It was 1943. Inge Sulzbacher and her twin sister were five years old. Members of the Danish resistance helped them escape the Nazi round-up in Copenhagen by huddling them underdeck in a fishing boat crossing the choppy Øresund Strait to Sweden. Shulamit Kahn wasn’t quite seven.
“Some memories are etched into your mind and you never forget them,” says Shulamit.
The Danish resistance movement, along with many ordinary Danish citizens, managed to evacuate 7,220 of Denmark’s 7,800 Jews. It was the largest action of collective resistance in the countries occupied by Nazi Germany. And we haven’t forgotten it.
Jewish history in Denmark dates back to 1622 when King Christian IV sent a message to the leaders of the Sephardi community in Amsterdam and Hamburg inviting Jews to settle in the township of Gluckstadt. Jews who accepted this invitation began trading and manufacturing operations there. The King built the famous Round Tower, an astronomical observatory, on which the letters yud keh vav keh can be clearly seen, to show his recognition of their contributions. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Jews from Eastern Europe continued arriving and settled in Copenhagen where they enjoyed a warm welcome.
Gittel Davidson, whose father was a member of the Machzikei Hadas Shul founded in 1910, shares a memory: “During the First World War, when no lulavim were available, my grandfather paid the curators of the Copenhagen Botanical Gardens to be allowed to pick lulavim from the palms in the hot house for tropical plants,” she says.
This idyllic stability was rocked on April 9, 1940, when Nazi Germany invaded Denmark. With little choice, the Danish government surrendered and Denmark became a “model protectorate.” Model meant that some sort of quasi-cordial relationship was maintained. While Germany sent 22,000 officials to occupied France, a mere 89 officials were sent to Denmark. During the early years of the occupation, Danish officials repeatedly insisted to the German occupation authorities that there was no “Jewish problem” in Denmark.
The Germans looked the other way for several reasons. They recognized that further discussion was a possibly explosive issue, one that had the potential to destroy the “model” relationship. In addition, the Reich relied substantially on Danish agriculture, meat and butter. Despite this leeway, resistance to German rule bubbled strongly in Denmark. In the summer of 1943, when it seemed that the war was going against the Reich, members of the Danish resistance became bolder. The Germans hit back. In August, they presented the Danish government with new demands to end resistance activities. The Danish government refused to meet the new demands and resigned. That same day, the Germans took direct control of administration and declared martial law. Plans for the arrest and deportation of Danish Jewry got underway… and were foiled from the inside.
German naval attaché Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz, leaked word of the planned deportation to Hans Hedtoft, chairman of the Danish Social Democratic Party. Hedtoft contacted the Danish Resistance Movement and the head of the Jewish community, C.B. Henriques. Henriques alerted the acting chief rabbi, Dr. Marcus Melchior.
On September 29, erev Rosh Hashana, during Selichos, Jews were warned by Rabbi Melchior of the planned German action and urged to go into hiding immediately. The word spread. The Danish Underground and regular citizens – intellectuals, priests, policemen, doctors, blue-color workers – worked together to track down Jews and find ways to hide them. Some simply contacted friends and asked them to go through telephone books and warn those with Jewish-sounding names to go into hiding. It was a national refutation of Nazi Germany and a reaffirmation of democratic and humanistic values.
“My father and eleven-year-old brother had gone into hiding a few days earlier because we’d already heard rumors of a deportation,” recalls Shulamit. “On erev Rosh Hashana, when we became sure that the deportation was going to happen, my mother together with three children (my ten-year-old sister, myself, and my three-year-old brother) traveled by rail to the coast. There we were split up among the villagers because the Germans were on the lookout and it was too risky for anyone to hide four of us together.”
The parents of Inge Sulzbacher faced a terrible choice. “My father didn’t daven in Rabbi Melchior’s shul, but the word about the round-up spread fast. Our table was laid for Rosh Hashana. Even the fish was ready,” she recalls. “My parents were afraid that my sister and I would cry out and endanger the others who were fleeing. At the urging of our upstairs’ neighbor, whose husband was part of the Danish police force, my parents decided to flee with my two older brothers and leave us with the neighbor. The following morning, the neighbor, afraid for our safety, biked away to find us a more secure hiding place. When the Nazi’s arrived to follow up on the rumor that two children were being hidden, we were no longer there,” Inge says.
