Studying The Young Underground

Curriculum Ideas for Parents and Students

Using Language Arts, History and Geography Concepts

Primary resource: The Young Underground, books 1-8, by Robert Elmer


1. What is historical fiction?

Explain that the author was inspired by real-life stories told by his parents, his grandmother and other family friends who lived through the German occupation of Denmark during World War II. Explain that the stories of The Young Underground are categorized as historical fiction. In other words, many of the major events are based on actual history, but the characters were invented by the author. Discuss why it might be important to understand the difference between what is history, and what is fiction in stories like these. What could happen if we don't recognize the difference?

2. Who remembers, today?

Most of the background from The Young Underground was taken from eyewitness accounts, Danish books from the 1940s, and other rare or out-of-print resources. Look for Danish history in the library, and you'll find very little. Does that mean the history wasn't important? Discuss how important history can be forgotten if it isn't written down. How might that affect our view of true history? Can history be written in different ways? How could that affect the way we think? For instance, we read about what happened in the Gulf War. But what do you think children in Iraq read about the war? How would that affect the way they think? Whose fault is it?

Curriculum Ideas:

Real History? Let's learn...

Book 1: A Way Through the Sea

The events of the fall of 1943 as they concern the Jewish people in Denmark are accurate as described. In fact, the rescue of virtually all of Denmark's 7,000 Jewish citizens was one of the most remarkable untold stories of the war. Nearly all these people were hidden by ordinary Danes and smuggled in boats of every description into neutral Sweden. Denmark was one of the only countries in Europe to save most of their Jewish population.

Discuss why ordinary Danes would risk their lives to hide Jewish people from the Nazis. (Reasons might include compassion for their neighbor, a sense of justice, a desire to get back at their conquerors, a sense of adventure.) Make a list of the reasons why you, as a Dane would (or would not) help someone who came to you and asked you to hide them. What could happen?

Book 2: Beyond the River

This novel were inspired by an actual event--the downing of a British military plane near the west coast of Denmark. Danes worked together to help the man escape (though not to a submarine, as in the story). The description of the region is accurate, as well, including the Tirpitz gun emplacements in the Ho area of Denmark. Many of the local people were forced to work there.

Guess why the Germans might want to build big guns on the West coast of Denmark. (Denmark was one of the possible invasion routes, although the Allies eventually decided on the Normandy coast of France.) Discuss how Danes might have felt working to build a gun emplacement that could have fired on the British or Americans--the very people the Danes hoped would come to free them!

Find an atlas and a detailed map of Denmark. Locate the town on Ho, on the west Coast. (It's a little place, all right. If it?s not your map, find Esbjerg. That's pretty close.) How does one travel from Helsingor, in the east, to Esbjerg, in the west? How far is it? Compare Denmark's size to your own state or province. How big is it? How many Danes are there now? (There were over 4 million during the war.) How does that compare to a city like New York, Toronto or Los Angeles? To the population of your state or province?

Book 3: Into the Flames

The bombing of the Shell high-rise office building in Copenhagen was one of the most carefully chronicled events in the war, and our novel's description of the building and the bombing itself was built on eyewitness accounts of the events. Even the scene where Peter sees the airplanes coming towards the building is historically accurate, down to the last minute.

The horrible details in this bombing were all written down by people who lived through them. Discuss what might have happened if those people had not written down what they remembered.

Alternate activity: One of the characters in this book, Lisbeth von Schreider, has German parents. But she does not agree with what Germany was doing in Denmark. How do you explain the way she acted? Should she have been loyal to the Nazis? Write a page from her diary to explain how you think she would have thought through this issue.

Book 4: Far From the Storm

The description of how the soldiers came home from Sweden is accurate in the way it happened; even to the day. Events in Helsingør during the first days after the end of the war happened pretty much as described.

Celebrations are important. At first, people remember a specific event. The day they were freed from the war, in this case. Discuss what happens after a few years what happens when people forget why or what they're celebrating. (Christmas and Easter are good examples.)

Alternate activity: This book is about grudges and forgiveness. Talk about what happens when people hold a grudge for years and years. And what happens when you don't forgive someone--especially after a long time?

Book 5: Chasing the Wind

The Nazis really did take many of Europe's treasures and hide them in Austrian salt mines, as described in this book. And in the last days of the war, a German official named Martin Bormann actually did make off with a fortune in coins, never to be seen again. The submarine crew's escape is entirely fiction, though every detail of the operation of the U-Boat is patterned after actual events and diaries. So is the description of the U-Boat. The U.S. vessel on patrol in the Atlantic was actually in the region at the time.

Find a book in the library about U-Boats. (Try U-Boat by Richard Humble or U-Boats: A Pictorial History, by Edwin P. Hoyt.) Imagine what it might have been like to live in a submarine for a several months. Write a one-page paper describing the experience. Try to imagine the smells, the sights, the feelings. At the end, describe how you might feel when you finally climbed back out into the sunshine.

Book 6: A Light in the Castle

This novel centers around Denmark's King Christian X (the tenth). He did not want Germany to invade his little country, but with only a very tiny army, he felt he had no choice. Do you think he did the right thing in giving up without a fight? Why or why not?

This novel accurately describes the palace square and the city of Copenhagen. Even the escape tunnel really existed. And the author's father could have been one of the boys scouts in the climax; boys really did parade through the streets on their way out of town for campouts and other outings. Discuss for a moment why they would have done that. (Rationing during war, ordinary Danes not allowed to operate their autos, no gas, everyone took the train or bicycled.)

Here's an example of "history" that never really happened. Find as many histories as you can about Denmark during World War II. Sooner or later, you're going to find a story about how the Danish King wore a Star of David armband to show that if the Germans forced Danish Jews to wear the armband, he would wear one, too. The interesting part: Even though the king loved his people and might have done something like that, it actually never happened!

Discuss what happens when rumors are repeated. Sometimes, they even become history!

Book 7: Follow the Star

The description of the island of Bornholm (Born-HAWLM) in this novel is mainly accurate, especially the situation with the Russian occupiers. This was an odd period in post-World War II history, when Russians bombed the island because the Germans wouldn?t give up without a fight. The Russians stayed on for months after the war.

Discuss how the Danes on Bornholm must have felt at the end of the war. In Copenhagen, the British liberators were riding through the streets and people were holding parades and parties. In Bornholm, the seaports were bombed and largely destroyed. In the rest of Denmark, the people were freed. On Bornholm, the Russian soldiers traded places with the German soldiers. Bornholmers felt abandoned. How would it feel to be forgotten or left out like this? Pretend you are from Bornholm. Write a poem describing the end of the war.

Alternate activity: Write a short paper on what might have happened if Germany had won the war in Europe. How would a country like Denmark be different? (This may require more research.)

Book 8: Touch the Sky

The bicycle trip in this novel is based on several detailed diaries written by the author's father during the years just before and after the war. The roads, destinations, descriptions and flat tires were all as it really happened. And historically, this was a time when Jewish people were turning toward their homeland. But Henrik, the character in this novel, has mixed feelings about going there.

Debate both sides of this issue: Stay home (in Denmark) or go "home" to the new state of Israel. Why or why not? Be sure to check out Robert's "Promise of Zion" series for a more detailed treatment of this issue.

Alternate activity: Plan a pretend bicycle trip across Denmark. Use an atlas or tourbook. What will you see? What will you bring on your bike? Where will you stay? How much will it cost?

© 2012 Robert Elmer — All rights reserved