Countrymenby Bo Lidegaard
Amid the dark, ghastly history of World War II, the literally extraordinary story, never before fully researched by a historian, of how the Danish people banded together to save their fellow Jews from the Nazis—told through the remarkable unpublished diaries and documents of families forced to run for safety, leaving their homes and possessions behind, and of those who courageously came to their aid.
In 1943, with its king and administration weakened but intact during the Nazi occupation, Denmark did something that no other country in Western Europe even attempted. Anticipating that the German occupying powers would soon issue the long-feared order to round up the entire population of Jews for deportation to concentration camps, the Danish people stood up in defiance and resisted. The king, politicians, and ordinary civilians were united in their response—these threatened people were not simply Jews but fellow Danes who happened to be Jewish, and no one would help in rounding them up for confinement and deportation.
While diplomats used their limited but very real power to maneuver and impede matters in both Copenhagen and Berlin, the warning that the crisis was at hand quickly spread through the Jewish community. Over fourteen harrowing days, as they were helped, hidden, and protected by ordinary people who spontaneously rushed to save their fellow citizens, an incredible 7,742 out of 8,200 Jewish refugees were smuggled out all along the coast—on ships, schooners, fishing boats, anything that floated—to Sweden.
While the bare facts of this exodus have been known for decades, astonishingly no full history of it has been written. Unfolding on a day-to-day basis, Countrymen brings together accounts written by individuals and officials as events happened, offering a comprehensive overview that underlines occupied Denmark’s historical importance to Hitler as a prop for the model Nazi state and revealing the savage conflict among top Nazi brass for control of the country. This is a story of ordinary glory, of simple courage and moral fortitude that shines out in the midst of the terrible history of the twentieth century and demonstrates how it was possible for a small and fragile democracy to stand against the Third Reich.
How a Danish national "we" kept the Nazis at bay--and largely saved its Jewish population. In this passionately argued study, former Politiken editor in chief Lidegaard (Defiant Diplomacy, 2003, etc.) takes on the complicated creation of the "model protectorate" and discusses why Denmark was able to resist Nazi actions against their Jews when other occupied countries could not. The author combines fine research with specific examples of Jewish families--e.g., pediatrician Adolph Meyer and his children, as they were affected by the events that played out between April 9, 1940, with the abrupt and total occupation of the country by Nazi Germany, through the action taken against the Jews on October 1, 1943. With King Christian X's decision not to resist the Nazi assault, Denmark entered a "peaceful occupation," surrendering the export of its substantial agricultural production to Germany in exchange for upholding its neutrality and regard for constitutional democracy. It was an "unparalleled" arrangement, especially regarding the status of the Jews, protected as citizens under Danish law. A move against the Jews, Christian and others had warned, would be seen as an abuse of Nazi power and stir trouble into this working cooperation. Early on, readers may feel they are being fed a dreamy tale of Danish exceptionalism, but Lidegaard meticulously pieces together the myriad facets to this incredible story, including Hitler's special envoy in Denmark, Werner Best, a committed Nazi who managed to play it both ways until the order for a Jewish action could no longer be delayed; Sweden's open-door policy toward the Danish refugees; and the enterprising Jewish families who quickly had to go into hiding, relying on a goodwill network of friends and fishermen to shuttle them to safety in Sweden. A fascinating story about how the "Danish Jews were protected by their compatriots' consistent engagement."
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Read an Excerpt
The Schooner Flyvbjerg
While Adolph Meyer and his fellow refugees had to move quickly from one hiding place to another near Gilleleje, the situation around Gilleleje’s harbor was coming to a head. It started with an embarrassing episode, which is reflected in a report from Sergeant Mortvig from the Coast Guard. He had already been an involuntary participant the previous day in Gestapo-Juhl's raid against the cutter "Danebrog", just as it was heading out of the harbor with 17 fleeing Jews. After the gunfire and the arrest of the Jews, the cutter was seized by Gestapo-Juhl and berthed "in the immediate vicinity of the control house", where the Danish coastal police was housed. But when another boat, "Ingeborg", came into the harbor shortly after 9:00 a.m. the duty officer left his post to check it. Mortvig reports with tongue in cheek on further events:
"When [the duty officer] came back after approximately 10 minutes, the cutter ["Danebrog"] had sailed and was well outside the harbor. The duty officer immediately reported the development to the undersigned [and states] that he did not notice people onboard the cutter, and did not hear the cutter’s motor start, but he declared that the cutter sailed under its own power.
