‘Little Dunkirk’: A very different Holocaust story

Boat ferrying Danish Jews to safety in neighbouring Sweden SPIEGEL ONLINE PHOTO
Boat ferrying Danish Jews to safety in neighbouring Sweden SPIEGEL ONLINE PHOTO

Editor’s Note: Adam Fuerstenberg, who passed away Jan. 3, was the founder of the Canadian Jewish Book Awards and a Canadian Jewish News contributor. He published the following story in the Oct. 30, 2003 edition of The CJN.

It was an unusually chilly morning on Oct. 7, 1943, and Dr. Karl Henry Koster, medical head of the Bispebjerg Hospital, one of the Copenhagen’s largest, was just about to enter his third-floor office in the main wing after completing his first round of inspections when he noticed one of his medical students, Jorgen Knudsen, rushing towards him.

“Please excuse me, Dr. Koster, but I am desperate. Time is short and I don’t know whom else I can turn to. Once, during one of your demonstrations, you hinted strongly about your opposition to the Nazis, and there is a rumour among the students that you are active in the underground.”

He paused, and when the doctor nodded encouragingly, he continued: “Yesterday, morning, just as I was leaving for work in my ambulance, some of my student friends rushed over to me to tell me that the Gestapo were rounding up the Jews, and urged me to warn all my Jewish friends. But I didn’t know which of my friends or acquaintances were Jewish.


“I ran to the nearest phone book and took down names that seemed obviously Jewish. When I drove to the addresses, I had to warn them. Many had no place where they could go, so I took them in my ambulance. But now I don’t know where to hide them so I decided to ask you to help.”

He had 40 men, women and children, he said, and he wondered if they could be hidden at the hospital until they could be smuggled out of Copenhagen. The doctor instantly agreed and told Knudsen to bring the 40 the next morning.

To get the group past the Gestapo, they agreed to stage a mock funeral. At eight the next morning, a frantic gatekeeper reported to Koster that a hearse and a large funeral party carrying flowers were demanding entry at the hospital’s main gate. When Koster went down to welcome the party, he found Knudsen with some more of his students, but instead of the 40 souls he had expected there were 140.

In the next few days, Bispebjerg Hospital would hide almost another 1,000 refugees, who were then smuggled to the small fishing villages on the coast a few sea miles from Sweden across the Sund, the strait that separates Denmark from southern Sweden.

At the hospital, they were hidden as patients under fictitious names and in 130 apartments that the nurses vacated for them. Almost the whole staff helped. Many risked their lives volunteering to transport the Jews to the fishing villages. Some of the doctors and nurses were caught and arrested, and on being freed, went right back to the rescue effort. A few were killed by the Gestapo.

The Bispebjerg Hospital rescue is only one of a host of hair-raising experiences recorded during this truly different Holocaust story – Denmark’s inspiring rescue of almost all of its Jewish population of 8,000. The story of this heroic rescue has come to be known as “Little Dunkirk” because of the motley assortment of small craft used to ferry the Jews to safety in Sweden.

What made the courageous effort of the staff at Bispebjerg Hospital even more remarkable was the fact that it was not the exception, but the norm. From King Christian X – whose brusque answer to the Nazi demand that Denmark do something about its “Jewish Problem” was that Denmark had no Jewish problem because its Jews were equal Danes: “Viking Jews” he called them – to the humble street cleaner, all took part.

Tens of thousands of Danes, businessmen, professors, clergy, taxi drivers, fishwives, farmers, train conductors, even policemen, took up the challenge to sabotage the Nazi effort to destroy the Jewish community of Denmark. The authorities refused to co-operate, and the bishops circulated a pastoral letter to be read to all congregations denouncing the Nazi attempt as un-Christian, and urging their parishioners to help their Jewish fellow citizens.

For three weeks, beginning on the night of Rosh Hashanah, Oct. 1, 1943, the Danes smuggled them out in fishing boats, pleasure craft, even rowboats across the strait to a welcoming Sweden. Some 7,200 Danish Jews and Jewish refugees who had escaped the Nazi terror since 1933, as well as 700 non-Jewish relatives of these Jews, escaped the fate of their co-religionists in all the Nazi-occupied countries of Europe.


The Germans did manage to arrest about 500, whom they transported to the “model” concentration camp at Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia. But so powerful was the Danes’ concern for their Jewish citizens that the Danish government bureaucracy and the public sent food parcels to Theresienstadt and successfully demanded that the Germans allow a Danish delegation to come and check on the Danish detainees.

Most Holocaust historians now agree that the German commanders in Denmark, S.S. Gen. Werner Best, and the military commander, Gen. von Hannecken, were aware of the rescue, but were forced to ignore it out of the fear of Danish resoluteness. They feared that Denmark, strategically located and supplying Germany with 10 per cent of its food, would rise in total revolt and hamper the already stalling German war effort.

Almost as astounding as the spontaneous Danish rescue of the Jews, was the joyous welcome they received on returning. Most remarkable of all was the fact that their Danish neighbours had carefully safeguarded Jewish businesses, houses and even personal property.

Dr. Nathan Bamberger, whose father was the rabbi of the famous old Leader-straede Synagogue during the rescue, recalls with wonder that “when we returned to our home, which we had had to leave so suddenly on the eve of Rosh Hashanah 1943, all the settings at our dining table were still exactly as we had left them.”