Rescue of the Danish Jews
The rescue of the Danish Jews occurred during Nazi Germany's occupation of Denmark during World War II. On October 1st 1943 Nazi leader Adolf Hitler ordered Danish Jews to be arrested and deported. Despite great personal risk, the Danish resistance movement with the assistance of many ordinary Danish citizens took part in a collective effort to evacuate about 8,000 Jews of Denmark by sea to nearby neutral Sweden. The rescue allowed the vast majority of Denmark's Jewish population to avoid capture by the Nazis and is considered to be one of the largest actions of collective resistance to repression in the countries occupied by Nazi Germany. As a result of the rescue and Danish intercession on behalf of the 5% of Danish Jews who were deported to Theresienstadt transit camp in Bohemia, over 99% of Denmark's Jewish population survived the Holocaust.
On April 9, 1940, Denmark and Norway were invaded by Nazi Germany. Realizing that successful armed resistance was impossible and to avoid civilian casualties, the Danish government surrendered after a few skirmishes on the morning of the invasion.
The Nazi German government stated that its occupation of Denmark was an "act of protection" against the Allies and that Germany did not intend to disturb the political independence of Denmark. Because the Danish government promised "loyal cooperation" with the Germans, the occupation of Denmark was thus relatively mild at first. German propaganda even referred to Denmark as the "model protectorate". King Christian X retained his throne, and Denmark's Parliament, government, and the courts continued to function. Even censorship of radio and the press was administered by the Danish government, rather than by the occupying German civil and military authorities.
During the early years of the occupation, Danish officials repeatedly insisted to the German occupation authorities that there was no "Jewish problem" in Denmark. The Germans recognized that discussion of the Jewish question in Denmark was a possibly explosive issue, which had the potential to destroy the "model" relationship between Denmark and Germany and, in turn, cause political and economic consequences for Germany. In addition, the German Reich relied substantially upon Danish agriculture, which supplied meat and butter to 3.6 million Germans in 1942 alone. As a result, when officials in Berlin recommended instituting anti-Jewish measures in Denmark, even ideologically committed Nazis, such as Reich Plenipotentiary Werner Best, followed a strategy of avoiding and deferring any discussion of Denmark's Jews.
In late 1941, upon the visit of Danish Foreign Minister Erik Scavenius to Berlin, German authorities there (including Hermann Gring) insisted that Denmark choose not to avoid its "Jewish problem". A Danish anti-Semitic newspaper used these statements as an opportunity for a slanderous attack on Denmark's Jews; shortly thereafter, arsonists attempted to start a fire at Copenhagen's synagogue. The Danish courts handed down stiff fines and jail time to the editors and would-be arsonists, and the Danish government took further administrative action. The Danish government's punishment of anti-Semitic crimes during occupation by Germany were interpreted by the German authorities in Denmark as signaling the Danish view toward any future measures taken against Denmark's Jews by the occupiers.
In mid-1943, Danes saw the German defeats in the Battle of Stalingrad and North Africa as an indication that having to live under German rule was no longer the long-term certainty it had been in 1940. At the same time, the Danish resistance movement was becoming more vocal in their underground press and with their increased sabotage activities. During the summer, several nationwide strikes led to armed confrontations between Danes and German troops. In the wake of increased resistance activities and riots, the German occupation authorities presented the Danish government with an ultimatum on August 28, 1943, prescribing a ban on strikes, a curfew, and punishing sabotage with the death penalty. Deeming these terms unacceptable and a violation of Danish sovereignty, a state of emergency was declared. Some 100 prominent Danes were taken hostage, including the Chief Rabbi Dr. Max Friediger and a dozen other Jews. In response, the government resigned on August 29, 1943. The result was direct administration of Denmark by German authority; the " model protectorate" had come to an end–and with it, the protection the Danish government had provided for the country's Jews.
