LONDON — Writer and filmmaker Alexander Bodin Saphir confesses to feeling a little overwhelmed. He has just emerged from the first rehearsal of his first play, “Rosenbaum’s Rescue,” and although the theatrical production process is new to him, the experience has thus far been a positive one. Everyone, he says, has been very supportive.
The play, inspired by his grandparents’ story of escape from Nazi occupied Denmark, opens January 9 at the Park Theatre, a dynamic neighborhood fringe venue in north London.
The play is set in Denmark in 2001, during the holiday of Hanukkah — three weeks after the formation of a coalition government, a member of which was the far right Dansk Folkeparti that had campaigned on an anti-immigration platform. It explores the true story, known as the “Miracle Rescue,” of how the majority of Danish Jews managed to flee and cross the water to Sweden in October 1943.
The play focuses on two childhood friends — Lars, a historian, and Abe, a Jew whose family were rescued. Trapped in a snowstorm, the pair debate the events of the past in an attempt to solve its mysteries. Faith, identity, myths, facts and miracles are all explored in pursuit of the truth, and, in the process, the very foundation of their relationship is threatened.
Bodin Saphir’s “Rosenbaum’s Rescue” has been several years in development, including staged readings in New York, London and Copenhagen.
He admits to being more comfortable working on screen and has written and directed a number of short films including “Winds of Sand,” about a fictionalized conflict which was made with a mixed Israeli and Palestinian cast and crew. Through it, he met a number of Israeli filmmakers including Tomer Heymann, who persuaded Bodin Saphir to produce and co-direct the Heymann brothers’ 2016 award winning documentary, “Who’s Gonna Love Me Now?” about a London-based gay man struggling to reconcile with his Israeli family, while finding a new “family” in the London Gay Men’s Chorus.
Born and educated in the United Kingdom before attending Duke University in North Carolina, Bodin Saphir has a strong connection to his Danish roots.
“I’ve been aware of the story of the miracle rescue for as long as I can remember. It’s part of the Danish narrative and documentaries and films have been made about it,” Bodin Saphir says over lunch in the noisy theater café post-rehearsal.
Casually dressed in light brown cargo pants and a chunky blue cardigan, the genial 40-year-old writer says it feels like he has spent the last 15 years or so researching this story. It’s one which has always fascinated him, “so I know as much as is necessary to be able to tell it.”
For many years, Bodin Saphir’s knowledge and understanding of the miracle operation was on par with most Danish citizens — that out of 7,500 Danish Jews, over 7,000 escaped and 472 were captured and taken to Theresienstadt.
He also knew, he says, that on the day before Rosh Hashanah in 1943, the acting chief rabbi, Marcus Melchior, had given the Jews a warning, telling them to sort out their affairs and find an escape. Significantly, the Danes supported the operation.
“It was an amazing thing that the Danish people and the resistance [cooperated]. Ferrymen risked their lives as they took Jews in their fishing boats under darkness — for payment — across the Oresund, the narrow strait of water between Denmark and Sweden,” says Bodin Saphir.
But then decades later, a new generation of Danish historians discovered that the rescue was even more bizarre than previously thought — and that a high ranking Nazi was in fact the mastermind who helped save the Jews.
That man was Dr. Karl Rudolph Werner Best, Germany’s plenipotentiary in Denmark and deputy head of the SS. He was known as the “Butcher of Paris” — and his job was to ensure that the Jews were eliminated.
It was a tip off from Best that saved Bodin Saphir’s family. Bodin Saphir’s grandfather, known as Folle, worked as a tailor in Copenhagen, in a shop owned by his brother-in-law, Nathan. Although Folle said little about the past, says Bodin Saphir, he had always maintained that a high-ranking German officer had come to the shop and given them a warning about the imminent round up and advised that they should leave. Years later, Nathan disclosed to Bodin Saphir’s cousin, Margit, that the visiting officer was, in fact, Best.
“Everybody knew who he was and there was no way he would warn Jews, much less get a suit tailored by them in the red light district of Copenhagen. That’s a ridiculous story, right?” Bodin Saphir asks, jokingly.
But the actual confirmation came about in a random moment.
“It was only because Margit was bored one day in the shop and decided to have a look inside the old bureau which held all the customer records,” Bodin Saphir explains. “She said her heart effectively stopped when she held Werner Best’s [measurement] card in her hand. After seeing it, she then put it back in the bureau.”
This incident occurred in 1990s, he thinks, and the bureau has since been destroyed.
“That’s one of the reasons why there’s no definitive measurement card in the play,” he says. “It doesn’t get revealed because I haven’t seen it.”
“It’s circumstantial evidence,” says Bodin Saphir. “I wouldn’t be comfortable telling my personal story about Werner Best but given the fact that the shift in the mainstream historical narrative has gone from miracle rescue to a much more nuanced narrative, which is now the mainstream view, we can [now] build up a picture. As a playwright, it’s a really interesting place to be.”
