Remember How Danes Donned Yellow Stars To Protect the Jews? That Never Happened.
But a new play explores the equally amazing—and real—tale of how an SS chief foiled Hitler’s plan to exterminate the country’s Jews
Best was a lifelong member of the Nazi Party—as a teenager, he founded a chapter of the National Youth League—and a protégé of Heinrich Himmler. As second-in-command of the SS, he was also a close member of Hitler’s inner circle. Why would such a man have shown compassion toward Denmark’s Jews?
Margit, who worked in the family tailor shop many years later, knew the only way to verify Nathan’s story was to find Werner Best’s measurement card. She went to the bureau that housed all their customer records and pulled out a dusty shoebox labelled “1940-43.” Inside, amid hundreds of cards that had been hidden away for decades, was the one that sent a chill down her spine: It was labeled “Dr. Karl Rudolph Werner Best.”
But that left an unanswered question: Why would the Nazi plenipotentiary of Denmark, a lifelong Fascist, order the round-up of the Jews one day and then undermine his own operation the next? The answer, I believe, lies in the most human of all impulses: ambition.
Werner Best was nothing if not ambitious. As a Himmler favorite, he was being groomed for the very top of the SS, but an internal power struggle in 1939 resulted in his ouster by Reinhard Heydrich. Instead, Best was posted to France, where he took out his aggression on the French, earning his nickname and a reputation for ruthlessness. Berlin took notice and asked him to write a paper on how to maintain the Thousand Year Reich after “their inevitable victory.” His conclusion was simple: Each country should think that it remained an autonomous state under the auspices of a Nazi umbrella. When asked where this theory of the “ideal satellite state,” could be tested, Best immediately suggested Denmark.
At the end of 1942, Best arrived in Copenhagen and soon went about trying to prove this theory. But with the upswing of sabotage attacks in 1943 he was instructed by Berlin to deliver a statement to the Danish Resistance by making Denmark Judenrein. With limited German troops at his disposal, and fearing a civil uprising if he deported 8,000 Danes to certain death—probably rightly—he went about fulfilling Hitler’s order to the letter, although not in the spirit the fuhrer likely intended.
Best sent his naval attaché, Georg Duckwitz, to Sweden to arrange safe passage and accommodation for Denmark’s Jews. (Duckwitz would later become West Germany’s ambassador to Denmark in the 1950s and be awarded the honor of Righteous Amongst Gentiles for his part in the Danish Jewish rescue.) And then Best himself walked into a Jewish tailor’s shop in Copenhagen and warned my grandfather and his brother-in-law to leave—effectively saving their lives and by extension many more.
Ultimately, Denmark was temporarily emptied of Jews. But Best undermined his own operation not out of an altruistic desire to save human life, but out of a pragmatic need to maintain a stable status quo in occupied Denmark and prove his theory of preserving the Reich’s influence. His success depended on the willingness of the Danish people to save their Jewish neighbors—to refuse to see them as anything but fellow Danes. Maybe, that, in the end, is the true miracle of the Danish rescue.
Bodin Saphir’s new play The Tailor’s Tale, based on his grandfather’s story, will have a staged reading on Jan. 27 in New York City at Scandinavia House, directed by the Danish actor/director Kim Bodnia. Click here for more information.
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