courtyard, the Jews split off and took their own path into hiding.
As usual, I thought.
Hans and his children led us down a narrow path that ran along the outer moat and into the abandoned stables, a labyrinth of rotting wood set into the castle's eastern wall. There was no lighting here, and as we followed Hans into a maze of abandoned stalls my mood darkened.
Soon we were deep within the entrails of the castle. Hans led us through a broad wooden door and down a narrow staircase. We emerged into utter darkness.
A yellow flicker from his electric torch cut into the black like a firefly, moving crazily through the void. Then the light of a candle mounted on the wall began to etch out our surrondings. Hans lit two more, illuminating a place of despair.
"Looks like a dungeon," Papa said, and everybody turned to frown at him. Papa was always willing to say things people would rather not hear.
"Catacombs," Hans said. "But the dungeons aren't far."
The chamber was oppressively small. Rough stone curved just overhead, damp and ugly. Bohr had to stoop. Gravel and dirt crunched beneath our feet. The walls were abrasive and bare—even lichen refused to grow in this place.
But one creature did dwell here. Seated on a throne of rock against one wall, an eight-foot-tall viking slept with his chin on his chest, a broadsword across his knees. The statue of gray stone was exquisite and menacing. Even in repose, the warrior's features were implacable and noble. His legs were as thick as my torso. He wore a simple helmet and a tunic of mail, but his thick arms were bare. A massive shield sat propped against his thigh.
"Why do they keep this down here?" I asked Hans. "It's beautiful."
"Holger Danske sleeps here," he said matter-of-factly, as if I were an idiot.
"Well, now we know, don't we?" Papa said.
"We'll be here a few hours," Hans said, settling into a dark corner. "Try to rest. You especially, Doktor Bohr. Sweden is just a way station for you."
"I understand," Bohr said, and like everybody else he began searching for a stretch of wall. He removed his coat and spread it over the dirt so Margrethe could sit. He lit his pipe, and the sweet aroma was a great improvement. Some in our group whispered among themselves, but the close walls of the catacomb magnified every sound, and so for a long time there was only silence and, finally, the sound of Hans's snoring.
I, too, was exhausted. I sat beside Papa in the gravel beneath the stone warrior. Soon I joined Holger Danske in sleep.
I dreamed of my father's bookstore, in the Jewish quarter of Heidelberg. The brownshirts had come. One stood out front to trumpet his epithets, wearing sandwich boards that said Warning! Germans Don't Buy From Jews! While I tended the shop, four men came inside to ransack the shelves and break the windows. They beat me with fists and clubs, doubling me over with pain and shame. My parents came down the stairs from our apartment. My mother screamed and rushed to my side. The leader pushed her away, called her a whore.
The other three brownshirts converged on Papa, but they stepped back without laying a hand on him. He transfixed them with those dark eyes full of power, his belly rippling beneath his coat.
"You need to go now," he said, and they turned away.
But the leader had his own iron, his own malignant strength. He was too deep or too shallow for Papa's power to fill him. He cursed at his men, mocking them. He struck with his club, and Papa crumpled to the floor. Like cowardly dogs emboldened by blood, the others took his example. While they beat Papa, the leader kicked me in the face. As I lay choking on my own blood, he seized my mother by her hair and dragged her toward the street.
To be met at the doorway by Neils Henrik David Bohr. The Bohr I knew from books and photos. The young, gangly Bohr who had gone to England in 1911 to change the world.
He held up his atom of spinning orbitals, vibrating with latent energy. His fingers broke it apart, and released a brilliance that blinded the Nazis and dispelled them like a vapor.
When the brilliance faded, only Papa and I remained. My mother was gone.
The catacomb was dark enough to nourish the dream a few minutes into waking. Papa had taught me to cling to my dreams and interrogate them—they were wisdom from Yesod, or even from Da'at, and not to be discarded without examination.
My eyes adjusted slowly. Bohr and my father sat together at the stone feet of Holger Danske. Their low voices echoed off the walls.
"I promise," Bohr was saying. "I did my best work at Cambridge. And I still have friends there. It won't be difficult."
His words intertwined with my dream, a good fit. But not difficult? If the resistance managed to get Bohr to England, his task would be difficult in the extreme.
It was no secret that Bohr might be instrumental in splitting the atom for the Allies—if Heisenberg didn't beat him to it. My father's path might lead to wisdom, and a sort of ineffable power. But Bohr's path, the path I had chosen, led to a more reliable power, the kind of power that might rescue humanity from the grip of the Axis.
