Most of us know the story….during the height of Nazi power during World War II, when Jews were being rounded up and slaughtered all over Europe, the small Danish Jewish population was by and large saved by brave Danish fishermen who piloted Jews to safety in Sweden.
And that story is by and large true. But how did it happen? Who organized it? How did the Nazis not know about it? How were the boats all allowed to leave port? Who paid for it? And with Jews being rounded up in Norway, how were the Jews allowed to live in peace in Sweden?
There has been much written about the heroics of the Danes in risking their lives to save the lives of their fellow Jewish citizens, including the well reputed book by Leni Yahil, “The Rescue of Danish Jewry”, published in 1969. But it wasn’t until this year, when Copenhagen newspaper editor Bo Lidegaard published his “Countrymen” that a more complete story was told.
Working in part from some amazingly detailed daily diaries kept by members of several Jewish families (which I don’t believe had been made public earlier), Lidegaard tells a remarkable story. Let me give you some of the bare outlines – I hope you follow up by looking at the book more closely:
1. The Jewish population in Denmark was small (well under 10,000) and comprised both of families who had been in the country for centuries and were fully integrated into Danish society and a small number of newcomers, refugees from Central and Eastern Europe. (It should be noted that Denmark did not have an open door policy to the acceptance of refugees, Jewish or otherwise; in this regard it was a typical European country of its time.)
2. It didn’t seem to matter whether individual Danes liked or disliked Jews as a group – Jews were fully a part of Danish society with no distinctions being made because of their religion.
3. While Germany was running roughshod over so much of Europe, invading and defeating one European army after another with brutal fighting and brutal results, in Denmark things were quite different. The Danish king and government officials decided not to put up a fight when it became clear that the Germans were coming, but rather worked out an arrangement that avoided the necessity for Germany to devote arms, men or money to the country by agreeing to let the Germans come in and set overarching policies with the Danes continuing to run their own government under basic Nazi oversight. Only one other condition was imposed by the Danes: the Jews of Denmark would not be targeted or harassed.
4. The Germans accepted this arrangement both because it allowed them to devote their military resources elsewhere, and because they were looking for a model for European governance after the (assumed ) German victory in the war. The Germans wanted to show that they would give brought self-governing rights to the other European nations, under German guidance. Denmark was to be both their experiment in this regard, and the center of their post-war organizational propaganda. Why they agreed to let the Danish Jews alone is not clear. Whether they had plans to go after the Jews in the future is probable, but apparently undocumented. What is known is that the Germans asked the Danes to provide them a list of Jews (by the way, as you would imagine, there were many, many mixed families in the country), and that the Danes refused, and apparently the Germans did not (at least at that time) persist.
5. Throughout the early years of the war, most of Denmark seemed to feel secure. They were confident that their agreement with Germany would be long lasting. And the Danish Jews felt comfortable having the support of their king and fellow citizens and, although there were rumors of very rough conditions in Central and Eastern Europe, they did not believe that they would be subject to this sort of treatment as long as they remained in Denmark. (There was, of course, no knowledge of the “final solution”, just of the roundups, and the existence of concentration camps, deemed to be some sort of work camps operating under very harsh conditions.)
6. As the years passed, however, the relationship between the Danish government (and king) and the Germans became more and more fraught and at some point, the Germans announced that the deal was off, and that Germany was going to enter the country with a government of occupation. This occurred, the Danes realized that they were dealing with a foe upon whom they could not rely, and rumors began to circulate that the Jews were no longer safe.
7. In the fall of 1943, these rumors increased, and daily there were rumors that there was going to be an “action”, that the Nazis were going to raid the homes of Jews (those they knew to be Jewish) and evacuate them from the country. Jews began to take the threats and rumors more and more seriously, and began to leave their homes (most of the Jewish population was in Copenhagen) and move into the countryside, where they stayed in hotels and inns, with friends, in farms and so forth, but almost always in remote, out of the way places.
