This is the first of two extracts from Bright Lights Dark Shadows – The Real Story of Abba by Carl Magnus Palm, the book I commissioned and edited in 2000 and which earlier this year was reissued as a completely revised edition – see post from February 10.
It is 1943, the world is at war and we are in Ballangen, in German-occupied Norway, where, in the Bjørkåsen district there lives a family called Lyngstad. When war broke out, Arntine Kornelia Marie Lyngstad was a 41-year-old seamstress, her husband Simon (who in 1941 would die from cancer) an engineer at the power station of Bjørkåsen Gruber. Arntine’s first child, a daughter they named Aase, was born in September 1916, when she was just 18 years old. Since then the family had grown to include a son, Bonar, and a further four daughters: Maren, Inger, Olive and Synni. By the early forties, most of Simon and Arntine’s children were starting to raise families of their own. Arntine’s youngest daughter, Synni, was born June 19, 1926, and at the time of the German invasion was just two months short of her 14th birthday. Quiet and unassuming, Synni was a pretty girl who was well-liked and loved music. It was said that she had a beautiful singing voice.
In the shadow of the great battles and the deliberations of generals, the war begat many parallel developments. Circumstances brought together complete strangers, men and women from different countries, cultures and creeds were forced to find ways to live together in the same towns and streets. Men were separated from their wives, and wives from their husbands. Young men, boys not yet out of their teens, were sent away to war, leaving towns and villages bereft of partners for teenage girls. Stories of romantic liaisons between German soldiers and young women living in the occupied countries are many.
It’s easy to understand how this could happen. Lonely men arriving in a country where they would much rather not be; innocent, impressionable girls charmed by dashing men in uniforms; two souls seeking a glimpse of light in the darkness, some warmth and comfort in the midst of a horrific war. In Norway, tens of thousands of local girls found themselves romantically involved with German soldiers.
By June 1944 Synni Lyngstad was no longer a child, but had grown into a truly beautiful 18-year-old girl. Every day during that summer, she attended to the flower beds and fruit trees in the orchard outside the house where she lived with her mother. The German soldiers passing on the road outside their house couldn’t help being taken by her chestnut hair and slim figure.
Alfred Haase was one of many lonely men who gazed admiringly at Synni Lyngstad. The first time he laid eyes on her she was carrying a milk pail as she passed him on the road, and he was captivated. “Everybody in our platoon was fantasising about her,” he recalled. “We were never able to get this close to any other women.”
On their way to training, Alfred’s platoon would walk past Synni’s house every morning at seven o’clock. When Alfred had time off, he tried to make his way there on his own. Realising it would be difficult to find a way to talk to her, what with the local suspicion of the Germans, he broke the ice by bringing her a gift: a sack containing two kilos of potatoes; not very romantic, perhaps, but food was in short supply and the gift was most welcome.
Gradually, Synni’s resistance was worn down. Her head might have told her that it was wrong to become involved with a German soldier but her heart told a different story. Aside from the unusual circumstances of the occupation, life in Ballangen was fairly uneventful for a teenage girl like Synni. She was taken in, flattered even, by the courting of the handsome Alfred.
“We started going for long walks in the forest together,” remembered Alfred. “We talked about what we were going to do after the war, about our dreams for the future, how it would feel to be allowed to visit foreign countries in a time of peace.” They were growing closer, and soon the inevitable happened. One day by the edge of a lake in the woods they threw off their clothes and went swimming. Afterwards, they made love for the first time on the beach.
Soon after the consummation of their love affair, Alfred told Synni that he was married. Synni broke down in tears, but eventually she found a way to accept it. “I think she regarded our relationship as I did: the war meant that the conditions were different,” Alfred recalled. “For many of us it was a matter of living for today – tomorrow we might be dead.”