My father, bloody and helpless, splayed on the floor with his tattered books. Bohr at the doorway, splitting his atom to dispel evil.
The dream faded. Neither path would bring Mama back to me.
"He's awake," Papa said. "Welcome back! Better you shouldn't sleep, if you're going to be so fitful."
I went to sit with them. Everybody else sat quietly, except the two young partisans who stood at the entrance to the catacomb, smoking. Hans had abandoned his corner.
Bohr followed my gaze. "He left at nightfall, to check the area. He should be returning soon."
I nodded, rubbing the sleep from my eyes. A long silence ensued. I realized I had interrupted something.
Papa looked up at Holger Danske.
"My son is right. It's a strange thing to find in such a place."
"This is where he belongs," Bohr said. "Holger Danske is our national hero. The Sleeping Dane, we call him. This statue was put here in 1911, just before I went to England. The Sleeping Dane fought many battles for Denmark abroad. But eventually he grew weary of war. He came back to Elsinore, and fell asleep on this spot." Bohr lit his pipe again, and I smiled. He seemed unable to speak without a pipe in his hand.
"They say he is the final defender of Denmark. When invaders come, the Sleeping Dane will awaken to save us." Bohr gave Papa a fatalistic smile. "But still he sleeps. So much for legends."
Papa looked up at Holger Danske for a long time. Finally he said: "You're wrong, Doktor Bohr. The Sleeping Dane is awake."
Bohr shook his head, bemused.
"The occupation has been almost painless up to now." Papa scratched at his bare chin. "You Danes have had it easy. The Germans pretend to respect your neutrality, and you pretend you still have something to respect."
Bohr frowned, then nodded. "Yes, I'm afraid so."
"But since the rumors started two days ago, that the Nazis would round us up like cattle, what have you seen? The King's government refuses to cooperate and resigns in protest. The newspapers speak out against the Nazis, when they would do better to keep silent. The Danish people take us in to hide us from the Gestapo. Hans and his children risk their lives to smuggle us to Sweden. The Sleeping Dane is awake, Herr Doktor Bohr. You should be proud of your people."
Bohr stared at Holger Danske. His chin quivered, and again I sensed how heavily the occupation had weighed on him.
He put out his arm to clasp Papa's shoulder. "I'm glad we met, Rabbi."
Hans emerged from the shadows. He looked grim. "I need everyone's attention."
Everybody stirred, groaning at the cold in their muscles.
"The Gestapo is on the castle grounds," Hans said.
Muttered fear echoed through the catacomb. Margrethe put her hands over her mouth. Bohr went to put his arms around her.
Hans waved us into quiet. "Unless more are on the way, it's unlikely they'll find us before the rendezvous. It's a small detail—our friend from this morning and a half-dozen troops. But in half an hour we'll have to cross 500 meters of open ground under a full moon down to the beach. We'll be exposed. If we're lucky, they'll still be searching the castle proper."
"How did they know?" somebody asked.
"Considering what happened this morning," Hans said, "we're lucky we made it this far. We hadn't anticipated the search at Helgoland. I suspect the Hauptsturmführer came to his senses." He looked over at us.
Papa shrugged. "I should solve all your problems? Nobody's perfect."
Hans managed a grim smile, then disappeared with his son. His daughter stayed with us. She produced a Luger and checked the chamber and magazine. We watched her with mute terror.
Papa withdrew a bundle of cloth from the pocket of his wrinkled khakis. As he unfolded it, I saw what it was: his tallis. He wrapped the prayer shawl over his shoulders.
"Hear, O Israel." Barely a whisper, but in that awful place it still carried my father's power.
We all went to him, all except the girl.
"Hear, O Israel. The Lord Our God, the Lord is One . . ." As my father intoned the Shema, and repeated it twice, my heart slowed and my terror ebbed. I looked at the others, saw the calm seep into their faces.
Such power. No, I had made the right choice. I knew: I did not have my father's gifts.
Hans reappeared, alone. His forehead glistened with effort and fear. "More SS have arrived," he said. "They're dispersing over the castle grounds."
"I'll go," Bohr said.
Hans frowned, licking his lips. He was thinking about it.
"They're looking for me," Bohr said. "As far as they know, it's just Margrethe and I. If we surrender, perhaps they'll leave."
The rest of us voiced our protest, but Bohr held up his hands. "They won't harm us!" he said. "Margrethe is . . . Aryan, and I'm only half-Jewish. And I'm valuable. They think they can use me."
