The Danish Rescuers

On October 3, 1993, a 50th anniversary celebration was held to commemorate the rescue of Danish Jews.

50th Anniversary of the Rescue of the Danish Jews

Oct 3, 1993


Opening Prayer

Rabbi Harold Kudan

Am Shalom Congregation, Glencoe

Historic Background

Charles Meyer

Washburne Jr. High School, Winnetka

Reading of the Pastoral Letter

Pastor Karen Knutson

Danish Lutheran Minister living in Denmark during the war

Reading of the Action Notice

Betty Werrenwrath

Laying of the Wreath

Girl Scouts, Evanston Troop 18

Boy Scouts, Evanston Troop 3

Presentation of the Scroll

Robert Armbruster, President

Avenue of the Righteous

Closing Prayer

Trude Marks

Baha'I Community, Wilmette

Tha Action Notice

We could not yield to the German threats when the Jews' well being was at stake. Nor can we yield today, when hard punishment, torture and the probability of death in Germany await su if we help our Jewish fellow countrymen. We have helped them. We shall go on helping them by all the means at our disposal! The episodes of the past two nights have to us become a part of Denmark's fate, and if we desert the Jews in this hour of their misery, we desert our beloved Denmark!

My God. My country. My honour.
Carl Johannes Hammerich-Monberg
Greatadmiral - Chief of Defense

This Action Notice appeared on the front page of the resistance newspaper Frit Denmark published by the Freedom Council, the elite governing committee for all resistance groups in Denmark. It was distributed immediately after the arrest and imprisonment of Danish Jews in the first days of October 1943. "My God. My Country. My honour." was the motto of King Christian X of Denmark.

The Pastoral Letter

The Danish bishops have forwarded the following communication to the leading German authorities through the heads of the government departments.Wherever Jews are persecuted as such on racial or religious grounds the Christian Church is duty bound to protest against this action:

  1. Because we can never forget that the Lord of the Christian Church, Jesus Christ, was born in Bethlehem of the Virgin Mary according to God's promise to His Chosen People, Israel. The history of the Jewish people before the birth of Jesus contains the preparation for the salvation God has prepared for all mankind in Christ. This is shown by the fact that the Old Testament is part of our Bible.
  2. Because persecution of the Jews conflicts with that recognition and love of man that are a consequence of the gospel which the church of Jesus Christ was founded to preach. Christ is no respector of persons, and He has taught us to see that every human life is precious in the eyes of God.
  3. Because it conflicts with every concept of justice which prevails in the Danish people, settled in our Christian culture for centuries. In consequences of this, equal rights and responsibility before the law, and freedom of religion. These are secured to all Danes according to the constitution.

We regard religious freedom as the right to worship God according to voaction and conscience and that neither race or religion can deprive any citizen of rights, liberty or property. Despite differences of religious opinion, we fight for the right of our Jewish brothers and sisters to preserve the same liberty that we prize more highly than life itself!

The leaders of the Danish Church are fully aware of our duty to be law abiding citizens, who do not set themselves up againt those exercising authority over us, but at the same time we are in conscience bound to unequivocally acknowledge the words that we should obey God rather than Man.

H. Fuglsang Damgaard
Archibishop of Copenhagen

Countersigned by all Bishops of the Lutheran Church in Denmark

*Sponsors of the 50th Anniversary Event

Comments on the Rescue of Danish Jews

by Chuck Meyers

Last Saturday I was sitting at Yom Kippur services, my eyes transfixed on the bricks and the lights and the beauty of the songs, trying to absorb messages about forgiveness and injustice, when I read a silent meditation that transported me to another time and place.

"During this day of reflection, I am mindful not only of my needs but of all who are in pain and tormented by terrors..." and the passage preceeded to discuss compassion and joy, affliction and misunderstanding and concluded

"I cannot heal them.
I cannot save them
But I can remember them."

I sat in wonder, my eyes riveted to the wooden dais, which transformed itself into a small boat. The cool winds and rain moved inside to chill me and the voices of the choir receded. The only sounds that I could now hear were the rough waves thrashing against the sides of the boat. It was after midnight on the first of October 1943 and I was on deck, huddled together with my neighbors, watching the feint outline of Denmark fade into the distance as we rose and fell into the swells enroute to Sweden.


I must have sat for several minutes engrossed in my thoughts when the melodic sounds of the choir reawoke me to the reality of the moment. Several pages had vanished. It was very still. The rabbi was reading a passage about the nobility of human fellowship and unity.

