I suddenly understood what insanity must be

Kim Malthe-Bruun
Photographer unknown. Wikimedia.

When he wrote this entry at Copenhagen’s Vestre Prison in March of 1945, Kim Malthe-Bruun was twenty-one, and for the past three months he had been detained and tortured in various cells in Nazi-occupied Denmark with two other members of the Danish resistance. Since 1941 he had worked as a merchant sailor, but in September of 1944 had decided to join the underground movement and assist them in transporting weapons from Sweden to Denmark. Tragically, weeks after this was penned, he was executed by the Gestapo; in May, Germany surrendered. Pages of Kim’s diary were later found hidden in the walls of his final prison.

The Diary Entry

3 March 1945

Yesterday I was sitting at the table. I looked at my hands in amazement. They were trembling. I thought about it for a moment. There are some things which produce a purely physical reaction. Suddenly, as I was sitting here, I was possessed by the desire to draw something. I got up and started to sketch on the wall. I was fascinated and became more and more absorbed. Under my hand suddenly appeared a farmer, standing by a barbed-wire fence. I sat down, got up and made some changes, sat down again and felt much better. All day I worked on it. There were so many things which I couldn’t make come out the way I wanted them to. I studied it, stretched my imagination to the utmost and was suddenly completely exhausted. I erased all of it and since then even the idea of drawing makes me sick.

I’ve been thinking about this strange experience a good deal. Right afterwards I had such a wonderful feeling of relief, a sense of having won a victory and such intense happiness that I felt quite numb. It seemed as if body and soul became separated, one in a wild and soaring freedom beyond the reach of the world, and the other doubled up in a horrible cramp which held it to the earth. I suddenly realized how terrifically strong I am (but perhaps I only tried to talk myself into this). When the body and soul rejoined forces, it was as if all the joys of the world were right there for me. But it was as with so many stimulants; when the effect wore off the reaction set in. I saw that my hands were shaking, something had given inside. It was as if there had been a short circuit in the roots of my heart which drained it of all strength. I was like a man hungry for pleasure and consumed by desire. But still I was calm and in better spirits than ever before.

Although I feel no fear, my heart beats faster every time someone stops outside my door. It’s a physical reaction.

Strange, but I didn’t feel any resentment or hatred at all. Something happened to my body, which is only the body of an adolescent, and it reacted as such, but my mind was elsewhere. It was aware of the small creatures who were busying themselves with my body, but it was in a world of its own and too engrossed to pay much attention to them.

I’ve learned something by being alone. It is as if I’d reached rock bottom in myself, which usually can’t be seen for all the layers of egotism, conceit, love, and all the ups and downs of daily life. It is this which makes me feel as if I’d had a short circuit within me. When I’m with the other people, their interests, their conversation, act as a balm, covering the rock bottom in myself with a warm compress. When I’m alone, it is as if layers of skin were being scraped away. Your mind is not at ease, you can’t concentrate on reading, the spirit as well as the body must keep pacing up and down. I suddenly understood what insanity must be, but I knew that this was like everything else which has happened to me, and in a couple of days I’ll be myself again.

Further Reading

Four years after Kim’s execution, his diary and correspondence were published in Danish in Kim, a book edited by his mother, Vibeke Malthe-Bruun. In 1955 an English-language edition arrived, titled Heroic Heart: The Diary and Letters of Kim Malthe-Bruun, 1941- 1945 and translated by Gerry Bothmer. Sadly, it’s long out of print and difficult to get hold of, though not impossible. Alternatively, you could get a copy of Children in the Holocaust and World War II: Their Secret Diaries, in which some of Kim’s entries can be found. It’s a devastating but profoundly important book.

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