The Myth Behind the Rescue of Denmark's Jews From the Holocaust

Recent research reexamines the historical myths surrounding the rescue of Danish Jewry during the Holocaust, exposing surprising underlying interests

Published in Haaretz:

STOCKHOLM – Out of the horrors of the Holocaust came no few tales that stir inspiration, but many of them ended with a firing squad or a hangman’s noose. The rescue of Denmark’s Jews, whose 80th anniversary will be marked this year, was different. It was the story of a country that decided to rescue all the members of its Jewish community – and succeeded.

Danish Jewry had an advantage not shared by other Jews in Europe: In the wake of a leak in information from Germany, they knew what was in store for them. Indeed, in October 1943, during Rosh Hashanah, many had already heard the report of their looming expulsion. Denmark’s Jewish population stood at approximately 7,700 at the time, among whom were 1,200 Jews who had arrived there recently from other countries. Those who received the report were requested to pass the information on to other members of the community and to go into hiding. Concurrently, a kind of popular uprising erupted. Ordinary Danes – police officers and postmen, waiters and drivers, teachers and clergy – spread the news, and some also helped Jews find escape routes and places to hide. Thanks to the popular support, nearly all the Jews were able to find places where they could hide from the Gestapo during raids, and then places where they could wait until they could make the trip to Sweden, which had already offered them a safe harbor. Not everyone managed to escape. Some ill and elderly members of the community were captured by the Germans. In the town of Gilleleje, for example, the Gestapo caught and arrested several dozen Jews who were hiding in a church loft. However, the vast majority managed to reach the villages and towns along the coast of the Strait of Oresund, which separates Denmark and Sweden. Residents there continued to hide them until fishermen and sailors could take them to neutral Sweden on boats. Here, too, not everything went smoothly – some of the vessels sank – but eventually the majority of the country’s Jews, more than 7,200 individuals, reached Sweden.

Most of the facts about the rescue of Danish Jewry are not in dispute. The story became a formative myth that is taught in the Israeli school system, is marked at ceremonies and commemorated at public sites, such as Denmark Square and Denmark High School in Jerusalem and in a square in Haifa. In contrast to what many people assume, however, the Danish people was not designated as Righteous Among the Nations by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem (that honorific is granted only to individuals), though three trees were planted there in honor of the people of Denmark, the country’s underground organization and King Christian X (who reigned from 1912 to 1947).

This assumption is another example of the fact that not everything related to Danish Jewry during the Holocaust is faithful to the facts. One of the well-known stories, for example, is that the king wore the telltale yellow Star of David patch Jews were forced to wear in many occupied countries while riding his horse in the streets of Copenhagen, as a mark of identification with the community. That account turns out to be false, probably a result of public relations efforts during the war by Danes who lived in the United States and sought to better the image of their homeland, which had capitulated to the Nazis almost without a battle.

To understand whether the other accounts are also vitiated by elements that do not square with the truth, we need to return to 1940. “Denmark survived the Nazi occupation better than any other European country,” says historian Orna Keren-Carmel of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, an expert in Israel-Scandinavia relations and author of the 2021 book “Israel and Scandinavia: The Beginning of Relations” (in Hebrew), on the ties between the young state of Israel and the Scandinavian countries.

“When Hitler invaded Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium and France,” Dr. Keren-Carmel explains in an interview, “he made them all the same offer: surrender in advance, and in return you will be given the possibility of going on managing your domestic affairs in a sovereign manner, while Germany will be in charge of foreign policy.”

Denmark was the only country that acceded to this offer, signing terms of surrender within hours, on April 9, 1940. According to Keren-Carmel, the Danes knew they had no chance against the “giant from the south.” They preferred to capitulate, preserve their ability to function and to minimize the blow to the civilian population, its property and the country’s economy. “The Germans, from their point of view, chose to rule Denmark with a ‘velvet hand’ in order to maintain political stability and avail themselves of Danish exports,” she says.

In addition, she notes, this approach also dovetailed with the Nazi theory of the racial affinities of the Aryan race and the Nordic race, and with the “new European order”: The Nazis’ plan was for the Nordic peoples to help them rule the so-called inferior peoples of Eastern Europe after the war.

The Danes thus remained in control of their three branches of government – legislature, executive and judiciary. Moreover, daily life proceeded as before, and in March 1943 a free election was held in which the parties that were in favor of cooperation with Germany won 94 percent of the vote. Even the lives of the Jews had not changed substantially up until that point: They had retained their property, jobs and income, and were not required to wear a yellow patch or move into ghettos. Even synagogue worship continued unabated.

