Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

3 Adar 5764 - February 25, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Denmark: A Whole Nation Comes to the Rescue

by S. Fried

Mr. Werner Melchior, son of the Chief Rabbi of Denmark at the time of the German invasion in 5703-04 (1943-44), testified before the justices at the Eichmann Trial more than forty years ago.

". . . Mr. Melchior, you personally, how did you escape?"

"It was decided on Tuesday night [after receiving a warning about an action on motzei Shabbos] that the family-- then we were two parents and five children-- would drive to the priest in one of the rural towns who was among my father's acquaintances. On Wednesday morning we went out to warn some of the people who were known to be certain nothing would happen.

"While making a round of visits I spoke with one acquaintance who spoke of how it was no longer possible to cross over to Sweden in a boat that day . . . We had an argument whether it was advisable for us to go to one place, but on the other hand we thought it would calm all of us if we were together . . .

"The priest lived in a rural town about 80 km [50 miles] from Copenhagen.

"We packed only the bare essentials, toothbrush, tefillin, etc. in order to avoid drawing special attention."

Fleeing to Sweden was considered risky, for at that time nobody believed there would be persecution in Denmark, but nevertheless it was decided that Haad would try to cross over to Sweden to prepare the groundwork for the family's arrival if necessary.

"After taking my leave at the train station at noontime I took a boat out that night . . . They were unwilling. They thought the Swedes would confiscate the boat . . . They asked us to jump into the water 300 meters offshore . .. "

"How did you find these two fishermen?"

"One of my acquaintances who owned a business had a secretary. The secretary was engaged to one of the fishermen . . . That's how it worked. Everybody knew someone. People passed on word of people's existence . . . Since there was cooperation from all of public and government institutions and individuals from all strata of the population there were almost no cases of the [warning] not reaching someone. In my parents' case some people would like to say it was coincidence, but when a coincidence repeats itself so many times, it's not a coincidence . . .

"Throughout the previous three-and-a-half years of the occupation there was not a single moment in which the population united in such a consolidated way behind the underground as at that moment . . . "


The sixty years that have gone by since the fabulous rescue of Denmark's 7,200 Jews have not diminished the splendor of the deed. In fact in light of recent discoveries of acts of murder and thievery perpetrated against Jews by some of the citizens of occupied countries--their victims' neighbors just a short time earlier--and in light of the small number of people who saved one Jew here or a small group of Jews there, and in light of the fact that today neo-Nazism is gaining momentum in the streets of Europe, the wide scale effort to rescue thousands of Jews stands out as a unique and amazing phenomenon.

Almost no Danes appear on Yad Vashem's lists of people who worked to save Jews, but under the heading "Denmark" the entire nation as a whole is acknowledged. The Danish underground depended on it: the entire population was involved in saving the Jews from the Nazis' claws.


On April 9, 1940 Germany invaded Denmark. The small country consists of a peninsula and islands located in the far north of Europe and its only land connection to the continent is the German border. The powerful German army would have had no trouble conquering Denmark and taking it over entirely, but for some reason the Germans preferred forging an agreement with the Danish king. According to the agreement Danish rule remained unchanged, but the threat of an attack against Germany from the north was removed and Germany was given permission to use Denmark's seaports and naval fleet and to use the country as a food-supply route.

Saw them as Brothers

"The Germans saw the Danes as brethren with the same Aryan blood," explains Dr. David Zilberklang, editor of Yad Vashem's collections of research studies. "Therefore they hoped to assimilate them into the Nazi idea easily."

The Norwegians were also Aryans, he adds, but unlike the Danes who surrendered within a day without a fight, the Norwegians tried to wage battle against Nazi Germany. When Germany defeated Norway with little effort, it set up a puppet government headed by the fascist Vidkun Quisling who collaborated with the Nazis, including persecuting the Jews.

However, the majority of Norwegians did not sympathize with the Nazis and after the war Quisling--whose name turned into a word used to refer to traitors who collaborate with an invading army--was indicted for war crimes and executed. Yet out of the handful of Jews living in the country, a total of about 1,800 people, the Norwegians handed half of them over to the Nazis, of whom almost all were killed in the death camps. The remaining 900 Jews were smuggled into Sweden, which was a neutral country.

"In Denmark," says Dr. Zilberklang, "the Germans realized that they could not demand the persecution of the Jews and left them unharmed. Nazism was simply out of character for the Danes. They held rooted democratic values with the recognition that every human being had the right to live equally."

