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Introduction to Civil Society and the Holocaust: International Perspectives on Resistance and Rescue

Published by Humanity in Action in 2013, Civil Society and the Holocaust: International Perspectives on Resistance and Rescue examines the different ways that European countries and the United States responded to the Holocaust. This anthology was created as part of “Civil Society: Reactions to the Holocaust, a series of events in Copenhagen commemorating the 70th anniversary of the flight and deportation of Danish Jews in October 1943. 


Today, a whole lifetime after the war, the Holocaust has been reduced into numbers and summaries: Who killed whom? Who were perpetrators, who were the victims?

Nearly six million murdered, most of them as industrial products – not by coincidence, but by political decision and after strict administrative preparations adhering to legal and political formulations of what was needed: The booking of train services and transport wagons – not first, second or third class carriages – cattle transport wagons would suffice. Equipping soldiers, recruiting assistants, some paid, some volunteering.

All arrangements regarding wagons and departure times were also in place when the Nazi occupiers in Copenhagen prepared to send Jews in Denmark away – South, East, in principle just away, completely away. The Danish State Railways had organized the connections, indicated where and when the train from Jutland needed to stop along the way. An unknown number of people must have known about the booking of this train. Others have noticed that the ship “Whateland” was docked in Copenhagen in the last days of September 1943 and people must have been wondering what kind of transportation was going to take place.

Today, the wagons and the ship are part of this story, the story known in Denmark as “October ’43” – the story of the fate of Danish Jews.

In retrospect, it is, at the same time, one of the darkest chapters in Danish history as well as a stellar moment. A few days before October ‘43 the principal of Ordrup High School had been knocking on the door of several classes in the middle of their lessons and had asked students of Jewish origin come with him. “On that day my childhood was over,” one of the students, the editor Herbert Pundik, wrote later. Before that day, he was just one of the boys. On this day, at this moment, he was the chosen one, the different one, and the one who was asked to find his parents and get away. Why? Ask the occupation authorities; ask Hitler. The train was booked and the “Whateland” at the quay in Copenhagen.

A dark chapter? Werner Best, the Nazi plenipotentiary, had decided that the night between October 1 and 2 should be the night for the Gestapo to knock at the doors of all Jews and take them away.

Or a stellar moment? More than 95 percent – statistics again – of Danish Jews managed to flee to Sweden, a unique event in the history of the Holocaust.

But between darkness and light, between the rector’s knock on the door at the high school and Jews arriving at ports in South Sweden, between Best’s decision on October 1, the eve of the Jewish New Year, and the end of October, there was uncertainty and fear for Jews in Denmark. Several thousand people could not sleep in their own bed, could not go to rest in their own home. A throng of people sought refuge with friends and neighbors and colleagues and strangers who opened their doors to them, terrified of trains and ships whose destination they did not know and yet could fear. This was not a stellar moment, certainly not for the 481 Jews who the occupying powers were successful in detaining – some of them in a famous raid on a church loft in Gilleleje, subsequently sending them off to the Southeast – to a concentration camp that few, if any, knew of that day. Theresienstadt.

In this gap between darkness and light, between Best’s decision and the transports to Theresienstadt, and the lifeboats to Sweden – the boats that were much praised after the war – a society was called to account. This was only a small corner of Nazi-controlled Europe and only a small part of the history of the Holocaust. But the challenge was the same everywhere: What could European civil societies do against the decision of the Nazis to isolate a minority of citizens in order to kill them?

Today, we have the privilege of hindsight, of being able to see things in a historical mirror pointed backward. We know that “the final solution” did not come by itself and not without warning. To wish that Europe should have stopped Nazism in time is obvious. To live with the fact that it did not happen is unbearable. To understand that the intervention did not happen is hard. To understand why it did not happen is still a challenge. Hitler made no secret of his hatred of Jews, neither in his book, Mein Kampf when it was published in enormous numbers or when he subsequently took power in Berlin in 1933. The ‘Kristallnacht’ in November 1938 did not allow for any doubt about potential popular hatred. The Wannsee Conference in 1942 did not hide the intention to annihilate the Jews of Europe. And witnesses such as Jan Karski brought early wartime testimony from the Warsaw ghetto and of what went on in the death camps. When Karski went to London and Washington to inform the Polish government in exile and both the British and the American leaders, he got the response: We’re not saying you’re lying. But we have a hard time believing what you say.

