The story of Norwegian policemen who refused to collaborate with the Nazi occupiers, 1943 (Tore Jørgensen)
Book – Stutthof Diaries Collection
Website – https://stutthofdiaries.com
I would like to thank Gene Homel for inviting me to take part in Raoul Wallenberg Day. Wallenberg was responsible for saving the lives of more than 100 thousand Jews. It is truly an honor to be here.
On the morning of August 16, 1943, the Oslo chief of police was executed by a German firing squad for his refusal to arrest three young girls who failed to show up for mandatory labour under Nazi law. The opposition to the police chief’s execution resulted in the arrest of hundreds of Norwegian policemen regarded as potential security threats to the German occupation.
Two hundred and seventy-one police prisoners were transferred to Stutthof, a concentration camp in Eastern Poland, and my father was one of those policemen. In the concentration camp, they kept diaries and recorded what they observed. After the war, my father suffered from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and would have constant nightmares from what he had seen. He refused to talk about his experience in the camp.
On one particular incident I recall, back in the early 1960s, my father had a recurring nightmare, which caused my brother, sister, and myself to ask why he was screaming. It was then that my mother took us apart to explain why he was screaming:
It was the fall of 1944, and my father was forced to work on expanding the Stutthof camp to accommodate another 30,000-35,000 new arrivals.
The local German farmers, in the area, would regularly pick out eligible workers to work on the farms. They would go to the Jewish women’s barrack and pick out the workers. The farmers would force the women to work with little food until they were exhausted and lifeless. The farmers would then march the women to the gas chamber and pick out a new crop of women from the barracks.
On this occasion my father was involved in laying the foundations for the expansion, when a young girl, about 18, dropped in front of him. She was on her way to the gas chamber. My father spoke perfect German, as she did. She said that she didn’t want to die, and asked him to help her. The guard who stood close to them said, “If you touch her, I’ll shoot you both”.
The memory of that young girl haunted him constantly and was one of the nightmares that he consistently had.
In 2010 I took a film crew with me to Norway to interview Norwegian survivors of the Stutthof concentration camp. I’m glad I did because today there are no Norwegian survivors.
My father died in 1998 and I have spent over 20 years collecting and translating the diaries and memoirs into the English language.
In 2021, I published “Stutthof Diaries” with plans for a documentary, based on the publication. I have several copies of Stutthof Diaries with me for sale today. I also published a website. Not only is it informative, but it also connects thousands of people around the world to share their stories.
Additionally, our plans include an app to represent the story of the Stutthof camp from those who were actual witnesses of the atrocities carried out by the Nazi regime. The course on the Holocaust is mandatory in BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Ontario.
We are also aware that kids in grades 10 and above are addicted to their cell phones. Therefore, we are planning to create an app that will allow students to view the video interviews, and not forget the Holocaust.
I would like to thank all of you for the invitation on this Raoul Wallenberg Day.
The Rescue of Denmark’s Jews, 1943 (Norman Gladstone)
Chairman Homel, President Le Fevre, Rabbi, Honoured guests, ladies and gentlemen.
Thank you for this opportunity to talk today about the rescue of Denmark’s Jews during the Second World War. On April 9th, 1940, Nazi Germany launched an unprovoked and surprise attack on neutral Denmark. After brief skirmishes at the border and in Copenhagen, Denmark surrendered within hours of the invasion. What followed were more than five years of German occupation.
In every country Germany invaded during the Second World War, it immediately introduced discriminatory policies and laws against the local Jewish populations. As we are sadly aware, those policies inevitably led, to one degree or another, to ghettoization, incarceration, starvation, deportation, and enslavement, culminating in mass murder. However, there was one notable albeit temporary exception to this German policy, which was Denmark. Quite simply, the Germans left the Jews alone. There were no restrictions imposed. No special identity cards, yellow stars or placing Jews in ghettos. No constraints were placed on Jews regarding jobs, studies or movement. For Denmark’s Jews, life continued as normal – or as normal as any other Dane under the circumstances of wartime occupation.
That situation existed for three years and five months when it all changed. In October 1943, the Germans moved against Denmark’s Jews to deport them to concentration camps in other parts of occupied Europe. But before the German roundup occurred, thousands of Danish civilians spontaneously reacted to hide the majority of the Jewish population and, over a three-week period, found them a secret passage to nearby neutral Sweden. What the Danes achieved was one of the greatest civilian rescues of Jews during the Second World War.
