The Pundik family’s escape journey took four days from the time they left their home in Copenhagen to the moment they boarded the boat in which they crossed the narrow strip of sea to the safe shores of Sweden. They moved from one hiding place to the next, but when they reached the Danish shore the departure was postponed because of a series of difficulties. Once they were afraid of a German patrol, once the fishing boat was late and once the suspicion arose that Danish informers were moving around in the area.
During the four days of trouble before they boarded the boat they were helped by dozens of people – drivers who drove them, families that hid them, fisherman who tried to take them across and failed, until the fourth time they succeeded.
This was the personal journey of the Pundik family, but there were hundreds like it. From this it is possible to conclude that thousands – and perhaps tens of thousands – of Danish citizens were involved, whether by deed or by knowledge, in the smuggling of more than 6,000 Danish Jews to Sweden. A great many of them did this in the clear knowledge that it was liable to cost them their lives. They knew very well what had happened during the previous 10 years in neighboring Germany and they were prepared to risk everything. Thus Denmark became the only country in occupied Europe where nearly all the Jews – 99 percent – were saved.
There were a few Jews who remained in their homes and were rounded up by the Germans. After two and a half years of German rule, during the course of which the lives of the Jews had continued undisturbed, they could not believe that anything bad would happen to them. There were Jews in Copenhagen who had fled to Sweden immediately upon the German invasion, but when they saw that there was no danger – had returned to their homes. Few were caught during the escape. Almost all of those who were caught – either in their homes or while trying to escape – altogether 474 Jews – were sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp not far from Prague, and of them 50 died of illness and old age.
At Theresienstadt the Danish Jews received packages of clothing and food sent from their country, an act without precedent in the Nazi concentration camps. Whereas most of the Jews who were held in Theresienstadt were sent to Auschwitz and murdered – not a single one of the Jews from Denmark was sent from there for extermination.
Ib Katznelson, an acquaintance of Herbert’s who now serves in a senior position at the Danish Finance Ministry, was a child in Theresienstadt. While the adults in the camp went out to work he was sent with the other children to a daycare center. One day he was surprised to discover that the daycare center had emptied. All of his friends had been taken out of the center and later it emerged they had been sent to their deaths. Only he remained, alone. This was very strange, but everyone knew it was forbidden to send any Jew from Denmark to Auschwitz.
Why? As Ha’aretz explains, the Germans were allowed to occupy Denmark in effect without and occupying force with the provision that no Danish citizens would be singled out by race or groupings by the Germans. The only significant minority group in Denmark at that time were the Jews. Almost three years later, the Germans decided to abrogate the agreement and round up the Jews and ship them to the death camps. It was then that a German diplomat, Georg F. Duckwitz first tried to get the new decree voided. When that failed, he convinced the Prime Minister of Sweden to give the Jews asylum and warned friendly Danes who in turn warned the Jews and facilitated the exodus to Sweden.
Ha’aretz also points out that the tide of the war shifted just the decision to round up Danish Jews was made. The German losses caused many of the Germans charged with deporting Denmark’s Jews to look the other way, and was a contributing factor in Sweden’s decision to grant asylum. In effect, Roosevelt’s policy of winning the war first and dealing with the Holocaust second was successful in this case, even though it can easily be argued that it failed everywhere else.
How special were the Danes?
The Danish Jews spent 19 months in southern Sweden – and waited for the day when they could return home. Susy Ginsburg, who eventually became Herbert Pundik’s wife and whose family also escaped to Sweden, says that when they returned home to Copenhagen they were surprised to find that the neighbors had scrupulously kept watch over their house and their possessions. They had even watered and tended the plants in the garden.
This story has been told by many different Danish Jewish families, because the story happened to many different Danish Jewish families. The Ginsburg’s neighbors acted like hundreds of other Danish families. The Danes are a very special people indeed.