"[It is] testimony to the degeneration of human personality under stresses that had hardened others into nobility."
New Orleans was a city of balconies. In some respects it still is, at least in the French Quarter. Those balconies have borne wealthy aristocrats, military heroes, bumbling bureaucrats, gamblers, cops on the case, cops on the take, madams touting their charges, prostitutes giving a revealing glimpse of the pleasures to be found inside, and college girls revealing more than any self-respecting prostitute ever would. They have overlooked the slow-marching funerals of the proud and the profane, the young and the old, the famous and the infamous, high brow and low brow fools and intellectuals of every stripe parading down Bourbon Street, with or without music. In some respects, they have come to symbolize New Orleans, but on August 30, 2005 the day after Hurricane Katrina struck the city, they came to symbolize something other than simply the gaudy and tawdry party atmosphere. They came to symbolize something darker and more sinister.
There was looting and stealing, there was mugging and raping, there was fighting and murder, there was lawlessness, chaos, and disorder. For a time it seemed that all decency had left the city and all that remained was ugliness and filth. Rescuers were rebuked, reviled, and attacked until many, having lost their own homes and perhaps loved ones, simply went away, abandoning the city to its own self destruction. At long last the national guard came and block by block restored order. The battle won, the city was once again quiet, but the war was not yet over. There were other battles against the anger, the impatience, the selfishness, the recriminations. It was clear that there was a long way yet to go before the balconies of New Orleans would once again reign over happy faces and dancing feet.
But New Orleans is not the only city of balconies. Nearly every apartment in Copenhagen comes with a balcony.
The winter of 1944 was particularly cold in Copenhagen. This was the winter of the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium and northern France although it had not yet begun. The bitter cold surrounding that momentous battle had been moving southward through Denmark for weeks. Yet standing on the balcony of our third story apartment that December evening I remember people cheering, applauding, and hearing shouts of "Victory" from not only our balcony, but every balcony of the large complex in which we lived. Overhead in the relatively clear night sky we could see large flights of British Lancaster bombers returning to Britain from their raids into northern Germany. They were high above, but not so high that we couldn't hear the roar of the four powerful Rolls Royce engines that propelled each airplane. It was like an angry growl directed at the hated enemy. The cheering was probably not directed at the fliers, they wouldn't have heard it in any case, it was a release of pentup fear and tension after nearly five years of German occupation.
They had come on April 9, 1940 and little Denmark with a population of some four million had capitulated. The Germans said they were going to protect the Danes against a British invasion. The Danes knew better. To the eternal shame of Danes everywhere, the government cooperated with the Nazis until mid-1943 and the Danish police became agents of the occupiers. They were feared and hated more than was the Gestapo. Thousands of Danes became saboteurs, these days we would call them insurgents, sabotage having fallen from grace as a noble calling. They, my uncle among them, risked their lives to cripple the German war machine and helped to shorten the war.
The Germans had forced the Danish central bank to pay for all the goods they 'purchased' to supply their armies and gave the bank IOU's in exchange. It was all legal and above board except that they simply took what they wanted, the Danish bank paid the bill and the Germans dropped an IOU into the till. In effect, they stole Denmark's labor and products in order to finance their conquests. At least they paid Denmark, the eastern conquests had been less fortunate. The final straw was when they demanded that all Jews be identified and listed for deportation. Danes everywhere mobilized and with only fishing boats and other small craft ferried over 7,000 Jews to safety in Sweden, dodging German patrol vessels during the crossing. These were common working people, fishermen, farmers, green grocers, dairymen, factory workers, the kind who work hard, come home dirty, care for their families, ask for nothing, and risk everything to save the life of a stranger.
My uncle, a strapping six foot two, 215 pounds man, was captured in August 1942 and sent to Theresienstadt prison in Germany. Three years later, at war's end he returned to Copenhagen, having left some 125 pounds and his sanity in Germany. His body died in the fifties in an asylum in northern Sjælland, the island on which Copenhagen sits. His spirit had died long before.
Barely six months before this exciting December night, my father had tuned in BBC, keeping the volume low, to hear something other than German propaganda and Wagner. In the middle of Eroica the announcer interrupted the music to announce the landings at Normandy. The long awaited western front had finally opened. The war would be over before Christmas, everyone said. That was two weeks away and the Germans didn't appear to be packing to leave anytime soon. They still walked the streets at night in pairs, each with a rifle slung over his shoulder and a Doberman on a leash leading the way. I didn't mind the soldiers much, I wanted to see their rifles, but I didn't like the dogs.
So for six months all of Denmark had held its collective breath anticipating the departure of the Germans and you could cut the tension with a knife. Not yet six, even I could feel it. It seemed as though the rescuers had at long last come. That's why we cheered from our balconies that cold December night. That's why we cheered airplanes we could barely see and hear. That's why we cheered those unseen fliers and the freedom they represented. That's why freedom loving people everywhere still cheer those who fight for that freedom.
But New Orleans did not cheer from its balconies when its freedom fighters came. It spat on them, cursed them, shot at them, and hid from them. Inevitably, the end came and it came with neither a roar nor with a whimper, but with a whine. Instead of a grateful sigh of relief and invocatons of 'thank you' New Orleans, to its everlasting shame, let loose a torrent of crying "foul" and "why me" and "where's mine" and pointed the finger of blame at everyone except itself.
Yes, some degenerate into barbarism while others are hardened into nobility. So it is and so it has always been. By the grace of God I stood on the balcony of hope and light.