*** World War II -- the Holocaust in Denmark

The Holocaust in Denmark

Holocaust Denmark
Figure 1.--Here Danish fishermen in 1943 help a Jewish woman into the hold of gheir fishing bpat to hide as they take here to safety in Sweden.

The continuation of constitutional government in NAZI-occupied Denmark, meant that the Danes retained control of the police. And to the emense frustration to the Germans, the Danish Government not only refused to cooperate, but adamently refused to order actions against Jews impleted everywhere else in NAZI-occupied Europe. This was not how Hutlkerc expected conquered people to behave. The NAZIs, after seizing control of the Government (August 1943) finally were in a position to round up Danish Jews. The NAZI occupation authoritiers planned a nation-wide round up all Danish Jews and to then send them to the nearby, fully operational death camps in Poland. The Danish people courageously came to the aid of their Jews. Advanced warning of the roundup was leaked to the underground. Thousands of Danes stepped up to hide Jews and help them escape to nearby Sweden. Before World War II there were 8,000 Jews in Denmark. They could have been dispatched in a few hours at Auschwitz-Birnenau if the SS could just get their hands on them. Miraculously 7,500 of them successfully spirited to Sweden with the assistance of their non-Jewish countrymen (October 1943). The NAZIs only managed to capture a few. It was one of the few successful efforts to save Jews in NAZI-occupied Europe. It was only possible, however, because Sweden was so near and by this point in the War, the Swedes no longer had to fear a German invasion. The Danes not only got the Jews to Sweden, but looked after their homes and other property until liberation and they were able to return.

Danish Jews

The Jutland Peninsula was beyond the boundaries of the Roman Empire and thus there was no known Jewish settlement during the classical era. Nor during the ealy medieval Viking era do we know of any Jews in Denmark. Medieval Danish art does depict Jews. They can easily be identified wearing pointed hats. This appears to be part of a generalized Christian vision of Jews. There is no documented evidence any Jews actually residing in in medieval Denmark. The Danish Kingdom was an early convert to Protestantism (1536). Jews at that time were specifically prohibited from entering Denmark. King Christian IV invited Jews to settle in Denmark (1622). This resulted in the first documented settlement of Jews in Denmark. Christian IV founded Glückstadt on the river Elbe in what is now Schleswig-Holstein. At the time he permitted a Jewish merchant, Albert Dionis, to live in the city. The specific dispensation for Dionis was gradually expanded and Jews in Glückstadt werec eventially granted protection. This involved more than living in the city, but the right to hold religious services (albeit privately) and to establish a cemetery. Albert Dionis managed to gain considerable status in Christian's court by loaning money to the king. Subsequently another Jew of Sephardic origins, Gabriel Gomez, also attined status in court and convinced Frederik III to grantb a general dispensation for Sephardic Jews to reside in Denmark to engage in trade. Although this was limited to Sephardim, a number of Ashkenazim were eventully granted letters of safe passage and eventually settled in Denmark. . Danish Jews during the 19th century achieved civil, economic, and political equality. Denmark had a small Jewish population of about 7,500 at the onset of World War II.


Denmark's small Jewish community took advantage of emancipation abd the other legal reforms in the 19th century and became increasingly integration into Danish society. Intermarriage became increasingly common. The same Tsarist anti-Semetic policies that drove Russian and Polish Jews to America also drove them to Western Europe, including Denmark, albeit in smaller numbers. Some 3,000 Russian Empire JHews came to Denmrk, almost doubling the size of the country's small Jewish community. They also cganged the nature of the community. The Danish Jews were reltively integrated. The Tsarist Empire Jews were not. Politically they becme socialist Bundists. And they begand to found Jewish community organizations thst had not existed before, including a Yiddish theater and several Yiddish newspapers. Denmark enacted new immigration laws after World war I tht that essentilly ended further Jewish immigration (1920s). And with the rise of the NAZIs in Germany, Denmark's primary foreign policy was to placate the the NAZIs and not provoke them. Denmark's policies toward Jews trying to escape NAZI oppression was harsh. Entrance visas were strictly limited, and some German Jewish refugees attempting to cross the border surepticiously were arrested and returned to the gentle mercies of their NAZI oppresors. [Buckser] Refuing visas was not unlike the policies of other European policis, but returning illegal immigrants to the NAZIs was unlike the policies of France and the Dutch. As a result, the number of German Jewish refugees in Denmark at the outbreak of World War II was very small. There were a few, but they had to live in the shadows, mostly taken in by smpathetic Jewish families.

