Remembering the Holocaust
What We Can Learn from Denmark
There is a famous legend that during World War II the Danish monarch, King Christian X, boldly stood up to his Nazi occupiers by refusing to give in to the demands of the Führer and force the Jews of Denmark to wear the degrading yellow Star-of-David patches to clearly identify and distinguish them from the rest of the nation. The story goes that the King emerged from his quarters the following morning wearing the yellow patch himself, causing a domino effect that saw the rest of the Gentile population of Denmark follow suit and wear the yellow patches as a sign of solidarity with their Jewish neighbors and friends. While this is an inspiring legend, one will be hard-pressed to find evidence that this event actually took place. The fact of the matter regarding the Danish response to Hitler’s attempt on the lives of the Jews within their borders is much more bold, much more inspiring, and proved to achieve much more than a mere protest of solidarity. The Danish response saved the lives of nearly 95 percent of the Jewish population in Denmark from certain capture and death at the hands of the Nazi regime. That percentage was unparalleled in any other occupied nation during the war. Such an act of selfless humanity by an entire nation during a time of such great depravity is deserving of a closer examination of the events that took place.
When the war began, Denmark quickly sought to remain neutral. They had disarmed in the early 1930’s, and were rather committed to staying out of the war to pursue the rebuilding and maintenance of their own national economy. Denmark was the only European nation that actually had a higher standard of living than Germany entering the war. In an attempt to keep Denmark as an ally financially, Germany respected their desire and on May 30, 1939 the two nations signed the German-Danish nonaggression pact. [Yahil, 270] This pact did not last one year before the Germans claimed that they were forced to break it and invade Denmark and Norway on April 9, 1940 to preemptively prevent an Allied invasion of Norway, thus protecting their own northern borders.
The Germans sought to implement this invasion as delicately as possible. The German government’s official note to the Danish foreign minister reads, “In keeping with the good relations which have always existed between Germany and Denmark, the Government of the Reich assures the Royal Danish Government that Germany has no intention now or in the future of encroaching upon the Kingdom of Denmark’s territorial integrity or political independence.” [Yahil, 270]
The implications of this statement were huge. Essentially, Denmark was granted the privilege of maintaining their government while being occupied by Germany. This included functioning in accordance with the parliamentary system in their constitution, maintaining their army, navy, police, courts, and freedoms of political expression. [Yahil, 270] While this sounds well and good, naturally there were real concerns on Denmark’s part. Primarily the fact that Denmark’s 7,700 Jewish residents were now within range of Nazi Germany.
The Deportation Attempt
For three and a half years after the initial German occupation of Denmark, “daily life in wartime remained remarkably the same as it had been before the Occupation.” Hitler referred to it as the “model protectorate,” as he viewed the Occupation as a friendly act of defense that favored and protected the Danes from an invasion by the Allied forces. The Nazis continued to grow in power and confidence, and the storm was on the horizon as they thirsted for more Jewish blood. The first rumbling of the approaching thunder came on September 24, 1942 when the German Foreign Ministry sought to “hurry as much as possible the evacuation of Jews from the various countries of Europe.” [Gilbert, 466] They specifically sought to begin with the deportation of the Jews of Bulgaria, Hungary, and Denmark. [Gilbert, 466] As word of the German intentions spread, the boldness of the Danish citizens began to manifest.
A Danish Underground group was formed to help protect the Jewish citizens and prepare the nation for further German attempts on the autonomy with which Denmark was living. This did not please the German occupiers at all, and on August 29, 1943 the Germans imposed martial law in Denmark after a number of acts of resistance from the Underground. They disbanded the small Danish army, and “the SS general Dr. Werner Best, the German envoy, assumed full powers as Reich plenipotentiary.” The Germans sought to take advantage of the martial law and deport all of Denmark’s Jews and half-Jews to the concentration camps and certain death. The full deportation was to take place on October 1-2, 1943…Rosh HaShanah. [Gilbert, 614]
The Danish Response
Over the course of the three days leading up to the deportation, the events that transpired are nothing short of amazing. First, “the general in charge of the German army in Denmark refused to allow his men to participate in the roundup.” [Flender, 67-8.] Then, another German with a conscience stepped up and seized the moment. On September 28, Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz, the commercial attaché in the German embassy leaked the full plans of the impending German attempt on the Danish Jews to Danish friends. [Paldiel, 469] They immediately shared the information with the Danish Underground and the Jewish community. Acting quickly and decisively, the Danish nation would band together to help deliver the Jewish people within their borders to safety.
