Jews have lived in Denmark since the Middle Ages. In the beginning of the 1900s many Jews settled in Denmark from Russia, the Baltic countries, and Poland. Although Denmark was primarily an agrarian country, the Jews were mainly hand workers and tradesmen, mostly living in or around Copenhagen. Different from most other countries in Europe, the Jews integrated with the Danish population, and the Danes accepted them in the Danish society as their countrymen. In the 1930s few were orthodox Jews. Most Jews practised their religion privately and went frequently to the Synagogue in Krystalgade in Copenhagen, but in day-to-day situations they were regular Danes and in general everyone in Denmark was Danish.
Maybe a little naïve, the Danish government in the 1930´s believed that, in the case of a world conflict, Denmark could stay neutral as it had done during World War 1, when Denmark profited greatly by delivering agricultural products to both fighting parties. The Danish army and navy personnel were poorly trained and badly equipped. Many Danes were probably more worried about the Russians who might try to secure their access from the Baltic to the Atlantic than about Germany, who at that time, had no strategic interest in Denmark. Believing that the British Prime Minister Chamberlain had secured peace with Hitler in September 1938, the Danes felt secure.
However, on 9 April 1940, German troops invaded Denmark. Heroic battles with great loss of lives were carried out in the southern part of Denmark and in Copenhagen, but within a day the Danish Government agreed to a compromise with the Germans, stopped all fighting, and was able until 1943 to maintain a democratic Danish government, although under strict German control. There was to be no dealing within our biggest trade partner Great Britain; there was
Censorship; and German troops were stationed all over Denmark. In 1943 things changed. A Danish resistance movement had been built up, and sabotage of factories working for the Germans and the derailing of trains moving material and food to Germany became more and more common, often with loss of Danish lives working in the factories or driving the trains. The head of the SS in Denmark, Dr Werner Best, made life more and more difficult for the Danes as punishment.
King Christian X had decided to stay in Denmark and did not choose to escape as the Norwegian and Dutch monarchs did which helped the Danes' morale. He rode his horse daily in the streets of Copenhagen without being accompanied by his security guards. The legend goes that when the Danish Jews were ordered to wear a Star of David, he did that as well. However, the reality is that the Danish Jews were never ordered to wear the star and there is no evidence that the King at any time wore a Jewish symbol.
Some 8,000 Jews lived in Denmark at the beginning of the war. According to the Germans at the Wannsee Conference in Berlin on 20 January 1942, in which the decision to eliminate all Jews was taken, the number of Danish Jews was estimated to be 5,600. This shows how well the Jews were integrated in the Danish population.
In August 1943 unrest broke out with general strikes; a State of Emergency was declared. Dr Best, Hitler’s chief in Denmark, decided to round up all Jews in Denmark and send them to German concentration camps where they were going to be gassed and burned. He gave these secret orders on 28 September and the action to capture all Jews was planned to take place on at 10 pm on 1 October.
One of his closest aids, the German Marine Attaché, George F. Duckwitcz, went to see Hans Hedtoft, a member of the Danish Parliament, who until 1941 had been head of the Danish Social Democrats but was forced by the Nazis to resign because he criticised them. With great risk for his own life, Duckwitcz told Hedtoft about Dr Best’s plan. Hedtoft went to see Marcus Melchior, the Rabbi and on 29 September when the Synagogue in Copenhagen was full for the celebrations of Rosh Hashanah, he told his congregation the news and that they immediately should contact all Jews to go into hiding and escape to Sweden as soon as possible. The Torah was then hidden in the nearby Lutheran Trinitatis church. Jews took hiding in hospitals, churches or private homes, hidden by Danes most of whom they had never met before.
The hidden Jews were transported to the many fishing villages on the coast north and south of Copenhagen by ambulances, taxis, delivery cars, or bikes during the night. No fishermen refused to sail them over to Sweden, although they were risking their lives. When German patrol boats stopped them, they pretended that they were fishing; the Germans never searched the hulls where 20-30 Jews on each boat were hiding. It is obvious that many of the harbour guards as well as the crews on the small patrol vessels knew what was going on. It is unknown if compassion or bribes were the deciding factors for looking the other way.
Almost 8,000 Jews succeeded in escaping to Sweden within a couple of weeks. About 450 Jews were captured on the way to the harbours or because they might not have known about the situation. They were sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, a kind of transit camp from where the Jews and others were distributed to other concentration camps to be gassed and burned. The Danish Red Cross as well as influential Danish people persuaded the Germans to keep the Danish Jews in Theresienstadt for a while. This delay was very important, as Hitler's propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, saw a chance to take photos and make a movie and show his countrymen how well they were treating the Jews. The small group of Danes who spoke their own language and came from a small popular country was just what he needed. They lived in barracks with reasonable comfort.
The Danish Red Cross got permission to send clothing collected all over Denmark and letters but no medicine to these 450 Danish Jews. The letters sent from all parts of Denmark contained vitamin pills to support keeping the very badly nourished Danish Jews alive. In May 1944, Heinrich Himmler, head of Waffen SS and Gestapo, approved after several requests, that a small Danish delegation was permitted on 23 June to make a one day visit to the camp. In the month up to the visit the living quarters were painted, flowerbeds were arranged and, under threats of deportation to a death camp, they were told what to say to the Danish delegation. I believe that no other country took similar measures to help deported Jewish countrymen after they left their homeland.
The delegation consisted amongst others of Dr Hvass, from the Danish Foreign Office, Dr Henningsen, the Danish Commissioner of Health and Dr Rossel from the Danish Red Cross. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Propaganda Minister, got his movie shot and the delegation could return to Denmark reporting that the Danish Jews were living in a fine environment in the camp. What no one from the delegation saw was that half of the Danes were locked up in different buildings so that it appeared that each family had plenty of space. After the visit the poor and inadequate food rations was again the norm. During the almost 2 years in the camp about 50 Danish Jews died - mostly of natural causes, stress, and malnutrition, but not directly from hunger as happened in other concentration camps, and no Danish Jews ended in the gas chambers.
By May 1945 when Germany capitulated, the Danish and Swedish Red Cross were able to transport the surviving Danish Jews back to Denmark before the Russian Army arrived. That saved them from ending in The Russian Gulag. All the Danish Jews in Sweden also returned to
Denmark in May 1945. In most other countries in Europe surviving Jews or their families experienced their homes having been looted and taken over by neighbours or others. In Denmark the Jews returned to their homes which neighbours had kept up, mowed the lawn and fed their pets.
The Danes can be proud of their care for their countrymen, the Jews. However, without the initiative from the brave Attaché George F Duckwitcz, as well as many of the German soldiers who looked the other way during the transport to Sweden, many lives would have been lost. After the war, Attaché Duckwitcz was appointed as the German Ambassador to Denmark, and highly honoured by the Israeli and Danish governments. From 1947-50 and again from 1953-55, Hans Hedtoft was Prime Minister of Denmark.