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.
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We do not need romanticized stories about the Occupation, even though they are the most satisfying. Jews and non-Jews alike really do wish to maintain the edifying story of a nation that stood together to protect the persecuted minority. Without any nuances.

In an age where every asylum seeker’s motivation is subject to detailed examination, it is also relevant to ask what it is that drives those who help the refugees on their way.

And it should not be taboo to examine the less-than-chivalrous motive that prompted the Danes to help the Jews. There’s no shame in money.

In his new book, “Compatriots, the Escape of the Danish Jews in October 1943,”, Bo Lidegaard, writes that there were “sarcastic remarks made about the earnings of the fisherman” even at the time. Some people believed that the Jews had paid exorbitant prices — whatever that may be when your life is at stake.

And the laws of supply and demand also apply here. As the crisis peaked and the number of families to be shipped across The Sound increased, so, too, did the price. Lidegaard estimates that the average price for one refugee was 1,000 kroner, which corresponded to a third or a quarter of the annual wage for a skilled worker (nearly half the refugees belonged to this social class).

The fishermen ran considerable risks, and of course they had to earn enough to provide for their families in case the Germans caught them. And there is nothing to indicate that the Jews expected a free ride across The Sound.

“They were more afraid of falling into the hands of tricksters who would take their money without delivering the boat trip,” Lidegaard writes.

In exactly the same way, refugees today are afraid of falling into the clutches of cynical and corrupt scoundrels who abandon their human contraband in a locked container. There will always be greedy vultures waiting to exploit the desperate situation of refugees. And not all refugees have access to asylum in a peaceful neighboring country with the formidable qualities of Sweden.

I have often heard the objection about asylum seekers today that they cannot be “genuine refugees” if they have been brought here by people smugglers. That is pure nonsense. The Danish Jews paid the smugglers, but that by no means diminished the authenticity of their need for protection. It is absolutely essential to remember this if we wish to use past experiences to understand the present.

Klaus Rothstein is a Danish journalist. This article originally appeared in the Danish newspaper Weekendavisen.


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