In this article Rod MacGregor looks at how the Danish people took effective action to protect their Jewish population from Nazi extermination
October 1, 10 p.m., 1943 Copenhagen.
Nazi occupation forces knock on the doors of the Danish Jewish population. In Denmark, the “final solution” to the “Jewish problem” is under way. The following morning, out of a population of between 7500 and 8000 Jews, only 284 are in custody, of whom 50 were later released, and only 202 deported. The rest, it seems, had vanished into the autumn night. Where were they? How had they seemingly just disappeared?
April 9, 1940 — In direct violation of a non-aggressiontreaty signed the previous year, German forces invaded Denmark (Norway was also invaded on this day). Quickly realising the military mismatch between the two countries, after a few skirmishes the Danes surrendered. In doing so they hoped to work out an advantageous outcome for themselves. Although this was a pragmatic stance by the Danish the government, it was one that many ordinary Danes did not agree with, believing that their country should have put up more resistance to the Nazi invaders.
The Germans announced a protectorate and promised non-interference in Denmark’s internal affairs. In return Denmark, to some extent, allowed their industry and agriculture to aid the German war effort.
Hitler’s pet canary
There followed an uneasy “truce” between the Danish government and the German authorities, as the Danes supplied food for the Germans and the Germans, in turn, allowed the Danes to continue life much as before the invasion. Other than underground newspapers, there was very little resistance activity at this point, a situation which led Churchill to call Denmark “Hitler’s pet canary.”
For Denmark’s population of around 8000 Jews, life changed very little for them after the German invasion. They were allowed to keep their homes, businesses and assets, unlike in other Western European countries. Nor were they required to wear a yellow badge to identify themselves and thus isolate them from the rest of the Danish population, and they continued to hold religious services.
Reich plenipotentiary in Denmark, Cecil von Renthe-Fink, had some influence on this, concluding that to treat the Danish Jews as they did Jewish populations in other conquered territories would antagonise the rest of the population, and have a detrimental effect on Germany, as Danish agriculture supplied food for the Germans.
This did not, however, stop high-ranking Nazis planning for a “final solution” to the “Jewish problem” in Denmark. At the beginning of 1942 Himmler and Heydrich proposed that the Nuremberg anti-Jewish laws should be put into effect in all Western countries under German occupation. But Denmark still had its constitution and monarchy intact, and was neutral though under German occupation. Around this time the American press reported that the king of Denmark had threatened to abdicate if the Nuremberg laws were implemented.
Von Renthe-Fink was advised from above “to find occasions to point out that it would be prudent for Denmark to prepare in good time for the final solution.”
But prudence (as seen by the Germans) was not, at this point in time, high on the agenda of the Danes, and when in June 1942 the Germans tried to pressure the Danes into introducing the infamous “Jewish badge” decree, it was reported that King Christian said that he would be the first Danish citizen to wear the badge.
Karl Werner Best was appointed Reich plenipotentiary to Denmark in succession to von Renthe-Fink, and Himmler thought that Best would be pliable as he was a former legal advisor to the Gestapo. But Best had left the Gestapo to escape from Heydrich, and when some anti-Jewish measures were proposed he pointed out that they would almost certainly cause a constitutional crisis and suggested that the only action which should be taken should be the dismissal of all Jews in the civil service (of whom there were thirty-one).
Best, too, like von Renthe-Fink before him, believed that at that time and given the circumstances, it would be counter-productive to the German war effort to single out the Danish Jews for special treatment. He was also keen for Denmark to be seen as a “model protectorate”, an example of how life could be good under German rule. Basically, he didn’t want to rock the boat.
There followed a game of constitutional cat and mouse, with the Germans trying to find ways of implementing their final solution and the Danes resisting them. This was how things went until August 1943. On the fifth day of that month neutral Sweden renounced an agreement which allowed German troops stationed in Norway to use the Swedish railway system.
This had a galvanising effect on some Danes. The dock workers at Odense were inspired by the Swedish action and refused to repair German ships, and riots and arrests followed. On 9 August Scavenius, the Danish prime minister, threatened to resign if the arrested men were required to be tried by Danish courts.
Martial law was introduced at Odense and on 24 August, 1943, the German-occupied Forum Hall in Copenhagen was blown up by the Danish resistance. The following day all of Denmark’s shipyards were on strike.
The Scavenius government resigned on 28 August and the following day the German military commander, General von Hannecken, proclaimed martial law throughout Denmark. Danish defence forces were interned, while the Danish fleet either sought internment in Sweden or scuttled itself.
Even with martial law proclaimed, von Hannecken and Best could not take over the government of Denmark. Though the Danish government was no more, they had to deal with a Committee of Ministerial Directors, whose job it was to act on behalf of the absent Danish cabinet.
