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The Flight and Rescue of Danish Jewry

Published in 2014, Humanity in Action: Collected Essays and Talks is an anthology of written works by Judith S. Goldstein, the founder and executive director of Humanity in Action. "The Flight and Rescue of Danish Jewry" was a talk delivered at the Humanity in Action Denmark conference "Civil Society: Reactions to the Holocaust" in Copenhagen, Denmark. It took place from September 30 to October 2, 2013, in commemoration of commemoration of the flight and rescue of Jews in Denmark in October 1943. Humanity in Action: Collected Essays and Talks is available for purchase as a Kindle eBook on Amazon


We are most grateful to the Humanity in Action Denmark Board of Directors, led by Anders Jerichow and the staff who conceived of and organized this extraordinary conference. For me there is a sense of full and deep appreciation as well as partial fulfillment. Over 18 years ago, I asked Herbert Pundik if we could put together a program for university students in Denmark and the United States to try to understand the history and meaning of the rescue of Jews in Denmark. He said yes, although I believe he secretly harbored some skepticism as to whether we would really do a credible job. Nonetheless, we promised each other—I mean I promised him and he almost believed me—that this would not be some adventure in creating simplistic explanations that would further embellish contorted legends and myths. We intended to deal with complexities, right from the beginning. This conference is an impressive result of all the work that the Danish Humanity in Action Fellows, board and staff have done over 15 years under the leadership of Herbert Pundik, Uffe Stormgaard and Anders Jerichow.

But there is also a sense of incomplete and partial fulfillment. Even today, 70 years after the flight and rescue of Danish Jewry, there are still difficulties in understanding the complete history in all of its complexities: the expectations and ambiguous actions of German occupiers at different levels of authority and power; the knowledge, actions, and values of Danish Christians working from different positions and locations in the country; the fearful and often chaotic responses of Danish Jews and immigrant Jews in Denmark to the dangers of German anti-Semitism.

Nevertheless, in the ensuing years we have accumulated knowledge and memories to form the history of a unique and, in the context of the Holocaust, a miraculous escape that sustained the Jewish community and enabled it to return to Denmark, almost intact, in 1945. I refrain from using the word heroic because the Danes have an aversion to the concept. But unique and miraculous are fully justified despite the betrayals and greed of some Danes in regard to the Jews. No other country, qua country, meaning civil servants and significant parts of the population, protected their Jewish countrymen from German racial hatred, degradation, starvation, violence and death. The Danish response was so unusual that it almost seems miraculous. The word evokes many meanings such as supernatural and magical. I don’t use it in those ways. Instead, remarkable and extraordinary provide the appropriate meanings. 

I would suggest, following the lead of Bo Lidegaard and Cecilie Felicia Stokholm Bank, that rescue was built upon shared moral values—expressed most significantly through the development of the welfare state—that had entered the fiber of the Danish individual and collectivity. When tested by the Germans, accepting Jews as Danes was the decent thing to do; protecting Jews as a means of finally and openly resisting the Germans was a redemptive thing to do; accepting Jews as equally valuable human beings was the Christian thing to do. 

In 1989, Saul Friedlander, one of the great historians focused on Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, wrote his autobiography When Memory Comes. His family, assimilated Jews from Prague, escaped to France in the late 30s. With the German invasion in 1940 they fled into the French countryside. He recalled his sick father in 1941 living in a “sort of wordless sadness,” having chosen not to flee to Sweden or Palestine, away from Hitler, as did other members of the family. “What could my father have done? Nothing depended on him now. A safer hiding place depended on the good will of others, as did fleeing the country. Rebellion had no meaning for the few scattered Jews who saw the vise closing. Whom would they attack?” And thus the tragedy of his father and mother who were deported. “…my father was hunted down for what he had refused to remain: a Jew. What he wanted to become, a man like others, had been taken away from him, leaving him no possible recourse. He was being refused the right to live and no longer even knew what to die for. Much more than the impossibility of acting, his desperate straits had become an impossibility of living” (pp. 55-56). It is important to state that 75% of the Jews of metropolitan France, protected by French countrymen, survived the German occupation and the collaborationist and anti-Semitic Petain government. However, approximately 73,000 were deported, including 24,000 French Jews.

The Danish Jews were different but only because of other Danish people. Like Friedlander’s father, Danish Jews, many of them assimilated, were passive, lulled into believing they would be spared, afraid to act. But they could turn to others or others, significantly, knew how to turn to them; they could follow the lead of protectors, there was a way to escape to Sweden. This is the memory that Jews hold; this is the history that gives honor to the Danish people.

But what does that history mean today? What is the relevance? What are the conceptual tools we, Humanity in Action and a broader public, need to find to sustain this history? The time for recalling memories, however painful and incomplete, is just about over. Those like Friedlander who took years to unlock the past and try to understand, have done their work. We can no longer depend upon the impact of personal connections to that past. 