The owner of the boat, fisherman Juhl Richard Svendsen, born 4/7/1906 in Gilleleje [...] who after Ocotber 5 was wanted by the German police, disappeared from his home on the 6th, so it must be assumed that it is he who has sailed with the cutter (probably to Sweden)."
The bone-dry report concludes with a laconic remark, in which one can discern a faint undertone of Sergeant Mortving’s quiet triumph:
"Criminal Inspector Juhl, who later in the day arrived here on patrol, was notified."
Gestapo-Juhl in other words was told to his face that the cutter he had arrested the previous day and placed under the control of the Danish coastal police at the harbor was taken by its owner, who was a wanted man, and sailed off in full daylight right in front of the Danish guard who claimed to have seen and heard nothing – just as they had not the previous days and nights. What Mortving did not feel he had to tell Gestapo-Juhl, and what is not revealed in his report, is that "Danebrog" had run aground in the harbor and could not get out on its own. Fisherman Axle Sorensen had to tow him out with his boat "The Gull", and only then could "Danebrog" leave the port. The fishermen in Gilleleje had every reason to trust that the Danish coastal police were on their - and the refugee helpers’ – side, just as Gestapo-Juhl had every reason not to trust his Danish colleagues.
The influx into the small town was hard to keep a secret. At the butcher on Vesterbrogade there were about 30 Jews, and the fishmonger also had a house full of refugees. It was clear that they had to be dealt with as soon as possible - preferably shipped out. Some refugees jumped to conclusions and left Gilleleje with their mission unaccomplished. Among them was Levysohn, who had spent a restless night in the fisherman’s small home:
"The hours crept on. At 5 a.m. Wednesday morning, the fisherman went down to the harbor to see how things were. He came back to tell me that the Gestapo were still in the harbor, so escape was out of the question. I had to get back to Copenhagen as, in his opinion, it was too risky to be in Gilleleje. The train went at 6:30 a.m. I got a cup of morning coffee and he followed me down to the little station outside Gilleleje where I got ontothe train. (...) Of those who wanted to escape, there were not many along; most stayed in Gilleleje to wait and see. Whether they subsequently crossed over I have no idea. The mood on the train was somewhat dull and nervous, but the ride was smooth. At one place a lot of German soldiers came in, but those clodhoppers obviously were not dangerous."
Back in Gilleleje a visiting helper, assistant professor Schmidt from Helsingør, cycled down to the harbor early in the morning, where he had spotted a dozen "wind drivers", many of them large schooners, which were moored one next to the other along the piers. If you could get their sails up it would do the trick. The assistant professor made several unsuccessful attempts to get in touch with skippers, and finally made contact with a captain from Fyen, Gunnar Flyvbjerg. He hesitated. He was not the sole owner of the schooner, and would also be putting his brother's share at risk if he ventured to transport a boatload of Jews. Eventually Schmidt persuaded skipper Flyvbjerg and the two young men who constituted the crew. At the control post on the center pier they got the coastal police officer's approval of the plan. The departure was scheduled for 1 p.m., and preparations for a quick departure were made on board the schooner.
“Flyvbjerg” could take several hundred refugees, and the message that there was now the possibility of a ship spread by word of mouth among the helpers, who each had knowledge of small groups of refugees hiding in various locations in and around the city. Thus the news also reached Adolph Meyer’s small travelling party, which had just given up trying to obtain a car:
"Now, another car came an hour later in a hurry to get us to a crossing, we flew off, and the car would have to return to pick up the young folks who were following us on foot."
