Wednesday 16 November 2016
A regular guest at our house was Karl Henrik Køster, a Danish neurosurgeon who wrote for The Lancet and who’d met my father in Bergen-Belsen when they were both serving in the RAMC. They became close friends and my sisters and I called him Uncle Karl. Because he always came to stay in December, this large man with his deep voice and Nordic accent was Father Christmas, though now I realise he looked more like Karl Marx.
Uncle Karl always arrived with a large bottle of Cherry Heering, a Danish liqueur, and gifts for us children. I remember the nine-inch-high brightly-painted wooden soldier with its red tunic and blue trousers. It had moveable arms and a detachable lance which was quickly lost.
Karl Henrik was a surgeon at Copenhagen’s Bispebjerg hospital. After operating on a wounded member of the Resistance, medical students asked him to help hide 40 Jews while their escape by boat to Sweden was organised. But how to get them into the hospital? Karl Henrik organised a ‘funeral’ with dark cars, black clothes and flowers. 140 turned up and all of them had to be hidden.
He then arranged for ambulances to take them to the coast. In all, he and his hospital saved 2,000 Jews. Then their luck ran out. One day, when leaving his apartment, he passed the Gestapo on the stairs. They asked him where Dr Køster could be found. As he left the building, he passed the body of a medical student shot in the back. He then followed the same route as those he had helped save and escaped by boat to Sweden. He made his way to the UK and joined the British army.
His wife Doris was at home. The Gestapo imprisoned her.
My father lost contact with him when he retired from The Lancet. The last he knew of Karl was when he heard from a mutual friend that he had, as my father put it, ‘taken up with his secretary’. He had no idea what happened to poor Doris.
Karl committed suicide in the 1980s and didn’t live to see the 1998 Disney film made about his life, Miracle at Midnight. Directed by Ken Cameron, it starred Sam Waterson as Karl and Mia Farrow as Doris.
I recently came across words of his explaining why he acted as he did. ‘It was the natural thing to do. I would have helped any group of Danes being persecuted. The Germans picking on the Jews made as much sense to me as picking on redheads.’
What with Uncle Karl and the Hungarians, I had contact at a young age with people who’d led dangerous political lives. Karl Henrik’s booming voice and wry humour has stayed with me. It has always been important to be able to see the funny side of the grimmest experiences. There is always a Springtime for Hitler.
'Left Field' is a memoir packed full of music and politics. You are invited to a party to celebrate the book with both. It will be on sale at half price with £5 per book donated to MOMENTUM . Live music with Brazilian guitarist Deicola Neves and other guests.
Tuesday 6 December 2016, 7pm,
Whittington Park Community Centre Yerbury Rd N19 4RS