The Righteous in Denmark

In October 1943, 95% of Danish Jewry was aided to safety in Sweden by a broad segment of the Danish population. For many, Denmark has served as a beacon of light in a seemingly dark Europe. The huge effort undertaken by many ordinary Danes will undoubtedly serve as a moral inspiration for years to come. Yet recent research has shed some light on the lesser known aspects of this remarkable story.

A peaceful occupation

Like Norway, Denmark was caught completely off-guard by the German invasion on 9th April 1940. With German naval guns directed at the Danish Parliament building, the Government could do little but accept Hitler’s demands for a peaceful occupation. Denmark went into a period of cooperation policy that was to last for almost three and a half years. They managed to keep the King and the Government in office, but were forced to accept a number of stipulations, such as enforcing strict press censorship and arresting members of the Danish Communist Party. The Danish Navy routinely swept the waters in search of Allied mines.

Keep the wheels running

For the occupiers, public peace and order was of the utmost importance. Denmark was not at war with Germany, and Danish industrial and agricultural resources could best be utilised and exploited by avoiding general strikes and sabotage. The German eagerness to maintain a certain status quo left the Danish Government with some room to maneuver vis-à-vis its German opponents.  From early on, they made it clear that an attack on the Jewish population would result in an end to the cooperation policy. In 1941, when Danish anti-Semites attacked Jews in writing, and even tried to burn down a synagogue in Copenhagen, the perpetrators were all arrested and convicted in the Danish court system.

The Jewish minority

Most of the 7,800 Danish Jews were well integrated into Danish society. The majority had Danish citizenship and could trace their family lines in Denmark back several generations. Eastern European Jews, who had immigrated between the late 1880’s and the start of the First World War, comprised another large group. There were around 1,500 newly arrived refugees from central Europe. By the early autumn of 1943, the Jewish minorities in nearly all of the other countries dominated by Nazi Germany had been attacked and deported. News of this and more accurate information of what was happening in German camps in Nazi-occupied Poland had reached Denmark. Despite this, it was strongly believed that the Government could be able to continue to shield the Jews with diplomatic skills.

Growing unrest

Resistance and minor sabotage began to grow slowly from 1941 and onwards. In the summer of 1943, the rate of sabotage reached a new peak. Most people understood by then that Germany was losing the war. In late August, major strikes broke out. German authorities, headed by the Envoy, SS-Obergruppenführer Werner Best, demanded that the Government enforce martial law and punish acts of sabotage with the death penalty. This led the Danish Government to step down in protest, resulting in an official end to the cooperation policy. In reality, it did not present any real great change, as the Germans continued to cooperate with the existing bureaucracy. The department leaders in the bureaucracy continued to consult with the retired politicians. A state of emergency was declared by the Germans. It was to last from 29th August to 6th October. One hundred and fifty prominent Danes were arrested as hostages, among them a few Jews.


In early September, Werner Best sent a note to Berlin, arguing that it would be best to deal with the arrest and deportation of the Danish Jews within the period of the state of emergency. At approximately the same time, Danish and German Nazis plundered and ransacked the Jewish congregation and the offices of the Jewish community, securing membership lists and other material. German signals from Berlin to proceed with the persecution came after ten days.

A complicated game

In seeking to secure his own position, Werner Best played a dangerous game. His standing with Berlin had been damaged by the breakdown of the cooperation with the Danish Government. When his rival, Commander of the German forces in Denmark General von Hanneken, imposed martial law, it further undermined his position. Historians have debated whether his request to deport the Danish Jews was done to strengthen his position with Berlin, and whether he later made unsuccessful attempts to stop this request from reaching Hitler.

Aided by the Germans

On 28th September, a German diplomat, Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz, leaked the plans for the arrests to leading Danish Social Democrats. If this was done in understanding with Best remains uncertain. He specified that the actions would commence on 2nd October. The night of 1st October marked the beginning of the Rosh Hashanah celebration, the Jewish New Year. The German perpetrators had chosen this date on the assumption that most of their would-be victims would be at their registered address. 

The politicians went to warn the head of the Jewish congregation. At first, he was unwilling to believe what they were telling him and, for good reasons - he had just recently been assured by a head of department in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that there was no imminent danger. The Ministry had obtained its information through its contact with Werner Best. Both the politicians and the Jewish congregation began to warn others immediately. At the Rosh Hashanah morning service on 29th September, Acting Chief Rabbi, Dr. Marcus Melchior, advised the members to start warning others and to go into hiding.