When Denmark surrendered to Germany, an extraordinary arrangement was struck. The Germans honoured Danish political independence and the royal house in exchange for Danish cooperation. That also meant leaving the Danish army and police intact. While most Danes shared the common feelings of anxiety and fear in those early days of occupation, the Danish Jews felt particularly vulnerable. Jewish community leaders advised all members to stay calm and trust the Danish government. This trust was based on confidence in the country’s institutions to protect its Jewish citizens, as it had done for many years.
Of course, we have to wonder why the Danish Jews were left in relative peace.
There is a two-part answer to this question: racial and economic.
There was the overarching Nazi racial politics that embraced the Danes as fellow “Aryans” and accorded them a privileged status in the greater German realm. In the early years of occupation, this fraternal feeling manifested itself by a relatively benign occupation to showcase a “model protectorate.” Denmark was to be the shining example of how wonderful life would be as a self-governing province of a greater Germany.
On the economic side of the equation, the Germans were obsessed with the idea that nothing should be done to upset the status quo, lest the flow of Danish goods to Germany be endangered. Agricultural products from Denmark represented a full 10% of Germany’s needs. Denmark, with a highly educated and exceptionally skilled workforce, produced precision-engineered goods and instruments, which were in high demand by the Germans. Therefore, the German thinking was that any immediate action against the relatively small Jewish population could wait, an inconsequential price to pay to maintain cordial relations and cooperation with Denmark. The Jews could always be dealt with later.
The German Aryan affection bestowed upon the Danes was never reciprocated in kind. Throughout the occupation, Danes exhibited their contempt for the occupier. While there was no active underground military resistance in the early years of occupation, there was passive resistance. The Danes perfected the art of Den Kolde Skulder – The Cold Shoulder – which dictated no Dane should be friendly, let alone fraternize with a German.
King Christian X played a significant role in strengthening the country’s morale. He left his palace on horseback at eleven o’clock every morning to ride through the streets of Copenhagen, his only bodyguards being the citizens of the city who rode bicycles beside him. Bolt upright in the saddle, he refused to acknowledge salutes from German soldiers who sprang to attention as he passed. A myth grew from these rides that the King wore a yellow star of David in solidarity with his Jewish subjects. This never happened because the Germans never introduced the yellow star or any other forms of Jewish identification. However, there is evidence the King proposed to his ministers that if the Germans ever introduced the yellow star into Denmark, he would wear it and encourage all Danes to do the same.
The occupation continued with little disturbance for nearly three years. Underground resistance was slow to form. Such activities centred on establishing communication and espionage links with the British and printing illegal newspapers. Worried about German reprisals, the general population shunned the resistance. The Danish government viewed the resistance as a group of troublemakers who could upset the status quo. As for the Jewish population, life went on uninterrupted. One has to wonder why word of the Final Solution had not seeped into Denmark or, if it had, why the Danish Jews were not preparing to save themselves accordingly.
However, the relative calm of the occupation changed decisively in 1943. As incredible as this sounds, a general democratic election was held in Denmark, with full German approval, on March 23rd. Voter turnout was 89%. The result was that the five mainstream parties won 95% of the vote while the Danish Nazi Party, financially supported by the occupying Germans, was only able to muster 2%. A significant amount of the Nazi vote came from Denmark’s border area with Germany, where many ethnic German Danes resided, a substantial number of whom were Nazi sympathizers. The election result was a resounding endorsement of the sitting government, democratic ideals and, indirectly, a rebuff of the German occupation.
An unintended consequence of the general election was a sense of empowerment amongst the population and growing dissatisfaction with the policy of cooperation. Many felt that “cooperation” was synonymous with “collaboration,” with little to distinguish the two. As an aside, it is a debate still hotly contested today in Denmark.
In addition, German losses at Stalingrad and North Africa, plus the Allied invasion of Italy, which precipitated the fall of Mussolini, emboldened the Danes to act in the belief the war’s end was imminent. Spontaneous civil unrest and rioting broke out across the country. The embryonic underground resistance movements grew by both numbers and deeds. Planned acts of sabotage and strikes rocked the nation. The underground press encouraged the population to cease all cooperation with the occupier.
By August 1943, the situation had deteriorated so dramatically that the alarmed Germans, under Reich Commissar Werner Best, demanded the Danish government bring order to the country and institute the death penalty for sabotage. The Danish government refused and resigned in protest on August 28th; Best imposed martial law the next day and assumed executive powers. The Germans placed the King under house arrest and interned the remaining units of the Danish military. The fiction of the “model protectorate” evaporated, and with it, so did the protection of the Jews.
