Coun­try­men: The Untold Sto­ry of How Den­mark’s Jews Escaped the Nazis, of the Courage of Their Fel­low Danes — and of the Extra­or­di­nary Role of the SS

Bo Lide­gaard
  • Review
By – June 16, 2014

Bo Lide­gaard, the edi­tor in chief of Den­mark’s lead­ing news­pa­per, Poli­tiken, and a for­mer diplo­mat in the Dan­ish For­eign Ser­vice, has writ­ten what should become the defin­i­tive his­to­ry of how the Danes saved more than sev­en thou­sand of its Jews from depor­ta­tion to the death camps. He notes that where­as up to 70 to 90 per­cent of the Jews in Hun­gary, the Nether­lands, Latvia, Greece, Lithua­nia, and Poland were mur­dered by the Nazis; 40 to 50 per­cent in Roma­nia, Esto­nia, Nor­way, and around 20 per­cent in Italy and France, it was few­er than one per­cent in Bul­gar­ia and Den­mark. How to account for this disparity? 

Lide­gaard argues that although among the Danes there did exist more or less inno­cent prej­u­dices against the Jews,” anti-Semi­tism in its more vir­u­lent form was not allowed to take root. In Octo­ber 1943, when the Nazis in occu­pied Den­mark decid­ed to deport Jews first to There­sien­stadt, and then to Auschwitz, Jews went into hid­ing and were sup­port­ed by the Dan­ish pop­u­la­tion, which viewed Jews as fel­low coun­try­men who, through no fault of their own, were sud­den­ly false­ly accused of crimes insti­gat­ed by the occu­py­ing pow­er. Thus the Danes saw the pro­tec­tion of Jews as a per­son­al respon­si­bil­i­ty and nation­al duty. The author states that among the rescue’s great­est heroes were the Dan­ish politi­cians who refused to bend to the pres­sure exert­ed on them by Berlin to deport the Jews. (Among those who opposed the Nazi effort to apply the Nazi racial laws to the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in Den­mark was King Chris­t­ian. With defer­ence to his real efforts to pro­tect Dan­ish Jews, Lide­gaard debunks the pop­u­lar myth that King Chris­t­ian rode through the streets of Copenha­gen wear­ing the yel­low star in defi­ance of the Nazi orders that Jews do so.) Lide­gaard writes, it would have been easy and pop­u­lar to talk about them and us’ but they had the courage to stick with the fun­da­men­tals of democ­ra­cy; that all cit­i­zens are sub­ject to the same laws and enti­tled to the claim of jus­tice.” Thus, unlike many of the afore­men­tioned coun­tries, where anti-Semi­tism was rife, the Nazis were unable to pur­sue the Final Solu­tion in Den­mark because sup­port for the depor­ta­tion of the Jews was absolute­ly missing. 

Much of Coun­try­men is based on pri­ma­ry sources. The author has used the diaries, let­ters, and mem­oirs of Danes — Jews and non-Jews — who describe how, over a peri­od of four­teen har­row­ing days, ordi­nary cit­i­zens fer­ried Jews across to Swe­den on ships, schooners, and fish­ing boats, which result­ed in sav­ing an incred­i­ble 7,742 out of 8,200 Jew­ish lives.

Relat­ed Content:

Judith Felsen­feld book of short fic­tion, Blaustein’s Kiss, was pub­lished in April, 2014. Her sto­ries have appeared in numer­ous mag­a­zines and lit­er­ary reviews, includ­ing The Chica­go Review, The South­west Review, Blue Mesa, and broad­cast nation­wide on NPR’s Select­ed Shorts.

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