The Danish attitude also stands in stark contrast to Holland. Somehow the Dutch gained a reputation as a nation of Jew- lovers, perhaps from the times of the Spanish Inquisition when the Protestant Holland took in some of the exiles and the Marannos who returned to their roots there. Yet the majority of Dutch Jews were captured and many of them were killed or died in concentration camps.

"In Holland a fascist party had been active since the early 1930s and the population was willing to collaborate with the Nazis to a certain extent," says Dr. Zilberklang.

In all of Europe, he notes, even in places that tried to save the Jews, refugees were treated differently. It was as if the former were "our Jews" and the latter were foreign Jews. One of the most salient examples was Bulgaria, where the king defended his Jewish subjects while handing refugees over to the Germans. Denmark was the only country where refugees received equal treatment. No fascist movement ever emerged there and antisemitism was negligible.

While Melchior was at the witness stand during the Eichmann Trial the justices asked him about the attitude toward Jews in Denmark. There had been a few manifestations of antisemitism fostered by the Germans, he recounted, and a local newspaper resembling Der Sturmer was published.

Because of the anti-Jewish defamation it printed, a libel suit was filed while under Nazi rule. The defendants received prison sentences and fines. In another incident an attempt was made to set fire to a beis knesses. Danish police apprehended the would-be arsonist and he was sentenced to three years imprisonment.

At the end of 1942, while across Europe Jews were being led to the death camps with the aid of local populations, the Danish police set up an organization of Jewish volunteers to protect botei knesses and community institutions. "Special arrangements were also made to summon [police]. At the guard post of the home for the aged and in the courtyard of the beis knesses an alarm bell connected directly to the nearby police station was installed and this arrangement remained in place until August 29th, 1943 when the military regime went into effect."


For over three years the status quo in German-Danish relations remained. During this period the Jews lived their lives as usual. They attended schools and universities, went to work and conducted business.

But meanwhile German pressure grew. Increased activity by the Allied forces against the Germans, led the Germans to tighten their hold on the occupied countries due to fears that the local population would revolt against them. And indeed the Danish underground stepped up its activities with acts of sabotage refusal to obey German orders. Danish naval vessels sank themselves in the Copenhagen port to prevent them from being captured by the Germans. Later the Danish government resigned as a show of opposition.

Although the Germans controlled Denmark they seem to have been influenced by the liberal, democratic atmosphere. It was a German commander named Dugvig who alerted the Danish underground of the detailed plan to take action against the Jews and the Germans would conduct their searches for Jews in hiding with relative courtesy, not using force to break into homes suspected of harboring Jews, for example.

Holocaust survivors tell of German guards who looked the other way and allowed them to flee. Apparently Nazi leaders were aware of the situation and therefore when they decided to adopt a more rigorous approach in Denmark first they replaced some of their personnel.

Although the Jewish issue was not the reason why the Nazis decided to implement tighter control in Denmark, their use of increased force included putting the Final Solution into effect there.


The Nazis cruelly blackmailed the secretary of the Jewish community and his assistant to extract from them the Jews' names and addresses. The two mysteriously vanished in the fall of 1943, well before the action was carried out.

On Tuesday, September 28th, 1943, the German in charge of shipping and sea travel dispatched a report on the action scheduled to take place that motzei Shabbos. That week Rosh Hashanah fell on Thursday and Friday. The Germans were sure that on motzei Shabbos all of the Jews would be in their homes.

The Danish leaders who received the report quickly spread word among the Jews and members of the underground, immediately organizing a plan to rescue the Jews. There was no time for complex or drawn-out schemes, so efforts focused on notifying all of the Jews and hiding them wherever possible.

In his testimony, Werner Melchior said that on Wednesday when he went to the university to return some books he ran into students who had a passing acquaintance with him. Of their own initiative they approached him and said, "Look, we know who you are and we hear all sorts of rumors, but if there is any way you would like us to do something for you, call whenever the need arises."

In an interview with Yated Ne'eman Professor David Sempolinski, one of the heads of the rescue organizers, said the person who persuaded him to go into hiding was a classmate who would call him "Jew-boy."

With tears in his eyes that boy, speaking in his father's name, pleaded with him to leave his home right away.

Before Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Melchior sent out word that the tefillos should only be held in small minyanim in private homes, to thwart the Nazis' typical practice of taking advantage of concentrated gatherings at botei knesses to capture Jews.

Individual Rescues

"When David Sempolinski, a former student of ours, phoned us on Rosh Hashanah, we knew he was in great danger," recounted Inga Nurild, an elderly Danish woman. "David was a religious Jew who would not have desecrated the holiday no matter what. He simply asked, `Are you willing to help save human lives?' We didn't even have to reply . . . " Nurild shared her story with Yated Ne'eman during a trip to Israel after the family she saved invited her to come for a visit.