However, on September 8, 1943, Best asked for police reinforcements and assistance from the German army “so that the Jewish problem can be handled during the present siege conditions and not later.” On September 16, Hitler gave his approval and plans for Denmark’s “final solution” were prepared.
Best informed German naval attaché Georg F. Duckwitz of the plans on September 11, and this was to prove a key moment in the events which were about to unfold. Duckwitz flew to Berlin two days later and tried, unsuccessfully, to have the plan cancelled. He flew to Sweden two weeks later to discuss the possibility of smuggling Denmark’s Jews across the Øresund, a narrow strait of water which separated the two countries.
Finally, Duckwitz, who had friends in Denmark’s Social Democrat party, sought a meeting with Hans Hedtoft, a leading member of the party, who later recalled,
I was sitting in a meeting when Duckwitz asked to see me. ‘The disaster is going to take place,’ he said. ‘All details are planned. Your poor fellow citizens are going to be deported to an unknown destination.’ Duckwitz’s face was white from indignation and shame.
October 1 (Ros Hahsanah or Jewish New Year) at 10 p.m. was when the operation would swing into action, the Germans figuring that most of the Jews would be at home on this particular day.
Hedtoft immediately warned C. B. Henriques, head of the Jewish community, and Dr Marcus Melchior, acting chief Rabbi of the Krystalgade Synagogue. So it was that on September 30, 1943, Rabbi Melchior stood before members of his synagogue in Copenhagen and warned those present of the Germans’ plans for the night of October 1. Those present were urged to contact anyone they knew who was Jewish and also to contact their Christian friends so that they could pass on information about the Germans’ terrible plan to any Jewish friends that they had.
Act of sheer humanity
So, when the Nazis knocked on doors and found no one there, where were the Jews? In an act of sheer humanity the Danish people had hidden them.
Some were hidden in hospitals, some hid with non-Jewish neighbours, people even walked up to Jews In the street and gave them the keys to their apartments so that they would not be at home when the fascists tried to implement their “final solution.”
What was truly remarkable about the actions of the vast majority of the Danish population was the spontaneity of their actions. They were not taking orders from any government, there was no centralised resistance plan to hide and save the Danish Jews from the Nazis. It was a case of “this far and no further” with their accommodation of the Germans. When the Nazis decided to single out one section of Danish society for persecution the Danes saw them not as Jews, but as Danes, and acted accordingly.
Courage and humanity
There are numerous examples of the courage and humanity of the Danish people in this most awful of times. A young Danish ambulance driver learned of the round-up on the day it was announced at the synagogue. He simply circled all the Jewish sounding names in the phone book and drove round Copenhagen warning them. When some became nearly hysterical because they had nowhere to hide he drove them in his ambulance to Bispebjerg Hospital. He knew that Dr Karl Koster would conceal them there. “What else could I do?” was the young ambulance driver’s reply when he was asked why he had taken this particular course of action.
At Bispebjerg Hospital Dr Koster hid hundreds of Jews, as arrangements were made to smuggle them to neutral Sweden, which was a tantalisingly short boat ride away. The psychiatric hospital and nurses’ quarters were teeming with hundreds of fleeing Jews, who were fed from the hospital kitchen. Despite the obvious dangers involved in this course of action the entire staff co-operated. Just one Nazi collaborator or sympathiser could have brought the whole escapade to a tragic ending. Donations flowed into the hospital from the Danish people to help in the struggle to save the Jews of Denmark.
Professor Richard Ege was later asked why he had hidden so many Jews in his building and replied, “It was a natural reaction to help good friends.” His wife commented, “It was exactly the same as seeing a neighbour’s house on fire. Naturally, you want to do something about it.”
An anonymous pastor put it succinctly when he said, “I would rather die with the Jews than live with the Nazis.”
It would be wise at this juncture to point out that this was not some glorified, high octane “Whisky Galore” style adventure, where the cheeky wee Danes ran around hiding human “contrabrand” from those pesky Germans. The consequences for anyone caught hiding Jews would, in all likelihood, have been every bit as severe as for the Jews themselves, should they have been caught.
While the vast majority of the Danes opposed the Germans, like everywhere they went, the Nazis had their sympathisers. After the war 40,000 Danish citizens were arrested on suspicion of collaboration with the Germans. 13,500 of them received some kind of punishment, including 78 who were sentenced to death (with 46 death sentences actually being carried out).
But this only serves to make the Danish peoples’ protection of their fellow Danes more admirable. Knowing that they had an enemy within who would betray them to the Germans, as well as the occupying Nazis, did not deter them from their spontaneous, humanitarian efforts.
But hidden as they were it would be impossible to conceal all of Denmark’s Jews for any significant length of time. Now they had to be transported to neutral Sweden. On September 30, Neils Bohr, the famous nuclear physicist, had been smuggled to Sweden, where he was informed that he would have to go to London to be safe from the Nazis. He refused to leave Sweden until he had spoken to the foreign minister. He informed him at the meeting that he could not leave Sweden until until the Swedes agreed to open their doors to the Danish Jewish refugees. When the foreign minister was uncooperative, Bohr insisted on seeing the king of Sweden. King Gustav agreed that Sweden would accept them. Bohr asked Sweden to announce this on its newspapers’ front pages and also in a radio broadcast to Denmark. Only after the broadcast did Bohr leave for England.