Without the recalcitrant Danish government to impede them, Denmark's German occupiers began planning the deportation to Nazi concentration camps of the 8,000 or so Jews in Denmark. On September 28, 1943, Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz, a German diplomat, after secretly making sure Sweden would receive Jewish refugees, leaked word of the plans for the operation against Denmark's Jews to Hans Hedtoft, chairman of the Danish Social Democratic Party. Hedtoft contacted the Danish Resistance Movement and the head of the Jewish community, C.B. Henriques, who in turn alerted the acting chief rabbi, Dr. Marcus Melchior. (The official chief rabbi, Dr. Max Friediger, had already been detained as a "hostage" on the night of August 29, 1943, along with some 100 prominent Danes, including a dozen Jews, in a camp near Copenhagen.) At the early morning services, on September 29, the day prior to the Rosh Hashanah services, Jews were promptly warned by Rabbi Melchior of the German action and urged to go into hiding immediately and to spread the word to all their Jewish friends and relatives.
The improvisational nature of the early phases of the rescue was particularly notable. When Danish civil servants at several levels in different ministries learned of the German plan to round up all Danish Jews, they independently pursued various measures to find the Jews and hide them. Some simply phoned friends and asked them to go through telephone books and warn those with Jewish-sounding names to go into hiding. Most Jews hid for several days or weeks before being smuggled to Sweden, which offered asylum to all Danish Jews who reached its shores.
The Jews were smuggled out of Denmark by transporting them by sea over the resund from Zealand to Sweden–a passage of varying time depending on the specific route and the weather, but averaging under an hour on the choppy winter sea, as noted by Preben Munch-Nielsen in an interview with the USHMM. Some were transported in large fishing boats of up to 20 tons, but others were carried to freedom in rowboats or kayaks. The ketch Albatros was one of the ships used to smuggle Jews to Sweden. Some refugees were smuggled inside freight cars on the regular ferries between Denmark and Sweden, this route being suited for the very young or old who were too weak to endure a rough sea passage. The underground had broken into empty freight cars sealed by the Germans after inspection, helped refugees onto the cars, and then resealed the cars with forged or stolen German seals to forestall further inspection.
Some of the fishermen assisting in the rescue charged money to transport Jews to Sweden, while others took payments only from those who could afford passage. The Danish underground took an active role in organizing the rescue and providing financing, mostly from wealthy Danes who donated large sums of money for the rescue.
During the first days of the rescue action, Jews moved into the many fishing harbours on the Danish coast for rescue, but the Gestapo became suspicious of activity around harbours (and on the night of October 6, about 80 Jews were caught hiding in the loft of the church at Gilleleje, their hiding place betrayed by a Danish girl in love with a German soldier). Subsequent rescues had to take place from isolated points along the coast. While waiting their turn, the Jews took refuge in the woods and in cottages away from the coast, out of sight of the Gestapo.
Some of the refugees never made it to Sweden; a few chose to commit suicide, some were captured by the Gestapo en route to their point of embarkation, others were lost at sea when vessels of poor seaworthiness capsized, and still others were intercepted at sea by German patrol boats. Danish harbour police and civil police often cooperated with the rescue effort. During the early stages, the Gestapo was undermanned and the German army and navy were called in to reinforce the Gestapo in its effort to prevent transportation taking place; but by and large they proved less than enthusiastic in the operation and frequently turned a blind eye to escapees.
In Copenhagen the deportation order was carried out on the Jewish New Year, the night of October 1–2, when the Germans assumed all Jews would be gathered at home. The roundup was organized by the SS who used two police battalions and about 50 Danish volunteer members of the Waffen SS chosen for their familiarity with Copenhagen and northern Zealand. The SS organized themselves in five-man teams, each with a Dane, a vehicle and a list of addresses to check. Most teams found no one, but one team found four Jews on the fifth address checked. There a bribe of 15,000 kroner was rejected and the cash destroyed. The arrested Jews were allowed to bring two blankets, food for 3–4 days, and a small suitcase. They were transported to the harbour, Langelinie, where a couple of large ships awaited them. One of the Danish Waffen-SS members believed the Jews were being sent to Danzig.
