Throughout World War II most individuals in occupied Europe did not actively collaborate in the Nazi genocide, but they did nothing to help Jews and other victims of Nazi policies and persecution. Throughout the Holocaust, millions of people silently stood by while they saw Jews, Roma (Gypsies), and other “enemies of the state” being rounded up and deported to unknown fates. Many of these bystanders rationalized their actions by telling themselves that what they saw happening was none of their business. Others were too frightened to help because in many places, providing shelter to Jews was a crime punishable by death.
In spite of the risks, a small number of individuals refused to stand by and watch. These people had the moral courage to help those oppressed by providing hiding places, underground escape routes, false papers, food, clothing, money, and sometimes even weapons. Despite the heroic efforts of individuals across occupied Europe, there was only one country that actively resisted the Nazi attempts to deport its Jewish citizens – that country was Denmark.
On April 9, 1940 Germany invaded Denmark. Realizing the futility of armed resistance to the superior German forces, the Danish government surrendered on the morning of the invasion, but successfully negotiated to maintain their political independence while promising loyal cooperation with the Germans. King Christian X retained his throne, and the Danish government, parliament, and courts continued to function. Although there were sporadic acts of civil defiance, labor strikes, and acts of sabotage, for more than three years the Danes managed to live in relative peace with their Nazi occupiers. The Danish officials convinced the Germans there was no “Jewish problem” in Denmark and as a result, for more than three years the Danish Jews were untouched by the Nazi anti-Semitic policies.
However, with the Nazi military set backs in North Africa and in the Soviet Union in 1943, the Danish resistance movement and the Danish citizenry became more defiant. In the fall of 1943, because of increased acts of sabotage by the Danish underground resistance and work strikes by the Danes, the Nazis issued an ultimatum to the Danish government to ban strikes, impose a curfew, and execute saboteurs. When the Danish government refused, the Nazis took complete control of Denmark on August 29, 1943. Without the protection of the Danish government, there was nothing to stop the Nazis from deporting and exterminating the Jews of Denmark.
Within days of declaring martial law in Denmark, the Nazis developed plans to deport and exterminate the Jews of Denmark. On September 8, 1943 Werner Best, a high ranking SS officer and the administrator of Denmark, sent a telegram to Hitler informing the Nazi leader that the ‘Jewish issue in Denmark’ could now be addressed. That telegram set into motion Nazi activities that were to culminate in the round up of all Danish Jews at the start of the Jewish High Holy Days on September 29, 1943. However, the Nazi element of surprise was undermined when a sympathetic German diplomat, Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz, leaked the Nazi plans to Danish politicians and Jewish leaders. By word of mouth and phone the Danish Jews were warned to hide and not to return to their homes. As a result, the initial Nazi round up found few Jews at their homes and the Nazi dragnet only captured a few hundred Jews.
Acting spontaneously, clandestinely, and independently, the Danish citizenry hid their Jewish neighbors, friends, and colleagues in homes, hospitals, and churches. Although the Danish Jews had successfully evaded the Nazis, they remained in danger until they could safely leave Denmark. But where could they go? The answer to that question came on October 2, 1943, when Sweden announced it would grant asylum to all Danish Jews. Although Sweden was only a few miles across the Oresund Strait, the Gestapo watched the Danish ports and the German Navy patrolled the waterways.
What happened next, was quite literally one of the greatest untold stories of the Holocaust. Without a centralized plan, the Danish people moved thousands of Jews to the seaports surrounding Copenhagen, housed the Jews in summer cabins, churches, and homes, and then hired Danish fishermen to ‘smuggle’ the Jews out of Denmark across the sea to Sweden. It is estimated that over the course of three weeks in October 1943, Danish fishermen made more than 700 trips to Sweden ferrying approximately 7,500 Danish Jews to safety.
The Nazis did manage to capture and deport 481 Danish Jews to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in German occupied Czechoslovakia. However, through concerted efforts by the Danish Red Cross none of the Danish Jews deported to Theresienstadt were sent to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Fifty-one did succumb to disease, but 430 lived to be liberated at the end of WWII. All told it is estimated that greater than 95% of Denmark’s Jews survived the Holocaust.
When they returned to Denmark after the war, Danish Jews found their homes, possessions, and businesses intact. Remarkably, not content with simply saving the lives of their fellow countrymen, the Danish people had safeguarded the possessions of their Jewish countrymen until the end of the war. The morally courageous story of the Citizen Heroes of Denmark is a testament to what can be accomplished when ordinary people stand up against hatred and evil no matter the cost.