To be published in August 2023 by Scarlet Tanager Books
When grave family misfortune leaves thirteen-year-old Terry Sayre without parents or relatives to care for him in the summer of 1939, his only option to elude foster care by strangers is to accept asylum abroad with his mother’s Danish kin, people he met only briefly as a child. Despondent but not given to self-pity, Terry begins life anew sheltered in his formidable grandparents’ home in a coastal town an hour’s drive from Copenhagen, Denmark’s capital. But within months of his arrival, the Second World War breaks out. Serving as the emotional prism through which that monumental struggle is refracted, Terry’s older self recounts his precarious coming of age as an alien marooned in a disconcerting new land throughout its long national nightmare – an ordeal none of his peers was enduring back home safe in America.
Spared the savage treatment Nazi Germany dealt other countries it conquered, Denmark was allowed to remain nominally self-governing. Good fortune, though, did not allow the proud, peaceloving little kingdom to escape the toll the war took on its people’s collective soul. Fearful of openly resisting or secretly harassing the German occupation at risk of lethal reprisals, Denmark made a complicitous pact with its tormentors to feed and equip their armed forces. As a result, the Danes suffered from self-hatred at home and contempt abroad as a land of shameless collaborators bartering their country’s honor to survive the war unbloodied.
Hamlet’s Children by Richard Kluger is the story of a young American’s wrenching assimilation with his Danish relatives and their friends and of how he is pinioned in the same cruel vise with his adopted countrymen as they cunningly attempt to subvert the Germans’ iron grip on their kingdom. Paramount on this agenda of defiance is the Danes’ persistent effort to keep their Jewish neighbors out of the Nazis’ murderous hands. Vibrant with memorable characters and fraught with tension, this artfully crafted narrative, both heartbreaking and uplifting, is a testament to the human spirit in its bleakest hours.
Q. I like the title of your novel, but I’m not sure I get it. Everyone who’s ever read or seen Hamlet knows he didn’t have any children – he was killed before the end. So what children do you mean? And why bring Hamlet into it at all – aren’t you just trying to rip off Shakespeare?
A. Oh, for sure – and who better? It sounds as if you didn’t doze off when your high school English class was reading the play.
Okay – I name-drop Hamlet for two reasons. First, even though he’s a fictional creation, Hamlet is certainly the most famous Dane ever, and my story takes place in Denmark during probably its darkest – and longest – hour, its five-year occupation by the Germans during World War II. Sure, that was four or five hundred years after Hamlet’s troubles – Shakespeare doesn’t actually date the events in his play – but there’s an obvious historical parallel I felt free to point out. Among the many famous lines in the play is the comment in Act I by Prince Hamlet’s good buddy Horatio that “There’s something rotten in the state of Denmark.” He was referring mainly to the swift seizure of the throne by Hamlet’s uncle Claudius after the suspicious death of the king and his Mom the Queen’s scandalously – and equally – swift marriage to her brother-in-law. In my novel, as one of the characters comments, what’s rotten in Denmark, of course, is the presence of the goosestepping German occupation forces who grabbed their peaceloving little neighbor without provocation – and with hardly a shot fired by the Danes to fend off the invaders. So I’m of course indulging in literary license by referring to the captive twentieth-century Danes as Hamlet’s progeny.
Q. The modern Danes don’t sound very heroic – why set your story in Denmark of all places during World WarII if they didn’t even fight back?
A. Ah, but that’s the point of my story. Little Denmark’s experience at the hands of a murderous enemy with insuperable power was unique among Europe’s conquered peoples. In fact, no nation seized by the Axis forces during World War II shed less blood or suffered lighter physical devastation than Denmark. No battle was ever fought on its soil nor did the Danes go hungry, barefoot or homeless during the long conflict. Their relative good fortune did not extend, however, to the toll taken on the collective Danish soul and psyche.
Q. That still doesn’t explain why they didn’t fight back in the first place or are worth admiring. After abjectly surrendering, why didn’t they at least organize an active resistance movement until more than three years had passed?
