Margit’s secret cave

Margit Varnes standing on top of Drynafjellet in the 1990s. During World War II, German occupying forces built a bunker with howitzers on this mountain that was ironically situated above a massive cave used to hide escaped POWs. Below: Margit and Jonas on their wedding day June 1944.

Margit Varnes standing on top of Drynafjellet in the 1990s. During World War II, German occupying forces built a bunker with howitzers on this mountain that was ironically situated above a massive cave used to hide escaped POWs. Below: Margit and Jonas on their wedding day June 1944.

Norwegian-American Margit Varnes played an important role in protecting French POWs in Norway

Ed. Note: “Margit’s Secret Cave” was published by Sons of Norway “Viking” magazine in 2003 as “A Well-Kept Secret.”

By C.E. Chambers

Ask a Norwegian what is the secret to her long life and good looks and you might not like the answer: cod liver oil and fish eyes.

“They’re delicious,” says auburn-haired, 91-year-old Margit Varnes, who easily looks years younger.  “We boiled the fish head and ate the eyes afterwards.  But then, as kids, we ate anything,” she laughs.

Margit is one of 12 children born to Karen Malena Nygård and Jonas Nygård  in Otrøy, an island on the southwest coast of Norway.  She immigrated to the U.S. in 1957, worked at a nursing home and then was employed by the Port Chatham cannery in Seattle, Wash., for 30 years.  People working alongside her would have never dreamed that she had played a major part in protecting French POWs who had escaped from a prison camp in Norway during World War II.

Margit married her first husband, Asbjørn Bjørkedal, in 1938. Asbjørn had met the brown-eyed, 19-year-old at a community dance in Bjørkedal after she moved there to become a housekeeper to a large family.  Self-assured and with a good sense of humor, she was always in demand as a skilled dancer.  After their second dance, the 25-year-old Asbjørn had made up his mind and informed one of her close friends: “Margit is my girl.”

Life seemed very good to them the first two years of their marriage.  Margit took care of their two children and Asbjørn worked in construction.  However, double tragedy struck in April 1940: The Germans invaded Norway and Asbjørn drowned soon after in a landslide while building a road overlooking the ocean.

Margit picked up the pieces of her life and moved back to Otrøy with her daughter, Magni, and newborn, Ruth, to live with her parents.

It wasn’t long, however, before relatives began to persuade her to “go and help Jonas” who lived in Dryna, an island four miles south of Otrøy.  The 25-year-old fisherman, whom Margit had never met, had taken over the care of his elderly grandparents’ large farm. He had heard glowing reports about the industrious Margit and showed up one day while she was visiting his aunt on the island of Midøy.  His thick, wavy black hair was combed back and he was dressed in a gray and blue sweater with black slacks.

“Vil du komme og bli min hushjelp?”  (“Will you be my housekeeper?”)

“Okay, but I have to take my girls with me,” Margit answered firmly.  Soon after, she and her daughters moved to the 25-room farmhouse on Dryna.

Jonas soon found out why the 23-year-old had come so highly recommended.  She worked in the house and in two large sheds cooking, cleaning, sewing, weaving blankets, and in the barn milking the cows from 7 a.m. until 11 p.m. every day without complaining.  And she was the kind of cook a Norwegian man dreams of, making fiskekaker, potetboller, kjøttsuppe, rullepølse, sosakjøtt, vaffler, pannekaker, bløtkaker, homemade bread and cookies.

Jonas was engaged to another woman.  But before one year had passed, he had forgotten all about his fiancé and fallen in love with Margit.  “Vil du bli kone meg?” (“Will you be my wife?”) he asked her one morning before she departed on a short visit to Otrøy to see her parents.

“You have to understand that I have two girls,” Margit replied, who was as attracted to the handsome Jonas as he was to her, but whose girls were her “life.”

“That’s wonderful,” he insisted.  “Jeg liker barn.” (“I like children.”)

On a beautiful Midsummer’s Day in June 1944, Margit Bjørkedal married blue-eyed Jonas Varnes.  After the church ceremony in Vatne, located on mainland Norway, a fishing boat transported them back to the four-story farmhouse on Dryna.  Bonfires had been it all along the islands’ coasts and a sumptuous reception had been prepared.  Although it was wartime and people were experiencing near-starvation in the cities, food was normally plentiful on the Norwegian farms.  The vivacious 25-year-old Margit had cooked enough for a well-attended three-day celebration. The only pensive note during the three days had occurred when Nazi officers in Vatne demanded identification from the wedding party as they disembarked on the way to church.