For political leaders as well as ordinary people, the Nazi attacks on Jews were not a matter of statistics and not a matter of theory or principles. From start to finish, if you can identify the start and if you can get closure to the traumas that still torture the generations after the Holocaust, it is about people. Civil societies. Occupiers and occupied. But not only perpetrators and victims – there are witnesses, spectators, people who did not know or could not take in that they had or could have a role or responsibility. The story was not just what some people set in motion, but also what others were watching, let happen or could not prevent.

The figure of nearly six millions is in itself incomprehensible, but then there is the question of what Europeans did when confronted with what they knew about the Nazi regime’s persecution of the Jews before, during and after this nightmare. What did they know? What knowledge could be of any use to them given the fact that you can’t compare the conditions in different societies? What did they want? What did they do? And for that matter: What did they not do?

Jews in Denmark were historically – and statistically–“lucky” because they experienced a widespread willingness to help them, and because there was a place to escape to. A German official warned Danish politicians, who again warned their fellow countrymen and Sweden opened borders, which before the war were closed. Some will see this as a story of thousands of people who had to flee from home, others as a story of a civil society, showing its solidarity with a threatened minority. Escape or rescue? Now, after the events, we know that October ’43 was about both, but during the events the anxiety of the minority, the will of the resistance fighters and the courage of the refugees’ helpers – all of this was assessed differently – both regarding the individual and Denmark.

The activists, who at the time engaged in helping their Jewish fellow countrymen, did not know while they acted that “Danes were not deported to concentration camps solely for their help to Jews on the run, and [that] fisherman did not risk their lives for their actions,” according to Sofie Lene Bak in her essay on Denmark in October ’43. In hindsight, it may be argued that the occupation forces did not want to let the action against the Danish Jews spoil the good cooperation with the Danish administration. But “the fishermen and refugee helpers, however, did not know this for certain at the beginning of October 1943,” when thousands across the Danish civil society threw themselves into helping Danish Jews to find shelter. And by far “the majority of those helping the Jews did not get paid for their efforts.”

At the other end of the Nazi nightmare we can see a Germany that Ulrich Herbert describes as a country with a clear absence of a civil society. On one hand, he finds it misleading and simplistic to claim that the genocide of the Jews of Europe and the spread of anti-Jewish attitudes in the German population would have grown out of a century old and rooted anti-Semitism of eliminatory kind. On the other hand, he finds it unavoidable to note that the German society was marked by a serious lack of orientation towards hu- man rights and the protection of minorities. The reality was dominated by repression, accompanied by two important phenomena – namely that “a substantial proportion of the population was completely uninterested in fate of the Jews”, and that “any public opposition, any protest against the anti-Jewish persecution measures of 1933 was initially limited and then completely excluded “.

In Poland where the main Nazi death camps were located “most people today do not,” according to Konstanty Gebert, “recognize that the Jews suffered greater oppression than themselves during the German occupation.” Well, this is not about competitive suffering; it would not be acceptable to “historically or morally downplay  the  enormous  suffering  that  the  Poles did indeed experience during World War II.” But if the Holocaust or the “Shoah” is repressed today, this is, according to Gebert, no different from what happened during the war. A review of over 400 non-Jewish Polish eyewitnesses’ contemporary and comprehensive records of the Nazi occupation reveals that “not a single ... contained the slightest reference to the Shoah.” Not one. Even if they personally had not had any encounter with the ‘Jewish fate,’ a large number of them had, according to Gebert, access to a diverse underground press, which was informed of what took place during the Nazi occupation.

Also, Richard Breitman asks if this was known in the United States, a country far from the Nazi-controlled Europe and – to put it mildly – crucial for the evolution and course of the war. On the American side of the At- lantic, a liberal immigration policy, as in most communities in Europe, was replaced by restrictive asylum rules. The Jewish “Congress Weekly” reported from 1941 on the “killing, deportation and imprisonment of Jews in concentration camps in Central Europe.” But the political debate had difficulty focusing on the ‘Endlösung,’ the Final Solution, in the middle of “the most immediately pressing problem: What could be done, if anything, in Europe, where the possibilities of military actions were very limited?” The United States stood in the middle of the perceived dilemma that – together with Britain – it had claimed responsibility for the fight against Nazism from the West, and to attempt to intervene with the Final Solution would frustrate, delay or interfere with that purpose. And in the midst of this dilemma, Washington was faced with the well-known demand that the Western allies should bomb the crematoria in Auschwitz. Whether they could have taken on bombing the death camps while pursuing the war and whether the bombing would have forced Hitler to change course – is still a contentious issue for the writing of counterfactual history. “It was ... much easier for the Nazis and their allies to kill than it was for outsiders far from the crime scenes to come to step in as rescuing angels”.