In the summer of 1943 a political crisis developed in Denmark. Why did it happen and was it the cause of the change in policy regarding the Jews?

Keren-Carmel: “After a surge in resistance activity by the Danish underground in [mid-] 1943, Germany demanded that the death penalty be imposed on its members. The Danish government objected and resigned on August 29, and from that day ministerial directors general, not ministers themselves, were actually the ones making decisions in the country. For many years, August 29 was seen to be the watershed date on which the Danes ceased to cooperate with Nazi Germany and declaratively joined the Allies. The rescue of the Jews, which took place about a month later, bolstered this conception. However, in recent years quite a few researchers, especially Danish scholars, have come up with a different view. They maintain that a few weeks after the members of government stepped down, relations between the Danes and the Germans returned to the former routine and the proportion of Denmark’s industrial production earmarked for Nazi Germany remained intact.”

After August 29, a state of emergency was declared and the Reich’s plenipotentiary in Denmark, Werner Best, decided to expel the Jews to the Theresienstadt camp/ghetto in Czechoslovakia. According to Keren-Carmel, shortly before the start of the planned deportation, which was due to take place on the night between October 1 and 2, Best himself decided to leak its exact date to his naval attaché, who passed on the information to senior Danish and Swedish officials.

“This was apparently an attempt to continue the political-economic cooperation between Germany and Denmark, and also an effort to avoid a conflict with the Danes over the Jews,” Keren-Carmel explains. “In the end, Best was able to report to Hitler that Denmark was ‘free of Jews.’ The fact that the Jews had escaped from the country and had not been deported to Theresienstadt made little difference, from Best’s point of view.”

How did the Nazis respond to the fact that the deportation plan had been leaked and to the events that followed?

“The German police were ordered not to break into Jewish homes by force. Some survivors also testified that the Germans turned a blind eye to the Jews’ attempts to hide and escape. Around this time, the commander of the German fleet, who was in charge of the passage in the Oresund Strait, instructed all German patrol boats there to return to port for maintenance. It’s also known that the Germans received intelligence information in real time that thousands of Jews were reaching Sweden, but they had a greater interest in preserving fruitful relations with the Danes than in annihilating the country’s small Jewish community.”

If so, even if it was the Danes who initiated the rescue operation, its success was apparently due primarily to the Germans’ conduct. But the number of Jews who didn’t succeed in escaping was not negligible – and they included not only the sick and the elderly in Copenhagen. For example, the leaked information about the expulsion did not reach members of the Hechalutz movement and other Zionist pioneering groups preparing for life in Palestine, who were then living in far-flung, isolated farms. All told, 482 Jews were captured and transported to Theresienstadt (none were sent to death camps); 53 died in the camp and the rest returned in April 1945 to Denmark within the framework of Operation White Buses, which was initiated by the Swedish aristocrat and diplomat Count Folke Bernadotte.

What prompted Danish society and members of the Danish underground to make an effort to rescue the Jews?

“The overwhelming majority of the citizens who helped hide the Jews of Denmark and get them to Sweden did not come from the underground and did not join it afterward. The Danes who helped the Jews did so in order to preserve the country’s democratic character – not as part of a resistance operation. In the Israeli culture of memory, however, the rescue has become a myth and the emphasis has been placed on the Danes’ singular humanitarian nature. That myth strengthened the assumption that those countries that wanted to save their Jews, like the Danes, could have done so, and that perhaps other countries did not want to do that enough.

אורנה קרן
Orna Keren-Carmel. Photo: Yoni Carmel

“But beyond the fact that a concrete possibility of rescue existed in Denmark because the Germans looked the other way, the explanation for the unprecedented success can be attributed to the character of the Danish government. In the 1930s, Denmark, like the other Nordic countries, had begun to take shape as a welfare state. One of the principles that guided its government in building this comprehensive welfare state – up until today – is that of equality. The moment you are part of a country, it has full responsibility toward you. In accordance with this concept, the Danish authorities saw it as their mission to protect the Jews and therefore were vehemently opposed to any infringement of their rights. For example, already in the surrender agreement in 1940 [in April, shortly after the Nazis invaded the country], the Danes declared that they would not allow any harm to befall the Jewish minority.”

According to Keren-Carmel, this commitment continued even after almost 500 of its Jews were deported to Theresienstadt. “The relatively high survival rate of the Danish Jewish inmates in that camp can be explained by the agreement the Danes signed with Adolf Eichmann, according to which Denmark’s Jews would not be deported to camps in the East, and by the fact that those who were at Theresienstadt were permitted to receive packages of food, vitamins and warm clothing from the government in Copenhagen.”

