Commemorating A Light In The Darkness: The Rescue of The Danish Jews During WWII
In October 1943, Danish citizens committed crucial acts of civil resistance against the Nazi persecution of Danish Jews as they scrambled to hide, protect and transport Denmark’s Jewish population across frigid waters to Sweden and out of harm’s way. The rescue ultimately saved nearly 7,000 Danish Jews from deportation and has become an emblem of Danish solidarity, community and resolve.
As the world marks the 75th anniversary of this act of resistance, we sat down with Denmark In New York Consul General Anne Dorte Riggelsen to talk about the circumstances and significance of the Danish rescue and why this historic event remains ever relevant in today’s global climate.
Denmark In NY: Tell us about the Danish rescue of Jewish countrymen during WWII.
Consul General Anne Dorte Riggelsen: When in the early fall of 1943 the impending plan to arrest and deport the Danish Jews was leaked by German occupational officials to members of the resigned Danish government, it set in motion an extraordinary rescue operation driven, first and foremost, by civilian resistance. The rescue was improvised and spontaneous, and it involved risk-willing ordinary citizens and civil servants mobilizing at remarkable speed to hide large numbers of Jews in just a matter of hours, then assisting in sailing thousands across to safety in neutral Sweden in the dark of night.
This unprecedented instance of civil resistance saved the vast majority of Danish Jews — more than 7,000 — from deportation, while less than 500 were deported to Theresienstadt, most of whom survived and were able to return to Denmark after the end of the war.
DKNY: What makes this rescue unique?
ADR: When Denmark was occupied by Germany on April 9th, 1940, Denmark and Germany signed a cooperation agreement aimed at casting Denmark as a “model protectorate.” This meant that even though Denmark was occupied, the Danish political system was still allowed to function with a certain degree of independence in matters regarding the Danish population. This also meant that they officially did not fight against the Germans or support any resistance. However, by the time of the rescue in October 1943, the Danish government had resigned, no longer willing or able to condone the increasingly violent force of the occupational power.
The rescue is extraordinary because it was mostly driven by civilians who stood up to the Nazis; ordinary individuals alongside organized resistance groups, risking arrest, confiscation of their means of livelihoods, deportation — even death — if caught. These people exhibited enormous hospitality, compassion, and courage, which ended up saving the lives of many of their fellow citizens who were ultimately perceived as fellow “countrymen” before they were perceived as Jews.
DKNY: What are the historical implications of the rescue of the Danish Jews?
ADR: I believe that the main takeaway from the Second World War must be that we always remember the power of hatred and the atrocious consequences it can lead to, including systematic ethnic cleansing.
We should be inspired by the unselfish bravery of men and women who risked their own safety and lives to help their fellow human beings. Especially in a situation of crisis, it is important to stand up for our values and beliefs, such as basic human rights, and it is important to remember the invaluable virtues of compassion and humanity.
DKNY: Tell us more about the upcoming Encountering Genocide symposium to be held at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York on October 29th.
ADR: The symposium commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Danish rescue will address the legacy of civil resistance against the Nazis. The program has two primary components: a conversation about particular instances of encountering genocide during the Second World War focusing on stories from Denmark and Poland. And, secondly, a panel discussion addressing the legacy of civil resistance and the important question of how we can continue to learn from the past in regards to our current global situation. We will be joined by internationally renowned scholars and commentators from both sides of the Atlantic with expertise in the fields of Holocaust and genocide studies. We very much hope you will join us for this free public event at The Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.
The panel discussion Encountering Genocide: The Legacy of Civil Resistance Against the Nazis will be held at the Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust on October 29th at 2 PM.
For more information and registration click here.