In the years preceding the Holocaust, Denmark welcomed around 4,500 Jewish refugees, mainly from Germany and eastern European countries directly threatened by Nazi aggression pre-World War II. This ended when Denmark was occupied by the Germans in 1940.
The Nazi occupation of Denmark was somewhat unique in its approach, as the Germans wished to incur favor among the Danish, who they regarded as fellow “Aryans.” Nazi occupying authorities allowed the Danish royalty and government to remain in the country and even retain a considerable degree of autonomy, especially in regards to the “Jewish Question,” which was considered non-existent by the Danish people. As a result, Denmark was not pressed on this issue and Danish Jews were left unbothered.
In fact, Jews living in occupied-Denmark enjoyed a relatively stable existence, especially in comparison with the horrors inflicted on other Jews living under Nazi-occupation. Jewish religious life continued to function unbothered, and Danish Jews were not required to register their properties and assets or identify themselves. Most symbolic, they did not have to wear a yellow star or badge. King Christian X was outspokenly supportive of the Danish Jewish community during this period.
In 1943, resistance activities in Denmark flared and the Danish government resigned rather than capitulate to further German demnads. As a result of increased resistance and sabotage, the German authorities took direct control over Danish institutions. With this, the Nazis made plans to quickly deport Danish Jews. When word of this reached non-Jewish Danes, the Jewish community was immediately alerted, and one of the most remarkable rescue missions during the Holocaust commenced.
The Danish Underground, along with Danish authorities and countless private citizens, carried out a massive operation to get Danish Jews to safety. Danish authorities refused to cooperate with the Nazis, turning a blind eye to Jews found in hiding, and popular protests – including from the royal family – were prominent throughout the country. In a somewhat organized, somewhat spontaneous effort, the Danish Underground moved Jews to temporary safe houses, and then to the coast, with the goal of getting them across the Baltic Sea to neutral Sweden.
In a period of about a month, a number of fishermen ferried Danish Jews across the sea, and the rescue operation expanded to include the Danish government and police. Over 7,500 Jews and non-Jewish relatives – including Christians married to Jews – were rescued in this effort. Unfortunately, over 400 Danish Jews were captured by the Nazis and deported to Theresienstadt. However, the Danish population and authorities insistently and fervently demanded information about their whereabouts and living conditions, largely deterring the Nazis from transporting them to killing centers. 53 Danish died in Theresienstadt.
Denmark has one of the highest Jewish survival rates for any Nazi-occupied country, with the efforts of the Danish people saving almost the entire Danish Jewish community from the Holocaust.