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.