Both the Danish government and the Danish church were very vocal with their support for the Jews during those crucial days in late September and early October, 1943. We see this support in a letter from Danish Lutheran bishops to the German Occupation officials issued on October 3, 1943. They write, “We will never forget that the Lord Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem of the Virgin Mary, according to God’s promise to the Chosen People of Israel. Persecution of the Jews conflicts with the humanitarian conception of the love of neighbors and the message which Christ’s church set out to preach.” [Flender, 469] They go on, “Persecution conflicts with the judicial conscience existing in the Danish people, inherited through centuries of Danish culture…Notwithstanding our separate religious beliefs we will fight to preserve for our Jewish brothers and sisters the same freedom we ourselves value more than life.” [Flender, 469]
The rescue began the same weekend that the deportation was set to take place. It involved secretly ferrying the Jewish refugees on fishing boats across the Sound to neutral Sweden which had opened its doors to many Jewish refugees, including those earlier in the war from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. [Gilbert, 416] The Danish Underground wasted no time recruiting the help of many average citizens who were more than willing to assist. “They included doctors, schoolteachers, students, businessmen, taxi drivers, housewives and, of course, captains of fishing vessels.” [Paldiel, 470] Even the Danish policemen were aiding the resistance movement. They would often overlook the secret acts of rescue that were done during the day, and there are numerous accounts of Danish policeman assuring the safety of the Jewish refugees and respectfully saluting them as they sailed away to safety. In cases of pro-German Danes reporting the acts of rescue to the Danish police, the police would oftentimes “arrest” the Jewish refugees and rescuers only to let them go after driving a bit down the road, or taking them to a safe spot for crossing the Sound. [Paldiel, 472]
The stories of heroism and boldness are truly encouraging to read, but the question of ethics was raised during and after the events took place. The Danes had a strong heritage of respect for the law. How could so many citizens be openly involved in deceiving the occupying nation? Their morality answered that question very easily. They knew that it was a greater crime to step aside and allow the Nazi regime to have its way with the Jewish people. When asked much later why they did it, Preben Munch-Nielson, one of the rescue couriers, responded, “It was a matter of decency. It was simply the only decent thing to do.” [Paldiel, 474] Again, the Lutheran bishops spoke to this issue. “(We) clearly understand the duties of law-abiding citizens, but recognize at the same time that they are conscientiously bound to maintain the right and to protest every violation of justice. It is evident that in this case we are obeying God rather than man.” [Flender, 69]
A key figure in the rescue was a sea captain and owner of the Snekkersten Inn, Henry Thomsen. He led the Danish Underground and gave his own life for the cause. The Snekkersten Inn was located near the town of Elsinore in the north of Denmark, at the narrowest point of the Sound—the ideal location for ships to sail carrying Jewish refugees. The Inn became the hub of the exodus. Many Jews secretly made their way to the northern coastal towns, with the help of many Danish citizens. Those who were unable to make it over the Sound often spent the night at the Inn as they waited for the next opportune time to leave. Soon the Gestapo began to search the hotels and inns, so many of the Jews were housed in empty vacation homes. All of this was organized and lead by Thomsen. [Paldiel, 470]
As the ships sailed across the Sound, the Germans were essentially blind to it. The Danes used small, speedy motorized vessels for the transports. The Germans had large, clumsy boats with weak motor power. “The Germans were also undermined by their own rigid schedules, and one could always be sure that the Sound would be open every day at 12 noon,” as the Germans would dock in the harbor to eat lunch. [Paldiel, 473] The Danes moved quickly, worked together, and knew full well what was at stake.
When all was said and done, “Danish sea captains and fishermen ferried 5,919 Jews, 1,301 part-Jews…and 686 Christians married to Jews, to neutral Sweden.” [Gilbert, 614] As the Germans implemented the roundup of the Jewish people of Denmark on the evening of October 1-2, 1943, instead of finding the full 7,700 they could find only 475. [Paldiel, 469] The rest were either in hiding, awaiting transport to Sweden, or already safely there. The 475 captured Jews were sent to the camp at Theresienstadt, and most made it through the war alive. In all, out of the 7,700 Jews in Denmark at the beginning of the war, 53 died at Theresienstadt. [Paldiel, 470]
It is likely that the work would not have happened if not for the heroic efforts of Henry Thomsen and all of the Danish people. Thomsen was arrested in August 1944 and sent to the Neuengamme camp in northern Germany on September 9. He lasted only three months in the camp and died on December 4, 1944 of maltreatment at the age of 38. His memory lives on, though, as a monument was erected across from the Snekkersten Inn on September 4, 1946, the three year anniversary of his first illegal crossing to Sweden. Later, in 1968 a tree was planted in his honor along the Avenue of the Righteous at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. There is also a small Danish fishing boat on exhibit in the museum to honor the fishermen who risked their lives. [Paldiel, 474]
This remarkable achievement can be attributed to the bold and steadfast unity of a nation that stood up in the face of an oppressive force with murderous motives. One can learn from the simple conviction of an entire people, the coming together of an entire nation to stand resolute in the face of the enemy, holding fast to what is true and right, risking their own lives for the sake of others. May the memory of this nation’s courage live on and not be forgotten.
 Leni Yahil, “Under State Protection,” Voices & Views: A History of the Holocaust, ed. Deborah Dwork (New York: The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, 2002), 271.
 Martin Gilbert, The Holocaust: The Jewish Tragedy (London: Fontana Press, 1987), 119.
 Deborah Dwork, “Introduction to ‘Gentile Life under German Occupation,’” Voices & Views: A History of the Holocaust, ed. Deborah Dwork (New York: The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, 2002), 240-1.
 Harold Flender, Rescue in Denmark (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1963), 67-8 as quoted in Scattered Among the Nations: Documents Affecting Jewish History 49 to 1975, ed. Alexis P. Rubin (Toronto: Wall & Emerson, 1993), 259.
 Mordecai Paldiel, “Henry & Ellen Thomsen and the Danish Underground,” The Righteous Among the Nations: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust (Jerusalem: The Jerusalem Publishing House Ltd., 2007), 469.