NAZI Invasion (April 1940)

NAZI German invaded Denmark as part of alarger operation to seize Norway (April 9, 1940). Denmark had virtually no military and there was only minimal resistance as the NAZIs quickly seized the defenseless country. The Allies struggling to even hold on in Norway had no way of helping Denmark.


The Danes had no alternative, but to accept NAZI occupation. King Christian X decided to reamin in Denmark with his people. (The monarchs in Norway and the Netherlands fled to England where they established resistance movements.) As a result, the NAZIs permitted the Danish Government continued to rule, under NAZI supervision. For the NAZIs there were advantages in obtaining Danish compliance with the occupation. The Danes agreed to supply agricultural produce and other goods to Germany which was useful in the NAZI war effort.

King Christian

After the German invasion in 1940 the King led his people in passive resistance to attempts to bring the Danes into the NAZI order. The King's bravery was an inspiration to the Danish people, one of the few countries to have some success in resisting the Germans. This was in part possible because the Germans with their racially based world view were unwilling to be as brutal in Denmark as they were in other countries like Poland. The King during his reign had made a point of riding in the morning throughout the streets of Copenhagen without the protection of bodyguards. He thoroughly trusted his subjects, and wanted to syay in touch and be seen. The Danes wondered after the German invasion if their king would continue his morning rides. He did and to the annoyance of the Germans, often attracting crowds. The King felt that these rides showed that he had not abandoned his claim to national sovereignty or his people. King Christian was limited in what he could, but what he did best was ignored them as much as possible. This enfuriated the NAZI occupation authorities. The NAZIs forced the King in May 1943 to condemn Danish sabotage of munitions works and railways. His memorable speech against the occupation forces in August 1943, after fighting had broken out between the Germans and Danish resistance fighters caused the German occupation authorities to imprison him and Crown Prince Frederick until the end of the war. The NAZIs forced King Christian from the throne and broke up Denmark's government and military. Even without the King, the Danes in one of the most heroic episodes of resiastance to the NAZIs, managed to spirit most of them to saftey in Sweden before a planned NAZI roundup. In the end the German actions of dismantling the Danish Government made it increasingly difficult for them to govern Denmark.

Anti-Semetic Measures

Aware of the NAZI activitioes in other occupied countries, the King and his Government made the welfare of Danish Jews a matter of importance. Foreign Minister Erik Scavenius told one of the main planners of the Holocaust, Hermann Goring, during the occupation, "There is no Jewish question in Denmark" (1941). An NAZI-inspired arson attack occurred at the Copenhagen synagogue (December 1941). King Christain sent a letter of sympathy to Rabbi Marcus Melchior. King Christian rejected the NAZI demand for anti-Jewish legislation (September 1942). As a result, Danish Jews were nevered ordered to wear yellow badges to identify them.

The Resistance

With the Germans firmly in control of the country and prepared to brutally apply force, the only real options open to the Danes was passive resistance. This would not work in many countries because the NAZIs were prepraring genocide, not only against the Jews, but also the Slavs. The Danes were different. They were a Nordic people, infact more Nordic than the Germans. Thus race hatred and genocide was not an element of NAZI occupation policy, except for the Danish Jews. The Danish resistance movement began to form in 1941. It was realtively quiet until Danish attitudes toward the NAZIs began to change (1943). The Danish Government that ruled until 1943 essentially played a game of saying one thing to the German occupation forces and then delayed actions for as long as they could. THe NAZI authorities became increasingly frustrated. There are maby accounts of ordinary folk worked as slowly as possible and if they could recalibrate a machine to make duff parts they did. It is difficult to tell just how much of this really occurred. Of course after liberation, everyone made such claims. Actually doing such things during the NAZI occupation was very dangerous. The Resiatance targeted the German military and businesses working for the NAZIs with acts of sabotage actions. There was also growing labor unrest. Massive strikes were staged in many Danish cities (1943). The Danish Government resigned and the NAZIs took over the government. Among other actions they imposed a curfew. Workers left work early on the pretext that they had to tend their gardens because the curfew provented them in the evening. In reality some went out to demonstrate, but this was dangerous. Teenagers and older students did not like passive resistance so they were the ones who carried out many of the acts of sabotague. The NAZIS as in other occupied countries targeted the Danish Jews for deportation, maning of course death. Saving the Danish Jews was the finest achievemebt of the resistance, Danes formed the Danish Freedom Council (DFC) (September 1943). By that time it was increaingly clear that the NAZIs were losing the War. They were, however, firmly in control of Denmark. The DFC was the coordinating prganization for the Resistance. Some of the major actions were clandestine newspapers, intelligence gathering for the Allies, and sabotage designed to disrupt war production. The DFC worked with Danish political figures.