Fifty years ago on a somber fall morning, dozens of small Danish boats plied the eastern waters to deliver their precious human cargos some 10 miles away to safety and freedom in Sweden. In a national groundswell of reaction to the imminent deportation of its Jewish neighbors, Danes opened their homes and their hearts and created a helping network so broad and all encompassing that nearly the entire Jewish population of 7800 was rescued within days. An occupied country, physically astride its oppressor, with a monarch under house arrest and a government in disarray, asked itself the same question posed by Hillel centuries ago

"If I am not for myself, who is for me?
If I care only for myself, who am I
If not now, when?"

Fifty years ago, a half century. Well within memory but becoming increasingly dim as generations pass and the restless young take their turn at the mantle of leadership. With the passage of time it becomes all the more important to recall the Danish rescue so that future generations will know what our parents and grandparents knew so well - that the privilege of living in a democracy has a price and that in the dark days of October and November 1943 the small nation of Denmark reminded us of what it means to be free.

So today we listen and recall in order to remember and by doing so strengthen our society and ourselves. That is the power of history - the importance of memory -the strength of a story.

On the 9th of April 1940, approximately 8,000 Jews lived in Denmark, a nation of about 4 million people. Five thousand Jews were Danish citizens, well integrated into the society over many generations. Jews first arrived in Denmark in 1622 at the behest of King Christian IV. Denmark was among the first nations to grant Jews equality in 1814 and by 1849 had extended the right to vote and enter universities. Another 1500 Jews had arrived since 1933, most seeking asylum. This number included a group of agricultural students from Palestine studying farming techniques. In addition, some 1300 children of mixed marriages added to the size of the Jewish population. All were welcomed and protected under the Danish Constitution.

By 1941 the initial shock of invasion had subsided yet deep resentment remained. Although there was a small band of Nazi sympathizers and a fledgling Danish Nazi party, it remained a despised minority. The occupation of Denmark had raised questions about Danish identity and tradition. Danes closed ranks behind their beloved King Christian X and in April 1941 when Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler met with Danish Polish Commissioner Thune Jacobsen to discuss the "Jewish Problem", Himmler was told that there "was no Jewish problem in Denmark".

Yet the question of resistance remained unsettled. To pursue a course of passive resistance and a period of negotiation? Or to organize active resistance in the spirit of the Norwegians - armed uprising, sabotage, clandestine operations? Jorgen Kieler, who was active in the Danish resistance movement remembers asking this question to one of his sisters, "What would you do if the Gestapo entered this room to shoot your younger brother?" "Protect him with my body but I will not carry arms," she replied.

By 1943 Danes were accumulating arms and organizing underground networks. The illegal press was on the move constantly, sometimes publishing from the back of a moving truck. The momentum of the war had changed. In the snow and the cold at Stalingrad; at El Alamein in the heat of North Africa and in Italy, the tide had turned. By 1943, over 3,000,000 European Jews had been ghettoized, deported and killed. But in Denmark, the Jewish population put its faith in its government for protection and remained intact. In spirit and in word, Denmark had no Jewish problem.

In the national elections of March 1943, the Danish Nazi party suffered a disastrous defeat and ceased to exist as a political force. The antisemitic newspaper, Kamptegnet, closed its doors. Yet the nation was still ripe with tensions. Recalled to Berlin, Reichskommissioner Werner Best was issued an ultimatum - resolve the Jewish question and diffuse growing active resistance. Best responded. On August 28th martial law was declared, the death penalty was suspended for sabotage, a total ban on strikes and complete press censorship were instituted and, as the sun arose the next morning, King Christian X was a captive in the royal residence of Amalienbourg. The Danish government was suspended and Parliment was disbanded. A state of emergency was declared and the Danish military as interned in its barracks. The period of negotiations was over and Jewish persecutions were about to begin.

On August 31st armed men broke into the office of the Jewsih Community Board and seized all of its records in anticipation of a nationwide action. On September 8th Best dispatched telegram 1032 suggesting to his superiors in Berlin that the state of emergency be exploited by "finishing off the freemasons and the Jews." Nine days later, Hitler personally responded. Begin the deportations immediately!

Options were narrowing for the small Jewish community. The Wehrmacht was placed in readiness but trapped beween his own need for complete control and Berlin's inexorable demands, Best hesitated.

History is a human story, replete with the foibles, merits and tarnishes of individuals. People rise and people fall, victimized or accelerated by circumstances around them and by their failings and valor. We call them folls and we call them heroes.

George Ferdinand Duckwitz, naval attache, shipping executive and confidant of Werner Best explored his conscience and found it wanting. Duckwitz possessed a copy of telegram 1032. Now he tried to stop the response from leaving the German foreign office. He was unsuccessful. On the morning of September 28th, beset by thoughts of his own seeming complicity in the events that were unfolding, Georg Duckwitz transferred the complete plan for the deportation of the Jewish population of Denmark to Hand Hedtoft, a leader of the Danish resistance. Jews were to be rounded up and quickly shipped east. The date was set - the evening of Rosh Hashanah - the first of October.

