There was a great deal of research to do for all aspects of this novel. As the husband in the novel is a musician, I have a shelf of technical books on musical training and biographies of pianists of the right period (My Husband Gabrilowitsch, by Mark Twain’s daughter Clara, was particularly useful.) As the novel spans the 20th century, I read my husband’s grandmother’s “Line-a-Day” diaries covering 1904 to 1947. The last seven years inadvertently record her failing mental powers and are increasingly painful to read, as she had been a bright, well-educated, merry and delightful woman. (Painful but useful.) My own memories kick in for the 50’s, but I’ve also collected American magazines from 1908 through the 50’s – The Big Chicken Barn in Hancock County, Maine, is my preferred research facility for social history. (Antiques and “collectibles” below, books and magazines above, and it is a big chicken barn.)
My first stop, when I began the Danish research in earnest, was the Borge family library, which Sanna Borge Feirstein shared with me. Victor Borge was a founder and guiding light of a lovely society called Thanks to Scandinavia, through which grateful Jews of all stripes, but very many Danish, provide scholarships for Scandinavian students as a way of thanking those countries for what they did in the autumn of 1943. Sanna gave me books of which there were duplicates in the family library, and lent me others, enabling me to track down my own copies on the internet although almost all were out of print. (At the time I started, search engines were such that you couldn’t find a book unless you already knew it existed. Now, blessedly, you can type in a key word or subject – Frøslev! Ravensbrück! – and find all kinds of things). So I started with Rescue in Denmark by Harold Flender, (a popular history published in 1963), October ’43, a monograph by Aage Bertelsen, one of the true heroes of the rescue, from about the same period (my copy seems to have been privately published by Thanks To Scandinavia and carries no date or copyright information) and the indispensable scholarly work by Leni Yahil, The Rescue of Danish Jewry, published in 1969. Online I located a copy of The Rescue of the Danish Jews, Moral Courage Under Stress, a collection of first person accounts edited by Leo Goldberger of NYU, and In Denmark it Could Not Happen, another first-person account, this time by Herbert Pundik, an evacuee. This was in some ways wildly confusing because various of the accounts contradicted each other about dates, and other matters, and since only Leni Yahil was a trained historian, there were often inconsistencies and gaps between causes and effects. One book said parenthetically that the only country besides Denmark that rescued all her Jews was Bulgaria. Bulgaria? Really? How? And if true, why does no one seem to know about it? Another source claimed that all Danish pleasure boats, even rowboats, had been ordered out of the water by the Nazis a month before the roundup of the Jews to prevent their escaping in them. One other book mentioned dry-docked pleasure boats but gave no time frame or source for the order. I wrote a key scene in such a way that I really needed to know, and I finally got the exact information by email from a helpful librarian in suburban Copenhagen … but I am ahead of myself.
Flender includes a sensational but incomplete account of Niels Bohrs’s part in the rescue, which he claimed to have from the source’s mouth, and Bohr himself endorses Bertelsen’s book, so I knew he was implicated. For the true, and astounding, account of what he actually did, which seems to be known at the moment by about three physicists, I turned to Niels Bohr’s Times in Physics, Philosophy and Polity, by his colleague, the scholar Abraham Pais, published by Oxford Press in 1991. For information about the operations of Churchill’s Strategic Operations Executive (SOE) and its Danish Section, I found online Secret Alliance, by Jorgen Haestrup, published in Danish by Odense University in 1976, and in English by NYU. However it is a book in three volumes and though I thought I had bought all three, only the first arrived and in all of Amazon US and Amazon UK I could not find vols. 2 or 3 in English. Anguished howls. (When I reported this to Amazon, they said they were sorry about the misrepresentation, and could not for love or money provide the missing volumes, but would take back the one I had and give me my money back … I explained that this would not help.)
In March of 2003, after I had finished a first draft of the novel so that I really knew what I needed to see for myself, we went to Denmark. At the Resistance Museum I bought their last English language copy of a great fat volume called No Small Achievement, Special Operations Executive and the Danish Resistance, 1940-1945 by Knud J.V. Jespersen published by the University of Southern Denmark Press in 2002, which covers the same ground as Haestrup, but completely and with a great deal of new material not available in the 70’s. (Rejoicing.) We went to all the important sites that crop up in my telling, up the north coast to Gilleleje, down to the German border to see Frøslev, and much in between. Most important, a friend of the Borge family arranged for us to meet his cousin, Henrik Glahns, who had been head of the Student Union at the University of Copenhagen during the war. His first words were “Now, I’m no hero …” Both Henrik and his father had been arrested and held for Resistance activities; his father, a Lutheran minister no longer young, ended up at Froslev. He’d been caught hiding Jews in his crypt. Equally valuable, Henrik’s cousin Lars Lindeberg, a scholar of the period (though he was a child during the occupation) gave me some books and lent me others never published in English, pictorial accounts much like the Time/Life series here, which I carried home to study at leisure.
