The following is adapted from a series of interviews and articles commissioned by Goldberg.nu to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the October 1943 “Rescue” of the Danish Jews. According to editor Michael Rachlin, “Goldberg is a Danish online magazine about art, culture, religion and politics. Despite the domain name, Goldberg.nu has no connection to the island of Niue. Nu means now in Danish.”
For a generation, Danish historians and politicians have not dared to delve too deeply into the WWII cooperation between Danes and their German occupiers. A relationship that, ironically, resulted in the country’s Jews remaining relatively safe for the first three years of the occupation – and would become the prelude to the October 1943 “Rescue” of Danish Jews.
Denmark’s occupation was particularly gentle in comparison to other European countries overrun by the Nazis due to a cooperation agreement that saw Denmark send large quantities of agricultural produce back to Germany as well as manufacturing small arms to aid the German war effort. But over the last decade a new generation of Danish historians has re-examined the underlying source material, and a new history has been written. That new history, however, is not the main concern of this article, which instead focuses on the impact of the events of October 1943 and how they informed the lives and choices of those involved.
Occupation and Cooperation
By the summer of 1943 Jews had been deported to extermination camps from all over Nazi-occupied Europe – with a few notable exceptions. In Denmark, the democratically elected government had been cooperating with the occupiers since the invasion on 9th April, 1940. Cooperation gave the Nazi-regime relative calm in Denmark in the first three years of the war and gave the Danes a degree of freedom – with some compromising exceptions regarding freedom of speech and the banning of the Danish Communist Party in 1941.
There were even elections in the spring of 1943, with all parties except the Communist Party participating. The results of those elections emphasised that national socialism had no popular support amongst the Danish population, with the Danish Nazi Party getting just two per cent of the vote. The Germans realised that the formation of a Nazi-led government – like the Quisling regime in Norway – wasn’t on the cards. In addition there was also very little support for German anti-Semitic policies in Denmark, even though the Germans demanded that the Danish government “deal with the Jewish question”. And there were only sporadic anti-Semitic incidents in Copenhagen in the first few years of the war.
But in the summer of 1943 the situation in Denmark changed dramatically. Inspired by Allied victories on the Eastern Front and in Africa, strikes, sabotage and riots broke out in major Danish cities. By August, the Germans sent an ultimatum to the Danish Government demanding the death penalty for sabotage – a red line that the Danish political establishment refused to cross. The government resigned en masse on 29th August, 1943 and the Germans declared a military state of emergency that would last for the rest of the war.
Without a Danish government to restrain them, the Germans started to plan the deportation of the Danish Jews in the autumn of 1943. When the office of the Jewish Community Centre was robbed by Danish Nazis in mid-September, and the congregation register fell into the hands of the Nazis, it was clear that a round up was imminent.
At the end of September specific information about the planned round-up was leaked to the Danish Social Democratic Party – who in turn informed key Jewish community members. And so it was, on 29th September, before the Rosh Hashanah morning service in the Copenhagen Synagogue, that Rabbi Marcus Melchior announced that there would be no service that day – instead he told everybody to go home, pack their things and find any means of escape.
German troops were dispatched to arrest the Jews over Rosh Hashanah, but they found most of the houses empty. During the following days and nights Danish Jews went to ground, hiding in the homes of friends and colleagues, in hospitals and churches. Within a week, the Danish Resistance had organized transportation over the Øresund (the strait of water separating Denmark and Sweden) to neutral Sweden. On the 2nd October, Sweden officially declared that they would take all Jewish refugees from Denmark.
Some 7,220 of Denmark’s 7,800 Jews, plus 686 non-Jewish spouses, made it over the Øresund, a stretch of water that is only 5 kilometres at its narrowest point – but still quite a challenge given the strategic importance of such a waterway to the German war effort. At least 21 people died trying to cross the water, including a family that committed suicide when they missed their boat.
Even though the events of October 1943 are nothing less than miraculous, many people in the community prefer to call it “the partial” rescue of the Danish Jews. Some families didn’t make it to Sweden; others were even given up by Danish Nazi-sympathisers. A handful of young Zionists from the HeHalutz pioneer movement, who came to Denmark before the war to learn about farming, and had planned on continuing to Palestine, were stranded in the provinces far from Copenhagen and fell into the hands of the Germans.
