In Copenhagen, both the Jewish Museum and the Museum of the Danish Resistance make reference to and display a simple artifact: a train ticket. It is funny, the things that really connect with you. The story of the attempt to save the 8,000 Jews living in Copenhagen from the concentration camps is always moving and at times heroic. Yet this simple piece of pasteboard sticks.
The spine of the story is simple enough: the Nazis planned a round-up of the Jews, but word of the plan was leaked at the last minute by a German official who contacted the city’s chief rabbi. Within hours, the escape to neutral Sweden had begun. Ninety-five percent of the Jews would avoid deportation to a concentration camp, their surreptitious journeys to safety accomplished by some combination of car and truck and boat — and rail.
You take two trains from Copenhagen Central station to get to Gilleleje, a small fishing village on the coast north of the city. The first train takes you through small towns and birch forests to Helsingor, which Shakespeare translated as Elsinore, which is the site of the castle where something was rotten in the state of Denmark. From there, the second train to Gilleleje stops in more than 15 places and takes about 40 minutes to travel 16 miles.
Many of the stops are nothing kind of towns, many without stations and some even without shelters. The last bit really is a tedious ride — go 2 minutes, stop for 30 seconds, go 3 minutes, stop again. It does not take much imagination to understand the fear the Jews must have felt at each of these stops, not knowing who might get on as the train shuddered to a halt; the fear of what it must have been like for those Jews fleeing the Nazi SS — their money sewn into the linings of their coats or stuffed into hurriedly-made girdles; a shirt worn beneath another shirt, and a sweater, and a coat, just in case; a small overnight bag but not much more; and two train tickets in their pockets, one for the return trip they would never make, purchased so as not to arouse suspicion at the station. Coming back? Of course they were coming back.
The tickets, then. I pull mine out of my pocket and look at it as I am thinking about this story.
The rabbi had spoken and the warnings had been passed along and people were moving within hours. All kinds of schemes had been worked out but the goal for almost all of the Jews in Copenhagen was the same: to get to neutral Sweden, only a few miles away from the city by boat. Some were smuggled in cars and trucks to various points along the shore but many took the train. A few hundred traveled that day to Gilleleje. The railroad people must have understood what was happening, even with the ticket scheme; there was no way to keep the movement of that many people a secret. In fact, the SS became aware at some point because the Danish resistance received word that the SS had gathered at the small station in Gilleleje in order to apprehend the Jews traveling there on the train.
So the Danish resistance stopped the train. It was at one of those little, nothing places along the way. There was probably nothing there but a small concrete platform and maybe a bike rack. The resistance boarded the train and made the following announcement: because of trouble ahead, anyone traveling beyond Gilleleje needed to get off the train now. So the Jews got off, and were saved.
The rest of their journey would be made hidden in cars and trucks. The SS met the train a few stops later, a train containing no Jews. Instead, they would be taken to Gilleleje and hidden in attics and barns and spare bedrooms and summer homes that had been closed up for the season. Some of the people offering hiding places were paid by the Jews for their trouble. Others did it for free. It is not a big town today, only 7,000 people, but it was much smaller then, only 1,200. There were said to be about 200 Jews being hidden on the first night.
The next day, they began to gather on the pier, hoping to get on a large boat headed for Sweden, and freedom. During those days, other fisherman who helped were paid for their trouble and for the risk involved. In general, they would need to sail south toward Jutland, as if on a normal fishing trip, before turning north toward Sweden after they were out of sight of the coast.
The piers are still places of work today, with boats docked and a small town containing shops and restaurants just up the road. That day, there were more than 200 Jews on the pier, just a gangplank away from this one large boat and from freedom, and then a rumor began to circulate through them that the SS were coming. There was a panic, among the Jews and also the captain of the boat docked there. The captain sailed off with whomever was already on the boat. The rest were stranded.
It was a false rumor, as it turned out, but it did not matter. The Jews on the pier now needed a place to stay before different travel arrangements could be made. About 20 went to a private home nearby. But the largest group, more than 80 people, took the short walk up the hill from the coast, up toward the main road through town, and ended up in the attic of the Gilleleje Church.
Seven decades later, it is an easy stroll up through the town. The steeple of the whitewashed church is visible even through an occasional fog.