Nurild and her husband did not hesitate for a moment. They sent their children away to keep the secret from slipping out and converted their entire house into a big hideout. They made one room available to a Jewish family with 14 children, hiding the door behind a wardrobe. Other Jews were hidden in various corners of the house. The Germans, who did not conduct a thorough search, did not find anyone.

And the Nurilds were not an exception. Everybody was prepared to lend a hand. "My elderly aunt went to the synagogue to look for Jews. She found a Jewish woman crying because she didn't know where to go. My aunt took her home without a second thought and kept her in the house for several days until she was transported to Sweden."

Although the various rescue stories vary, they share a common thread. One of the biggest hideouts was the nurses' quarters in Copenhagen. Two hundred Jews hid there, including small Jewish children brought there from their temporary refuge at an orphanage.

The nurses gave their rooms and their beds to Jews who left their homes in a rush. When the transport operation to Sweden was organized there was a problem bringing the children to the seashore.

One night the Germans surrounded the hospital and checked every ambulance, after hearing ambulances were being used to rescue Jews. And then the daring solution was found: In the hospital basement was a church and funeral parlor. The doctors organized a mass funeral and dozens of Jewish "mourners" were transported in a taxi caravan to the cemetery and from there to the seashore.

Danish Plan of Rescue

The idea of bringing the Jews to Sweden was not a spontaneous Jewish plan, but an idea officially sponsored by the Danish government, which was unable to prevent the persecution of the Jews in its land.

Government representatives traveled to Sweden and conducted negotiations with the government over the orderly absorption of the escapees. The plan involved a large sum of money and the Danes guaranteed to cover all of the costs.

In practice the Jews covered a considerable portion of the payments to the rescuers and the Swedes since it was still possible for them to save their property or sell it through their Danish acquaintances. Other funds were provided by Danish citizens who wanted to participate in the rescue operation, at least by making a donation.

"We stood on the subway platform after the first transport set off, speaking in whispers about the matter," recounted Inga Nurild. "Suddenly a woman rose from her seat and turned to me. `Would you like a bit of money?' she asked. `Yes, please,' I replied in surprise and she took a wallet out of her purse and emptied it all out, all the bills it contained, and gave them to me."

The transit to Sweden could not be carried out using ferries or a large boat, because the Germans controlled all of the seaports and checked every passenger thoroughly. Instead, the idea of using small fishing boats was suggested.

Eight thousand Jews (including assimilated Jews and others whose Jewish identity was doubtful) were supposed to be transported in the fishing boats. Considering that on average they could only seat about ten Jews each they must have had to do numerous crossings in the dark of night. The area selected was Metzer Sound, between southern Sweden and eastern Denmark, not far from Copenhagen.

Danes Against Germans

The Danish police did what it could to assist in the covert operation. On several occasions the police closed off roads leading to the coast ostensibly to prevent people from escaping, when really the roadblocks were intended to keep the German army away from the coast.

In certain cases when the Germans managed to capture Jews near the coast the Danish police intervened by arresting them and claiming that since they violated Danish law they must be tried in local courts. The Swede Arling Kier, one of the leading figures behind the operation, said, "I was in constant contact with Denmark via a policeman in charge of guarding the ferries; from him I received instructions where I should anchor at the Danish shore and when I should arrive. Various people were very kind and lent us their homes as hiding places for refugees before the crossing. There the passengers also received food and a place to sleep." Eventually Kier was captured by the Germans.

One of the rescued women recounted the hardships they encountered on the way to freedom. "The man who gave us the signal to leave our hideouts arrived. We were taken in taxis to the seashore near a small fishing village and there we were kept hidden under a bush. At a certain appointed time we had to crawl across the sand to the mooring, where there was a guard tower manned by Germans.

"We lay there all day until nightfall. When we got to the fishing boat we were lowered into the storage compartment like salted fish in a barrel. The boat had to pass a difficult mine field so we took a large detour that exposed us to the threat of running aground on a sandbank. Two people steered a boat with 21 refugees aboard, many of whom got seasick.

"Suddenly a German patrol boat equipped with a spotlight appeared. They turned off the motor immediately and we stood pressed up against the steering cabin to stay out of the light. Everybody thought to himself the end had arrived. We resolved to jump into the water and drown rather than get captured by the Germans.

