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Rescue of the Danish Jews

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Danish Jews being transported to Sweden

The Danish resistance movement, with the assistance of many Danish citizens, managed to evacuate 7,220 of Denmark's 7,800 Jews, plus 686 non-Jewish spouses, by sea to nearby neutral Sweden during the Second World War.[1] The arrest and deportation of Danish Jews was ordered by the German leader Adolf Hitler, but the efforts to save them started earlier due to the plans being leaked on September 28, 1943, by German diplomat Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz.

The rescue is considered one of the largest actions of collective resistance to aggression in the countries occupied by Germany during the Second World War. As a result of the rescue, and of the following Danish intercession on behalf of the 464 Danish Jews who were captured and deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, 99% of Denmark's Jewish population survived the Holocaust.[1]

Deportation order[edit]

Without the uncooperative Danish government to impede them, Denmark's German occupiers began planning the deportation to Nazi concentration camps of the 7,800 or so Jews in Denmark. German diplomat Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz unsuccessfully attempted to assure safe harbor for the Danish Jews in Sweden; the Swedish government told Duckwitz it would accept the Danish Jews only if approved by the Nazis, who ignored the request for approval.

On September 28, 1943, Duckwitz leaked word of the plans for the operation against Denmark's Jews to Hans Hedtoft, chairman of the Danish Social Democratic Party. Hedtoft contacted the Danish Resistance Movement and the head of the Jewish community, C. B. Henriques, who in turn alerted the acting chief rabbi, Marcus Melchior. At the early morning services, on September 29, the day prior to the Rosh Hashanah services, Jews were warned by Rabbi Melchior of the planned German action and urged to go into hiding immediately and to spread the word to all their Jewish friends and relatives. The German action to deport Danish Jews prompted the Danish state church and all political parties except the pro-Nazi National Socialist Workers' Party of Denmark (NSWPD) immediately to denounce the action and to pledge solidarity with the Jewish fellow citizens. For the first time they openly opposed the occupation. At once the Danish bishops issued a hyrdebrev—a pastoral letter to all citizens. The letter was distributed to all Danish ministers, to be read out in every church on the following Sunday. This was in itself very unusual, for the Danish church is decentralized and non-political.

The early phases of the rescue were improvised. When Danish civil servants at several levels in different ministries learned of the German plan to round up all Danish Jews, they independently pursued various measures to find the Jews and hide them. Some simply contacted friends and asked them to go through telephone books and warn those with Jewish-sounding names to go into hiding. Most Jews hid for several days or weeks, uncertain of their fate.

Sweden's readiness and logistics[edit]

From October 1943 the boat Gerda III of the Danish Lighthouse and Buoy Service was used to ferry Jewish refugees from German-occupied Denmark to neutral Sweden. With a group of some ten refugees on board for each trip the vessel set out for her official lighthouse duties, but detoured to the Swedish coast. The little ship and her crew (Skipper Otto Andersen, John Hansen, Gerhardt Steffensen and Einar Tønnesen), ferried some 300 Jews to safety.

Although most Danish Jews were in hiding, most would likely have been caught eventually if safe passage to Sweden had not been secured. Sweden had earlier been receiving Norwegian Jews with some sort of Swedish connection. But the actions to save the Norwegians were not entirely effective due to the lack of experience dealing with the German authorities. When martial law was introduced in Denmark on August 29, the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs (UD) realized that the Danish Jews were in immediate danger. In a letter dated August 31, the Swedish ambassador in Copenhagen was given clearance by the Chief Legal Officer Gösta Engzell (who had represented Sweden at the 1938 Évian Conference, held to discuss Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazi regime) to issue Swedish passports to "rescue Danish Jews and bring them here."[2] On October 2, the Swedish government announced in an official statement that Sweden was prepared to accept all Danish Jews in Sweden. It was a message parallel to an earlier unofficial statement made to the German authorities in Norway.[2]

The Jews were smuggled and transported out of Denmark over the Øresund strait from Zealand to Sweden—a passage of varying time depending on the specific route and the weather, but averaging under an hour on the choppy winter sea. Some were transported in large fishing boats of up to 20 tons, but others were carried to freedom in rowboats or kayaks. The ketch Albatros was one of the ships used to smuggle Jews to Sweden. Some refugees were smuggled inside freight rail cars on the regular ferries between Denmark and Sweden, this route being suited for the very young or old who were too weak to endure a rough sea passage. Danish Resistance Movement operatives had broken into empty freight cars sealed by the Germans after inspection, helped refugees onto the cars, and then resealed the cars with forged or stolen German seals to forestall further inspection.

