Remember How Danes Donned Yellow Stars To Protect the Jews? That Never Happened.
But a new play explores the equally amazing—and real—tale of how an SS chief foiled Hitler’s plan to exterminate the country’s Jews
You know the legend: At the height of the Nazi occupation of Denmark, Berlin ordered all Danish Jews to don the infamous yellow star on the outside of their clothes. But the morning the decree was set to take effect, Denmark’s King Christian X rode out into the city wearing a yellow star of his own. By evening, the message had spread and the entire population of Copenhagen was wearing yellow stars, thwarting the Nazi program by making it impossible to tell Jew from gentile.
It’s an incredible story—probably the best-known example of mass civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance to come out of WWII. The trouble is it’s just that—a story. It never happened, and couldn’t have, because the Danish Jews were never forced to wear the yellow star. But the tale was prominently featured in American news outlets during the war, and after making its way into Leon Uris’ novel Exodus became one of the great unchallenged myths of European resistance.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that the Nazis failed to deport Danish Jews in significant numbers, thanks to an operation that became known as the “Miracle Rescue,” by which the vast majority of Danish Jews were spirited away to Sweden—a neutral country—in October 1943, where they lived out the rest of the war in relative safety. I first became aware of the story of the “Miracle Rescue” from my grandfather, Raphael “Folle” Bodin, who was a young, talented, up-and-coming Jewish tailor in Copenhagen when the Nazis invaded Denmark. In late 1943, a high-ranking Nazi broke party rules prohibiting fraternization with Jews and came to buy a new suit at the tailor shop owned by my grandfather’s father-in-law on Istedgade, in the red light district of Copenhagen, where my grandfather worked along with his brother-in-law, Nathan Golman.
I imagine my grandfather taking measurements and calling them out to Nathan, who noted them down on a small index card to be filed away. I imagine him trying to stop his hands from shaking and sweating as he stuck pins into the trouser hems of a man who symbolized everything evil in occupied Europe. And I imagine his astonishment when the Nazi, upon returning to collect his new garment, turned to the two Jewish men and warned them that a roundup of the Jews was imminent, telling them to flee.
They took the warning seriously and set about telling everyone they knew. Thanks to this, as well as a subsequent warning issued by Rabbi Marcus Melchior on the morning of Erev Rosh Hashanah, the vast majority of Denmark’s Jews escaped the Nazis, and the terrible fate of the camps. It was an operation that required coordination between the Danish Resistance and ordinary Danes who hid Jews in their homes, churches, and hospitals. Fishermen risked their lives to ferry strangers across the Øresund, the narrow waterway between Denmark and Sweden, in an estimated 900 boat trips. Of the nearly 8,000 Jews living in Denmark in 1943, only 472 were captured, and incredibly only 53 perished—that’s just 5.9 percent of the population captured and 0.66 percent killed. Given that 90 percent of Poland’s Jews were killed and that Holland, a country as liberal as Denmark and an equally proud resister of the Nazis, lost 75 percent of its Jews, these figures are truly remarkable.
What I was always told was that the Danes’ superior sense of morality, and the energy of its resistance movement, had caused the hardest of hardline Nazis to soften: That was the “miracle.” Denmark was commonly referred to as the “Cream Puff Front” by German soldiers, and maybe the easy lifestyle the Nazi occupiers found in their northern neighbor somehow rubbed off on them.
But 70 years after the event, a new crop of Danish historians has discovered something even more miraculous—that the mastermind behind the “Miracle Rescue,” was, in fact, the Nazi whose job it was to eliminate Denmark’s Jews.
On April 9, 1940, the Germans invaded Denmark. Hitler initially had no intention of occupying Denmark at all and merely wanted access to its airbases as a staging point for invading Norway—but changed his mind and ordered the bombardment of Århus and Copenhagen, Denmark’s two main cities, with leaflets claiming the Nazis were defending Danish neutrality against the threat of British aggression. The leaflets included a warning, or a threat, that if Denmark resisted, the next time the harmless pamphlets would be replaced with explosives. The Danish government capitulated; the battle for Denmark lasted just a little over two hours.
So began the Danish policy of negotiation with Germany. The policy allowed Denmark to maintain its own autonomy: its own parliament, royal family, judiciary, police force, fire brigade and, amazingly, a standing army of 3,000 troops. It’s this policy of negotiation that has been credited with saving Danish lives, but recent revelations have uncovered a darker truth: Denmark supplied Germany with up to 15 percent of her agricultural needs, earning the country the nickname “Germany’s Pantry,” while small arms factories on Danish soil produced munitions for the German war effort and Danish construction companies built German roads and bunkers.
