Margit’s Secret Cave: Hiding French POWs in Norway

Written by C.E. Chambers (a pseudonym used by Diana Einarsen since 1999) and added to this website May 17, 2011.

UPDATE August 3, 2015:  The author is attempting to locate four former French POWS and/or their families.  If anyone has knowledge regarding this, please send an email to info@vikingconfidential.com.

Four French POWs — prisoners in a German slave labor camp on the Norwegian island of Otrøy (also called Otrøya) — escaped with the assistance of very brave Norwegians “between 21 and 22 November 1944.”  They were Jacques Contou-Carrère from Monein-Basses-Pyrènees (born July 20, 1919); Jacques Resve from Asnieres; Jean Nadau from Bordeaux/Martinique; and Jacques Bilger from Paris.)  They were hidden in the Dryna Cave (Drynahelleran) for six months; it was renamed the French Cave (Frankshelleran) after WWII ended.  (See the photo of the large memorial to them on the island of Dryna that contains more details about their escape in three languages.) 

Margit Varnes regularly assisted the escaped French prisoners of war, along with other Norwegians, during their secret confinement in the cave.

Margit was 83-years-old when C.E. Chambers’ biography of her, “A Well-Kept Secret,” was published by Viking magazine in 2003.  A reworked, expanded, and renamed version was published as “Margit’s Secret Cave” by the Norwegian American Weekly in 2011 which is the version below.

Born June 13, 1919, Margit was very active until her death at the age of 94 on October 7, 2013 in Seattle, Washington.  She was a 50-year member of the Leif Erikson Lodge #1 in Seattle where members reminisce affectionately about her at the Kaffestua (coffee house) where she spent countless hours as a volunteer.  She was an avid sports fan and loved to travel the world.

Photo 1 ( below):  Margit Varnes standing on top of Drynafjellet (the Dryna Mountain) in the 1990s.  During WWII, German occupying forces built a bunker with four howitzers on this mountain that was ironically situated above a massive cave used to hide four escaped French POWs.  A portion of Margit’s farm can be seen behind her on the left; there were only two farms (and two residences) on the island at that time.

Photo 2 (below):  A post-war photo of Jacques Contou-Carrère from Monein-Basses-Pyrènees, one of the escaped four French POWs hidden in a cave in occupied-Norway during WWII. (“A Well-Kept Secret” was the title of C.E. Chambers’ biography of Margit that was published by the Sons of Norway Viking magazine in 2003.  A reworked and expanded version renamed “Margit’s Secret Cave” was published by the Norwegian American Weekly in 2011 which is the version below.)

Margit Varnes's photo of French man Jacques

“Margit’s Secret Cave: Hiding French POWs in Norway”

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, 83-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 [called Otrøya by others], 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, Washington, 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 Nazi prison camp in Norway during WWII.

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 about four miles southwest 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.

Love Norwegian Style

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.  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, pannekakerbløtkaker, 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 children 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 surprisingly 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.

Dangerous Activities

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.

They were Allied soldiers who had been captured by the Germans and turned into “slave labor.”  They had escaped November 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.”

Drynahellaren (The Dryna Cave)

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.  The men, all bachelors, “sure loved seeing that baby,” Margit remembers.

Freedom at Last

Finally, in early May of 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 good 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 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.

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” (“Yes We Love This Land of Ours”) and “La Marseillaise” were sung with great gusto.

Before returning to their homeland, the four 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.

A Letter from France

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 memento 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 the four Frenchmen 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 their names and places of origin and tells their story in three languages.  The cave’s new name is proclaimed in bold letters: “Franskhellaren” (The French Cave).

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, Washington in 1957.  Jonas was employed as a lead fisherman on a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) research vessel.  He passed away in 1994.

(This biography was written by C.E. Chambers and published as “A Well-Kept Secret” by the Sons of Norway Viking magazine in April 2003.  A reworked and expanded version was renamed and published as “Margit’s Secret Cave: Hiding POWs in Dryna, Norway” on this website May 17, 2011.  The reworked article was published as “Margit’s Secret Cave” in the Norwegian American Weekly‘s print edition in June 2011, and in their online edition in September 2011. (The Norwegian American Weekly is part of Norway.com.)

(All photos are the property of Margit Varnes’ children.)

 

Photo 2 (again; above): Jacques Contou-Carrère from Monein-Basses-Pyrènees in France.  He corresponded with Margit for a while after the war had ended and sent her this photo shortly after returning to the small town of Monein in southwest France.  He also sent Christmas cards.

Photo 3 (above): Margit and Jonas Varnes on their wedding day June 1944.

Photo 4 (above): The opening to Drynahellaren (the Dryna Cave) with Asbjorg (“Ausie”), Margit’s youngest daughter, standing in front.  The photo was taken in the 1990s.

Photo 5 (above):  Drynahellaren was renamed Franskhellaren (The French Cave) after WWII 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.

Photo 6 above: Another photo of the entrance to Drynahellaren (renamed Franskhellaren) taken in the 1990s with one of Margit’s relatives looking inside.

Photo 7 (above):  Margit Varnes sitting on a Victory motorcycle in 2010 with two of her grandsons behind her.  It was opening day of fishing at Lake McMurray in Washington state.

Margit, son Bjarne, Knut & Haldis 2010 at kaffestua

October 23, 2010: Margit (second from the right) with her son, Bjarne (on her left), and good friends Knut and Haldis Einarsen. (Knut also defied the Nazis and had to ski for his life to Sweden along with his wife and other people. Read “Heroes In Our Backyard.”)

Responses

  1. I just happened upon this story, it was a true inspiration to read that people like Margit Varnes really do exisit and are capable of assisting people who have been subjects of extreme cruelty. The United States is grateful to have some one like this in our mist…may Margit live forever.

    • Very intresting to read this storry once again. I have been told details from the event many times, but her in the artickle was some new for me. I have visited the Cave many times. The Cave was as known unfortunately burnt down by someone just after the war, most probably by someone that did not like the success of the whole storry. Not all was good Norwegians during the war.

      • Thank you. Margit was a very special lady and very well-liked; she was always upbeat and full of energy. She loved to tell jokes and kept us laughing at the Leif Erikson Lodge’s Kaffestua. Sadly, she passed away at the age of 94 on Oct. 7, 2013. My husband and I (and my father-in-law, Knut, a great friend of Margit’s — read “Heroes In Our Backyard”) attended her Celebration of Life service at the Lodge. Her son, Bjarne, recently served as president of the Lodge for two years; and he and his sister, Magni, frequently volunteer at the Kaffestua and at other functions. (By the way, I may be *remodeling* my website; please check back.)

  2. Wonderful,just a wonderful story.I knew Margit for 50 years and had no idea..Pete


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