At first, it seems, the romance blossomed largely in secret. Only Synni’s family knew about it – and they didn’t approve. “He will forget you as soon as he’s back in Germany,” they warned her, but she refused to listen. As the weeks went by, the relationship deepened. Synni would visit the little cabin where Alfred lived, bringing whale-meat for their secret romantic dinners. Soon the secret was out. According to the recollections of local girl Sara Myhre, who knew Synni at the time, Alfred became a part of their crowd. “Synni and Alfred were very much in love and didn’t hide their love. Those of us who were young… would meet almost every evening. Alfred often came along.”
The affair came to a sudden end in late October 1944, when Alfred was abruptly transferred to Bogenviken, 30 miles away, and his contact with Synni was broken. There was no way they could communicate through letters, and visits were out of the question. Alfred recalled: “Before that I was on leave regularly, but now it got very hard to get any time off. The situation was becoming critical that autumn.”
Germany’s fortunes in the war were indeed worsening rapidly, not least in Norway. Their former allies in the Soviet Union had long since become their enemy, and on October 18, 1944, the Russian forces managed to cross the Norwegian border. Further south in Europe the Allies were closing in on Germany itself, and German soldiers occupying the northern territories were needed for more urgent duties at home. No one knew for certain what would happen, but by January 1945 it seemed likely that the Germans would not remain in Norway for much longer.
Synni and Alfred had met only occasionally since Alfred left Ballangen in October. At the end of January the troops were told to prepare for transport southwards. “On February 10 or 11 we were transferred to Narvik and told that we would be evacuated to Germany at seven the following morning,” remembered Alfred. “I felt that I had to see Synni one more time before I left, so in the evening I borrowed a bicycle in Narvik and left in the dark. Ballangen was some way off and the snow was lying in drifts on the road. But I finally got there late in the evening.”
Alfred knocked on the door, quietly so as not to disturb anyone else in the family. For the first and only time Alfred spent the night in Synni’s room. “I had to leave at four in the morning if I was to get to the ship on time. It was dark and Synni stood by the gate. That’s how I remember her still. She had wrapped herself in a thick woollen shawl. The tears were streaming down her cheeks. That was the last time I saw her.”
Alfred promised to return after the war was over. Synni believed him, and the hope of seeing him again somehow kept her heart from breaking. Soon, however, she faced an even greater anguish than the loss of her lover: their lovemaking on that final night together had made her pregnant. For the Lyngstad family, it was a disaster but although Synni knew there would be trouble ahead, she refused to let the worries get to her. “She was so happy that she was going to have a baby,” recalled her sister Olive.
There are conflicting versions of the events that followed. Alfred Haase has claimed that he never knew that Synni was pregnant, despite his efforts to get in touch with her. “I wrote to Synni several times after the war, but I never got a reply. Nor were my letters returned. I thought she had forgotten me.” Olive, on the other hand, has maintained that Synni and Alfred must have had some sort of contact – after Synni realised her condition but before Alfred had arrived back in Germany. “He knew that Synni was pregnant and told her not to get an abortion. ‘I will return,’ he said.” This version of events is confirmed by Werner Bergvik, a classmate and friend of Synni’s in Ballangen. “She often told me that [Alfred] was her great love. She felt used and betrayed by the man who seduced her. […] He didn’t want to acknowledge the paternity since he was already married. Synni was deeply unhappy and never got over that he left and never contacted her again.”
Whatever the circumstances, Alfred and Synni would never meet again. Several years later the Lyngstad family tried to investigate the matter. Their conclusion was that the ship taking Alfred back to Germany must have been sunk by the Allies outside Denmark. As far as the Lyngstads were able to ascertain, Alfred Haase did not survive the war.
With the Germans surrendering in May 1945, and their troops leaving Norway for good, the situation for 19-year-old Synni became unbearable. Not only had she committed the unforgivable crime of becoming romantically involved with a German soldier, she was also carrying his child. Their passionate romance had turned into a tragedy.
On November 15, 1945, Synni gave birth to a baby girl. The local midwife was ill and her substitute didn’t make it to Bjørkåsen in time, so Synni’s mother and sisters had to help with the delivery themselves. The child was named Anni-Frid Synni Lyngstad.