This excerpt from The Rescuers documentary film describes the rescue of almost the entire Danish Jewish community in the fall of 1943. It follows Sir Martin Gilbert and two survivors, Leo and Gus Goldberger, who were saved because of the courage of their neighbors and other Danes. The excerpt focuses on the actions of Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz, a German diplomat stationed in the capital of Copenhagen, who alerted both the Jewish community and the Danish underground of the coming roundup. As a result of Duckwitz’s courage and initiative, most of the Danish Jews went into hiding. The Danish underground then transported them across the Øresund strait to Sweden, where for the rest of the war they were cared for, thanks to Duckwitz’s diplomacy.
What was the role of Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz in saving the Jews of Denmark? How do you explain his actions?
What were the unique circumstances that led to the rescue of nearly the entire Jewish community in Denmark? What does it say about nature of Danish society? What does it say about human behavior?
Rescuers are often described as heroes. Who are the heroes in this story?
The Jewish community of Denmark, which dates back to the end of the seventeenth century, was formed more recently than other Jewish communities in Europe. The first Jews came when the Danish crown invited Jewish merchants and financiers to finance its activities and boost the economy. Some were of Ashkenazi ancestry (Jews who originally lived in areas belonging to pre-modern German principalities).1 But a good portion of what would become a small but thriving community were Sephardic Jews, or in other words, descendants of the Jews who were expelled from Spain and Portugal in 1492.
By the eighteenth century, there were about 1,700 Jews in Denmark, most of whom lived in Copenhagen by special permission from the crown. By the early nineteenth century, the Danish Jews received most of the civil rights that every Danish citizen enjoyed, although full emancipation and citizenship were only granted in 1849 as part of a set of liberal revolutions and reforms that swept Europe.2The community thrived and prospered—despite undercurrents of antisemitism and an outburst of anti-Jewish violence similar to the 1819 Hep Hep Riots, which started in University of Wurzburg in Bavaria and spread to neighboring countries.3 Nonetheless, members of the Jewish community successfully entered into Denmark’s commerce, art, and science culture.4 By 1930, the Jews in Denmark numbered over 6,000 (several hundreds more arrived during the late 1930s as refugees). Danish Jews were a symbol of integration, a minority that for the most part was accepted as loyal and faithful—and a vital part of the Danish nation.5
The outbreak of World War II and the Nazi occupation threatened the peaceful coexistence between Jews and their non-Jewish neighbors. German forces occupied Denmark—which controlled one coastline of the narrow straits leading into the Baltic Sea—in April 1940. They stayed there for the duration of the war. However, in the first three years, they practiced a policy of cooperation and “negotiation” with the Danish government, which left the Danish government in control of the country (except for foreign policy) and allowed ordinary Danes to go about their everyday business. In return, the Danes allowed the free passage of German troops and supplied the Germans with produce and some industrial products. There were several possible explanations for this unusual approach: Germany did not want to interrupt the influx of badly needed Danish agricultural products, and the Nazis sought to set an example for a protectorate (a form of occupation) based on goodwill and friendly terms. The Nazi also regarded the Danes as fellow Aryans and racially acceptable. Moreover, Denmark’s strategic importance was negligible and the Nazis had little interest in spending time and resources there.6 As a result, the Danish government was able resist the pressure to enact anti-Jewish laws like those passed in other German-occupied countries. Arguing that the Jews were Danish, like every other citizen in the country, many Danes were committed to protecting Jewish rights and safety despite the risk to their own lives. And in contrast with other western European countries, Denmark did not register its Jews and their property. In fact, Denmark outright refused to discriminate against the Jews as the Germans demanded.
In response to massive Nazi losses in the battlefield early in 1943, the Danish resistance, which believed the Nazi military would be defeated soon, intensified its anti-German strikes and acts of sabotage, straining the relationship with Germany. Finally, when the Danish government defied Hitler and refused to institute curfews, ban strikes, censor the press, and pass restrictions on public protest, the Germans decided to end their liberal approach to Denmark. Simultaneously, Dr. Werner Best, who was named the Reich representative (Reichsbevollmächtigter) for occupied Denmark in the fall of 1942, began to seek the implementation of the Final Solution in Denmark. Best was a committed Nazi who, before this appointment, served in two other occupied countries: Poland, where, between September 27, 1939, and June 12, 1940, he served as Chief of Section l of the Reich Main Security Office and oversaw the killing of thousands of Jews; and France, where, as Chief of the Civil Administration, he was involved in the roundup of the country’s Jews and their deportation to death camps in Poland.
Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz, the Diplomat
At that point, a person who knew Denmark well came to play a remarkable role. The man, a German diplomat named Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz, who lived in Denmark for several years before the war and worked as a coffee merchant, had already become an important adviser to Best on economic and social issues. In the early 1930s, Duckwitz was drawn to the Nazis’ ultranationalist propaganda and joined the party. However, as Hitler’s violent intentions came to light, he became disillusioned with the party. And when the Germans took over Denmark, he sympathized with the hardships and challenges of the Danish people. Nevertheless, Duckwitz, who was fluent in Danish and intimately familiar with Denmark’s maritime trade, received an appointment from the German government to oversee the shipping affairs between the two counties.
When the Germans declared a state of emergency in August 1943, the Danish government resigned in protest, and King Christian X declared himself a Nazi prisoner of war in his own country.7 Best sent a telegram to Hitler, seeking his approval for the deportation of the Jews. News of the request reached Duckwitz on September 11, 1943. Duckwitz was alarmed; this was what he feared most.
When the two met, Best dismissed his concerns, claiming the telegram would not have any real consequences. Surprisingly, however, Best permitted Duckwtiz to fly to Germany to try to suppress it. But when Duckwitz arrived in Berlin, he learned that Hitler had already approved the order. Knowing all too well what the Fuehrer’s approval would lead to, Duckwitz quickly moved into action. Frantically, on September 22, Duckwitz flew to Sweden—a neutral state (which nonetheless collaborated with the Germans)—where he met with President Per Albin Hansson. Duckwitz then informed the president about the Nazis’ plans and received assurances that if and when the Jews of Denmark arrived in Sweden, they would be well received and cared for. By then, Duckwitz had already been in touch with the Danish resistance underground, which, in turn, prepared hiding places for the escaping Jews and made arrangements with fishermen to transport them to the Swedish side of the Øresund strait.8
A few days later, Duckwitz heard rumors that an exact day had been set for the roundup of the Jews. In a meeting, Best told the diplomat of the alarming news and confirmed that the roundup (or Aktion) would be carried out on Friday, October 1, 1943, in the capital of Copenhagen. He then, perhaps out of character, told Duckwitz that the only way out for the Jews was “if I could, within a matter of days, build a bridge over the Øresund so that these people could save themselves in Sweden.” As Best continued, Duckwitz got the hint. “Be assured,” Duckwitz said, “that the bridge will be built.” Best’s actions throughout the events are debated by historians. There is no consensus as to why this arch murderer kept Duckwitz informed and allowed him to work out a plan to rescue the Danish Jews. Historian Paul Bookbinder argues that “Best was playing a double game urging a roundup of the Jews to impress Hitler and thwarting the plot to keep his position viable in Denmark.”9
Duckwitz then informed the leaders of the Jewish community of the date and suggested that they instruct Jews to not be home that day. Shocked and bewildered, the leaders of this well-integrated Jewish community accepted this news reluctantly but gave clear instructions to all Jews to go into hiding and prepare to leave their homes for good. For the Danes, the actions against the Jews became a test of their national independence and pride vis-à-vis the Nazis, a “fact that explains both the spontaneity and the unanimity of action” in the following days.10 As the film excerpt shows, the Gestapo did not find more than a handful of Jews during the night raid between October 1 and 2.
The Germans could not find them because a quickly organized operation was underway; the underground resistance first hid the Jews and then began moving them to Sweden aboard hundreds of small boats in one of the most heroic rescues of the Holocaust. Historian Leni Yahil described what happened next:
The reaction was spontaneous. The Danes alerted the Jews, helping them move into hiding places and from there make their way to the seashore, and, with the help of Danish fishermen, cross into Sweden. At first this was an unorganized and spontaneous operation, but soon the Danish resistance joined and helped to organize the massive flight.... In Denmark, all groups of the population went into action in order to save the Jews. Dozens of protestors poured into the offices of the German authorities from Danish economic and social organizations; King Christian X expressed his firm objection to the German plans; heads of the Danish churches published strong protest and used their pulpits to urge the Danish people to help the Jews; and universities closed down for a week, with students lending a hand in the rescue operation. The operation went on for three weeks and in its course seventy-two hundred Jews and some seven hundred non-Jewish relatives of theirs were taken to Sweden. The costs of the operation were borne partly by the Jews themselves and to a large extent contributions made by the Danes. [For its part] the Danish police not only refused to cooperate with [the Nazis] but also helped the rescue operation. An order was also issued prohibiting German police from breaking into apartments in order to arrest Jews.11
Leo Goldberger, whose family’s story is featured in the film excerpt, recalled the experience of being smuggled to Sweden when he was barely 13 years old:
My dad decided that the best thing for us to do was just to go down into the cellar where we had a bomb shelter and to just wait and see what would happen and on October the first, that is the actual night when the roundup started. We, luckily, left our apartment around 6:30–7. The roundup started at 9:30 and we came to this little fishing village in Drigera and we were instructed to go down to the beach which was right next to the harbor and to wait for a signal and we were hauled up 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 the fact that they were . . . it was very crowded down there. There must have been 18 to 20 people as the fishermen started to move out into the sea, we, luckily, were not discovered and we went off into the night.
