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Copenhagen: Bright Hope and Deep Gloom – A New View of the 1943 Rescue Operation in Denmark

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. 


“The rescue of Danish Jews during the second world war still has great significance for Denmark’s reputation in the outside world. And for good reason. But perhaps the wrong reasons….”

The rescue of Danish Jews during the Holocaust period is one of the most treasured examples of human empathy, public spiritedness and outstanding courage ever to emerge from Denmark. With the exception of the exploits of Danish Vikings, the rescue mission is perhaps the only other world famous episode in Danish history. In the space of just a few weeks in October 1943, the Danes managed to move over 7000 people – 95% of the country’s Jewish population – to safety in neutral Sweden. Even as boats and vessels were still carrying fugitive Danish Jews across the Øresund strait to Sweden, the story of what the Danes were doing had already reached England and the United States, where expatriate Danes were in dire need for some kind of positive news that could help to change Denmark’s dubious reputation as “Hitler’s pantry.” Denmark’s rapid capitulation after the Nazi’s occupied the country in 1940, and the extensive nature of cooperation with German forces thereafter, had marked the Danes out as little more than opportunist cowards. By 1945, however, the Danes had maneuvered themselves over to the winning side and then received de facto status as part of the allied war effort. But two decades were to pass before the outside world became fully aware of the remarkable events of October 1943.

Even though certain legends about the Danish rescue operation were al- ready in circulation – legends that were absorbed into the Hollywood entertainment machine as early as 1960 with the film production of Leon Uris’s novel “Exodus” – it was Israel’s Yad Vashem (Holocaust Research and Mu- seum Centre) and its granting to Denmark of the Title of Honor – “Righteous Among the Nations” in 1963 that focused world attention on Denmark. The general purpose of the establishment of the Title of Honor was to acknowledge Gentiles who helped Jews during the Holocaust period. It is also meant to serve as an important link in the creation of a new community of commemoration in the young state of Israel itself surrounding the human disaster that was the Shoah. When the Yad Vashem centre requested names of Danish people who might be considered for the Title of Honor, representatives of the Danish resistance movement requested in turn that no single individual be honored at the possible expense of others. Thus, at that time, the only monuments to the Danish rescue effort that were erected in Yad Vashem’s memorial park were three trees and commemorative plaques: one for the Danish resistance movement, one for king Christian X and one to honor the Danish people as a whole. On the other hand, the first example of a Danish fishing boat being raised as a monument came as early as 1967 in the Israeli port of Haifa, and since then the interest and demand for any kind of Danish vessel, be that a fishing boat, dinghy, barge or lighter, that has the slightest connection to the October 1943 rescue operation has grown steadily. (1)

However, the paradox at that time (and still today) lies in the fact that an express prerequisite for possible inclusion in Yad Vashem’s roll of honor is amongst other things that: “the rescuer was aware that in extending such aid [to the Jews] he was risking his life, safety and personal freedom,” and also that “no material reward or substantial compensation was exacted by the rescuer from the rescued as a condition for extending aid.” (2) It is important to note that both conditions must be met. The paradox lies in the fact that these conditions were often far from being the case in Denmark in October 1943.

Amongst the Danes themselves, it has never been a secret that Jews had to pay for their illegal crossing to safety in Sweden. A small cartoon in the 1945 issue of the satirical magazine annual Svikmøllen illustrates not only the widespread awareness of these payment demands but also how much they were a point of discussion in this period – a gentleman is standing at the ticket counter for the Copenhagen boat to Malmö. The caption reads:

–How much is a ticket to Sweden?

–5 kroner and 60 øre.

–That’s cheap! The last time I paid 3000 kroner!

The cartoon only takes up 5 x 5 cm of space on the page and is hidden away in a corner and taking Svikmøllen’s overall format into consideration (its use of whole page cartoons and so on) it must be said that this cartoon has no prominence or eye catching positioning. But it is there nonetheless. Moreover, small as it is, the cartoon highlights the sometimes astronomical sums that were being demanded for the sea crossing. Today’s equivalent of 3000 Danish kroner (in 1943 money) is established by multiplying the amount by 20. At that time, the monthly salary for a fully trained worker was 414 kroner. Moreover, literature and memoirs covering this period cite examples of families paying up to 50,000 kroner for their crossing. They also mention fishermen who charged fees of 100.000 kroner to bring people across to Sweden. (3) As a comparison, the price of an actual fishing boat lay between 15,000 and 30,000 Danish kroner in 1943.

These payment demands are often justified by references to the fact that the fishermen involved were risking not only their lives but also their livelihoods in undertaking these crossings and that the money was a form of insurance for the vessel and its equipment, as well as possible compensation for their wives and families should things go awry. Accounts provided by the Jews themselves meanwhile stress the fact that the value of human life is not something that can be haggled over and that, of course, Jewish families were quite happy to hand over all they possessed, if necessary, in order that lives be saved. Valdemar Koppel was the Editor in Chief of Denmark’s Politiken newspaper and his description of the situation caries a kind of humorous pathos:

“I have occasionally reflected on the amount I had to pay to get across to Malmö and the fact that, in peacetime, I could have travelled the world for the same price. Yes it could have been me on that luxury liner with its all its pampering and comforts, flirting with stunning, fairy tale dollar-millionaire princesses, with whom I would play badminton out on the sun kissed deck in the morning, and then in the evening we would dance cheek to cheek in one of the wonderful exclusive chandelier lit saloons. Oh what pleasures have I missed?! But for all that, I would not have changed one for the other. Because I experienced something that was infinitely more valuable. I encoun- tered human goodness, a natural and selfless desire to help, which could not be automatically assumed beforehand, and which was both a source of great surprise and a deep, long lasting joy. Even today, one basks in warm feelings of gladness and human empathy when thinking about those days.” (4)

For the record, the cost of Koppel’s escape to Sweden was 20,000 Danish kroner, which in present day terms amounts to 400,000 kroner.

