In October 1943, the Nazis gave the order to round up all Danish Jews for export to concentration camps. But unlike most of their European counterparts, the Danes warned their Jewish community, hid Jews in their own attics, and then helped them escape to Sweden. A German member of the Nazi party, who had spent most of his adult life in Denmark, made the arrangements with the reluctant Swedish government.
More than 7,500 - almost the entire Jewish population in Denmark - thus escaped the ghastly designs of the Nazis. And when they returned home after the war, they found that their businesses and homes had been watched over by friends and neighbors, their pets had been cared for, and their gardens tended. This true story is the subject of the TV movie "Miracle at Midnight," the last offering this season of "The Wonderful World of Disney" (airs Sunday, 7-9 p.m., on ABC).
Producer John Davis ("The Firm," "Grumpy Old Men," "Courage Under Fire") has been holding the script for eight years. It is not, as he points out, typical television fare. But his father-in-law came from Denmark and had been 16 at the time the evacuation took place. "He hid Jews in the attic," says Mr. Davis. "It was scary and tense, but the Danes treated the Jews as their brothers, which was very unusual in Europe.... I thought, here was a country that stood against the tide. Someone needs to congratulate them."
So many Danes participated in the historical event that when Davis sent researchers to Denmark, they had no trouble coming up with Dr. Karl Koster (played with earnest gentility by Sam Waterston) - a physician who used his hospital to preserve lives and his ambulances to move refugees to the coast.
But one of the great heroes of the story is Koster's wife, Doris (Mia Farrow), whose first impulse is to preserve her own family first. When, however, she comes to see how great the need, how big the issues, and how immediate the danger to her friends and neighbors, she does the right thing. And it is only Doris who is arrested, diverting the Nazis from her husband and children.
"We can understand a woman protecting her family," says Davis, "but she was able to come around and understand what it all meant, and then herself become selfless."
When "Schindler's List" aired on TV, it was accompanied by a warning to parents. But Davis intended his film as family fare, so scenes of violence are kept to a bare minimum. There are no images of sadism, and much more of evil is implied than shown.
The made-for-TV format tends to fit best with more intimate tales, so Davis has kept the story simple, the characters broadly drawn (though always engaging), and the moral direct. And it is so great a story that many families will find it moving - an opportunity for discussion about human responsibility in the face of evil.
"I think when you have kids you understand a lot about what's important and what the meaning of life is," Davis says, explaining why he chooses to make films about the triumphs of the human spirit. He hopes that young people will learn something valuable from "Miracle at Midnight."
"We have to remember history," he says. "We have to be vigilant. At the same time, the news media focuses on what's horrible in human nature.... I think people are good and want to do good. But they have to understand that they can do good."
Davis holds the Danes up as an example of how people can and should behave. "There are pockets of humanity we look to to set the tone for the future - to say that [moral courage] is in the human spirit and certain people embody those values.... The Danes exhibited superior character. I wanted people to know that."