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[Gilleleje Kirke—Malene Thyssen / [GNU Free Documentation] Wikimedia]

The Nazis invaded Denmark in April 1940. For propaganda purposes, they allowed the Danes considerable freedom and did not arrest Danish Jews.  

By 1943, resistance forces in Denmark had increasingly become a nuisance to the Germans. Suffering reverses on many other fronts, the Germans feared Denmark could become a staging area for an Allied invasion. Hitler ordered a crackdown on the occupied country. Georg F. Duckwitz, a Nazi official, secretly warned the Danish government that Hitler intended to round up Denmark’s 7,800 Jews and send them to concentration camps.

To the surprise of Hitler, Denmark refused to hand over its Jews, arguing that they were Danish citizens. Instead, political leaders openly encouraged Danes to protect Jews. Lutheran bishops issued a statement reminding Danes that Jesus was a Jew, that loving one’s neighbor applies to Jews, and that freedom is worth the risk of life. They reminded their congregations that it is better to obey God than man. Citizens responded by hiding Jews and delivering them to the coast where fishermen could ferry them to neutral Sweden. To elude Nazi checkpoints, the Danes adopted many ruses. Ambulances transported some Jews. A motorcade of refugees was disguised as a funeral procession. Danes donated money to cover the cost of the rescue operation and to purchase precious fuel for the boats.

The rescue was not without casualties. Many Jews and boatmen perished at sea during bad weather. On land, Nazis captured and sometimes shot resistance workers. 

Gilleleje, Denmark, is just ten miles across the Kattegat Straight from Sweden. Naturally, it became a gathering point for escaping Jews. On this day 3 October 1943, Kjeldgaard Jensen, Gilleleje’s Lutheran pastor, read the bishops’ letter to his congregation. The little town responded heroically, accepting over 1,300 Jews and sheltering them in attics, barns, and shops. Each night, little boats left the docks with a precious cargo of lives.

A large contingent of Jews reached Gilleleje on 5 October. By nightfall five hundred Jews and resistance members were hiding in Gilleleje. This was too many for the fishermen to ferry across. Fortunately, a schooner had taken shelter in the harbor during a storm the night before. The town’s folk raised fifty thousand Danish kroner (about US $153,000 in 2020)  to persuade its captain to take aboard hundreds of Jews.

When the schooner was just half loaded, the captain took fright and cast off. Little boats loaded as many other Jews as they could. Still a hundred remained in danger. Where could they hide until the townfolk could disperse them by daylight to safe places outside town? Pastor Jensen volunteered the church. He hid eighty in the loft and another twenty in the parish hall. 

Somehow the Gestapo got word. Led by Hans Juhl, Germans surrounded the church, threatening to burn it down with everyone in it unless they surrendered. All one hundred Jews were arrested except one boy who hid in the belfry.

Afterward pastor Jensen wrote and signed a sad note:

5 October 1943 was a terrible day for all of Gilleleje. This was the day the German occupation forces carried out a raid looking for any Jews in the village. This was repeated during the following days, and many known and previously [unknown] Jews (estimated at 1200–1300) had taken refuge here – both in private houses and, unfortunately, also in the church loft and parish hall. Unluckily for us, the Gestapo and police forces stormed these premises. I, the undersigned parish priest, had been up in the loft on numerous occasions to help and give comfort in the desperate situation that had unfolded. Probably 100 Jews were taken to Horserød Prison Camp, from which they have since left – but for where?

He soon collapsed from the strain and sense of failure. However, Gilleleje was not done with its rescue work. Its citizens rented another schooner, anchoring it out to sea where it would be safer and ferrying Jews to it. Several voyages later, the town had delivered all its remaining hunted people to safety. 

Because of Denmark’s courageous defiance of Hitler, ninety-five percent of its Jews survived the holocaust. Nearly twenty percent of those survivors went through Gilleleje. In a fascinating side story, one of the refugees, a musician, repaid his hosts with a family heirloom—a precious lock of Beethoven’s hair. Analyzed late in the twentieth century, it showed Beethoven died of acute lead poisoning.

—Dan Graves

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