Tuesday, August 1, 2023

Miracle Escape from Denmark: A WWII Story

by Cindy Kay Stewart

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.


These true, heartwarming stories portray the love and bravery shown by many individuals who risked their lives to save those in danger and help win WWII for the Allies. Some found themselves at the mercy of their conquerors but managed to escape. Others sacrificed their lives. From snow-covered Norway to Japanese-occupied China, from remote northern Russia to the flatlands of Belgium, larger than life stories give credence to the adage that truth is stranger than fiction. 

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Cindy Kay Stewart, a retired high school social studies teacher and current inspirational historical romance author, writes stories of hope, steeped in faith, and grounded in love. Her manuscripts have won the Touched by Love Award, the First Impressions contest, and the Sandra Robbins Inspirational Writing Award. They've also finaled in the Maggie Award of Excellence and the Cascade Awards, and semi-finaled in the Genesis contest. Cindy is passionate about revealing God’s handiwork in history. She resides in North Georgia with her college sweetheart and husband of forty-two years. Her daughter, son-in-law, and four adorable grandchildren live nearby. Cindy’s currently writing a fiction series set in WWII Europe.