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The Jews of Denmark Exchange, Part 2: On the Role of the Danish Public in the Great Escape

by Shmuel Rosner

February 19, 2014 | 3:36 am

Dr. Bo Lidegaard

Bo Lidegaard is the editor in chief of the leading Danish newspaper Politiken and the author of several books on modern history. He served as a diplomat in the Danish Foreign Service before joining the Office of the Danish Prime Minister as Ambassador and Permanent Undersecretary of State tasked with responsibilities corresponding to those of National Security Advisor. He later led the team preparing the 2009 United Nations conference on climate change in Copenhagen. He is one of the most respected and widely read Danish historians, and his work has focused on U.S.-Danish relations in the twentieth century, as well as on the modern Danish welfare state. He lives in Copenhagen.

The following exchange will focus on his critically acclaimed book Countrymen (Knof, 2013), which tells the story of how the Jews of Denmark escaped the Nazis during World War 2. (Part 1 of this exchange can be found right here.)

 

Dear Dr. Lidegaard,

In the first round you explained why the persecution of the Jews was such a red line for the Danish leadership in WW2. In this round I'd like to ask you about the role of the general Danish public in this great triumph. My question has two parts-

1. In your book you mention, on several occasions, that the Nazi occupiers initially assumed that taking action against the Jews would be a very unpopular move in Denmark, and you imply that this delayed the decision to persecute them. This made me wonder - Jews were only around 0.2% of Denmark's population at the time, and they were relatively secular and integrated into society. One could say that Denmark barely had any Jews. This means that the great majority of Danes (correct me if I'm wrong) probably had very little knowledge of the country's Jewish population and of the peril it was facing, especially seeing that they didn't know what we know today about the Nazi's plans. How much public attention (editorials, demonstrations, etc') did Denmark's 8,000 Jewish citizens receive at the time? Was it the Danish people the Nazis were cautious of alienating, or a small number of very persistent Danish leaders?

2. There is no question that there were many brave individuals — Danish and Swedish leaders, ordinary Danish citizens, and Jews — who risked a lot to make this story such a wonderful success. Generally, though, the rescue of the Jews of Denmark was quite a quick, clandestine affair which the vast majority of the population was unaware of as it was happening. This could raise a somewhat provocative question: Is this genuinely a story about the inherent decency of Danish society at the time, or one about a few (very) good men?

I'm looking forward to reading your response.

Yours,

Shmuel.

***

Dear Shmuel,

I think you are correct in assuming that most Danes had no particular opinion on Danish Jews. Whereas some stereotypes about Jews surely prevailed, few felt strongly about it, and in the outset there was no general feeling of “a Jewish problem” that had to be addressed – or indeed of Jewish countrymen that had to be protected. Still, many had noted the ever more militant anti-Semitism in Nazi-Germany and few liked it. When the Danish parliament, The Folketinget, passed legislation outlawing racism, i.e. anti-Semitism, in January 1939, by a great majority, the move was met with broad public approval.

So, the efforts by the Danish government and by King Christian to fend off any measures against the Danish Jews during the first years of the Nazi occupation surely reflected a widespread public sentiment that such measures “would not be right”. More specifically, in a population committed to a society based the rule of law and a sense of justice, the idea of persecuting innocent citizens was deeply offensive. In a way, this question became the dividing line between being occupied – for strategic reasons – by neighboring, civilized Germany on one side, and being taking hostage by a bunch of Nazi bandits on the other. With the first, Danish society could negotiate and cooperate to a point. With the latter, confrontation was inevitable. This is what both Berlin and Copenhagen understood. Were Nazi Germany to cross this line and initiate measures against the Danish Jews, it would provoke a change in the public attitude towards the occupying forces. Not because these measures were directed against the Jews, but because they were directed against Danish countrymen – who happened to be Jewish.

Regarding the second question, numbers are difficult when it comes to the rescue of the Danish Jews. We do know that close to 8,000 individuals managed to escape in the course of few weeks without any prior preparation or organization and that the entire operation was visible for many more fellow countrymen – and indeed for the German Wehrmacht occupying the country.

When we look at the individual escape routes it is obvious that it took many helpers to assist each refuge and that many more had to close their eyes and ears not to observe what was going on right before their eyes. A conservative estimate may be that five to ten persons were engaged to help each of the 8,000 refugees with perhaps twice as many or more observing without engaging. This brings the numbers up to some 40-80,000 more or less active helpers in addition to the hardcore activists who engaged with the groups that eventually managed to organize the transfers.

While examples do exist of Danish Nazis assisting with the raid and of individuals giving in refugees, it is striking that examples are so few that each case is known and unique. It remains true that we have countless accounts of ordinary citizens from all parts of society helping out as a spontaneous gesture, and that we have almost no reports of the opposite. The Jewish refugees were not given in, they were not betrayed, and they were not let down.

Danish officials, ranging from police to train workers, doctors and nurses to civil servants, and other personnel consistently assisted the refugees, and virtually no examples are known of active involvement by officials in the actions against their Jewish countrymen.

Neighbors protected neighbors, colleages coleagues, and classmates helped the families of their classmates. This is what made the rescue possible: Widespread public support with only very few examples of individuals refusing to help or giving refugees in to the Gestapo.

In the ensuing Danish debate, the most controversial question has been related to the sum of money the fishermen asked for transfer. While helpers on land in general refused any compensation, as helping out was considered a national duty, the fishermen asked for substantial sums for the transfer across the Sound. Some examples suggest that a group of fishermen took advantage of the desperate refugees, but the general picture is one of regulated payments. For the individual fisherman the risk seemed very high – but there's no question that some made a fortune as they realized that the risk was not that high and that several transfers could be conducted.

Judging from contemporary sources, few refugees found the paying for the transfer offensive – all the more so as they realized that refugees who could not pay for the transfer were also included and brought safely over to Sweden.

Allowing for such nuances, important as they may be, does not change the clear picture of a closely knit society standing firmly together to save their Jewish countrymen. Not acting at the request of authorities or responding to appeals by Jewish leaders, but engaging in accordance with a strongly felt sense of justice and national urgency.

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