Right up until the 1970s, historians chose far more frequently to deal with the Second World War’s military developments and the contradiction between resistance and collaboration rather than focusing on the Holocaust, according to Bob Moore who writes about the evolution of the historiography of the war. This one-sided focus was replaced by a growing interest in the social historical aspects of communities’ response to the Nazi invasion or occupation and the Nazi persecution of Jews. But to what extent, asks Moore, was Jewish history separated, concretely, psychologically and morally from other conflicts, from other groups in need of escape and from other victims of the resistance? And how are we today to view the options there were both for the Jewish community and the respective populations of their countries of residence to ’save’ Jews from deportation and extermination, such as was the case in Denmark? Can ‘rescue’ only be perceived in the context of the an- nihilation itself, or should one indeed, as Moore argues, take a broader social history angle which also includes the situation before the war?

In France, where one part of the country was occupied and another was not, almost all Jews, according to Annette Wieviorka, had “confidence in the rule of protection.” They allowed themselves to be registered at the same time as the Vichy government decreed that, for the time being, all foreign Jews were to be interned in special camps. When Jews in early summer 1941 received a “call-up,” half of them voluntary reported to be interned. “France’s non-Jewish population hardly noticed the episode,” Wievorka writes, and they probably didn’t notice that the other half left occupied Paris to reach the free zone. “At this stage, the French people are... neither hostile to the Jews, nor are they particularly helpful. They are simply indifferent.” At the end of May 1943, the persecution became visible to all, as a German regulation forced all Jews over 6 years to wear a yellow Star of David on their clothes. And soon, Jews from France were deported to  Auschwitz. Nevertheless, notes Wieviorka, it was easier for Jews in France to spread out in the country and escape prosecution than it was for the Jewish population of Poland. The French Jews constituted only a small minority of just under half a percent of the total population, and could more easily blend into French society, which still was predominantly helpful.

In Bulgaria the rescue of many Jews is – as in Denmark – part of national self-understanding. On the other hand, a fixed element of self-understanding is also ignoring the fact that Bulgaria had non-Bulgarian Jews deported to the two death camps, Treblinka and Auschwitz, from Bulgarian controlled areas in Greece and Serbia with local state railways as operators. Here the darkest hour and “stellar hour” occurred almost simultaneously, i.e. with the honorable rescue of Jews in one part of the country, and moral failure in the other. Does one honorable action cancel out the other or as Anthony Georgieff writes: “What counts most? Those who were saved or those who were destroyed?” Georgieff questions the collectivizing of both crimes as well as morally exemplary actions: “At the end of the day, will it not always be the individual who must bear the responsibility for everything that happens for good and bad?” The government of Bulgaria joined the Axis powers and also had to commit itself to contributing to the solution of the Nazi-dictated problem, “The Jewish question.” Bulgaria had to introduce its own “Nuremberg Laws,” which with a stroke of a pen made Jews statutorily inferior. And from the spring of 1943, Jews were mobilized for forced labor and selected for transport to Nazi death camps. But there were people from the government majority who fought against this. Even today there is discussion of who can be credited with the rescues and who bears responsibility for the deportations.

In the north of Europe, Sweden played an indispensable role for Jewish communities in neighboring countries. The Swedish government had been no more eager or willing than other European State governments to receive fleeing Jews from Germany and Central Europe. This has already been demonstrated by the historic conference in Evian in 1938, where Sweden, just as other countries, was reluctant to “import a Jewish question,” writes Karin Kvist Geverts. But Sweden was neutral and as such out of Nazi Germany’s direct influence. And it was inevitable that Jews in the surrounding countries saw Sweden as a place to seek shelter. Swedish officials and politicians had realized this before Jewish refugees in large numbers began to knock on the door. Refugees in general had no easy access, and Jews – who in the Swedish bureaucracy were recorded with a small “m” for Mosaic or Jewish, were in particular not allowed in. There was enough to worry about for the Swedish refugee authorities – the Norwegian Quisling government’s policy towards its Jews, the Finnish Government squeezed in its alliance with Germany and the war with Russia – and the Nazi occupying power’s plans in Denmark.

