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The Rescue of the Danish Jews

It is one of the great untold stories of World War II: In 1943, in the German occupied Denmark, the Danes find out that all 7,500 Danish Jews are about to be rounded up and deported to German death camps. The Danish people make their own decision: it's not going to happen ..


 


Gilleleje

Gilleleje, one of the larger fishing harbours, lies at the northernmost point of the island of Zealand with train connections to Copenhagen. About one fifth of the Danish Jews escaped to Sweden via this village. Fishing boats as well as coastal freighters from the harbour took part. Jews were familiar with Gilleleje from summer holidays in the country and came to the area in droves. A committee of local people were quick to initiate rescue aid, even before representatives for the rescue groups in Copenhagen arrived. Many were needed to help find hiding places and food.


Danish fishermen saving Jews

One of the survivors, Leif Wassermann, was only five years old when his family, including his parents, grandparents and younger sister, fled to their coastal summer home in Gilleleje. He later recalled how his father carried him down into the dark hull of the boat in the middle of the night, but he remembered the hushed voices, the cramped feeling as people crowded inside and the rotten smell of fish. They were rescued by Henny Sondig, the 19-year-old daughter of the boat manager, and the four-man crew of the the 20-ton lighthouse tender, named the Gerda III.

`We stayed very low on the floor. We heard there were German patrols outside. We saw flashlights going through the windows,´ Wassermann recalled. Although the Gerda III was regularly boarded by German soldiers, the refugees were never discovered. The boat made more than a dozen trips with groups of five to 20 people crammed inside the hull - thus saving many Jewish families from annihilation.Leif Wassermann and his family were not able to return to their homeland until May 5, 1945, when Denmark was liberated. Years later he was appointed vice consul and commercial attache of the Danish government in New York.


Danish Jews reached safety ..

Over the course of a few days, more than 7,000 Danish Jews reached safety in Sweden. Only 481 were captured and sent to the KZ camp Theresienstadt. Conditions there were hard, but Theresienstadt was not a death camp. And the Danish acts of bravery did not end with those dramatic weeks in the fall of 1943. Danes continued to protect the unfortunate Jews whom the Germans were able to capture. 

Danish officials repeatedly requested permission to inspect the camp and as a consequence of the persistent Danish interest in the deported Jews, none was sent to Auschwitz. In June 1944, at the insistence of the Danish leadership, the Danish Red Cross inspected Theresienstadt to ascertain the condition of their Jewish compatriots.

The Danes convinced Adolf Eichmann via Werner Best to keep the Jews from Denmark away from Poland and the extermination camps. 

Best was interested in improving relations with the Danish authorities in light of the events in October. Eichmann was presumably hoping to present an idealized propaganda image to conceal the fact of mass genocide, which by 1943 had cost the lives of 3 million Jews.

Almost all of the Danish Jews in the camp survived through the solicitude and support of the Danish civil service and church organizations. Month after month, the Danes sent over 700 packages of clothing, food and vitamins to the Jews in the camp. At the end of the war, fifty-one of the Danish Jews had died in Theresienstadt of natural causes.

 

 

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