In Denmark, It Could Happen

Danny Rubinstein
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Danny Rubinstein

On Wednesday, September 29, 1943, the principal of the municipal high school of north Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark, entered the classroom where Herbert (Nahum) Pundik studied. In the classroom, a French lesson was under way. The principal stopped the lesson for a moment and asked Herbert, then a young man of 16, and two more students to step out into the corridor. His tone of voice was gentle and Herbert recalls that he and his two friends understood immediately that this was not about their studies. The principal asked whether they knew other Jewish students in the school, because he had been informed that within a very short time the Germans would start arresting Jews and they should hurry home.

In Denmark at that time there were close to 7,000 Jews, the vast majority of them in Copenhagen. Denmark had already been occupied by the Germans in April, 1940 - that is, about two and a half years before that day when the rumor spread that the Germans were about to arrest the Jews. During that whole period - two and a half years - the lives of the Jewish community had continued in a completely routine way. At the time when the Jews of Europe were being persecuted and murdered at an increasing pace, the ills of the war had barely affected the Jews of Denmark. The reason was that officially, and to some extent in actuality, there was no occupation regime in Denmark.

The government and the king reached an agreement with the Germans that the Danes would not actively resist the occupation, and in return the Germans allowed the Danish government to act and rule in a routine way. One of the provisions of the agreement was that there would be no legislation in Denmark that differentiates between various groups in the population. Everyone understood this referred to the Jews, who were the only minority group in that country where the culture dictated liberalism and equality before the law.

Herbert Pundik hurried home. He took the tram and stopped at Fridtjof Nansen Square at a newsstand to buy some popular weeklies. Looking back, it is hard for him to understand why he did this. The Germans were on his heels, and he had to escape in a panic and why was he thinking that it was important to him was stop and buy weeklies? It turns out that fleeing people often pack odd items. The other members of the household were already packed and prepared to leave.

Then Herbert learned from his parents that the whole alarm had started a few hours earlier at the synagogue on the Krystalgade. That morning few worshipers had come for morning prayers, a few dozen. Most of the Jews of Copenhagen had been absorbed into Danish society and were not observant. A considerable portion of them had assimilated, and married non-Jews. The rabbi of the synagogue stopped the service in the middle and said he had just learned they were about to arrest all the Jews. Therefore he asked to spread the urgent message to all of the Jews of the city that they must leave their homes immediately. No one must remain in his home tonight, said the rabbi.

The news spread like lightning and within hours had reached all 7,000 members of the community. When the news reached Herbert's father, a textile merchant, he immediately left his office and hurried home. Herbert's father had come to Copenhagen 40 years earlier from Russia in the great wave of Jewish migration that followed the wave of pogroms after the Russian defeat in the war with Japan and the failure of the 1905 Revolution. Why Copenhagen? The grandfather, who sewed fur hats for Cossacks, simply did not have enough money to continue on to America.

Now - when they heard the news - they hastened to flee. Herbert says that according to the tradition that had been well-absorbed in his Jewish family, "it is better to flee in time than to stay." But it turned out that there were unexpected delays. Herbert tells of one elderly woman who, shortly after they left home, announced she had to go back. They told her it was too late. But she was determined and explained in all seriousness that she had forgotten at home the shroud she had prepared for her funeral. I can't leave home for abroad without my final clothing, she explained. But the Dane who was guiding them said: "Out of the question. I have come to save people, not clothes."

To Sweden's safe shores

The Pundik family's escape journey took four days from the time they left their home in Copenhagen to the moment they boarded the boat in which they crossed the narrow strip of sea to the safe shores of Sweden. They moved from one hiding place to the next, but when they reached the Danish shore the departure was postponed because of a series of difficulties. Once they were afraid of a German patrol, once the fishing boat was late and once the suspicion arose that Danish informers were moving around in the area.

During the four days of trouble before they boarded the boat they were helped by dozens of people - drivers who drove them, families that hid them, fisherman who tried to take them across and failed, until the fourth time they succeeded.

This was the personal journey of the Pundik family, but there were hundreds like it. From this it is possible to conclude that thousands - and perhaps tens of thousands - of Danish citizens were involved, whether by deed or by knowledge, in the smuggling of more than 6,000 Danish Jews to Sweden. A great many of them did this in the clear knowledge that it was liable to cost them their lives. They knew very well what had happened during the previous 10 years in neighboring Germany and they were prepared to risk everything. Thus Denmark became the only country in occupied Europe where nearly all the Jews - 99 percent - were saved.

There were a few Jews who remained in their homes and were rounded up by the Germans. After two and a half years of German rule, during the course of which the lives of the Jews had continued undisturbed, they could not believe that anything bad would happen to them. There were Jews in Copenhagen who had fled to Sweden immediately upon the German invasion, but when they saw that there was no danger - had returned to their homes. Few were caught during the escape. Almost all of those who were caught - either in their homes or while trying to escape - altogether 474 Jews - were sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp not far from Prague, and of them 50 died of illness and old age.

