Escaping the Holocaust

Millions of Jews died in the Holocaust, but very few from Denmark. Why? Historian and journalist Bo Lidegaard investigates how Danish people - and certain Nazis - helped Denmark's Jews flee to safety....

Millions of Jews died in the Holocaust, but very few from Denmark. Why? Historian and journalist Bo Lidegaard investigates how Danish people - and certain Nazis - helped Denmark's Jews flee to safety.

Paul Kennedy's interview with Bo begins with a discussion of this photo, taken in the early 1940s. It shows Kis Marcus and her children. Bo uncovered the diary Kis wrote in the days before, during and after her escape from Denmark.


The Countrymen by is published by Random House.

Bo Lidegaard talks about writing The Countrymen

Book Excerpt: Countrymen 

The Schooner Flyvbjerg

While Adolph Meyer and his fellow refugees had to move quickly from one hiding place to another near Gilleleje, the situation around Gilleleje's harbor was coming to a head. It started with an embarrassing episode, which is reflected in a report from Sergeant Mortvig from the Coast Guard. He had already been an involuntary participant the previous day in Gestapo-Juhl's raid against the cutter "Danebrog", just as it was heading out of the harbor with 17 fleeing Jews. After the gunfire and the arrest of the Jews, the cutter was seized by Gestapo-Juhl and berthed "in the immediate vicinity of the control house", where the Danish coastal police was housed. But when another boat, "Ingeborg", came into the harbor shortly after 9:00 a.m. the duty officer left his post to check it. Mortvig reports with tongue in cheek on further events:

"When [the duty officer] came back after approximately 10 minutes, the cutter ["Danebrog"] had sailed and was well outside the harbor. The duty officer immediately reported the development to the undersigned [and states] that he did not notice people onboard the cutter, and did not hear the cutter's motor start, but he declared that the cutter sailed under its own power.

The owner of the boat, fisherman Juhl Richard Svendsen, born 4/7/1906 in Gilleleje [...] who after Ocotber 5 was wanted by the German police, disappeared from his home on the 6th, so it must be assumed that it is he who has sailed with the cutter (probably to Sweden)."

The bone-dry report concludes with a laconic remark, in which one can discern a faint undertone of Sergeant Mortving's quiet triumph:

"Criminal Inspector Juhl, who later in the day arrived here on patrol, was notified."

Gestapo-Juhl in other words was told to his face that the cutter he had arrested the previous day and placed under the control of the Danish coastal police at the harbor was taken by its owner, who was a wanted man, and sailed off in full daylight right in front of the Danish guard who claimed to have seen and heard nothing - just as they had not the previous days and nights. What Mortving did not feel he had to tell Gestapo-Juhl, and what is not revealed in his report, is that "Danebrog" had run aground in the harbor and could not get out on its own. Fisherman Axle Sorensen had to tow him out with his boat "The Gull", and only then could "Danebrog" leave the port. The fishermen in Gilleleje had every reason to trust that the Danish coastal police were on their - and the refugee helpers' - side, just as Gestapo-Juhl had every reason not to trust his Danish colleagues.

The influx into the small town was hard to keep a secret. At the butcher on Vesterbrogade there were about 30 Jews, and the fishmonger also had a house full of refugees. It was clear that they had to be dealt with as soon as possible - preferably shipped out. Some refugees jumped to conclusions and left Gilleleje with their mission unaccomplished. Among them was Levysohn, who had spent a restless night in the fisherman's small home:

"The hours crept on. At 5 a.m. Wednesday morning, the fisherman went down to the harbor to see how things were. He came back to tell me that the Gestapo were still in the harbor, so escape was out of the question. I had to get back to Copenhagen as, in his opinion, it was too risky to be in Gilleleje. The train went at 6:30 a.m. I got a cup of morning coffee and he followed me down to the little station outside Gilleleje where I got ontothe train. (...) Of those who wanted to escape, there were not many along; most stayed in Gilleleje to wait and see. Whether they subsequently crossed over I have no idea. The mood on the train was somewhat dull and nervous, but the ride was smooth. At one place a lot of German soldiers came in, but those clodhoppers obviously were not dangerous."