With a state of emergency in place, Best saw an opportunity to rid Denmark of its Jews. With Berlin’s backing, plans developed for a roundup on the evenings of October 1st and 2nd, which was the beginning of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. It was a time when most Jews would be found at home. The raids would be conducted by Orpo – the German Order Police (Ordnungspolizei) – and the Gestapo, whose presence in Denmark would be a first. In preparation for the coming aktion, Orpo entered Copenhagen’s Jewish Community office two weeks before and confiscated its membership files.
Although Werner Best initiated the plan, he tried to distance himself from it. There is some evidence to suggest that he would have found it highly convenient if the Jews found a way to escape. It remains a mystery why he would do that, but speculation abounds. Such was the murky world of Nazi rivalries, careerists and opportunists.
The upshot was that he advised Georg Duckwitz, the marine attaché at the German Embassy in Copenhagen, of the impending roundup. On September 28th, Duckwitz, either on his own initiative or on Best’s orders, revealed the plan of the imminent arrest of Jews to the Danish Social Democratic leaders, with whom he had close relations. What followed was a series of events that were astonishing for their spontaneity, speed and decisiveness.
The politicians went directly to Jewish community leaders. Acting Chief Rabbi Marcus Melchior informed his synagogue congregation of the looming threat on September 29th at a special morning service and requested they leave quickly to spread the word to the rest of the Jewish community. He also pleaded with them to leave their homes and take shelter elsewhere. Civil servants, Lutheran priests, the staff of the Swedish Embassy, members of professions, other politicians and professional associations also sent out warnings. The German plans had become an open secret. By and large, this communication worked as most Jews responded appropriately. Within hours, Danish Jews managed to pack and make arrangements for their property, valuables, and businesses before going into hiding. Some did not.
On October 1st, 1943, the first raids on Jewish homes occurred, resulting in 284 arrests, with 180 captured afterwards. In total, 464 Jews were sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. Interestingly, the Orpo and Gestapo were under strict orders not to break down doors or force entry. If no one answered the knock, then they simply walked away.
Also, on October 1st, nearby neutral Sweden openly broadcast its willingness to give unconditional asylum to Jews. Sweden lay across a body of water called Øresund, only four kilometres from Denmark at its narrowest point. It seemed like the most obvious destination for the now-desperate Jews.
Who were these rescuers? Who were the people and the organizations hurriedly put together to help the Danish Jews hide and then get them to Sweden?
A few Jews succeeded in fleeing the country on their own, but the vast majority needed the help of others. The entire Danish population seemed to be aware of the German’s diabolical scheme. Neighbours, colleagues, friends and, in numerous cases, total strangers – none of whom were Jewish – offered accommodation or opened their doors upon request. They did this at significant personal risk.
These individual actions were spontaneous, sometimes chaotic, but effective. One day, the Jews were relatively secure in their own homes; the next day, they were fugitives. From one day to the next, ordinary, law-abiding citizens transformed into rescuers working outside the law.
To hide and move large groups of people required much more detailed organization than what individuals could offer. There were religious and civic societies that, literally, overnight devoted their efforts to this cause.
1. There was the Folkekirken/The Danish Lutheran People’s Church
The church’s hierarchy had taken an outspoken anti-Nazi position well before the occupation. On October 3rd, 1943, Bishop Fuglsang-Damgaard, the leader of Denmark’s Lutheran church, issued a letter to be read in all churches informing Danes of the Jewish plight and urged congregants to act on their conscience. It was a confirmation of an already de facto situation where individual priests and congregants were hiding a considerable number of Jews. The Bishop’s letter encouraged more to act.
2. Doctors’ Groups and Danish Hospitals
In 1941, professional groups such as doctors, engineers, teachers, and others were organized along professional lines in anticipation of the day of being called upon to serve the country in some capacity. The groups were dubbed “the study circles,” then abbreviated to “the circle” or “the ring.” The medical doctors formed one such “ring.”
When Jews started appearing in hospitals seeking food or shelter, the doctors moved swiftly into action. Jews were admitted into the hospitals under fictitious names with bogus ailments and hidden throughout the wards until transportation could be arranged. Copenhagen’s Bispebjerg Hospital saw approximately two thousand Jews pass through its doors. Senior nurses organized taxis and moving vans to transport their hidden charges to the coast.