Four German officers had vacated the four-story farmhouse on Dryna shortly before Margit arrived. They had occupied the first floor for more than two years and confiscated the grandparents’ stove as well as much of the food.  The Nazis continued to make unexpected, ominous visits. Just weeks after Jonas and Margit’s wedding, German soldiers stomped down the gravel driveway in knee-length black boots and malevolently poked pitchforks in the hay.  They left after appropriating meat and potatoes.  They returned that same summer when Margit was alone and asked to purchase some smoked salmon. Margit, who hated the Nazis, haughtily quoted a “terrible price” and was shocked when they ordered two kilos.

Despite living under the strong arm of the Third Reich, Margit and Jonas were very happy together and life on the farm was demanding but rewarding.  Margit had no inkling that she was going to be presented with the greatest challenge of her lifetime.

In early December 1944, Margit’s sister-in-law, Kari Nygårad, who also lived in the farmhouse, showed her some wet and very dirty socks. Kari mysteriously asked the now-pregnant Margit, “Do you know where these are from?”

During Norway’s long occupation, Margit and her family often heard shooting in the distance and watched red flares streak through the night sky.  Margit’s first inclination was to think that another ship had been torpedoed in a northern fjord and soldiers’ clothing had washed up on the shore. But she was wrong.

“We are hiding four Frenchmen in a cave,” Kari whispered.

In early December 1944, Margit Varnes’s sister-in-law, Kari Nygårad, who also lived in the farmhouse, showed her some wet and very dirty socks.  Kari mysteriously asked the now-pregnant Margit, “Do you know where these are from?”

During Norway’s long occupation, Margit and her family often heard shooting in the distance and watched red flares streak through the night sky.  Margit’s first inclination was to think that another ship had been torpedoed in a northern fjord and soldiers’ clothing had washed up on the shore.  But she was wrong.

“We are hiding four Frenchmen in a cave,” Kari whispered.

A photo of the entrance to Drynahellaren taken in the 1990s with one of Margit’s relatives looking inside. Drynahellaren was renamed Franskhellaren (The French Cave) after World War II and a monument was erected close to the entrance. The story of the four escaped French POWs is told in three languages and their names are included along with their places of origin.

A photo of the entrance to Drynahellaren taken in the 1990s with one of Margit’s relatives looking inside. Drynahellaren was renamed Franskhellaren (The French Cave) after World War II and a monument was erected close to the entrance. The story of the four escaped French POWs is told in three languages and their names are included along with their places of origin.

They were Allied soldiers who had been captured by the Germans and turned into “slave labor.”  They had escaped Nov. 22 from a Nazi prison camp in Klauset, Otrøy, where they had been forced to assist the Germans while they attacked Norwegian and Allied ships.

Kristian Opstad, a shopkeeper from Otrøy who was related to Jonas, had assisted the gaunt Frenchmen in their breakout. He had guided them at night by rowboat to Dryna, an eight-mile journey, and then by foot for approximately 30 minutes to Drynafjellet (the Dryna Mountain).  They had vanished into a cave known as Drynahellaren.

Three families, all related to Jonas, had been providing the soldiers with food.

“We didn’t want to tell you because we were afraid you might miscarry your baby,” Kari confided. Defying the Germans by hiding escaped POWs could have resulted in immediate execution.

“I don’t get scared of nothing,” Margit responded defiantly, who was seven months pregnant.  “You can tell me anything.”

Margit and Jonas began taking turns every week walking the treacherous, snow-covered terrain to Drynahellaren to supplement the Frenchmen’s food supply and to provide clean, mended clothing.  They journeyed only at night through a long field south of the farm on a trail frequented by farm animals. The cave was almost halfway up Dryna Mountain: a massive, winding grotto hidden in a hard-to-find depression. The bottle-shaped entrance, which afforded a spectacular southwest view of the Atlantic Ocean, was partially concealed by the hillside’s thick overgrowth and a rocky outcropping.

When Margit entered the dark cavern with her food-laden basket and bulging satchel, the French escapees, their faces wreathed in smiles, were invariably waiting for her and for the salted herring which they “loved.”

A loud echo always resounded throughout the rocky chambers when visitors approached, warning them of possible danger from Nazi patrols.  Fifty-five meters long (the length of half a football field) the musty-smelling refuge had been transformed into a cozy shelter by the practical addition of a lita hytte (small cabin). Two large sheets of plywood were positioned against the angled walls of the damp cave and housed handmade bunk beds and a stove.  A roof made of plywood protected the inside from the cave’s constant dripping of moisture.

