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It is one of the great untold stories of World War II: In 1943, in the German occupied Denmark, the Danes find out - thanks to Georg F. Duckwitz, a courageous German maritime attaché - that all 7,500 Danish Jews are about to be rounded up and deported to the Nazi death camps. The Danish people make their own decision: it's not going to happen ..

In August, 1943, a state of emergency was declared in Denmark, and the Nazis decided that they could now move against the Jews. In September Hitler approved the deportation of the Danish Jews and Werner Best of the SS, Hitler's chief in Denmark, received the final order. Now the Nazis were prepared to deport the 7,500 Jews, starting at 10 PM. on 1 October 1943.

Two German passenger ships, docked in Copenhagen’s port, were ready to ship approximately 5,000 Jews to Germany on their way to the kz camp Theresienstadt. Buses were to take the remaining 2,500.

Sir Martin Gilbert tells in his excellent book The Righteous how Georg Duckwitz, posted to Denmark before the war, learned of the deportation plans on 11 September 1943. At great danger to himself he flew to Berlin two days later to try to have the plan set aside, but in vain. Two weeks later he flew to the Swedish capital, Stockholm, to discuss with Prime Minister Per Albin Hansson the possibility of the Danish Jews being smuggled across Oresund, the narrow belt of water to Sweden.

Finally Georg Duckwitz risked everything and leaked out the deportation order to a leading Danish Social Democrat, Hans Hedtoft. Hedtoft later recalled:

"I was sitting in a meeting when Duckwitz asked to see me. 'The disaster is going to take place', he said. 'All details are planned. Your poor fellow citizens are going to be deported to an unknown destination'. Duckwitz's face was white from indignation and shame .."

According to Duckwitz, 1 October was set as the zero hour and Hans Hedtoft immediately warned C.B. Henriques, the head the Jewish Community, and Dr. Marcus Melchior, the acting chief Rabbi of the Krystalgade Synagogue. They took immediate action ..

The word was passed and the Danes responded quickly, organizing a nationwide effort to smuggle the Jews by sea to neutral Sweden. Risking their own lives, the Danes dropped everything to help family members, neighbors, or friends and offered their support, conveying warnings and finding places for the Jews to hide. The Danes felt that persecution of minorities was a breach of Danish culture and they were not prepared to stand for it.

From all strata of Danish society and in all parts of the country, clergymen, civil servants, doctors, store owners, farmers, fishermen and teachers protected the Jews.
A taxi driver was reported to have telephoned every person with a Jewish name he could find in the telephone directory.

The rescue of the Danish Jews is an inspiring story from a terrible time in human history. In most other Nazi-occupied countries, the Germans found it easy to deport the Jews. No one defended them the way the Danes did. Denmark was also different and special in another way. Almost everywhere else in Europe, returning Jews found their homes had been broken into, and everything of value stolen. When the Danish Jews returned, they discovered that their homes, pets, gardens and personal belongings were cared for by their neighbors.

Almost the entire Jewish population of Denmark was rescued and survived the war years, mostly in neutral Sweden and a few hundred in Theresienstadt under the distant but constantly protective concern of the Danes.


After the war Georg Duckwitz served as Germany's Ambassador to Denmark. He has been recognized by numerous Jewish organizations. In 1971, he was honored at Yad Vashem for his efforts to assist the Danish Jews in escaping to Sweden.

Duckwitz died in 1973.




 

 

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