"Which is exactly why it won't do," Hans said. "And it doesn't solve the problem of getting the rest of us down to the shore. No, thank you, Doktor."
Bohr shook his head. I thought he would weep.
"My son is watching for the boat," Hans said. "When he gets the signal from the Sound, we'll just have to run for it. Stretch your muscles."
He lit a cigarette and turned away from us. I saw his daughter ask a question with her eyes.
Hans shook his head. This was no time for lies.
We weren't going to make it.
As the group gathered at the opening of the catacomb, I went to join Papa. He stood apart from the rest, at the foot of the Sleeping Dane, fingering his tallis.
My decision didn't matter now. This path, that path. Telling him the truth would only hurt him, gaining nothing.
I looked over at Bohr, standing with the others, Margrethe's face in his chest. And then at my father, praying silently.
The truth gains nothing? The thought struck from within, like the stinging shame of a well-deserved slap. For Bohr, for my father, there had never been anything but truth.
"There's something I have to tell you, Papa," I said, pushing against the words. "Important."
He spread his arms and rolled his eyes at the ceiling. "Gevalt! Important, he says!" His voice dropped into a coarse whisper. "The Nazi wolves are at the door and they'll be tearing out our throats any minute! We need to talk about something else?"
"Yes. Because the wolves are at the door, and we may not have another chance. Don't make this harder for me, Papa."
His face settled into its true nature, kind and sad. "You would not be a Rabbi. You would not study the word of God."
I took a deep breath. "Not as you do, no."
"No. You would go to Cambridge and study the word of Bohr under your fancy scholarship."
My heart skipped. "You knew?"
"Am I a schmuck? Of course I knew! I knew about Cambridge, I knew about the scholarship, I knew about the paper you published in the contest from the fancy journal to win the scholarship." He half-closed his eyes, as when he recited scripture. "Correlating Experimental Lithium Spectra with Bohr Model Predictions of Valence Angular Momenta by David Goldblum." He managed a smile. "Such language! Yes, I knew."
I gaped at him.
"What I did not know," he said, "was when you would work up the courage to tell me, or whether you'd just elope with your books and go shlepping off into the night!" He gave me an affectionate slap on the cheek.
"It doesn't look like I'll be shlepping anywhere," I said.
"I'm afraid you're right. But you told me anyway, and you didn't have to. You faced me like a man. As a man."
I took a deep, shuddering breath. "You're not angry? Disappointed?"
Again he questioned the roof. "If he's so smart, Lord, how can he be such a putz?" He glowered at me. "Of course I'm angry and disappointed! What, you think I'm not paying attention? Just because my son makes his own decisions doesn't mean I have to be happy about them!"
Hans's son appeared at the opening, breathing hard. "The SS are moving this way," he said. "The boat hasn't signaled yet, but I can see her moving up the Sound. We can't wait."
"Let's move," Hans said.
Papa took my face in his hands and kissed me. "You are my gift to the world," he said. "Now . . . let's run for our lives."
The next few moments were a blur of jostling bodies, cold rock, and black fear. By the time we emerged from the stables, the moonlight that washed over the castle grounds seemed like midday brilliance. The ground sloped gently, 500 meters to the water. A fishing boat waited just offshore.
"Do you see it?" Hans asked us. "There are dinghies waiting on the beach. At my signal, run as fast as you can, and don't stop. No matter what happens, you keep running."
I took Papa's hand.
"No," he said. "Better not. I'll try to keep up. Do as the man says."
We sprinted into the night like terrified deer. I took Papa's arm again, but he twisted away and pushed me. My fear took over then, my legs pumping away at the turf like pistons.
We covered perhaps two hundred meters, spreading out in a panicky Gaussian distribution before the first shouts, the first gunshots, the first blood. Hans's daughter fell in front of me, her lower back bursting into a dark spray of gore. I stopped to help her up, but her limbs were flaccid. When I saw her eyes, I knew she was dead. More shots rang out, and I saw others fall.
I stumbled back to my feet, and looked over my shoulder for Papa. He should have been behind me, but by now I was the last straggler.
"David!" A strong hand seized my arm and spun me around.
It was Bohr. He had come back for me.
"What are you doing, boy? Run!"
"Where's my father?" I cried.
More gunshots, closer. We turned, and saw at least ten SS running toward us across the green. There were more assembling on the walls above the moat.
We turned to run, but the ground at our feet boiled under a rain of bullets, and we cowered with our hands in the air.
