It Can Be Done: Rosh Hashanah and the Rescue of Denmark’s Jews
As the final minutes of Rosh Hashanah ticked away, 13 year-old Leo Goldberger was hiding, along with his parents and three brothers, in the thick brush along the shore of Dragor, a small fishing village south of Copenhagen. The year was 1943, and the Goldbergers, like thousands of other Danish Jews, were desperately trying to escape an imminent Nazi round-up.
“Finally, after what seemed like an excruciatingly long wait, we saw our signal offshore,” Goldberger later recalled. “We strode straight into the ocean and waded through three or four feet of icy water until we were hauled aboard a fishing boat” and “covered with smelly canvases.” Shivering, frightened, but grateful, the Goldberger family soon found themselves in the safety and freedom of neighboring Sweden.
For years, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and other Allied leaders had insisted that nothing serious could be done to rescue Jews from the Nazis except to win the war. But the Danish people chose to take action, and changed history.
When the Nazis occupied Denmark in 1940, the Danes put up little resistance. As a result, the German authorities agreed to let the Danish government continue functioning with greater autonomy than other occupied countries. They also postponed taking steps against Denmark’s 8,000 Jewish citizens.
In the late summer of 1943, amid rising tensions between the occupation regime and the Danish government, the Nazis declared martial law and decided that the time had come to deport Danish Jews to the death camps. But Georg Duckwitz, a German diplomat in Denmark, leaked the information to Danish friends. (Duckwitz was later honored by Yad Vashem as one of the Righteous Among the Nations.) As word of the Germans’ plans spread, the Danish public responded with a spontaneous nationwide grassroots effort to help the Jews.
The Danes’ remarkable response gave rise to the legend that King Christian X himself rode through the streets of Copenhagen on horseback, wearing a yellow Star of David, and that the citizens of the city likewise donned the star in solidarity with the Jews.
The story may have had its origins in a political cartoon that appeared in a Swedish newspaper in 1942. It showed King Christian pointing to a Star of David and declaring that if the Nazis imposed it upon the Jews of Demark, “then we must all wear the star.” Leon Uris’s novel Exodus, and the movie based on that book, helped spread the legend. But subsequent investigations by historians have concluded that the story is a myth.
A Midnight Escape
On Rosh Hashanah and the days that followed, numerous Danish Christian families hid Jews in their homes or farms and then smuggled them to the seashore late at night. From there, fishermen took them across the Kattegat Straits to neighboring Sweden.
This three-week rescue operation had the strong support of Danish church leaders, who used their pulpits to urge aid to the Jews, as well as Danish universities, which shut down so that students could assist the smugglers. More than 7,000 Danish Jews reached Sweden and were sheltered there until the end of the war.
Esther Finkler, a young newlywed, was hidden, together with her husband and their mothers, in a greenhouse. “At night, we saw the [German] searchlights sweeping back and forth throughout the neighborhood” as the Nazis hunted for Jews. One evening, a member of the Danish Underground arrived and drove the four “through streets saturated with Nazi stormtroopers” to a point near the shore.
There they hid in an underground shelter, then in the attic of a bakery, until finally they were brought to a beach, where they boarded a small fishing vessel together with other Jewish refugees. “There were nine of us, lying down on the deck or the floor,” Esther later recalled. “The captain covered us with fishing nets. When everyone had been properly concealed, the fishermen started the boat, and as the motor started to run, so did my pent-up tears.”
Then, suddenly, trouble: “The captain began to sing and whistle nonchalantly, which puzzled us. Soon we heard him shouting in German toward a passing Nazi patrol boat: ‘Wollen sie einen beer haben?’ (Would you like a beer?) — a clever gimmick designed to avoid the Germans’ suspicions. After three tense hours at sea … the nightmare was over.”
It Can Be Done
The implications of the Danish rescue operation resonated strongly in the United States. The Roosevelt administration had long insisted that rescue of Jews from the Nazis was not possible. The refugee advocates known as the Bergson Group began citing the escape of Denmark’s Jews as evidence that if the Allies were sufficiently interested, ways could be found to save many European Jews.
The Bergsonites sponsored a series of full-page newspaper advertisements about the Danish-Swedish effort, headlined “It Can Be Done!” On October 31, thousands of New Yorkers jammed Carnegie Hall for the Bergson Group’s “Salute to Sweden and Denmark” rally.
Keynote speakers included members of Congress, Danish and Swedish diplomats, and one of the biggest names in Hollywood — Orson Welles, director of Citizen Kane. In another coup for the Bergson Group, one of the speakers was Leon Henderson, one of President Roosevelt’s own former economic advisers.
In blunt language that summed up the tragedy — and the hope — Henderson declared: “The Allied Governments have been guilty of moral cowardice. The issue of saving the Jewish people of Europe has been avoided, submerged, played down, hushed up, resisted with all the forms of political force that are available. … Sweden and Denmark have proved the tragedy of Allied indecision. … The Danes and Swedes have shown us the way. … If this be a war for civilization, then most surely this is the time to be civilized!”
Dr. Rafael Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, and the author of The Jews Should Keep Quiet: President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, and the Holocaust, forthcoming from The Jewish Publication Society in 2019.