Denmark's Rescue of Jews From Nazis Driven by Cash — Not Just Heroism

Fishermen Squeezed Four Months' Salary Out of Refugees

Embellished Tale? A Jewish family lands in Sweden after escaping from Denmark as Nazis prepared crackdown in 1943.
courtesy of museum of danish resistance
Embellished Tale? A Jewish family lands in Sweden after escaping from Denmark as Nazis prepared crackdown in 1943.

By Klaus Rothstein

Published October 09, 2013, issue of October 18, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.