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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As is common with many historic events, the story of the Danish rescue has been revised over the decades.

Historians have drawn attention to Denmark’s harsh immigration policy during the 1930s which, like those of most other European nations, prevented Jewish refugees from escaping the Nazis. They have also highlighted Denmark’s expulsion of almost two dozen Jewish refugees between 1940 and 1943 back to almost certain death in Nazi Germany. Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen apologized for the expulsion in 2005.

Historians have also argued over Denmark’s weak resistance to the Nazis before, during and after the Nazi invasion. And they have highlighted the exorbitant prices a small but significant number of Danish fishermen charged for passage to Sweden.

A skilled Danish worker in 1943 earned a little over 400 kroner per month. The average price of a crossing was 1,000 Danish krone per person, according to Bak, who says that some fisherman charged up to 50,000 krone.

Bak’s research revealed many tales that had never previously been discussed. “Every one of the hidden children thought that they were the only child that was left behind,” Bak said. “They never told their stories and nobody asked.”

Many parents did not talk about leaving their children behind because of the guilt and distress they still suffered. Similarly, many Danish Jews who escaped to Sweden felt unable to talk about the hardships they faced when they returned to Denmark after the war.

Denmark tried its best to support its Jewish citizens when they returned from exile. Danish refugees qualified for state assistance and, in some cases, friends, neighbors and even Copenhagen authorities safeguarded possessions while their owners were gone. But there were instances too of unscrupulous Danes raiding the apartments of Danish Jews while they were gone.

Bak believes that many of the more nuanced stories — about Danish Jews returning to find their apartments occupied or their possessions missing — have only come out recently because aging survivors realized that if they didn’t tell their stories now, they would be lost forever. She said that the interviews she collected of “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, emotional loss, anti-Semitism, hidden children, destroyed and robbed homes and property are genuinely new.”

Bak’s book about the Danish rescue “Ikke noget at tale om,” which was published in Danish and in English, has been translated as “Nothing to Speak Of” but it might be better translated as “It’s not worth mentioning.” It is a phrase that Bak heard often from Danish survivors. And it neatly encapsulates how the Danes who returned from Sweden and from Theresienstadt with physical and psychological scars chose not to talk of their experiences.

Danish Jews wanted to rebuild their lives, raise their children and move on. They were acutely aware that, compared to other European Jews, they were fortunate. “They had to be grateful,” said Kirsten Nilsson, a reporter for the Danish newspaper, Politiken, who has interviewed many survivors. “Six million Jews were killed and they were survivors.”


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