The story of King Christian X and the yellow Star of David has permeated the traditional telling of the history of Denmark. The story, which originated in Leon Uris’s 1958 historical fiction ‘Exodus’, tells of the king’s revolutionary reaction to the German command that all Jews must wear a yellow Star of David badge. He said that all Danes are equal; if the Danish Jews must bear the star, he and every loyal Dane would do the same. According to the legend, the next day, the entire population wore armbands showing the Star of David, and the Nazis swiftly rescinded the order.
Unlike Jews in all other countries under Nazi occupation, the Danish Jews were never required to wear the yellow Star of David badge to identify themselves. Nevertheless, this widely-cited story of King Christian X and the Star of David is a myth, thought to have been put into circulation after the escape of the Danish Jews to Sweden. But although this legend is untrue, it is emblematic of one of the greatest triumphs in Danish history. The population was able to save an estimated 95 percent of its Jews from being deported by the Nazis. While the Nazis exterminated 6 million out of the total 8-9 million Jews in Europe, Denmark stood alone as the only Nazi-occupied nation to collectively protect its Jews – a remarkable example of benevolence and valour amidst the grim period of the Holocaust.
In 1940, Germany invaded Denmark in violation of its neutrality. However, as the Nordics were considered a pure Aryan race by the Nazis, the Danes were well-treated under the occupation and the Danish Jews were left untouched by the Nazi officers.
As the German military situation weakened during the war, the relationship between Denmark and Germany began to deteriorate. The Nazis began to drain the Danes of their resources, and the Danes protested by assaulting German soldiers, sabotaging factories and holding demonstrations.
By late 1942, Denmark was officially declared ‘enemy territory’.
Dr. Werner Best was introduced as a new plenipotentiary, invested with the full authority to transact business on Hitler’s behalf. Dr. Best was ordered to prepare the ‘resettlement’ of the Danish Jews. He warned Hitler about the potentially dire consequences of the persecution of the Jews in Denmark, positive that the Danes would remonstrate. Unaccustomed to having his orders questioned, Hitler replaced Dr. Best with supreme German military commander General von Hannecken.
On 28 August 1943, the Danish government was given an ultimatum to ban public assemblies and strikes, establish a curfew and introduce the death penalty for sabotage. It refused, and the next day General von Hannecken declared martial law, disbanding the Danish government.
Hitler decided it was time to bring the ‘Final Solution’ to Denmark. The Nazis began to prepare a military raid on the approximately 8,000 Jews living in Denmark. Special SS commando groups were flown in, boats arrived at the ports, and trucks were driven in to prepare to relocate the Jews.
The news about the imminent deportation of the Jews leaked from the German Embassy, sparking an immediate reaction from the Danes. People spread the information and warned their Jewish friends and neighbours without any former planning or organisation. As telephones were tapped and could not be used for communication of secret information, people had to deliver warnings in person. Many took time off work in order to spread the news and protect the Danish Jews with a safe haven if need be.
On 23 September 1943, the Nazis went into action. Gestapo trucks drove through the streets to arrest the Jews of Denmark. The police refused to collaborate with the Nazi officers. By that time, most of the Jews were gone, and the Gestapo only managed to apprehend 202 mostly elderly people who had not managed to go into hiding in time.
95 percent fled
This was the first time that Hitler’s Final Solution had failed due to action taken by the general population. But Hitler was not ready to give up on the capture of the Danish Jews yet, and quickly made plans for a second raid.
As the Danes made plans to hide their Jewish countrymen in Sweden, CF Duckwitz (a German official working in Copenhagen as a shipping consultant) warned the Swedish government about the planned arrests of the Jews and their likely escape to Sweden. He also made plans with the German naval commander of the Copenhagen harbour not to conduct any naval patrols during the night between October 1 and 2.
During the night of 1 October 1943, the Nazis launched their attack, carrying out a raid across the entire nation to arrest the Danish Jews. Having been warned, approximately 95 percent of the Jews had already escaped to Sweden, mostly by sailing across the sea in fishing boats. Thanks mainly to Duckwitz’s efforts over a period of merely two weeks, 7,220 Jews and 680 non-Jewish family members successfully managed to escape across the water to safety in politically-neutral Sweden.
However, 284 Jews were captured and then deported to the Theresienstadt ghetto in Czechoslovakia, which served as a transit camp, labour camp and holding pen. Over the next two months, the Nazis managed to catch around 180 people on their way to Sweden, while fewer than a hundred Jews remained in hiding in Denmark.
Of the total of 474 deported Jews, all but 51 survived the Holocaust. Most of those who died were either ill or elderly. The relatively high survival rate of the Danish Jews in the Theresienstadt ghetto was mostly attributed to the pressure Danish officials placed on the Germans out of concern for the welfare of their countrymen.
The Danish population proved that collaborative resistance during the Holocaust could save lives.