Throughout the fearful years of the Holocaust, millions of ordinary European citizens stood by and watched Jews being taken away to their deaths. Many of these bystanders were too frightened to speak up and put their own lives at risk. Others convinced themselves that these fearful sights were not their concern and looked away. Some even cruelly cheered, applauded or assisted the Nazis.
Yet, despite the danger, a small number of incredibly brave people refused to be silent. They had the courage to provide endangered Jews with food, forged documents, safe hiding places, and escape routes.
The country of Denmark has the rare distinction of being the only occupied country in Europe to defy the Nazi regime’s attempt to deport its Jewish citizens, and, in fact, saved 99% of them.
In September 1943, Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz, a German diplomat in Copenhagen who had grown disillusioned by the Nazis, was informed of their plans to deport the Danish Jews. The Danes, viewing the action as a test of their national independence, sprung into action. King Christian strongly voiced his objections and Danish clergymen encouraged their members to help the Jews. The Danish resistance began to prepare hiding places for the Jews and arranged with fishermen to transport them to nearby Sweden. Universities in the country closed down for a week so that students could assist in the rescue operation. Not only did the Danish police refuse to cooperate with the Nazis, they actually assisted in saving Jewish lives.
When Duckwitz informed the Danish Jewish community leaders of the plan, they were shocked, but quickly spread the news. Jewish residents began to leave by car, train, and bicycle or on foot, fleeing Copenhagen, the capital city where most of them lived. Assisted by sympathetic Danish people, they found shelter in private homes, hospitals and churches in towns and villages along the coast.
Within a period of three weeks, Danish fishermen succeeded in evacuating over 7,000 Jews across the narrow sea separating Denmark from Sweden. The unique Danish rescue effort was jointly financed by Danes and Jews.
Leo Goldberger, one of the survivors, recalled his experience of escaping to Sweden shortly after his bar mitzvah:
“The roundup started at 9:30 and we came to this little fishing village and were instructed to go down to the beach right next to the harbor and to wait for a signal. We were hauled aboard by the fishermen and then put into the hold, where the fish used to be, so you can imagine the smell. The smell was absolutely the worst part of the immediate experience, plus it was very crowded down there. There must have been 18 to 20 people as the fishermen started to move out into the sea. Luckily, we were not discovered and we went off into the night.”
Less than 500 Danish Jews, or one percent of the population, were not able to escape. Those who were too old, ill or caught by the Gestapo were sent to the Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia. Even then, the Danish public and administration continued to express their concern, sending them food parcels via the Red Cross. Fortunately, most of the Danish Jews in Theresienstadt survived the Holocaust, thanks to efforts of the Danish officials. The people of Denmark proved that widespread support for Jews and resistance to Nazi policies could – and did – save lives.
The Righteous Gentiles who took risks to save Jewish lives during the Holocaust came from different backgrounds, ranging from dedicated clergymen to simple farmers or fishermen. Many were teachers, a career appealing to those who wished to help others.
One such altruistic Danish schoolteacher was Gerda Valentiner. From the moment Germany first occupied Denmark, she joined the resistance and later saved the children she had committed to help.
When she heard of the Nazi plan to deport Denmark’s Jews, Gerda began to shelter and hide Jewish children in her own home. Then she waited until it was safe to smuggle them to the coast and from there to neutral Sweden.
Not only did Gerda risk her own life to shelter these Jewish children, she was also sensitive to their religious needs. When some of the children from kosher homes insisted on eating only bread, she bought them new dishes and vegetables and fruit they would accept.
Moritz, Dora and Rita Scheftelowitz were three of the many Jewish children Gerda managed to save. One night, Gerda, the girls’ teacher, came to warn their parents of the Nazi plan and urged them to leave. She took the children into her home while she made arrangements for their journey to Sweden. Though their first two attempts failed, Gerda did not give up and, with G-d’s help, the third attempt was successful. After boarding a small fishing boat about six miles north of Copenhagen, the three siblings endured a difficult sea voyage. Then they were happily reunited with their parents, who had already reached Sweden, on the night of Yom Kippur 1943.
Even after World War II came to an end, Gerda Valentiner continued to help those affected by the trauma of the terrible Nazi era. Taking a leave of absence from her teaching job for two years, she became a volunteer at Jewish refugee camps in Germany and Austria.
Like many other heroes of the Holocaust, Gerda downplayed her courageous role during the war. She modestly insisted, “I only did what many Danes did, nothing special. We thought it was perfectly natural to help people in mortal danger.”
Despite Gerda’s professed humility, she was honored by Yad Vashem in 1968 as Righteous Among the Nations. In 1971, when she was 68 and had retired from teaching, she came to live in Israel for a year. She wished to see the country and learn the language of the people whose lives she had saved.