Wednesday, May 1, 2019

A Miracle in Denmark: A WWII Story

Modern-Day Gilleleje, Denmark. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Early on the morning of April 9, 1940, Germany attacked Denmark. The invasion was executed so swiftly that the Danish military surrendered after only four hours. Many Danish citizens were furious that their government gave up without a fight. Because Hitler wanted to make a good impression on the many foreign correspondents in Denmark at the time, and he wanted the country to be "a model of Nazi occupation rule," he allowed the people more freedom than in other occupied countries. The elected government continued functioning, but under Nazi supervision, and the Nazis didn’t persecute the Jews.

The boat of Gilbert Lassen, a fisherman from Gilleleje, Denmark, used to
smuggle Jews to Sweden. Courtesy of Yadvashem.

The Danish Resistance slowly strengthened over the next three years, and in 1943, after the Allies had put the Germans on the defensive on several fronts, the Danish Resistance stepped up their activities and sabotaged the German war industry in Denmark. The German occupation troops were already concerned about an Allied invasion through Denmark, so Hitler placed the country under a dictatorship. He also ordered occupation commanders to arrest the 7,800 Danish Jews and send them to concentration camps.

Georg Duckwitz
Courtesy of USHMM.
Georg F. Duckwitz, a German diplomat serving in Denmark, privately warned the Danish government of Hitler’s orders. Duckwitz went to Germany and tried to get the orders reversed. When he didn’t succeed, he traveled to Sweden and asked the Swedish government if they would grant asylum to the 7,800 Danish Jews. Sweden agreed and Duckwitz returned to Denmark. Hitler was shocked when the Danish government leaders and citizens rose up together and refused to hand over their Jews.

The Danish government encouraged its citizens to hide the Jews from the Nazis. The Danish Resistance led the efforts and recruited captains and crews to take the Jews on boats across the waterways to nearby Sweden. Thousands of refugees made their way to the departure points. They rode on trains, in hospital ambulances, by automobile in a fake funeral procession, and in caravans with Danish police officers "looking the other way." Even the universities shut down so students would be available to help in the rescue operations.

Rescue of Danish Jews. Courtesy of USHMM.

The leader of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Denmark sent a letter to all the Lutheran Churches in the country and urged its church members to fight for the freedom of their Jewish brothers and sisters. The bishop challenged them with the New Testament scripture that states they should "obey God more than man." On October 3, 1943, in the tiny fishing village of Gilleleje, about thirty-five miles north of Copenhagen (Denmark’s capital), Reverend Kjeldgaard Jensen read the letter to his congregation. He then led them in assisting the Jewish refugees arriving by the hundreds in their seaside village.  

Danish fisherman ferry Jews to safety.
Courtesy of USHMM.

Jensen’s church members helped purchase fuel for the local fishermen to carry the refugees ten miles across the Oresund Strait to Sweden. They fed the Jews and hid those awaiting transportation. The fishing boats traveled late at night and at times were hindered by bad weather or German patrol boats. Some ships were swamped and sank, drowning their refugees. The church members worked with the Resistance, some of whom were arrested, imprisoned, sent to concentration camps, and shot to death for assisting the Jews.

Jewish refugees from Denmark upon arrival in Sweden.
Courtesy of USHMM.

Two days after Pastor Jensen read the aforementioned letter to his congregation, a train arrived from Copenhagen with hundreds of additional Jewish refugees. This brought the total number of Jews awaiting escape in their village to five hundred, and they were in imminent danger if the Gestapo arrived. Because of a storm that same night, a large schooner sheltered in the Gilleleje harbor, and the villagers raised fifty thousand Danish kroner to lease the schooner. Eager to leave, the refugees rushed to the dock, but during the slow boarding process, a fisherman yelled at those out of line, and the people up front thought the Gestapo had arrived. The schooner captain panicked and cast off with only half his passengers aboard.

Danish rescue boat. Courtesy of USHMM.