Denmark rose in quiet defense. What the Nazis could not do through intimidation, incarceration or occupation they accomplished through imminent deportation. The Danes were aroused; their citizens attacked; their institutions violated; their unity threatened.

Wednesday evening, September 29th. Acting Rabbi Marcus Melchior told a silent congregation in the Great Synagogue in Copenhagen, "you must leave immediately, warn all of your friends and go into hiding." By the next morning the Synagogue was closed.

An excerpt from a young girl's diary read "...October. Dark nights. Rumors. Fear among those who look different from the others. There is only sign in the sky. Escape."

Quickly, the Jewish population of Denmark evaporated. In the face of opposition Danes opened their home and businesses to their neighbors. The Bisbejberg Hospital and the Kommune hospitalet became lifelines for Jews seeking shelter as the physicians of the White Brigade sought "patients". Hundreds gathered in hospital wards and mysteriously they were emptied, their "patients" moved to safer quarters. Over 2,000 Jews were rescued in this way.

Was it a miracle? An act of divine intervention? Hardly. The Danish rescue occurred because people labored and planned; people communicated and risked. Danish Christians rescued their Jewish counterparts because they could not countenance an assault on their population. For Danes it was a question of being compassionate and remaining human. When Jews were warned to go into hiding on September 29th many fled to the forests away from Copenhagen. There they remained, uninformed and unprotected. Two days later the University of Copenhagen suspended classes for all of its students and the Academic Rifle and Cross Country Sports Club and the Student Intelligence Service combed the forests looking for hidden Jews to move to the coast and await transit to Sweden.

Of 7800 Jews in Denmark in October 1943, 7200 were evacuated to Sweden where their welcome was guaranteed by a meeting between Danish atomic scientist Niels Bohr, who had himself escaped some days earlier, and King Gustav on the first night of persecutions.

Of the remaining 600 trpped in the Nazi roundups, 85 were returned for assorted reasons. Some died or committed suicide and 474 were deported to the so-called model ghetto at Theresientstadt. But even in the debilitating conditions at Theresien, Danish Jews were not forgotten by their countrymen. On June 24, 1944 the Danish Red Cross sent greetings from King Christian X and Bishop Damgaard with numerous packages of food and clothing. Supplies continued to arrive for the next nine months until April 13th when the Danish Jewish population of Theresienstadt was loaded aboard the precious White Busses and driven through German lines during night bombing to be repatriated with their countrymen in Sweden prior to the end of the war.

How were the Danes different from their neighbors?

In Holland, too many neighbors turned against neighbors to claim their property or denounce them. Danes gathered around their neighbors, surrounding them in a safety net.

In Eastern Europe, antisemitic organizations flourished. In Denmark, the only antisemitic party in the country lost its momentum and disintegrated.

In Rumania, antisemitic publications inflammed the people. In Denmark, Kemptegnet folded from lack of subscribers and was put out of business by the Danish courts, accused of libel.

In Hungary and France, elected governments conspired with the Nazi occupation through local fascist parties. In Denmark, the elected government refused to consent to deportations and on several occasions King Christian X attended celebrations and Jewish services.

In most of Eastern Europe and to a lesser but significant degree in Western Europe, Jews were interned and deported in wholesale numbers. Governments did little or nothing to support their Jewish citizens during their short stays in the camps. Denmark sent aid to the Jews in Theresienstadt with the full knowledge of the King.

Danish Jews began to return to Denmark in 1946. For most, their businesses had remained operating and in some cases profits were put in the bank to await their owners. The Torah from the Great Synagogue was held in safekeeping in a Lutheran Church. University positions remained intact and it is reported on several occasions that even the plants were watered in Jewish households. The citizens of Denmark did not forget. To the contrary, the remarkable actions of October and November 1943 were the conscious acts of a nation with a long and compassionate memory. Danes saw themselves as individuals tenuously linked to other persons in an inextricable web of shared humanity, not as solitary beings inhabiting a world of them and us. "It was not so much", writes Thomas Merton, "that the Danes were Christians and they cared as they were human. How many others were even that?"

Two weeks ago, as he is prone to do, Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene asked us to consider ourselves as a people - not a divided collection of racial ad ethnic fragments. He asked us to look at the divisiveness that has polarized the country. "What other solutions", he asked, "are there? Maybe the solutions of talking to each other as people, not as enemies. Maybe of understanding that if we do not attack our problems as Americans - all of us - then we are defeated.

Christian X, Marcus Melchior, Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz - all are gone but their legacy remains. Friendship, guidance, concern and a passion for freedom - human qualities so carefully expended in the dark days of 1943. Do we need a beacon to light the way toward those qualities today; through the tempestuous waters of racism and neglect and indifference? Then look to the Danes.