The disarming humor should not be interpreted as a kind of backhanded complaint. The fact is that Jews in Denmark actually did feel very grateful at that time. Nobody was interested in haggling about crossing fees in 1943, and those few that did were immediately condemned as tight fisted skinflints. And then, after liberation in 1945, there was even less interest in discussing the reasonableness of the fees demanded. This was not just because the murder of 6 million coreligionists made any comparison with the travails and tribulations of Danish Jews impossible. For there was also the fact that the Danes themselves had paid a heavy price in their fight to liberate their country. Over 4000 people had been killed in accidents, sabotage and armed actions, in concentration camps, or as victims of German executions. Many more had suffered torture, hunger and brutality as captives of the Nazi regime. Those who managed to escape the above fates still had to put up with rationing, goods scarcity and the general decline of standards during the wartime occupation. Then came the day of judgment when an account was drawn up of which Danes had played their part in Denmark’s freedom struggle and the returning Jews (who had spent the last years of the war in a neighboring country that overflowed with nylon stockings, chocolate) were met with no little suspicion and envy. Thus, at that historical point in time, nobody was going to raise a question mark over the apparently straightforward heroic feat accomplished by their compatriots in saving Jewish lives.

It would take a long time before research was carried out into the more dubious aspects of the “legend.” Not until 1995 (50 years after the war), did we see the first systematic examination of the actual risks involved in helping Jews to escape. This concluded that those helping fugitives to flee Denmark had not, in fact, put their lives at risk by saving Jews. On the contrary. As a matter of routine, German police would hand over the helpers to the Danish police who would either release them immediately or issue a mild punish- ment, typically 3 months as a non high security prisoner. There are also in- stances where the helpers were sentenced but never served their time because they were slipped out via the back door of the court once judgment had been announced. (5) Moreover, the German forces of occupation regarded the “offence” of helping Jews to escape as an internal Danish problem and in this way were able to manage their fiction of a “peaceful occupation.” This conceit was based on Nazi propaganda that they were simply protecting Denmark’s military neutrality and did not otherwise violate Danish sovereignty. Thus, the helpers were sentenced and imprisoned in accordance with Danish law. Subsequent  studies  of  the  German  police  authorities  in  Denmark, have clearly demonstrated that whilst a comprehensive anti-Jewish Aktion (with more than sufficient manpower) was indeed initiated for the mass arrest operation on the 1st  of October 1943, this operation was not planned to last more than 3 hours and was also constrained by a number of other provisos–first and foremost amongst these was that German police units were not allowed to use violence or forcible entry to access Jewish homes in order to make arrests. (6) Furthermore, this operation was a one-off. There were to be no more mass arrest initiatives. After the mass raids on the 1st of October, follow up searches were left in the hands of a small group of Gestapo officers in Copenhagen and Helsingør. Covering the whole of the Øresund strait between Denmark and Sweden effectively was an impossible task for such a small group. At the same time, Wehrmacht forces simply followed general instruc- tions not to interfere with illegal marine traffic, whilst German navy vessels only involved themselves with military naval operations. Not one single vessel (out of 600 to 700 transport craft carrying Jewish fugitives/refugees) was detained at sea. (7)

More detailed studies have also revealed that the price for the crossing to Sweden swung substantially from the end of September 1943, when demand was greatest (and the availability of fishermen willing to sail was least), to the end of October, by which time the main body of Jewish refugees had been sailed across. In other words, the crossing price was dictated by the market. One of the great advantages in the way the rescue operation evolved was that price rates were kept fairly stable. Thus, the “helpers” assisting the refugees and fugitives effectively functioned as middle men who could agree to a fixed price with the fishermen who were to make the crossing. Furthermore, large amounts of finance were drawn in from private individuals and the business community. This helped defray at least some of the cost for individual refugees. A conservative estimate suggests that the combined cost for all Danish Jews who crossed to Sweden was somewhere near 20 million Danish kroner. Jewish families presumably paid around half of this amount, whilst the rest came from collections and donations. (8) Thus, no one was left behind because they could not afford to pay. However, they may have had to wait until the price fell further.

The combination of the already well established fact that by far the majority of Jews had to pay hard cash for their escape to Sweden and the new research findings (with regards to levels of risk etc.) had a devastating effect: if it was now clear that the rescue effort did not contain a large element of risk and that the fishermen received significant amounts of money to bring Jews to safety, then this surely was exploitation of vulnerable and persecuted human beings? The reaction to these revelations was not long in coming: The best gloss that could be put on things was that the new research had underestimated the subjective view of the risk involved – that the helpers believed they were risking their lives. The worst scenario was that the memory of the rescue helpers had been besmirched. The highly charged reaction of those who were centrally involved, both the victims themselves and their rescuers, as well as many who had played no part in the drama, demonstrated that the placatory interpretation of the payments issue had suppressed the memory of its scale. Now it was the Danes’ own cherished image of themselves that was at stake.

But is it possible that the historians researching this period were applying a false hindsight that sought to cynically play down the fear factor for helpers? If this is the case, it was a more stringent hindsight view than was shared by the Danish authorities in 1945.

