1943: Sweden Gives Sanctuary to the Jews of Denmark

Over the course of two weeks in October 1943, over 7,000 Danish Jews were secretly ferried across the Oresund Strait to Sweden.

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Denmark Square in Jerusalem commemorates the flight of Denmark's Jews to safety in Sweden.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

October 2, 1943 is the day on which the government of Sweden announced its readiness to give asylum to the entire Jewish population of neighboring Denmark. In the weeks that followed, Sweden was able to fulfill that promise, after a mass effort on the part of both Danish officials and civilians led to the transport of most of Denmark’s Jews across the Oresund Strait to safety.

Denmark had been invaded by Nazi Germany on April 9, 1940. Because it was marginal to Germany’s larger strategy, had put up minimal resistance to the invasion and had only a small Jewish population, Denmark was subjected to a relatively gentle occupation, called by Germany a “model protectorate.” Berlin sent only 89 officials to Denmark, for example, as compared with the 22,000 it sent to occupied France. The Danish government was permitted to remain in power, as well, and the country’s army was not disbanded.

The Jewish community of Denmark numbered approximately 7,800 before the war and its members were for the most part well-integrated into society. For the first few years of occupation, Berlin was willing to tolerate Copenhagen’s claim that the country had no “Jewish problem.” But, by the summer of 1943, there was a precipitous decline in German patience.

By then, the war was going against the Third Reich and members of the Danish resistance became bolder in their activity against the occupier. When the Germans demanded that the Danes crack down on the resistance, the local government refused. It also refused to accede to a dictate that it outlaw labor actions that followed several nationwide strikes. Instead, the Danish government resigned, on August 29.

Martial law is declared

That same day, the Germans took direct control of administration and declared martial law. Georg Duckwitz, a German diplomat assigned to Copenhagen, tipped off members of the local resistance that the arrest of the Jews was imminent. The resistance passed the word on to the head of the Jewish community and the acting chief rabbi (the regular chief rabbi had been arrested several days earlier, together with some 100 other prominent Jews.)

In the meantime, the Swedish Foreign Ministry, realizing the danger facing Denmark’s Jews, empowered its ambassador in Copenhagen to issue Swedish passports to Danish Jews, an act that would pave the way for them to claim asylum in Sweden. On October 1, Adolf Hitler gave the order for the arrest of the Jews and, on the following day, Stockholm announced publicly that it was ready to take them all in.

Historians are in disagreement as to whether the visit by physicist Niels Bohr to Swedish King Gustaf on September 30 was crucial to the Swedish decision, or whether it had already been decided to admit the Jews. (There is no disagreement that the story about the Danish king wearing a yellow star out of identification with the Jews is a myth.)

Immediately, the Jews, most of whom lived in Copenhagen, were instructed to leave their homes, and were directed to take refuge in private homes near the coast, from where they would be ferried across the Baltic Sea – a short trip that took an hour in calm seas – to Sweden over the next two weeks. Some skippers charged extortionate rates for the journey, but in most cases, non-Jewish Danes willingly assisted in the operation, and in any case, wealthy Danish citizens paid for those who could not afford the fees.

According to Yad Vashem, some 7,200 Jews made the crossing to Sweden, while about 470 were arrested before they could escape into hiding. The latter were deported to Theresienstadt concentration camp, but even then, all but 70 survived until the war’s end, in large part because of constant pressure from Denmark, which insisted successfully that its citizens be permitted to receive aid packages, and that they not be sent to death camps. There were also some 150 Jewish children whose parents left them behind with Christian families because they were considered too young to be evacuated.

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