NAZI Round-up Plans

As a result of the labor strife and demonstrations as well as sabatoge, the NAZI occupation authorities declared a state of emergency (August 1943). With the Danish Government sidelined, the NAZIs felt it was the time to move against the Danish Jews. Hitler approved the deportation of the Danish Jews (September). SS Commander and occupation head Werner Best was ordered to proceed with the deportation of Jews (Septenber 28). The problem for Best and the other NAZIs was that because of the King and Government's resistance, the Danish Jews had not been separated from the Danish people and concentrated in gheotes where they could be easily seized and quickly deported. Best prepared and planned to start making arrests (10:00 pm, October 1). Best chose this date because it was Rosh HaShannah, the Jewish New Year, apparently believing that Danish Jews would be gathered together that night and absorbed in the holiday and thus easy prey. Best positioned two German passenger ships in Copenhagen where most Danish Jews lived. I am not sure why he decided on these ships. I think he was concerned about the Resistance attempting to stop trains that had to travel all the way south along the Danish Peninsula. About 5,000 Jews were to be transported on the two ships. Best arranged to busses to transport the remaining 2,500. They were reporedly to be transported to Theresienstadt.


Round-up operatiions involve considerable coordination. One of the Germans informed, presumably because of the planned used of the ships, was Georg F. Duckwitz, a German maritime attaché. Duckwitz was not just a military attaché, he worked closely with SS-Obergruppenführer Dr. Karl Rudolph Werner Best, who was Hitler's Plenipotentiary in Denmark who was ordered to consuct the round up. And Best himself apparently warned his Jewish tailor--Raphael Bodin. Itbiscsurprising that a man like Best even had a Jewish tailor. Best was a NAZI Party leader and theorericianl He played an important role in the Holocaust, overseeing the cratiion of Jewish registry in Germany. As the Deputy to the infamous Reinhard Heydrich, it was Best who organized the deadly SS-Einsatzgruppen paramilitary death squads that were responsible for mass murder in the Soviet Union as part of Barvarossa (1941). He then helped organize the round-up and deportations of Jews in France (1942). A relative of Bodin suggests thart Best was concerned taht the nirder of Sanish Jews would disturb conditioins in Denmark which was supplying Gernman with important quantities of food stuffs. We are not sure that was the reason. Itbseems to us that Best had no desire to go down in flames with the Third Reich wher by October 1943 itt was clearly headed. And as Plenipotentiary in Denmark he was no longeran anonanous beaureaucrat. What ever happened to Danih Jews, he would be the person seen as responsible. Whatever the reason, the Danish Jews were clearly warned. [Saphir] Duckwirz did not just tell his tailor, he told Hans Hedtoft a Danish Social Democrat, about the NAZI plans. Hedtoft informed C.B. Henriques, the head of Denmark's Jewish Community who did his best to spread the warning. Dr. Marcus Melchior, the acting chief Rabbi of the Krystalgaade Synagogue, 2 days before the Rosh Hashannah round up insisted that his congregants and all other Jews immediately go into hiding (September 29). There were other warnings. One Danish Jew recalls being at school with his friends. The headmaster called the Jewish children to his office. He told them to leave school immediately and go with their parents to a place of safety as the Nazis were coming to their homes later in the day. The Swedish Ambassador warned Neils Bohr and the Ressistance got him to Sweden that very night. Once in Sweden he did his best to incourage the Sedish Government to do what they could. The Swedes explained that similar appeals concerning Norwegian Jews had been ignored by the NAZIs. The Swedes not only took in the Jews that escaped, but offer to take in the Danish Jews that the NAZIs succeeded in arresting, suggesting that the ships in Copenhagen could simply sail to Swedish ports. Perhaps Bohr's most helpful suggestion was that the Swedes should make public statements that they would accept Danish Jews. The Swedes proceeded to make repeated radio broacasts. [Blaedel, p. 216.]