Fishermen charged on average 1,000 Danish kroner per person for the transport, but some charged up to 50,000 kroner. The average monthly wage at the time was less than 500 kroner, and half of the rescued Jews belonged to the working class. Prices were determined by the market principles of supply and demand, as well as by the fishermen's perception of the risk. The Danish Resistance Movement took an active role in organizing the rescue and providing financing, mostly from wealthy Danes who donated large sums of money to the endeavor. In all the rescue is estimated to have cost around 20 million kroner, about half of which were paid by Jewish families and half from donations and collections.[3]

2 October Swedish radio broadcast[edit]

The Danish physicist Niels Bohr, whose mother was Jewish, made a determined stand for his fellow countrymen in a personal appeal to the Swedish king and government ministers.[4] King Gustav V granted him an audience after a persuasive call from Greta Garbo, who knew Bohr.[5] He was spirited off to Sweden, whose government arranged immediate transport for him to the United States to work on the then top-secret Manhattan Project. When Bohr arrived on Swedish soil, government representatives told him he had to board an aircraft immediately for the United States. Bohr refused. He told the officials—and eventually the king—that until Sweden announced over its airwaves and through its press that its borders would be open to receive the Danish Jews, he was not going anywhere. Bohr wrote of these events himself.[6] As related by the historian Richard Rhodes,[4] on 30 September Bohr persuaded Gustaf to make public Sweden's willingness to provide asylum, and on 2 October Swedish radio broadcast that Sweden was ready to receive the Jewish refugees. Rhodes and other historians[4] interpret Bohr's actions in Sweden as being a necessary precursor without which mass rescue could not have occurred. According to Paul A. Levine, however—who does not mention the Bohr factor at all—the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs acted on clear instructions given much earlier by Prime Minister Per Albin Hansson and Foreign Minister Christian Günther, following a policy already established in 1942.[7]


During the first days of the rescue action, Jews moved into the many fishing harbors on the Danish coast to await passage, but officers of the Gestapo became suspicious of activity around harbors (and on the night of October 6, about 80 Jews were caught hiding in the loft of the church at Gilleleje, their hiding place having been betrayed by a Danish girl who was in love with a German soldier).[8] Subsequent rescues had to take place from isolated points along the coast. While waiting their turn, the Jews took refuge in the woods and in cottages away from the coast, out of sight of the Gestapo.

Danish harbor police and civil police often cooperated with the rescue effort. During the early stages, the Gestapo was undermanned and the German army and navy were called in to reinforce the Gestapo in its effort to prevent transportation taking place. The local Germans in command, for their own political calculations and through their own inactivity, may have actually facilitated the escape.[9][10]

Partial list of Danish rescuers and resisters[edit]

While only a few Danes, mostly non-resistance members who happened to be known by the Jew he or she helped, made the Yad Vashem list, there were several hundreds, if not a few thousands, of ordinary Danes who took part in the rescue efforts. They most often worked within small spontaneously organized groups and "under cover". Known only by their fictitious names, they could generally not be identified by those who were helped and thus did not meet the Yad Vashem criteria for the "Righteous Among the Nations" honor. Below is a partial list of some of the more significant rescuers, both within and outside the formal resistance movement, whose names have surfaced over the years:[11][12][13][14][15]

"Righteous among the nations"[edit]

At their initial insistence, the Danish resistance movement wished to be honored only as a collective effort by Yad Vashem in Israel as being part of the "Righteous Among the Nations";[17] only a handful are individually named for that honor. Instead, the rescue of the Jews of Denmark is represented at Yad Vashem by a tree planting to the King and the Danish Resistance movement—and by an authentic fishing boat from the Danish village of Gilleleje.[18] Similarly, the US Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., has on permanent exhibit an authentic rescue boat used in several crossings in the rescue of some 1400 Jews.

Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz, the German official who leaked word of the round-up, is also on the Yad Vashem list.[19][20]

Arrests and deportation to Theresienstadt[edit]

In Copenhagen, the deportation order was carried out on the Jewish New Year, the night of October 1–2, when the Germans assumed all Jews would be gathered at home. The roundup was organized by the SS who used two police battalions and about 50 Danish volunteer members of the Waffen SS chosen for their familiarity with Copenhagen and northern Zealand. The SS organized themselves in five-man teams, each with a Dane, a vehicle, and a list of addresses to check. Most teams found no one, but one team found four Jews on the fifth address checked. A bribe of 15,000 kroner was rejected, and the cash was destroyed.

Of 580 Danish Jews who failed to escape to Sweden, 464 were arrested.

They were allowed to bring two blankets, food for three or four days, and a small suitcase. They were transported to the harbour, Langelinie, where a couple of large ships awaited them. One of the Danish Waffen-SS members believed the Jews were being sent to Danzig.[21]

The Danish Jews were sent ultimately to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in German-occupied Czechoslovakia. After these Jews' deportation, leading Danish civil servants persuaded the Germans to accept packages of food and medicine for the prisoners; furthermore, Denmark persuaded the Germans not to deport the Danish Jews to extermination camps. This was achieved by Danish political pressure, using the Danish Red Cross to frequently monitor the condition of the Danish Jews at Theresienstadt. A total of 51 Danish Jews—mostly elderly—died of disease at Theresienstadt.

Rescue by Folke Bernadotte[edit]

In April 1945, as the war drew to a close, 425 surviving Danish Jews (a few having been born in the camp) were among the several thousand Jews rescued by an operation led by Folke Bernadotte of the Swedish Red Cross who organized the transporting of interned Norwegians, Danes and western European inmates from German concentration camps to hospitals in Sweden. Around 15,000 people were taken to safety in the White Buses of the Bernadotte expedition.[22]


About 116 Danish Jews remained hidden in Denmark until the war's end, a few died of accidents or committed suicide, and a handful had special permission to stay.

The casualties among Danish Jews during the Holocaust were among the lowest of the occupied countries of Europe. Yad Vashem records only 102 Jews from Denmark who were murdered in the Shoah.[citation needed]

The unsuccessful German deportation attempt and the actions to save the Jews were important steps in linking the resistance movement to broader anti-Nazi sentiments in Denmark. In many ways, October 1943 and the rescuing of the Jews marked a change in most people's perception of the war and the occupation, thereby giving a "subjective-psychological" foundation for the legend.

A few days after the roundup, a small news item in the New York Daily News reported the story about the wearing of the Star of David [clarification needed]. Later, the story gained its popularity in Leon Uris's novel Exodus and in its movie adaptation. The political theorist Hannah Arendt also mentions it during the discussion of Denmark in her book of reportage, Eichmann in Jerusalem.[23]


Memorial in "Denmark Square", Jerusalem

Different explanations have been advanced to explain the success of efforts to protect the Danish Jewish population in the light of less success at similar operations elsewhere in Nazi-occupied Europe:[10][24][25][12]

  • The German Reich plenipotentiary of Denmark, Werner Best, despite instigating the roundup via a telegram he sent to Hitler on October 8, 1943, did not act to enforce it. He was aware of the efforts by Duckwitz to have the roundup cancelled, and knew about the potential escape of the Jews to Sweden, but he turned a blind eye to it, as did the Wehrmacht (which was guarding the Danish coast), in order to preserve Germany's relationship with Denmark.[26] According to the account of a survivor, Best himself had warned the survivor to escape.[27]
  • Logistically, the operation was relatively simple. Denmark's Jewish population was small, both in relative and absolute terms, and most of Denmark's Jews lived in or near Copenhagen, only a short sea voyage from neutral Sweden (typically 5 to 10 kilometres (3 to 6 mi)). Although hazardous, the boat ride was easier to conceal than a comparable land journey.
  • Since the mid-19th century, a particular brand of romantic nationalism had evolved in Denmark. The traits of this nationalism included emphasis on the importance of "smallness", close-knit communities, and traditions—this nationalism being largely a response to Denmark's failure to assert itself as a great power and its losses in the Gunboat War and the Second War of Schleswig. Some historians, such as Leni Yahil (The Rescue of Danish Jewry: Test of a Democracy, 1969), believe that the Danish form of non-aggressive nationalism, influenced by Danish spiritual leader N. F. S. Grundtvig, encouraged the Danes to identify with the plight of the Jews, even though small-scale anti-Semitism had been present in Denmark long before the German invasion.[28]
  • Denmark's Jewish population had long been thoroughly integrated into Danish society, and some members of the small Jewish community had risen to prominence. Consequently, most Danes perceived the Nazis' action against Denmark's Jews as an affront to all Danes, and rallied to the protection of their country's citizens.[citation needed]
  • The deportation of Jews in Denmark came one year after the deportations of Jews in Norway. That created an outrage in all of Scandinavia, alerted the Danish Jews, and pushed the Swedish government to declare that it would receive all Jews who managed to escape the Nazis.[29]

