February 25, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

The Boys Who Challenged Hitler | An Interview With Phillip Hoose


Listen to Phillip Hoose reveal the story behind The Boys Who Challenged Hitler, courtesy of TeachingBooks.net.

81RtmABpFuLOn a bicycle tour of Denmark in 2000, Phillip Hoose stopped in at the Museum of Danish Resistance in Copenhagen, where he learned about the Churchill Club, a group of boys who took a stand against the Nazis. Fascinated with their story, the author got in touch with one of the members of the group, the now late Knud Pedersen, who filled him in on this little-known but awe-inspiring story of courage and resistance. Determined to call attention to the actions of these intrepid teens, Hoose wrote The Boys Who Challenged Hitler: Knud Pedersen and the Churchill Club (Farrar, 2015; Gr 9 Up). He recently spoke with SLJ about his experiences working with Pedersen and the importance of sharing stories about young people who have made a difference.

What was it like working with Knud Pedersen?
Knud was a passionate man. He was very tall—about 6’5”—with a theatrical bearing and a deep, rich voice. He paused artfully. Knud filled any room he was in. He was every inch an artist. We worked in his underground office in the art library he founded in the 1950’s. Racks of paintings to be loaned were all around.

We interviewed for long stretches, five days in a row, recording nearly 25 hours of conversation. We rarely took breaks. We spoke in English—his second language—which must have been exhausting for him. When I went back home, we exchanged countless e-mail messages as the book took shape. As Knud put it, “We became a little family. Together we were parents to this book.”

What was your research process like?
I began with materials that Knud sent me before I met him in Copenhagen. I had to get them translated, for I found Danish to be very difficult. One resource was a small book in Danish that Knud had written on the Churchill Club back in 1945. He didn’t name the other members of the group or discuss their prison experience, but the book offered a chronology and a sense of the missions they undertook. There is also a rich literature of Denmark’s experience of World War II to draw on, and many good photos are available—Knud himself had a collection. The most important were those used as evidence against the boys in court.

After he was released from prison, Knud went back to authorities and obtained copies of photos and other police records. But my greatest research asset was Knud himself—a wonderful first-person source. It was great to be able to email him a question late in the afternoon and have his answer waiting when I logged on the following morning.

Phillip Hoose (r) with Knud Pedersen, outside the art museum that Pedersen founded.  Photo by Sandi Ste.George.

Phillip Hoose (l) with Knud Pedersen, outside the art museum that Pedersen founded. Photo by Sandi Ste.George.

Did it surprise you that adolescents so intent on fighting their enemy would experience some ambivalence about some of the actions required to carry out their missions?
Not at all. They had no military training whatsoever. Had they enlisted in an armed forces unit, they would have been desensitized through boot-camp like experiences and rebuilt as warriors. But the boys had no army to train with; they had to make it up themselves. They practiced shooting their machine gun in a monastery loft. There was no one to advise them; they trusted no one. They were bright, sensitive, idealistic individuals who thought hard about the ethics of taking a life. That’s why their decision to fight is so profound. And there’s no sticking your toe into a war. You are drawn in quickly and inevitably face decisions about killing.

What surprised you the most about their story? What resonated with you the most?
I was deeply impressed that these boys had the nerve to do the things they did. I mean, to walk into a restaurant, head straight for the coat closet and steal the pistols out of German officers’ holsters? That takes guts. To break out of jail, perform acts of sabotage, then return to your cell before your absence is noticed—even more so. I loved that they carried out their missions on bicycles. I was also impressed that so many teens [eight] could keep such a big secret from so many for so long. Above all, I was surprised that the story was not widely known and that Knud Pedersen and the others were not celebrated throughout the world.

What resonated for me is that the boys made up their own minds about resisting the Nazi war machine. The adults in their lives were cautioning them not to mouth off, to accept things as they were, not to rouse the sleeping Nazi giant who had settled comfortably among them, walking hand in hand with Danish women, enjoying Copenhagen’s best restaurants, setting up barracks for Nazi soldiers in the very school they attended. The boys thought it over, read and talked and listened to radio broadcasts—and then followed their hearts. Knud later told me he could well have imagined himself as a peace activist at another time, but when he reached his personal crossroads, he had to fight.

Stories of teens making a difference have been a hallmark of your work. Why do you think teens so often get involved, and why is it that their stories often go untold for so long?
Teens are passionate, judgmental, caring, idealistic, courageous, and energetic. Young people often see life dramatically, and some are inclined to take action. Some grow up in times of convulsive social change, as did the tens of thousands of students caught up in Brown v. the Topeka Board of Education. During such times, the air is so charged that a single act can spark monumental change. At such a moment, Claudette Colvin entered history’s spotlight while simply riding the bus home from school. Her historic decision to keep her seat was, she later said, impulsive, but based on a lifetime of anger and frustration: “I felt Harriet Tubman pressing me down on one shoulder and Sojourner Truth pressing down on the other,” she later said. “History kept me in my seat.” Fourteen-year-old Knud Pedersen and his friends likewise made a decision at a tinderbox moment that set major events in motion.

Teenagers’ stories go untold because—until the Internet—adults wrote nearly all the stories. One thing I learned during my research on We Were There, Too!: Young People in U.S. History (Farrar, 2001) is that adults and young people can experience the same phenomena very differently and write from greatly different perspectives. I hope the work I’ve done will encourage more young people to write their own stories.

TB-imageListen to Phillip Hoose reveal the story behind The Boys Who Challenged Hitler, courtesy of TeachingBooks.net.



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Mahnaz Dar About Mahnaz Dar

Mahnaz Dar (mdar@mediasourceinc.com) is Assistant Managing Editor for Library Journal and School Library Journal and can be found on Twitter @DibblyFresh.

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