It was the evening of 1 October 1943, when German Police and members of the Danish SS descended on Copenhagen with orders to round up and deport Denmark’s Jewish population. It was the night of the Jewish New Year, Rosh HaShanah, and the German Police were expecting to find Jewish families at home celebrating. What they found instead was empty house after empty house.
Someone had tipped off the Jewish community...
By the end of the war, over 95% of Denmark's nearly eight thousand Jews would escape Denmark, and avoid becoming victims of the Holocaust. This survival rate is extraordinary, unfortunately, this was not the case across the rest of Nazi-occupied Europe.
In this video, we examine the specific set of circumstances surrounding Denmark during the Second World War and learn how they enabled nearly all of Denmark’s Jews to survive the Holocaust.
Why 95% of Danish Jews survived the Holocaust
Voice over: It was the evening of October 1st, 1943, when German Police and members of the Danish SS descended on Copenhagen with orders to round up and deport Denmark’s Jewish population. It was the night of the Jewish New Year - Rosh HaShanah - and the German Police were expecting to find Jewish families at home celebrating. What they found instead was empty house after empty house. Someone had tipped off the Jewish community.
By the end of the war, over 95% of Denmark's nearly eight thousand Jews would escape Denmark, and avoid becoming victims of the Holocaust. This survival rate is extraordinary. Unfortunately, this was not the case across the rest of Nazi-occupied Europe.
To find out why, we need to go back to 1940.
Six months into the Second World War, Germany invaded Denmark and Norway. Whilst Norway would hold out for another two months, Denmark surrendered immediately. This decision avoided any unnecessary death and destruction, and allowed Denmark’s sovereignty to remain intact.
Lauren Willmott, Curator, Holocaust Galleries: "Unlike German occupation policy elsewhere in Europe, at first their rule in Denmark was relatively benign. This was necessary because Denmark exported a lot of essential supplies to Germany, especially food; they also saw Danes as ‘fellow, proper Aryans’. This Model of occupation, or the Model Protectorate, meant that Denmark could keep its entire government, police and civil service. There were also minimal restrictions on ordinary people – unlike in the rest of Nazi-occupied Europe. This also applied to Denmark’s almost 8,000 Jews – a tiny proportion of Denmark’s population of 4 million people.
Danish Jews were very assimilated into Danish society– although there was still some antisemitism. King Christian X and the Danish government had made it known that they would continue to cooperate with Germany only so long as the Nazis did not introduce any anti-Jewish legislation. In fact, the King wrote in his diary that he ‘considered our own Jews to be Danish citizens, and the Germans could not touch them.’"
Voice over: However, this policy of protection for the Jews would not last forever. In mid-1943, the relationship between the Danish people and its German occupiers began to change. As Germany suffered more and more military setbacks, the Danish population began to more actively resist German control. Demonstrations and mass strikes took place and acts of sabotage by the Danish resistance intensified. In August, the Danish government resigned and the German military commander declared martial law.
Lauren Willmott: "Over late August and September there were a couple of incidents that sparked fear throughout the Danish-Jewish population. In one incident, the premises belonging to the Jewish community were searched by the Gestapo for lists, indexes, books, family trees – anything that would help the Germans to identify Danish Jews since, unlike in other countries, they had not been forced to register with authorities, made to wear a yellow star or carry identity cards marked with the letter J."
Voice over: Now that the Germans were no longer pursuing a policy of active cooperation, their rule became much more repressive. On September 8th, the Nazi’s civil administrator in Denmark, Werner Best, wrote to Berlin suggesting ‘a solution to the Jewish Question must now be considered’. A week later, Hitler issued the order, and preparations were made for the imminent deportation of Danish Jews. The Nazis planned to make the arrests on the night of October 1st - crucially, this was after trade negotiations had been completed which guaranteed Danish supplies to the Reich for the coming year. But it was also the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.
Fortunately, the Danish Jews were about to receive a life-saving warning…
Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz worked at the German Embassy in Denmark, and had been told of the plan by Werner Best. Upon hearing of the planned deportations, he tipped off a number of local politicians, one of whom alerted a prominent figure within the Jewish community. On the 29th of September 1943, at a service that marked the start of Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Marcus Melchior warned those present in the synagogue not to be at home over the next few days. This warning was passed on by both Jewish and non-Jewish Danish citizens, and gave the Danish Jews a vital head start; allowing them time to pack a few belongings, go into hiding, and make preparations to leave Denmark.
Lauren Willmott: "So, on 1st October, when German police and Danish SS volunteers knocked on the doors of Danish Jews, they found that the majority were not there. Unlike elsewhere in western Europe, the Nazis were specifically ordered not to force their way into homes or damage property.
This meant that the Germans were only able to make around 500 arrests. This included elderly Jews who had been unable to flee and those in the provinces who hadn’t been alerted to the danger. The other 7,000 Danish Jews were already in hiding – with friends, neighbours, sometimes even strangers -- and preparing to flee to nearby Sweden."
Voice over: Almost all of Denmark's Jews were concentrated in Copenhagen, just 20 miles away from Sweden, significantly reducing the time, and risk required to escape. Now all they needed was a way to get to Sweden, which was separated from Denmark by a stretch of water called the Oresund.
