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Jews who escaped the Nazi cull - Book Review

In Denmark it could Not Happen

By Herbert Pundik

Gefen Publications. Hard cover.

Reviewed by Mike Porter 

Adding to the large number of books about the Holocaust comes this English translation of the story of the Jews of Denmark. Almost the entire Jewish population of Denmark was saved from the death camps and gas chambers of the Nazis by the Danes, who risked imprisonment and worse by giving the Jews early warning, helping them to hide, organizing ways for them to reach the sea, and then ferrying them across The Sound to neutral Sweden.

Herbert Pundik, a Danish journalist, was 16 years old in 1943, when the headmaster interrupted the class, took him and several other boys outside and told them "We have been warned that persecution of the Jews will soon begin." The boys went home and found their families already packing.

The Jews were hidden in hospital basements, barns, huts and attics while waiting for the fishermen who ferried boatloads of people across to neutral Sweden (which at first refused to take them in).

Because of the help of the Danish people, Pundik writes, "the German operation was a giant failure. There were approximately 7,000 Jews living in Denmark, but ... only 477 Jews were seized by the Germans..."

Those Danish Jews who were sent to Theresienstadt survived. As Danish citizens, they were given preferential treatment by the Germans, and the Danish Red Cross was allowed to send them food and medicine. "The Germans stole much of it along the way, but what remained was enough to keep them alive. Friends in Denmark sent clothing into which they had sewn vitamin pills ... No Danish Jews were deported from Theresienstadt to the extermination camps ... of the 474 or so captured, only about 10% died – of old age or disease."

There were, however, Danish informers. A member of the resistance movement, Erling Foss, tells one of the many detailed stories of the attempted Nazi round-up, and reveals that "Danish-speaking persons accompanied each patrol".

Pundik also deals with the other side, and writes of German soldiers who deliberately let Jews escape.

There were cases of German soldiers "turning a blind eye" when they came across fleeing Jews. A Danish member of the resistance writes: "The Germans set about stopping the refugee-traffic in a vague and halfhearted manner ... It is likely that there was a considerable number of Germans ... who were against the persecution of the Danish Jews. They tolerated their escape and even sabotaged (the), efforts to stop them."

"The Danish Jews were living in a dream world", writes Pundik. The Jews of Denmark (and Denmark itself) had been left in peace until the fourth year of the war – which was also the third year of the occupation of Denmark by the Nazis.

"The first news of ... the systematic extermination of Jews reached the west ... in 1942. The information was met with disbelief not only by Great Britain and the USA ... but by the world's Jews. It was the first time in world history that a nation had declared total war on another nation. Wars were fought against armies, not against nations." writes Pundik.

"Today," he continues, "we are wiser. We have seen a new attempt at genocide in Bosnia. This time we knew; still, the world did not have sufficient will to stop the Serbs."

At first there was no organized resistance movement in Denmark. People who came to the aid of the Jewish population did so spontaneously – conspicuous amongst them being priests, doctors, nurses and the fishermen who ferried them across The Sound. King Christian himself sent a letter to the authorities protesting the persecution of the Jews, while Copenhagen's bishop "sent a letter to all the priests in the country ... to be read aloud in the churches."

"We could not know that Camman, the German harbor-commandant in Copenhagen... ordered the German coastguard boats to be sent to the shipyard for repairs during just these critical days. Neither could we know that the German Wehrmacht refused to participate ..."

Pundik refers to "Hitler's absurd world ... It had its roots in something we all know, something that is almost a natural condition, the fear of what is different, the hatred ... the aggression [towards] what is different ...".

It was then that I remembered how I had once seen a post-war photograph which showed a baby sitting in a pram in a bar where neo-Nazis were carousing. The baby was at an age where he could sit upright, his little back wonderfully straight. A small bubble came out of his mouth as he watched, wide-eyed, what was going on in front of him. And, as a young man, I already realized that in another 15 or 16 years from then I would not want to meet the product of this innocent and helpless baby in a dark alley.

The book tells many personal stories. The strands are skillfully woven together, and give an individualized and yet comprehensive study of Denmark, the German occupation, and how almost 99% of this small country's population of Jews was saved. 



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Monday, 24 June 2024

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