Notes from Limmud 2012
The Truth Behind the "Miracle Rescue" of Danish Jews during the Second World War
Alexander Bodin Saphir
I got most of the way through tidying this up for posting, and then the speaker went and wrote an article on the subject, which got passed around Facebook. Still, the two only partly overlap, so you can read both!
[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed.]
The Jewish nation is based on stories. We reinterpret them for ourselves every generation. Each generation takes it upon themselves to look at the story anew.
The speaker has a vested interest in this story. He is Danish; his parents are Danish and met in Jerusalem in Denmark Square. All his family had to flee the Nazis in 1943. He grew up with this story, but in the last five or ten years it has changed.
The speaker started by asking what audience members knew of the rescue of Danish Jews: Ruth said: People looked after Jews' property for them, watered their plants, fed their pets, and gave their keys back at the end of the War. (In other cases, people had moved into their homes and didn't want to give them up.) There was an example of a Sefer Torah saved by being put on a stretcher and made to look like a human. The Speaker: All true. Ruth Finkel: It's not true that King Christian made everyone wear a yellow star; no one had to. Audience member: He said if you do, I will and we all will.The speaker then showed a picture of the king wearing a yellow star.
In May 1939, Denmark signed a nonagression pact with Germany. During the War, Germany received all of its iron ore from neutral Sweden, shipped from the Norwegian North Sea port Narvik, into Germany; also, all the ball bearings used in German machinery—and they stopped Norwegian Jews crossing into Sweden.[lacuna]
Churchill insisted this become a theatre for the war, to stop the [lacuna] to mine it [lacuna]
The story about the yellow star may have stemmed from a Danish political cartoon showing the king wearing it. [Someone asked] what would happen if the Prime Minister Erik Scavenius succeeded in making the Jews wear a yellow star. The king replied, then we will all to have to wear one. Churchill was so exasperated, he stood up in Parliament and says it looks like Denmark is Germany's tame canary. Then a few weeks later the Washington Post says the king of Denmark had worn the yellow star. This was the result of Danes in America trying to counteract Churchill's allegation.
The story was then picked up in the UK and embellished. "There is no Jewish question in this country; there is only my people. ... I shall order the entire Royal Family to wear [the yellow star]."
Then the story went silent, until the "miracle rescue", during which it was printed all over that he actually did wear the yellow star.
Leon Uris writes in Exodus [quotation slightly reconstructed; this speaker, like all speakers, went very fast while quoting]:
The German occupation HQ in the Hotel d'Angleterre wrote that all Jews must wear a yellow star on their armband. That night the underground brought word to all Danes: King Christian has issued an order, saying that one Dane is exactly the same as the next Dane, that he himself will wear the yellow star, and he expects that all Danes will do so too. The next day everyone wore one, and the following day the order was rescinded.
This is an incredibly powerful myth. <shows film excerpt> However, the Danes were never forced to wear the yellow star. Why is this story so powerful; why does it persist?
It's because it shows one person, a small country, standing up against the might of the German military power. In this, it succeeded. It did its job.
There's also an aspect of the unknowable, the miracle, the faith.[lacuna]
but Germany got in there first. Hitler originally wanted just Norway for this. Denmark wasn't a target; it was just a stepping stone to Norway.
They were going to capture the airfields. Himmler originally just asked to use Denmark's airfields temporarily. But in March 1940 Hitler crossed out "ask" and wrote in "invade". These turned out to be strategic: allowed them to raid England and provided an early warning system for RAF raids.
Germany then invaded Denmark; during the course of this, sixteen Danish soldiers were killed. German soldiers tried to capture the King, but the King had been tipped off and the invation was repulsed. The Germans then resorted to leaflet bombing Denmark: "Next time it will be real bombs." The king and cabinet met. It took them two hours to decide to surrender. This was the shortest invasion during the course of the Second World War.