The local helpers have written multiple contemporary accounts of the ensuing events at the harbor that morning. Although much effort was made to manage the influx of Jews to the harbor, the situation with the many refugees in the tense atmosphere could not be kept under control. Only a few hours after Gestapo-Juhl had left the port area, men and women, young and old, children and luggage, all flocked down to the center pier where the schooner “Flyvbjerg” was moored. The helpers were not organized or coordinated, and everyone wanted their own groups to reach the boat. The rush was both a moving but also a deeply disturbing sight, as the Norwegian engineering student, who was part of the vain attempts to gain control of the situation, has amply described:
"The departure was originally intended for 12:30p.m. but already by 10 o’clock the coastal police gave the ready signal and because it was important to use the time while the Germans were not around, it was determined that it should sail immediately. At the same time the message was given throughout the city, and scenes there could not be depicted more dramatically in any film. The once so peaceful seaside resort, now sitting there quietly in autumn, with almost uninhabited streets, was suddenly full of life. In a moment, all the house doors sprang open and Jews flowed out of almost every house. In an instant, the whole main street was full of people, women and men, from the youngest toddlers to gray haired old men, poor and rich - all on the run from the barbarians. The entire city's population helped and all kinds of vehicles were in use. Old gouty women were carried by weather-beaten fishing hands, while others were rolled off by wheelbarrows and other odd transport devices. I found a little girl who seemed to have become separated from her family. I got her up on my bicycle bar and rode at full speed towards the harbor. She cried when I picked her up, but gradually as I was yelling and screaming in Norwegian pushing myself forward through the crowd on the pier, her fear turned into enthusiasm, and it was a very excited little youngster I delivered on board the ship. It was a strange sight to see all these people on the run along the main street, down towards the harbor, people who had done nothing wrong but whose only sin was to be Jews. They were now being chased away with empty, expressionless or resigned faces, without understanding a bit of it all. As for myself, having handed over the little one, I swallowed and swallowed and found it hard to hold back the tears, whether it was the joy that it all seemed to go so well, or it was the bitterness of having to witness that kind of thing in a Nordic country in the year 1943 - or maybe because of both.
The tension was constantly at the breaking point, for the Germans could get there at just any moment. But everything went well until suddenly there was a cry: "The Germans are coming!" and in an instant the moorings were cast off and the schooner sailed towards Sweden and freedom with 210 Jews on board.”
It is impossible to say where the rumor originated, but the cry of the Gestapo's arrival spread like wildfire and created panic on the center pier. Although it turned out to be a false alarm, the embarkation of several hundred Jews from the port in full daylight put the local Danish authorities in an impossible situation. While they contributed as best they could to facilitate the operation, they had to assume the worst, if it became too obvious to the Gestapo that they were actively assisting in the escape they were supposed to prevent. This dilemma shines through a short telegraphic report, which police officer Mortving submitted on the same day on the situation at the port up to “Flyvbjerg”s departure. The sergeant is clearly aware that the report will be read not only by his own superiors but also by their German counterparts:
“Today at 10:30 a.m. I became aware that there was a large influx of Jews to "Flyvbjerg" of Hirtshals, which lay at the eastern quay in Gilleleje. I set off immediately to prevent the departure, but I was asked by many unknown persons not to prevent departure, as they would otherwise make use of machine guns. The persons referred to were wearing coats, so it could not be ascertained whether or not they were in possession of firearms. As I was alone at the harbor along with one reserve officer and there was no possibility of calling for reinforcements for as large an assembly as around 300-400 people, I let “Flyvbjerg” depart unimpeded with the Jews at 10:45 a.m. According to information obtained there were about 230 Jews on board."
For Meyer and other refugees streaming into the harbor, the premature departure was fatal, which Meyer already observes:
"When we came, the ship had sailed (because informants had come indicating that the Gestapo had set off from Helsingør). The ship could easily have waited until we had come; the Gestapo had not yet come, and for all of us it was cause for many disquieting hours and for more a cause of fatal accidents."
On board the schooner, the many Jewish refugees were able to breathe a sigh of relief, although they undoubtedly feared for a time that the Gestapo would sound the alarm and take up the pursuit. The skipper and his crew had sailed with the certainty that they had been seen, and that the police would have to report on their departure. The police report confirms this, as it inevitably concludes with the information that could be fatal for those concerned:
"The said schooner “Flyvbjerg” which is 81 tons, is owned and led by Captain Gunnar Flyvbjerg, born 5/20-1915 in Uggerby, and also had a crew of two men."