Shortly after the war’s end, the transition government introduced a comprehensive reparation programmed, which was meant to compensate victims of the Nazi occupation. The civil servants tasked with implementing this programmed received very precise instructions as to how they should handle applications for compensation. Right from the start, they were told to be aware of the huge amounts of money that had been earned by fishermen during the Jews’ flight to Sweden. Their guidelines gave the following instruction:

“It is common knowledge that a number of people, especially fishermen, involved themselves in these transport operations purely for their own personal gain and made massive profits by charging quite extraordinary “ticket prices” (what’s particularly being referred to here is the period around 1-10- 43). Any claim for compensation made by such people under the Reparations Act should be viewed as being doubtful in the extreme, given that their activities were, to put it mildly, a pure money making exercise and the risk of arrest or damage was covered by the ‘prices’ they charged.” (9)

The authorities worked on the assumption that there had been no risk to life for the fishermen, so the main task was to clarify exactly how much profit an applicant for compensation had made whilst transporting fugitives/ refugees. Those applicants who had received a payment for their transport services were advised to retract their application. (10)

The Reparations Act also contained a provision for the awarding of an “honor grant” for active involvement in Denmark’s liberation struggle. This honor grant was an acknowledgment of the sacrifices made by the resistance movement, with many people having been deported to prisons and camps because of their nationality and/or political convictions. The award was a parallel honor to the acknowledgment and elevated status given to political prisoners, which was a prerequisite for compensation in other European countries after the war. (11) The Danish authorities refused to pay honor grants to fishermen who had earned money from the transportation of Jews – even when the person in question had died as a result of making an illegal crossing.

In fact, as early as 1945, the Danish authorities knew exactly how many helpers had lost their lives whilst helping Jews to escape. There were two. One of those drowned whilst attempting to row a boat carrying fugitives/refugees to Sweden. The other committed suicide in his cell after being arrested by the Gestapo on suspicion of helping fugitives/refugees. (12) The reason for incidents like this, despite the above evidence of a formerly relaxed attitude on the part of the German authorities, is that people who had taken part in the rescue operation in October 1943, but who then continued in their illegal people smuggling, ran a greater risk of being arrested, imprisoned and deported. In other words, the Nazi occupiers in Denmark were to subsequently regard people trafficking routes in the Øresund strait as a major problem and combatting these illegal activities was prioritized, not least because this sea channel was now providing a way in for saboteurs and weaponry and also facilitated the obtaining and exchange of secret intelligence between Denmark and Sweden. Overall the sharpened military situation produced a rising death toll due to things like drowning incidents, explosions and resistance/allied engagements with the occupying power, as well as accidental discharges of weaponry. This meant a continued need to keep the smuggling routes open because there were still people trying to get across to Sweden. But Danish transgressors were not deported to concentration camps if there only “crime” was helping Jews to escape, so the fishermen involved could not be said to have risked their lives in such activities.

On the other hand, Danish fishermen and those who assisted Jewish fugitives/refugees in the beginning of October 1943, could not know this for certain. However, an awareness soon developed amongst them that they were not engaging in a life or death resistance exploit. They would have also noted the fact that Wehrmacht military units showed no interest in their activities and were far more concerned with rooting out Danish spies and naval coast guard staff who were working against them. Its also true to say that many helpers would have perceived themselves as being untouchable given the huge support their activities enjoyed and the high numbers of people who became involved. The helper felt the same kind of aura of protection as the soldier in H.C. Andersen’s fairy-tale The Tinder Box where the clever dog was able to conceal the place where the Princess had been that night by drawing a chalk cross on every door in the town, whereby it became impossible to discover which was the cross that the Princess’s chamber maid had drawn on the door when she had followed the magic dog which carried the sleeping princess to the waiting soldier. This fairy-tale metaphor of crosses being drawn on all doors may explain why so many people, who otherwise might not have chosen to take part and were not experienced in illegal resistance work, found the courage to get involved in the rescue mission to help Jews get across to Sweden. The protests against the Nazi regimes Aktion against the Jews came from all walks of life and included many opinion makers and august institutions in the country. This had the effect of galvanizing huge support for the rescue operation. It also helped to blur the boundaries between what was seen as being legal and illegal. Because effectively there was a cross on every door in the town. Were the German forces of occupation going to arrest everybody?

In Denmark’s case, and at least until the autumn of 1943, the Germans valued harmonious cooperation with the Danes higher than the need to remove 8000 Jews from the country. And even when the established policy of collaboration broke down in August 1943, and the government stepped down, Danish society was not thrown into either military or social turmoil. The police and courts still functioned and leadership of the country was taken over by civil servants. For their part, the German occupiers wished to continue with their cooperation policy in order to ensure the continued supply of vital foodstuffs and materials to Germany. Thus, from a German point of view, nothing should be done to inflame Danish sensibilities. In other words, even though an order was in place to round up all Jews in Denmark because of an ideological war, any overly harsh consequences of such a policy had to be softened. It was for these pragmatic reasons that the chief executive officer of the occupying power, Werner Best, ensured that Danish Jews received advance warning of the Aktion planned for the 1st of October. It was for these same reasons that police units were not activated to hunt down fleeing Jews. Thus, it is not the case that Best had suddenly become a “big softy.” It was rather that a manhunt for Jews did not serve the Nazi regimes strategic interests. Best was simply keen to avoid widespread unrest amongst the wider population. Nor had he become any less anti-Semitic. The aim was still to make Denmark “judenrein” (cleansed of Jews). But whether this happened via deportation to German prison camps or via illegal flight to Sweden was irrelevant to him.

Finally, it should be pointed out that a small number of people in fact sailed to Sweden free of charge. The average price for a crossing was 1000 Danish kroner per person, a substantial sum in 1943, which for many families meant that they would have to sell everything they owned, or lend an amount they would never, in reality, be able to back. These debts remained in place when they returned to Denmark in 1945. Another distorting factor affecting the relationship between risk – subjective or not – and payment for a crossing was the price level in October 1943, after the vast majority of Danish Jews had sailed to safety in Sweden. From then on, the average price for saboteurs and members of the resistance fell to 100 kroner per. person, in a situation where the risk factor was clearly present.

Does the fruit of all this research mean that no ethical and socially valuable standards can be found in the story of the Danish rescue operation for the country’s Jews? Far from it.

