When the National Socialist armies of Germany overran most of Western Europe in 1940 they did not immediately round up Jews and send them off to death camps. The Nazis used a slow, methodical approach of discrimination at first, followed by the secret arrests of many leaders, and then finally shipping them off in masses to gas chambers (once the facilities were built) in 1942. The Nazis left one group of Jews alone for awhile in one nation: Denmark. The German war machine depended heavily on Danish agriculture and industry, and they also believed that the Danes were suitably “Nordic” so they tried to cultivate good relations with them. For those reasons and others, the Jews lived in relative peace under Nazi occupation.
But only for a time. Eventually pressure from Berlin came down and the National Socialists drew up plans to exterminate the 8000 Jews of Denmark. One man, Rabbi Marcus Melchior, got wind of the Nazi plan to swoop down in one night and begin the capture of all the Jews. On Thursday morning, September 30, 1943, he announced in his synagogue:
“There will be no service this morning. Instead, I have very important news to tell you. Last night I received word that tomorrow the Germans plan to raid all Jewish homes throughout Copenhagen to arrest all Danish Jews for shipment to concentration camps. We must take action immediately. You must leave the synagogue now and contact all your relatives, friends and neighbors you know who are Jewish and tell them what I have told you. You must tell them to pass the word on to everyone they know is Jewish. You must also speak to all your Christian friends and tell them to warn the Jews. You must do this immediately, within the next few minutes, so that two or three hours from now everyone will know what is happening. By nightfall tonight, we must all be in hiding.”
That very night, almost all the Jews in Denmark had vanished and were hiding in the homes of non-Jews.
On the night that the Nazis had marked on their calendars, they found only 284 Jews. Over the next few months they found another 200. The rest of the Jews were safely smuggled out of Denmark over to nearby neutral Sweden (including Rabbi Melchior).
The captured Jews were sent to the camp in Czechoslovakia known as Theresienstadt. The Danish government hounded the Nazis almost every day for the next two and a half years demanding to know how they are doing. They sent shipments of food, clothing, and medicine to them constantly—and most of it made it to the Danish Jews!
Fifty one Jews died of natural causes at Theresienstadt. However, not one single Danish Jew was sent to the death in the gas chambers.
Thank you Rabbi Melchior. Thank you all Danish non-Jews who loved their neighbor. Thank you Danish government for doing the right thing at the right time.