These revelations have shocked the Danish public, whose contemporary national identity is built, at least in part, on grandiose stories of resistance to the occupation and an unimpeachable moral character. (Indeed, it has recently emerged that many fishermen who ferried Jews to Sweden took payment for these trips, and in some cases charged incredibly steep prices; no Jew was left behind not because they weren’t charged, but thanks to a fund set up by the Danish Resistance to cover the costs of passage.) As a result, Danes no longer talk about the Resistance throwing off the yoke of Nazi oppression but rather acknowledge the fact that we cooperated with the Germans. Some historians are even saying, in hushed tones, that we “collaborated.” Indeed, former Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen recently said that Denmark’s cooperation with Nazi occupiers during WWII was “morally unjustifiable” and “if everyone in Europe, if the Americans and the Russians, had thought the same as the Danish lawmakers, then Hitler would have won the war.”
But while researching this emerging controversy of conflicting narratives for a play I was writing, I delved into my own family’s story and discovered something startling: Before my grandfather’s brother-in-law Nathan died, he revealed the identity of the high-ranking Nazi officer who warned them to leave Denmark to one of my cousins, Margit. The problem was that it didn’t make any sense: The Nazi Nathan claimed had come into the tailor’s shop all those years ago to deliver a warning to Copenhagen’s Jews was Werner Best, the plenipotentiary overseeing the Danish occupation—a man better-known as “The Butcher of Paris.”
Best was a lifelong member of the Nazi Party—as a teenager, he founded a chapter of the National Youth League—and a protégé of Heinrich Himmler. As second-in-command of the SS, he was also a close member of Hitler’s inner circle. Why would such a man have shown compassion toward Denmark’s Jews?
Margit, who worked in the family tailor shop many years later, knew the only way to verify Nathan’s story was to find Werner Best’s measurement card. She went to the bureau that housed all their customer records and pulled out a dusty shoebox labelled “1940-43.” Inside, amid hundreds of cards that had been hidden away for decades, was the one that sent a chill down her spine: It was labeled “Dr. Karl Rudolph Werner Best.”
But that left an unanswered question: Why would the Nazi plenipotentiary of Denmark, a lifelong Fascist, order the round-up of the Jews one day and then undermine his own operation the next? The answer, I believe, lies in the most human of all impulses: ambition.
Werner Best was nothing if not ambitious. As a Himmler favorite, he was being groomed for the very top of the SS, but an internal power struggle in 1939 resulted in his ouster by Reinhard Heydrich. Instead, Best was posted to France, where he took out his aggression on the French, earning his nickname and a reputation for ruthlessness. Berlin took notice and asked him to write a paper on how to maintain the Thousand Year Reich after “their inevitable victory.” His conclusion was simple: Each country should think that it remained an autonomous state under the auspices of a Nazi umbrella. When asked where this theory of the “ideal satellite state,” could be tested, Best immediately suggested Denmark.
At the end of 1942, Best arrived in Copenhagen and soon went about trying to prove this theory. But with the upswing of sabotage attacks in 1943 he was instructed by Berlin to deliver a statement to the Danish Resistance by making Denmark Judenrein. With limited German troops at his disposal, and fearing a civil uprising if he deported 8,000 Danes to certain death—probably rightly—he went about fulfilling Hitler’s order to the letter, although not in the spirit the fuhrer likely intended.
Best sent his naval attaché, Georg Duckwitz, to Sweden to arrange safe passage and accommodation for Denmark’s Jews. (Duckwitz would later become West Germany’s ambassador to Denmark in the 1950s and be awarded the honor of Righteous Amongst Gentiles for his part in the Danish Jewish rescue.) And then Best himself walked into a Jewish tailor’s shop in Copenhagen and warned my grandfather and his brother-in-law to leave—effectively saving their lives and by extension many more.
Ultimately, Denmark was temporarily emptied of Jews. But Best undermined his own operation not out of an altruistic desire to save human life, but out of a pragmatic need to maintain a stable status quo in occupied Denmark and prove his theory of preserving the Reich’s influence. His success depended on the willingness of the Danish people to save their Jewish neighbors—to refuse to see them as anything but fellow Danes. Maybe, that, in the end, is the true miracle of the Danish rescue.
Bodin Saphir’s new play The Tailor’s Tale, based on his grandfather’s story, will have a staged reading on Jan. 27 in New York City at Scandinavia House, directed by the Danish actor/director Kim Bodnia. Click here for more information.
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