Rebecca Neuwirth’s remarks
January 24, 2013
Remarks at: “Rescue During the Holocaust: The Courage to Care – The Story of the Danish Jews.” A program hosted by the Department of Public Information, non-governmental organizations at the United Nations in observance of the International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust.
Thank you Maria-Luisa Chavez, and appreciation to your dedicated colleages who arranged this event, to Gail and Mackenzie and others. The UN, with its Department of Public Information in the lead, has arranged public commemorations of the Holocaust since 2006 in New York. Your efforts have been important to Jews around the world and to many others.
Thank you to those who took valuable time to be here, to the people working at the UN, to the NGOs who play a vital role in building a better society. I want to specially recognize my colleagues from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, an organization that was deeply involved in rescue during the Second World War and in that takes care of Jews in need and others today. I also want to recognize Board members and Executive Director of Thanks To Scandinavia, and Rikke Borge, the daughter of the co-founder and Danish entertainer Victor Borge. Thanks To Scandinavia is dedicated to keeping alive this particular slice of history and working with a new generation to combat antisemitism and racisms of all kinds today.
Here is the story:
Nazi Germany invaded Denmark, it’s neighbor to the north, on April 9, 1940. After two hours of sporadic fighting, the Danish government – which felt it was no match for Nazi forces – surrendered.
Germany proceded to occupy Denmark. But its control of the territory was relatively lax, so different from the brutal reigns of terror that Nazis implemented in countries to its east. There was no major hunger in Denmark, no forced labor, no public massacres. Furthermore, Germany allowed the Danish government to retain sovereignty over most internal issues.
The Danish government made some concessions to its Nazi occupiers. It drew a line, however, at enacting discriminatory laws and actions against Denmark’s small Jewish minority. Most of the 7,500 Jews had lived in Denmark for generations and were well integrated into the society. The Nazis realized that forcing the issue would be highly unpopular and might threaten an otherwise unencumbered occupation.
The relationship between Denmark and Nazi Germany changed as the war continued and Germany’s initial successes started reversing in 1943. The Danish Resistence became more active and tensions flared. In August 1943, Germany dissolved the Danish government and proclaimed marshal law.
Immediately thereafter, Germany decided that the so-called “Jewish Question” in Denmark could no longer wait and hatched plans to deport the country’s Jews.
Small groups of police were to fan out to Jewish homes in a surprise action, arresting and deporting Jewish men, women and children. The evening was set for October 1, 1943, which was Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, a holiday when Jewish families were sure to be at home together. Trains were waiting to deport the Jews to Nazi camps, and then to grueling labor and death. It was a Nazi plan not dissimilar to those that had resulted in the mass murder of millions of Jews in countries all over Nazi-controlled Europe.
But in Denmark, something went wrong with the plan. And something went right with human courage and ingenuity.
It was a German diplomat, Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz, who exercised one of the first and most important acts of courage. Duckwitz leaked the plan to the head of the Danish Social Democratic Party, who shared the news with the leader of the Danish Resistance and the Jewish community. Rabbi Marcus Melchior warned his congregants and word spread like wildfire.
Jews fled from their homes. Many sought refuge with neighbors, who were willing to hide them and bear the risk to their own families in order to help. Bispebjerg Hospital in Copenhagen disguised Jews as nurses and patients, and hid them in closets and basements. Other Jews hid in churches.
Thanks to the efforts of physicist Neils Bohr, Sweden agreed on October 2 that it would offer refuge to Danish Jews fleeing persecution.
Over the next weeks, Jews were hidden in trucks, buses taxis, and even, in a stroke of ironic humor and ingenuity, in hearses — and transported to coastal areas.
From there fishermen helped ferry over some 7,000 Jews and 600 family members to safety on Sweden’s shores. The action required hundreds of trips in small rowing and motor boats, most with a capacity of 12-14 people. German police caught some Jews, but many of them must have turned a blind eye – a small act of decency in its own right.
Some 500 Danish Jews did not flee or were caught – and they were sent to the Theresianstadt camp. The Danish Red Cross visited them and other Danish prisoners there, and many Danes sent packages. In part because of this attention and care, the overwhelming majority of Danish Jews in Theresienstadt survived the war.
And one other notable postscript: In Denmark, many of the Jews who returned found their properties, businesses, and even pets cared for by neighbors and friends and awaiting their return. This was so unlike the scene that greeted Jewish survivors in most other parts of Europe, where they found homes and goods pillaged and often antisemitism still rife.
To be sure, Denmark’s record was not a perfect one. The country could have taken in many more Jewish refugees than it did and saved countless more lives. There were Danes who sympathized with the Nazis and even volunteered to fight for Germany. And during the rescue, some Danes took advantage of the Jews’ desperation in order to enrich themselves, and some few betrayed Jews to Nazis.
Nevertheless, in a Europe full of darkness, hate and murder, the rescue of Danish Jews is a point of light. Or really, it represents many points of light – many individuals who chose to take risks, large and small, in order to help.
There were certainly historical realities at play – the lax occupation and the fact that the persecution of Jews came at a time when Nazi power was waning and therefore seemed beatable.
There were also cultural realities. Antisemitism was not common in Denmark before the war and Jews were considered fully part of Danish life. Even the Danish sense of humor, with its tendency to undercut authority of all kinds, might have inured Danes to the Nazi’s racist ideology.
It is worth contemplating these issues – but in the end, they merely describe the conditions that made the rescue possible.
In the final analysis, the rescue happened because thousands of individuals made active decisions to help the Jews and not to ignore them or to enable their persecutors.
If there is one idea that I’d like to convey, it is how easily the story of Danish Jews could have gone the other way and ended in mass murder rather than rescue. There is no doubt that the actions of specific individuals changed the course of history.
And one more thought: each act of bravery made a real difference. But together, they added up to more than the sum of their parts. With each act, the likelihood that others would join in the mass rescue action increased exponentially.
Just as mob psychology can bring an otherwise passive crowd to hateful and destructive behavior that the individuals in that crowd would never have been capable of on their own, so too we see in the Danish rescue that acts of decency and courage can create a sort of wave of goodness that in turn strengthens resolve, stimulates ingenuity and ultimately increases the chances that others will make the right choices and turn the tides to the good .
It’s an emboldening idea – then, and now.