Book review: Countrymen

HARD though it may be to imagine any history of the Holocaust as being uplifting, Bo Lidegaard’s tale of how Denmark’s Jews escaped the Nazis does offer hope for humanity.

Book review: Countrymen

Bo Lidegaard

Atlantic, €14.29; ebook, €10.81

In September 1943, putting their own lives at risk, civil servants in occupied Denmark leaked information of an impending German plan to deport Jews to camps in central Europe. The response was swift and remarkably successful.

When the Nazis began their sweep in October, countless thousands of Danish Jews had already escaped to neutral Sweden, aided every step of the way by non-Jewish Danish and Swedish villagers and fishermen, with whom the fleeing families had nothing in common but their citizenship.

And this is the core theme to emerge from Lidegaard’s book. Danish people fought for the rights of their ‘countrymen’, irrespective of politics, culture or creed.

That may seem like a fairly fundamental tenet for any society, but very few societies have seen the depth of their commitment to values so sternly tested as Europeans were tested during WWII.

The truth is most European states came up short, bar Denmark and Bulgaria. Up to 70-90% of the Jews in Hungary, the Netherlands, Latvia, Greece, Lithuania and Poland died during the Holocaust.

Around 40-50% died in Estonia, Belgium, Norway and Romania. Around 20% were killed in Italy, France and Belgium. In Denmark and Bulgaria, fewer than 1% were killed. In all, only 1,600 Danish Jews were deported.

The power in this book, however, does not lie in harrowing statistics, nor in newspaper editor Lidegaard’s quite brilliant recreation of the 1940s Copenhagen political and social backdrop against which the Jewish flight into Sweden is set.

Rather the power comes from the way Lidegaard weaves extracts from survivors’ diaries into the gradually developing political picture.

While our knowledge of what happened in the concentration camps does gnaw away throughout, great hope emerges from the diary accounts.

The flight to Sweden begins in the first week in October 1943, but many of the Jewish protagonists still didn’t want to believe the threat was real.

The diaries share the immediacy and uncertainty; in the early days, these young parents sought to shelter their children from a harsh new reality that they didn’t believe would ever come to pass.

So right-thinking was Danish society, even under occupation, people just could not believe their fellow citizens would abandon them.

Kis Marcus was 34 years old and the mother of two small children. The opening pages of her two black softcover notebooks are made up of lists, dividing household belongings into essentials and non-essentials.

These diaries do eventually contain narratives and comments, but the lists are arguably more stark, more real and urgent than the later accounts of dangerous hideouts, encounters with police and multiple rail and boat connections to eventual safety. As soon as Kis begins writing lists, she already begins accepting her new status as a refugee.

As the book evolves, it recounts how a society rapidly evolved from moral outrage to a very pragmatic response to the threat it faced.

Lidegaard begins his book by debunking a myth about Denmark’s King Christian. Legend had it that the King rode through the streets of Copenhagen wearing a yellow star in defiance of Nazi demands that Jews wear the emblem to identify themselves.

While the tale of King Christian wearing a ‘Star of David’ tale was a myth, it is nonetheless a useful image for the way the Danes refused to leave their fellow citizens to stand alone.

And a good visual image, albeit a fake one, with which to picture a society with a very deep and real moral courage. The real story is perhaps more practical but no less heroic.

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