8. In early October 1943, the “action” took place. Most apartments raided by the Nazis were found to be empty, but several hundred Jews (exact number unclear) were rounded up and sent to Theresienstadt, near Prague.
9. Throughout this period, there was talk that the Jews would be safe if they moved to Sweden. At its closest point, Sweden was separated from Denmark by only about four miles of water. Sweden was a neutral country during the war. It had not been occupied by the Nazis under a different agreement whereby the Swedes agreed to cooperate with the Germans – through exported manufactured goods helpful to the German military situation and allowed troop movements through the country on to Norway. The Germans must not have felt the necessity to invade Sweden (geographically quite a large country) and were satisfied with this arrangement – the Swedish Jews seemed safe.
10. Certain wealthy Danish Jews, seeking to move to Sweden, and working through the non-Jewish Danes with whom they were hiding in the countryside and along the coast, began, on a very small scale, of looking to find boats, where the captains would agree to take Danish Jews to Sweden. This was not without risk, of course. Not only the crossing itself (they would by and large be night crossings in increasingly bad weather) be difficult, but there would be Nazi boats patrolling the water, Nazi occupiers in the towns, and the threat of capital punishment for any Danes helping ferry Jews across. Nevertheless, the Danish people seemed determined to save their countrymen and boats were found (and the boat owners and/or captains) were well paid. These were small boats – maybe a dozen people could go at a time, and the passengers had to be hidden from sight as the boats left harbor.
11. After the success of the first crossings, what began as a small movement, exploded. Altogether, about 7000 Jews were ferried to Sweden. A network of fishing boats (and one large vessel that took out a couple of hundred people) and people willing to hide Jews, transport them to the ports, and provide financial support for the fishermen blossomed. Ninety percent of Denmark’s pre-war Jewish population was saved.
12. But how did this happen? First and perhaps foremost, there was no equivocation in Denmark. The King, the prime ministers, the parliamentarians, the journalists, and on down the line. No one wavered. Secondly, Sweden was, so to speak, right around the corner, and the Swedish government made it clear (again, without any wavering) that Danish Jews would be welcome to come to Sweden, would be assisted on arrival, and integrated into Swedish society. (Of course, some Danish Jews had family in Sweden, and business interests in the country, and this helped, as well.) Thirdly, and most surprisingly, Germany’s ignoring of the Danish Jews for so long, and its failure to stop the parade of boats going back and forth between Denmark and Sweden, was the result of the actions of the Germans, yes the Nazis, who were sent by Germany first to coordinate German-Danish governmental cooperation, and then to manage the actual German occupation of the country. Having forestalled any actions against the Danish Jews for so long, they acted as unofficial liaisons with the Swedes to make sure that the Swedes would accept the Jews from Denmark, and they informed the Danes and the Danish Jews when specific anti-Jewish activity was about to begin.
13. There are two Germans whose activities are described by Lidegaard, Werner Best (Reich Commissioner for Occupied Denmark) and Georg Ferdinand Duckwith. They were involved with assuring Danish cooperation with Germany, and they knew that actions against the Jews would poison that cooperation. What either Best or Duckwith thought about the Jews was irrelevant. They became, in effect, double agents – cooperating with the Danish leaders to protect the Danish Jews, and serving their bosses in Berlin with the goal being the development and maintenance of good relations between Berlin and Copenhagen. A difficult balancing act? To be sure. But, at least from the perspective of the Jews in Denmark, successfully accomplished. And Best and Duckwith came out all right, as well, both continuing to serve Germany after the war in official positions. Best, in fact, in the 1950s became West German’s ambassador to Denmark.
This is only the bare bones of the story. You should read the book to get more important details regarding the overall position of the Jews in Denmark , the Danish-German negotiations, and the rescue mission. And also (and I did not deal with this at all here) the contents of those daily diaries that showed how things progressed, day to day, in the eyes of members of several Danish Jewish families.
Highly recommended (although I have to say that the writing, particularly at the start of the book, or perhaps the translation, is a bit clumsy – the prose flows much better as the book moves on).