Saturday, February 1, 2014

The happiest people: How Denmark's Jews were saved in World War II

Presented to the Club by Erik Bruun on Monday evening, January 20, 2014

1. Do Tell A Lie

The author's father, Bertel Bruun, drawn by a
 Latvian refugee in a camp overseen
 by his grandfather.
When the German army invaded Denmark virtually unimpeded in the early morning of April 9, 1940 in World War II, my father was 2 1/2 years old. He lived in a fishing village called Skaelskor about 60 miles from the nation’s capital Copenhagen. His father, Erik Valdemar Marie Andre Ley Bruun, was the town doctor.

Unlike many Danes who at first accepted the German occupation with quiet resignation, my grandfather (Bedstefar to me) opposed the new turn of events. He headed a family with four children and was the only doctor in town so he carried a heavy weight of responsibilities. Nonetheless, Bedstefar was among the many doctors and nurses in Denmark who joined the Resistance.

The Danish medical community developed an elaborate system of transportation networks, secret hiding places, passwords, and links to fishermen who shuttled men, women and children on the run across the Oresund straights to safety in Sweden. Copenhagen’s hospitals served as a clearinghouse for downed American and British pilots who were shuttled to Sweden, and played a central role in the historic and nationwide rescue of Danish Jews. Doctors such as my grandfather received extra gas rations and so were in a position to transport refugees and rescued airmen.

Danish Resistance members, Odense, 1945
By 1943 Danish public opinion had turned very strongly against the German occupation. An active Resistance emerged. My father (now aged 5) eagerly joined the effort by wearing red, white and blue beanie caps designed to resemble the British Royal Air Force insignia. This, he liked to say, was his contribution to the war effort.

When the Danish Resistance took an action against the occupying German forces or Danish collaborators, the Gestapo carried out retaliatory killings called "clearing murders" to settle the score. In a short memoir my father wrote before he died he recalled this incident: "[Bedstefar] usually had office hours from about noon to 2:30 or 3, after which he would take a brief nap of 15 minutes before going on house calls. One day, when he was having his afternoon rest in his chair in the living room, our doorbell rang. I ran into the hall and opened the door. Two men in leather coats stood there--yes, they really wore leather coats, and it was not just a caricature of a Gestapo man. One asked if my father was home, as they wanted to see him. I told them he was away on vacation and I didn't know when he would return. Meanwhile our maid had come into the hall to answer the doorbell and she backed up my story. The two men apologized and left. An hour later a doctor in a neighboring town who was still having office hours was shot dead by two unknown men in leather coats."

2. It's Just Fish

The rescue of the Danish Jews in World War II holds a hallowed place in the history of the Holocaust. In a spontaneous act of national collusion, Danes rallied to alert Jewish citizens of a pending German roundup to capture and send them to concentration camps. Unlike any other country occupied by Germany, Denmark shepherded almost the entire Jewish population to safety. Of the approximately 8,000 Jews in Denmark, 500 went to concentration camps. Danish politicians advocated strongly for the captured Jews during their imprisonment, helping to improve their conditions. When the war ended, 450 Jews returned to Denmark, meaning that a total of 50 Danish Jews died as a result of the Holocaust.

The picture of a purely and simply heroic Denmark defying the vicious German empire, however, does not pass close scrutiny. When Denmark surrendered less than six hours after German troops crossed its southern frontier, Winston Churchill said the country would serve as Germany's “pet canary”. At first the vast majority of Danes quietly complied with German ambitions. Hitler called the country a "model protectorate". Denmark provided 10 percent of the German food supply and helped build naval ships. Eight thousand young Danish men largely from the region immediately adjacent to Germany volunteered to serve in the German army and were sent to the Russian Front. More Danes died in the service of the Third Reich (3,900) than opposing it (3,172).

Before the war broke out Denmark refused to accept Jewish refugees fleeing Germany, sending many back who would later die in concentration camps. My father used to respond sharply to American Jews who praised Denmark for being the only European country that wasn't anti-Semitic. "Denmark was just as anti-Semitic as any other country," he would say. "The difference was we didn't want the Germans to tell us what to do with them."

And it was not just Danes who played a role in the rescue. Many Germans refused to take part in the so-called Jewish Solution. A prominent German shipping official named Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz worked feverishly trying to prevent it and risked his own life to alert the Danish political leadership of the pending round-up. German military commanders especially in the Navy skirted orders to capture Jews. Copenhagen's German Harbormaster Richard Camman, who had earned the Iron Cross in World War I, ordered all of his ships out of the water for routine maintenance while the flight of Danish Jews took place under his very watch.

