The Danish Jews were lucky. The large majority of them survived World War II, unlike the 6 million Jews that lost their life around Europe during the Nazi terror regime.
7,500 Jews from Denmark reached safety in Sweden in October 1943, when the Nazis decided that the turn had come to the Danish Jews.
Only around one hundred Danish Jews perished.
The rescue action
Following Germany’s occupation of Denmark on 9 April 1940, the Danish Jews had continued to live largely undisturbed despite the nazi Jewish policies that were implemented in the rest of occupied Europe.
The Jews constituted 7,500 people in Denmark by 1943 – 1,500 of them were Jewish refugees. Most of them lived in Copenhagen.
The policy of cooperation between Germany and Denmark, and the Germans’ view of the Danes as being of the Aryan race, meant a comparatively peaceful Danish co-existence with the German occupation power. Germany had no desire to endanger this situation, and for long the Danish Jews went untouched by the terrible Nazi racial policy that was carried out in the rest of occupied Europe. The relatively small number of Jews in Denmark undoubtedly also influenced the Germans’ indifference to the Danish Jews.
However, the peaceful co-existence between Denmark and the occupation power changed in the beginning of 1943. The Allied forces had won over the Germans in several battles, and many Danes no longer believed the Germans to be invincible. Sabotage and strikes replaced the inactivity of the first years of occupation. In August 1943 the Danish government resigned, partly because it refused to give in to further German pressure and partly because of public opinion. On 29 August 1943 the German occupation power declared Denmark in a state of emergency.
In October 1943 the turn had come to the Danish Jews. Previously, the Germans had decided to deport the Danish Jews to concentration camps. Fortunately, German civil servants leaked this information to the Danes, who passed on the information to the Jewish community. A part organised, part spontaneous rescue action was mounted. The Jews were helped to safety in the countryside and then sailed to Sweden from the east coast of Zealand. Most fishermen volunteered their help – others demanded to be well paid for the dangerous journey across the Sound. Members of the government, of the police, and even a few criminals, were also on the boats to Sweden. During a period of one month more than 7,000 Jews reached safety in Sweden, which received the refugees. Approximately 1,000 non-Jews also went to Sweden.
Unfortunately the Germans managed to capture 481 Jews. They were deported to the concentration camp and ghetto in Theresienstadt. In Denmark the government tried to stay informed about their condition, and in 1944 a Danish delegation was given permission to visit the prisoners. As some of the only ones, these prisoners were allowed to receive mail and packages. The Danish prisoners remained in Theresienstadt until the end of the war. It is probable that Danish interest and protests against the imprisonment of Danish Jews protected the Jews against being sent to the extermination camps in Poland.
In spite of these efforts, around one hundred Danish Jews lost their life – in the Nazi camps or during their escape from Denmark.
Danish Jews had the highest survival rate in Europe during World War II.