Decency defeats the forces of darkness

Published by The Mail on Sunday (6th April, 2014)

Countrymen: The Untold Story of How Denmark’s Jews Escaped the Nazis by Bo Lidegaard (Atlantic)

One Saturday morning in October 1943, the vicar, lawyer and bank manager of a small seaside town in Denmark spent several hours agonising over how to help Jewish families hiding from Nazi round-ups in their local hotel. ‘One proposal after another was rejected and when we finally got completely stuck, we did what we should have started with,’ said Niels Lund, the vicar. ‘We walked into the hotel, greeted them and offered our assistance.’

The families managed to escape to Sweden, but only just –  their hotel was raided within minutes of their departure. Yet they were far from alone. Thanks to the humanity of countless more Danes, almost all the country’s Jews evaded the Holocaust. Over 14 harrowing days they were given shelter in churches, family homes and hospitals, then smuggled on to schooners and fishing vessels that spirited them to safety in Sweden. 

It is an inspirational story, one in which decency and democracy defeated the forces of darkness – and it is superbly told Bo Lidegaard, a Danish journalist. A small country in uneasy co-operation with its German occupier suddenly found its courage, helping 7,742 Jews across the sea to its neutral neighbour. As a result, fewer than one per cent of its Jewish population lost their lives in the genocide.

The book gets off to a slightly sluggish start as Lidegaard introduces key characters. But once the drama kicks in it, it turns almost into a thriller with a handful of first-person stories into the larger political machinations. On one night alone, more than 1,400 people managed to escape by boat into the welcoming arms of the Swedes.

Others were not so lucky: in a fishing hamlet, 85 people were dragged from a church loft – an action that makes a shocked fishing hamlet all the more determined to save the rest of their refugees. Within hours of the raid, an escape committee is formed by the local teacher, doctor and two grocers.

As Lidegaard argues, the Danes showed that countries and citizens make a choice when collaborating with mass murder.Incredibly, anti-Semitic propaganda was banned under Nazi occupation, while citizens refused to identify Jews and Danish police did not assist in arrests. Yes, the Danes had relatively light occupation and were close geographically to a free nation. But they protected their Jews because they saw them as fellow countrymen.

As the elderly King Christian famously told his prime minister: ‘If the request was made, the right attitude would be for all of us to wear the star of David.’

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