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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Nilsson said that even non-Jewish Danes felt that their Jewish countrymen who escaped to Sweden had a better time during the war than the Danes who remained in occupied Denmark. “Who were [the Jews] to say, actually, it wasn’t so rosy,” Nilsson said.

Indeed, for many Danish Jews, Sweden was a paradise. Some Swedes adopted Jewish families and helped look after them throughout the exile. Janne Laursen, director of the Danish Jewish Museum in Copenhagen, said that the Danish-Jewish politician, Erling Olsen, who died in 2011, called his Swedish exile as a teenager “the best time of his life.”

But others returned from exile with emotional baggage that stayed with them the rest of their lives. Rasmus Bjerre, a freelance radio producer based in Copenhagen, recently interviewed eight survivors for an hour-long documentary that will be broadcast in Denmark on September 30.

One woman’s father drowned after the boat they were in capsized. The woman, who was 17 at the time, swam more than a mile back to shore to get help, but it was too late for her father, who was unable to swim having injured his leg jumping from a window to escape the Nazis. Bjerre said that the girl’s mother, who had been arrested and taken to Theresienstadt before she even made it to the boat, always blamed her daughter for her husband’s death.

Bjerre said that the daughter had “never spoken before because she still feels guilty.” Bjerre said that another survivor, whose father also drowned during the rescue, did not really start to think about his father’s death and why he had put it out of his mind, until he reached the age of 85.

All of the survivors told Bjerre that they remembered their escape as though it happened yesterday. “Because they haven’t talked about it, it’s intact in their memory,” Bjerre said.

While many of the Jews who returned from Sweden with psychological traumas were largely silent about what happened to them, the Danish survivors of Theresienstadt did talk and write about their experiences, says Silvia Goldbaum Tarabini Fracapane, who is working on a PhD dissertation about the Danish Jews in Theresienstadt, at the Technical University of Berlin’s Center for Anti-Semitism Research.

Tarabini Fracapane said that many Danes did not want to know about the camp. “It was most convenient for the surrounding society not to listen, people wanted to move on and forget about the war,” she said.

Theresienstadt gained infamy as a model camp because of a Nazi propaganda film that was made there and a 1944 visit made by the Red Cross.

Tarabini Fracapane said: “It was not a death camp, but people were still surrounded by death, vermin, horrible living conditions, hard labor, sickness and hunger.”

The popular image of Theresienstadt as a model camp has made many survivors feel as though the horrors they faced there have not been acknowledged. Metz, who now lives in Chicago, said that in a 2003 book, “I Hitler-Tysklands Skygge (In the Shadow of Hitler’s Germany),” Danish historian Hans Sode-Madsen wrote that none of the Jews who died in Theresienstadt died of starvation.


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