In the harbor report from the Swedish authorities there is also a telling footnote concerning the Flyvbjerg’s arrival at Höganäs later the same day with 186 refugees on board: "When “Flyvbjerg” arrived in Höganäs port ... a German cargo ship was also here ... which took cargo to Bremen, where it would sail on October 7."
It was no wonder that skipper Flyvbjerg and his crew decided to stay as refugees in Höganäs until the war was over.
While the confusion was approaching a climax in Gilleleje, Herbert Levysohn had, via Helsingør, reached back to Copenhagen's northern suburbs, where he had friends and acquaintances. But it turned out that several contacts and relatives that he sought refuge with were at least as vulnerable as himself. In his distress the young man sought out the parents of a class mate he had recently come to know:
"I felt that the best place was with my good friend Jacob Grauer’s parents on Bøgevej, it was nearby. (...) I took a taxicab there, and rang the bell. Mrs. Grauer opened the door. "Good God child, you haven’t left yet?" she exclaimed when she saw me, "hurry and come in and stay." (...)
When in distress you have to know your friends, the old proverb says, and this was again brilliant proof of the unique friends one has. Despite the fact that my friendship with Jacob is of a relatively recent date, and the family does not know me as well as so many others do, I felt that day that they had known me since I was born, and even more than that, like I was a son of their own, so well did they treat me. First I got a tremendous meal that I needed without any forethought, for it had been about a day since I last had anything, but one was not hungry in those days, there was no time. Then I got at least five buckets of hot water so I could wash myself thoroughly, which I also really needed, and in the end I came up to Jacob's bed wearing his pajamas to get some sleep."
Between the Church Loft and the Stable
In Gilleleje there was no time to rest. In the panic on the pier at “Flyvbjerg”s abrupt departure, families were separated, some were on board, other family members not. Many refugees were left on the pier desperate to find new hiding places. One such place close by was the living rooms in the private home of the local parish council chairman, A. Christian Petersen, who lived on Havnevej. Here, many from the harbor sought refuge, while others who were headed for the harbor hoping to catch the schooner, were redirected to the local church. This latter group included Dr. Meyer:
"We were now brought up to the church loft, probably 50 people, after some time a whole host of other refugees arrived, including Ulla and Valdemar, Ellen Hertz with Eva and many others. We got sandwiches, beer and milk there. After a good hour when it was around 1:00 p.m., someone came to subscribe us for the crossing, the ship would cost 50,000 kroner, Mary and I each paid 5,000 kroner and the sum required was quickly subscribed, but the great majority didn’t subscribe nor could they. Then the priest came and held a short religious speech. We went down and were led along the harbor, where there were a lot of residents who stood and watched us, as we went to the parish council chairman or a fisherman's house. He (parish council chairman, A. Christian Petersen) was touching, very unhappy for our sake, cried and promised that they would do everything to help us get over. Some others came to this house, we took up all the rooms and kitchen and had a total of 60."
The close packing of the many refugees at the parish council chairman’s home was a big risk, and the helpers were nervous. The groups were constantly moved and interchanged, which contributed to the stress of the fugitives, while inevitably whipping up emotions. Meyer speaks dryly, in a businesslike way, and he sticks to the facts. But it is precisely in these passages where it shines through that the confident doctor was deeply affected when someone – it is not known who and for what reason - decided to evacuate the group:
"At 2 or 3 o’clock we were rapidly led along some back roads up to a loft by a horse stable. At the back of the loft there was some hay. We were 50 up there, including several young children, where I met several acquaintances. We were not allowed to smoke or light candles, it had windows on one side ajar; we had been warned not to talk. "
Friends and acquaintances were mixed with quite unknown people, and the short description of the group in the hayloft over the stables shows how widely it was composed. Both affluent and well-integrated citizens as Dr. Meyer himself were here, and Jewish laborers, who must have been among later entrants who, as refugees, stood at the edge of Danish society. A clever cobbler’s family situation attracted Dr. Meyer’s sympathy, while Rosenthal seemed repulsive. It had all kinds of people sharing these conditions - and the cramped space. And no one could say how long the wait would last, let alone the fate that awaited.
