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The Rescue of Danish Jews

Since its one-day conquest on April 9, 1940, Denmark had been a relatively quiet backwater among the nations conquered and occupied by Nazi Germany. Though called a “model protectorate” by the Germans, the harmony between the two nations only superficially concealed the tense reality of the relationship, one that changed at the end of August 1943 following a series of nationwide strikes and an increase in Danish resistance sabotage. Berlin ended Denmark’s “model protectorate” status, forced the Danish government to resign, and replaced it with a military government. Now in control, the Nazis had a free hand to deal with the “Jewish problem” in Denmark – or so officials in Berlin thought.

“The disaster is going to take place. All details are planned. Your poor fellow citizens are going to be deported to an unknown destination.”

—Georg Frederick Dückwitz to Danish Social Democratic Party chairman Hans Hedtoft

SS-Oberguppenfürher Dr. Werner Best had been Reich Plenipotentiary to Denmark since November 1942. More concerned about keeping good relations with the Danish government and its people than imposing the harsher measures of Nazi policy, up until this point he had maintained a largely hands-off approach regarding the approximately 7,800 Jews in Denmark. Upon receiving his orders to deport Danish Jews, on Sept. 11 Best told his friend Georg Ferdinand Dückwitz, maritime attaché at the German embassy in Copenhagen, of the plans to round up Denmark’s Jews during Rosh Hashanah, which fell on Sept. 30.

The Rescue of Danish Jews

Jewish refugees are ferried out of Denmark aboard Danish fishing boats bound for Sweden in 1943. U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum photo

Though a member of the Nazi Party, Dückwitz did not share its anti-Semitic policy. Though it’s impossible to know for certain Best’s motivation in revealing his orders to Dückwitz, it’s not unreasonable to think Best shared his friend’s feelings. After an attempt through official channels in Berlin to stop the impending deportation failed, Dückwitz, under the guise of discussing German shipping traffic, flew to Stockholm. There he secretly secured an agreement with Swedish Prime Minister Per Albin Hansson to accept Danish Jew refugees. On Sept.28, Dückwitz told Danish Social Democratic Party chairman Hans Hedtoft of the Nazis’ plan. Hedtoft in turn contacted the leaders of the Danish resistance and acting chief rabbi Dr. Marcus Melchior. Within hours what would be the most spectacular rescue of Jews during the Holocaust was put into motion.

Word spread like wildfire, and the nation – from King Christian X, civil servants, and church leaders to ordinary people – rallied to save Danish Jews from Nazi persecution. Initial efforts focused on hiding Jewish families until temporary visas and passports and boat passage to Sweden could be secured. Universities closed to allow students to help. Jewish families were hidden in homes, farms, hospitals, and other locations while the Danish underground made arrangements to organize fishing boats to smuggle them across the Kattegat and the Øresund. Money to pay for passage also came from a variety of public and private sources: according to some reports the king himself contributed one million Danish kroner.

Word spread like wildfire, and the nation – from King Christian X, civil servants, and church leaders to ordinary people – rallied to save Danish Jews from Nazi persecution.

Prior to the roundup, the Gestapo had targeted the Danish physicist Niels Bohr for arrest. Bohr and his wife escaped to Sweden, part of an Allied plan to eventually get him to the United States where he would work on the Manhattan Project. But once in Sweden, Bohr refused to leave until King Gustav V publicly announced Sweden’s willingness to grant asylum to the Danish Jews. The king’s announcement on Oct. 2 enabled the Danish underground to follow through with the final stage of the rescue effort.

Esther Finkler’s experience was typical. A newlywed, she, her husband, and their mothers were hidden in a greenhouse while the Gestapo conducted neighborhood searches. Then one evening a member of the Danish underground arrived, hid them in a vehicle and managed to drive through Nazi checkpoints without incident on the first leg of their escape. The four were hidden in an underground shelter, then the attic of a bakery. Finally they were brought to a rendezvous site on the beach where they boarded a fishing boat that contained five other refugees. The ship’s captain hid them under layers of fishing nets before starting across the strait to Sweden.

Danish Jews

Germans soldiers patrol a harbor in Denmark to prevent the unauthorized use of Danish boats for smuggling goods and people. The Danish police force refused to help in the roundup of Jews, leaving the German to do it. U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum photo

After three hours the nets were pulled away, and to the accompaniment of tears of joy from both sides, the refugees were escorted ashore to Sweden. “The nightmare was over,” Esther said.

“The nightmare was over,” Esther said.

In addition to the rescue effort itself, the Danish underground conducted a sabotage campaign to divert German troops. The Danish police force also assisted by refusing to help in the roundup, causing the Gestapo to disband it and directly assume police responsibilities in the country. The rescue took about three weeks. When it was over all but about 400 Danish Jews had reached freedom.

Jewish Refugees

Jewish refugees are ferried out of Denmark aboard Danish fishing boats bound for Sweden, October 1943. Approximately 7,400 Danish Jews were smuggled out of the country ahead of a planned German roundup. U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum photo

In recognition of their role in the rescue, Yad Vashem recognized Georg Frederick Dückwitz and, collectively, the Danish underground with the honor “Righteous Among the Nations.”


DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...