The vast majority of those who helped their Jewish compatriots did not receive any payment for their actions. Whilst the rescue operation was running, there was a very large group of people willing to put their own safety and livelihoods at risk in order to help Jews to escape. Thousand of people became either directly or indirectly involved in the various escape operations. They came from every social class and represented a broad range of political convictions. Some had experience of illegal work and some didn’t. What was common to all of them, however, was a spontaneous urge to do something. One of the most moving aspects of the rescue operation was the goodwill that Danish Jews encountered in all situations.

During a holiday in Sweden in 1935, Grete Michel met a German-Jewish refugee called Werner. They were married that same year. In the early evening of the 29th of September 1943, the now married couple set off to visit Grete’s mother in law to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. They were unaware that details of a forthcoming Aktion against Danish Jewish had been leaked to Danish politicians at just that point in time. From here, warnings spread like wildfire across the country. Thus, as this small family unit sat and prepared its commemorative evening meal, a knock came at the door. It was one of the neighbors who had rushed to warn them not to stay at home as anti Jewish raids were expected as soon as that very night: “We took the news fairly calmly – at any event we decided we should eat before doing anything else.” As soon as the meal was over, Werner went home to pack “the bare essentials.” (13) In the meantime, Grete helped her mother in law to pack her own things, but before they had finished they had received no less than three completely spontaneous visits from people offering to put the family up, look after their home and property and arrange transport out of the country. Contemporary diaries and memoirs provide a huge amount of evidence of similar spontaneous offers of assistance from not just the extended family network, friends and acquaintances, but also total strangers. Completely normal Danish people threw an arm of protection around their Jewish fellow citizens without demanding anything in return. In the 1930s, the political struggle to assert democratic values was not just about protecting the rights of minorities but also to promote the active combatting of anti-Semitism, which became characterized as an un-Danish thing to be. Questioning whether Danish Jews could actually be classed as fellow citizens was viewed as a form of approval for Nazi and thereby German ideology. (14) Now, in 1943, the deep rootedness of these humane values showed itself in widespread practice.

What was decisive for the fate of the Jewish community in Denmark was that the warnings of an impending Aktion against it were taken seriously. Without hesitation, Jewish families fled from their homes and apartments, leaving most of their possessions behind them, and sought refuge in the homes of neighbors and friends, in hotels and summerhouses. In the meantime, they began organizing sea crossings to neutral Sweden, which had already offered to take fugitives/refugees. However, families with young children were left with a terrible dilemma. Terrifying rumors had begun to spread about children being strangled or smothered, or even thrown overboard, because they could not keep quiet during the illegal crossing. It is true that some people-smuggling routes had doctors in attendance who were able to anaesthetize the children during the sea crossing, but full anesthesia of small children can be risky and did not always have the desired effect. A crying child would expose and endanger everybody else – fugitives/refugees and fishermen alike. Another problem was that this was October in Scandinavia. The weather was harsh – wet, very windy and cold. At the start of the rescue operations, in particular, many crossings were made using rowing boats, which had to traverse the choppy waters in pitch darkness. Jewish families were also concerned about what would happen to them once they got to Sweden. Would they end up in refugee camps? Would the family in fact be able to stay together as a unit – or would men and women be separated? A drastic decision had to be made by many parents: Was it too dangerous to bring the youngest kids with them?

At least 150 children – over 10% of all children who were victims of anti Jewish persecution – were therefore placed in hiding in Denmark when their parents fled to Sweden. The age of the children that were left behind gives its own clear indication as to the way parents felt about bringing small children with them: Almost 2/3 of the children were under 5 years of age. 25% were under or around one year old. The youngest infant was no more than 6 days old. The separation from their parents was to last for almost 2 years until the war finally ended in May 1945, but for many the emotional bond had been severed forever. The children were hidden away in children’s homes and boarding schools, and also in private homes amongst families who were often complete strangers to these tiny “outcasts.” Only in a very small number of cases was a payment transaction made between the relevant parties, and even then this related to specific expenditure for child clothing, toys and equipment. As far as can be ascertained, no foster parents received a payment for their undertaking. As is only natural, these small children formed a bond with their foster parents. In the vast majority of cases, these substitute parents gave much love and care to their foster children and treated them as if they were their own children. (15)

A common factor for all these “hidden” children is that they lived a completely open existence in Denmark. In contrast to Jewish children in continental Europe who had been reduced to hiding in cellars and sewage systems, lofts and attics, as well as outbuildings and henhouses (in some cases without any help from adults) all the Danish children were looked after by adults. In other words, the children did not lead lives that were cut off from the outside world, but took part in the daily life of the host family, or at a children’s home, by way of a cover story or a false identity. However, the cover stories were not always that reliable, just as the foster parents or guardians were suddenly faced with a range of practical problems to do with goods shortages and rationing where any change in regular patterns risked attracting the attention of others. But not one single child was betrayed to the German police authorities. This fact alone reflects both the level of solidarity at the local level (which gave support to the actions of individual foster parents or guardians), and also the particular nature of the Nazi occupation in Denmark, where anti Jewish persecution ebbed away as early as the turn of the year – 1943/44. The spontaneous decision on the part of foster families to take in and care for Jewish children (without knowing how long this would last or the amount of risk involved) is an hitherto unknown aspect of the Danish rescue operation of 1943. The story of what happened to these children is a strong testament to the deep opposition amongst many Danes to the discriminatory policies of the Nazi occupiers and also to the determination they had to take on what was potentially the greatest responsibility of all in caring for the life of small and completely vulnerable human beings.

Thus, the much vaunted solidarity that many individual Danes showed their Jewish fellow citizens is actually confirmed as being true by the most recent research. It must also be said that this same research shows how extensive, bold and remarkable the support of the Danish state mechanism was for its Jewish population.