The group was accommodated in the stables of Kaj Olsen who was out working with his horses. Therefore, the practical details were made by his wife, Marie Olsen, who was one of the active local helpers who saw their houses, farms and stables filling up with desperate refugees. The helpers estimated on Wednesday afternoon that the small fishing hamlet contained up to 500 Jewish refugees, and after the incident at the port earlier in the day, there was no embarkation. The Danish police were at a loss. There was imminent danger that the Gestapo would come back. Conversely, the situation was unsustainable and increasingly tense. The church loft was filled again, and still more came from all sides. The local residents acted haphazardly without any overall plan, while the city's leading citizens began to gather to discuss how the relief effort could be organized. They worked to fix a major new transport with another schooner, whose skipper was willing to depart, when police felt the time was favorable.
While far too many refugees jammed together in too little space in Gilleleje, Herbert Levysohn could be pleased to find shelter and the solace of his friend's parents, who immediately activated a large network to find a safe way to Sweden for their new lodger. In the meantime, they let him use his friend's clothes and room, and they assured him that he could safely stay with them until a way out was found. But already late that afternoon a message arrived for Levysohn to stay clear and expect to spend the night at the National Hospital. At around 5 p.m. he was picked up by a car, still assuming that he was going to the National Hospital, which served in those days as a transit point for many refugees. But new plans were constantly developing:
"It turned out that I should not be at the hospital, but on the contrary I had to leave immediately. At the corner of Stockholmsgade and Upsalagade we stopped again, and a pair jumped in, to my great astonishment one was Preben Holten, who also had to flee because he had helped 46 over, and the Gestapo were looking for him. And so we went on down Østbanegade and Århusgade past the Danish Industry Syndicate and down to Skudehavn. Here our helper said goodbye to us 5, after we had arranged payment of 1,500 kroner. We were hidden in a shed, and a little later we were taken in the 2 teams in a roundabout way that led down to a fishing boat, yes no matter how reluctantly one had to leave one’s fatherland, let's hope only for a short time. (...)
It was about 6 p.m. and it was light. There were already some passengers; we were a total of 12, also the skipper and a helper. Some were crammed into a small hold, some in the cabin and 3 men, among them myself, were hidden behind the nets inside the railing on the deck. Was I nervous? No, I can’t say that. Now you were out and hopefully it would work, but you could not possibly turn around, so there was no reason to be nervous. My thoughts were as before with my mother and Kate, thinking of the joy that we would have when we met, thoughts went to father, but here they entered in a vacuum, at this moment it did not help, the thoughts only made it all worse."
Among the larger group of prominent Danes, the Germans had taken as hostages on August 29, at least seven were known to be Jews. Two were later released, one because of illness, the other because he was arrested by mistake. The five remaining hostages were prominent members of the Jewish Community, including the prominent businessman Willie Levysohn, who was Herbert's father. They were all deported, four to Theresienstadt and one to Poland. The latter died there.
Herbert Levysohn’s account is generally kept on the light side, seeking to apply a more humorous tone to the personal hardships. This excludes mention of his father’s fate. And for good reason, as it turned out. The son’s tribulations were not over either. The fisherman, who was to sail the refugees over, was obviously not used to sailing across the Øresund - let alone on a dangerous journey, chased by unknown enemies. Levysohn’s description of the voyage gives an excellent firsthand impression of the nervousness that prevailed among some of the helpers, and of how far the actual experience of being pursued differed from the cooler assessment in hindsight of the real risk of being seized by German patrol boats:
"At the same time, the skipper did everything to make us nervous. It was the first time he was out, he did not know the waters, and he was overly nervous himself. In the beginning it went fairly well, but by the Middelgrundsfort [at the exit from Copenhagen harbor] he began to cover us even more and then he began to see Germans everywhere. At intervals he said, "I hope it works out -- what kind of ship is that approaching? -- right there -- I guess it’ll be the Germans -- It’s all going to hell.” Later it turned out to be a Danish ship, but he wasn’t quieted for long: "So now it’s fucking all wrong, here comes a German patrol boat". The boat's nationality was never cleared up since it only appeared on the horizon, which Preben Holten could see, but we who lay under the fishing nets while the water splashed over us, had no idea how bad it was. It was not exactly cozy. Eventually the skipper got so nervous that he took down the lantern and turned it off. The hours slipped away. The idea was first that we were meant to dock at Malmö, but he abandoned that in favor of Landskrona, he thought, anyway. I think the time was about 8:30 p.m. when we were allowed to come out of the fishing nets, for now the skipper felt there was no more danger, which in Preben Holten's opinion, there had never been anyway."