The villagers immediately loaded all the refugees they could on local fishing boats and took them to Sweden, but they were forced to leave more than one hundred behind. These refugees sheltered in the church, but an informer alerted the Nazis, resulting in a late-night raid. The Gestapo and German soldiers surrounded the church and threatened to burn it down unless the Jews surrendered. The doors were opened, and the Nazis sent all of the men, women, and children to a concentration camp except for one young boy who hid in the belfry.

Jewish refugees are ferried out of Denmark aboard Danish fishing boats
bound for Sweden. Courtesy of USHMM and 
Frihedsmuseet, Copenhagen.

The Gestapo threatened Jensen and his church members but didn’t arrest them that night. Pastor Jensen collapsed after the raid. However, the villagers leased another large schooner available nearby and safely ferried the remaining Jews sheltering outside Gilleleje to Sweden. Over a three-week period, rescues took place up and down the coast of Denmark, and about 95% of Denmark’s Jews escaped safely. No other Nazi-occupied nation matched this percentage of Jewish survivors.    

Danish-Jewish children living in a Swedish children's home after
their escape from Denmark. Courtesy of USHMM.


Resource: Gragg, Rod. My Brother's Keeper. Center Street, 2016.


Cindy Stewart, a high school social studies teacher, church pianist, and inspirational historical fiction author, semi-finaled in the American Christian Fiction Writer’s 2017 Genesis contest, and won ACFW’s 2014 First Impressions contest in the historical category. Cindy is passionate about revealing God’s handiwork in history. She resides in North Georgia with her college sweetheart and husband of thirty-seven years and near her married daughter, son-in-law, and four adorable grandchildren. She’s currently writing a fiction series set in WWII Europe.


  1. Very interesting---When I was 15, I visited Northern Denmark and all my grandparent's relations in 1963 for a long summer. At that time the Danes still would not speak of the resistance except mumbled to family members, still fearing repercussions from Nazi sympathizers. At this time many Germans vacationed in the North along the pristine beaches of the seacoast/fishing towns. In the last few years, we have found 'mumblings' of family member involved in transporting Jews to Scotland, and Sweden. Quite a feat when you consider how rough the North Sea and Skattegut can be certain times of the year. We keep digging and hope to connect with the actual families verbally in the fall during a visit.

    I always remember how proud my grandparents were of King Christian IX and his family appearing with 'Juden' arm bands after the invasion, which I learned about at an early age. And, I will always remember the suspicion and yet cordiality--German visitors were treated, during my summer there.

    1. Oh, Sandi, thank you so much for sharing this information. I'd love to know what you find out when you go to Denmark in the fall. Here's my e-mail address if you learn anything you would like to share: cindy(at)cindykstewart(dot)com

  2. This is a wonderful, important article, Cindy. I posted it to my Facebook page.

    1. Thank you so much, Louise! I was touched when I first learned about the difference the Danish citizens made during the holocaust. Their willingness to work together, risking their lives to save their fellow man was unparalleled.

  3. Oh my! Wonderful to hear of citizens doing what it takes to protect a beleaguered people. Do you know what happened to the boy in the belfry, or is that a story for another post?

    1. Hi, Connie! The boy in the belfry was taken in by a village family. I'd love to know what happened to him after that.

  4. Wonderful! Look forward to more, and to your novel. Great work, cuz!

  5. To Ms. Stewart. I enjoyed reading your article. It is always great to hear about how God delivered the Jewish people during the Holocaust. I've heard stories about individuals who helped to rescue them, and "group efforts" like those of Corrie, Betsie, Wilhelm (spelling?), & Caspar
    Ten Boom. There were also efforts like those of Kindertransport in Great Britain. However, the story that you researched and wrote about was new for me. It was good (smile). I didn't realize that there were efforts even as far north as in Denmark to rescue Jewish people, and to move them to a safer location--in this case, Sweden.
    I majored in history at an Ivy League school, & as you might guess, have been interested in historical events for a long while. I received the Lord Jesus Christ as Saviour before I graduated from high school. From then & forward, it has always been neat to learn about how the Lord moved in history. I'd be interested in how you get some of your ideas when researching.
    In any event, I appreciate this story that took place in Denmark during WWII.
    Clarke Fort