As early as the 2nd of October 1943, the day after the anti Jewish raids, the Copenhagen municipal authority received an unusual communiqué from the Department of Social Affairs. The ministry requested of Copenhagen Council that it take over the care and preservation of the possessions and property left behind by fleeing Jews. (16) In all, there were no less than 1970 notes received regarding empty homes and apartments or questionable circumstances in the capital area. When the municipal authority received a request, the address was visited, conditions assessed, and an inventory made of all furniture and fittings. Where it proved possible to keep the property, the rent was paid for the duration of German occupation. Where it was found that the property had been relet, or where it appeared that it had been sublet – if, for example, the rent had been too high – all relevant possessions and property were packed into boxes and stored in specially dedicated warehouses. Contracts of custodianship for property and businesses were drawn up with neighbors, extended family and employees and further measures were taken to prevent theft and ransacking. In all, house rent and all other costs were paid for 97 premises, whilst 350 lots of household effects were stored by the local council. Subsequently, this type of assistance scheme was applied across the whole country, just as financial support was paid to wives whose Jewish partner had been forced to leave the country.

In other words, right in the middle of a Nazi occupation, the Danish state mechanism was able to enact measures that would ensure the protection of possessions and property belonging to absent Jews. The rationale behind this process was quite simply that returning Jews would have a home to which they could return! It is no less striking that these protection procedures were put in place in agreement with the German occupier. Thus, at the same time as the Gestapo was carrying out raids and arrests along the Øresund coast, the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs had reached an agreement with the head of the security section of the German police that the Danish authorities could take over the care of property belonging to deported Jews. In reality, the Danish side entered a grey area that went beyond what had actually been agreed, because the agreement officially only covered Jews who had been deported from the country. However the Department of Social Affairs took the agreement to mean that the Danish authorities were obliged to expand this duty of care to persons who “due to present circumstances (have) decided that the correct thing to do was to take steps to ensure their safety either within the country or by going abroad.”

Only in a very few cases were the homes and apartments listed as being protected by the local authority vandalized by the German police. Instances of theft and burglary that were discovered were, as far as can be established, perpetrated by other Danes. There was, however, one report covering the 3rd of October 1943 that represented an exception to the rule:

“On the 3rd October 1943 Copenhagen council officials were warned that German military units had used the Synagogue at 12 Krystalgade as a rendezvous point during the raids on Jewish homes and that the premises had not been left unscathed. The congregation’s white prayer shawls had been slung across the seats and various prayer books strewn across the floor. The floor around the ceremonial chair overflowed with stamped out cigarette stumps and the high hats worn by the elders, which were normally kept in a cupboard in the entrance hall, had clearly been used as footballs as they had been kicked across the floor and beneath the rows of benches. Following this incident, council officials removed what was deemed to be of value: a number of Torah scrolls, various silver artifacts and some books. With the help of Copenhagen Museum (and along with some boxes from the Mosaic Religious Community Museum at Ny Kongensgade 6) the items from the synagogue were stored in an underground crypt below one of Copenhagen’s old churches. Following the Nazi capitulation in 1945, these items were once more placed into the care of a representative of the Mosaic Religious Community.” (17)

Denmark stands out as one of the most remarkable paradoxes with regard to the anti Jewish policies being prosecuted by the Nazis, because in Denmark the German regime opted for a radically different strategy to the one it was using in the rest of Europe. The report detailing the desecration of the Copenhagen synagogue provokes reminders of the Nazi regime’s attacks on Jewish property and religious shrines right across Europe during the period of the Holocaust. But the isolated nature of this kind of incident actually serves to highlight the special occupation strategy being pursued by the Germans in Denmark, which forbade the destruction or theft of Jewish property. In Denmark, the Gestapo issued instructions to the effect that no Jewish homes should be broken into or destroyed and household effects were not to be removed. (18) The municipal authority’s own reports confirm that this instruction from the Gestapo was in fact respected by German police units on the ground, as it is clear that in the majority of cases the homes that were inspected did not give the impression of having been raided or ransacked. However, the monitoring work carried out by local council officials was still highly necessary. Not to protect Jewish property from German confiscation or vandalism but to secure it against theft and deliberate neglect perpetrated by their fellow Danes.

When the war was finally at an end, about 1/3 of Jewish families were able to return to a completely intact and well kept home. In other words, a large number of private individuals had selflessly (and with great care) kept a watch on the property belonging to these families. Moreover, the various local councils (with strong backing from the Department of Social Affairs) had made great efforts to ensure that Danish Jews had something to which they could return. Be that as it may, in the summer of 1945, thousands of people had returned to find that they had neither home nor a job to go to, or they had lost their business. Likewise, many found that their property and possessions had either been sold or stolen. However there was a particularly well established, and highly organized, aid centre to which they could turn.

In the immediate aftermath of returning home, people could get help from the so called “Centralkontor for særlige Anliggender” – Central Office for Special Needs, which first and foremost existed to handle the demobilization of the resistance movement and to help facilitate a smooth return to civilian life for its members. But returning Jews were included within the remit of this office from the start. The “Central Office” issued financial aid for food, rent, clothing and debts which had been incurred during the “illegal” period or whilst escaping. Payments were issued for the storage of furniture, for convalescence and rest cures and funeral costs. Resettlement grants were also made available in the form of a one off amount, of up to 1500 Danish kroner, for the setting up of independent companies or as a subvention for the purchase of work wear and equipment.

Jews returning home, who had either been in exile or in concentration camps, made up 25% of all those who received help from the Central Office. In total, 4200 people of Jewish origin received temporary financial help. Thus Jewish fugitives/refugees proved to be the largest group and the biggest recipient of help for “special needs.” These figures show that at least 65% of Danish Jewish were in need of – and received – financial help in order to re- establish themselves in Denmark.

