Tuesday, August 11, 2015


Found Beethoven's Hair to be a lightweight sort of affair, as expected from the info on the jacket. I wouldn't have read it had I not picked it up for free, but there was enough substance to make traversing its 270 or so pages reasonably worthwhile.

The most striking sections by far for me were those dealing with the attempts of the Danish people, the Gentiles in the population, that is, during the war to protect their Jewish neighbours and other Jews fleeing from Nazi persecution in central Europe. There's a particularly gripping section on the events that transpired in the coastal town of Gilleleje in 1943 whence quite a number of Jewish refugees escaped to neutral Sweden. It was here that author Russell Martin surmises that the lock of Beethoven's hair, around which his book revolves, passed hands from one of those refugees to the Danish family who later put the item up for auction. The quiet yet resolute heroism of the Danes as a collective whole in protecting the victims of persecution is striking and uplifting.

Yet we need to set it against the cruelty of those persecutors. In one chilling aside Martin notes that those in charge of the concentration camp at Theresienstadt, the camp that received some of the unfortunate Jews who didn't escape to Sweden, arranged a performance of Verdi's Requiem by the orchestra set up by inmates of the camp, along with an ad hoc choir, before shipping almost all the performers off to Auschwitz, sadistically making those involved play the great mass for the dead for themselves.

Martin doesn't explicitly make comment regarding the contrast in behaviour here between the heroic humane Danes and the Nazi thugs. But I will, because it haunts me. I believe that we have a great measure of free choice in our actions as individuals, though I'd be hard pressed to definitively prove this intuition. The example above seems to me to point to the fact that as collectives - tribes, nations, whatever - we also have choices in terms of our  collective ethical behaviour. And I'd like to know what led to so many from one nation making dreadful choices (or at least it seems so) and so many from its tiny neighbour doing the right thing.

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