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Countrymen

The Final Solution loomed over Denmark's Jews in 1943, but their nation was not prepared to give them up.

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Lidegaard captures the helplessness of the Danish caretaker bureaucracy – to call it a government, after Germany implemented martial law and dissolved the administration of Erik Scavenius would be overstepping – which at one point, as a gesture of appeasement, offered to take charge of Jewish internment. Fortunately, the officials came to their senses upon considering that the Germans would do whatever they wanted with the internees. Lidegaard also wends his way through the sinuosities of Danish politics and the struggles between the Social Democrats and the Communists who led many of the underground groups.

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And there are the Germans and their quislings, from the military commander to the SS plenipotentiary, from the soldier on the street to the sad business of Denmark's homegrown Gestapo. They are a difficult, fluid group, both predictable and hypocritical, riddled with conflicting interests. Perhaps not so surprisingly, there are snakes in the German grass, self-serving to be sure but the kind of snakes with which one might be glad to share the grass, as they were willing to part with crucial, confidential information, some of it even true. The overarching problem for the Nazis, Lidegaard drums home time and again, is that their ideology fell on indignant ears and roused popular revulsion: the Nazis needed "understanding and support that would give the crime an aura of necessity and justice.... Public participation was therefore not only a practical condition for implementation [of the roundup and deportation]; its support was also a prerequisite for the leading Nazis' daring to set the atrocities in motion." The Danes begged to differ, then actively took a stand. In response, the Nazis took a step back – not a giant step, but consequential enough to save lives.

The Jewish exodus from Denmark – nearly  8,000 souls on the move – was only what one would imagine: chaotic, full of uncertainties, disappointments, and dread. There are many cheering instances of sanctuary and open arms for the refugees: The butcher gave safe harbor, and so did the fishmonger, professor, stable owner, farmer, grocer, and widow, in haylofts and belfries and front parlors. It has been said that the Germans occupiers may have been looking the other way, that it was time to start covering their butts as the tide of war turned, especially the Wehrmacht and the civilian police, who had every reason to distance themselves from the shuddering abominations of the security and political police. Not all of the occupiers worried about the reckoning, however. That would have been too tidy. People died during the evacuations, some from despair, some from German bullets. Some would die later, after capture and deportation to camps. Not as many as might have been. The Danes kept track of those sent to camps and hectored the Germans to provide care and, on rare occasions, release. Most of the Danes sent to camps survived.

At the end, Lidegaard works a grim brilliance on the nightly embarkations from Danish ports to refuge in Sweden. Wednesday, September 29th, after the Gestapo left the port of Gilleleje to the dark: "The once so peaceful seaside resort, now sitting there quietly in autumn, with almost empty streets, was suddenly full of life. In a moment all the house doors sprang open  and Jews flowed out of almost every house. In an instant the whole main street was full of people, women and men, from the youngest toddlers to gray-haired old men, poor and rich – all on the run." Then to Sweden, and how life can turn on a dime: "Solid ground under the feet, friendly soldiers," wrote one refugee. Friendly soldiers! A miracle, if it hadn't required so much luck and work.

Did every Dane do the right thing? No. Some doors were bolted. A ship captain would gouge a refugee. The interim bureaucracy truckled. There were turncoats and collaborators. Lidegaard doesn't duck these disgraces. But step back and let the greater moment become the theme, and marvel at its bracing display of defiance and community in the midst of nightmare.

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