On October 2, some arrested Danish communists witnessed the deportation of about 200 Jews from Langelinie via the ship Wartheland. Of these, a young married couple were able to convince the Germans that they were not Jewish, and set free. The remainder included mothers with infants, the sick and elderly, and also chief rabbi Max Friediger and the other Jewish hostages mentioned above, who had been placed in the Danish internment camp, Horserd, on August 28–29. They were driven below deck without their luggage while being screamed at, kicked and beaten. The Germans then took anything of value from the luggage. Their unloading the next day in Swinemunde was even more inhumane, though without fatalities. There the Jews were driven into two cattle cars, about one hundred per car. During the night, while still locked in the cattle cars, a Jewish mother cried that her child had died. For comparison the Danish communists were packed into cars with "only" fifty people in each; nevertheless, they quickly began to suffer from heat, thirst and lack of ventilation; furthermore, on October 5, shortly before being unloaded in Danzig, they received (filthy) water for the first time since they had left Copenhagen.
Only around 450 Danish Jews were captured by the Germans, and most of these were sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in German occupied Czechoslovakia. After these Jews' deportation, leading Danish civil servants persuaded the Germans to accept packages of food and medicine for the prisoners; furthermore, Denmark persuaded the Germans not to deport the Danish Jews to extermination camps. This was achieved by Danish political pressure, using the Danish Red Cross to monitor frequently the condition of the Danish Jews at Theresienstadt. Some 51 Danish Jews–mostly elderly–died of disease at Theresienstadt, but in April 1945, as the war drew to a close, the 400 or so surviving Danish Jews were turned over by the Germans to Count Folke Bernadotte of Wisborg of the Swedish Red Cross (see White Buses). The casualties among Danish Jews during the Holocaust was one of the lowest of the occupied countries of Europe.
It has been popularly reported that the Nazis ordered Danish Jews to wear an identifying yellow star, as elsewhere in Nazi controlled territories. In some versions of the myth, King Christian X opted to wear such a star himself and the Danish people followed his example, thus making the order unenforceable.
The order was, in fact, never issued (although the yellow star was imposed on Dutch Jews).
The myth may have originated in a contemporary cartoon, published in a Swedish daily paper, depicting the King asserting to a former prime minister that, if the order to wear the star was imposed on Denmark's Jews, "We'll all have to wear yellow stars."
A recent study  shows that the assumption that a cartoon initiated the perception that King Christian X threatened to wear a yellow star is incorrect. The story about the King and the Star and other similar myths originated in the offices of NADA, The National Denmark America Association, where a handful of Danish nationals opened a propaganda unit called "Friends of Danish Freedom and Democracy", which published a bulletin called The Danish Listening Post. This group hired Edward L. Bernays, "The father of Public Relation and Spin– as a consultant. Whether Bernays was the inventor of the story about the King and the yellow star, is not known.
The facts differ from the story. Although the Danish authorities cooperated with the German occupation forces, they and most Danes strongly opposed the isolation of any group within the population, especially the well-integrated Jewish community. The German action to deport Danish Jews prompted the Danish state church and all political parties except the pro-Nazi National Socialist Workers– Party of Denmark (DNSAP) immediately to denounce the action and to pledge solidarity with the Jewish fellow citizens. For the first time, they openly opposed the occupation. At once the Danish bishops issued a hyrdebrev–a pastoral letter to all citizens. The letter was distributed to all Danish priests, to be read out in every church on the following Sunday. This was in itself very controversial since the Danish church is decentralized, apolitical, and without a central leadership.
The unsuccessful German deportation attempt and the actions to save the Jews were important steps in linking the resistance movement to broader anti-Nazi sentiments in Denmark. In many ways October 1943 and the rescuing of the Jews marked a change in most people's perception of the war and the occupation thereby giving a "subjective-psychological" foundation for the myth.
A few days after the roundup, a small news item in the New York Daily News reported the myth about the wearing of the Star of David. Later, the story gained its popularity in Leon Uris' novel Exodus and in its movie adaptation. It persists to the present, but it is unfounded.
The Danish resistance movement as a collective effort, rather than as individuals, has been honoured at Yad Vashem in Israel as being part of the "Righteous Among the Nations". Also honored are a handful of Danes who were not members of the official resistance movement, and Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz.
Different explanations have been advanced to explain the success of efforts to protect the Danish Jewish population in light of less success at similar operations elsewhere in Nazi-occupied Europe:
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