Why did they do this? There were lots of reasons: Denmark is a flat country, it's a small country. Standing up to the German army would have meant certain death for hundreds of thousands of Danes. Better to s[urrender and (presumably—I'm lacuna-filling here) save those lives.]
Because of the swift surrender, the Germans granted Denmark internal self rule. Its government remained in place, and its royal family. It retained a standing army of three thousand soldiers, that the Germans administered.
By contrast, Norway never surrendered; they capitulated two months after the German invasion, which made them the longest resisting country; they also rejected the Quisling government. [lacuna?]
In July 1940 Denmark created a unity government. Denmark became known as Larder of Germany. All arms factories built by Danes supplying the [lacuna]
95% of Danish Jews escaped to Sweden. When the speaker was a kid, that was all they knew of the story, and they called it a miracle. In the last ten years, though, a new generation of historians have been looking at the sources, and [have shed new light on the matter].
At the end of 1942, on his birthday, King Christian got a long letter from Hitler praising the cooperation between the two countries, and congratulating him on reaching 72. He wrote a telegram back: "Spreche Meinen besten Dank aus. Chr. Rex" (Giving my best thanks. King Christian). Hitler, who had written pages, was furious, and recalled his ambassador, and expelled the Danish ambassador to Germany.
There was then a wholesale change of the German administration in Denmark. The light-handed plentipotentiary Rente-Fink was changed for Werner Best, Hitler's right hand man and the head of the Gestapo [in Denmark]. Best was the only Gestapo officer to give evidence at Nuremberg; he had had a doctorate in law, and wrote [had a hand in writing?] the Nuremberg Laws. He was known as the Butcher of Paris. There was also a new heavy-handed Wehrmacht commander, General von Hanneken. The Danish troops were ordered out of Jutland; the Prime Minister Buhl was replaced by the pro-Nazi Scavenius.
In a wider context, at this time we had El Alamein, in which the tide of war changed in North Africa, when Rommel was routed, which [lacuna] Then in February the Battle of Stalingrad came to an end after a six month siege, and everything started to collapse back in on Germany. There was a huge increase in resistance and sabotage. This led to a real popular uprising in Denmark; there was a wave of strikes in Denmark.
Under an order from Hitler, Best ordered the death penalty for saboteurs. This was the last straw for the Danes; the one thing about their agreement was that they could make their own laws. The government resigned en masse, and the Germans installed martial law.
Best then ordered the round-up of the Jews. He ransacked the Synagogues, ostensibly to find Jewish addresses—but he already had those!
On 28 Sep 1943, Duckwitz, a German naval attaché, warned members of the Danish civil service there was going to be a round-up of the Jews, and on the day before Rosh Hashana, the Acting Chief Rabbi (the Chief Rabbi having been taken hostage as collateral) stood up and says, "There will be no morning service. Go home, and warn your friends and family; this is not a rumour. There is going to be a round up of the Jews; we cannot be at home."
Within twenty-four hours, the entire seven and a half thousand-strong community went undergound. This was the miracle. The Danes opened up their homes, their churches, their hospitals. They were not organised for this.
Within hours the Lutheran church had signed a letter to be read out in all services saying that it was the duty of the Church to protest against the oppression of the Jews because of Jesus' Jewish heritage, and and also because it was a constitutional right of all Danish citizens to have ? and freedom of religion.
On October 1, 284 Jews were captured out of 7500. But within the first week, 2000 Jews had managed to make the crossing between Denmark and Sweden—20km of water—at night, in fishing boats, rowing boats; some tried to swim it. Some, who thought they had lost their last chance to cross, killed themselves [lacuna] entire [lacuna]
In all, during November and December, 472 in total were captured, deported to Germany, to Theresienstadt. This was a concentration camp, but not Auschwitz. It was a staging post for Jews before they were shipped off. The entire police force was also deported.
Unlike any other Jewish population, the Danes were never sent on from Theresienstadt to anywhere else. They were the only community in all the War to receive Red Cross food parcels. They bartered the chocolate for favours, [lacuna]
Of the 472 captured Jews, only fifty died in the entire War.