A. They didn’t fight back when the Germans overran them with a land, sea and air assault because the Danes had chosen after the First World War – during which they remained neutral and thus escaped the Germans’ wrath – to disband virtually all their military forces. They believed wars were an idiotic way to settle international disputes, and they preferred to spend their tax revenues on education, healthcare, and other quality-of-life benefits than on guns and bombs. Besides, Germany had been defanged by the Versailles Treaty, and who else would want to conquer Denmark? It wasn’t a threat to any of their neighbors. And the Danes had a peace treaty with Germany – at the Germans’ insistence, by the way – which turned out to mean nothing to Hitler when he decided Denmark’s strategic location had to be seized so that the Allies couldn’t land there as a springboard into the heart of the Third Reich.
Q. So the Germans betrayed the Danes?
A. Big time – and made them, at gunpoint, feed the German army and homeland and help keep their war machinery in good repair.
Q. But couldn’t the Danes have resisted in clandestine ways?
A. Now you’re getting into the heart of my novel. For their bargain with the devil to service the Nazi occupation and thereby survive unscathed amidst the conflict raging all around them in Europe, Denmark came to be perceived by many among the watching Allies as a de facto collaborator with Hitler’s onslaught against civilization. And of course many Danes, proud of their prewar reputation as a humane society devoted to social justice and equality for even the humblest of its citizens, were humiliated and anguished by their apparent cowardice in captivity.
Q. But didn’t even their king tell them – I read in one of your early chapters – not to fight back?
A. Not quite. He urged his subjects not to resist openly, by force, but to comply with the invaders’ commands so long as the Nazis agreed to let the Danes keep their own government and economy intact. The king’s hope was that the Danes would outlast the Nazi nightmare and preserve their national honor –
Q. But how was it honorable to be complicit with the Nazis’ demands?
A. On the surface, yes – they were grudgingly complicit. But however despondent and guilt-ridden they may have been for doing the Germans’ bidding, the Danes weren’t suicidal – any more than Hamlet. For all his despair, he never seriously considered taking his own life. His modern-day descendants knew that if they openly resisted their bloodthirsty captors, there would have been lethal mass reprisals – and gained the Danes nothing except perhaps kinder press notices in London and Washington. So they stayed the course, like their King Christian X, and unlike the royal rulers of Norway and the Netherlands who fled into exile. The Danish monarch showed his disdain for the invaders by regularly riding out around Copenhagen alone on his horse and not returning the salutes of the enemy soldiers as he passed them by. His people, though, could ventilate their enmity for the Germans only by covert defiance – by guile and stealth, just as Hamlet did – or tried to – without losing faith in their own decency.
Q. And just how did the modern Danes manage to do that?
A. I’m afraid you’ll have to read Hamlet’s Children to find out. But perhaps the Danes’ most recognized gesture of defiance was not to accept the Germans’ pathological anti-Semitism under Hitler’s incitement. The Danish government, starting with the king himself, insisted that the invaders leave Denmark’s small Jewish population alone – not ghettoize and then exterminate them as the Nazis were doing elsewhere throughout Europe. “Our Jewish citizens, for whatever your addled reasons, may seem deplorable creatures to you,” the Danes told their conquerors in so many words, “but to us they are our honorable and equal countrymen,” so hands off them, otherwise our whole country, outgunned as we are, will rise up in rebellion against you. To the Nazis, it seemed a small concession in return for keeping the productive Danes at bay.
Q. I’ve heard that to show sympathy with his Jewish subjects, the king appeared in public wearing an armband with the Star of David, as the Germans required of Jews elsewhere.
A. It’s true that King Christian was not only tolerant of Judaism and its adherents but honored them by, for example, attending the centennial celebration of the country’s largest synagogue, in Copenhagen, a few years before the war began. But I’m afraid accounts of his wearing an armband displaying a Jewish star are without historical foundation. He was not into poking a stick in the schweinhunds’ eyes. But once the tide of war began turning irreversibly against the Nazis, they chose in the fall of 1943 to round up the Jewish Danes and deport them to death camps, all bets were off. The Danes, as my novel narrates, defied their captors in one of history’s noblest humanitarian episodes. And for the rest of the war, the unleashed Danish resistance movement raised havoc openly, loosening the Germans’ iron grip.