Another Iron Cross recipient, Commander Frederich Wilhem Lubke, responded to an order that his ship transport Jews from Copenhagen to Germany with a complete fabrication. He told the German Admiralty his engine was in disrepair. His ship, he said, was out of commission. When a German patrol ship captain boarded a fishing boat laden 20 Jews hiding in the fish hold, the Danish fisherman insisted he only had fish on board. The German commander opened the hold’s hatch, scanned the faces of Jewish refugees, paused, closed the hatch, and announced to his crewmen "It's just fish."

The Swedish government extended an offer to Danish Jews for refuge the country, reversing more than three years of appeasement policies to try to prevent Germany from invading the Scandinavian country. The minister of a prominent Swedish cathedral declared "If we were to stay silent, the stones would cry out." A Swedish police commissioner later recalled that when he watched Danish mothers disembark into his city with sleeping babies in their arms "I couldn't help myself. I started to cry."

3. There Are, After All, Higher Laws

In exchange for Denmark’s quiet cooperation, Germany allowed the government to retain its political independence the first three years of the occupation. While Danes may have shared a similar Aryan and Nordic heritage as Germany, they were not Nazis. Three percent of the Danish population voted for the Nazi Party in elections both before and after the German occupation--again, mainly along the southern border. When Germany first asked the Danish prime minister what he was going to do about the Jewish question, he responded "There is no Jewish question in Denmark.”

A myth emerged that King Christian X wore a Jewish star on his daily horse rides through Copenhagen to signal his solidarity with Danish Jews. This wasn't true. Nobody wore Jewish stars in Denmark. The Danish government refused to impose this humiliation — making it the only country under German rule to do so. King Christian embraced the prevailing national attitude toward the Occupation by only acknowledging the salutes of Danish police and soldiers during his walks. He ignored the German salutes. When Hitler sent an effusive birthday wish in late 1942, King Christian sent back a curt "thank you,"enraging Hitler who created a crisis to impose a tougher rule. He sent SS General Werner Best, formerly head of the occupation and roundup of Jews in Paris, to administer German rule.

By summer 1943, with German military power suddenly in retreat and Danish impatience heightening, a wave of sabotage and strikes swept the country. On August 29 Best imposed German military rule, sending German troops to arrest Danish police and soldiers and ordering martial law. More Danish soldiers and police were killed in this action than in the initial German invasion. Germans executed Danish Resistance members for the first time. Hitler approved the deportation of Denmark's Jews to German concentration camps. He sent troops with experience in rounding up Jews from Eastern Europe. Danish collaborators provided the names and locations of Jews.

When the German shipping official Duckwitz learned about the orders, he went to the Swedish Prime Minister asking him to provide refuge for the Jews. He returned to Denmark hoping to convince Best to resist the orders, but when it became clear the crackdown was going to happen he spent a long night talking with his wife. "It is good that Annemarie shares my convictions," he wrote in his diary. "There will be no detour from the road I have taken. There are, after all, higher laws. I will submit to them."

On September 28 Best told Duckwitz the arrest of all Danish Jews would take place during the night of October 1-2, the Jewish New Year of Yom Kippur. Duckwitz immediately contacted the leaders of the Danish Social Democratic Party and his contacts in Sweden.

4. By God, This Is Going to Be Read

Word about the pending deportation spread like wildfire. Teachers alerted their students. Doctors told their patients. Youth centers sent teenagers to Jewish households. Prison guards released Jewish prisoners from their cells and told them to get out of the country at once. Jewish families gathered their most precious belongings, fled their homes, and sought refuge with non-Jewish friends and in the households of strangers. Barn lofts, hospital wards, and basements filled with Jewish refugees seeking transportation to Sweden.

When German SS troops descended into Copenhagen where the vast majority of Denmark's Jews lived they found 284 people, less than 5 percent of what they anticipated.

Thirty-six hours later in Lutheran churches across the country priests read the following statement: "We understand by freedom of religion the right to exercise our faith in God in such a way that race and religion can never in themselves be reason for depriving a man of his rights, freedom or property. Despite different religious views, we shall therefore struggle to ensure the continued guarantee to our Jewish brothers and sisters of the same freedom we ourselves treasure more than life itself."

In one instance an assistant priest told his superior he was afraid to read the statement. The lead priest leapt from his seat, grabbed the document and declared "By God, this is going to be read in my church!"

The Danish population erupted in a massive act of civil disobedience on behalf of the Jews. Flash fundraising campaigns secured money to pay for fishing boats to carry refugees to safety. After some fisherman took advantage of the situation and charged outrageous amounts to carry the Jews, a cooperative of fishermen was formed to set a modest fee. This was dangerous work and gasoline was very expensive.

All told, at least 300 fishing vessels carried more than 7,200 Danish Jews (including Leo Goldberger of West Stockbridge who some of you [Club members] know) and 680 non-Jewish family members across the Oresund to Sweden from more than 50 embarkation points along the Danish coast in October and November 1943. More than 90 percent of the Jewish population found safety in Sweden where the government and people embraced them with food, shelter, schools, jobs, and other support.