I would like to suggest that we continue to seek to understand that history in the context of resilience and resistance. In fact, this was a founding precept of Humanity in Action. Resilience and resistance are usually discussed in terms of trauma, particularly for children who have experienced abuse and for victims or soldiers in war. Resilience and resistance are concepts that relate not only to individual responses but also embrace collective action—trusting others, working together towards shared goals with common values, drawing upon the resources and strengths of many people. Resilience and resistance through collective action and the action of civil society need to inform contemporary challenges where we encounter circumstances of loss and calamity—whether it be in the destruction of our environments; seemingly irresolvable conflicts in the Middle East and Africa; the inadequacies of our economic systems that fail to provide basic needs for our societies, particularly in the United States and other places throughout the world; and the threat of extremists to the functioning of our democratic societies as we see most shockingly in the United States at this very moment.

In April 1940, Denmark was a failed state—a society that accepted immediate military defeat at the hands of the Germans and the charade of democratic self-government. In fact, the Danish government, as we learn in Bo Lidegaard's recently published book Countrymen, anticipated occupation long before it happened. It expected to lose. It negotiated and cooperated with the Germans and met the German demands as the so-called “model protectorate” in order to keep the Germans from destroying the country and installing a violently repressive Nazi driven regime. For three years the Danish government succumbed and gave no support to the small Danish resistance movement. 

Not everyone, however, gave up completely, especially small groups in resistance organizations and Henrik Kauffmann the audacious Danish Ambassador to the United States. Finally, the country recovered its bearings in the late summer of 1943 after the Danish government refused to execute resistance fighters. Danes found the means to act upon the values of decency and social responsibility—including cooperative action in supporting a minority—that were the foundation of the welfare state developed in the previous decades. National resistance through individual and collective action gained strength in the fall of 1943 when thousands upon thousands of Danes protected the Jews, facilitated their escape to Sweden, sheltered their homes and assets while in exile and welcomed them back to Denmark after the end of the war.  

The history, as this conference reveals, is deeply complicated and nuanced. It is clear that there was much suffering and in too many quarters complicity with the Germans. The rescue was not purely altruistic, as romanticized especially by Americans. Danish Jews who were captured and sent to Theresienstadt suffered deeply, during the War and for decades after. They mostly kept the traumas embedded in themselves, ever thankful for the sustenance they received—food, clothing and vitamins sent from Demark; ever thankful for the understanding worked out between Werner Best and Aldolf Eichmann and Danish civil authorities, that the imprisoned Jews would not be sent farther east to an extermination camp; ever thankful for liberation from the camp by the Danish and Swedish Red Cross a month before the end of the war; ever thankful that they were the exception, as our esteemed Rabbi Bent Melchior, has said: it is customary for Jews to be expelled but rarely, ever so rarely, to be embraced when they return from expulsion. 

Danish civil servants and organizations assumed responsibility to protect the Danish Jews deported to Theresienstadt. How extraordinary: beyond the Danish borders, the Jews were still Danes. This was defiance, resilience and resistance to despicable Fascist actions and beliefs—all in the Danish spirit of collective values and behaviors. Thus, despite the bystanders and collaborators, this unique national model of resilience and resistance still serves as an example of collective action, based upon shared values that saved a threatened minority. “…humans are human only,” Claude Lanzmann wrote in his autobiography The Patagonian Hare, “because they have the capacity to transform that which oppresses them into something of value, and to sacrifice themselves for it. It is the very essence of humanity, but could also be called tradition, or even more, culture” (pp. 312-313). In the Danish case it was both the liberal Christian “tradition” and the “culture” of social responsibility.

There is still much to learn and make relevant to our contemporary challenges. Humanity in Action remains committed to the premise that Herbert Pundik agreed to in 1997: let us probe with diligence and objectivity Denmark’s complex and unique history during the war and the Holocaust and commend the history of individual and collective resilience and resistance that remains deeply meaningful. And let us continue to do it by collective international inquiry that enhances the ever-growing Humanity in Action community of people engaged in promoting democracy, justice, historical knowledge and the public good. 


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About the Author

Judith S. Goldstein founded Humanity in Action in 1997 and has served as its Executive Director ever since. Under Judith’s leadership, Humanity in Action has organized educational programs on international affairs, diversity and human rights in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Poland, the Netherlands and the United States. She received her Ph.D in history from Columbia University and was a Woodrow Wilson Scholar for her MA studies. Judith has written several books and articles about European and American history, art and landscape architecture. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and several boards and advisory groups.


Goldstein, Judith S. "The Flight and Rescue of Danish Jewry." In Humanity in Action: Collected Essays and Talks, 49-52. New York: Humanity in Action Press, 2014.

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