Rosh Hashanah and the Rescue of the Danish Jews


A wonderful, healthy, and fruitful New Year to my Jewish readers.

By calendarial coincidence, the Jewish holidays for 2019 fall on or near those for 1943. Around Rosh Hashanah that year, the miraculous rescue of the Danish Jews took place. The following post is an expanded version of an earlier Facebook note.

The Danish rescue was uniquely successful among Nazi-occupied countries because of a confluence of several favorable circumstances.
(1) The Danish Jewish community was fairly small (about 7,500) and
(2) concentrated in Copenhagen, just a short boat ride away from neutral Sweden. (Today, a bridge across the Øresund connects the two countries.)
(3) Moreover, the Nazis regarded the Danes as their racial kin and ran the country as a “model protectorate”, leaving the Danish democratic government in place until well into 1943.
(4) Last but not least, the Danes and the Danish Jews had advance warning from the #2 of the occupation regime, the merchant and diplomat Georg Duckwitz (later honored as Righteous Among The Nations at Yad Vashem).

Duckwitz — an NSDAP member since 1932, but already disaffected since before the war — had learned from his superior, the Nazi plenipotentiary Werner Best, that the roundup would take place on Rosh Hashanah. Duckwitz then tipped off the Danish Social Democrat leader Hans Hedtoft, who in turn passed the word to Jewish community president C. B. Henriques and acting Chief Rabbi Marcus Melchior. The Jews went underground, and over the next few weeks were spirited aboard fishing boats by the Danish resistance (and just general Jeppe Shmø’s) and ferried to neutral Sweden. One well-known rescue group acted under the cover name of “Elsinore Sewing Club”: the Danish city Helsingør/Elsinore, with its Kronborg castle that inspired Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”, is just two nautical miles across the Ølesund straits from Helsingfors, Sweden.

The famous physicist Niels Bohr (who had a Jewish mother) stepped up to the plate as well, levering the Nobel Prize he had received from the hands of the Swedish king into an audience with the monarch. Bohr pleaded with him for Sweden to publicly declare its willingness to accept Jewish refugees. Sweden had in fact been quietly doing this since 1942 for Jewish refugees from Norway, but now, on October 2, a proclamation welcoming them was read out on the Swedish radio. Whether this was thanks to Bohr’s intercession, to Hans Hedtoft’s similar démarche with the Swedish ambassador in Denmark, or would have happened anyway is a matter of dispute among historians, but Bohr’s effort certainly cannot have hurt.

The Danish rescuers played with an unusually good hand of cards. Still, this would have been for naught were it not for their determination to make the most of it. In doing so, they achieved an incredible result: over 99% of Danish Jews survived the war. (About 500, mostly elderly, Jews were arrested, but owing to pressure from Danish authorities, they were sent to the Theresienstadt Ghetto rather than extermination camps, and emissaries from the International Red Cross were allowed to check on their welfare. All except 52 of the Danish Theresienstadt inmates survived the war.[*])

The role of Werner Best in this whole affair is an enigma. After the war, Best escaped execution by convincing the Danish courts that he had quietly allowed Duckwitz to thwart the deportations. Yet he not only had been informed of goings-on at the Wannsee Conference, but had eagerly organized transports from France before his transfer to Denmark. Why this sudden change of heart where it came to the Danish Jews? I would argue the key lies in a 1942 Best memorandum (published anonymously on account of its explosive contents[**]) titled Herrenschicht oder Führungsvolk? (“master caste or leadership people?”). In the course of an argument drawing parallels with the Roman empire, Best not just pleaded for an occupation policy (at least in the West) based more on persuasion than on coercion and exploitation, but already then posited German loss of the war as a realistic possibility. As I see it, by September 1943 Best probably considered the war lost, and wanted to create himself a ‘life insurance policy’ through quietly giving Duckwitz free rein.[***] (Omission, rather than commission, afforded Best a measure of deniability if Duckwitz were found out and the Gestapo bloodhounds unleashed on him.)

Let us raise a glass of Aquavit to the courageous and resourceful Danish rescuers. Skøl and Shana Tova!

[*] As a sad reflection on the unseen prices paid for any negotiation with such a diabolical regime: unbeknownst to the Danes, other Theresienstadt inmates had been sent to their deaths in Auschwitz to create more room for the Danish inmates. The Theresienstadt ghetto was originally an army fortress town founded in the late 18th century by Habsburg emperor Joseph II (who named itafter his mother, Empress Maria Theresia). It had room for about a brigade’s worth of soldiers and their dependents, but was massively overcrowded with the 40,000+ Jews held there.

[**] The substance of the memorandum was dedicated to comparisons between the Third Reich and the Roman Empire, and how (in Best’s vision) to avoid the same fate as the latter.

[***] He may also have concluded it was a lost cause trying to convince the Danes they had a Jewish problem that could only be solved through deportation.

2 thoughts on “Rosh Hashanah and the Rescue of the Danish Jews

  1. This is a story that deserves more attention. How did the Jews of Denmark become so beloved and trusted by their neighbors? How did their neighbors trust and care for their Jewish contingent. History indicates this is so far off the norm, it ought to be studied so that it can be replicated.

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