Back in Gilleleje a visiting helper, assistant professor Schmidt from Helsingør, cycled down to the harbor early in the morning, where he had spotted a dozen "wind drivers", many of them large schooners, which were moored one next to the other along the piers. If you could get their sails up it would do the trick. The assistant professor made ​​several unsuccessful attempts to get in touch with skippers, and finally made contact with a captain from Fyen, Gunnar Flyvbjerg. He hesitated. He was not the sole owner of the schooner, and would also be putting his brother's share at risk if he ventured to transport a boatload of Jews. Eventually Schmidt persuaded skipper Flyvbjerg and the two young men who constituted the crew. At the control post on the center pier they got the coastal police officer's approval of the plan. The departure was scheduled for 1 p.m., and preparations for a quick departure were made on board the schooner.

"Flyvbjerg" could take several hundred refugees, and the message that there was now the possibility of a ship spread by word of mouth among the helpers, who each had knowledge of small groups of refugees hiding in various locations in and around the city. Thus the news also reached Adolph Meyer's small travelling party, which had just given up trying to obtain a car:

"Now, another car came an hour later in a hurry to get us to a crossing, we flew off, and the car would have to return to pick up the young folks who were following us on foot."

The local helpers have written multiple contemporary accounts of the ensuing events at the harbor that morning. Although much effort was made to manage the influx of Jews to the harbor, the situation with the many refugees in the tense atmosphere could not be kept under control. Only a few hours after Gestapo-Juhl had left the port area, men and women, young and old, children and luggage, all flocked down to the center pier where the schooner "Flyvbjerg" was moored. The helpers were not organized or coordinated, and everyone wanted their own groups to reach the boat. The rush was both a moving but also a deeply disturbing sight, as the Norwegian engineering student, who was part of the vain attempts to gain control of the situation, has amply described:

"The departure was originally intended for 12:30p.m. but already by 10 o'clock the coastal police gave the ready signal and because it was important to use the time while the Germans were not around, it was determined that it should sail immediately. At the same time the message was given throughout the city, and scenes there could not be depicted more dramatically in any film. The once so peaceful seaside resort, now sitting there quietly in autumn, with almost uninhabited streets, was suddenly full of life. In a moment, all the house doors sprang open and Jews flowed out of almost every house. In an instant, the whole main street was full of people, women and men, from the youngest toddlers to gray haired old men, poor and rich - all on the run from the barbarians. The entire city's population helped and all kinds of vehicles were in use. Old gouty women were carried by weather-beaten fishing hands, while others were rolled off by wheelbarrows and other odd transport devices. I found a little girl who seemed to have become separated from her family. I got her up on my bicycle bar and rode at full speed towards the harbor. She cried when I picked her up, but gradually as I was yelling and screaming in Norwegian pushing myself forward through the crowd on the pier, her fear turned into enthusiasm, and it was a very excited little youngster I delivered on board the ship. It was a strange sight to see all these people on the run along the main street, down towards the harbor, people who had done nothing wrong but whose only sin was to be Jews. They were now being chased away with empty, expressionless or resigned faces, without understanding a bit of it all. As for myself, having handed over the little one, I swallowed and swallowed and found it hard to hold back the tears, whether it was the joy that it all seemed to go so well, or it was the bitterness of having to witness that kind of thing in a Nordic country in the year 1943 - or maybe because of both.

The tension was constantly at the breaking point, for the Germans could get there at just any moment. But everything went well until suddenly there was a cry: "The Germans are coming!" and in an instant the moorings were cast off and the schooner sailed towards Sweden and freedom with 210 Jews on board."

