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Countrymen by Bo Lidegaard
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Countrymen

by Bo Lidegaard

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In the history of Nazi Germany's persecution of the Jews there aren't many happy stories. Usually the best we can manage is a family hidden in the attic or an individual who slipped away. But the case of Denmark, where 7,000 Danes were Jewish, stands out even if it doesn't start very promisingly.

When Germany attacked in April 1940, Denmark's leaders didn't believe the country was strong enough to resist. Instead of putting up a fight, Denmark became an occupied country that still retained some semblance of self-government - a situation most Danes found humiliating. And given Germany's record of persecution against Jews, Danish leaders did everything they thought possible to avert a roundup of their citizens. Yet when it finally came on October 1, 1943, the people themselves managed to help nearly all the Jews to escape to Sweden. Out of those 7,000, only a few hundred were captured by the Germans.

Given that I am one quarter Danish (my grandmother and her parents emigrated around 1900) I really looked forward to this history. And it's an inspiring story of how the Danish people helped their "countrymen" escape what everyone knew was a death-sentence. The risks people took were very real and dangerous, and neighbors even cared for the property of the refugees (instead of the opportunistic looting that generally happened in other places). The book focuses mostly on the Hannover and Marcus families - two sisters - as well as their father, but other sources and stories are included as well. I found it especially interesting how people knew what the Germans were doing to the Jews (not always in vague or general terms!) and yet they still found it hard to believe it would happen in Denmark, instead trusting in the "honor" of the occupation forces. And yet, if it hadn't been for some information leaks, the number who escaped might have been small.

Unfortunately, it's also a very ponderous book that can easily overwhelm an otherwise eager reader at a snail's pace. Frequently accounts of the same event are quoted at length from multiple sources, giving a more complete view of the events but also dragging on for pages with little gained. As such, it may be a scholarly work, but made it hard for me to engage as an ordinary reader. I found the book interesting while I was reading it, but it was difficult to find much enthusiasm to pick it up again in between readings. Nonetheless, this is an important story, and one I am glad to know but it's not an easy read and I was unable to finish. (Oh, and that story about King Christian and the people all wearing Jewish stars in a show of solidarity? It's just a story.)
  J.Green | Nov 22, 2016 |
Incredibly valuable story of how the Danes reacted to the Gestapo round up of the Jews. Almost everyone pitched in as a matter of course and the death rate was less than 1%. ( )
  2wonderY | Dec 13, 2014 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0385350155, Hardcover)

Amid the dark, ghastly history of World War II, the literally extraordinary story, never before fully researched by a historian, of how the Danish people banded together to save their fellow Jews from the Nazis—told through the remarkable unpublished diaries and documents of families forced to run for safety, leaving their homes and possessions behind, and of those who courageously came to their aid.

In 1943, with its king and administration weakened but intact during the Nazi occupation, Denmark did something that no other country in Western Europe even attempted. Anticipating that the German occupying powers would soon issue the long-feared order to round up the entire population of Jews for deportation to concentration camps, the Danish people stood up in defiance and resisted. The king, politicians, and ordinary civilians were united in their response—these threatened people were not simply Jews but fellow Danes who happened to be Jewish, and no one would help in rounding them up for confinement and deportation.  

While diplomats used their limited but very real power to maneuver and impede matters in both Copenhagen and Berlin, the warning that the crisis was at hand quickly spread through the Jewish community. Over fourteen harrowing days, as they were helped, hidden, and protected by ordinary people who spontaneously rushed to save their fellow citizens, an incredible 7,742 out of 8,200 Jewish refugees were smuggled out all along the coast—on ships, schooners, fishing boats, anything that floated—to Sweden.

While the bare facts of this exodus have been known for decades, astonishingly no full history of it has been written. Unfolding on a day-to-day basis, Countrymen brings together accounts written by individuals and officials as events happened, offering a comprehensive overview that underlines occupied Denmark’s historical importance to Hitler as a prop for the model Nazi state and revealing the savage conflict among top Nazi brass for control of the country. This is a story of ordinary glory, of simple courage and moral fortitude that shines out in the midst of the terrible history of the twentieth century and demonstrates how it was possible for a small and fragile democracy to stand against the Third Reich.
   

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:15:47 -0400)

Amid the dark, ghastly history of World War II, the literally extraordinary story, never before fully researched by a historian, of how the Danish people banded together to save their fellow Jews from the Nazis - told through the remarkable unpublished diaries and documents of families forced to run for safety, leaving their homes and possessions behind, and of those who courageously came to their aid. While the bare facts of this exodus have been known for decades, astonishingly no full history of it has been written. Unfolding on a day-to-day basis, Countrymen brings together accounts written by individuals and officials as events happened, offering a comprehensive overview that underlines occupied Denmark's historical importance to Hitler as a prop for the model Nazi state and revealing the savage conflict among top Nazi brass for control of the country. This is a story of ordinary glory, of simple courage and moral fortitude that shines out in the midst of the terrible history of the twentieth century and demonstrates how it was possible for a small and fragile democracy to stand against the Third Reich.… (more)

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