Moreover, the historian notes that the Danes were the only ones who insisted, and succeeded, in making official visits to the citizens imprisoned in Theresienstadt, in June 1944. “The Danish authorities were also able to preserve most of the Jews’ homes and property while they were in Sweden. They locked their abandoned homes and stored their property, then returned it all after the war. Denmark was the only country which, upon the return of the Jews at the end of the war, paid them compensation at its own initiative for the economic reversals they had suffered.

“The explanation for the rescue lies in the state’s approach toward its minorities. It was a rescue that effectively came from above, and not as it’s usually depicted – as a rescue by the people, from below. Many Danish citizens, especially fishermen, exacted payment from the Jews, in some cases exaggerated amounts, for helping them escape. That is not surprising, but it shows that the true hero of this story was not the ordinary Danish citizen but the Danish welfare state.”

How did the leadership of the Jewish community comport itself during the war years? Did the Jews actually resist the deportation or were they passive, placing their fate in the hands of their neighbors?

“For years the Jews of Denmark were depicted as passive victims. The Danes were said to have warned them, hidden them, supplied them with food and clothing, and finally also shipped them to Sweden. But the transformation that occurred in Israel in recent decades in the perception of the status of the survivors led to far-reaching changes in the way they’ve been represented, and the image of the survivor as an individual, as opposed to being merely part of a collective, began to gain prominence.

“When we delve into the details, we discover that the vast majority of Denmark’s Jews took pains to find themselves a place to hide. They left their homes within hours, found a way to reach the coast, and the majority financed their own boat trips to Sweden. Another unknown fact is that there was an active Jewish underground that was made up of members of the pioneering groups, which tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to smuggle its people to Palestine.”

The story of the rescue of Denmark’s Jews later created a tremendous impression in Israel. “On October 8, 1943, while thousands of Danish Jews looked for ways to cross Oresund Strait, Nathan Alterman published in his weekly ‘Seventh Column’ [in the daily Davar] a poem titled ‘The Swedish Language,’” Keren-Carmel says. “The poem lauds the opening of the gates of Sweden to the Jewish refugees unconditionally and without a quota, but the Danes’ contribution to the rescue isn’t mentioned in the poem at all. Over the years, however, the depiction of Sweden’s role as it has been represented internationally has diminished, and today its contribution is noted, if at all, as marginal.”

During the postwar years, the narrative that became accepted in Israel was that Denmark and Sweden were responsible for the rescue of thousands of Jews, whether in the wake of the rescue of the members of Denmark’s community or because of the actions of the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. But the reality was more complicated: Denmark surrendered to Germany without a fight, and Sweden cooperated with the Nazis in multiple ways. So how and why was that narrative accepted?

“The Israeli culture of memory didn’t succeed in portraying the rescue event other than as a counter-example to the narratives involving other countries: The Danish people were presented as a ‘ray of light in the darkness of the Holocaust.’ The unique conditions and circumstances that [actually] made the rescue possible in Denmark, both from the German side and the Danish side, did not find a place or a memory in the rescue story.

“And there is also a political aspect here. The sweepingly positive representation of the behavior of the Danes and of the rescue efforts by Sweden and by the Norwegian underground, is a result of the good relations that developed between Israel and the Scandinavian countries after the state’s establishment. Scandinavian support for nascent Israel was frequently interpreted as a natural continuation of their support for their Jewish communities during the war. In this sense, the memory that took shape around the rescue efforts of Scandinavian countries served as a lever to enhance the diplomatic relations between the countries.”

The rescue operation itself and those who aided it were indeed a ray of light in the darkness of the Holocaust. However, at the same time, a more complex historical picture reveals that, just as Raoul Wallenberg did not, in his efforts, represent all of Swedish society, which did in some ways collaborate with the Nazis, it was also not solely morality that drove the Danes to act.

A slightly more nuanced view shows clearly that the more closely a country collaborated with the Germans, the easier it was for it to rescue its Jewish population. After the war, when the capitulation and collaboration became a historical legacy that was not something to be proud of, the rescue of Danish Jews assumed a new role. In addition to being a model of humanism, it also began to serve as proof of the country’s place on the right side of history. As such, the Jews and their rescue were transformed from a source of inspiration to an alibi.


David Stavrou דיויד סטברו

עיתונאי ישראלי המתגורר בשוודיה Stockholm based Israeli journalist

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