On the eve of Rosh Hashanah 1943, an entire Jewish community was hidden by their neighbors from those who sought their annihilation. When Yom Kippur arrived, members of that community were safe, at arm’s length from danger.
Adolf Hitler claimed he had a kinship with the people of Denmark on account of their common Nordic background. But he was very mistaken. The Danes proved themselves to be humanitarians in a world largely indifferent to the victims of Nazism.
On April 9, 1940, the Germans invaded and took occupation of Denmark. The Danes did not put up a fight but gave token resistance against the far superior German armed forces. The Germans, seeking the cooperation of the Danes, granted them control over their affairs. One of the reasons was that Denmark provided needed agricultural food supplies for Germany. In turn, Danish Prime Minister Thorvald Stauning issued a proclamation urging cooperation with the occupying forces so “quiet and order would prevail.” Life continued for the Danes and the Jewish community. The Nazis were aware that anti-Jewish activities would be opposed by the Danes and initially left the Jews unharmed. The Jews nonetheless maintained a low profile. Community activities continued but in a private manner so as to not attract attention. Amid the turmoil and horrors in Europe, there was a strange calm in Denmark.
Denmark’s first Jews were Sephardim from Portugal who arrived in 1622. By 1722, the Jewish community became a mixture of Portuguese and German Jews numbering 1830. By the turn of the 20th century, about 1,500 immigrants arrived from Russia. By the outbreak of the Second World War, Danish Jewry numbered over 7,000.
Perhaps the Nazis were testing the loyalty of the Danes to their Jewish citizens when in December 1941 there was an attempted arson against the synagogue in Krystalgade. The Danish police prevented the attack along with another one a year later.
In a personal letter from King Christian X to Chief Rabbi Dr. Moses Friediger following the first incident, he stated, “I have heard about the attempted fire at the synagogue and I am very happy that there was only slight damage. I beg of you to give my congratulations and best wishes for the new year to your congregation.”
In the summer of 1943, as the tide of the war was shifting toward the Allies, acts of sabotage against the Germans increased throughout German-occupied territories. Danes began to join the resistance and engaged in anti-German sabotage. After the Danish government refused German demands to try those responsible and impose the death penalty against them, the Germans responded by taking 100 hostages among prominent citizens including a dozen Jews and the chief rabbi. The German military announced martial law and the Danes then dissolved the government in protest on August 29.
Without the protection of the Danish government, the situation facing Danish Jewry became dire.
The Germans soon obtained records of the Jewish community and their residences. On September 18, a special commando force of Gestapo arrived with orders to begin the liquidation of Danish Jewry. The planned arrests were set for Wednesday night, October 1, the first night of Rosh Hashanah. The Nazis assumed that the Jews would be in their homes that day celebrating the holiday. The plan was to deport the Jews by ships to concentration camps.
On September 18, the German Reich Commissioner, Werner Best, notified the German director of shipping in Denmark, George Duckitz, that ships anchored in the harbor would be used to transport Jews. Duckitz had no intention of cooperating and flew to nearby neutral Sweden to request that they accept the Jews. Although initially receiving no reply following his pleas, on September 28 he revealed the German plans to the leader of the Danish Social Democrat Party, Hans Hedtoft, who immediately contacted the Danish resistance. Members of the Jewish community were alerted and most found refuge in the homes of Christian neighbors. On the night of October 1, the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, Gestapo agents invaded the homes of Jews and found them empty. Over the next week, hundreds of Danish members of the resistance clandestinely smuggled the Jews from their places of hiding to Sweden via boats. The Swedish government had announced on October 2 that it was prepared to accept the Danish Jewish refugees. The last group arrived on Friday morning, October 9, the eve of Yom Kippur.
Over 6,000 Jews managed to escape along with their 686 non-Jewish relatives, while 464 of the 580 who remained behind were deported to Theresienstadt.
The Jewish community had already lived under Nazi control for three years and some did not believe the warnings of deportations. Others lived in remote areas and were not warned. There were also those who had no place for refuge or considered themselves too elderly to flee. Then there were some who were betrayed by Nazi sympathizers and found while in flight.
The Danes continued to intercede on behalf of those Jews while under Nazi internment. They sent food parcels and needed supplies. In total, 52 of the deported Jews did not return, a figure far lower than any other Jewish community under German occupation.
The Germans had expected the Danes to betray the Jews by revealing their hiding places. They offered the incentive that imprisoned Danish troops would be released in return for some measure of cooperation. But to no avail. Rabbi Ib Nathan Bamberger was forewarned of the impending danger and he and his family left their home on September 29 as Rosh Hashanah was approaching. He records in “The Viking Jews” how the Danes also protected their property. “The table was set, candles placed in candlesticks, and the traditional holiday bread baked. When, after twenty months, in May 1945, we returned to Copenhagen and reentered our home, everything was exactly as we left it! The Danes had seen to it that no one entered our home during our absence. Similarly, the Danes watched our Synagogues, the Jewish schools and community center and many Jewish apartments. No looting, stealing, or other mischievous acts occurred there.”
That Rosh Hashanah, amid the horrors of Nazi Germany, Danish Jewry was saved.
Larry Domnitch was a resident of Bergenfield and now lives with his family in Efrat.