It is telling that the experienced helper, Preben Holten, who apparently had already been involved in several transports, was aware that the risk was limited once the boats were out on the water. But the fisherman seems not to have known, and the attempt to escape from real or imagined enemies leads him both off course - and away from elementary seamanship:
"Now the words began to flow, spirits rose as the lights in hospitable Sweden appeared, and even the skipper livened up, went from his rudder and sat down to chat with one of the young ladies. He should never have done that, suddenly the keel scoured the bottom, and so we sat there stuck. Using poles we got off the bottom, but with the result that we got stuck on a different place and so forth. The situation was quite hopeless, and I was seasick. The light was turned on again after much discussion, and we tried alternately to swing it and to call for help, but to no avail. We had heard that the Swedish boats were out to help the Danes in, but that night we did not see any. Finally, we had been sitting so long on the bottom that the propeller broke, and at this point the engine also stopped completely. "Now only God can help us," said the skipper, and gave up. His assistant and another who was sea savvy had to deal with it. One of us who knew about engines finally got the engine going again, the propeller remained quite inactive, no sails were to be found, so we had to make do with the poles, until the seas also carried us. It is probably exaggerated to say that the atmosphere was good, however our mood wasn’t completely gone. There was no question about swimming ashore, we were too far out, and it was neither Malmö or Landskrona we saw in the distance, if anything it was Barsebæk, but that wasn’t sure either."
There is in fact talk of a small mutiny on board, where the crew of a single assistant and the fleeing passengers remove the confused skipper and take matters into their own hands. So close to freedom and safety, the refugees are determined to make a last effort to get the boat afloat and find safe harbor. They work with poles and the engine and have the sound judgment not to try to swim ashore in cold water on an October night in the Sound:
"After sitting aground for 2 to 2 ½ hours we finally got completely free, and so the trip went on. At this time we definitely did not know where we were, only the lights told us that it was not darkened Denmark, the chance did not exist that it was anything other than Sweden, but beyond that, we didn’t know anything. Finally we reached something which looked like cliffs in the distance, and as we approached we saw some lights between high slopes. After much discussion with the completely exhausted skipper, we sailed between the cliffs and approached the lights, and we finally sailed into a port, but where? It was neither Malmø, Landskrona or Barsebæk, that much we knew. Had someone said it was Australia, we would have gladly accepted it as no one knew anything. We ran into the harbor and in the strong harbor lighting we saw some gray-green uniforms. If only they were not Germans? "Welcome to Sweden" cried the gray-green soldiers in Swedish. "Where are we?" we shouted back. "On Hven" was the reply, and a moment later we set foot on Sweden's small outpost to the west, the former Danish island of Hven. Never in my life have I been happier that it is Swedish than at this hour. We were all rescued and under the Kingdom of Sweden’s protection. The skipper disappeared soon after we all had come ashore."
The island of Hven has a population of a couple of hundred souls and is situated approximately in the middle of Øresund, to the north of both Malmø and Landskrona and quite a distance from Copenhagen. It was Danish until the mid seventeenth century when the ancient Danish provinces in the southern part of the Scandinavian peninsular were lost to Sweden.
In Gilleleje, late that evening, no solution had been found for the many refugees who huddled together in almost every house, in every loft and behind every shelter. The Gribskov line’s evening train with about fifty refugees following the same route as Meyer the day before was stopped in a daring action. A couple of helpers organized a regular hold-up at the tiny station in Pårup, before Gilleleje, where they boarded the train and shouted that everyone who was going to a destination beyond Gilleleje should get off here. The train emptied of travelers who sought refuge in the farms outside Gilleleje, leaving only three perplexed local people in the ongoing train.