The Danish Jews were shocked when they learned of the NAZI plans. Many had made plans for just such an emmergency. Others had not. Large numbers of Danes disliked the NAZIs to begin with and in particular objecting to religious persecution. Many came forward to help the beleagered Jews. The outpouring of support is an inspiring story. Virtualy every strata of Danish society stepped forward. The Danish Lutheran Church in particular played a key role. Not only did the Danes hide the Jews, but also many many Torahs. Dr. Koster hid many Jews in Bispebjerg Hospital which he administered. Hundreds were hid there while arrangements were made to get them to Sweden. The psychiatric building and the nurses' quarters were filled to overflowing with with Jewish refugees. They were fed from the hospital kitchen. Only one colaborator was needed to inform the NAZIs. The entire staff, however, cooperated, the considerable personal risk. Donations even flowed into the hospital to help with the effort. The NAZIs began looking for the Jews. The Danish police and coast guard refused to help the occupation authorities. The objective was to get the Jews to Sweden. Many Jews were transported to the coast in ambulances. There fishermen agreed transport them to Sweden. This was not an easy opeartion. The waters between Denmark and Sweden were heavily patrolled by the NAZIs. Many Jews made for Gilleleje, an important fishing port and summer holiday resort. It was located at the northernmost point of Zealand island. There were train connections to Copenhagen. About 20 percent of the Danish Jews reached Sweden through Gilleleje. Jews and other Danes were familiar with Gilleleje from summer holidays. A local committee was formed to aid the refugees even before the rescue organizers arrived from Copenhagen. The committee found hiding places and food and began to make arrangements with boat captains. Both fishing boats and coastal freighters were used. Here the Swedes facilitated the rescue, sending out boats to the limits of the marine border. This allowed the Danish boats to return to make additional runs. [Blaedel, p. 216.] The Danes got more than 7,000 of their Jews to Sweden in only a few days.

NAZI Round-up (October 1943)

The NAZIs carefully planned the deportation order to be executef on the Jewish New Year (the night of October October 1-2). The NAZIs understood anned that all Jews would be gathered at home on that date to celebrate the holiday. The roundup was organized by the SS who deployed two police battalions and about 50 Danish volunteer members of the Waffen SS. The Danes were included becuse of the need for manpower and their familiarity with Copenhagen and northern Zealand where most of the Danish Jews were located. The SS commonly used local auxileries and police in round-uo operations. The SS organized five-man teams, each having a Dane, a vehicle, and a list of addresses where Jews were believed to be located. Most of these teams to their great surprise found no one at home. When they did find Jews, those arrested were allowed to bring two blankets, food for 3-4 days, and a small suitcase. They were transported to the harbor, Langelinie, where ships for several thousand Danish Jews awaited them. The destination was Danzig where they would board transport trains to an unknown destination. The NAZIs in the end despite their carefully planned sweep of Danish Jews managed to capture only a small number - 481 Danish Jews. They were quickly deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, a transit camp for many Reich Jews. We do not know who made the decesion to transport them to Theresienstadt, but it saved most of their lives. Reich Reichsbevollmächtigter (Plenipotentiary) Werner Best may have beeb involved in this decision, but we do not bknow that for a fact. They could have been sent directly to one of the death camps which were closer to Danzig.