After about a month with these volumes and a fat Danish-English Dictionary, I gave up, and through the Borge family acquired the perfect translator, Aase Van Dyke. She had been a girl in Denmark when the war broke out, and remembered a great deal personally and vividly, but she has lived her adult life in New England, having married an American. Her English is perfect and colloquial, but she could answer cross-cultural questions like: is American high school exactly analogous to Danish Gymnasium? Answer: no. With explanation. Could such and such a character have a baker for a father? Again no, Danish society was not nearly as fluid as America’s, at least at that time. Most important, we paged through the pictorial histories of the Occupation, with Aase (pronounced OH-seh) translating the captions for me. It turned out that I had deciphered many of them correctly, but still misunderstood, because Danes are so reflexively ironic and funny that many times the captions were jokes meaning the opposite of what they seemed to. Aase lent me more books from her library, as well as putting me in touch with the extremely helpful Danish research librarian, who was apparently happy to hunt down the answer to any question. (When were all the pleasure boats ordered out of the water? The day before the round-up. Thank you very much…)
By that time, either via the internet or through Scandinavia House here in New York, I had found a number of other important volumes, including a scholarly book called The Bitter Years about the Danish and Norwegian occupations, and a monograph on the underground newspapers during the occupation, which included the wonderful fact that I couldn’t find a place for in the novel, that the official, censored, Danish papers would sometimes print an article double-spaced, as a way of saying Read Between the Lines. Also, a wonderful memoir by a Danish-American who was a one-man resistance cell during the war, but has lived ever after in America and wants his grandchildren to know what it felt like to grow up Danish, starting with what, as a child, he ate for breakfast. Pure gold to a novelist. Also, by that time I had the advice and assistance of Alexandra von Moltke Isles, a documentary filmmaker here in New York whose father, Bobby von Moltke, played an important role as a courier between SOE and the Danish Resistance. Alexandra has made a fine documentary, The Power of Conscience, on the topic for Danish Television which was very helpful, and she has answered many questions, and steered me to the amazing story of Monica Wichfeld, surely one of the most surprising martyrs of the Danish Resistance.
Finally, there was the Ravensbrück piece. I had learned at Frøslev, the Nazi work camp within the Danish borders that opened in 1944, that when the Danish Resistance fighters were sent east (which they were in very great numbers, unlike the Danish Jews), the women went to Ravensbrück, an all-woman labor camp north of Berlin. (All-woman concentration camp? How had I never heard of that?) Since women behave differently from men, the details of camp life there were bound to be different from, say Auschwitz or Buchenwald, of which so much can be known. It took some doing – much less has been published about Ravensbrück than some other camps, perhaps because it was all women, or because it was until very close to the end a “work” camp rather than a death camp, although working prisoners to death was the order in either. But through the Internet, and through Vebe Borge, I finally found a monograph by a Polish Resistance fighter, and survivor of gruesome experiments, named Wanda Poltawska, very well-written, plus a fine work by a trained French historian, Germaine Tillion, also a Ravensbrück survivor plus a very good survivor account by Charles de Gaulle’s niece, and finally some volumes from a strange little series of first-person holocaust accounts that come in red bindings with swastikas on the spine.
With the first person accounts, especially those written long after the fact by people who are neither scholars nor writers, it was necessary to find at least two sources for practically every detail, but I am confident that I have, at last, made as authentic a picture of what it was like to be at Ravensbrück, what happened there and when, as is possible. (The camp officials destroyed all their records and tore down the gas chamber as the Russians approached, and they did their best to kill all who had worked in the killing jar, trying to eliminate witnesses at coming war crimes trials, which leaves the evidence of the final months there very sketchy.)
I have posted a complete bibliography on my website so that anyone interested can pursue the subjects. It would be misleading to give notes or sources in a novel but I feel as sure of my facts as it is possible to be without quitting my day job to be full-time scholar of the period, and those who want to be sure I didn’t make all of it up ought to be reassured. And while I was at it, although there is no place for it at all in this novel or any other I may write, I am also prepared to explain to a wondering world that it is also true that Bulgaria saved virtually all of her Jews, about 50,000. It cost the king his life, but …
Young novelists may write what they know, but at my age the pleasure lies in writing what you want an excuse to learn about.