Desperate to leave their homeland, for many it was their last port of call

Between early 1945 and November 1946, Denmark housed a quarter of a million German refugees at camps that quickly became cemeteries

On 20 March 1945, the heavily pregnant German citizen Erna Perlmann arrived exhausted and weakened in Aalborg. Together with 3,600 wounded German soldiers and 4,000 civilian refugees, she had crossed the Baltic on the Potsdam, sailing from Danzig to Copenhagen Freeport, where she was kept on board an extra week by the authorities. She was eventually accommodated at Kjellerupgade School, which like many schools had been temporarily redesigned as a makeshift refugee camp. Here she gave birth on 26 March to two boys. One died immediately and the other a few hours later. Three days later she died herself.

The dilemmas persisted: practical and of principle
The tragic story of Perlmann is just one of many from the period in 1945 when Denmark faced not only the seemingly impossible problem of dealing with a sudden huge influx of German refugees, but the moral dilemma of how to treat them humanely in the overwhelming atmosphere of post-war hatred for all things German. In the period from 11 February until 5 May 1945, around 250,000 refugees fled across the Baltic Sea to Denmark to take up temporary refuge − numbers that actually saw them make up five percent of Denmark’s total population.

A high number of them were children, and many were adopted by Danish families, touched by the plight of the orphans, but in July 1945 all such children were ordered by law to be returned to the camps, despite protests from the adoptive families. In 1945 alone, 13,500 of these refugees died, of which 7,000 were children under the age of five.

Better off torpedoed
Arriving safely in Denmark was no mean feat in itself. Besides the unbearable overcrowding and unsanitary conditions on board the ships, the refugees had to contend with attacks from the British and Russian fleets – it has been estimated that up to 20,000 refugees lost their lives at the bottom of the sea. On the night of 30 January 1945, three torpedoes fired by a Russian submarine sunk the Wilhelm Gustloff in a mere 50 minutes, killing between 5,000 and 9,000 people.

During a chaotic early period, around 1,000 camps were set up around Denmark, and by July 1945, 10,000 Danes had been gainfully employed as guards at the camps. A home of amateur football, the Kløvermarken playing fields in Amager, was one enormous refugee camp. High fences and barbed wire protected citizens from the refugees, and an existing law from 1871 was re-enacted that strictly forbid any fraternisation whatsoever with the internees. By 1946, the number of camps totalled 465 and the official refugee figures 196,518.

A climate of vengeance
The camps were under the overall control of Johannes Kjærbøl. As a previous minister in the unpopular Scavenius government that had presided during the Occupation, he probably had no choice but to take a hard line in his administration of the camps to avoid accusations of favouring the Germans. Donations of food, toys and clothing were not allowed, and all emergency help came from Swedish and American charities. The Danish Red Cross refused to help and even went as far as to support the Danish authorities in their attempt to exclude the critical International Committee of the Red Cross from supervising the refugee camps.

The unforgiving and vengeful mood had already been put into words by Information newspaper on 1 May 1945. Its article contained dark predictions of the inevitable danger of epidemics and spread of disease in the wake of such an invasion. And in Aftenbladet newspaper on 21 June 1945, an article with the headline “40 Germans dying every day in Copenhagen” paradoxically told the story of the “paradise life” led by refugees in Copenhagen. The journalist visited the refugee camps, typically schools or sports halls, and pointed out that those living in squalour had only to thank their fellow countrymen for their unbearable crimes. Enghaveparken was the scene of a demonstration in August 1945 when 3,000 parents held a demonstration to have the Copenhagen schools immediately free of German refugees. A popular underground newspaper, Free Denmark, referred to the refugees as “parasites”, concluding that the government should make it clear that help should never voluntarily be offered to the German refugees and injured soldiers.

This resistance and resentment towards the homeless Germans from the media was in no uncertain terms reflected by a controversial statement from the Danish Medical Association on 25 March 1945: “Due to prevailing circumstances, we are of the opinion that we are not able to provide any form of medical help to German civilians.” The hatred for the Germans was thus articulated not only in the popular press, but also in academic circles. The Hippocratic Oath did not apply to Germans.

Doctors remember their dead
However, this declaration by the association must be seen in the light of the so-called ‘clearing murders’ committed by the ruthless Petergruppen, a German paramilitary group created in 1943 and active during the final two years of the Occupation. For each German soldier killed by the Resistance, a well-known Dane was murdered by way of revenge.

On 20 February 1945 at 6am, cold-blooded executioners from the Gestapo broke into the bedroom of Poul Kühnel, the head of gynaecology at Odense Hospital. He had already received a tip-off from the Resistance that he was a potential target and was hiding in an attic room. Downstairs, his wife slept with their eight-year-old son. Mrs Kühnel pressed the button that rang a bell in the attic room, and her husband narrowly escaped death.

In search of a new target, the hitmen then went to the doctor’s residences at the hospital, shouting out warnings of a bomb in the building. Four young doctors ran out, only to be gunned down on the spot. In this period, the Gestapo executed at least ten doctors and imprisoned 30.

Prior to the arrival of refugees in Denmark and the liberation, all newspapers had been ordered to publish details of the executions on page 3 of the newspapers. In the period from 21 February to 19 April 1945, a total of 64 executions took place in just 58 days.

And all the while, behind closed-doors negotiations between Denmark and Germany continued regarding medical assistance for the expected influx of refugees.

It was in this atmosphere that the Danish Medical Association took its hard-line stance.

Priests and poets in opposition
Not all organisations followed this line of thought. A group of 60 priests spoke out in a plea for humane treatment of the refugees in June 1945. The priests emphasised that the refugees were overwhelmingly Christian, forced against their own will by a government to leave their homes and families. Already in June, the priests were warning of high child mortality rates in the camps. Despite agreeing that the refugees should be kept apart from the general population and repatriated as soon as possible, the priests boldly stated: “We fought against Nazism because they did not regard the Jewish race as fellow human beings, and we will, by the same token, fight against a new Nazism that does not regard the German race as fellow human beings.” A scathing editorial in Information the following day wholly rejected the opinions of the priests: “We despise the Germans just as much as we did in times of war − now they are pathetic and grovelling. We want them treated harshly, as we know that they can only behave when they receive orders.”

Another high-profile Dane who argued for compassion was the beloved author and poet Tove Ditlevsen, who appealed in Politiken in March 1946 for a more compassionate treatment. “These are dark times, far darker than those of the Occupation,” she wrote. “It is foolish to believe that the instincts that Hitler so successfully awakened in the German population do not exist in our own. Foolish to believe that one group of people is better or even different than another.”

Key questions persist
But the few dissenting opinions were clearly in the minority and largely criticised or contemptuously ignored, just like the stories of the refugees themselves. They remained suppressed until only relatively recently, but have since been well-documented by historians.

Many questions have been asked. Could Denmark have implemented a more targeted humanitarian effort that might have prevented so many refugees dying in camps? Given the terror actions their profession was subjected to, was it reasonable to expect doctors to show a more humanitarian approach? Was the government under enormous pressure to prove its total commitment to the Allies after their capitulation to the Germans and subsequent collaboration?

These are all valid questions, but are difficult to answer without being able to experience the spirit of the times. After all, it was only after the Second World War had ended that the full horrors of the Nazi atrocities started becoming public knowledge.

The first refugees were finally sent home in November 1946, 1,000 at a time on specially commissioned trains.

Erna Perlmann was not among them. She ended her short life on 29 March 1945, far from home on a makeshift bed in a converted school in Aalborg. Her story is a small slice of history: an innocent part of a political power play in which she was just one of many victims.

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