Charlotte and Karl are a typical Danish-Jewish couple in their 70s. They live in a spacious, classically Danish apartment in Østerbro, where the extended family congregates regularly for Jewish holidays and for Shabbat. They serve old family recipes like gefilte fish and golden chicken soup alongside rødgrød. Grandchildren tumble around and, to me, they embody hygge.
We met Charlotte and Carl when we were very new to Denmark and they threw open the doors of their home to us many times. It was natural to them – in Charlotte and Karl you get the best side of Denmark. And if it wasn’t for the best side of Denmark, they would not be here today.
This October marked the 70th anniversary of the covert evacuation of 7,800 Danish Jews from Denmark to Sweden. Among the evacuees were Karl, who was eight and a half at the time, and Charlotte, who was just five.
Their memories of the experience are those of children. They mainly recall feelings, smells and sounds. Their parents shielded them from the worst. Karl remembers running down the back staircase when the Germans came and knocked on the door of his family’s home on Hillerødgade in Nørrebro. He remembers running with his parents and sister through gardens in Dragør. After two failed attempts to cross the Øresund, they finally found a boat able to take them across from Nordhavn thanks to help from their accountant. As they boarded the vessel, a German soldier saw them, looked straight at Karl and turned away.
Karl doesn’t enjoy telling the story; he says he tells it for the next generation, so they understand. He asks that their names be changed for this article; he belongs to a pre-reality TV world where modesty and privacy are important. Charlotte, however, is happier to speak of her experiences.
“I’ve never talked about it so much as in the last few months,” she says. “My parents never talked about it after we came back. They just said: ‘Now you’ll have a pleasant life, so let’s never mention it again.’ They were just trying to do the right thing.”
Charlotte’s family are what many jokingly call ‘Viking Jews’. They arrived in Denmark in the 17th century and, while they remained proudly Jewish, integrated beautifully. Charlotte’s father left it late to flee in 1943, despite various warnings, because he could not imagine that it could apply to him. How could he, a Dane, have to run from Denmark?
They took a train to Gilleleje. Each member of the family wore three layers of clothing – it couldn’t look like they were running away. But when they got there, the Gestapo had realised what was happening and they had to hide. The elderly were sent to the loft of a church, among them Charlotte’s maternal grandmother. But her paternal grandmother was turned away – there was no more room.
At that moment a young woman called Marie Olsen was making pickles when she saw Jews running through the streets of Gilleleje. She had worked for a Jewish family in Copenhagen and recognised faces among those fleeing.
“She hid us in her barn above the horses – she was very nice,” recalls Charlotte. “She gave everyone smørrebrød. That night the Gestapo found everyone in the church and sent them to Theresienstadt [see http://bit.ly/15Hr8V7]. Life and death were so close.”
Charlotte and her family carried on their journey the next day, unaware they would never see their grandmother again. Charlotte was drugged to stop her making a noise, but remembers a boat and a Swedish policeman putting her on the back of his bicycle when they arrived.
Both Karl and Charlotte’s families were well treated in Sweden and welcomed with open arms when they returned to Denmark in 1945.
“All this talking is stirring up the soup,” says Charlotte. “I will always wonder why I’m alive when my grandmother is not. But we have to tell the story so it won’t be forgotten. Danish men and women risked their lives when they could have just sat around drinking coffee.”
It’s heart-breaking to hear the childish memories of snapshots of goodness among ordinary people against a backdrop of evil: the accountant who helped Karl’s family escape, Maria Olsen and her smørrebrod, the soldier who turned away at Nordhavn and many more. I think Charlotte had tears in her eyes as we said goodbye, and I know there were tears in mine.