Citizens Rescue Danish Jews from Germans Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

When German Gestapo and SS troops sought to apprehend seven thousand Danish Jews, thousands of Danes hid their fellow citizens and helped them escape to neutral Sweden.

Summary of Event

Denmark Denmark, German occupation of was unique among the occupied countries of Europe during World War II. The German occupation was less brutal than in Poland or Norway, for example. The Danes, realizing the futility of standing up to a German blitzkrieg, put up only token resistance in April of 1940, when Germany sent a naval task force and one armored division against the Danish army of fourteen thousand. The Nazi regime considered the Danes to be an Aryan race and wished to make a “model protectorate” of Denmark to show German “generosity” to the world. Propaganda films showed the Danes going about their lives in a somewhat normal fashion. The Danish government, including the king, was kept in place, with considerable liberty to conduct normal affairs of government as if the German Wehrmacht and Gestapo were not there. There did exist, however, a small Danish resistance movement, whose members were dealt with harshly by the Gestapo whenever they were apprehended. Jews;hidden by Danes Holocaust;Denmark Danish resistance to Nazis [kw]Citizens Rescue Danish Jews from Germans (Sept. 30-Oct. 1, 1943) [kw]Danish Jews from Germans, Citizens Rescue (Sept. 30-Oct. 1, 1943) [kw]Jews from Germans, Citizens Rescue Danish (Sept. 30-Oct. 1, 1943) [kw]Germans, Citizens Rescue Danish Jews from (Sept. 30-Oct. 1, 1943) Jews;hidden by Danes Holocaust;Denmark Danish resistance to Nazis [g]Europe;Sept. 30-Oct. 1, 1943: Citizens Rescue Danish Jews from Germans[00950] [g]Denmark;Sept. 30-Oct. 1, 1943: Citizens Rescue Danish Jews from Germans[00950] [c]World War II;Sept. 30-Oct. 1, 1943: Citizens Rescue Danish Jews from Germans[00950] [c]Atrocities and war crimes;Sept. 30-Oct. 1, 1943: Citizens Rescue Danish Jews from Germans[00950] [c]Humanitarianism and philanthropy;Sept. 30-Oct. 1, 1943: Citizens Rescue Danish Jews from Germans[00950] Melchior, Marcus Hansen, Peder Bertelsen, Aage Best, Werner Duckwitz, Georg Ferdinand Christian X

This uneasy truce lasted three years. Although news was limited, Danes knew what was happening in surrounding countries, but as long as they were left alone, they thought they could survive. What finally aroused the Danes to action was Hitler’s decision to go after the seven thousand Danish Jews as he had persecuted Jews all over Europe. The Danes saw this as an attack on their countrymen and the beginning of a more repressive policy toward Denmark. Consequently, an aroused and united Denmark rose to the challenge.

In September, 1943, the Germans made plans to round up all Danish Jews and ship them to Theresienstadt Theresienstadt concentration camp Concentration camps in Terezin, Czechoslovakia. From there they would be sent to extermination camps in German-occupied Europe. Gestapo Gestapo and Schutzstaffel (SS) raids were scheduled for the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, when Jews would be home. The date was the night of Friday, October 1, 1943.

Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz, a German government official who had lived in Denmark since 1928, risked his life to warn Danish political leaders of the impending raid. They in turn warned the Jewish community. On the night of September 30, 1943, in an impassioned plea before his Copenhagen congregation, Rabbi Marcus Melchior warned all Jews to go into hiding immediately.

Word of the impending raid spread quickly throughout Copenhagen and elsewhere in Denmark. Christian police, mail carriers, shopkeepers, workers, students, teachers, and taxi drivers took time off work to warn their Jewish friends and acquaintances. Students ran through the streets, entering cafes and searching for Jews to warn. Friends, relatives, and many complete strangers volunteered their homes and apartments as places of refuge for their fellow citizens.

On Sabbath night, October 1, 1943, the horror of coordinated Gestapo raids descended on Denmark. There was a total of 284 victims, mostly the old and sick who had not been warned or could not get away. The other seventy-two hundred Jews found hiding places scattered throughout Denmark. The danger for them was by no means over. Denmark is a small, open country with flat land and few natural hiding places.

Sweden Sweden as refuge for Danish Jews publicly announced its willingness to accept an unlimited number of Jews from Denmark, but there remained the obvious problem of getting all those people past German guards to vessels which could carry them past German patrol boats to the safety of Sweden. Finding transportation to a coastal site where they could clandestinely find a way to Sweden proved very difficult for many.

An example of this problem was the plight of two hundred Danish Jews who had found refuge in Bispebjerg Hospital. German troops surrounded the hospital, set up checkpoints, and examined all incoming and exiting ambulances. While the Gestapo were trying to decide whether to order a search of the hospital, they were suddenly caught off guard by a funeral cortege of twenty to thirty taxis leaving the chapel with refugees.

Aage Bertelsen was a schoolteacher who, with the help of his wife and a team of neighbors, managed to help five hundred Jews on their way. His house was identified by its blue curtains and operated almost in the open as a way station for Jews seeking to flee the country. Another group operated out of a Scandinavian bookstore in Copenhagen and had control of about twelve fishing vessels. The rear room of the bookstore served as a temporary rendezvous point for embarking refugees.

Gestapo raids continued, and eventually 425 Jews were sent to Theresienstadt. The smuggling of Jews continued. The Danish resistance located fishermen and others willing to transport Jews to Sweden and set a modest price for passage. Word of mouth identified the principal contact points: the bookshop, Bispebjerg Hospital, the Rockefeller Institute, the Elsinore Sewing Club, “the house with blue curtains” in Lyngby, and the Danish-Swedish Refugee Service.