Some of the fishermen who carried the Jews across to Sweden did it for free, but many took payment, £20k per person in today's money. One family signed across the deeds of houses.
After the first week, the risk was not so great [lacuna; presumably ending: of the fishermen,] some were caught, and were handed over by the Germans to the Danes [for punishment]. There was a death penalty [for ???], but the judge handed down a very light sentence, and they disappeared en route to prison, and none served even a single day.
850 Danes in the Resistance were killed.
Sweden welcomed in the Danish Jews. By Oct 2, they had a radio broadcast on the hour, every hour.
By the next day they had ?? stationed in all ports, and lights on showing the way into harbours [lacuna] and the next day they were charged with going out into territorial waters to guide them in.
(This was Sweden rehabilitating its image after its earlier behaviour. They'd also had Duckwitz crossing into Sweden to ask if they minded them accepting 7500 Jews.)
And there are stories of Germans turning a blind eye. Most people went to the port by public transportation. They were told not to take anything, but many did, and they would have stood out.
There was one Danish Nazi, in Elsinor Castle, who singlehandedly caught one hundred Jews. If one man could catch half of all the Jews after the first of October, it implies the others were not so zealous as they could have been.
The story runs: the Danes managed to civilise the Germans. The Germans called it the Cream Puff Front. Life was good; why muck it up?
In 1941, Werner Best was commisssioned to write a paper about the long-term implications of occupation. He concluded it would be impossible for Germany to maintain large standing armies in each country; [they had to] use the police force, fire brigade, [and] army in each country, with German supervisors.
The idea was to use Denmark to test this: The southern part of Denmark already understood German; they looked Aryan, so they had to be be amenable to it. They also had a history of being conflict-averse, preferring diplomacy. In the 15/1600s they had a trading empire, but never conquered. In 1939 they signed a non-agreession pact.
So when Best came to run Denmark he tried to put this into action, but it failed. Hitler tried to force him. In his trial, Best said he resisted this; he wanted to [lacuna]. He instigated martial law, but he was against the death penalty.
When Hitler ordered him to make Denmark judenrein, he subverted him: He invited Duckwitz into his office, and told him Hitler ordered him to round up the Jews. But he wanted to be able to administer Denmark after the War. (So the speaker thinks; we don't know exactly what he said.)
There was a rumour the speaker heard, that there was an order given that there were no doors to be knocked in, no windows broken. There were stories of families sleeping through the round-up. This was confirmed recently in papers found.
In a telegram to Hitler, he wrote, "As per your order, Denmark is now judenrein."
His relationship to Himmler, who was his guru, who had groomed him as his protégé, became very strained. There had been warm personal letters before that; afterwards staccato telegrams only.
The truth is Denmark did save these 7500 Danish Jews, and it was a miracle, and the resistance risked their lives to do so; and if they hadn't, the Danish [lacuna]; but the real key to the success was Best, a Nazi who helped Danish Jews to escape.
So why did he do it? We don't know, but we can guess: To keep the peace. He was a political operator, and in order to regain the trust of the Danish people and the civil service he had to administer, he gave them something. He was playing the long game. If the Allies won, he needed to have something to say in his defence.
The fallout: Duckwitz became a Righteous among the Nations. He becomes West Germany's ambassador to Denmark in the 1950s.
Werner Best was imprisoned, and sentenced to death. Then, after his testimony at Nuremberg, his sentence was commuted to five years in prison. There was a public outcry, and he was resentenced to twelve years, but let go after six years.
He managed to get 50 Nazis off the hook; then when his time came, in 1972 new paper evidence was found to link him to 8000 murders in Poland. It took a long time for them to get all the evidence together. It took him 2 and a half months to convince the judge that he was too sick to stand trial, and the case was thrown out—but he ended up living until 1989.
Mark Twain: "The difference between truth and fiction is that fiction has to make sense."