"The Germans didn't spot us, but due to a storm the small boat drifted off its route. Little by little dawn broke. Nobody knew where we were. When we approached the coastline we found we were in Swedish territorial waters. The port we entered was full of Swedish warships with sailors standing on the decks and waving and calling out, `Welcome!' People embraced and wept with joy. Finally we were free."

Free, and with nothing. Werner Melchior testified that his family arrived in Sweden with only the small items they had packed. But there was one thing they were not willing to leave behind. They sent one of the children back to Copenhagen before departing to take a letter, the King sent to his father, HaRav Melchior, following an attempt to burn down a beis knesses on January 1, 1943. In the letter the King expressed how glad he was that the beis knesses had not been damaged.

Danish government officials, who were already quite limited by that time, continued to take an interest in the fate of their citizens even after they had been well absorbed in Sweden. They also followed up on the fate of the 500 Jews who were captured and sent to Thereseinstadt. The Jewish prisoners there were treated differently than at other concentration camps and were provided with much better conditions, so the Germans used it as a showcase for Red Cross inspectors. Danish pressure to secure their release did not relent and before the war ended they were transferred to Sweden through Red Cross intercession. The Swedish representative in this diplomatic rescue effort was Count Folke Bernadotte, who was not fond of Jews.

Ironically, Danish policemen who were caught by the Germans and sent to concentration camps did not receive preferential conditions. Some of them were severely tortured and killed by the Nazis.

The Aftermath

Upon discovering their prey had been whisked out of reach the Germans had a relatively moderate reaction, says Dr. Zilberklang. "The Germans got angry and tried to stop the underground operatives, but no acts of collective punishment were done, unlike in Holland where the Germans punished the Dutch through systematic starvation. In Denmark the Germans did not even take measures against the Cabinet and the king was not dethroned."

Sixty years have passed and it seems the Danes' fabulous operation has not been given the place of honor it deserves. They are often spoken of and schools, streets, neighborhoods and squares throughout Israel are named Denmark, a tree was planted in its honor, but in contrast to new revelations of the murderous antisemitism that prevailed in most European countries alongside the Nazi evil, the only country that was entirely untainted with antisemitism has been relatively overlooked.

Denmark's History of Tolerance

In 1984 the Danish postal authority issued a special stamp to commemorate 300 years of Jewish settlement in Denmark. The stamp looks as if it was taken from a Jewish children's book: a Shabbos table, challos and a woman lighting Shabbos candles, for Denmark never sought assimilated Jews over other Jews.

In 1648 King Christian the Fourth brought a Jewish doctor named Binyamin Musafia to Denmark upon his return from the Thirty Year War and since then Jews began to settle in Denmark. In all the time the Danes ruled their country the Jews never encountered any persecution or expulsion decrees. Only when the Swedes or Germans took control of Denmark did the Jews suffer persecution.

The following account was written by Gluckel of Hamlin, who lived in Hamburg in the beginning of the 17th century:

"Before I was three years old the Jewish were expelled from Hamburg and were forced to go to Altoona, which was then under the Danish government. From which the Jews received good patronage papers. Altoona is located about a quarter hour's walk from Hamburg, and there, in Altoona, some 25 Jewish families settled. There we had a beis knesses and a cemetery. Every morning upon leaving the house of prayer in Altoona the Jewish merchants would go to Hamburg and towards evening, before the gate was shut, they would return to Altoona . . . "

Gluckel also recounts that there was a difficult war when the Swedes attacked Denmark and nearly captured the capital. "If not for the members of the Council of the Faithful and the subjects who gave him their riches and their blood to come to the aid of the King of Denmark, and the King remained standing firm, and certainly everything comes from Boruch Hu Uvoruch Shemo, for the King was upright. Under his patronage we Jews lived in peace and quiet."

Altoona, which was transferred from Danish rule to German rule periodically, was one of three neighboring kehillos that had a strong community director. Many talmidei chachomim were active in the communities, such as the Chacham Tzvi, whom Gluckel also mentions.

In 1801 Denmark became the first European nation to grant the Jews full, unconditional emancipation. (Denmark was also the first country to officially abolish slavery.)

Unfortunately, as in other places, emancipation accelerated assimilation and intermarriage, but German persecution reminded many assimilated Jews of their roots.

Today Copenhagen has a small Jewish community, including a chareidi kehilloh with a few botei knesses, a mikveh, a cemetery and other institutions. Kosher food is available in Copenhagen and unlike other countries shechitoh has not been banned in Denmark, which exports kosher meat to neighboring countries. Beis Haknesses Hagodol is one of Copenhagen's most beautiful buildings.


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