The risk was great for all involved, and it cost money to operate boats. Nevertheless, fishing boats, pleasure craft, and merchant vessels clandestinely left one at a time over a period of several days to transport to a safe haven most of the entire Jewish population of Denmark.

Significance

One of the most important and immediate effects of an entire nation joining together to help the persecuted Jews was the sudden growth of the Danish resistance movement. Prior to 1943, the numbers involved in the resistance were small, and members were not very effective in their use of sabotage against the Germans. Beginning in October, 1943, many thousands joined the resistance and thousands of others cooperated with them. By the end of the war, there were fifty-six thousand members of the Danish underground.

The underground had direct contact with the Allies in London. Its sabotage groups carried out 2,160 major operations against rail lines, 785 against factories working for the Germans, 431 against German military installations and depots, and 167 against ports, shipyards, and ships. The railroad sabotage was so effective that in 1944 the train that crossed Jutland, Germany’s main line of communication with its military forces in Norway, took ten days to cross rather than the normal five hours. In these and other operations, eighty-eight Danes lost their lives and seven hundred were wounded.

The Germans knew that the Danish police had cooperated with the rescue of Jews and had done nothing to prevent sabotage against the Germans. On September 19, 1944, the Germans seized all police stations in Denmark. They arrested two thousand Danish police officers and sent them to concentration camps. Another five thousand, however, eluded the Germans and joined the underground. For nearly a year, there were no police in Denmark, but the crime rate was exceptionally low because of the self-policing of the Danish people. Serious offenses were handled by the organized resistance movement. The result of all this was a spirit of national unity. The Danes had risen to the challenge and triumphed in the midst of great adversity.

Denmark was unique in saving so many of its Jewish citizens. No other occupied country came even close in terms of percentages. More than 98.5 percent of Danish Jews were still alive at the war’s end. Other nations also rescued many Jews. Italy, for instance, preserved 85 percent of its Jewish population, while Holland managed to hide eighteen thousand Jews for a period of years, a very sizable proportion of the twenty-five thousand who tried to evade arrest. With smaller and more assimilated Jewish populations, these three countries were better able to resist the Nazis’ Holocaust program. Still, active if less successful efforts to hide Jews from detection could be observed in Poland, France, and even Germany, among other countries occupied or controlled by the Nazis.

The concerted effort in Denmark, however, was most remarkable. Denmark had a long tradition of acceptance of Jews as equal members of society. The Danish Parliament in 1690 rejected the idea of establishing a typical Jewish ghetto in Copenhagen, calling the ghetto concept “an inhuman way of life.” In 1814, all forms of racial and religious discrimination were outlawed in Denmark. Churches throughout Denmark had repeatedly taught the Biblical admonition to treat all people with respect since they were created in the image of God. That tradition from Danish culture was drawn on in the time of crisis.

On Sunday, October 3, 1943, as German soldiers were attempting to round up Danish Jews, Danish Christians heard their pastors strongly condemn such actions as contrary to scripture and Christian love. The Danish church declared its “allegiance to the doctrine that bids us obey God more than man.” The Holocaust demonstrated the depths of human evil committed against other human beings, but the Danish example, along with those of other occupied countries, also demonstrated the deeds of kindness and concern performed by those who believe that the image of God is still discernible in human beings. Jews;hidden by Danes Holocaust;Denmark Danish resistance to Nazis

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Flender, Harold. Rescue in Denmark. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1963. A readable narrative of the rescue of Danish Jews by their fellow citizens. The personalities and activities of each of the main groups involved in the rescue are detailed. Includes a photograph section.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Friedman, Philip. Their Brothers’ Keepers. New York: Holocaust Library, 1978. Of interest to those wanting to compare the Danish experience in World War II with that of neighboring countries where Jews also were rescued. Includes only one chapter on Denmark, and accepts too uncritically some of the stories it reports.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Levine, Ellen. Darkness over Denmark: The Danish Resistance and the Rescue of the Jews. New York: Holiday House, 2000. Focuses on the individual Danish people who risked their lives for their Jewish fellow-citizens. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Meltzer, Milton. Rescue: The Story of How Gentiles Saved Jews in the Holocaust. New York: Harper & Row, 1988. Written in a simpler style for young adults, but comprehensive nevertheless. Based on eyewitness accounts, diaries, letters, memoirs, and interviews.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Petrow, Richard. The Bitter Years: The Invasion and Occupation of Denmark and Norway, April, 1940-May, 1945. New York: William Morrow, 1974. A factually oriented scholarly comparison of the World War II experiences of Denmark and Norway. Particularly significant since both countries are Scandinavian, The form of resistance pursued by the Danes was quite different from the actions of the Norwegians. The distinct geographic and political conditions are also addressed. Two lengthy and tightly written chapters deal with the rescue of Danish Jews.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rittner, Carol, and Sondra Myers, eds. The Courage to Care: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust. New York: New York University Press, 1986. From the award-winning film, The Courage to Care. Mostly first-person narratives of rescue in various occupied countries. Includes many photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Yahil, Leni. The Holocaust: The Fate of European Jewry, 1932-1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. A thorough and scholarly analysis of the historical repercussions and meaning of the Holocaust. The result of twenty years of research, this may well be the most authoritative history of Hitler’s war against the Jews. Originally published in Israel and later translated into English. Includes a section on the Danish Jewish experience.

French Resistance

Wannsee Conference and the “Final Solution”

Stein Is Killed by the Nazis

Warsaw Ghetto Armed Uprising Against Nazis

Bonhoeffer Is Executed by the Nazis

Norwegians Execute Nazi Collaborator Quisling

Nazi War Criminals Are Tried at Nuremberg

Categories: History Content