5. The Happiest People

This fall a global survey on happiness declared Denmark to be the happiest country in the world, a crown it has achieved many times over the last 30 years. Why would the land of melancholy Hamlet, long nights, glum weather and such modest proportions get top marks for happiness?

The survey has six factors. High GDP, healthy life expectancy and a lack of corruption all figure into the calculation, but the deciding factors for Denmark center around a sense of social support, freedom to make life choices and a culture of generosity. Today Denmark offers free education to all, free health care, subsidized day care, expansive elderly services and boasts more than 100,000 volunteer organizations in a nation of 5 1/2 million people. Nearly 10 percent of the GDP is attributed to charitable work. The country consists of a very narrow peninsula with many islands. Island populations are often marked by an egalitarian spirit with a strong sense of interdependence.

Doctors in Denmark play a central role in society. The average Dane has seven direct interactions with his or her primary physician every year. In the United States, we have an average of four interactions with medical services each year, only some of which are with our primary physicians. Danish physicians — a modestly paid group of professionals — play a role in holding the lives of their patients in a very different way than in our country. It is no surprise that in World War II doctors and nurses played such an important part in securing the safety of their patients. Many Jews, for example, first went to their doctors for help when they fled their homes.

Psychologists say that the most important variables that determine happiness are relationships to family, friends and the community. Glory may be marked by star-spangled success, but happiness comes from finding meaning in life, usually in the context of the people around you. Danes do not have grand delusions about their own exceptionalism. Nobody should think he is too special; it will only get you into trouble. In some ways Danes are superficially a glum people with modest ambitions. As Woody Allen told Diane Keaton in the movie Annie Hall, the secret to happiness is low expectations.

The Danish response to the German occupation is completely consistent with these traits. Danes were willing to tolerate a German military presence so long as they did not assert German ambitions, and quite specifically Nazis policies on to Denmark. As the German presence became more and more overbearing, Danish tolerance for the occupation crumbled and a majority of the people turned against it in increasingly violent ways.

In one incident in the summer 1943 a German officer investigated a disturbance in Odense. Greeted by jeering Danes, he fired his pistol into the crowd, wounding a boy. Instead of fleeing, the Danes swarmed the soldier and beat him to a pulp. It symbolized the breakdown of the Danish social contract: Leave us alone and you can do as you please, but tell us at what we should do and you are asking for a fight.

6. A Matter of Decency 

I do not know if my grandfather played a role in the rescue of the Jews. Although Skaelskor is on the coast, it is in the southwest region of Denmark's largest island, making a journey by sea to Sweden unnecessarily and dangerously long. I feel very confident, however, that if the opportunity to participate emerged he did rise to the challenge. Courage in the face of danger comes in many forms.

My father's oldest brother, Mogens, played a very active role in the Danish Resistance, which from 1943 to the end of the war exponentially increased its act of sabotage, spying, and killings of German officers and Danish collaborators. Mogens had joined the Finnish Army in 1940 to fight the Russian invasion, providing him with military training. He was apparently very good with a gun. My father said Mogens did things like blow up trains and other violent activities.

My grandfather had a very different aura. He was known as an amiable and kind man. When the British Army arrived in Skaelskor the soldiers stayed at his house and they became family friends. One of them, a corporal, was killed a few years later in Palestine by the Jewish resistance. My father wrote "I remember [Bedstefar's] bitterness over the irony of this outcome. Although he overcame whatever anti-Semitism he had harbored, he never did become a fan of Israel."

As the local representative for the Red Cross, Bedstefar oversaw a nearby camp holding refugees from the Baltic countries and Russia. The Danish and Dutch Red Cross gave him medals for his humanitarian work.

Bedstefar's most dangerous tasks took place during the war and involved saving downed Allied airmen. When the Resistance rescued a flyer, they would call my grandfather. He drove his car to get the airman and brought him back to his office, mended the injuries and gave him a new set of clothes. Bedstefar bandaged the young English-speaking man's entire head so that he could not talk, even if he tried.

Bedstefar then alerted a colleague in Copenhagen that he had a patient with a head injury caused by a tractor accident. The next call went to the German authorities to let them know there had been an accident and that they should let his patient through all the German road blocks to Copenhagen. Picking up that phone and making that call was fantastically dangerous work. If discovered, he would be executed on the spot. He risked his life for young men he did not know and would never encounter again.

Preben Munch-Nielsen later wrote this about his experiences as a 17-year-old boy helping Jewish refugees navigate the Gestapo. "There were so many jobs involved,” he wrote. “You cannot afford to be afraid. And if you were, you could not let it have any impact on what you had to do. It was a matter of decency."

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