Tuesday, October 8, 2013
The Angelic Avenger
A few years ago, on a whim, I created one of those pages on that Facebook thing that everyone was talking about back then, and in short order - in what I'm sure is an experience familiar to many Gentle Readers - I was suddenly surrounded, virtually, by a raft of people I hadn't seen (nor, often, thought of) in a decade or three.
Then life got complicated, for various reasons, and I more or less abdicated from the Internet for a while (as some hereabouts may recall). It was not a nice time, but as these things do, it passed. And when it did, I went back to that Facebook page. I found, to my surprise, that things had gone on in my absence just as they usually did. The only real surprise was that some of the more familiar old names had apparently had enough of my ghostly (non)presence and decamped - unfriended, what an unlovely word. Those who were left behind were therefore all the more motley a crew, and it's been rather interesting, since then, seeing what's become of them, with a great deal of the midstory, as it were, missing. One devoted couple is now apparently no more, as she goes on at great length about her small child, but nary a word about her erstwhile husband except the occasional sharing of something snarky about the No Goodness of Men (preach, sister!). Another oldie, once a golden boy, is now a creaky older man, still it seems intrigued by danger but by no means as comely these days in a pair of chaps. Time in its flight...
But what, you ask, has all this to do with the distinguished lady above, she who is various known as the Baroness Blixen-Finecke, Karen, Isak Dinesen, Tanne? Well, it is (as she might have relished), a story...
One of the left behinds, you see, is another onetime acquaintance of college days, remembered, frankly, as a rather dull follower-along, one of the younger set as we were graduating, with a pleasant fringe of black bangs and a nice way of appreciating one's jokes, but not otherwise terribly memorable. Today, as you might expect, he is older, and the bangs are a great deal further back, but the great surprise is that he would seem to have developed into a genuinely admirable man: thoughtful, reflective, funny, and wry. I couldn't be more surprised, but his posts on Facebook are a reason to check in regularly (one among a number, I should add - no hurt feelings, please!). Which brings us to the Baroness.
Today, you see, he reminded us that this October marks the 70th anniversary of one of the most remarkable incidents in the horror that was the Second World War, a rare moment of light and hope in a period of unparalleled darkness. It was a tale of its own, one that allowed Karen Blixen, along with thousands of her countrymen, to demonstrate to the world that her philosophy of courage and conviction in the face of evil was no mere authoristic pose.
In the late summer of 1943, the hitherto light-handed Nazi occupation of Denmark shifted to more direct control, and the tacit agreements that had kept the country's small Jewish population - some 8,000 all told - safe vanished as quickly as only promises from Fascists can. The Danes, however, did not follow the path of other occupied nations - from France to Bulgaria - and stand idly by. As September turned into October and the inevitable loomed ever closer, plans were developed, by Jews and Gentiles alike (and often in tandem). When the axe fell, during the early days of October, the occupiers found... empty houses. Bare apartments. Moved, no forwarding address. What had happened, as the word spread, was a combination of careful plotting and spontaneous generosity. Warnings were read from the synagogues, and neighbors phoned friends to suggest that now might be a good time for a quick trip to the countryside. With a few exceptions - some captured, some fewer overlooked - the Jewish population of Denmark was spirited away, mostly to isolated places on the coast and so on via boat to Sweden.
And Karen Blixen played her part. Her rambling manor outside Copenhagen, Rungstedlund, was conveniently placed for the journey across the water and moreover had ample hiding place. On the day that the word first came that deportations were imminent, she used the cover of a literary meeting to start laying her plans, and soon after made her kitchen keys available to useful friends. "There were Jews in the kitchen and Nazis in the garden," she said later, recounting with relish her joy, when the Germans wanted to search her house, at holding them off at the door, "taunting them with sarcasm and rude insults." Nonetheless (or perhaps because of her asperity), "They adored me," she told Truman Capote, "We argued, but they didn't care what I said...besides they had no idea I was hiding Jews in my cellar, along with winter apples and cases of Champagne."
Altogether, all but 500 of the Danish Jews were saved, and of those, only 51 died at Theresienstadt (thanks to the firm attention paid by the Danish Red Cross despite the occupation) and a few over 100 all told.
It's a story that can easily be sentimentalized, but even stripped of any sugar coating (it's only a myth, alas, that King Christian X and all of Danish high society wore the yellow star), it's a remarkable story, one that, in the words of Blixen's masterful biographer, Judith Thurman, is about "an idea of honor, a pride shared by an entire people in their own humanity. They would not stand aside and see it violated."
As the war dragged on, in addition to taunting Nazis, Blixen found another way to keep herself busy: she wrote her only novel. The Angelic Avengers is a deceptively frivolous yarn, the story of two pretty sisters, Lucan and Zosine, who find themselves unwilling wards of that nemesis of so much Victorian melodrama, white slavers. The story ends happily, the villain vanquished and the heroines married to sympathetic aristocrats (better, one hopes, than their author's rather boorish Baron). It's easy to see in the sisters' plight the story of Denmark itself. That more than 7,000 Danes lived to see the happy ending is, at least in some small way testimony to the spirit of a writer who didn't for a moment hesitate to live up to her own ideals.
So brava to the Baroness, and thanks to my unlikely Facebook friend for reminding me, at a moment when it seems particularly valuable to remember, that nations can, when called upon, behave well. That likelihood seems rather dim right now, I know, but there is hope. And sometimes you find it on Facebook. Who'd have thought it?