No Other European Country Saved All Its Jews From Hitler
-by Harvey Wasserman Human history is all-too-full of ghastly acts of cruelty and torment. They are our ultimate downfall. But 80 years ago, the people of Denmark—-often a great personal risk—-saved some 8,000 Jewish Danes from occupying Nazi murderers. On October 1-- 1943’s Jewish New Year-- Denmark's King and its underground resistance helped mobilize the nation to ferry nearly all resident Jews to safety in Sweden. The story is complex, but among the most moving and powerful in the annals of our species. Hitler’s Wehrmacht had occupied Denmark in 1940. Recognizing the Germans’ overpowering might and love of slaughter, the Danes watched the Nazis march into their country with little violent resistance. Conversely, Hitler desperately needed Danish agricultural supplies. The result was an uneasy coexistence. Alone amongst the countries he occupied, Der Fuhrer abstained from slaughtering en masse the country’s Jews, who were generally well integrated into Denmark’s social mainstream. But after three years, the Danes had enough of their goose-stepping occupiers. Resistance escalated. Hitler lost patience. So he decided to begin shipping the country’s Jews to death camps. The order passed to Werner Best, the Nazi in charge of running the occupation. Best informed Georg Duckwitz, a high-ranking Naval attaché. But Duckwitz secretly told King Christian X what was about to happen. Legend has it that the monarch donned a Star of David in solidarity with his Jewish subjects. But very few knew what Hitler was planning. In fact, Christian quickly warned the nation’s rabbis of the Nazis’ intent. And in a daring act of bravery and foresight, Duckwitz slipped into Sweden to secure from its rulers a promise of safe passage for fleeing Jews. At Erev Rosh Hashanna services, mostly in Copenhagen, religious leaders told their congregants to hide…and then to get out as fast as possible. Organized by the Danish resistance, coastal fishing families opened their boats for the short (usually 3-6 miles) but perilous trip to Sweden. Many were extremely well-paid. Others took no money at all. But hundreds of boats managed to miraculously navigate the dangerous, frigid waters to Sweden. Some barely passed over watery fields of deadly mines just inches below their shallow bottoms. Spanning the long northern night, many trips lasted 12 hours or more. Small children were heavily sedated to keep them from crying. Many barely evaded German patrol boats. Though most left that first night, the evacuations carried on for about a month. In all more than 7200 Jews and nearly 800 of their non-Jewish spouses made it across the straits. About 470 Jews, many too elderly to make the trip, were eventually picked up by the Nazis and sent to Theresienstadt, a ghetto in Czechoslovakia. Thanks to pressure from their native government, many received preferential treatment. Most survived. Today King Christian X and Georg Duckwitz, the liberating Nazi diplomat, are honored by the global Jewish community as “righteous gentiles.” Marking the 80th anniversary of their miraculous escape, Jews throughout Denmark and the world celebrate October 1 as an all-too-rare moment of courage and compassion by people who had everything to lose and only the lives of their fellow beings to save. It’s a moment of human brilliance that will shine forever…and that must be repeated again and again for us all to survive.
IN 1996, after attending a conference of Chernobyl survivors in Kiev, Harvey Wasserman met survivors of the Danish evacuation in Copenhagen. Author of THE PEOPLE’S SPIRAL OF US HISTORY, he co-convenes most Mondays the Green Grassroots Emergency Election Protection Coalition (www.grassrootsep.org).