At Theresienstadt the Danish Jews received packages of clothing and food sent from their country, an act without precedent in the Nazi concentration camps. Whereas most of the Jews who were held in Theresienstadt were sent to Auschwitz and murdered - not a single one of the Jews from Denmark was sent from there for extermination.

Ib Katznelson, an acquaintance of Herbert's who now serves in a senior position at the Danish Finance Ministry, was a child in Theresienstadt. While the adults in the camp went out to work he was sent with the other children to a daycare center. One day he was surprised to discover that the daycare center had emptied. All of his friends had been taken out of the center and later it emerged they had been sent to their deaths. Only he remained, alone. This was very strange, but everyone knew it was forbidden to send any Jew from Denmark to Auschwitz. Why did all this happen?

Collaborators and informers

More than 60 years after those dark days of the murder of the Jews of Europe, there are still a number of questions. How did it happen that the Holocaust of European Jewry hardly touched the Jews of Denmark? It is clear that there were special circumstances. There was a relatively small Jewish community, very involved in Danish society and culture, which did well by the Jews. During those few weeks of October, 1943, when approximately 6,000 Danish Jews crossed to Sweden, the Nazis and their allies were murdering about that number of Jews every day. Why were the Danish Jews not harmed? Did the Germans not know the Jews were fleeing Denmark to Sweden? And why didn't they catch them beforehand?

After the examination of documents and testimonies from those days it can be said with certainty that the Germans knew very well, and in effect did hardly anything. They could very easily have stopped the thousands of Jews who were traveling during those days, laden with suitcases, to villages and towns along the coastal strip. Yet the Jews succeeded in escaping. They succeeded thanks to the help of the Danes, which was far greater than any help that was given to the Jews in other European countries, as explained in the title that Herbert Pundik has given to his book: "In Denmark It Could Not Happen: The Flight of the Jews to Sweden in 1943."

In Denmark as in the other European countries there were collaborators and informers. The Nazis enlisted a Danish unit into their army that acted in the framework of the SS and fought to the very last minute in the ruins of Berlin near Hitler's bunker. But there was, as noted, the help of the Danish government and the populace, particularly doctors and church people. And there was also a rather chance coincidence of political circumstances that helped save the Jews.

In August, 1943, a crisis erupted between the government of Denmark and the German ruling administration. There were already reports and rumors in the air of the first defeats of the Germans, and Dr. Werner Best, the Nazi high commander in Denmark, demanded the Danish government hand over to him dozens of members of the Danish underground who had been arrested previously. This meant the death sentence for those prisoners, and the Danish government refused. Strikes broke out in Copenhagen, a curfew was declared, the parliament was dispersed and the government resigned.

Best, an SS man who had previously served in France and was known as "the bloodhound of Paris," established a direct occupation government in Copenhagen.

He sent a telegram to Berlin recommending the capture of all the Jews, but added to that comments to the effect that this was liable to be risky because Danish resistance would increase and they would need to send military reinforcements to Denmark. Hitler replied with an order confirming the capture and deportation of the Jews, and two ships were sent to Copenhagen harbor to carry out the mission.

The person who leaked this was a Danish-speaking German, Georg F. Duckwitz, who was serving as an attache at the German Consulate in Copenhagen. He traveled to Berlin and tried to get the order rescinded, but when he failed, Duckwitz did a courageous thing. He traveled to Sweden and persuaded the Swedish prime minister, Per Albin Hansson, to give asylum to Jewish refugees who would arrive from Copenhagen. Had things happened a few months earlier, before the start of the Germans' defeat, it is almost certain the Swedes would have refused such a request. Under pressure from the Germans they had refused similar requests in the past. Now they agreed. The timing and Duckwitz's action were therefore the great luck of the Danish Jews.

The day before the date that had been set for the capture of the Jews, Duckwitz informed the leaders of the Danish Social Democratic Party of the details of the operation that was about to take place and they hastened to tell this to the leaders of the Jewish community.

All this was not known to the Jews at the time. Only afterwards did they learn that the Germans who were pursuing them, including Werner Best, had not been all that keen to capture them - perhaps because they feared a harsh reaction from the Danish public and perhaps because they had assessed when the end of the war might be.

The Danish Jews spent 19 months in southern Sweden - and waited for the day when they could return home. Susy Ginsburg, who eventually became Herbert Pundik's wife and whose family also escaped to Sweden, says that when they returned home to Copenhagen they were surprised to find that the neighbors had scrupulously kept watch over their house and their possessions. They had even watered and tended the plants in the garden.