When you mention the rescue of the Danish Jews to most people, they either look blank, or else reach into some mental corner and say “Oh yes … didn’t the King say the thing about the yellow armbands?” I first heard Victor Borge (I mean, saw him on television) tell the armband story, which goes: the Nazis told the King of Denmark all the Jews must wear yellow armbands, and the King replied, “Very well, but I too will wear a yellow armband and all my people will wear yellow armbands…” That is probably where this part of my new novel started for me. (I would say I was ten at the time.) The story isn’t true, as it turns out, but it’s a great story because it is true in spirit. When you look at Holocaust records of Jewish lives lost, you get numbers like 50,000 from this country, a million from that one … and from Denmark, I think the number is 219, of 7,000 Jews living in Denmark when the war began.
Germany occupied Denmark in April of 1940 and Hitler announced it would be his “Model Protectorate,” proof that he was very easy to get along with if you just stayed calm and went about your business. What the Germans got out of this was good PR, and Denmark’s pork and dairy products, which they needed more and more as the war went on. What Denmark got out of it (and it was far from an uncontroversial deal, even when the Germans were more or less keeping their side of the bargain) was relative peace and easier living than existed elsewhere in Europe. But the Danes had conditions, and first among them was that Jewish Danes were not to be marked or harassed or set apart in any way. And they were not, until September of 1943, when for reasons more of fighting for political advantage within the Nazi party than anything, someone decided to please Hitler by ordering them rounded up, on Friday night during Rosh Hashana when they would all be at home, sitting ducks. Except, by the time the pounding on the doors began, virtually all of the Danish Jews had disappeared. The story of how a country with almost no organized resistance movement spontaneously did what it did is literally thrilling.
Beginning with the armband story, and perhaps also the subsequent happy chance that Victor Borge’s daughter Sanna and I went to high school together and became lifelong friends, and a summer spent as an au pair in Denmark when I was eighteen, it became a story I wanted to understand so well that I could tell it effectively and with authority. The story of the Danish resistance has become the centerpiece of Leeway Cottage.
In this novel I’ve returned to the summer colony of Dundee, Maine (the fictional setting of my previous novel, More Than You Know) to portray a certain kind of American marriage, in which a rich provincial American wife, Annabelle Sydney Brant, never does learn (although the reader does) what she doesn’t understand about the inner life of her Danish-born husband, a gifted pianist named Laurus Moss. Separated for four years when Laurus joins a Danish revolt that becomes one of the great stories of World War II, their marriage lasts, as did so many in their generation, but whether it actually worked, and if so, how, becomes the mystery at the heart of their family.