Jewish organization Am Yisrael Chai‘s annual Holocaust remembrance event later this month in Atlanta will focus on the remarkable actions of Danes to resist the Nazi regime’s attempts to send Denmark’s Jews to concentration camps.
The “Rescue and Refuge” event Jan. 26 will feature as its keynote speaker Rabbi Bent Melchior, whose father, Chief Rabbi Marcus Melchior, played a key role in saving 7,220 Jews in Denmark by warning them to hide or flee impending roundups. The Melchior family was among the vast majority of Danish Jews who ended up as refugees in neighboring Sweden.
The family would return to Denmark in 1945. Young Bent would fight in Israel’s pre-statehood battles of 1947, then pursue rabbinical education back home in Denmark. He would succeed his father as the country’s chief rabbi in 1969, staying in the post until his retirement in 1996.
Jewish leaders may have sounded the alarm, but it was ordinary Danish citizens who put themselves at risk to save Jewish lives by hiding families away, passing along messages, offering food or guarded the possessions of those who fled. The History Channel’s website goes so far as to call their role “miraculous,” especially given that most didn’t consider themselves part of the official resistance, and many refused to accept any accolades later for their courage.
Denmark’s experience under the Nazis differs from other occupied countries during World War II. Until Aug. 29, 1943, it had a largely independent government that had not adopted antisemitic measures. It also is less than 20 miles from Sweden, which was unoccupied. As the roundups began Sweden announced that it would admit the Jews being pursued.
Denmark’s situation differed from that in the Netherlands and Poland, which had much larger Jewish populations and came under vigorous German occupation and direct rule. The Jews also were better integrated into the mainstream of Danish society than Jews in the other countries that Germany occupied. Once Denmark was overtaken by the Germany in April 1940, the Nazis agreed to set up what it viewed as a model protectorate and allowed a democratic government to stay in power.
The Germans at the time even referred to Denmark as its “cream front” because the Reich relied on Danish agriculture including meat and dairy products. Denmark’s capital, Copenhagen, was where less than 10,000 Jews lived, far fewer than in other occupied countries.
A Danish resistance movement did exist. It wasn’t until 1943, however, once the Danes learned of the German defeats in the Battle of Stalingrad and in North Africa that the resistance became more assertive fomenting nationwide strikes and incidents of sabotage. On Aug. 28, a ban on strikes was imposed, as were a curfew and executions of anyone caught in an act of sabotage.
Once the death penalty for sabotage was imposed, the Danish government resigned. The Nazis then took over the government, arresting Copenhagen’s chief rabbi and a dozen other Jewish leaders.
A month later on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year when all Jews were to be at home, the city’s remaining chief rabbi, Marcus Melchior, was tipped off that a Nazi roundup was planned to take place during the holiday when the Jewish population would be at home or at their synagogues.
Rabbi Melchior in turn canceled the usual religious services and encouraged Copenhagen’s Jewish community to flee. Jews fled by train, car and on foot. With the help of the Danes, they found places to hide in homes, hospitals and churches.
Once Sweden announced it would admit Jewish refugees from Denmark, the Danish underground and general population spontaneously organized a nationwide effort to smuggle Jews to the coast where Danish fishermen successfully ferried many to Sweden, though some were apprehended by German boats.
Although there is no denying the uniqueness of this effort and the valor involved, history does not always resonate in stark black and white.
While many of the fishermen placed their lives and livelihoods at risk, they demanded to be paid and forced the Jews to raise funds to compensate them. Also, undercurrents of collaboration existed, with one group of Jews betrayed in a small village by a woman who was linked romantically with a German soldier.
Those betrayed Jews were captured and deported to a ghetto in Czechoslovakia where all but 51 survived. It is said that the unique situation in Denmark succeeded only because the Nazis looked away, preferring to have the majority of the Jewish population flee without having to organize a full-scale punishing operation.
The Am Yisrael Chai event is to be held on Jan. 26 from 6-8:30 p.m. at the Byers Theatre at the Sandy Springs Performing Arts Center, 1 Galambos Way, in Sandy Springs. The event will also feature an exhibit on the 1943 rescue of Danish Jews.
The event is free but an RSVP is required. Learn more here.
Read Global Atlanta’s reporting about former Am Yisrael Chai events: Statue of Liberty Holds Special Meaning for Holocaust Survivor Marion Blumenthal Lazan