Hour of Need: The Dar­ing Escape of the Dan­ish Jews dur­ing World War II: A Graph­ic Novel

  • Review
By – January 8, 2024

The sur­vival of Denmark’s small Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion dur­ing World War II is often regard­ed with awe. In the rest of Nazi-occu­pied Europe, Jews suf­fered intense per­se­cu­tion and, ulti­mate­ly, anni­hi­la­tion — some­times at the hands of local col­lab­o­ra­tors. Yet in Den­mark, nine­ty per­cent of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty sur­vived, hav­ing been pro­tect­ed by a large seg­ment of the Dan­ish people.

While Ralph Shayne and Tatiana Goldberg’s graph­ic nov­el con­tains fic­tion­al­ized ele­ments, it is large­ly based on the expe­ri­ences of Shayne’s moth­er. It’s an ambi­tious nar­ra­tive that describes how one group of Jews made it through the war.

Hour of Need opens with a group of Dan­ish gov­ern­ment offi­cials con­fronting the impend­ing inva­sion of their coun­try. Shayne points out that many Danes, whose cul­ture is famous for its fairy tales, believed in a fan­ta­sy of their own: that they could coex­ist with their Nazi occu­piers. They were con­stant­ly talk­ing among them­selves, ques­tion­ing whether even min­i­mal coop­er­a­tion with the ene­my could be jus­ti­fied. Some of them became rad­i­cal­ized and joined resis­tance movements.

The book alter­nates between two eras in Den­mark: the 1940s and 2000s. Mette, a Dan­ish Jew­ish woman who now lives in Amer­i­ca, returns to vis­it Den­mark, bring­ing her two grand­chil­dren with her. The trip allows Mette to give the next gen­er­a­tion an accu­rate his­tor­i­cal account of his­to­ry. She explains that, ear­ly in her child­hood, she enjoyed a sense of secu­ri­ty. It was only lat­er, when her father revealed to her that their fam­i­ly is Jew­ish, that every­thing changed. Her father wasn’t par­tic­u­lar­ly reli­gious him­self, but he some­times attend­ed syn­a­gogue to lis­ten … and belong.”

Shayne rais­es ques­tions about the moral choic­es avail­able to indi­vid­u­als in 1940s Den­mark. He treats every tru­ism about why Danes behaved dif­fer­ent­ly than oth­er Euro­peans with a degree of skep­ti­cism, with­out dimin­ish­ing the nobil­i­ty of their actions. He also acknowl­edges that those who helped pro­tect the Jews did so in dif­fer­ent ways. Some Danes demand­ed a fee for trans­port­ing Jews to Swe­den in their fish­ing boats, while oth­ers refused com­pen­sa­tion, or even cred­it, for their help. One Ger­man offi­cial, Georg Fer­di­nand Duck­witz, under­mined Nazi pol­i­cy by alert­ing Jews about their immi­nent depor­ta­tion. And Rab­bi Mar­cus Mel­chior urged his Copen­hagen con­gre­ga­tion to flee instead of observ­ing Rosh Hashanah.

Rather than focus­ing exclu­sive­ly on their res­cuers, Shayne depicts Jews in a way that gives them agency. Hour of Need is a sto­ry about how the Dan­ish peo­ple enabled the sur­vival of Jews like Mette. It is also about a fam­i­ly who near­ly lost their Jew­ish iden­ti­ty — but didn’t.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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