Commemorating the 70th anniversary of Denmark's rescuing almost all its Jews from the Nazis – the only Western European country to do so – the author of "Countrymen" and the Danish Minister of Justice spoke at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Sept. 17.
"Amid all the darkness of Nazism, there were shimmers of light in human decency," Denmark’s Minister of Justice Morten Bødskov, told the audience. The justice minister said that 7,742 Jewish countrymen and women were rescued from the German-occupied nation in late September 1943.
The Jews were ferried in fishing boats (one is at the museum), rowboats, schooners, and even kayaks to neutral Sweden -- resulting in one of the highest Jewish survival rates of any country during World War Two.
Although most people would regard this as heroic, "Countrymen" author Bo Lidegaard said that "none of the rescuers were heroes, they were quite ordinary people who did the right thing."
His book, "Countrymen: the untold story of how Denmark’s Jews escaped the Nazis, of the courage of their fellow Danes – and of the extraordinary role of the SS" (Knopf), the first full history of this, was published the day of the event, Sept. 17.
Lidegaard stressed that "the large exodus" was "not a plan. It was a solution that gradually emerged." It was not organized by the Danish government, the Resistance, or any association.
One "key to understanding" this is that the German occupiers, headed by Werner Best, and his superiors in Berlin, played a major role in the success. "Best was a real SS, anti-Semite, a Nazi in his heart...but they all knew that deporting Jews was a line that the Danish government and Danish citizens would not cross," said the author.
German officials warned non-Jewish Danes of the planned round-up and deportation. The Danes then alerted the local Jewish community.
(One Holocaust survivor at the event told me that her husband had been in Denmark at that time. His landlady phoned his school, warned the 15-year-old youth not to return home because the Gestapo had come to arrest him. A Lutheran minister hid the boy and arranged his escape to Sweden. The teen had been living temporarily in Denmark to study farming. He was the only survivor of his family, who had lived in Moravia.
About one-third of the Jews rescued in Denmark were not Danish; many were Jewish refugees from other countries, noted Lidegaard. Unlike other countries, Denmark protected them equally, with no differentiation. Jews in Denmark at that time comprised only about 0.2 percent of its population.
The Danes "did not think of it as 'us' and 'them' of society," the author emphasized. "They understood that this was a threat against their society. They defended and protected a society they believed in, their country, and their countrymen."
One of the king's diary entries in 1942 recounts a discussion between him and the prime minister, who asked what to do if the German occupying authorities demanded that Jews wear the six-pointed yellow star. King Christian replied, "'If they do so, the only answer would be, we all wear it.' The prime minister's jaw dropped," according to Lidegaard.
He debunked another myth of Danes as heroes: Some of the fishermen, especially in the beginning, required the Jews to pay "a huge amount of money". But then, a bargaining mechanism evolved.
Not all of Denmark's Jews were saved. About 500, including many children, were deported to Theresiendstadt (Terezin) concentration camp outside Prague.
Lidegaard, editor-in-chief of "Politiken", one of Denmark’s most important newspapers, was on a panel with Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of "The New Republic". It was moderated by U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) historian Edna Friedberg.
Wieseltier said that he "was raised on the notion that if only people knew about Auschwitz and other Nazi camps, we would have acted." But half a century later, during the Bosnian war, it took much media coverage in Sarajevo "before we lifted a finger."
The editor said, "We must be aware of human cruelty and the need of others for help...We are responsible."
Wieseltier, whose mother was saved by a non-Jew in Poland during the Holocaust, said "What's needed is not heroes but action."
USHMM's Friedberg noted that the museum's new exhibition, "Some Were Neighbors: Collaboration & Complicity in the Holocaust", explores "the capacity of ordinary people for extraordinary evil and extraordinary good."
The historian added, "Ask not 'What would I have done' -- but 'What WILL I do.'"
For more info: “Countrymen” by Bo Lidegaard (Knopf, Sept. 17). U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, www.ushmm.org, 100 Raoul Wallenberg Place, S.W. (Independence Ave. at 15th Street, S.W.) Washington, D.C. Free admission. 202-488-0400. Online exhibition "Some Were Neighbors..."