Europe was in utter ruins after the capitulation of the Nazi regime. Millions of people had either fled across land borders, had been forcibly moved or had been deported from their own countries. Many emaciated and traumatized prisoners had been freed from concentration camps. Prisoners of war and victims of forced labor had been released in large numbers, whilst others who had literally gone underground emerged from their hideouts. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of Germans, or Baltic Germans/citi- zens, and East Europeans were now being held in prison camps or were flee- ing from the advancing Red Army.

In all, following  the defeat  of  Germany, over  10  million  people had Displaced Person status (DP), as they had either been driven out or forcibly moved from their homeland. Denmark experienced only a fraction of this chaos. After liberation, there were approximately 250.000 German, Baltic and East European fugitives/refugees in Denmark who were interned in barrack camps. However the Danish authorities had not anticipated the number of Danes the war would make homeless, or how long it would take for the last of those returning home to obtain permanent accommodation. In all, 1534 erstwhile fugitives/refugees and deported citizens had to be housed in refugee camps in Denmark, before they were able to set up new homes. 90-95 % of the “inmates” at these camps were Jewish. In other words, about one fifth of all Jews returning home found themselves in refugee camps in Denmark for shorter or longer periods. Many more simply preferred a status as “homeless.” The camps were the absolute last resort. Those who were able to consider alternatives, booked into hotels, lived with family, friends or neighbors, or rented temporary rooms; even allotment sheds were used as accommodation. Only around a third of Jews had the option of moving back to their original home. (19)

The Danish authorities understood that the costs and expenditure incurred by fleeing refugees was a serious burden for returning Jewish families. As we have seen above, those who fled had often paid huge sums to get across to Sweden. Moreover, many had been forced to leave their property and possessions in haste and unsecured and came back after the war to discover that these had been sold or had simply disappeared and/or that their businesses had been badly managed or had gone bankrupt. The education of their children, meanwhile, had been severely disrupted and there was also a group of women and children who had been left without a breadwinner as they had lost a husband/father. Thus, on the 1st of October 1945, the Danish parliament passed a Reparations Act for victims of the Nazi occupation in acknowledgement of the urgent need for public assistance on the part of those whose way of life and livelihoods had been destroyed by events during the war.

This act gave access to compensation for death and disability caused by acts of war, including acts of persecution and deportation carried out by the German forces of occupation and for so called tort-compensation for imprisonment and deportations. These payments were made as fixed amounts for each week of captivity that had been endured. The act also contained a compensation clause for property damage and support for the recommencing or start up of a business, as well as re-establishing a venture after “particularly heavy losses.” There was also a provision for training and retraining. A total of DKK 1.1 million was paid out as tort compensation to Jewish prisoners who had been deported to the Theresienstadt camp – the equivalent of DKK 14 million in today’s money. In this way, 77% of the surviving adults prisoners from Theresienstadt received reparations for their time in the camp. However, the remarkable thing about this Danish reparations act was that it also gave access to compensation for those who had fled to Sweden because of anti-Semitic persecution. This legislation made it possible not only to seek compensation for damage and misuse of possessions and property during the victim’s exile, but also costs and expenditure for the escape itself. Assistance was also provided for the repayment of loans that were taken on to pay for the escape, as well as compensation for the use of one’s own means, both in terms of cash or property that had to be sold as a consequence of urgent flight. Thus, in this way alone, the Danish state contributed to retrospective financing of the escape to Sweden made by Danish Jews with over DKK 700,000 being paid out – the equivalent of DKK 9 million in today’s terms. In all, 1280 people who had been persecuted because of their Jewish origins made claims for compensation. In addition to this, at least one fifth of applicants made a claim for tort compensation because of Nazi persecution. The total amount paid out came to DKK 2.2 million in compensation and reparations to Danish Jews (DKK 27 million in today’s money). In no way does this amount cover the real costs relating to anti Jewish persecution: many families refrained from seeking compensation because they felt ashamed at the thought of receiving public assistance, and even those who did receive compensation rarely saw their actual losses being covered, because the Reparations Act imposed a ceiling for the level of payments. Moreover, no amount of compensation could wipe out the human and emotional costs sustained by Danish Jews during the Nazi campaign of persecution. All it could do was ensure that no family went under because of poverty or financial distress.

In present day values, the combined state expenditure in relation to the Jewish flight from Denmark and the subsequent return home was at least DKK 74 million. Given that not everybody sought assistance or compensation, even though they too had suffered losses, the combined financial loss caused by the Nazi persecution of Jews was undoubtedly far greater than these amounts suggest.

It was the clear intent of the Danish authorities to prevent any controversy about the financial consequences of the flight across the Øresund from entering the public domain, or that a specific group of people should effectively become outcasts because of the unjust persecution they had suffered. It is an undoubted fact that, without the Reparations Act, a specific social group would have ended up on at the bottom of the social pile, from whence it would have proved very difficult to go upwards again. However there were clear lacunae in the legislation. Stateless Jewish refugees who had come to Denmark in the 1930s received neither compensation nor reparations, even though they had residence permits, apartments, permanent homes and possessions in Denmark. This was because the Reparations Act only covered Danish citizens. The financial help also helped put a lid on any discussion or debate surrounding the huge financial questions relating to the escape operations and thereby did away with any uncomfortable reminders about those who had lined their own pockets at the expense of people who were extremely vulnerable and in urgent need. (20)

It should also be remembered that the end of the Second World War in the spring of 1945 did not mean the end of violence and discrimination against Europe’s Jews. If we wish to fully understand the consequences and implications of the Holocaust, we are obliged to follow the story of the survivors as they returned to their homes in continental Europe or–as was the case for many–their exodus to the United States or Israel. Examination of this aspect of the Holocaust does not harmonies with the self image that prevails in a range of countries in Western Europe and, in particular, does not sit comfortably with the proclaimed international focus on human rights and refugee policy.