Theresienstadt was a concentration camp in NAZI-occupied Czechoslovakia near Prague. Many people died there because of poor conditions, especially inadequate food. Bad as it was, conditions were better than most camps for Jews. Theresienstadt served as a transit camp for the death camps. So NAZI officials were aware that they were being watched. It was not, however, a death camp where people were murdered industrially. Danish officials persisted in inquiring about the Danish Jews. Somewhow they appear to have convinced Adolf Eichmann through Reichsbevollm�chtigter (Reich Plenipotentiary) Werner Best not to deport the Danish Jews in Theresienstadt on to the death camps in Poland. We are not sure just why this worked. Best was interested in a stabilizing the situation in Denmark. Perhaps he thought the murder of the Danish Jews would be disruptive. It is likely that Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop was involved. He was complicit in the Holocaust, involved in arrangements with foreign governments regarding Jews, primarily arraning for deportation. But he also intervened on occassions when neutral countries like Sweden and Turkey attempted to protect Jews, especially their nationals. Ribentrop was also involved attempts to maintain relations with neutral countries as the War turned against Germny. He even protected Argentine Jews for a while even though their country showed no interest in them. The Danish Government did. This is probably what happened with the Danish Jews, but we do not yet have details. Miraculosly nearly all the Danish Jews in Theresienstadt survived. Not only the Danish civil service, but church organizations constantly inquired about their whereabouts. The Danes collected over 700 packages of clothing, food and vitamins for the Jews in the camp. The Danes even arranged for an inspecion of Theresienstadt by the Danish Red Cross. Denmark of course was occupied by the Germans. But unlike several occupied countries was valuable to the Germans providing shipments of food and a wide range of war supplies like ammunition. Thus keeping the country quiet and preventing disruptions was in Germnany's interest. Since such a small number of Jews were involved, it was not a major concession. And there is little doubt that the Germans believed that after they won the war such small compromises could be rectified.

Neils Bohr

Famed Nobel lauriate Neils Bohr was one of the Jews Danish Jews rescued. (His mother was a Christainized Jew. He did not see himself as Jewish, but the NAZIs defined Jews in racial terms.) I do not yet have details on his rescue. Bohr and his son, also a physicist, went on to America from Sweden to work on the Manhattan Project.

Hidden Children

We have noted reports of hidden Jewish children in Denmark before the NAZI invasion (April 1940). There could not have been many because the Danes restricted Jewish immigration even before the NAZIs seized power (1933) and returned illegal German aliens to NAZI authorities. We hase not yet found a source siscussing this in any detail. After the NAZI invasion and esprcially after launchin the roundups, the situation changed. Parents had to make a very difficult decision. Eluding the Germans and their Danish colaborators was dofficult enough, but doing so with very young childrem was emensly more difficult. Some Danish faciltators even refused to assist families with very small children. Not only did these children have special needs, but there was always the danger that they might start crying or yelling at critical points such as when the Germans were searching homes and boats, revealing hiding places. Most of the Jews, including 1,200 children made it to safety in Sweden. Some 150 children were left behind, either because they became sepasrated from their parents or becuse their parents did not take them along when their fleed. Here troubling rumors spread such as children suffocating when their mouths had to be covered or from sedation. These children were hidden in children's homes, boarding schools and in private homes.


The German military in Denmark capitulated a few days before VE-Day May 5, 1945). The Danes formed a government made up of equal numbers of resistance members and politicians from the pre-Occupation political parties. The new Government arrested war criminals and collaborators. There were no lynchings, but quite a number of unexplined and unprocecuted shootings. Many collaborators as well as Best were tried. Some die-hard Germans and Danish NAZIs refused to surrender and there was some fighting. British forces under Montgomery soon arrived. The Soviers seized the easternmost island of Bornholm for a brief period. The experience of the Jews in Denmark was didderent than that in many other areas of Europe. They were welcomed back by their neighbors. Those Jew who managed to survive in other areas sometimes exoerienced hostility when they tried to return or at the very least found their homes if not occupied, had been broken into and looted. When the Danish Jews returned, however, they not only found their homes in tact, but discovered pets and personal belongings had been cared for by their neighbors.


Blaedel, Niels. Harmony and Unity: The Life of Niels Bohr (Science Tech, 1988), 323p.

Buckser, Andrew. "Rescue and cultural context during the Holocaust: Grundtvigian nationalism and the rescue of the Danish Jews," Shofar/Questia (January 31, 2001).

Saphir, Alexander Bodin. "The tip-off from a Nazi that saved my grandparents," BBC News (October 21, 2018).

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Created: May 7, 2004
Last updated: 8:54 AM 4/4/2020