Saturday, August 10, 2013

Book Review 295: A Conspiracy of Decency

A CONSPIRACY OF DECENCY: The Rescue of the Danish Jews during World War II, by Emmy E. Werner. 212 pages, illustrated. Westview, $26

Three countries did a good job of protecting their Jews from the Nazis -- Bulgaria, Italy and Denmark. All were nations that the Germans were anxious, for one reason or another, to conciliate, up to a point.

Emmy Werner’s “A Conspiracy of Decency” depicts Denmark as ready, at first, to be conciliated. Students rebelled early but the establishment was prepared to cooperate. But as the Germans cleared Jews out of other parts of Europe, eventually even equivocal havens like Denmark were targeted.

Werner notes that timing was crucial to the success of the Danish rescue. The Germans did not start demanding anti-Jewish measures until late in 1943, by which time it was obvious that Germany was in decline. Both Danes and Swedes were emboldened. (The Swedes withdrew transit rights  for German troops to move to Norway.)

And, it appears, the Germans occupying Denmark had a lively appreciation of how soft their war was (many were convalescing from injuries suffered in  Russia); so they were disposed not to interfere.

However, it took the courage of one man, a German shipping executive, Georg Duckwitz, to tip off the Danes.

With only hours to react, the Danish resistance was able to hide and then evacuate nearly all the Jews. There were only about 7,000, almost entirely assimilated.

Werner, a psychologist, is more interested in individual stories than in government policies, and she notes that later studies suggested that personal knowledge strongly affected responses. Danish Jews had never lived in ghettos and had had civil rights for 130 years. This explanation goes only a little way. German Jews were deeply assimilated, too.

However that may be, the Danish response was unique. Nowhere else did returning Jews come back to apartments that had not only been preserved but cleaned and painted, and sometimes freshened with cut flowers.

Many of them anyway.

It seems to have had something to do with hyggelig, a Danish word and aspiration to a life that is cheerful, comfortable and cozy.

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