In many European countries, Jewish survivors of the Holocaust and Nazi persecution experienced further discrimination with regards to compensation and invalid pensions, because they became classed as “random” victims as opposed to active political prisoners who had been sent to concentration camps because of their political convictions, or because of their active roles in the resistance. By comparison, the state backed assistance to Danish Jewish on their return home in 1945 was unique and once again confirms Denmark’s status as an exception to the rule (as explained above) during the period of the Holocaust. It should, however, be noted that at least half of the Danish Jews who returned home encountered some kind of friction or problems resulting from their long absence. For example, they found that their homes had been rented out to others, or their possessions stolen. Likewise their businesses or workshops had often been sold or damaged. Thus, even though their motives were not perhaps directly anti-Semitic, many Danes had more or less consciously failed to show the responsibility and respect that was required of them. For Jews, this situation was all too familiar in the rest of Europe. In fact in Holland, this very situation created a new concept in the Dutch language: ”bewariërs,” which was a play on the word to “defend” or “keep” but applied to a person who was reluctant to give back possessions and property appropriated during the war. (21) On the other hand, it is ironic that in Denmark the suppression of uncomfortable reminders of what happened in the Holocaust period has also drawn a veil over the story of the unique care shown by the Danish state towards its Jewish citizens. They are two sides of the same historic coin.

The rescue of Danish Jews during the Second world War still has great significance for Denmark’s reputation in the outside world. And for good reason. But perhaps the wrong reasons. It seems that the fishing boat as a universal symbol of altruism and heroic valor needs to be revised. However, finding a replacement image is not that straightforward. The civil servants (who stood behind the well organized system of aid and assistance after the period of persecution and the Holocaust) with their panoply of governmental devices, laws and budget systems, hardly carry the same appeal as a simple boat braving the dark waves in freedom’s name, and the collaboration policies practiced by those self same civil servants complicates their role even further. The truth is that the reaction and behavior of Danes was far more nuanced than has preciously been assumed. The type of cynical behavior and avarice that during the period of goods and accommodation shortage drove Danes to commit the theft and misuse of Jewish property can be found side by side with the many reports of simple, ordinary people who spontaneously opened their homes to both neighbors, colleagues and even total strangers, at the same time as they showed great love and care towards their children. In other words, in terms of moral and social solidarity, the narrative has lost its black and white character. But then, we recognize that this is part of life’s complexity as we live it in our own times.

Important details and facts


Approx. 7500 Jews at the start of the war, of which 1500 Jewish fugitives/ refugees from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia.

7056 people from Jewish families brought to safety in Sweden in October 1943, that is to say 95% of the Jewish population [as well as 686 non Jewish spouses – in all 7742].

472 deported to Theresienstadt prison camp. Deaths in concentration camps: 53.

Deaths by suicide, sickness, exhaustion and drowning: 42.

Shot dead by German police: 2.

In all, at least 104 people died as a direct result of the Nazi’s anti Jewish Aktion of 1943.

Returned home from exile and captivity: 7.374.

98% of the Dano-Jewish population survived the Holocaust period.


•     •     • 

About the Author

Sofie Lene Bak - Ph.D, Associate Professor in History at the Saxo Institute, Copenhagen University and author of a series of books and articles on the Holocaust in Denmark and on Anti-Semitism before and during the Second World War, including “Dansk Antisemitisme 1930-45” [Danish Anti-Semitism 1930-1945] (2004), “Nothing to speak of: Wartime Experiences of Danish Jews, 1943–1945” (2011) and “Da krigen var forbi. De danske jøders hjemkomst efter besættelsen” [When the war was over. The return of the Danish Jews after the German Occupation] (2012).


Lene Bak, Sofie. "Copenhagen: Bright hope and deep gloom – A new view of the 1943 rescue operation in Denmark." In Civil Society and the Holocaust: International Perspectives on Resistance and Rescue, edited by Anders Jerichow and Cecilie Felicia Stokholm Banke, 18-39. New York: Humanity in Action Press, 2013.


Bak, Sofie Lene, Jødeaktionen oktober 1943. Forestillinger i offentlig og forskning, København: Museum Tusculanums forlag, 2001.

Bak, Sofie Lene, Dansk Antisemitisme 1930-1945, København: Aschehoug, 2004.

Bak, Sofie Lene, „Indtil de vender hjem. Københavns Socialtjeneste og de danske jøder 1943-45.” I: Peter Henningsen og Rasmus Mariager (red.), Strenge tider. København i krig og fred 1943-49, København: Københavns Stadsarkiv, 2006 (Historiske Meddelelser om København 2006), s. 11-43.

Bak, Sofie Lene, Ikke noget at tale om. Danske jøders krigsoplevelser 1943-45, København: Dansk Jødisk Museum, 2010. /Nothing to speak of. Wartime Experiences of Danish Jews 1943–1945, Copenhagen: The Danish Jewish Museum, 2011.

Bak, Sofie Lene, Da krigen var forbi. De danske jøders hjemkomst efter besættelsen, København: Gyldendal, 2012.

Bertelsen, Aage, Oktober 43, [1952], 5. udgave, København: Gyldendal,1993. Bankier, David (ed.), 1he Jews are coming back. The Return of the Jews to their Countries of Origin after WWII, Jerusalem: Yad Yashem & Berghahn Books, 2005.

Blüdnikow, Bent og Klaus Rothstein (red.), Dage i oktober 43. Vidnesbyrd, København: Forlaget Centrum & Det Mosaiske Trossamfund, 1993.

Caestecker, Frank, “The reintegration of Jewish Survivors into Belgian Society.” In: David Bankier (ed.), 1he Jews are coming back. The Return of the Jews to their Countries of Origin after WWII, Jerusalem: Yad Yashem & Berghahn Books, 2005, s. 72-107.

