Today, as you drive along the coastline from Copenhagen to Elsinore you approach what is known as the Danish Riviera. Affluent suburbs merge into parks, forests and farmlands that are studded with fairytale villages, mansions, beaches and little fishing ports. The sea is never far away. The coast road runs along the Øresund Strait, the passage between the Kattegat – the last arm of the North Sea – and the entrance to the Baltic.
Sweden is a constant presence during the drive up the coast. In the north, where the Sound narrows down to a smoothbore cannon shot from Hamlet's Kronborg Castle, the Swedish town of Helsingborg is visible even on a cloudy day. It was the close proximity of neutral Sweden, whose lights beckoned for five years to an occupied and blacked-out Denmark, that made the Rescue possible and converted this coast into an escape hatch. Leo Goldberger, author of The Rescue of the Danish Jews, explains “before the majority of Danish Jews were ferried across to Sweden, that country on October 2, 1943, issued a proclamation welcoming all Danish refugees.”
In October of 1943 the city of Copenhagen, the countryside, and the coast were patrolled by the Gestapo. Once the roundup of Jews was announced, a few families were able to make their way as normal travelers on the ferries that – under observation – still sailed to Sweden. But the majority had to be hidden over a period of days before they could be smuggled out of the city to the fishing ports. And the refugees had to remain out of sight until fishermen could be recruited to help, and until funds could be raised to compensate them for their risks or meet the price which some demanded.
The successful smuggling of human cargo was accomplished by inventive and intrepid plans hatched in the minds of Danish Resistance members. In this phase of the rescue, Danish doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel played an important role, registering refugees into their hospitals and clinics under assumed names, transporting them in ambulances and even in mock funeral corteges.
As the place to start retracing the Rescue, we suggest Mindelunden, the grove of remembrance, a reminder of the human price Denmark paid for resistance. Here, a stone’s throw from the execution ground on which they were shot, lie 106 members of the Resistance in a landscaped garden, around a central monument sculpted in 1949 by Axel Poulsen. Carved into its stone is a verse by one of those killed by the Nazis, the poet Kaj Munk:
Boys, you boys who died,
You lit for Denmark
In her darkest gloom
A brightening dawn.
Behind the monument are the graves of 31 patriots who died in concentration camps. In the pergola facing east, there are 151 commemoration plaques for some of those who disappeared without a trace.
The route then shifts to the coast road - Strandvejen. Then come the escape ports, small villages such as Nivå, Sletten, Humlebæk and Snekkersten, from which courageous Danes carried refugees in everything from rowboats and sailboats to fishing vessels past German patrols to safety in Sweden. They did so at great risk: one of the prime movers, H.C. Thomsen, a Snekkersten innkeeper, was captured and sent to a concentration camp. He did not survive. His monument on the shore describes him as “the refugees’ courageous helper.”
Many of the refugees arrived by train to the town of Nivå, often sitting uncomfortable in the same compartments as German soldiers. Upon disembarking, they were hidden in the local tile works, waiting until dark, when they could sneak across the fields and in the shelter of a small grove of trees, down to the Sound. That path is still visible today: the tile works still stand and the landscape is the same.
From Sletten harbor, one can also observe how closely the coast could be watched, both from land and by naval patrols. The refugees flowed out of all these coastal towns, including the villages of Hellebæk, Hornbæk, and Gilleleje.
As the northernmost point in Zealand, across from the Swedish port of Hoganas, Gilleleje was a natural escape hatch. Refugees were hidden in many places in the area, from summer houses to the attic of the town’s small church. On the evening of October 6, 1943, 80 refugees were discovered in the church attic. Only one escaped by means of climbing the church tower. Fortunately, the missions continued and, by October 30, 960 people had been ferried to safety from the small town.
The Gilleleje fleet continued to serve the Resistance, although many of the local fishermen were interned and much of the fleet eventually sailed many refugees to the Swedish side. Of the 80 refugees who were captured in the church, 38 were released by the Gestapo because they had credentials as “half Jews.” The rest were sent to Theresienstadt where three of them died.
Today, at Gilleleje Museum, you’ll find a modest exhibition dedicated to the rescue of the Jews. Outside, you can look through the hull of a fishing boat and imagine what it would be like to be hiding under deck. There is also a 20 feet high statue, a gift from the Israeli ship owner Yuli Ofer, thanking Gilleleje for its war time effort.
After a visit to the museum, you can make a stop at Denmark’s only lighthouse museum, Nakkehoved, from where you will have a bird’s eye view of the area where the drama unfolded in 1943.
Mindelunden, the "grove of remembrance," is located in a Northern suburb of Copenhagen and is a tribute to the members of the Danish Resistance Movement who were executed, or who died while being tortured, trying to escape or in concentration camps.
Phone: +45 39 62 14 67
You might consider staying in the North-of-Copenhagen region for more than a day. Hornbæk, a popular seaside resort village, offers many amenities including a summer synagogue and a kosher hotel/restaurant Villa Strand. It is a convenient base for visiting inland villages and towns. Nearby you’ll find two royal palaces: Fredensborg, the summer residence of the Royal Family, and Frederiksborg, in Hillerød, Christian IV’s birthplace, which he converted from a Medieval manor to a Renaissance palace. Also, the close by Louisiana Museum of Modern Art is worth a visit!
You can also experience the locations and learn about the history of the rescue of the Danish Jews as part of a guided tour.