Meanwhile, Danish coastal police seized the harbor. A force of 30 men occupied the entire port area in accordance with a police notice issued the same morning by the central authorities in Copenhagen following events on Tuesday. The order put into immediate effect a ban on anyone unauthorized to move in the harbor areas in all the ports in North Sjælland. The intention was to forestall a German intervention, which in Gilleleje in particular seemed imminent. Already that same evening, the Danish Press Service in Stockholm reported the new order, which was also read on Danish radio. The Press Service stated that violations would be punished with fines and imprisonment up to two years and did not hide the fact that the new measures were intended to curb the flood of refugees from the Danish ports. The Press Service’s addition was worrying to the Danish helpers:
"It is alleged that several fishermen have been arrested in the ports of Northern Sjælland, suspected of helping refugees across the Sound."
By 7 p.m. Wednesday night, as soon as the big police force was in place at the port of Gilleleje, its boss, Sven A. Holten, was contacted by the helpers’ leading men, including the parish council chairman, who had housed Meyer and numerous other refugees earlier in the day. Holten, who was head of the Danish coastal police, indicated that the police would check the port and that shipping out from there would not be possible. In turn, he assured the helpers that the police would not investigate what happened outside the port area, any more than they would initiate or participate in any raid to find refugees who might be hiding in or around the city.
Holten warned the refugees’ helpers that the Germans would most likely return in the evening and he urged that the city be vacated of refugees hiding there. He probably knew that earlier in the afternoon Gestapo-Juhl in Helsingør, had received the telegraphic police report on the Flyvbjerg departure the same morning. Therefore it was crucial to get the refugees out of the vicinity, but the helpers did not consider it feasible at this late hour to start an evacuation of the many hundred refugees hiding all over town. If the refugees were to be shipped from the beach, it would take time to organize transport from land to the schooner in small dinghies. The helpers discussed many plans, all of which had to be abandoned. A group of young folks who seem to have arrived from Copenhagen to help out, were apparently preparing to try to open the harbor by force, and a group of armed resistance fighters had gathered in the garage under the barn loft, where Meyer, along with a large group of refugees, spent the night. It was the local helpers who thwarted this idea, because they feared an armed confrontation could lead to a massacre of the huddled refugees and the inhabitants, who to a greater or lesser extent were all involved in the relief effort. Marie Olsen, hosting Dr. Meyer's group in the loft above the stables, described that fateful night in a letter written a few weeks later:
“At 8 in the evening a big German car stopped outside our garden, while 8 men were here - with friends - and loaded firearms. (...) The idea was to take over the harbor at night, so all the Jews could come over, but it had to be abandoned, two large trucks came with Copenhagen cops, and so ours dared not start something as they did not know if the police from Copenhagen were trustworthy? So it was decided that we should deal with it calmly the next day. The Gestapo was also in the city – and then it turned out to be such a horrible night.”
Both at the church loft, where about 80 refugees were huddled, and in the loft above Kaj Olsen's stables, the hours crawled by in the intense atmosphere of hightened nervousness. Adolph Meyer tells:
"We lay on the bare floor, but at least got a little straw beneath us. They diligently brought us sandwiches, eggs, and drinking water. We were able to relieve ourselves inside the stall, as the hatch could be lifted up and we climbed down the ladder. It was a horrible night. I first was under the sloping window, later to the side with my bag under my head, on my coat, with galoshes and clothes on. Suddenly in the darkness someone stepped on my genitals and I cried out loud.”
Between the hours of 9 and 10 p.m. Gestapo-Juhl showed up in Gilleleje with a small contingent of plainclothes Gestapo men. They found the harbor lit by spotlights and completely deserted, except for the Danish police force. Gestapo-Juhl demanded that the police assist in searching homes, but Holten flatly refused. Then the Gestapo went to the parish hall and from there to the church. The Danish helpers fled after trying unsuccessfully to evacuate refugees from the church, and at midnight the little church was surrounded by Gestapo-Juhl and his armed people. Wehrmacht soldiers were called in and arrived. Some still remained hopeful that the Germans would not violate the traditional sanctuary of the church, but the Gestapo thundered on the door and demanded it be opened. The key was inside. At 3 a.m. Gestapo-Juhl woke up gravedigger Jørgensen and demanded that he hand over the spare key to the church. Jørgensen, who for several days had been working with refugee traffic both in and out of the church, according to a later report exclaimed to Juhl who held a spotlight to his face: "The poor Jews!" to which Juhl replied that it is written in the Bible that this would be their fate. Jørgensen answered: “But it is not written that it must happen in Gilleleje!”
