The Danish Rescuers
The Courage of the Danes Saluted at Ceremony Here
by Ruth Rovner, Special to the Exponent, reprint of news article from November 26, 1993
He was a boy of 6, scared, awed and excited, too, when he and his family made a perilous journey 50 years ago.
"As a child, I felt the element of excitement about the train ride, the hiding, the boat trip," recalled Leif Donde.
"But I also knew it was a very dangerous time, and that I had to behave as responsibly as possible."
So he tried to remain quiet, lying on a blanket underneath which guns were hidden, as rickety fishing boat made its way across the waters, in the dead of night, until it reached the opposite shore.
The dramatic rescue of 7,000 Danish Jews, saved from a planned deportation by the Nazis when non-Jewish Danes fearlessly helped them escape to Sweden, has become one of the best known examples of heroism during the Holocaust.
That famous rescue, virtually a legend now, took on new meaning at a program recently when Donde, now the consul general in New York from Denmark and the keynote speaker, shared the story of his own family's experience.
Sponsored by the Holocaust Awareness Museum to mark the 50th anniversary of the Danish rescue, the program at Gratz College drew 140 attendees. Moderated by Larry Kane of KYW-TV, it included the presentation of an award in recognition of Sweden's role in welcoming the Danish Jews, which was given to Lars Rombrt, consul in the Swedish Embassy in Washington.
Another award was accepted by Dorothy DuBois, whose late husband, Josiah, worked with the U.S. Treasury Department 50 years ago, and was instrumental in helping to create the War Refugee Board.
Also preceding the keynote address was a brief but dramatic first-person account of the rescue by local resident Hannah Seckel.
Although born in Prague, she traveled to Denmark as a young Zionist, hoping to go from there to Palestine. But she was still in Denmark when the Nazis planned their secret roundup of Jews.
"I had no money, only a toothbrush," Seckel recalled about her sudden departure. "A Dane knocked on my door and said, 'You'd better follow me.' And I did. I trusted him, and I followed him on my bicycle."
He led her to a fishing boat that would transport her to Sweden, the same boat on which Chief Rabbi Bent Melchior was also a passenger.
Fifty years later, the Lafayette hills resident and grandmother of seven still marvels at how willingly the Danes helped the Jews. "Psychologists today still ask, 'Why did the Danes do it?' And the only answer is righteousness.
"They put their own families at risk, but they took it for granted that this was the right thing to do. I think it's the most magnificent and honorable thing one human being could do for another human being."
It was because of that heroism that Dr. Philip Rosen, director of the Holocaust Awareness Museum, presented an award to the Danish people which was accepted by Donde.
Although he was very young at the time of the October 1943 rescue, "the events remain vividly in my memory," Donde told the audience during his keynote address.
He recalled the afternoon when his father came home early from work to make a surprising announcement. "Dress warmly and get ready to leave home very soon," he told his wife and three children, explaining that the Germans would be looking for Jews.
So the family members quickly packed, left their house, stayed overnight with a non-Jewish family, and the next day took a train south. Their destination was a site on the coast where Donde's father had already arranged to have his family ferried across the water.
"Two nights later, we reached a deserted beach. There was no sound at all, and we saw a fishing boat waiting on the beach," related Donde. "It was a small and very, very old boat, not meant to transport human beings, and there were 17 of us on board."
Navigating the boat was a young Dane, 19 years old, who had never rowed a boatload of people across this stretch of water before. But like other Danes, he had willingly agreed to help in the effort that had mobilized so many Danes.
When Donde, his brother and sister lay down on a blanket spread out on the boat, they felt the guns hidden underneath. "We were prepared to defend ourselves if necessary," said Donde.
"We got alarmed at first," the diplomat recalled. "Had we landed in German-occupied territory by mistake? But to our great relief, we soon saw that they were Swedish uniforms. We had landed in Sweden! And two hours after we landed, the old fishing boat sank in the harbor."
As he related his account, the audience listened with rapt attention. In addition to giving his personal narrative, Donde covered broader issues. He explained the background of the Nazi occupation; the development of the resistance movement in Denmark; and how, in time, the Nazis developed a secret plan to round up the Jews because they realized the Danes would never agree to turn in their Jewish compatriots.
And he raised the question of whether the rescue, often called "the miracle of Denmark," was really that.
"Let's look at it in a realistic way," he suggested, and proceeded to enumerate "a series of fortunate circumstances" which made the rescue possible.
They included Denmark's geography: The small country which invaded and then occupied by the germans starting in 1940 is separated by only a narrow ribbon of water from Sweden, and the Danish coastline, he pointed out, was under Danish surveillance even during the occupation.
The, too, there was the fact that even though Denmark was occupied, several Germans stationed there "had friendly and humane feelings," said Donde. It was because of some sympathetic members of the German embassy that Danish leaders were tipped off about the planned roundup and deportation of Jews scheduled for Oct.1 and 2, 1943.
Fortunate, too, was the fact that Sept.29 was the eve of Rosh Hashanah, when a huge majority of Danish Jews were gathered together in Copenhagen's synagogue. So the rabbi was able to warn congregation members about the Nazi's plans, and they were able to take refuge with non-Jews.
The Danes mobilized in force to help the Jews. "The reaction was spontaneous," said Donde. "Farmers, professionals, students, laborers--everyone was willing to help."
In all, 7,000 Jews were rescued, while 472 were deported to camp Theresienstadt. And all but 52 of these were rescued by Sweden's Count Folke Bernadotte, said the consul.
"The Danes think this was a natural way to respond," said Donde. "They don't think the rescue was a heroic act. And as a Dane, I do understand that. But as a Jew, I count myself very fortunate that in 1943 we lived in Denmark, and not in any other country."