Some years ago I was invited to speak to a group that rented a hall at a complex for elderly people. During one of the breaks I went outside and found a quiet bench where I was soon joined by one of the residents. We chatted, and I soon learned that his accent came from his upbringing in Lithuania. I mentioned that my wife was from Denmark, and he said he’d been to that country, once.
I listened in awe as he recounted that he had managed to escape his country during the Nazi invasion of 1941 and make his way to Denmark, where as a young Jewish man he was welcomed and protected. He was given work in the fields, and although the Germans had occupied that country the year before, the Jews had managed to keep their heads down and remain relatively safe. In mid-1943 the uneasy relationship between the German occupiers and the Danish government broke down, and amidst a series of nationwide strikes and the collapse of all co-operation, the Germans planned to arrest and deport the country’s Jewish population of around 7800 people.
As the man related the story of how Jews like him, Danes and others who had fled there from occupied Europe, were rescued, I realised I was privileged to be hearing first-hand about something most of us only know from books and, now, the internet. He said that they had been told there was a plan that would be activated in case of emergency, and eventually it came at Rosh HaShana, Jewish New Year, in the first week of October 1943.
The farmer came with his tractor and fetched him and others from the fields and took them to his home. They were secretly transported that night to the north coast of Zealand, to the small fishing village of Gilleleje, where he was hidden with others in the loft of a home. He recounted, hesitantly, how they heard a Nazi search party enter the home and look around, the owners putting them off until they left, empty handed. He told how the Jews were taken to the little fishing harbour at the town, boarded small fishing boats, and were carried to Sweden, and to safety and freedom. After the war he made his way to England, where he had lived ever since.
Gilleleje is still a small fishing village on the north coast of Zealand in Denmark. Vibeke and I rented a cottage near there earlier this month. We visited the town several times, 75 years almost to the day after the rescue of the Jews. At the local museum the guide said, strongly, that the fishermen who took the Jews to Sweden were not the heroes they’re often made out to be. “They were paid for every Jew they took,” he said, “they did it for the money!” Perhaps so. “No,” he said, “the real heroes are the Germans!” We listened carefully. “The Germans here, many of them turned a blind eye to what was happening, they refused to carry out orders. One German lookout post down the coast even contacted the town’s leaders and said they should use the beach they were guarding to ship out the Jews.”
Questions, questions. As we walked through the town, typically Danish in its refusal to promote any more than very simply its remarkable, terrible past, small signs on some buildings identified homes where Jews were hidden, protected – including, no doubt, the old man I’d met years before.
Yes, it may be true that some Germans helped them escape, and yes it is certainly true that some fishermen may have provided their boats for the money. But when a small town of a few hundred people is inundated over the space of just a few days by over a thousand Jews, all looking to escape, all desperate, all carrying with them the German threat of punishment, imprisonment and even death for anyone who helped them, and the whole town held the line, stood firm, did the right thing, and rescued most all of them, you have to ask, How was this possible? Why did it happen here, and not elsewhere in Europe?
The Danish state church and the country’s political parties had all spoken out against the deportation of the Jews when it was first proposed by the Nazis. Remarkably, the church issued a pastoral letter read to all congregations that Sunday pledging solidarity with Denmark’s Jews. The nation opposed what the Germans wanted to do. The leadership, including the King, stood firm. But in the end, it was individuals, men and women and children, who simply did the right thing, despite the consequences for themselves.
Not all the Jews hiding in the village made it to Sweden that week. Some 75 of them had been given refuge by the local priest, who hid them in the roof of his village church. As they waited for the call to the boats, they were betrayed by someone in the village. The church was surrounded by soldiers, and they were all taken away and transported to Theresienstadt concentration camp. The village priest was so broken by the raid, by the loss of these 75, that he never recovered.
We stood in the attic of the church. We imagined the bodies, close together, the fear, the tension, the apprehension, the hope, the horror, the noise, the shouting, the capture. We looked out of the small round windows down to the harbour, across the water, to Sweden, and safety. And as we left and sought to write a tribute in the Visitors Book at the church, we paged back and saw entry after entry in Hebrew handwriting, from Israeli visitors with deep meaningful words of thanks and tribute.
In total that week, the records show that some 7200 of Denmark’s 7800 Jews, plus nearly 700 non-Jewish spouses, were evacuated to Sweden in small boats from Gilleleje and other fishing villages. Of the rest, 464 were captured (including those in the church loft) and sent to Theresienstadt, where 51 Danish Jews died. The rest survived the war largely due to pressure on the Germans by the Danish Government and the Danish Red Cross. Ninety-nine percent of Denmark’s Jews survived the Holocaust.
At this New Year, Rosh HaShana 5779, as Yom Kippur approaches, it is good to remember, and to consider these things.