Not all the Jews managed to escape; some were too old or sick, and others were turned over to or discovered by the Gestapo. Thus, some 474 Jews were captured and sent to Theresienstadt ghetto camp.12 But “the Danish public and the administration . . . did not give up their concern for the fate of their Jewish countrymen in Theresienstadt. They sent food parcels to them and had the Danish Foreign Ministry bombard the Germans with warnings. The ministry also put forward a demand that a Danish delegation be permitted to visit the detainees in the Theresienstadt camp.”13
None of the Danish Jews were sent to Auschwitz, where most inmates perished of hard labor, disease, starvation, or death in its notorious gas chambers. The Swedish Red Cross eventually negotiated with the Germans the transport of Danish Jews to Sweden. Of the 500 hundred or so Jews who were taken by the Gestapo, 423 survived.14
For his part, Duckwitz worked behind the scenes with the German navy in charge of patrolling the strait. Although some of the fishermen’s boats carrying Jews were hit by German forces, “very few German navy patrols were at sea during the [operation],” a fact that mitigated the high risks involved in the operation.15 The 7,200 Jews made it to safety in Sweden, where they were cared for and sheltered throughout the war by ordinary citizens and the government. Best reported to his superiors that the Final Solution was carried out in Denmark and that the country was clear of all Jews.
After the war, Duckwitz explained that “everyone is obliged to imagine himself in another person’s position in a given situation. I do not think that my life is more important than the lives of 7,000 Jews.”16 Duckwitz was the highest-ranking German officer to be involved directly in the rescue of Jews on this scale. He received the title of Righteous Among the Nations from Yad Vashem in 1971.
- 1 : Jews began to settle in the region between Alsace to the Rhineland in the early middle ages. Either by choice or as a result of expulsion and anti-Jewish violence, many of them moved east into the territory of Poland and its neighboring countries. There they eventually settled. Although Ashkenaz refers to German territories, they are also regarded as Ashkenazi Jews.
- 2 : John Efron et al., The Jews: A History (Upper Saddle River: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2009), 250.
- 3 : For more on the Hep Hep Riots, see Phyllis Goldstein, A Convenient Hatred: The History of Antisemitism (Brookline: Facing History and Ourselves National Foundation, 2012) 175–76.
- 4 : Leni Yahil, “Denmark,” Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, vol. 1 (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1990), 362.
- 5 : Ruth Geva, “Saving Danish Jews in WWII,” accessed April 16, 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uMe_laGLiSs. In this short film, Danny Kaznelson describes details of his research into the role of Danish doctors in the rescue of Denmark’s Jews. He argues that the reason the Danes saved the Jews, with great risk, is because they saw them as אחים לצרה (“brothers in trouble” or “fellow sufferers”). He notes further that the Danes not only protected Jewish property but also returned it to their owners after the war. Kaznelson himself was rescued when he was three years old.
- 6 : Leni Yahil, “The Uniqueness of the Rescue of Danish Jewry,” in Rescue Attempts During the Holocaust, eds. Yisrael Gutman and Efraim Zuroff (New York: Ktav Publishing House, 1974), 619.
- 7 : Mordecai Paldiel, The Righteous Among the Nations (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 106.
- 8 : Ibid., 107.
- 9 : Paldiel, The Righteous Among the Nations, 107. Personal communication.
- 10 : Yahil, “The Uniqueness of the Rescue of Danish Jewry,” 620–21.
- 11 Yahil, “Denmark,” 364–365.
- 12 : For more on this camp and its history, see the United States Holocaust and Memorial Museum essay “Theresienstadt,”
- 13 : Yahil, “Denmark,” 365.
- 14 : Martin Gilbert, The Righteous: The Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2004), 259.
- 15 : Paldiel, The Righteous among the Nations, 108.
- 16 : Quoted in Paldiel, The Righteous Among the Nations, 108–109.