Popular culture[edit]

  • A Night of Watching (1967), by Elliot Arnold, a work of historical fiction about the escape of Danish Jews to Sweden during World War II.[30]
  • Number the Stars (1989), a work of historical fiction about the escape of Danish Jews to Sweden during World War II

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Goldberger 1987, pp. xx, 2.
  2. ^ a b Levine, Paul A. From Indifference to Activism: Swedish Diplomacy and the Holocaust: 1938–1944, Uppsala 1996.
  3. ^ "Hjælpen til de danske jøder – hvorfor hjalp så mange, og hvad var risikoen?". folkedrab.dk. 23 September 2015. Archived from the original on 30 March 2016. Retrieved 4 April 2018.
  4. ^ a b c Each of these citations describe the political activity of Bohr in the Nazi era.
    • Niels Bohr: Collected Works. The Political Arena (1934–1961), Niels Bohr, Léon Rosenfeld, Finn Aaserud, Elsevier, 2005, p. 14
    • The Rescue of the Danish Jews: Moral Courage under Stress, Leo Goldberger, New York University Press, 1987, p. 10
    • The Destruction of the European Jews. Raul Hilberg, Yale University Press, 2003, vol. 2, p. 596
    • Niels Bohr's Times, in Physics, Philosophy, and Polity. Abraham Pais, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1991, p. 488
    • Resistance Fighter: A Personal History of the Danish Resistance. Jørgen Kieler, Gefen Publishing House Ltd, 2001, pp. 91–93
  5. ^ Bret, David. Garbo: Divine Star. The Robson Press, 2013.
  6. ^ Bohr, Niels; Aaserud, Finn (2005). The Political Arena (1934-1961). Elsevier. p. 14. ISBN 978-0-444-51336-6. Retrieved 27 May 2011.
  7. ^ Goldberger 1987, p. 10.
  8. ^ Christian Tortzen, Gilleleje Oktober 1943, Copenhagen: Fremad, 1970
  9. ^ Paulssen Gunnar S (1995). "The bridge over the Oeresund: The historiography on the expulsion of Jews from Nazi-occupied Denmark". J. Contemp. Hist. 30 (3): 431–464. doi:10.1177/002200949503000304. S2CID 162324125.
  10. ^ a b Hans Kirchhoff (1995). "Denmark: a light in the darkness of the Holocaust? A reply to Gunnar S. Paulsson". Journal of Contemporary History. 30 (3): 465–479. doi:10.1177/002200949503000305. JSTOR 261158. S2CID 154067012.
  11. ^ Flender, Harold. Rescue in Denmark, W.H. Allen, London, 1963
  12. ^ a b Goldberger 1987.
  13. ^ Dethlefsen, Henrik. De Illegale Svergiesruter, Odense Universitetsforlag, Odense, Denmark, 1993
  14. ^ Werner, Emmy E. A Conspiracy of Decency, Westview Press, 2002
  15. ^ "Modstandsdatabasen - Forside". modstand.natmus.dk. Archived from the original on 5 April 2018. Retrieved 4 April 2018.
  16. ^ Ann Byers (2011). Rescuing the Danish Jews: A Heroic Story from the Holocaust. Enslow Publishers, Inc. pp. 57–66. ISBN 978-0-7660-3321-4.
  17. ^ "The Rescue of Denmark's Jews - www.yadvashem.org". www.yadvashem.org. Archived from the original on 20 October 2017. Retrieved 4 April 2018.
  18. ^ "Resistance and Rescue - www.yadvashem.org". www.yadvashem.org. Archived from the original on 20 October 2017. Retrieved 4 April 2018.
  19. ^ Germany — Duckwitz, Georg Ferdinand
  20. ^ For an alternative interpretation of Duckwitz's role in the rescue of the Danish Jews, see: [1] Archived 18 July 2014 at the Wayback Machine Vilhjálmsson, Vilhjálmur Ö. "Ich weiss, was ich zu tun habe" RAMBAM 15:2006
  21. ^ Christensen, C. B.; Poulsen, N. B.; Smith, P. S., Under hagekors og Dannebrog: danskere i Waffen SS 1940–45, p. 254–257, Aschehoug, 2006 (Hardcover, ISBN 978-87-11-11843-6). (in Danish)
  22. ^ "Count Folke Bernadotte". Archived from the original on 15 May 2021. Retrieved 6 July 2021.
  23. ^ Arendt, Hannah (2006). Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Penguin. p. 171. ISBN 978-0-14-303988-4. Retrieved 28 June 2018. When the Germans approached them rather cautiously about introducing the yellow badge, they were simply told that the King would be the first to wear it...
  24. ^ Leni Yahil, The Rescue of Danish Jewry, Test of a Democracy, 1966
  25. ^ Joergen Haestrup, Til Landets bedste, 1966
  26. ^ Dansk Jødisk Museum Archived 2011-07-18 at the Wayback Machine
  27. ^ Bodin Saphir, Alexander (21 October 2018). "The tip-off from a Nazi that saved my grandparents". BBC News. Archived from the original on 22 April 2019. Retrieved 29 January 2022.
  28. ^ Buckser, Andrew. "Rescue and Cultural Context During the Holocaust: Grundtvigian Nationalism and the Rescue of the Danish Jews". Shofar 19(2), 2001.
  29. ^ Judiska Museet i Stockholm
  30. ^ ×


