On Oct. 1 it will be 70 years since the German occupiers largely failed in their attempt to round up the Jewish population of Denmark.
Countrymen is a gripping narrative of the pogrom, the reasons for its failure, and its immediate aftermath. Its author, Bo Lidegaard, is a historian by training and the editor-in-chief of the Danish newspaper Politiken who has written several books on 20th-century Danish history.
Particularly well-argued is Lidegaard's explanation of the political background to the rescue, the fact that since 1933 the Social Democratic government had purposefully generated a culture that rejected any notion Jews were different from other Danes.
When the Germans invaded Denmark in April 1940, an agreement was made that provided for a Danish "unity" government to stay in power, with the constitution intact, under German occupation. For that reason, Jews in Denmark never wore a yellow star or other identification.
As Lidegaard explains, this "policy of negotiation" allowed the Germans easy access to Danish products and agriculture, at very little administrative cost to themselves, while Danish life could continue more or less unimpeded and mostly without the brutality experienced in many other occupied countries.
The arrangement fell apart when in frustration over strikes, sabotage and civil unrest in August 1943, the Germans insisted on imposing martial law. In response, the Danish government resigned, martial law was declared and the legal protection of the Jewish population disappeared.
In order to obtain the addresses of Jews, the Nazis had to steal the membership rolls from the synagogue and the Jewish community council.
How the fears of an impending raid against the Jews spread throughout the country is narrated through first-person accounts written at the time. Most could not believe that anything would happen in Denmark, but the anxiety was nonetheless palpable.
Lidegaard goes into considerable detail about how the action was planned, under direct orders from Hitler, and given two-faced support by the Reich plenipotentiary in Denmark, Werner Best. Best was concerned Danish reaction to the deportation of Jews to concentration camps would jeopardize the peaceful occupation.
On Sept. 28, Georg Duckwitz, the maritime expert at the German legation in Copenhagen and a confidante of Best's, contacted the leader of the Danish Social Democratic Party, Hans Hedtoft, and told him a roundup was planned for the coming Friday and that ships were arriving to carry people away. Hedtoft, in turn, alerted the president of the Jewish community.
The next day the information spread through the community. Thus when the German police, along with Danish SS volunteers, arrived at Jewish homes, most had already left, and were on their way via circuitous routes, often helped and hidden by complete strangers, to various fishing villages on the coast. From there they were shipped across the sound to Sweden.
Fewer than 300 were caught in Copenhagen, where the vast majority lived, and another 82 in the provinces, of the total German estimate of 6,000 Jews. Recent figures reported by Lidegaard show 7,742 Jews, including 1,376 German refugees, fled to Sweden.
Those caught were sent to Theresienstadt and, like the refugees, most returned home after the war, to find, but for a few exceptions, their property and apartments having been maintained as they had left them.
Along with its superb and persuasive analysis of behind-the-scenes manoeuvres, Countrymen follows the escape of several people via their contemporaneous notes, letters and diaries, allowing a reader to empathize with their ordeal.
Lidegaard has delivered an important contribution to our ongoing search for answers to how the Holocaust could have happened.
Per Brask, who teaches theatre at the University of Winnipeg, still has family in Denmark. He assisted his wife, Carol Matas, in researching her novel Lisa on the Danish rescue.