Ulla Skorstengaard has been a pastor at Gilleleje Church since 1996. She has learned the story of that night well, partly from historical study and partly from speaking to some of the old-timers in town, many of whom she has eventually buried.
The church dates from 1538, they think. It is plain and beautiful, with brick floors and wood benches. It started because local fishermen petitioned the king for their own church, and it is not even considered to be particularly old by Danish standards. Yet it has been visited by the Queen of Denmark and the Prime Minister of Israel, among others. “It is special,” Skorstengaard says.
She takes me up to the attic.
First we climb some stairs to the choir loft. Then there are several more steps up to a panel in the ceiling that pushed open on hinges. For some reason, I notice a squeak in the third step. How that little squeak must have pierced the silence that night, when the door was bolted from the inside and only opened if you knew the secret code word. Today, it opens with just a shove.
“It is very much like it was that night,” Skorstengaard says, as we climb up. You can see the addition of a few electrical junction boxes, and there are a few church odds and ends stored in places — but they might have been there back then, or something like them. It is a big space, and it would seem that 80-odd people could fit easily if not comfortably. There is no bathroom, no heat on what was a cold night in 1943, and there could be no lights because they would be seen through the windows. It is daytime as we walk around, and sunlight streams through. But as night fell, the only light would have come from the moon.
There, the Jews in Gilleleje hid — until the SS found them. They were all taken into custody and deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic — all but one young man who somehow concealed himself in the spare rafters of the attic and escaped through the church steeple. “I still look up there and can’t figure out how they didn’t see him,” Skorstengaard says.
There are several competing theories about who told the SS about the Jews in the church attic. One popular story is that of a local girl who told an SS officer whom she had been dating, and it has been repeated often enough that many accept it as the truth.
“But what is truth?” Skorstengaard says. “Truth is what you tell afterwards…The one version, about that young girl working at a hotel who warned the SS? It might be true. It might not. When you remember that it was such a small place, only 1,200 people then, just think about it. You can’t hide 200 people in such a small village without people knowing. The Germans were already mingling among the people, and one slip of the tongue is all it would take. It is human nature that if you find a scapegoat, it is the easy way out. That way, all of the people don’t have to carry the burden.
“It is likely more complicated than a single girl,” she says.
The story of the Danish Jews is one of the great human stories of that terrible period. In the decades since 1943, the story of Gilleleje has been told and re-told. The citizens have been recognized by the State of Israel for their actions. The period is memorialized in a small museum exhibit in town. But when Skorstengaard came to Gilleleje as a pastor, there was reluctance on the part of some to continue to spotlight this moment in time.
“When I came here, there were people who did not want to continue to tell the story,” she says. “They said it was done, that it was over. People said, ‘We have to let it go.’ I said, ‘We cannot let it go. We have an obligation to tell it.’”
As she listened to the older people in Gilleleje, she heard stories of complicated motivations among the rescuers, of how many of them took money from the people they were rescuing. She heard stories about what they called “Jewish buttons,” and as she is telling me, she struggles to explain what it means.
“Those who had money, they were able to buy golden handgrips for their doors,” she says, searching for the right word in English. Golden doorknobs, then. Jewish buttons.
“Many did accept payment,” Skorstengaard says. “But I have buried fisherman in this church, men from that time. Some brought Jews to Sweden and they were not able to come back for 1 1/2 years. They were not able to make any earnings. They were not in contact with their families. So, payment? Who was paying the price?”
As a student of the history of those days, it is the paradoxes and the complications that seem to interest Skorstengaard the most. We are back downstairs now, out of the attic, and she has just shown me two large gold menorahs, Jewish candlesticks, that were a gift to the church. She says she brings them out and places them on either side of the casket at funerals, and as part of the confirmation ceremony.
It is her belief that the real hero of this story is Georg F. Duckwitz, the German official who warned Rabbi Marcus Melchior that the SS crackdown was coming. She says, “In the center of evil, there was this goodness. I think that offers hope for everyone, don’t you?”
She stops for a moment, then continues.
“We are the most famous church in Denmark for helping the Jews,” Skorstengaard says. “But they were caught by the SS in our attic. When you think about it, we didn’t help them.
“A paradox,” she says. “A wonderful paradox.”
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