Denmark Forced by History To Revisit Heroic Tale of Jewish Rescue From Nazis

Cracks Emerge in Baltic Nation's Feel-Good Holocaust Story

Heroic Escape: A Jewish family lands in Sweden after escaping from Denmark as Nazis prepared crackdown in 1943.
courtesy of museum of danish resistance
Heroic Escape: A Jewish family lands in Sweden after escaping from Denmark as Nazis prepared crackdown in 1943.

By Paul Berger

Published September 23, 2013, issue of September 27, 2013.
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Few nations have been so lauded for their stance during the Holocaust as tiny Denmark.

As October approaches, marking the 70th anniversary of the rescue of Danish Jewry, numerous events in Denmark and overseas commemorate the mass effort in which hundreds, possibly thousands, of Danes helped smuggle almost the entire Danish-Jewish community to coastal towns and villages and then across the Øresund strait to Sweden.

Because of their effort almost all of Denmark’s approximately 8,000 Jews survived Nazi Germany’s occupation of their country.

But something has happened in recent years to Denmark’s rosy view of itself. During the past decade, Danes have learned about harsher, previously little known aspects of the Jewish rescue as the last generation of survivors have revealed their wartime experiences, many for the first time.

No one disputes the key historical truth: Thanks to the Danes’ mass rescue of most of the Jews as well as to the Danish government’s effort to monitor the almost 500 Danish Jews sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, only about 100 Danish Jews — about 1% of the country’s Jewish population — perished during World War II.

But the Danish Jews’ recently emerging tales of trauma, loss and despair have made for a more nuanced picture. Their stories have added to criticisms raised by historians, journalists and others about what has been largely, up to now, a simple, feel-good morality tale.

Some survivors believe that for the first time, the more difficult stories of the 5% of Danish Jews who were left behind in Denmark or sent to Theresienstadt have appeared from beneath the shadow of the rescue of the 95%.

“Maybe the story about the Danish people supporting the Jews to escape is a bigger story than the people who were deported to Theresienstadt,” said Steen Metz, whose father, Axel Mogens Metz, died in the camp. “But my feeling is that it has been underpublicized to a great extent.”

One of the most surprising of the newly emergent aspects of the Nazi occupation is the tale of the Jewish children who were left behind with Christian families in Denmark during the war’s last years.

Until a few years ago, the story of the hidden children was largely unknown in Denmark. The few people who did know about it thought that, at most, perhaps 50 Jewish children were left behind by their parents.


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