Ironically, German soldiers had built a lookout on top of this hill after the invasion.  They hadn’t used it for some time, but it had provided an unobstructed view of the coastal shipping lane and numerous islands, and had enabled them to detect and destroy Allied ships and aircraft.

In January 1945, the Frenchmen, who spoke a little Norwegian, were invited to dinner at Margit’s table.  They traveled the crooked path with the aid of a small flashlight and avoided potholes and rocks. Once hidden behind windows that had been covered with dark blankets, they conversed in whispers to keep their presence a secret from Jonas’s grandparents who were sleeping soundly in the east wing. When they had trouble communicating, the courteous, dark-haired men gestured with their hands.

A second furtive dinner took place at the farmhouse in late February after Margit had given birth to a son, John.

Finally, in early May 1945, rumors began to surface that the Allied forces were experiencing significant victories against the Germans. The Norwegians discussed this tantalizing information by telephone, and Margit and Jonas eagerly huddled around a contraband radio at night to listen to the crackling broadcasts from England.  On May 8 they heard the jubilant news: Germany had surrendered!

Margit’s daughter, Magni, then seven years old, still remembers the day she saw four strange men walking toward the farmhouse from the back field.  They were waving flags and signing boisterously in an unfamiliar language.  Tears streaming down their faces, they joyfully embraced the equally emotional Jonas and Margit.  The young girl, shocked at this uncharacteristic behavior, could only stare.

The sun was streaming through the large kitchen window as the men ate their fill of Margit’s cooking and drank Jonas’s homemade beer. They also telephoned their families in France. The operator, who worked on the island of Midøy, was shocked beyond measure when they began singing The Marseillaise. She’d had no idea they’d been in hiding less than four miles away.

Equally surprised were Jonas’s grandparents who saw the four soldiers for the first time sitting on the kitchen’s long wooden bench. The stunned oldemor (great-grandmother) could only think to say, “Gud velsigne deg” (“God bless you”).

To minimize the risk of exposure to the Germans, only a handful of people had participated in this underground activity.  This included Oskar Sønderland (the Varnes’s neighbor who had also foiled a Nazi reconnaissance mission on Dryna); Jonas and Kari Nygård from Dryna (Margit’s brother and sister-in-law); John Godø from Midøy; and Kristian Opstad from Otrøy. Margit had never encountered any of them during her trips to the cave which may have been planned by the others as an extra precaution against detection by the Nazis. The well-worn path to the cave had remained undetected – as had the contraband radio and guns that Jonas had hidden under the floorboards of his grandparents’ farmhouse.

On May 17, Norwegian Constitution Day, a triumphant celebration took place on Midøy and over 200 people attended, many from other islands.  The French soldiers were there, outfitted from head to toe in new wardrobes, and “looked beautiful,” remembers Margit.

The Norwegian and French flags were displayed, and both national anthems, “Ja, Vi Elsker Dette Landet” and “La Marseillaise” were sung with great gusto.

Before returning to their homeland, the Frenchmen traveled to other parts of Norway and were hailed as heroes, the story of their harrowing escape and subsequent six months in hiding having preceded them.

Margit and Jonas never saw them again.  However, 25-year-old Jacques Contou-Carrère sent a letter shortly after returning to the small town of Monein in southwest France.  The wistful-eyed Jacques included a photograph with his signature and the grateful words, “Eit lite minne fra en Franskemann, med takk for alt” which is translated as “A small momento from a Frenchman, with thanks for everything.” He also wrote his date of birth as “19-7-20.” Later, he sent Christmas cards.

It’s not known if these four men are still living.  A monument was erected in their memory, however, and is located near the entrance to Drynahellaren.  The rustic but impressive memorial shares the names of the four Frenchmen and tells their story in three languages. The cave’s new name is proclaimed in bold letters: “Franskhellaren.”

Margit and Jonas had three more children after the war: Bjarne, Ruth (namesake to Ruth Bjørkedal who died in 1944), and Asbjørg.  They immigrated to Seattle, Wash., in 1957. Jonas was employed as a lead fisherman on a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) research vessel.  He passed away in 1994.

Margit, who was 83 years old when this story was first published, will turn 92 in June 2011. She still lives every day to the fullest.  She’s a member of the Sons of Norway who regularly socializes at the Leif Eriksen Lodge #1 in Seattle, Wash.  She’s also an avid sports fan and loves to travel.

This article was originally published as a series in the June 3 and June 17 issues of the Norwegian American Weekly. For more information about the Norwegian American Weekly or to subscribe, call us toll free (800) 305-0217 or email subscribe@norway.com.

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