Marie Olsen's property was on Østergade between Lille and Store Strandstræde. It consisted of three wings in a U-shape around a courtyard. The farmhouse faced towards Østergade, the livestock barn with the hayloft was furthest back. It was here that Meyer was together with other refugees who should have left on “Flyvbjerg” that morning. In a letter to Dr. Meyer smuggled a few weeks later, Marie Olsen tells further how she experienced the events that night:
"At 11 in the evening the Germans came (...), and how terribly it now unfolded - think those gruesome people took over the parish hall and the Jews who were hidden there – said to be around 40 – and they went on searches of almost all the houses. The house beside ours - not ten steps from where you all were hiding here with us - was also examined, oh, thank God they went past our door. When it was 3:30 in the morning they went to the gravedigger at the church and forced him, with a gun to his chest, to hand over the key to the church - his wife fainted and in the morning the priest had a nervous breakdown when this was told to him - it was all so awful."
Gestapo-Juhl could have saved himself the trip to the gravedigger. The 80 unhappy and frightened refugees in the church loft asked their aides to open the door. The impact of storming the little church was unimaginable, even for people confronted with the realization of their worst nightmare: capture by the Gestapo and deportation to Nazi concentration camps.
Marie Olsen goes on:
"Then the Germans went to the church and opened it and broke into the high loft and dragged all these poor people down and put the car lights on them. Then they were all separated into different classes and were gathered up in the parish hall; all this was going on while you and your friends were with us. We were so unhappy when around 5.am. that morning we came out and learned all this, because we were not in bed that night. We watched and prayed for you who suffered and had it so hard, and this saved you all. Yes, such is our faith."
If there is a hint of Christian mission in Marie Olsen's last remark to Dr. Meyer, it is a point in itself, because it illustrates again that the dividing line for her did not run between the Christian and Jewish faiths, but between those who persecuted innocent citizens on the one hand, and the persecuted and their helpers on the other side.
Only one from the church loft escaped: A young man had climbed up the ladder from the loft to a dormer in the bell tower, where he hid in the open air, until he was found by helpers next morning and brought down, more dead than alive. This young man, Bruno, died tragically just a few days later, when he and nine other people tried to cross over to Sweden in a row boat which capsized not far from the Danish coast. Of the 10 passengers 3 drowned, including Bruno, while 5 of the others were rescued by a dredger. The last two managed to swim ashore. At least 22 people of Jewish lineage are documented to have drowned in their attempt to get to safety in Sweden. The figure is probably higher, because the fates of all of them are not known, and many took the chance alone or in small groups in miserable vessels and without knowing enough about conditions on the water in the cold and windy October days.
In Copenhagen on Wednesday, Bergstrøm writes a brief but telling passage in his diary, where he returns to the protest the bishops had ordered to be read out in all the country’s churches on Sunday. With priests as sources the journalist could report that
"On Sunday the priests had been prepared to be arrested for reading the bishop's protest. The letter was distributed to several who were prepared to read it out loud if something had happened. It had been said that the Germans did not like this protest, which also reached the peasants. "
The cynical Bergstrom has identified an important point. Protests by townspeople were one thing for the occupying power. It would be even worse if the popular response to the Jewish action provoked a situation which had an effect on the production and deliveries to Germany. Here, agriculture and the peasants stood front and center - not the cities. It was also an important shift in the entire strategic picture that many refugees were now hiding in the countryside, where for many farmers and fishermen the refugees were their first direct encounter with the human consequences of the Nazi exercise of power. Here was another good reason to proceed cautiously - unless you, like Gestapo-Juhl in Helsingør, were inflamed by an unholy fire.
Meet the Author
Bo Lidegaard is the editor in chief of the leading Danish newspaper Politiken and the author of several books on modern history. He served as a diplomat in the Danish Foreign Service before joining the Office of the Danish Prime Minister as Ambassador and Permanent Undersecretary of State tasked with responsibilities corresponding to those of National Security Advisor. He later led the team preparing the 2009 United Nations conference on climate change in Copenhagen. He is one of the most respected and widely read Danish historians, and his work has focused on U.S.-Danish relations in the twentieth century, as well as on the modern Danish welfare state. He lives in Copenhagen.
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