The Jews were smuggled out of Denmark and over the water to Sweden. Some made the journey in fishing boats, others in rowing boats or kayaks. Others were concealed in freight cars on the ferries between Denmark and Sweden. The underground broke into empty freight cars which the Germans had sealed after inspection, put the refugees in the cars and then resealed them with forged or stolen seals so that the Germans would not reinspect them.
In this manner, in a short space of time, Denmark’s Jews who had evaded capture were spirited out of the country. Some fishermen took money for doing this, while others only took money from the wealthy, but sadly, there will always be profiteers in any desperate situation.
As the rescue moved on, the underground resistance ousted the profiteers and became active in organising the exodus of the Danish Jews, providing finance, which came mostly from donations of large sums of money from wealthy Danes.
Not all went smoothly, however. At the port of Gilleleje eighty Jews were found hiding in the loft of a church, betrayed by a Danish girl in love with a German soldier, and the Gestapo was becoming suspicious of increased activity at Danish harbours, forcing rescues to be conducted from isolated coastal spots, while the Jews hid in the woods and cottages away from the coast while awaiting their turn to be rescued.
But the Danes‘ heroic efforts to help their fellow citizens did not end there. Those who were captured ended up in Theresienstadt concentration camp. This was bad enough, but Theresienstadt was not a death camp, though of the 360 sent there, twenty died on the journey and fifty actually in the camp itself. The Danish administration continually harried the Germans as to the fate of their citizens in a manner which no other country did, which probably accounted for the high survival rate of the Danish Jews compared to other countries.
Even when the Danish Jews returned to Denmark at the end of the war their experience was different to that of survivors returning in other countries. Quite often Jews would return to their homes to find them either occupied or looted, and it was made quite clear to them that they were not welcome.
When the Danish Jews returned they found their homes and possessions had been looked after by neighbours, even in some cases down to family pets being cared for.
Some historians make the case that Werner Best had informed Georg Duckwitz of the date of the Jewish round-up, knowing that Duckwitz would tell the Danes, others going so far as to imply that they actually colluded in the action. These are the arguments of academics long after the event. At the time the Jews of Denmark were in genuine and mortal fear of their lives and the Danish population had no knowledge of any background political machinations, real or not, when they spontaneously protected their fellow citizens from persecution of the worst kind.
Why were the Danes able to save their Jewish population when other countries could not, or did not care enough even to try?
One obvious advantage that Denmark had was a neutral country, Sweden, which agreed to accept the refugees, and was only a short boat trip away.
Another theory is that the Germans were patchy in their willingness to pursue the final solution in Denmark. It was 1943 and the Germans had tasted defeat at Stalingrad and in North Africa. Did Karl Werner Best try to earn brownie points by not pursuing the final solution with too much vigour? Many records were destroyed and perhaps we will never know the real answer to this one. On October 4, 1943, however, he reported to Berlin that Denmark was now “Jewfree” although one can’t help but think that he was a little bit sketchy in his report about how this state of affairs had come to pass. To use diplomatic language he may have been “economical with the truth.”
Be these things as they may, few Jews would have escaped from Denmark without the mass involvement of the Danish population in response to what they saw as an unacceptable act. Danish society had, over the centuries, developed what the Danes called livskunst (the art of living). Caring for one another, respect for individual and religious differences, co-operation, self reliance and good humour were the distinctive features of livskunst, and these undoubtedly shaped the Danes’ response to the Germans inflicting their “final solution” upon a section of Danish society.
How often as socialists do we talk of action from below, how often do we talk in praiseworthy terms of a movement from below? This clearly was the case in the rescue of the Danish Jews and as such, we as socialists can learn much from it. It astounds me that it took me five-and-a-half decades to hear of this story. The heroes and heroines of this tale were not necessarily socialists nor communists, although no doubt some of them were.
But whatever their political affiliations, in October 1943, the Danish people could not have acted in a more socialist manner. What could be more socialist than risking everything to protect a persecuted minority from a murderous regime?
Proclamation of the Danish Freedom Council
The Danish Freedom Council condemns the pogroms the Germans have set in motion against the Jews in our country. Among the Danish people the Jews are not a special class but are citizens to exactly the same degree as all other Danes . . . We Danes know that the whole population stands behind resistance to the German oppressors. The Council calls on the Danish population to help in every way possible those Jewish fellow-citizens who have not yet succeeded in escaping abroad. Every Dane who renders help to the Germans in their persecution of human beings is a traitor and will be punished as such when Germany is defeated.