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Rescue of the Danish Jews: Evacuation & Effects

Instructor: Katie Streit

Katie has a PhD in History. She has taught middle school English and college History.

In this lesson. we will learn about the largely unknown and extraordinary history of the rescue of Denmark's Jewish population during Nazi Germany's occupation in October 1943.

Price of Inaction

Most individuals in occupied-Europe did not actively cooperate with the Nazis' ethnic policies and extermination practices during World War II. Sadly, millions stood by while their neighbors, colleagues, friends, and countrymen and women were arrested and deported — believing it was none of their business or fearing for their own lives if they were caught helping Jews, Roma (Gypsies), homosexuals, and the other ''enemies of the Reich.''

Historians have estimated that up to six million Jews died during the Holocaust. In the case of German-occupied Poland, approximately 90% of the Jewish population - three million men, women, and children - were murdered by the Nazis. Yet, one occupied country chose to resist. Unlike anywhere else in Europe, Denmark launched a nationwide rescue effort in October 1943 to save its Jewish population regardless of the risks.

Unique Occupation

The Germans invaded Denmark on April 9, 1940. The Danish government surrendered shortly afterward, realizing that resistance was futile. The Danish government promised to serve as a loyal German protectorate and supply Germany with agricultural produce. In return, the Germans allowed King Christian X to remain on the throne while the Rigsdad (Danish parliament) and national courts continued to govern.

Danish soldiers preparing for the German invasion
invasion

Despite the Danes conciliatory stance towards Nazi Germany, they would not support Hitler's anti-Semitic policies. The Danish government refused to persecute its Jewish population — recognizing them as Danes first and foremost. In order to retain Denmark's cooperation, Nazi Germany did not press Denmark to implement anti-Jewish measures as it did elsewhere in German-occupied Europe.

The Turn

Denmark served as a model German protectorate until 1943. Allied successes against Germany emboldened the Danish resistance to increase its sabotage activities and underground press. Labor strikes also gripped the country.

Riot in Copenhagen during German occupation
riot

The Nazis demanded that the Danish government ban all strikes, establish a curfew, and punish saboteurs with the death penalty. The Danish government resigned in protest on August 29, 1943. Germany declared martial law as it took control over Denmark.

An Unexpected Ally

After the take-over, the German Gestapo (secret police) planned an operation to arrest and deport all 7,800 Danish Jews to concentration camps. The round-up was scheduled to occur on Rosh HaShannah (the Jewish New Year) on October 1, 1943. The scheme might have succeeded if it were not for the efforts of one German diplomat.

Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz had been a member of the Nazi party since 1932. As the war progressed, however, Duckwitz developed an aversion to the Nazis' genocidal practices. While working as a maritime attaché to Denmark, he learned of the Nazis' deportation plans. Duckwitz notified the chairman of the Danish Social Democratic Party (Hans Hedtoft) about the round-up on September 28, 1943.

Hedtoft immediately contacted leaders in the Jewish community and the Danish resistance. The chief rabbi — Dr. Marcus Melchior — instructed all Jews to go into hiding. Jews fled from the capital of Copenhagen and other cities. Across the country, non-Jewish Danes from all backgrounds readily offered them aid — hiding Jews in homes, churches, and hospitals.

Escape

7,800 Jews could only hide for so long before the Germans found them. But where would they go? The answer: neutral Sweden. Sweden issued an official statement on October 2nd that it would accept all Danish Jews.

Map of Denmark and Sweden
map

Across the nation, the Danish resistant and general population smuggled Jews to the coast where seaman ferried them across the Baltic Sea. Dangers abound as the Germans patrolled the waters. One survivor, Leif Wassermann, recalled being smuggled aboard the Gerda III: ''We stayed very low on the floor. We heard there were German patrols outside. We saw flashlights going through the windows.'' Many of the Danish police and coast guard, as well as German troops, chose to turn a blind eye to the escapees — whether as a result of bribes or genuine compassion.

Danish Jews arrive in Sweden
arrival

Danish seamen ultimately ferried nearly 7,200 Jews and 680 non-Jewish family members to Sweden in a three week period.

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