“I remember standing there on the beach one night – it is very cold in October in Denmark – and saw a small child, really a baby, who had been drugged so he wouldn’t cry. Crossing the straits to Sweden was dangerous, because the sea was running high and stormy. I remember how I thought at the time about the Nazis’ madness, causing such a small child so much suffering. It was clear to me that we had to fight this system of theirs.”
21,000 Righteous Among the Nations are listed in Yad Vashem Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority’s archives. Each of them is a ray of light of morality and conscience in the darkness that fell on Europe during World War II. Among the many rescuers there is one who is not unique, but a whole nation. Yad Vashem honors the entire Danish nation as Righteous Among the Nations, in recognition of the campaign to save Denmark’s Jews in the autumn of 1943. Ministers, teachers, officials, fishermen and drivers all acted as one man, without prior planning or coordination to save their countrymen. Before the war, Denmark’s Jewish community number 7,500 persons. The daring improvised smuggling operation the lives of 95 percent of them.
Speaking with Ynet from Copenhagen this week, Peter Ilsoe, then a 23-year old student when a member of the Danish resistance, said, “We felt that the Jews were Danes like us, and we knew we had to help them. Everyone felt this way.
“The interesting thing about the whole story is that nothing was planned. It’s said that the Danes that they’re bad at planning, but good at improvising. That’s how it was. The Jews’ escape wasn’t planned. There were no meeting points or hiding places known in advance. There was no organization or chain of command.
“The resistance initially operated against the Nazis, and then, one day, there was a more urgent need: to save the Jews. We operated in groups that weren’t always in contact with each other. Some located Jews and found them shelter. Others were responsible for transportation towards the ports. Another group had to accompany them to Sweden. There was a command post that coordinated the missions between the different groups operating in the field, or individuals, who moved around day after day to avoid discovery. In retrospect, it was amazing that these people were doctors or academics who knew nothing about security or resistance operations. They simply improvised. I was only a small cog in a great machine.”
A fateful surrender
On 9 April 1940, the Germans conquered Denmark. Instead of bombs, they dropped leaflets on Copenhagen. In poor Danish, the Germans claimed that they had no aggressive intentions, and that they only wanted to defend Denmark against the Allies. Denmark, with a small and ineffective army, surrendered without resistance. For many it was undoubtedly a relief, since they knew that the Germans could have crushed them with ease. King Christian X even called on his subjects to accept the conquest out of a desire to avoid a military confrontation that was lost before it was begun, and which would only cost a heavy price in blood and great damage.
Boat used to smuggle Jews to Sweden (Photo courtesy of Yad Vashem)
In retrospect, the decision not to resist may have been correct, since the Nazi conquest of Denmark was different from the ruthlessness that characterized the Nazis in other European countries. In the first years, the Nazis left the Danish government in place with its authority. Many Danes, at least during the first three and easy years of occupation, still believed that they could stay neutral in the war, even while under occupation. Even now, however, opinion is divided about that period: was this surrender and collaboration or only enforced and passive coexistence.
The Nazis’ light hand in Denmark has bothered many historians. Some claim that Denmark’s surrender caused the Nazis to ridicule the Danes, and to direct resources to other fronts. Another claim is that the Nazis considered the Danes to be Aryans like themselves, so they felt fraternal towards them. It has also been claimed that this was the Nazis were in no hurry to deport Denmark’s Jews, since they knew that the Danes would not consent to such discrimination.
For centuries, Denmark’s Jewish community lived in tranquility, without discrimination or sense of alienation, and protected like every citizen under law. In their memoirs, Denmark’s Jews related that to be Jewish meant no more than a religious affiliation, the same as being a Catholic or Protestant. Despite the Nazi conquest, until the summer of 1943, Denmark’s Jews continued to lead their lives undisturbed, and were convinced that nothing bad would happen to them.
Rabbi Bent Melchior, of the leaders of Denmark’s Jews, was 14 at the time. He remembers, “The Danes considered us to be Danes. No one thought twice about the fact that I was Jewish, the son of a rabbi. The subject never came up. When we decided to flee, we knew we had to hide among our non-Jewish friends who would agree – and there were many who agreed: the community’s food vendors, our landlords, teachers, ministers and even total strangers. Everyone agreed to do what was necessary. No one dreamed of turning us over.
“There’s a well-known legend that says how King Christian would ride every day on his horse through the streets of Copenhagen wearing a yellow patch on his clothes as a sign of solidarity with the Jews. He really rode every day in the forest, and this angered the Germans, but there was no patch for a simple reason: No one wore any patches. The Danes wouldn’t agree to this discrimination.”
Bent Melchior claims that the Nazis’ light hand during the early years of occupation was in the German interest. “Between April 1940 and the autumn of 1943, there was an autonomous Danish government, and it remained on the condition that the Germans wouldn’t touch the Danish Jews. Maybe the Nazis wanted to show to the world that there was an enlightened occupation? In any event, they also knew that they needed Denmark for the supply of many agricultural goods. That was the price they paid for conquered Denmark without a fight.”
The Nazi who dared
Not everything was quiet. Many Danes opposed the capitulation to Nazism, and organized strikes and attacks. Many felt betrayed by the government and king. Researchers claim that this was also what strengthened a sense of patriotism among many people, and helped in the recruitment of people to save the Jews. The government’s resignation was a shot in the arm for people in the resistance, who felt free to act. On the other side, the government’s resignation ended cooperation between the Germans and the Danes, and the Nazis had no reason not to deport the Jews.