Those Danes that were caught were sent to Theresienstadt, but even there the Danish Jews were protected. They were never moved to extermination camps like Auschwitz or Treblinka, and they were allowed to receive Red Cross packages with food from Denmark. The additional food was welcome, but it was the chocolate in the Red Cross packages which really saved lives as it could be bartered for practically anything in the camp. These Danish Jews returned to Denmark at the end of the war on the so-called “White Buses” – organised by the Swedish Count Folke Bernadotte – a month before the German capitulation in 1945.
Despite the trauma of escaping in small fishing boats in the middle of the night, many Danish Jews were reluctant to identify themselves as Holocaust survivors. The stories of bright summer nights in Sweden, fishing in the lakes in 1944‒1945 were recounted often – and even many people who were in Theresienstadt spoke of “how interesting it was” and “how many fascinating intellectuals and artists” you could meet in the camp. The underlying trauma, as so often happens, took longer to surface – and even longer to acknowledge.
The rescue of October 1943 is one of the few moments of the War that Denmark as a country can take unambiguous pride in. But some aspects of the rescue have been exaggerated. The legend of non-Jewish Danes donning yellow stars in solidarity with Jews is a touching story, but not historically accurate. Leon Uris’ novel Exodus even repeats a claim that King Christian X wore the Magen David – an obvious myth that is easy to debunk. The Jews of Denmark were never forced to wear the Yellow Star – unlike in other European countries – and therefore there was no need for the King to wear it. But five years ago it was revealed that the King had noted in his wartime diary that he was ready to do so if the Germans ever demanded that Danish Jews wear the Yellow Star.
To this day the official policy of cooperation between the Danish government and the Germans from 1940 to 1943 is considered controversial and remains an embarrassment to the Danes. In a speech in 2003, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, then prime minister, later General Secretary of NATO, called the policy “cowardly” with “a lack of moral integrity”. But others argue that the rescue of the Danish Jews in 1943 would not have been possible if it weren’t for this policy of cooperation – preventing a Nazi government in Denmark, and avoiding the nazification of the Danish police.
Rejected at the Border
Adding to the controversy is the fact that Denmark had been extremely reluctant to accept Jewish refugees throughout the 1930’s; after Kristallnacht in 1938 refugees were even refused entry at the Danish-German border. Many of those turned away were forced to return to Germany – where they were eventually killed in concentration camps.
In one of the interviews conducted by Goldberg.nu, Finn Rudaizky recounted that as a bored 15-year-old boy in 1950s Copenhagen he was flipping through a family album when he came across the photo of a young woman with two children – none of whom he recognised. When he asked his family for an explanation he was told, “that’s your father’s sister” which sounded perfectly natural, expect for the fact Finn never knew his father had a sister.
It transpired that his aunt had in fact grown up in Denmark before getting married in Germany. Later, when she got divorced she found herself alone with two children, and when the Nazi’s persecution of Jews intensified she tried to return to Denmark, but was turned back at the border and died in the camps along with her two children.
The fate of the refugees – and the parallels with today’s refugee crisis – is a theme that runs through the Goldberg.nu interviews. And it’s striking that, even though all the participants agree that the events of October 1943 have had a significant influence on their values and life choices, their conclusions have been very different. The notion that, because of their shared experiences, Holocaust survivors feel a special obligation to be liberal, and progressive on immigration is shown to be nonsense.
Finn Rudaizky, who grew up to become a career politician, has represented the right-wing, populist, anti-immigration, Danish People’s Party in the city council of Copenhagen for more than a decade. Yet before that he was a long-time Social Democrat, and had previously been president of the Jewish Community in Denmark and a chairman for the People’s Movement against Nazism.
The fact that a Jewish Holocaust survivor is a card-carrying member of the Danish People’s Party still raises eyebrows, but Finn’s politics are by no means unique in the Jewish community.
Finn is often asked to explain his political allegiances, but claims that people understand: “People who are in danger should be helped. There is nothing new in that. But I strongly oppose the idea that Denmark should be invaded by immigrants who are not at risk in their respective countries. I try to separate the two things. Many people come here because they want a better life, and it’s perfectly understandable they want it. But we just can’t help them all” – though he does agree we have an obligation to help refugees from Syria. “But then I also think that the moment there is peace in their country, they must return home.”
Finn Rudaizky has been a refugee, but more than that – he comes from a family of refugees. When the family was rescued in October 1943, that was his father’s second escape. The was in 1910, when the family fled to Denmark from pogroms in Lithuania, which was then part of the Russian Empire. His Polish mother’s family had a similar story.
