Copenhagen — In the coming weeks, the 70th anniversary of the rescue of the Danish Jews during World War II will be marked with speeches and toasts, gala performances and torchlight processions. The story of how the Danes helped their Jewish compatriots to safety on the coast of Sweden is always heart-warming.
The fishermen who ran the crossings are the heroes of the story. But such heroic tales often lack nuances. The question is whether, in honor of the occasion — and with all due gratitude and respect — it is possible to place the rescue mission within a contemporary perspective with the following uncomfortable assertion:
The Danish fishermen were operating in the same business as the people smugglers who are currently transporting people from such countries as Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Afghanistan, away from the war zones to potential protection in Fort Europe.
Some of the fishermen did it out of a sense of responsibility and the goodness of their hearts, but others were motivated by anything but altruism: There was money to be taken from the pockets of the persecuted. The escape of the Jews was thus also good business for (some of) the fishermen.
Over the past 70 years, the reputation and renown of the skippers have been tended carefully as a spiritual artifact of great significance to the history of Danish mentality and identity during those five cursed years. The Zealand coastal fishermen were tailor-made for the convenient story of the righteous people who did the morally correct thing — on a par with the resistance movement — while the politicians stuck to a more pallid formula to navigate the country through the war.
Yes, the Danes did help their Jewish compatriots, and as the son of parents who themselves had to flee as children, I am of course eternally grateful. But I am also skeptical about the story passed down to me, inasmuch as it has filtered out the part about how the refugees often (though not always) had to pay large sums of money to obtain help.
Throughout the postwar period, the Danes — Jews and non-Jews alike — have wanted to remember the rescue operation as an example of chivalrous humanity.
But in Jewish circles, you still hear many stories about how much it cost to secure a place on a fishing boat, and some families can relate rather shameful stories about how they returned to their apartments after the war to find that the apartments had been ransacked, or had been taken over by other people, even though they had paid neighbors to look after everything.
Many Danes did help, but some put self-interest first.