In Berlin, a date was marked on a calendar. 10 pm, 1 October, Rosh Hashana eve (Jewish New Year), the Gestapo would raid Jewish homes and seize the occupants. Two large passenger liners would wait in Copenhagen harbor to take the Jews on the first leg of their trip to the Tereisenstadt concentration camp. The rest would be put on buses.
German diplomat Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz was serving at the German Consulate in Copenhagen at the time. On 11 September, he learned about the plan from the Nazi governor of Denmark. He was shocked. He tried to frustrate the campaign in Berlin, and flew to Stockholm in desperation to secretly meet Sweden’s Prime Minister Per Albin Hansson. Thanks to his good ties there, Duckwitz returned to Copenhagen with a promise: if Denmark’s Jews reached neutral Sweden, they would be received as refugees and would not be sent back.
At great personal risk, Duckwitz leaked the plan to a friend, Hans Hedtoft. Hedtoft, the head of Denmark’s Social Democratic Party, warned the head of Jewish community and Rabbi Marcus Melchior, the father of Rabbi Bent Melchior, and grandfather of Israeli Member of Knesset Rabbi Michael Melchior (Labor-Meimad).
The Germans found empty homes
“I remember that it was Wednesday evening, two days before Rosh Hashana. My father got the message, but there was a curfew. We couldn’t go out, and it was dangerous to talk on the phone. Only in the morning, during “slihot” (penitential/ confessional prayers) at the synagogue, did my father deliver the news to everyone, and told them to prepare, and not to be at home on Friday. We had two days left. There was a problem getting the message to as many people as possible quietly, so my father decided to close the synagogue. He believed that the Jews would realize that something was wrong, and would get in contact with him,” says Bent Melchior.
“We got ready to leave the city, but were six people, and it wasn’t easy for people to take us into their homes. In the end, we reached a village where there was a Protestant minister whom my father knew slightly. The minister suggested that we stay with him until the end of the war. We still dreamed that the announcement was wrong, and hoped we could go back home.”
On Friday night, the Germans raided Jewish homes, but found them empty. The few Jews who were caught were those who hadn’t gotten the message, or who refused to flee. They didn’t believe that someone would dare deport Danes from their homes. Out of Denmark’s 7,500-strong Jewish community, 200 were captured.
The rescue machine
“The Jews were scattered in home, farms, hospitals and churches along the coast,” says Bent Melchior.
“The Danes knew that the punishment for hiding Jews was death, because that applied to resistance activity, but they didn’t dream of handing us over. At every church on Sunday, the bishops led protests. They said it was a Christian duty to help the Jews escape.”
Bent Melchior emphasizes that even if there was a sense of common nationality between Danish Jews and Christians, some of the fishermen hired to carry the Jews to Sweden demanded a great deal of money. They feared not only for their lives, but their livelihoods, if their boats were confiscated. “We had bad luck. We fell into the hands of a man who exploited our distress,” remembers Melchior.
“The Germans patrolled the closest points between Sweden and Denmark, so we were recommended to go south. The journey was longer, but safer. It was the night of ‘Kol Nidre’ (Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement – eve). I remember how we lay in the boat like fish. This wasn’t a boat meant for passengers. It was very cold, crowded and dirty.
“After about eight hours, we saw the sun, which was supposed to rise in the east, rise behind us. Then we realized that we weren’t in Sweden, but in Denmark. The man who took us was an amateur and made a mistake in navigation. There were Germans at the lighthouse, and if they had spotted us, it would have been all over. He was very frightened and almost out of fuel, but we quickly crossed the straits again and arrived on the Swedish coast.”
‘Germans turned a blind eye’
Shortly after the mass escape, Peter Ilsoe himself became a refugee in Sweden. “I fled because the Gestapo was looking for me. They even seized my father and sister as hostages for two weeks, until they realized that I had escaped,” he says. From Sweden, he went to Britain, where the Allies trained him as a paratrooper. He parachuted back into Denmark and helped the Allies for the rest of the war. He eventually joined the Danish Security Intelligence Service, rising to the rank of First Deputy Director.
Ilsoe stresses that the campaign to save the Jews would not have succeeded were it not for Denmark’s special circumstances at the time. “The search for Jews was mainly conducted by Gestapo troops brought in specially from Germany. Many German soldiers stationed in Denmark didn’t really favor deporting the Jews. They didn’t try very hard to prevent us from acting.” Ilsoe notes that thanks are owed to Sweden, which agreed to harbor so many Jews. Without Sweden’s consent, the fate of Denmark’s Jews would have been sealed.
Bent Melchior eventually returned to Denmark and raised a family. He also gives thanks to Sweden. “I remember a small boy, about six, on the Swedish coast. He saw us and called his father to come. We spent only one night at that house on the beach, but I’m still in contact with that boy even now. I visit him every year. He still lives in the same house.
“Two years ago, I learned that my father asked his father for a 50 Swedish Krona loan, in order to manage at the refugee camp. A few months later, after my father found work, he went back to the house to repay the loan. The man refused. He said two days after we left, he went to sea, and had a huge catch of fish, the likes of which he had never had.”