On the 2nd October Sweden formally broadcast a message offering to accept all Danish Jews and their non-Jewish relatives who could reach Sweden. This announcement gave the green light to those in hiding, who now knew they would be safe, if they could find a way across the Oresund.
But whilst the majority of Denmark's Jews began to plan their escape over to Sweden, those that didn’t make it into hiding in time began to be deported.
Lauren Willmott: "456 of the 476 Jews who had been arrested were transported to Germany. Then, mostly in cattle wagons – like the one behind me – were sent to the ghetto in Theresien, which the Nazis renamed Theresienstadt."
Voice over: Theresienstadt is around 60km north of Prague in what was then Czechoslovakia. The ghetto was created initially for Czech Jews. Later, elderly Jews and those seen as privileged were sent there from Germany and Austria.
Lauren Willmott: "The Nazis would attempt to deceive the world that Jews in Theresienstadt could live a normal life, which led to the ghetto gaining some amenities which were quite unusual for a ghetto.
For example, there was a bank in Theresienstadt, which issued money and savings books - in reality, any money or savings were worthless. Cultural life also flourished – artwork was produced, music was composed, operas were written and performed and lectures were delivered – something that the Germans capitalised on for propaganda purposes."
Voice over: The conditions that the captured Danish Jews would experience upon their arrival in Theresienstadt were atrocious. Death rates were high in the Ghetto, particularly amongst the elderly, who were especially vulnerable to the dire overcrowding, starvation and disease.
Back in Denmark, the majority of Danish Jews fled to coastal towns and ports in the Zealand. Local non-Jewish people offered shelter, and in some cases they helped to secure transport on fishing boats.
In the first week or so, before any organised help was coordinated, some Danish Jews sought local fishermen and skippers to take them across to Sweden. They would often request huge sums of money for the journey. This was mostly due to fears of being caught and losing their livelihood, though some simply saw an opportunity to make a profit. Within the first 48 hours, around 500 Jews had left Denmark and reached safety in Sweden – largely those who could afford these high prices.
Resistance groups soon coordinated, and they organised transports across the Oresund. They negotiated standard fares and raised funds for those who did not have enough money to make the journey.
Lauren Willmott: "By the 9th October, approximately 4,500 Jews from Denmark had reached Sweden, and by mid-October around 7,200 had made it to safety - a total of 95% of Denmark’s Jewish population. Part of the reason boats and ships were able to successfully cross the Oresund was because Danish and German coastal patrols did not intervene. In part, this was because Werner Best had one eye on maintaining a peaceful occupation and avoiding any increase in anti-German sentiment.
But none of the Danish were aware of this. For the Danish-Jews who were escaping and those helping them, the journey was full of fear, tension and anxiety. Those who acted to help assist in the rescue did so boldly and in the face of the unknown."
Voice over: In November, it was agreed that Jews who had been deported from Denmark would remain in Theresienstadt, and the Germans would also reluctantly allow the Danish Red Cross to conduct a visit and inspect the conditions of the Ghetto, but made sure this visit wouldn't take place until after they'd had enough time to create a false narrative.
Lauren Willmott: "In the lead up to this visit, Theresienstadt underwent intense renovations in order to present the ghetto as a ‘model Jewish settlement’. This work was done by the prisoners who were forced to build a swimming pool, plant gardens, construct parks, renovate barracks, and plan cultural events. Over 7000 people were deported, primarily to Auschwitz-Birkenau, in the weeks before the Red Cross visit so that the ghetto looked less overcrowded."
Voice over: Danish prisoners were also temporarily moved to slightly better accommodation and were allowed to stay together as families. When they arrived, Red Cross officials were shown a performance of a children’s opera and a football match. The work that had been done succeeded in fooling the Danish Red Cross officials who reported that the conditions, health, clothing and accommodation were satisfactory.
In reality, over 30,000 Jews would die in Theresienstadt, and nearly 90,000 were deported to Nazi death camps, where they were murdered.
Lauren Willmott: "Not long after the visit, deportations resumed. Tens of thousands were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau and their names recorded on transport lists. This transport list shows some of the names of the 2,503 men, women and children who were deported from Theresienstadt on 18 December 1943. They arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau the next day. Because of the agreement with the Germans, Danish Jews were not deported from the ghetto, and remained in the ghetto until April 1945."
Voice over: At which point, the remaining Danish Jews were transported to Sweden by the Danish, Norwegian and Swedish Red Cross. After the liberation of Denmark in May 1945, most Jews were able to return to the homes that they had been forced to abandon in 1943.
Lauren Willmott: "51 Danish Jews died in Theresienstadt and a further 50 or so more died trying to escape to Sweden or in Sweden itself. This number represents one of the lowest death rates of Jews in any German-occupied European country during the Second World War."
Voice over: Over 95% of Danish Jews survived the Holocaust. It's an extraordinary statistic, made possible by Denmarks's unqiue set of circumstances during the war. But this was the minority experience. Two thirds of Europe's Jewish population would not survive the Second World War.