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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The number is now known to have been much larger. In 2009, Sofie Lene Bak, a Danish historian, spoke about the children to a Danish newspaper and appealed for hidden children to come forward. As a result, just from that one article, she discovered an additional 100 boys and girls who were taken in by foster families. Given the number of those who must have died before the article appeared, or who never saw it, there may have been many more.

The children were left behind for various reasons. Some families realized it would be impossible to lie in the darkness overnight waiting for a boat with a young child. Others were forced to leave their sons and daughters because Danish fishermen feared children and infants might make noise and attract Nazi attention during the crossing to Sweden. Some of the children who did make the passage were sedated.

Jewish parents also left their children behind because they thought that the war, which by 1943 had turned in the Allies’ favor, would be over soon and that life in occupied Denmark would be better than a life of exile in Sweden.

Denmark’s chief rabbi, Bent Lexner, said he has officiated at funerals in the past few years where people confided that they never felt able to ask their parents why they had been left behind. “It was taboo for them,” Lexner said. “They never talked about it but they also felt they would have liked to ask their parents what happened. How could you do it?”

Most children returned to their parents after the war. But it wasn’t easy. The youngest children did not recognize their mothers and fathers after almost two years apart. Others had developed strong bonds with their foster family and chafed at returning to biological parents.

Tove Udsholt was five when, in 1945, her mother arrived in Gilleleje, a small town on the north coast of Zealand, to take her back to their home in Copenhagen. Udsholt did not recognize her mother. And she certainly did not want to leave her new parents in Gilleleje to live with her biological mother, who was now in the process of divorcing her father.

Udsholt’s mother tried several times during the years that followed to force her daughter to live with her in Copenhagen. But she finally had to accept that her daughter preferred life with her foster parents. “She had lost me,” Udsholt said. “I knew I had a mother in Copenhagen, but she was not the mother I loved.”

Udsholt finished school in Gilleleje. At the age of 20, she was christened and, soon after, she married a Danish Christian. Although Udsholt raised three sons in the Danish Lutheran church, her youngest son became interested in his Jewish roots. He married a Jewish woman and converted to Judaism. “I have three Christian grandchildren and three Jewish grandchildren,” Udsholt said. “It is [really interesting] for me to come in the synagogue with my Jewish family now.”

Stories such as Udsholt’s were largely unknown until Bak began a research project about the wartime experience of Danish Jews in 2008 for the Danish Jewish Museum in Copenhagen.

“Until this book was researched I’m not aware of this having been an issue which people paid attention to,” said Herbert Pundik, a Danish Jewish journalist who published a book about the Danish rescue, “In Denmark It Could Not Happen,” 15 years ago. ”I think she really opened up a new chapter.”


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