I recently spent ten days in Copenhagen along with my wife Jacqueline. I lived there before and during the war and have been back several times to see the family and spend holidays there. This time, apart from the ‘must sees’, we were particularly interested in Jewish Copenhagen and, before we left, we got in touch with the Progressive community. They have been going for about five years, holding their Shabbat evening and morning services in a Unitarian church in the town centre. This is not far from the harbour, where 70 years ago my father and I lay in the hold of a fishing boat waiting to be ferried to the safety of neutral Sweden as German officers patrolled nearby.
We were about 20 worshippers at the Friday night service. This was led by a young lay leader, a female Jewish-American former opera singer who had visited Copenhagen some time before, heard of the group, and they have been together ever since. After the service a number of us went for a meal at a nearby restaurant. This is a monthly event. We learned that Rabbi Julia Neuberger had come over to speak to the group some time ago, that Rabbi Charles Middleburgh of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue visits two or three times a year, and that a lady at our table in the restaurant had a daughter who is a rabbi in a north-west London Progressive synagogue. The congregation had recently been granted the right to conduct burials and marriages.
Saturday morning we spent at the Orthodox Synagogue, where Rabbi Bent Lexner initiated three b'nei mitzvoth - one boy and two girls. This beautiful synagogue was built in the 1830s. It suffered an arson attack in the early 1930s and a neo-Nazi bomb in 1979 but was not greatly damaged. In 1933 King Christian X and Queen Alexandrine attended a thanksgiving service on the synagogue's 100th anniversary and the royal family has attended services there on several occasions.
The Jewish Museum, which due to tourism is also open on Saturdays, is small and was designed by Daniel Libeskind, who also designed the Jewish Museum in Berlin. It has an unusual sloping floor and depicts the history of the Jews in Denmark.
We also wanted to visit the Resistance Museum. Unfortunately all we could see was a blackened ruin as it had recently suffered an arson attack and had been completely gutted. Neo-Nazis are again suspected as there was a debate in the country as to whether to add the other side of the picture - that of Danish Nazis who collaborated with the Germans.
The year 2013 is one of several anniversaries, one of which, this October, is the 70th anniversary of the rescue of the Jews of Denmark.
What made the German occupiers wait three and a half years to introduce measures against the Jews, resulting in a full-scale raid on Jewish homes and other locations where Jews might be found?
Since the outbreak of the war I had been working as a receptionist in a suburban hotel in Copenhagen. In the early hours of 9 April 1940 I was awakened by the almighty roar of aircraft overhead – a colleague told me Denmark had been invaded by Germany. Having fled Nazi Germany only a couple of years before, I became increasingly fearful for my and my family’s safety but my fears were soon calmed: in a hastily convened meeting with the king, the government, realising armed resistance would be futile, accepted the Germans’ surrender terms, which were not at all onerous.
Germany had no quarrel with the Danes but, being at war with England, it needed control of the Danish (and Norwegian) west coast - as long as the Danish government could guarantee unhindered movement of troops and armaments, Germany would not interfere in Denmark’s internal affairs. This meant king, government, parliament, army, police and judiciary retained their positions, governed by the Danish constitution, which, among other things, guaranteed freedom of religion. Thus we Jews could follow our daily lives as before.
The Germans in control, familiar with the feelings of the Danes, were aware that any interference in the Jews’ affairs would provoke unrest among the population, something they wished to avoid.
Thus, at the beginning of the occupation, life in Denmark went on as if nothing had changed. But gradually there developed an anti-German feeling among the population which resulted in acts of sabotage in factories working for the Germans and in the derailment of German trains by the Resistance.
Increasingly the Danish government had to walk a tightrope between not offending the Danish popular mood and assuring the Germans they were able to keep in check any unfriendly actions. However, after a very serious act of sabotage, the Germans made particularly draconian demands to the government to deal with the matter. The government, conscious that agreeing to these demands would alienate them in the eyes of the people, rejected them. The Germans' reply was ‘If you can't control the situation, then we will!’ On 29 August 1943 the Danish government resigned, the army was confined to barracks, and the occupying forces took over the running of the country.
Several high-ranking politicians and others, Chief Rabbi Max Friediger among them, were arrested and taken to Germany and a curfew imposed: everyone had to be indoors after dark. The abrogation of rule by the Danish constitution had now opened the door to making Denmark judenrein. It had taken a long time before the Germans dared to take measures against the Jews.
Not everybody in the German establishment in Copenhagen was sympathetic to this action: the army wanted to have nothing to do with it so that the Gestapo, who would be in charge of the operation, had to request additional personnel from Berlin.
Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz, an attaché in the German embassy, opposed the action against the Jews. Head of the naval section in the embassy, he had been given the date on which the ships would arrive to deport the Jews to Theresienstadt. He quickly went to the leader of the Social Democratic Party, who immediately informed the head of the Jewish community that what it had believed impossible - an action against the Jews - was now imminent. Through Duckwitz’s action some 7,000 Jews - over 95 per cent of the Danish Jewish population - were saved. In 1971 Yad Vashem named him Righteous among the Nations.
Everybody had to be warned immediately not to stay in their own homes. The warning was given by Rabbi Marcus Melchior in the Great Synagogue on the eve of the Jewish New Year in 1943.
When in the middle of the night of 3 October I had to answer a call on the night bell of my hotel, I wondered who might be out there, disregarding the curfew. Opening the door, I found myself confronting a Gestapo man, accompanied by a Danish Nazi who had volunteered as a police assistant. They wanted to know whether any Jewish guests were staying in the hotel and whether I knew that, for the Germans, Jews were defined not only by their religion but also by the ethnic origin of their parents and grandparents. I replied that I had heard of this Aryan concept and, although I knew that a couple of Jewish families had checked in during the day, there were none there now. We exchanged a few more words and they left. I went up to my room, pondering what to do next. The rest of the night I heard trucks pulling up and leaving every few minutes. I wondered which of them might be for me.
In the morning I heard that an open space next to the hotel had been used as an assembly point for those Jews who had been unlucky and been caught. I left the hotel in the morning, having been offered a place in which to sleep by a lady working in a confectionery shop adjacent to the hotel. I managed to get in touch with my family and heard they were all well.
The headlines of the following morning's papers ran ‘Now that the Jews have been eliminated from the public life of the country there is no longer any need to keep the Danish army interned.’ The army officially refused to accept its freedom at the cost of the Jews but they were now free to go and the king, as head of the army, resumed residence in the royal palace in Copenhagen.
The Resistance had been busy too. Temporary shelter and hiding places were found for thousands of people and transport was organised to get us to the safety of neutral Sweden. The Swedish government had expressed willingness to accept anyone who could come and within a few weeks the vast majority of us were in Sweden. Within days my father and I boarded a shipping vessel and, after a wait of several hours, the skipper found an opportune moment to run us across the water to Sweden, where we were most heartily welcomed.
There is a midrash which says that the Creator sometimes creates the cure before He creates the disease. In one of the wars between Denmark and Sweden in the 17th century, Denmark lost what has been southern Sweden ever since. Had Denmark not lost those lands to Sweden, the Jews of Denmark would have had no place to flee to. Gam su l’tovah – this too is for the best.