While the rest of Europe and the United States, free nations, occupied states or countries at war, were trying to determine what they knew or wanted to know about the Holocaust. Sweden had free media, which, at least from 1942 and actually before that, could inform about the extermination of Jews. And when a group of Norwegian Jews was forced to board the ship SS Donau at the end of November 1942, bound for Poland and Auschwitz, the Swedish politicians went from being spectators to become rescuers. Jewish refugees were still registered “Mosaic” of race and faith. But where Jewish refugees before had been rejected because they were Jews, they now got access to Sweden precisely because they were Jews. At that time it was too late for Jews from Germany and Central Europe to escape to Sweden, but not too late for many Jews in the North. Later on, this led to a heated internal political debate on why Sweden bureaucratically and per definition chose to distinguish between Jews and non-Jews in its initial policy. The voice of civil society was here crucial for the change in Swedish refugee policy. For the Danish Jews, it was vital that Sweden opened its gates when they had to escape very quickly. Up until the week before the German plenipotentiary Werner Best put his action against Danish Jews in motion, Sweden had refused to accept Danish Jews. But on the crucial day, Sweden did not reject – so far as we know – one Jew.

Finland, writes Oula Silvennoinen, was never occupied by Nazi Germany, but chose an alliance that could have faced the Finnish government with demands for the deportation of its own or the country’s foreign Jews. But things never got that far; part of the Finnish Jews used the opportunity to escape to Sweden anyway. But the Finnish politicians collaborated with the Germans and the mood of Finland was generally more anti-Communist than anti-Nazi. The Finnish situation is more comparable to the countries that also after the war were part of the Soviet Union and were cooperating with Nazi Germany was considered as a clever way to avoid Soviet occupa- tion. In this way Finland represents one of the countries that, being in the periphery of the Holocaust, only recently and because of the changing demands on the management of the past have addressed the more unpleasant aspects of its history.

This is development is similar to that of Norway, although the Norwegian Jews’ fate was different from that of the Finnish and Danish Jews. When 772 Norwegian Jews were deported to Auschwitz only 34 returned. About 60 percent, or the equivalent to about 1,100, managed to escape deportation in the fall of 1942. At this time, probably neither the Swedish, the Danish nor the Norwegian Jews were fully aware of the Final Solution. As Irene Levin describes with reference to concrete examples, the action against the Jews in Norway took place earlier than in Denmark. As the situation thus intensified in the late autumn in Norway, 1942, “there were mainly four types of escape, which the Jews could resort to.” For each of these possibilities there were a variety of expressions of civil engagement. But “no matter how the escapes took place, whether they were ad hoc by networks of family and friends, or organized in advance, it was a case of individuals exhibiting a high degree of civic engagement and courage. They risked their lives,” as Levin writes. Whether their actions were the manifestation of a extraordinary courage or whether they were rather a “ordinariness of goodness” is a question she raises in her conclusion. Is there such a thing as a common form of goodness?

Holland was occupied, and many Europeans know the story about the girl Anne Frank, who along with her family, received help over a long period of time, hiding in a secret attic. In statistical terms, Holland had a darker, terrifying fate during the war and the Holocaust. Three quarters – more than 103,000 of the 140,000 Jews in the country before the war – were murdered. This number constitutes the highest percentage in Western Europe. The soul searching is not yet over, writes Ronald Leopold. “What do these patterns teach us about ourselves and the society we are part of? What were the collaborators’ motives in collaborating with the enemy? What ethics can you expect from a victim whose life is at risk? What spurred some people to help their fellow man? And why did the great majority prefer neither to help nor to cooperate?”

These are some of the questions addressed in this anthology that still haunt the liberal democracies of Western Europe and any civil society: Why and how could this happen? In the last essay of this anthology, Cecilie Felicia Stokholm Banke writes on the efforts to take this legacy and lesson seriously. As with the whole book, this last essay deals with the question of taking responsibility for what we do, what we conceal, what we witness and what happens while we are still pondering what we must do.


•     •     • 

About the Authors

Anders Jerichow - Senior Correspondent and columnist, Politiken, Copenhagen. Chairman of Humanity in Action (Denmark) and Danish PEN. He has authored a number of books on human rights and international development, questions of freedom of speech, Middle Eastern affairs. Jerichow has also published a major source collection Oktober ’43 on the fate of Danish Jews in 1943 (2013). Finally, he has contributed to a number of publications on genocide and human rights questions.

Cecilie Felicia Stokholm Banke - Ph.D and MA, is Senior Researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies where she works with Danish and European foreign policy, specializing in how societies come to terms with their atrocity past. From 2009-2013 she was in charge of Ho- locaust and genocide studies at the DIIS, and has been a member of the Danish Delegation to International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance since 2005. She has published on the Danish refugee policy during Nazism, Holocaust memory in postwar Europe, and the politics of memory in Europe since 1989.


Jerichow, Anders and Cecilie Felicia Stokholm Banke. "Introduction." In Civil Society and the Holocaust: International Perspectives on Resistance and Rescue, edited by Anders Jerichow and Cecilie Felicia Stokholm Banke, 9-17. New York: Humanity in Action Press, 2013.

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