But what was Best’s real motivation? He was, says Bodin Saphir, an incredibly cold and calculating individual and was certainly not acting out of altruism. Instead, Bodin Saphir believes it was ambition.
Best’s role was to maintain the substantial flow of agricultural goods from Denmark to Germany — so much so that Denmark was referred to as “Germany’s pantry” — while ensuring political stability. Hitler’s order to make Denmark Judenrein came at a difficult time for Best, as there was a lot of civil unrest between the Germans and the Danes. In an attempt to maintain the delicate balance of stability between the Danes and the Nazi occupiers, he ordered the deportation of the Jews and at the same time sabotaged the operation.
“He really put his neck on the line. By all reports he stayed up all night of the rescue to see how it went. It was an important night for him. Famously, he telegrammed Berlin when the round up was over to say, ‘I’ve done what you’ve asked. I’ve made Denmark Judenrein,’ which was quite a ballsy thing to say, given that he didn’t do what they meant,” says Boden Saphir.
“I suspect his relationship with Berlin was quite frosty for a while. But he did manage to keep the flow of agricultural goods going and in many ways, that could have saved his relationship with the Danish civil servants,” he says.
But the truth behind Best’s actions is still not definitively established.
“I started from the perspective that I wanted there to be a black and white reason why he did this, but ultimately, I think it’s uncertain. I want answers, as do the two protagonists — for very different reasons — but at the same time I’m also comfortable with it being slightly enigmatic. We can never know. Firstly, Best is dead and second, would we get the truth out of him anyway?”
When Bodin Saphir began researching the story, he says that fate intervened.
“If I’d started a year earlier, I would have only found details about the miracle rescue, but it was just at the moment when this new generation of historians were also starting to look back and were publishing slightly controversial and way-out theories,” Bodin Saphir says.
These theories questioned whether Georg F. Duckwitz, a German naval attaché and Best’s right hand man, was perhaps not the savior he was understood to have been, says Bodin Saphir.
Supposedly, Duckwitz leaked details of the round up to Hans Hedtoft, a former Danish MP and member of the resistance who, in turn, alerted the chief rabbi Melchior and therefore, the Jewish community. Duckwitz later became West Germany’s ambassador to Denmark and was honored as a Righteous Among the Nations for his actions in saving Jews. But the new research started to cast a little bit of doubt about that story, says Bodin Saphir.
“There are question marks about his dates, whether he was in Denmark, question marks about whether or not his diary was doctored. [The whole diary] was written with the same pen, for example,” he says.
The Nazi occupation of Denmark was very unusual, explains Bodin Saphir, in that there were no particular restrictions on being Jewish, as there were in other countries, until the round up in 1943.
“Was it due to the policy of negotiation and cooperation that the Danes pursued? Or was it the fact that the Danes felt that all Jews were Danes? I grew up with this idea of Abe’s story — that we [the Danes] resisted — but then the latter historians said that that cooperation, to a certain extent, could be called collaboration, considering that, as well as agricultural supplies, Denmark was making weapons in small arms factories for the German war machine,” says Bodin Saphir.
But, he adds, “The flip side of that cooperation was it made the occupation much lighter, and in many ways saved the Jews.”
He agrees that, for Jews, life was a strange case of normal. “Although there are terrible stories of Jews coming back and finding their homes ransacked, the vast majority found them to be pristine. In fact, some of them were cleaned before they returned after two years of being in Sweden,” he says.
Some people, including Bodin Saphir’s grandparents and aunt, who came home after the war in June 1945, found fresh flowers in vases on their tables, placed by their neighbors.
The initial idea for “Rosenbaum’s Rescue” had been a docudrama and not a play. But the more Bodin Saphir developed the story, the more he realized that he wanted to tell something more philosophical.
“As a filmmaker, I was very aware that I couldn’t tell and screen this quite nuanced story, which was emerging through the research, in the way that I could in very intimate theater, with four characters having very different philosophical, ideological perspectives and relationship issues,” Bodin Saphir says.
Although the historical background of the play is accurate, all the characters are fictitious. For Bodin Saphir, the challenge has been to tell quite a complicated, layered, historical narrative while also keeping the drama in the present.
“I haven’t solved it totally, but I’m getting there,” he says. “There are a number of different stories playing out at the same time and they all feed into this idea of truth, sacrifice and about identity.
“Abe’s religious and personal identities are based on a moment in history and now this is being called into question. In the same way, to a certain extent, the national identity of Denmark is being questioned.”
Bodin Saphir says the Danish reception to the play has been very good: “When I’ve spoken to Danes, not just my family, they’re very pleased that the story is being told because a whole new audience needs to hear it. There is an interesting tension that it’s no longer the fairy tale.”
But he believes the new revelations do not detract from the miracle.
“For me, the miracle is less about the relative success or failure of the rescue and more about the fact that the Danes didn’t differentiate between ethnic Danes and the Jews — that they actually felt the Jews were worth saving. That for me is the miracle,” he says.
“Rosenbaum’s Rescue” runs January 9 – February 9, 2019 at the Park Theatre, London.