Q. Agonizing as the Danes’ dilemma may have been, why should American readers of today care about the wartime travail of those you call Hamlet’s children? Denmark is a small country – and, as you say, the Danes didn’t suffer all that much, at least not physically –
A. My story takes place in Denmark, but it’s intended to serve as a parable. What happened to the Danes can happen anywhere, anytime, especially if a society lets down its guard and fails to protect its liberty in the wishful belief that the world is populated largely by benign or benevolent people like themselves. The trusting Danes lost their freedoms, if not their lives or all their comforts, to a ferocious foreign power – and today’s Americans, if they similarly drop their vigil, are at risk of losing their democracy to domestic malcontents irrationally blaming their frustrations on anybody but themselves. My book’s underlying question is how can and should decent, kindhearted people confront and deter unreasoning, nihilist ruthlessness without abandoning civility and becoming monstrous themselves.
Q. But you’ve chosen to cloak your story specifically in Nazi regalia – the villains are almost all arrogant, heel-clicking Germans and swastika flags are flying all over. Why, almost a century after Hitler came to power, do you think his – and his mesmerized supporters – still have such a lasting hold on the world’s conception of what pure villainy is? We’ve had a lot of tyrants and dictators since then, and authoritarian rulers continue to seize and hold power.
A. I don’t think that’s much of a mystery. The scale of the Nazis’ barbarism has gone unmatched in recorded history. Millions were killed because of the Germans’ lunatic quest for territorial dominion, innocent civilian casualties even more than combatants – the Holocaust against the Jews and Gypsies being the most blatant example. And the physical destruction was exponentially greater than the world has seen, before or since. There was nothing nuanced about the Nazis’ evil. Consider, by contrast, the other mass conflicts Americans have engaged in. Our own Civil War was a ghastly blood-letting that took far more American lives than World War II, but the losers claimed to be fighting to preserve their own nakedly racist notion of freedom and charged the rest of the Union with having long been complicit in allowing their “peculiar institution” to flourish. In our wars against the spread of communism, we faced a global movement that claimed – albeit by imposing its will through force and crushing all dissent – to be more just and humane than capitalist democracy. In our ongoing interface with Islam, we and other western societies have no quarrel with Islam itself but with Islamist fanaticism whose adherents allow no tolerance for other people’s customs and beliefs differing from theirs, which they have few qualms about defending by terrorist practices. But the Nazis – and the Japanese war lords who were their kissing cousins for a decade – had no remotely defensible excuse for their predatory viciousness. They remain, in the world’s collective memory, the embodiment of the pure evil we love to hate. Skinheads flaunting swastika tattoos may be the deranged exception to this consensus, I guess, but if I label them sick puppies, I’d probably be indicted by the far right folks as part of the arrogant elite who are ruining America at the expense of the downtrodden masses.
Q. Isn’t Hamlet’s Children simply part of the literary genre of WW2 fiction that features heel-clicking, seig-heiling Nazi brutes and sadistic Japanese samurai who finally get their comeuppance?
A. I plead not guilty. The main thing that’s different about how I render those dreadful times and what it felt like to be under the fascists’ chokehold is my point of view. The story is recounted by an American named Terence Sayre, who, while a teenager in 1939, suffered grave family misfortune and in order to escape foster care, had to take asylum with his Danish grandparents, people he hardly knew in a place far different from where he had been growing up. The journal Terry secretly kept became the source of the harrowing narrative his older self presents to us. Just as he was beginning to acclimate himself to his strange surroundings and a language that sounded to him like gargling, the Germans arrived with their bristling armaments, and Terry finds himself marooned in Denmark for the rest of the war. How he and his family and their neighbors respond beneath the pall cast over all their lives is refracted through Terry’s eyes and sensibility as he struggles to come to grips with Danish attitudes, values, and behavior that sometimes seem so at odds with those in the U.S. None of Terry’s age peers back home – or their adult countrymen, for that matter – experienced the same inside, on-the-spot perspective of what wartime life was like living in the grip of the Germans’ iron vise.
Q. Do I gather that Terry wound up greatly enamored of his adopted homeland and never came back to America?
A. I’d rather not spoil the story for you, so all I’ll say by way of an answer is to quote the dedication page of Hamlet’s Children. It says:
With admiration for the amiable Danes who, now that their (and
their Norse neighbors’) rampaging activities are many eons past,
can teach the rancorously addled throng amid my otherwise beloved
countrymen valuable lessons about liberty, justice, and equality
for all. Skoal, my doughty friends.
Q. I suspect Hamlet would approve of that.
A. Thanks – I’d settle for half a soliloquy. Hope you enjoy the book.
©2017 Richard Kluger