It was a solemn honor to stand by the gravestones in Mindelunden, a memorial park outside of Copenhagen, Denmark. Over fifty years prior, this park had witnessed the bloody massacre of 106 Danish men and women who resisted the Nazis. Many of those executed had been part of a nationwide effort to transport all of Denmark's Jews to neutral Sweden. Standing by the haunting execution stakes and scores of graves, I reflected on my past five days retracing the rescue route used by those resistors and the Danish population at large to save the country's Jews from deportation and extermination.
This "journey of discovery in the footsteps of Danish heroes" (Lantos E1780-81) was a culmination of my year's research of the most miraculous rescue of World War II. On October 1, 1943, the Jewish population of Denmark was to be arrested and deported on Hitler's orders. Fortunately, sympathetic German diplomat, G.F. Duckwitz, leaked this information to top Danish officials. The perilous situation was unveiled to the Jews at Rosh Hashanah services when Rabbi Melchior urged the congregation, "Do not go home" (Melchior 1943).
As the Jews left the synagogue, filled with terror, they were unaware that a miracle was already in motion-initiated by courageous men and women. The entire country of Denmark had united under the moral and heroic leadership of King Christian X in a full scale effort to save the country's Jewish population. Jews were whisked away by fellow Danes, incorporated into fake funeral processions, escorted away in siren-blaring ambulances, and picked up randomly by taxi cab drivers upon leaving the synagogue. By 10:00 p.m. on October 1, almost all of the 8000 Danish Jews had seemingly vanished into thin air. Outraged Nazis stormed and scoured the entire city of Copenhagen in an unsuccessful hunt for the Jews. In perilous circumstances, heroes emerged in all walks of life. A prime example was at Bispebjerg Hospital. In three days, courageous and resourceful doctors and nurses disguised over 2000 healthy Jews as ailing Christians, and corpses, in the morgue and chapel to hide them from the Nazis.
Using the cloak of darkness to evade the relentless Nazis, the Jews were then smuggled with the utmost stealth from the city to factories, inns, churches and residences in the countryside. From there, they were taken to the gateways to freedom-coastal fishing villages like Niva, Snekkersten, and Gilleleje where men rowed boats with small groups of Jews across the narrow channel to Sweden. One of these young men was sixteen-year-old Munch Nielsen. Now in his seventies, Nielsen told me that saving the Jews was simply "a matter of decency" (Nielsen). Undeterred by the Nazis and their search dogs, local doctors drugged the Jewish children to keep them quiet while substances to curb the dogs' smelling abilities were put on every boat. In the end, the operation was a miraculous success; over 7000 of the 8000 Danish Jews emerged from the bottoms of fish-filled boats as free men and women in Sweden, where they remained until the war's end.
In America, we seem to focus on teaching the atrocities, degradation, and unbridled hatred of the Holocaust. However, it is crucial that the Danish story of compassion and moral courage be examined. Awareness of this heroism will benefit future generations that might wrestle with similar forces of evil. They will have an ethical role model of responsibility to guide them in making moral choices to defeat mass murderers and genocide.
One of the most important lessons that can be derived from the story of Denmark is the profound impact of leadership. In Adolph Hitler's words, "What luck for rulers that men do not think" (Byrne q 440). This sad truth allowed him to manipulate and intimidate his followers to carry out his heinous goals. While Hitler's leadership encouraged destruction, Denmark's King Christian X used his influential position to encourage salvation while his moral conduct was emulated by his subjects. In fact, when Christian was presented with the "Jewish Question", he replied, "There is no Jewish Question. There are only my people" (Olsen, ed. 7).
Indeed the values and attitude of leaders throughout history are mirrored by the masses under their control. Standards of ideals and behaviors are elevated and lowered in accordance with their leadership. As students, we need to understand the precious and awesome responsibility we assume when we vote in elections. We are not just voting for individuals but often for a moral blueprint upon which a chapter of history will be written.
As profound of an impact as leadership has, the importance of being an active and responsible citizen cannot be overlooked. As philosopher Edmund Burke is often attributed with having said, "All that is necessary for the forces of evil to win is for enough good men to do nothing." While the Holocaust stories of Germany and Poland support the negative realities of this statement, it is the story of Denmark that shows the truth of these words in a favorable light. The rescue of the Danish Jews succeeded because enough good men did something and prevailed over evil. In contrast, throughout the world, most men and women stood aside and did nothing as their Jewish neighbors were herded to concentration camps. Only a select few fought to save the lives of others. The smuggling of over 7000 Danish Jews to safety would have been a failed mission without the harmonious efforts of the majority. The fact that the Danish people united under a common, humane goal is what must be examined by students everywhere. Students have the power to combat discrimination and violence by living by a personal moral code of human respect. They should also participate in educational programs designed to build tolerance in their schools and their communities at large.
The Holocaust story of Denmark must be taught so students can have a beacon of light when faced with their own moral dilemmas. It is the underdog who inspires us all, and this event was an upset for the ages-the tiny population of Denmark valiantly defying the infamous Third Reich, a powerful, genocidal, unstoppable war machine. It appeared as if only a miracle could save the Jews of Denmark, yet the crossing of over 7000 Jews from Denmark to Sweden was a human reality. The water did not part for the Danish Jews as the Red Sea did for Moses in the story of Exodus. This modern day Exodus was the result of moral courage, exemplary leadership, brotherhood, and heroic efforts of "those who light a candle in the darkness of the world" (Lantos E1780-81).
• "Denmark." Encyclopedia of the Holocaust. Volume 1. Gutman, Israel: Macmillan, 1990.
• Lantos, Tom. United States Cong. House. [Applicant's name deletedl Pays Tribute To Danish Holocaust Rescuers For His Bar Mitzvah. Page E1780-E1781. Washington, October 2000.
• Olsen, Rovsing H, ed. October 1943. Denmark: The Royal Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 1993.
• Melchior, Bent. Rosh Hashanah Sermon. Copenhagen Synagogue. Copenhagen. 29 Sep. 1943.
• Nielsen, Munch. Personal meeting. 18 Aug. 2000.
• Byrne, Robert. The 2,548 Best Things Anybody Ever Said. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1990. Part 2 Quote 440.