On and after October 1, 1943, thousands of Danish families left their lives behind. A makeshift armada hastily ferried more than 7,000 Jews and their spouses across the water to neutral Sweden.’ (photo: Museum of Danish Resistance)
By Harvey Wasserman
Reader Supported News (9/14/19)
As we flounder in the sea of hate spewing out of the White House and all around it, honoring one of humankind’s greatest acts of compassion might help us heal, and renew our faith that change can still come.
It happened October 1, 1943 – 76 years ago this coming month. Jews around the world were celebrating Rosh Hashannah, their Holy New Year.
In Denmark, there was little to celebrate. The Nazis had occupied this small, northern European country in April 1940. For three years, they maintained an uneasy truce with King Christian X and Denmark’s parliament and people. Among other things, there was a tenuous agreement that Hitler would not send more than 7,000 Jewish Danes to his concentration and death camps to the south.
But as the war dragged on, relations deteriorated. Danish resistance forces grew restive. In August-September, the Nazis declared martial law. Popular legend has it that Hitler ordered Denmark’s Jews to wear the yellow star of David, as he had ordered in other countries. The King, says the folklore, then donned one himself.
That did not happen. But what did pass was even more astounding.
In late September, a Nazi diplomat named Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz quietly warned Danish sources that Hitler had decided it was time for the Jews to go. A deportation coordinator came to Copenhagen. The Jews’ destination would be the infamous concentration and death camps to the south. Nearly 8,000 Jewish Danes and their non-Jewish spouses would face the Final Solution.
The King and others spread the word. On and after October 1, often with just hours’ notice, thousands of Danish families left their lives behind. A makeshift armada hastily ferried more than 7,000 Jews and their spouses across the water to neutral Sweden, which had signaled it was willing to take them.
Some of the trips were just a few miles, but the conditions were perilous, and some voyages were far longer. Many of the fishing folk and others who did the job were paid, though the sums varied widely, and many were not paid at all.
In some cases, the rescuers sailed their small, shallow-bottomed boats directly across minefields, knowing Nazi patrol craft would not follow them. Some estimates put the toll of those lost at around two dozen, an astonishingly low number given the magnitude of the operation.
Though many got out in one incredible night, evacuations continued for a while.
Ultimately, several hundred Jewish Danes were left behind. Many were picked up by the Nazis and sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in occupied Czechoslovakia. But the Danes were able to monitor the status of many Danish prisoners and get them special provisions through the Red Cross. Ultimately, the death toll among Danish Jews held by the Nazis was far less than of those from other countries.
This near-miraculous Exodus is almost without parallel in human history. Paid or otherwise, hundreds of non-Jews risked everything to save the lives of their fellow Danes. Amidst a complex flow of influences, Sweden opened its doors to all refugees.
By contrast, the US had already refused entry to more than 900 Jews aboard the USS St. Louis, which was turned back from Miami in 1939. At least a quarter of the refugees ultimately died at the hands of the Nazis.
Countless thousands throughout Europe perished after the United States refused them entry. Among them was Anne Frank, the legendary teenage Dutch diarist, whose family was specifically denied papers before she needlessly died (and was thrown into a mass grave) at Bergen-Belsen.
At today’s southern border with Mexico, horrifying cruelty and sadistic inhumanity is being perpetrated by the Trump junta on desperate refugees fleeing starvation, torture, and murder in Latin American countries long ravaged by our own corporations. Trump is also stonewalling desperate survivors of Hurricane Dorian, which just ravaged the Bahamas, as our nation has denied entry to those fleeing Haiti and other global-warming climate catastrophes.
As the Jewish New Year approaches (October 1) citizens throughout the world would do well to honor with grateful hearts and minds those Danish and Swedish heroes and so many other Righteous Humans who have saved so many “Others” in dire danger over the centuries.
We might all, as human beings, be proud that there remains in our species’ genetic code a part of us that can be counted on for such inspirational, self-sacrificing bravery and compassion in the face of terrible cruelty.
As Americans, we must also fiercely escalate the struggle to rid our nation of the hideous bestiality being perpetrated by the current occupant of the White House and his goose-stepping minions.
(Reader Supported News is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to Reader Supported News.)