  • Bak, Sofie Lene: Nothing to Speak Of: Wartime Experiences of the Danish Jews. U. of Chicago (Museum Tuscalum Press) 2010, ISBN 978 87 635 3958 6.
  • Bertelsen, Aage. October '43. New York: Putnam, 1954.
  • Buckser, Andrew. "Rescue and Cultural Context During the Holocaust: Grundtvigian Nationalism and the Rescue of the Danish Jews". Shofar 19(2), 2001. JSTOR 42943190.
  • Goldberger, Leo, ed. (1987). The Rescue of the Danish Jews: Moral Courage Under Stress. New York University Press. ISBN 978-0-8147-3010-2.
  • Gulmann, Søren & Karina Søby Madsen. The Elsinore Sewing Club. Forlaget fantastiske fortællinger, 2018. ISBN 978 87 996656 2 4.
  • Herbert, Ulrich: Best. Biographische Studien über Radikalismus, Weltanschauung und Vernunft 1903–1989. Habilitationsschrift. Dietz, Bonn 1996, ISBN 3-8012-5030-X.
  • Kieler, Jørgen. Hvorfor gjorde vi det. [Why did we do it?]. Copenhagen, Denmark, Gyldendal, 1993.
  • Levine, Paul A. (1996). From Indifference to Activism: Swedish Diplomacy and the Holocaust 1938–1944. Uppsala.
  • Lampe, David (1957). The Danish Resistance. New York: Ballantine Books.
  • Lampe, David (1957). The Savage Canary: The Story of the Resistance in Denmark. London: Cassell.
  • Pundik, Herbert: Die Flucht der dänischen Juden 1943 nach Schweden. Husum, 1995. ISBN 3-88042-734-8.
  • Pundik, Herbert (1998). In Denmark It Could Not Happen: The Flight of the Jews to Sweden in 1943. Hewlett, NY: Gefen.
  • Stræde, Therkel (1993). October 1943: The Rescue of the Danish Jews From Annihilation. with H. Rovsing Olsen. Copenhagen: Royal Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs: Museum of Danish Resistance 1940–1945.
  • Vilhjálmsson, Vilhjálmur Örn (2006) "Ich weiss, was ich zu tun habe". Rambam 15:2006 (English abstract at the end of the article).
  • Vilhjálmsson, Vilhjálmur Örn and Blüdnikow, Bent. "Rescue, Expulsion, and Collaboration: Denmark's Difficulties with Its World War II Past". Jewish Political Studies Review 18:3–4 (Fall 2006).
  • Werner, Emmy E. (2002). Conspiracy of Decency: The Rescue of the Danish Jews during World War II. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
  • Yahil, Leni (1969). Rescue of Danish Jewry: Test of a Democracy. Translated by Morris Gradel. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America.

External links[edit]