Fleeing in Fishing Boats
Most Jews hid for several days and even weeks, uncertain of their fate. “The villagers I stayed with spent much of the day in the fields,” says Shulamit. “When we finally sat down to a meal at the oval table, I was too afraid of the dog under the table to eat much. I didn’t cry though, because I already had the wisdom of adults and knew that crying wouldn’t help me.”
On October 2, the Swedish government announced in an official statement that Sweden was prepared to accept all Danish Jews. Some historians credit Danish physicist Niels Bohr, whose mother was Jewish, for Sweden’s willingness to help. Two days before the announcement, Bohr had been sprinted to Sweden on his way to the US to work on the then top-secret Manhattan Project. He refused to continue his journey until he had persuaded King Gustav V of Sweden to provide asylum. On October 3, a statement read in all Danish churches said: “We shall, if occasion should arise, plainly acknowledge our obligation to obey God more than man.” The Danish people kept their word.
“After a few days, my mother arrived to take me to the fishing boat,” says Shulamit who had been separated from her mother. “A large coal truck arrived and we were packed in like sardines. Something was thrown over us. My brother was put to sleep because we couldn’t risk a sound,” she says.
The trip over the choppy winter Øresund Strait lasted about an hour. Some Jews were transported in large fishing boats of up to 20 tons, but others were carried to freedom in rowboats or kayaks. Seventy-five years have passed, but the voices of those who made the passage can’t hide the fear that they felt. “I remember begging Hashem in Danish to help us across. I’d have liked to pray in Hebrew, but I comforted myself by telling myself that Hashem could understand all languages,” says Shulamit. Inge, together with her twin sister, made the night crossing lying on the packing shelves underdeck surrounded by the smell of fish.
“When we docked, a soldier in a black uniform picked me up to carry me off the boat. I was terrified as I thought he was a Nazi,” she says. Luckily, Inge’s father, who came down to the landing spot every night in search of his daughters, found the girls. “My mother later said that my father never cried… except for the time that he was reunited with us,” says Inge.
At a time when the average monthly wage at the time was less than 500 kroner, most fishermen charged on average 1,000 Danish kroner per person for the transport. Some cashed in and charged up to 50,000 kroner. The Danish resistance provided much of the financing, in large part from wealthy Danes who donated large sums of money; the Jews themselves provided the rest. In total, the rescue is estimated to have cost around 20 million kroner.
The Nazis, unaware that their prey had slipped away, began their hunt. In Copenhagen the deportation order was carried out on Rosh Hashana, the night of October 1, when the Germans assumed that all Jews would be gathered at home. The SS organized themselves into five-man teams, each with a Dane, a vehicle, and a list of addresses to check. Most of the teams found no one. Although, tens of Jews managed to escape detection and remained in hiding, the Germans captured 483 Jews and deported them to Theresienstadt. Demark did not remain silent. Danish civil servants persuaded the Germans to accept packages of food and medicine for the prisoners and also persuaded the Germans not to deport the Danish Jews to extermination camps. As a result, although fifty-three Jews died in the camp, the survival rate was high.
In Sweden, Shulamit and her family spent the following 20 months in a resort hotel converted into a refugee camp. Inge and her family remained in a small house on the outskirts of Stockholm. At the end of the war, the Danish Jews returned to their homes in Denmark. “Our nanny had taken care of our apartment in our absence,” says Shulamit. “All that was missing was the matzah. Because of the years-long war, my father had stored some matzah on the top of a cupboard as he wasn’t sure that the following year we’d have access to matzah. Our nanny had given this matzah to an elderly Jewish woman who refused to go into hiding so that she could eat matzah on Pesach,” says Shulamit.
Ninety-nine percent of Denmark’s Jewish population survived the Holocaust. The incredible rescue is commemorated in several places worldwide. In Copenhagen, a stone memorial stands in the courtyard of the Machzikei Hadas shul. In the US Holocaust Museum and at Yad Vashem, authentic fishing boats used in the rescue bear witness. As does a stop on the Jerusalem Light Rail. As you pass through Beit HaKerem, you’ll hear the stop at Kikar Denya being called out. At the stop, you’ll find eateries, shops, a bank and a monument shaped like a boat. An inscription on the monument reads: “Danish courage and Swedish generosity gave indelible proof of human values in times of barbarism. Israel and Jews everywhere will never forget.”