Dr. Karl Henry Koster, medical head of Bispebjerg Hospital, is quoted as saying afterwards: “It was the most natural thing to do. I would have helped any group of Danes being persecuted. The Germans’ picking on Jews made as much sense to me as picking on redheads.”
3. Danish police
Once the persecution of the Jews started, the Danish police allied itself with the underground movements. The participation of the police was significant and vital. Not only did the police overlook the open activity in the fishing villages and harbours, but they also set up an escape route that they organized and managed themselves. On the night of the German Aktion, the Danish police issued a command that no Danish police officer was to participate in the arrest of Jews, nor were the coastal police permitted to arrest any Jews leaving the country.
4. The Danish Underground
There were pre-existing units of the Danish underground, just recently unified under a single command called the Danish Freedom Council (Frihedsrådet). As mentioned, the underground resistance movement had no broad appeal or support from the Danish population. That changed instantly when the crisis of 1943 erupted. It was at the moment of rescuing the Jews that a groundswell of moral and financial support occurred.
5. Ad hoc organizations
Many non-professional ad hoc organizations formed within hours. One such example was a group created in the port city of Elsinore (in Danish Helsingør) in response to seeing many despondent-looking Jews seeking passage to Sweden. Four friends banded together to help. They dubbed their group with the innocent-sounding name “The Elsinore Sewing Club.” Membership in The Sewing Club swelled. They organized hiding places for the Jews and eventually passage across the water to Sweden. After completing the rescue, the Elsinore Sewing Club became part of the Danish underground resistance.
6. Captains and Crews of Fishing Boats
Then, there were the all-important captains and crews of the fishing boats that lay in the harbours along Denmark’s east coast. Without them, the rescue would fail. Some fishermen acted individually, while others formed groups and allied themselves with the existing underground or the hastily formed ad hoc committees. Many fishing boat captains charged for the passage to Sweden; some didn’t charge at all; and some wouldn’t do the passage for any amount of money.
While it is tempting to feel disappointment regarding payment for passage, the reality was that Danish fishermen had fixed expenses and took enormous risks. In the event of capture, the boat would be impounded, and most likely, the captain and crew would face jail time or even death. Rabbi Marcus Melchior, in his memoir, stated that these charges were “fully justified.”
What is interesting to note, though, is that there is no known case of a single Jew left behind because of an inability to pay.
Knowing about the rescue and the rescuers still leaves a void in this narrative. What motivated the Danes to act? Why would a nation spontaneously rise up against the impending roundup of its Jewish population and subvert the intentions of the Nazis? After all, we are talking about a rather easy-going, modest people who were highly law-abiding and somewhat averse to risk. Yet, an estimated 10,000 Danes answered the call.
In the commentaries of the rescue, there is a proposition that states that the conditions were perfect and unique when compared to other occupied countries:
- There was a relatively small Jewish population
- A safe, friendly, neutral country existed nearby
- The German occupation of Denmark was less harsh and not as pervasive as it was in other European countries
- There was the strange agenda of the Germans who refrained from prosecuting the roundup too vigorously.
This statement insinuates that it was the easiest of all escapes possible. A cakewalk, so to speak. There is certainly some grains of truth regarding the elements of the proposition, although the insinuation is false. It was a dangerous and complicated rescue. Some people died, and those captured faced severe consequences.
But this proposition ignores the fact that the Danes had another option. They could have done nothing. They could have played it safe, not taken the risk, and silently let the Germans do what they did in every other country they invaded, which was to isolate the Jews and murder them. But the Danes did react and said, “No, not in Denmark.”
As for the notion of a less harsh occupation, 4,000 non-Jewish Danes killed or executed, and 6,000 others sent to concentration camps throughout the five-year occupation tells us otherwise.
So, to go back to the original question – what motivated the Danes to do this has to be viewed in civic and cultural terms.
Danes love democracy. They cherish democratic ideals and the institutions that preserve them:
- an elected parliament,
- a non-politicized judiciary
- a free media
- and all the other civic organizations that, daily, reinforce democracy.
What the Germans did not understand at all was that when they moved against the Danish Jews, they moved against all Danes. The aktion against Jews was an insult to the Danish people’s highly developed sense of social justice and human rights. These were values absorbed and refined over many decades.
The Danish national character of the 1940s was shaped by influences of the Enlightenment and by exceptional, inspirational thinkers and luminaries whose teachings were passed down from generation to generation. The foundation of Danish democracy was the Constitution of 1849 and subsequent amendments, which included a broad range of civil rights which applied to all people residing in Denmark.
