As the repugnant stain of genocide spread, the people of Denmark rose up to protect their Jewish citizens and guests. They hid them and organized their escape to sanctuary. The action of the Danes saved nearly the entire population of Danish Jews from certain annihilation. This concerted action saved over seven thousand Jews from the Nazi death machine. As Samuel Abrahamsen notes, “the rescue of the Danish Jews will remain an eternal light in a world of spiritual darkness.” And it does.
What in the character of the Danes or the march of historical events created this unique uprising and rescue? The Germans and Danes had much in common, sharing a long common land border as well as a similar language. Danish culture and character however, suggests the rescue was nearly unremarkable. The Germans were intent on persecuting and exterminating Jews; but in the Danes’ perspective, the Germans were intent on persecuting and exterminating a select group of Danes and their guests.
The Danish character moved it in 1939, to declare Denmark’s neutrality and to sign a friendship pact with Germany. For its part, Germany reassured Denmark its neutrality would be respected.
On April 9, 1940, Germany’s invasion and occupation of Denmark began. The Danish government surrendered. The German objective was to set up a “model protectorate” with the Danish government in place and the Army and Navy under control of the Danish government with German/Danish relations based on mutual negotiations.
Ultimately the German occupation of Denmark required 130,000 troops. But why invade? Why tie down troops with an occupation? The best reason was the need for Danish production, which fed four to eight million Germans. The Germans also sought to straddle a fine line of continuing the receive the milk of the Danish “cow” while taking care not to provoke the Danes by mandating anti-Semitic policies.
By August of 1943, however, relations between the occupying Germans and the occupied Danes worsened. Between the invasion in April, 1940 and the summer of 1943, Danish resistance continually increased. At the same time, Hitler’s aggravation with the special treatment of the Danish Jews grew. He continued to press his administrators to increase sanctions against the Jews through the mutual negotiation process. The Germans soon tired of the Danes’ reluctance to effect Anti-Semitic government policies.
Increased Danish resistance to the occupation added to the Führer’s frustration. The sabotage of rail lines that brought meat and butter into Germany was on the increase. Finally, on August 27, 1943, the Germans delivered an ultimatum to the Danish government. The ultimatum, under the thin guise of mutual negotiations, required the declaration of a state of emergency, the banning of strikes and meetings, a curfew, a weapons ban, press censorship, and a death penalty for saboteurs and those found with weapons. The ultimatum ended with: “The government of the Reich expects the Danish government’s acceptance of the above-mentioned demands before 4 P.M. today.”
The Danish Government rejected the ultimatum and resigned; the King concurred in rejecting the ultimatum but rejected the resignations. King Christian X asked civil servants to continue government operations.
Germany now ruled Denmark by force. The Danish Army was disarmed and interned. The Danish Navy fled to neutral Sweden or scuttled its vessels in accordance with standing orders. The loss of the Danish fleet would later hamper the German’s ability to patrol the Øresund Straight between Sweden and Denmark.
Hitler gave his approval for the roundup and transport of the Danish Jews on September 17, 1943. The Danish population soon learned of the plan. The Jews went into hiding. They were given sanctuary in churches, in homes, and in hospitals at great risk to all involved.
When two brothers asked Ellen Nielsen for her help in reaching Sweden, they explained they were Jews and because of that, the Germans would arrest them. She facilitated the brothers’ transportation to safety in Sweden as well as over 100 Jews and members of the resistance. Arrested by the Gestapo, she refused to compromise her activities despite intense interrogation. Ironically, Ellen Nielsen was transported to Ravensbruck and scheduled for the gas chamber. Saved from being murdered, her testimony typifies the reaction of Danes to the persecution of the Jews in Denmark.
On September 29, German ships arrive in Copenhagen to transport the captured Jews to Germany. By the evening of October 1, most of the Danish Jews had found sanctuary. And, by the end of the day, the Germans had detained only 284 persons – 202 in Copenhagen, and the rest elsewhere in Denmark.
The hiding began – the Jews eluded detention but remained within occupied Denmark with no apparent escape route or destination. Although neutral Sweden lay just across the straight from Copenhagen, the crossing was dangerous and refugees were denied entrance into the country. And while Sweden had protested the roundup of the Jews in Denmark, it remained hostile to accepting refugees.
One Dane assisting in hiding the Jews of Denmark was Dr. Niels Bohr, an atomic scientist. Fearing he would be pressed into assisting the Germans with their nuclear research he decided to flee to Sweden on a fishing boat arranged by the resistance. The allies were anxious to move Bohr from Sweden but he refused to leave until Sweden publicly protested the detention of Jews in Denmark. After meeting with the Crown Prince, the Swedes issued a protest of Germany’s actions in Denmark. The US State Department at the same time added its encouragement that Sweden accept the Jews fleeing Denmark. Finally, late on October 2, 1943, Sweden broadcast its willingness to grant safety and shelter to all Jews from Denmark. There is now hope; a sanctuary, if they can reach it.
The Jews of Denmark were moved from hiding to the boats on foot, by Danish Red Cross ambulances and taxis. All were moved safely to their rendezvous despite the German’s desire to capture the Jews. Glenthøj describes the final leg of escape as “The Little Dunkerque:”
At first all sorts of small boats were used to transport Jews across the sound to Sweden. In addition to sail boats, row boats were used, requiring as much as nine hours for the crossing. People remained in their seaside summer homes during the day so they could make the trip under cover of darkness. When the Germans ordered all sail boats to be beached, the Danish fishermen helped, but it became a matter of finances. Later larger organization took over the transport in ships which could carry as many as 200 people. Passage was paid either by Jews themselves or by special collections for that purpose.
Not only did the Danes put their lives at risk in this rescue but they willingly put up their purse as well. The money needed to rescue the Jews came from public donations, from Danish professional and trade associations and loans to the Jewish community organization.
Criticism has been raised of the fishers who charged exorbitant fees for passage to Sweden. In some cases, this criticism may be valid but it is equally valid that not a single Jew was left in Denmark for lack of means to pay for passage.
Of the 7,800 Jews living in Denmark in 1943, 7,200 were rescued in October-November 1943. Of the 580 Danish Jews who did not escape to Sweden, 464 were captured and deported to the Theresienstadt ghetto in Czechoslovakia. Of the remaining 116 Danish Jews unaccounted for, between 50 and 100 stayed in hiding in Denmark until the end of the war. Others were given special permission to remain in Denmark; a few drowned accidentally while trying to escape the Nazis or committed suicide rather than be captured.
Of the 464 Danish Jews held in Theresienstadt, 51 perished in the camp; 425, including some children who were born there, survived and were relocated to Sweden, on April 13, 1945, weeks before the end of the war
At anniversary ceremonies in 1993, the recurring response of those families and fishers who had saved and sheltered the Jews was simple: “What else did you expect us to do?”
During this dark time for all of humanity, the people of Denmark spontaneously rose to protect their inhabitants from being murdered by the occupying Nazis. The entire nation of Denmark was recognized as “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority.