Thursday, October 3, 2013

Bo Lidegaard's "Countrymen"

Bo Lidegaard, after a stellar career in the Danish Diplomatic Service and a stint as Permanent Undersecretary of State and National Security Adviser within the office of the Prime Minister, stepped away to become editor-in-chief of Denmark's most important newspaper, Politiken. His two previous books on Danish 20th century history have been both bestsellers in Denmark and winners of major literary and historical awards. Widely known to leading journalists around the world, he lives in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Lidegaard applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Countrymen, and reported the following:
Countrymen is about the escape of Danish Jews from Nazi persecution in September and October 1943. It is a unique history about a unique exemption from the Holocaust. The great majority of the Danish Jews managed to escape.

The book is cast in 14 chapters covering each one day. They are all based on documentation written that day, reflecting the concerns, actions and feelings of both the refugees, of the Nazis and those of the surrounding Danish community. By keeping so close to real time in 1943, the book reflects all the uncertainty, doubts and anxiety of those who lived through those crucial days.

Page 99 of the book accounts for events on Wednesday, September 29, 1943, three days before the action against the Jews were launched and thus at a point in time when most Danish Jews were still of two minds in regard to the rumors about an upcoming action. Were they for real or to be disregarded? Was it time to leave home – and if yes, where to go? Everyone sought answers to these questions and on page 99 a new subchapter, Bad Omens, opens introducing one of those who kept a diary at the critical juncture, the young lawyer, Bernhard Cohn, who was a nephew of Einar Cohn, a permanent secretary who was part of the non-political council governing Denmark at the time. The subchapter describes how Bernhard desperately sought contact with his uncle in order to get confirmation – or the opposite – of the rumors that an action was imminent:
Bad Omens

Permanent Secretary Einar Cohn had a nephew, a thirty-seven-year-old laywer, Bernhard Cohn, who also kept a diary during the critical days from September 29 to October 5. A few hours before the department secretaries’ meeting the nephew visited his uncle, to see if he had any updates about the swirling rumors:
“But Einar was Einar. He didn’t know a damned thing.... He was going to a meeting in the afternoon and promised to call me around 4 p.m.. Of course he didn’t call. I then turned to make a new call and was referred to a secretary, who informed me that he had greetings from Einar who said that he had nothing he could convey. So I was aware that it was for real.... I rushed home to find it in wild disarray.... 7:15 by car to the Mission Hotel in Colbjørnsensgade, where we went to bed very early.--I promised Ella that if something happened—the Germans would never get me alive. I do not think she understood what I meant. At night, the air-raid sirens, which didn’t add to the enjoyment.”
Further down page 99 we also get news on one of the recurrent figures of the narrative, another refugee, Poul Hannover, who begins to focus on one of the questions facing the future refugees: money. Again, the contemporary documentation is at the core of the account:
Poul Hannover also describes extensively in his diary for Wednesday, September 29, the many worries and the trial and error that filled the day, as he desperately tried to find a way to get to Sweden with his family. His diary also touches on a theme that was an inevitable part of the refugees’ concerns: money. It was clear that illegal transport to Sweden would cost money, and that there could be a need for a large amount of cash for the whole family to get out. How much was not known. Getting hold of cash was urgent.

For the wealthy another consideration was how best to cope with companies, investments, and personal assets. How could one protect, in haste, the family’s valuables? How much should be cashed in, and how much was transferable? To whom? And who should be authorized as caretaker during an absence of unknown length? How could one fulfill obligations and personal commitments in order not to default on future demands? The future was suddenly completely unpredictable, and it was vital to ensure the necessary liquidity--without resorting to a fire sale of anything that was easily marketable.
Learn more about Countrymen at the Knopf website.

--Marshal Zeringue