However, there is more to it than that. The Jews were perceived – and this is absolutely key to understanding the rescue – the Jews were perceived not as Jews, per se, but as fellow Danish countrymen and women and were fully embraced as such.
The Danes were outraged that one segment of the population should be singled out and persecuted. By saving the Jews, the rescuers were saving themselves. After three and half years of feeling impotent under the occupation, underscored by a degree of shame for surrendering so quickly, the Danes readily took up the challenge to redeem themselves by fighting back and saving their souls. From the Danish perspective, all of humanity was imperilled, and civic-minded Danes would not allow themselves to stand idly by as disinterested spectators.
Sweden’s position was equally complex. Although a neutral country, it freely allied itself economically with Germany by supplying significant quantities of iron ore and industrial goods. It also allowed German troop movements to cross its soil to Norway. As for providing a sanctuary for fleeing Jews from Norway, Denmark and other countries in the early years of the war, Sweden remained steadfastly indifferent. However, that changed in 1942 when Swedish public pressure forced the authorities to open the border to Norwegian Jews. By October 1943, when the plight of the Danish Jews became known, Sweden unhesitatingly did the right thing. No longer concerned with its place in the geopolitical sphere shaped by Nazi Germany, Sweden did everything it could to assist in the rescue and generously provided shelter, jobs, schooling, and financial support to the newly arrived Danish Jews.
In the end, nearly 7,300 Danish Jews escaped to Sweden, accompanied by 686 non-Jewish spouses.
But what of the 464 Jews transported to Theresienstadt? The Danes did not forget these unfortunate people. The Danish civil service and the Danish Red Cross pressed the Germans to allow delegations to visit and send parcels to the Danish prisoners. Eventually, the Germans relented. Because of Danish insistence, monitored by the Danish Red Cross, no Dane was ever transferred to a death camp from Theresienstadt, although 51 died in captivity.
Further, Swedish nobleman and diplomat Count Folke Bernadotte negotiated the release of the Danish Jews in April 1945, a month before the Red Army liberated Theresienstadt. These prisoners were driven to Sweden in specially marked white buses.
In the aftermath of the Holocaust, there has been an insatiable quest to try to understand this calamity in all its dimensions. Amongst many other things, the Holocaust seriously undermined all notions of civilized behaviour. In the morass of this incoherence, there appears to be a need to look for heroes and tenaciously hold onto myths. Acts of courage and cowardice, humanity and inhumanity, are often characterized in metaphorical terms of lightness and darkness. In such a paradigm, Denmark shines brightly, but only singularly. Perhaps we could take Leonard Cohen’s words and apply them here: “There is a crack in everything/That is how the light gets in.”
As a cautionary note, there are realities of the events of 1943 that cannot be ignored. While most Danes acted nobly and truly represented the best of the Danish national character, others betrayed those ideals. There were Danish informers, traitors and exploiters. Some Danes took up arms for the German cause. This tells us that the Danes were real people who exhibited the entire gamut of the human condition, with all its virtues and all its follies. Decidedly, there were significantly more saints than sinners.
To be sure, there was antisemitism in Denmark, but it was contained and localized, and at no time did it ever take root or gain traction amongst the general population.
What frames Denmark’s reputation is the humanity and moral courage the Danes exhibited in 1943 to save fellow human beings and the warm welcome they bestowed upon them when they returned in 1945 after the end of the war. These traits of the Danish national character brought enduring honour to that country. It was a case of ordinary people doing extraordinary things under dangerous circumstances.
What many Danes and Swedes do not fully appreciate is how large this story looms in Jewish consciousness. There is an eternal sense of gratitude by Jews towards Denmark and Sweden for what both countries did in the darkest of days of the Holocaust.
If you go to the website of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Remembrance Centre, you will find the names and countries of origin of those designated as “Righteous among the nations.” These are the non-Jews who took great risks to save Jews during the Holocaust.
There are 28,217 names honoured to date.
From Denmark, only 22 names appear.
However, if you look closer, you will see that of the 51 countries listed, only one country has an asterisk beside it. And that country is Denmark. If you go to the bottom of the page to find the meaning of the asterisk, you will read the following, and I quote:
“The title of Righteous is awarded to individuals, not to groups. The members of the Danish resistance viewed the rescue operation as a collective act and therefore asked Yad Vashem not to recognize resistance members individually. Yad Vashem respected their request and consequently the number of Danish Righteous is relatively small. A tree was planted on the Mount of Remembrance to commemorate the Danish resistance.”