Experience: Denmark

Simon Goldman
When Germany occupied Denmark in April 1940, the Jewish population was approximately 7,500, about 2% of the total population. About 6,000 of these Jews were Danish citizens. The rest were German and eastern European refugees, many of whom were children from the Youth Aliya and Zionist Youth Movements

The manner in which the people of Denmark looked after their Jewish community is considered one of the most heroic and humane episodes of World War II.  Some 120 Danish Jews died during the Holocaust, either in Theresienstadt or during a flight from Denmark. This relatively small number represents one of the highest Jewish survival rates for any German-occupied European country.


Until 1943, the Germans—eager to cultivate good relations with a population they perceived as “fellow Aryans,” and recognizing the support most Danes gave to their fellow Jewish citizens—took a relatively benign approach to Denmark. They permitted the Danish government complete autonomy in running domestic affairs, including maintaining control over the legal system and police forces. The Germans assumed the “Jewish question” could be resolved once overall victory had been achieved. 

Unlike in other Western European countries, the Danish government did not require Jews to register their property and assets, to identify themselves with a yellow star or badge, or to give up apartments, homes, and businesses. Two attempts were made to set fire to the Copenhagen synagogue in 1941 and 1942, but local police intervened both times to prevent the arson and arrest the perpetrators. The Jewish community continued to function, including holding religious services regularly throughout the German occupation


By early 1943, allied victories convinced many Danes that Germany could be defeated. While there had been minimal resistance to the Germans during the first years of the occupation, labor strikes and acts of sabotage now strained relations with Germany. The Danish government resigned in August 1943, rather than yield to new German demands that German military courts try saboteurs. The Germans promptly declared martial law, arresting Danish civilians—both Jews and non-Jews—as well as Danish military personnel, and taking direct control of the Danish military and police forces. 


In September 1943, the Germans prepared to deport the Danish Jews. Some German officials in Denmark warned non-Jewish Danes of the plan; in turn, these Danes alerted the local Jewish community. Danish authorities, Jewish community leaders, and countless private citizens organized a partly coordinated, partly spontaneous rescue operation so that when German police began the roundup, they found few Jews. In general, the Danish police authorities refused to cooperate, denying German police the right to enter Jewish homes by force, or simply overlooking Jews they found in hiding. Popular protests quickly came from churches, the Danish royal family, and various social and economic organizations. 

Resistance workers and sympathizers initially helped Jews move into hiding places throughout the country and from there to the coast; fishermen then ferried them to Sweden. The rescue operation expanded to include participation by the Danish police and the government. In about a month, some 7,200 Jews and 700 of their non-Jewish relatives traveled to safety in neutral Sweden. Some boat transports continued to bring members of the underground resistance movement to Sweden or smuggle Swedish intelligence agents into Denmark. 


Despite the rescue efforts, the Germans seized about 470 Jews in Denmark—mostly German or eastern European refugees—and deported them to Theresienstadt. Although many of those deported were not Danish citizens, the Danish authorities and the Danish Red Cross vocally and insistently demanded information on their whereabouts and living conditions. The vigor of Danish protests likely deterred the Germans from transporting these Jews to killing centers in German-occupied Poland. German authorities at Theresienstadt even allowed Danish prisoners to receive letters and some care packages. The Danish Red Cross was a driving force behind the request of the International Red Cross to visit and inspect Theriesenstadt, first made in the autumn of 1943. After the Germans authorized the visit, a Danish Red Cross representative accompanied International Red Cross officials during their visit in June 1944. 


Danish Jews remained in Theresienstadt, where dozens of them died, until 1945. In late April of that year, German authorities handed the surviving Danish prisoners over to the custody of the Swedish Red Cross. Virtually all of the refugees returned to Denmark in 1945. Although a housing shortage required some of them to live in shelters for a few months, most found their homes and businesses as they had left them, since the local authorities had refused to permit the Germans or their collaborators in Denmark to seize or plunder Jewish homes

King Christian X. According to popular legend, King Christian X chose to wear a yellow star in support of the Danish Jews during the Nazi occupation of Denmark. In another version, the Danish people decided to wear yellow stars for the same reason. Both of these stories are fictional. However, the legend conveys an important historical truth: both the King and the Danish people stood by their Jewish citizens and were instrumental in saving the overwhelming majority of them from Nazi persecution and death.

Rabbi Marcus Melchior, Danish chief rabbi, who warned his congregants that the Germans intended to round up Denmark's Jews. Melchior himself went into hiding and escaped to Sweden. Copenhagen, Denmark, before 1943.