- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 31, 2002

Political Books

A CONSPIRACY OF DECENCY: THE RESCUE OF THE DANISH JEWS DURING WORLD WAR II

Emmy E. Werner

Westview, $26, 212 pages

Two kinds of Germans dominated Western Europe during World War II: Those who, with unrestrained energy, helped Adolf Hitler carry out the Holocaust, Hitler's willing executioners, and those Germans, a tiny handful by all accounts, who did what they could to thwart Hitler's pogrom against European Jewry.
Then there were two kinds of occupied Europeans during the Holocaust era. There were the French who helped Hitler, and then there were the Danes who sabotaged Hitler. About the French, Eugen Weber has written that "between 1940 and 1944, more than one in four of the 330,000 Jews living on French territory were deported. The majority were identified, arrested and shipped off by French administrators and the French police, without whose zealous cooperation German forces in France would have been unable to carry out the job."
About the Danes, Emmy Werner, a University of California professor, tells an enthralling story. Denmark, a country with 4.5 million people, saved almost its entire Jewish population by a "conspiracy of decency." During a three-week period in October 1943, 7,000 Jews 93 percent of the Jewish population and 700 of their non-Jewish relatives were smuggled out of Denmark into neutral Sweden. Yet the chronicle raises questions about whether this Danish "conspiracy" could have worked without the silent and not-so-silent cooperation of fellow conspirators in the German occupation. For example:
m Georg F. Duckowitz, a German resident in Denmark, warned two leading Danish politicians of the Nazi plans for arrest and the date of the intended deportation of the Jews.
m Members of the German Coast Guard placed their ships in dry dock so that Danish fishing boats with their hidden Jewish cargo passed unharmed across the narrow channel to the Swedish coast.
m Danish Jews were not ordered to wear the yellow Star of David on their clothing.
The author quotes a letter in the Jerusalem Post by an October 1943 escapee about a Dane who organized a profitable fishing boat ferry service to Sweden. On a dark, stormy night he sailed off with a fish-hold of Jews. Out of nowhere, a German Navy patrol boat caught them in its searchlight and ordered the Danish vessel to heave-to. Told that the vessel was carrying fish, the German captain jumped on the boat and demanded the hatches be uncovered. He looked down on a bunch of frightened faces and, shouting loudly, "Ah, fish," returned to his boat and sailed off into the night. Quite clearly Danish Jewry could not have been saved without this kind of German "blind eye" cooperation.
The author offers five reasons for the success of the rescue conspiracy:
1. Denmark was geographically close to neutral Sweden, a safe harbor. Copenhagen is 11 miles from the Swedish coast city of Malmo.
2. The small number of Danish Jews, fewer than 8,000, made their escape manageable.
3. Germany waited three years before it moved against Danish Jewry.
4. Some highly-placed Germans opposed the war against the Jews.
5. The Germans were less brutal in their occupation of Denmark.
Numbers 3, 4 and 5 each raise the question, Why? The author has no answer. Perhaps there is no answer except this: If there were Germans who risked their lives in an assassination attempt against Hitler, there might be others ready to prevent the extermination of Danish Jews.
And perhaps there is another answer the courageous bearing of the Danish monarch, King Christian X, who at 11 every morning rode his horse through the streets of Copenhagen. The monarch, writes Ms. Werner, acknowledged "the greetings of the Danes with a salute, a handshake or a smile but he never responded to the salute of the German soldiers who sprang to attention as he passed."
I must warn that this is a book with little archival material. It is mainly first-person reports and photographs collected by the Holocaust Museum of what happened on the Copenhagen docks, sometimes in broad daylight. It turns out that there was greater danger from the decrepit fishing boats foundering because of inexperienced helmsmen than from the German enemy.
There is a sentence in Talmud that reads: "Whoever saves a single life, it is as if he had saved the world." And whoever saves 7,700 lives …?

Arnold Beichman, a Hoover Institution research fellow, is a columnist for The Washington Times.

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