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Danish Christians help Jews escape the Gestapo during WWII 80 years ago


Swedish immigration officer registering Jewish refugees from Denmark in Malmoe, Sweden Oct. 5, 1943. Associated Press

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Monday, October 2nd. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Up next, the WORLD History Book. Eighty years ago this week members of the Danish church take bold actions to save Jews hunted by Nazi Germany.

Here’s WORLD Radio intern, Emma Perley.

SOUND: [OCEAN WAVES]

EMMA PERLEY, INTERN: It’s the middle of the night. Dozens of people quietly board a fishing boat in twos and threes. They hide below deck, silent and watchful. The threat of imprisonment and death looms over them. The year is 1943, and Nazi Germany’s control over the people of Denmark is growing.

NEWSREEL AUDIO: We are the Danes. And as all the world knows, we have been a peace loving people, promoting justice and working actively in the cause of democracy.

Even under foreign occupation, that national spirit drives the Danish Resistance to stay two steps ahead of Nazi schemes. German diplomat Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz alerts Denmark of Gestapo plans to deport the Jews on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

AUDIO: German troops and tanks swarmed the streets, pavements were overrun in a rude exhibition of Nazi arrogance. You had to be on the move not to be trampled to pieces.

On September 29th, Rabbi Marcus Melchior interrupts his prayers in Copenhagen’s main synagogue to announce that the police are planning a raid on the city on the night of October 1st.

But when the Gestapo arrive, they find empty houses. Meanwhile, thirty-five miles north of the capitol hundreds of Jewish refugees arrive by train in the small fishing village of Gilleleje.

SOUND: [TRAIN]

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Denmark sends out a letter for all pastors to read aloud to their congregations. On October 3, Reverend Kjeldgaard Jenson steps into the pulpit of his church in Gilleleje. Here’s the translated letter, read by Andrew Johansen:

ANDREW JOHANSEN: Wherever Jews are persecuted because of their religion or race it is the duty of the Christian Church to protest against such persecution, because it is in conflict with the sense of justice inherent in the Danish people and inseparable from our Danish Christian culture through the centuries. True to this spirit and according to the text of the Act of the Constitution all Danish citizens enjoy equal rights and responsibilities before the Law and full religious freedom. We understand religious freedom as the right to exercise our worship of God as our vocation and conscience bid us and in such a manner that race and religion per se can never justify that a person be deprived of his rights, freedom or property. Our different religious views notwithstanding, we shall fight for the cause that our Jewish brothers and sisters may preserve the same freedom which we ourselves evaluate more highly than life itself.

Jenson and the entire village begin preparing for over five hundred Jewish refugees to cross the Oresund Strait to Sweden.

He and the villagers lease a large schooner, and the refugees rush to the docks. As they push and jostle each other to get on board, a fisherman yells at them to stay in a single file line. Those at the front hear the shouts and mistakenly think the Gestapo has caught up with them. The captain panics and shoves off too early, leaving half of his passengers behind.

The villagers load up as many refugees as they can onto fishing boats. Unfortunately, limited space forces over a hundred refugees to stay behind. Most take shelter in the attic of Jenson’s church. For the next few days, Gilleleje is overrun with Danish Jews hoping to escape to Sweden.

On October 5th, the Gestapo are tipped off. They surround the church and threaten to burn it down. Eventually, the Jews surrender themselves and the Gestapo arrest all but one Jewish child hiding in the belfry. Jenson later writes in his journal that it was a “terrible day for Gilleleje.”

But elsewhere in Denmark…

Surviving Jewish refugee, Esther Chalupovitsch remembers fleeing Copenhagen around the same time. A policeman helped hide her and her family.

CHALUPOVITSCH: He gave us a flashlight and he said don't use the light. We went in there, we closed the doors and there we sat for a whole night and heard the Germans pass by.

They planned to escape on a boat like many other refugees. They traveled south of Copenhagen and stayed in a bishop’s house until he could get them safely down to the harbor.

CHALUPOVITSCH: Everybody was frightened. Because the Germans were everywhere.

They sneaked onto a fishing boat on the night of October 9th. Thirty-two of them packed into the hold like sardines.

CHALUPOVITSCH: But when we got to the shore of Sweden and we were looking up and they said ‘Welcome to Sverige,’ it was just out of this world. We couldn't believe it. Here, the Germans were chasing us. And here, the Swedes were welcoming us.

Esther and her family were one of hundreds of families saved by the Danes over the course of the war. By the war’s end, the Danish resistance successfully saved over 90% of Denmark’s Jewish population from the Holocaust.

That’s this week’s WORLD History Book. I’m Emma Perley.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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