Følner, Bjarke, ”Mindesmærker og erindringskultur. Efterskrift. I: Sofie Lene Bak, Ikke noget at tale om. Danske jøders krigsoplevelser 1943-45, København: Dansk Jødisk Museum, 2010, s. 211-245./”Memorials and Memorial Culture.” In: Sofie Lene Bak, Nothing to speak of. Wartime Experiences of Danish Jews 1943–1945, Copenhagen: The Danish Jewish Museum, 2011, p. 215-249.

Kreth, Rasmus og Michael Mogensen, Flugten til Sverige. Aktionen mod de danske jøder oktober 1943, København: Gyldendal, 1995.

Lagrou, Pieter, “Return to a Vanished World. European Societies and the Remnants of their Jewish Communities, 1945-1947.” In: David Bankier (ed.), The Jews are coming back. 1he Return of the Jews to their Countries of Origin after WWII, Jerusalem: Yad Yashem & Berghahn Books, 2005, s. 1-24.

Lundtofte, Henrik, Gestapo! Tysk politi og terror i Danmark 1940-45. København: Gads forlag, 2003.

Yahil, Leni: Et demokrati på prøve. Jøderne i Danmark under besættelsen. København: Gyldendal, 1967.


1. Bjarke Følner, ”Mindesmærker og erindringskultur. Efterskrift.” I: Sofie Lene Bak, Ikke noget at tale om. Danske jøders krigsoplevelser 1943-45, København: Dansk Jødisk Museum, 2010, s. 224./”Memorials and Memorial Culture.” In: Sofie Lene Bak, Nothing to speak of. Wartime Experiences of Danish Jews 1943–1945, Copenhagen: The Danish Jewish Museum, 2011, p. 228.

2. The home page of the Israeli Department of Foreign Affairs, http://www.mfa.gov.il/MFA/ MFAArchive/2000_2009/2003/6/The+Righteous+Among+the+Nations.htm (visited 5th March 2013)

3. Aage Bertelsen, Oktober 43, [1952], 5. udgave, København: Gyldendal,1993, s. 84ff.

4. Account in Ole Barfoed’s collection, (National Archive). Published in Bent Blüdnikow and Klaus Rothstein (eds.), Dage i oktober 43. Vidnesbyrd, Copenhagen: Publisher – Centrum Mosaic Religious Community, 1993.

5. Rasmus Kreth og Michael Mogensen, Flugten til Sverige. Aktionen mod de danske jøder oktober 1943, København: Gyldendal, 1995.

6. Henrik Lundtofte, Gestapo! Tysk politi og terror i Danmark 1940-45, København: Gads forlag, 2003.

7. Kreth og Mogensen.1995, s. 135.

8. Sofie Lene Bak, Jødeaktionen oktober 1943. Forestillinger i offentlig og forskning, København: Museum Tusculanums forlag, 2001, s. 82.

9. “Guidelines for The Central Office’s processing of compensation claims: Materials for compensation claims, Lot. 28, Archive of Central Office for Special Needs (National Archive for Zealand). All quotes in the article have been adjusted to suit modern spelling and punctuation.

10. Sofie Lene Bak, Da krigen var forbi. De danske jøders hjemkomst efter besættelsen, København: Gyldendal, 2012, s. 131.

11. See for ex Frank Caestecker, “The reintegration of Jewish Survivors into Belgian Society.” In: David Bankier (ed.), The Jews are coming back. 1he Return of the Jews to their Countries of Origin after WWII, Jerusalem: Yad Yashem & Berghahn Books, 2005, s. 72-107.

12. Journalsag 15.555 og 15.951, Erstatningsrådets arkiv (Rigsarkivet). Se også Centralkontoret for særlige Anliggenders kartotek over ”Danske statsborgere, der mistede livet i forbindelse med besættelsen” (1945-1947) (Rigsarkivet).

13. Grethe Michels diary 18th October – 20th November 1943, JDK207X71 (Danish Jewish Museum).

14. Sofie Lene Bak, Dansk Antisemitisme 1930-1945, København: Aschehoug, 2004.

15. The story of these hidden children is described in Sofie Lene Bak, Ikke noget at tale om. Danske jøders krigsoplevelser 1943-45, København: Dansk Jødisk Museum, 2010. /Nothing to speak of. Wartime Experiences of Danish Jews 1943–1945, Copenhagen: The Danish Jewish Museum, 2011.

16. The local authority unit – Socialtjenesten (Social Services) was tasked to handle this issue. Social Services was actually set up in the spring of 1943 to look after billeting and catering for people whose homes had been damaged or evacuated temporarily due to war related incidents, i.e in the first instance air raids. Contingencies were also planned for catastrophes relating to mass evacuations, water supply and food supply/catering – see Sofie Lene Bak, “Indtil de vender hjem. Københavns Socialtjeneste og de danske jøder 1943-45.” I: Peter Henningsen og Rasmus Mariager (red.), Strenge tider. København i krig og fred 1943-49, København: Københavns Stadsarkiv, 2006 (Historiske Meddelelser om København 2006), s. 11-43 og Bak 2012.

17. Report af 25th June 1946, Socialdirektoratets oplysningskontor, Socialtjenesten: Diverse 1943-45 (Københavns Stadsarkiv).

18. See Leni Yahil, Et demokrati på prøve. Jøderne i Danmark under besættelsen. København:

Gyldendal, 1967, s. 173 and Kreth og Mogensen 1995, s. 32.

19  . Bak 2010, s. 77ff.

20. For an overall description of the return home of Danish Jews, see Bak 2012.

21. Pieter Lagrou, “Return to a Vanished World. European Societies  and the Remnants of their Jewish Communities, 1945-1947.” In: David Bankier (ed.), The Jews are coming back. 1he Return of the Jews to their Countries of Origin after WWII. Jerusalem: Yad Yashem & Berghahn Books, 2005, s. 1-24.

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