It is impossible to say where the rumor originated, but the cry of the Gestapo's arrival spread like wildfire and created panic on the center pier. Although it turned out to be a false alarm, the embarkation of several hundred Jews from the port in full daylight put the local Danish authorities in an impossible situation. While they contributed as best they could to facilitate the operation, they had to assume the worst, if it became too obvious to the Gestapo that they were actively assisting in the escape they were supposed to prevent. This dilemma shines through a short telegraphic report, which police officer Mortving submitted on the same day on the situation at the port up to "Flyvbjerg"s departure. The sergeant is clearly aware that the report will be read not only by his own superiors but also by their German counterparts:

"Today at 10:30 a.m. I became aware that there was a large influx of Jews to "Flyvbjerg" of Hirtshals, which lay at the eastern quay in Gilleleje. I set off immediately to prevent the departure, but I was asked by many unknown persons not to prevent departure, as they would otherwise make use of machine guns. The persons referred to were wearing coats, so it could not be ascertained whether or not they were in possession of firearms. As I was alone at the harbor along with one reserve officer and there was no possibility of calling for reinforcements for as large an assembly as around 300-400 people, I let "Flyvbjerg" depart unimpeded with the Jews at 10:45 a.m. According to information obtained there were about 230 Jews on board."

For Meyer and other refugees streaming into the harbor, the premature departure was fatal, which Meyer already observes:

"When we came, the ship had sailed (because informants had come indicating that the Gestapo had set off from Helsingør). The ship could easily have waited until we had come; the Gestapo had not yet come, and for all of us it was cause for many disquieting hours and for more a cause of fatal accidents."

On board the schooner, the many Jewish refugees were able to breathe a sigh of relief, although they undoubtedly feared for a time that the Gestapo would sound the alarm and take up the pursuit. The skipper and his crew had sailed with the certainty that they had been seen, and that the police would have to report on their departure. The police report confirms this, as it inevitably concludes with the information that could be fatal for those concerned:

"The said schooner "Flyvbjerg" which is 81 tons, is owned and led by Captain Gunnar Flyvbjerg, born 5/20-1915 in Uggerby, and also had a crew of two men."

In the harbor report from the Swedish authorities there is also a telling footnote concerning the Flyvbjerg's arrival at Höganäs later the same day with 186 refugees on board: "When "Flyvbjerg" arrived in Höganäs port ... a German cargo ship was also here ... which took cargo to Bremen, where it would sail on October 7."

While the confusion was approaching a climax in Gilleleje, Herbert Levysohn had, via Helsingør, reached back to Copenhagen's northern suburbs, where he had friends and acquaintances. But it turned out that several contacts and relatives that he sought refuge with were at least as vulnerable as himself. In his distress the young man sought out the parents of a class mate he had recently come to know:

"I felt that the best place was with my good friend Jacob Grauer's parents on Bøgevej, it was nearby. (...) I took a taxicab there, and rang the bell. Mrs. Grauer opened the door. "Good God child, you haven't left yet?" she exclaimed when she saw me, "hurry and come in and stay." (...)

When in distress you have to know your friends, the old proverb says, and this was again brilliant proof of the unique friends one has. Despite the fact that my friendship with Jacob is of a relatively recent date, and the family does not know me as well as so many others do, I felt that day that they had known me since I was born, and even more than that, like I was a son of their own, so well did they treat me. First I got a tremendous meal that I needed without any forethought, for it had been about a day since I last had anything, but one was not hungry in those days, there was no time. Then I got at least five buckets of hot water so I could wash myself thoroughly, which I also really needed, and in the end I came up to Jacob's bed wearing his pajamas to get some sleep."

Excerpted from Countrymen by Bo Lidegaard Copyright © 2013. Excerpted by permission of Signal, a division of Random House of Canada Ltd. All rights reserved. It was no wonder that skipper Flyvbjerg and his crew decided to stay as refugees in Höganäs until the war was over.


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