Book Review: “Countrymen” by Bo Lidegaard

You know what happened to people like the Romani (gypsies), communists, the Jews, and others the Nazis didn’t like. In occupied countries, such groups were deported and destroyed. But did you know that a few occupied countries ensured nearly their complete Jewish population survived?

At a recent meeting of one of the readers’ groups I’m a member of, someone recommended reading “Countrymen” by Danish author Bo Lidegaard. She said it was a must read. Like so many, she had been unaware that practically the complete Danish Jewish population had survived the Second World War.

Having visited Denmark, I had heard about this. In fact, while in Denmark, I had joined one of many bus tours from Copenhagen, to visit “Hamlet’s” castle in Helsingor.

Somewhere along the lovely Strandvej, we stopped at a small fishing village. There were quays and a sandy beach. It was early October, but the weather was lovely and the Sound very calm.

Some went sight-seeing in the small village. A few went for a walk on the small, secluded beach. One person walked off, away from the group. He knelt, took a hand of sand, then looked across the water to Sweden. It was obvious he was dealing with something personal and important. Later I heard he was a tourist from Israel.

So when I heard “Countrymen” described how the Danish Jewish population got out of Denmark during the Second World War, I searched for a copy. I knew the headline and nothing more.

Bo Lidegaard’s book gives the story and details. The book was published in Danish in 2013, and translated and published into English the same year. By now, it is available in other languages as well.

The book reconstructs what happened in Denmark during September and October 1943. It also describes the country as it was well before the Second World War and what happened after the war.

It is a factual reconstruction, a historical account. But it is not a dry history book. Its sources include official documents and personal diaries, letters, accounts and photos, many of which are used in this book.

There are also short paragraphs which go into the background of events or people. So there are descriptions of the power struggles between Berlin and among various Nazis in Denmark like the manipulative Werner Best. The background of the horrid Gestapo Juhl is included. Of course, there are similar descriptions of Danish politicians, officials, Jewish leaders, and others.

There are the national and international historic background and through it the personal history of Adoph Meyer and family members like Inger and Poul Hannover, Kis and Gunnar Marcus, and the children Allan, Mette, Dorte and Palle. Their diaries and other writings give a good impression of what it is like to live in an occupied country, to suddenly become refugees, to be on the run, to reach safety.

It’s dreadful to read how unprepared everybody was. Both because there had been so many false alarms, as well as it being so difficult for decent people to come to terms with evil and deal with it. Even though most knew what deportation meant and what was going on in other occupied countries, the majority needs time to accept a new brutal reality.

It’s great to read how many helping hands there were. It was shocking to read crucial help had a price. It reminded me of my experiences with refugee kids and human trafficking. Yet it is impossible to condemn those who asked for money from fleeing people. As the author points out: if caught they faced being shot, being deported, sometimes they were forced to flee as well.

It remains impressive to read that a whole fishing village was willing to take risks, asking nothing in return. It remains upsetting to read what happened to detained communists, the elderly from a Jewish care home, the few caught, or about a priest standing at a sick-bed telling the Jewish patient Jews were responsible for Jezus’ death.

This book raises a few questions as well. Denmark and the Danes got practically all their Jewish countrymen to safety. They were one of the few occupied countries to do so.

Bo Lidegaard and others think this has partly to do with Denmark’s situation. Another factor may have been that the whole Danish population simply absolutely refused to buy into a “them and us” attitude. They were one people and totally refuted the Nazi idea that groups of a population could be a problem which needed a drastic and horrid solution.

If the Danish example of standing united and firm, played such a major part in preventing a horrifying ethnic cleansing, what does this say about the populations of other occupied countries? The country where Anne Frank and Etty Hillesum lived whose writings we can still read, a country which now prides itself for being extremely tolerant, also has one of the highest percentages of Jewish countrymen killed during the Second World War.

Moreover, if standing firm and united like the Danes plays such an important part in preventing ethnic cleansing, what does this imply about us, our attitude, our world, where we know ethnic cleansing takes place in numerous places.

The readers’ group member was totally right: Bo Lidegaard’s “Countrymen” is a must read and not only for those interested in history.

For a Youtube interview with Bo Lidegaard: Countrymen

Countrymen – Denmark’s wonder, Bo Lidegaard, Knopf, New York, 2013.
Available in Danish, English, and other languages.

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