“I think I have gained a strength from history. There are probably some who think it’s too much. As a minority, you must respect the majority and the norms in society… but I strongly support the fact that you do not hide. When you are a Danish citizen, you must be allowed to say what you want. One should not be afraid,” he says.
When Goldberg.nu asked Mr. Rudaizky if Denmark could have done more in the late 1930s and early 1940s to help refugees like his father’s sister, he responded, “If we could go back in time and know that a rejection meant that they ended up in concentration camps and were murdered, I think Denmark would have acted differently. People who are definitely in mortal danger should be welcomed. But the situation was different then. The Nazis murdered the Jews, so you would of course have wished that Denmark had received more.”
“I know the times are very different, but I think that one was more humble and more grateful back then. My parents quickly became integrated. They learned the language quickly. And, above all, they were passionate about Denmark. They were very engaged in Jewish culture and Jewish religion, but have also always encouraged us participate in Danish life with Danish associations, sports, etc. Integrating into Danish society was never a problem for us,” Rudaizky explains.
Common story – different paths
On the other hand many of the October 1943 survivors have been deeply engaged in working with today’s immigrants and refugees in Denmark. Robert Refby, who was hidden by a non-Jewish Danish family for two years during the war, has been working for the far left-party, The Unity List, for decades. Robert was one of approximately 150 children in 1943 that were hidden among non-Jewish Danish families. Although he is a member of the Jewish congregation today, he has an ambivalent relationship with his Jewish heritage.
“We, who were refugees at one time, have some experience with what it means. Today, we are constantly talking about how many refugees we can handle. That’s a discussion, that I can’t make any sense of. I think the way we speak about immigrants and refugees is really uncomfortable. Imagine if they had spoken about us like this. Fortunately, they did not,” says Refby. But he can easily understand and respect the fact that others may draw completely different conclusions and values from their WWII experience.
“We have a common story, that needs to be remembered and told again and again. But a common story can lead to many different paths. Some became very religious. Some converted [to Christianity]. I am a socialist, and that’s the way I see the world.”
Refby was born during the German occupation in August 1941. He and his parents lived in a two-bedroom apartment with a number of other family members, while his father supported the young family as best he could as a bike courier.
But Refby was only two years old in October 1943, and his parents worried that he was too young to make the dangerous crossing with them to Sweden. A nurse at the local hospital heard of their plight and suggested that Robert be hidden at her father’s farm in Stevns in the most eastern part of Zealand – a large island on the eastern side of the country.
When Refby arrived at his new foster family in the countryside, it was as if he had entered into another world. It was there that he experienced his first childhood memories as the greenery of the countryside left an indelible mark on him.
When his parents returned in June 1945 to reclaim him he didn’t recognise them, thinking instead that they were complete strangers. He had retained no memory of his biological parents, and the reunion was awkward and traumatic for everybody involved. During the long journey back to Copenhagen Refby didn’t say a word.
“When I came back to Copenhagen, I felt completely alienated. I was used to a rural life and not a small cold two-bedroom flat on Rantzaus Street with people I did not think I should be living with,” he says.
Refby’s family attempted to create a new life after the war. They changed their name from Warschafsky to Refby and busied themselves looking forward, rather than backwards.
“But my mother never felt that she got her son back. She had a very hard time relating to what had happened. They did not even invite my foster parents to my Bar Mitzvah. My mother told me many years later, that she bitterly regretted that.”
“I have three daughters, and am very close to two of them. One studied international development and is now working with refugee children. The other is a psychologist, and her specialty is traumatised refugees. It’s probably not a coincidence,” concludes Refby.
While the survivors easily recognise themselves as refugees, many have had a hard time calling themselves “Holocaust Survivors”. There was always someone who was “worse off”, even for those that were in Thereisenstadt.
“I want to be remembered as a businessman and for the things I created after the war. Not as a former concentration camp prisoner,” said one 95-year-old survivor, who decided not to give an official interview to Goldberg.nu. The man is a highly successful – and still active – business executive in retail, and many of those who know him would be surprised to learn that he was sent to Thersienstadt at the age of eleven.
Finn Rudaizky who was two years old – and spent the war in Helsingborg – the Swedish city closest to Denmark, had an even harder time describing himself as a Holocaust survivor. “A couple of years ago I was at a Holocaust memorial in the USA. At the end of the meeting the Holocaust survivors were asked to stand. My grandson told me to stand up. It felt uncomfortable. I never thought of myself as a Holocaust Survivor.“