Actions by the Swedish Government

Directly after he warned Danish politicians, Duckwitz contacted the Swedish Government, trying to persuade them to issue a statement that they were willing to grant free passage to all Danish Jews. When the Norwegian Jews were targeted one year earlier, the Swedish Government went to great lengths to persuade the Germans to give a free passage to Norwegian Jews. At first, the Swedes hesitated, wanting the request to come through more official German channels. On 2nd October, they nevertheless issued a statement over the radio, welcoming all Danish Jews.

Successful warnings and mobilisation of helpers

The warnings were efficiently spread throughout Copenhagen and other parts of Denmark. Jews were aided into hiding. Some made their own contacts with fishermen trying to organise escapes for friends and family. The first part of the operation was ad hoc, unorganised and hurriedly planned. After a short while, several legal and illegal organisations, and ordinary men and women, were part of an larger collective action. Jewish children were placed with non-Jewish families, and a substantial financial contribution was collected from all kinds of business and private beneficiaries.

Lukewarm occupiers

On the German side in Denmark, there were few who really wanted to have anything to do with the planned action against the Jewish population. General von Hanneken feared the domestic consequences and the impact it could have on what was left of the German-Danish collaboration. The German Navy feared that it would lead to an end of the good cooperation with the Danish Navy. If the Danish Navy were to stop sweeping for mines, the Kriegsmarine would have to allocate hard-pressed resources for this vital task. The German Navy had thus far managed to manoeuvre through the war with few taints to its morale, unlike the other German branches. The prospect of arresting Jews in the waters between Denmark and Sweden was not seen in a positive light. The winds of war had turned, and it was not unnatural to give some thought to possible post-war retributions.

From kayaks to large fishing trawlers

At its narrowest, the sound between Denmark and Sweden is only five kilometres wide. The waters could, however, be treacherous. Vessels of all types were used from a number of ports, with a large number leaving from Copenhagen harbour. For many of the passengers, the voyage was nerve-racking. Some had to turn back several times and wait for the next trip. Small children were given tranquilisers to help ease the anxiety and suppress noise. Over twenty refugees lost their lives during the crossings. From late September until two weeks into October, almost 8,000 people were saved, including non-Jewish relatives.


Two German police battalions, aided by fifty Danish Waffen-SS volunteers, started the arrests in groups of five. Thanks to the warnings, their hunt was less rewarding. In total, fewer than 500 Jews were arrested and deported out of the country, mainly to Theresienstadt concentration camp in occupied Czechoslovakia. Constant Danish and Swedish intervention made sure that almost all of them survived the ordeal. They were submitted to harsh treatment, but in the latter part of their stay, they were able to receive food packages through the Red Cross. 

Inspiration and myths

In the wake of the rising interest in the Holocaust in Israel and in USA in the 1960’s, the notion of Denmark as a bright spot in an otherwise dark Europe begun to take shape. This led to the unveiling of a number of monuments of gratitude in the two countries. Original fishing boats were procured from Denmark and placed as memorials in Israeli and American parks. Local communities, schools and congregations in the two countries sent gifts and shields of gratitude to the Danish Royal House, the Government and to the Danish people in general. However, little research into what really transpired was undertaken. As a Danish historian has stated about this period, the history of the rescue was so good that there was no need to fiddle with it.  Already during the war, Danes in the USA spread the false story about the Danish King riding through the streets of Copenhagen, wearing a yellow Star of David. The fact that Danish Jews were not forced to were any signs of their Jewishness did little to counter this myth. The myth was purposely spread to counter allied criticism towards the Danish policy of collaboration. Even after the war, the rescue of the Danish Jews has undoubtedly overshadowed the more problematic consequences of the German-Danish cooperation.

Humanitarian vs commercial undertaking

As one of the historians who have studied the rescue of the Danish Jews thoroughly in recent years has said, “The bigger the medal, the bigger the back side”. A shift from a one-dimensional understanding of this history has taken place in the last twenty years. The sometimes high prices demanded from the fishing boat owners have been highlighted more prominently. The average price per person was approximately 1,000 Danish kroner, equal to two-three months’ salary for an average worker at the time.  Higher prices, up to DKK 10,000 and 50,000 were also sometimes demanded. In many cases, supply and demand regulated the prices. On the other hand, it has been pointed out that the boat owners needed some security in case they lost their vessels, or even their lives. Roughly half of the money needed for the transport came from the illegal fundraising organised by other helpers. The question of money will add some new dimensions to the story, but it is unlikely to challenge the core narrative of the many spontaneous Danish helpers who mobilised in October 1943.


Mats Tangestuen, Jewish Museum in Oslo