"Niels!" Margrethe's voice came from direction of the shore, where the others were piling into dinghies.
"Damn," Bohr muttered, and raised his hands a little higher.
It was over. Because of me.
The sporadic pop-pop-pop of gunfire erupted into a hailstorm. I expected to die at that moment. Instead I heard shouting. Screams. Terror and confusion. From the SS troops.
Bohr and I turned to look, our hands still in the air.
The Sleeping Dane was awake.
He still had the color of stone, but his massive limbs were supple with life. The arc of his broadsword passed through two SS men, cleaving them at the waist. The sword continued its orbit, swinging overhead and then dropping vertically, biting through a soldier's helmet to split him like firewood. In the moonlight I saw the haupsturmfuhrer step forward to empty his sidearm into the Dane's chest. Holger Danske swung his shield, and the captain fell into a misshapen heap twenty yards away.
More SS spilled onto the field. Their rifles might as well have been quarterstaffs. The Dane stood rooted to one spot, legs spread wide like the roots of an oak. But the sword never ceased swinging, like an electron switching between orbitals—horizontal, vertical, oblique. Body parts and blood spread over the ground. And still the SS kept coming.
I caught sight of Papa, at the opening of the stables beneath the east wall, his tallis hanging from his shoulders, arms stretching into the night, waving about to animate the limbs of Holger Danske. I screamed at him, but he could not have heard me over the din of gunfire.
And then he died, as a black bird spread its liquid wings across his chest. But his golem kept cutting and killing, fully roused to bloodlust.
"He's gone," Bohr said. "Come on!"
I couldn't move. I couldn't breathe.
I couldn't even wail.
"David!" Bohr shook me so hard that I bit my tongue. "Come on!"
The gunfire ceased as the remaining SS finally retreated. We ran to the shoreline and splashed into the icy water of the Sound. We had to swim a few yards to catch up to one of the dinghies. The others dragged us out of the water and somebody wrapped his jacket about my wet shoulders. My teeth chattered, and it was good to be numb with cold, nothing but cold.
They pulled us aboard the fishing boat a few minutes later. I stood alone, still shivering. I saw Hans and his boy fall to their knees, embracing each other with quiet grief. Margrethe was in Bohr's arms, shaking with relief and rage. My fellow Jews stood at the railing and wailed for those who had fallen.
As the boat turned her prow toward Sweden, I went aft for a last look at Kronborg castle. The Dane stood in the moonlight with carnage at his feet. His shoulders slumped. The tip of his sword dragged in the dirt. Weariness seeped into his stoney flesh. He shuffled toward the stables. Before he stooped into the darkness, he lay aside his shield and went down on one knee. He draped Papa's body over a massive shoulder. Then Holger Danske took up his shield and returned to his rest.
Presently I realized that Bohr and Margrethe were standing next to me. They didn't say anything trite or useless. Margrethe took my hand.
"Your father made arrangements with me," Bohr said. For a moment he could not speak. "Just in case. I have an audience with the King of Sweden tomorrow. After that, they will put me on a plane to England. You'll come with me."
I shook my head.
"Your father told me the scholarship would pay your tuition," he said. "But you'll need room and board. A good advisor. Many other things. It won't be difficult. I have friends at Cambridge. He made me promise."
It was only then that I wept, my hands tearing at the damp fabric of my shirt. Margrethe took me into her arms, as a mother might.
As I write this, I have at hand the drawing I made for my Papa and Niels Bohr, sixty years ago. It is yellowed and cracked from age and overhandling. Today, as on many days, I have taken it out to consult it, to make refinements, to seek inspiration, or simply to remember.
Beneath the drawing sits a recent letter from the Nobel Academy, congratulating me for the work I did in the seventies on the topological analysis of 10-dimensional quantum-observor interfaces. In recent years, the neuroscientists have appropriated that work, as part of a fundamental new theory of consciousness. My father's gift to the world.
Soon I will return to Sweden for the first time since that night. I will go by way of Denmark, to visit the one who sleeps beneath Kronborg Castle. In Stockholm I will shake hands with a King. For a few moments the world will be mine. The world will listen.
When I speak, it will not be of physics, or Kabbalah, or the nobility of science, or the power of faith. I will speak of my father, Rabbi Itzak Josef Goldblum, and my other father, Niels Henrik David Bohr. I will speak of my debt to them, and how how my life and work have been nothing, nothing but my effort to be worthy of them both.