Danish Jews recall desperate escape from Nazis, 75 years on

Freddy Vainer was only four years old when he and his family were forced to flee Copenhagen to escape being deported to Nazi concentration camps, but he remembers it like it was yesterday.

Danish Jews recall desperate escape from Nazis, 75 years on
A 1960s photograph showing a reconstruction using one of the boats used by Danish Jews to flee across the Øresund in 1943. Photo: Arne Magnussen/Ritzau Scanpix

“My grandfather was at the synagogue on October 1st, 1943 when he found out that he had to flee,” he said. That month nearly 7,000 Danish Jews made the desperate journey by boat to neighbouring Sweden.

Occupied by Nazi Germany since April 1940, Denmark surrendered but retained some independence of its institutions until the end of the summer of 1943, when the Danish government was forced to resign.

At first the Jewish population seemed relatively safe, and were not forced to wear a yellow star.

But “in September orders from Berlin were being sent to deal with the so-called Jewish question,” Cecilie Banke, a researcher at the Danish Institute of International Studies, told AFP.

She said that plans were leaked from within the German authorities so Denmark's Jewish population could be warned.

“This is the essence of the rescue operation, the Jewish population knew so they could actually flee and since information was leaked, the Danish population could also help Jews to flee,” Banke added.

“This is the exception in the story of the Jews in World War Two,” said Silja Vainer, Freddy's wife.

More than 6,500 Jews who mainly lived in Copenhagen left their homes and hid mostly near the coast north of the capital before fleeing by sea, largely to the towns of Gilleleje and Snekkersten.

While Freddy and his family hid in a house in the northwestern coastal town of Hellebæk before finding someone to take them across the water, 197 others were arrested trying to escape.

The great escape

A fisherman agreed to take only five of Freddy's eight-member family.

Freddy said he stayed at the docks with his mother and grandmother before finally crossing over.

The passage cost on average 1,000 Danish kroner per person (the equivalent
today of 2,700 euros).

“My grandfather also paid for others who didn't have any money so that everyone could flee,” Freddy, a former doctor in his eighties, recalled.

His future wife Silja was three-and-a-half years old during the exodus.

However the people smuggler her family's friends found refused to sail with adults and children together.

She had to hide in an orphanage for a few days with her brother and a cousin while her parents made the crossing.

“Then one day, some people came and made us take a bath in a big wooden bathtub and then we left,” she added.

“When we were at the beach, I remember the stones and the sound (of the waves).

And then someone took me and placed me in a rowing boat and hid me under the fisherman's net,” Silja said in her bright apartment, surrounded by family photos.

They were later placed in a trawler en route to Sweden. Silja was reunited with her family upon arrival — except for her paternal grandparents, who refused to leave Denmark.

They were deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, like about 500 other Danish Jews, 50 of whom died there.

However Silja's grandparents returned to Denmark after the end of the war.

'Nightmares all my life’

By the end of September 1943, neutral Sweden had formally offered asylum to Danish Jews and prepared to welcome them.

“We fled with almost nothing and were given clothes when we arrived in Sweden,” Freddy said.

His family members who worked as tailors moved to the Swedish textile town of Borås near the west coast.

Meanwhile, Silja and her family moved to the central town of Vingåker. She kept some photos of herself showing a smiling long-haired girl playing with her brother and neighbours at the time.

They returned to Denmark after the nation was liberated on May 5th, 1945.

Neither Silja nor Freddie could return to their old apartments which were rented to other families. But they quickly found new housing.

“The municipality of Copenhagen made sure that all the belongings of the Jews, who were forced to flee, were kept in good condition and we recovered everything,” added the former teacher.

On their way to their first classes at the Jewish School in Copenhagen when they were children, they did not talk about their experience.

“One of my classmates had lost his father, a brother and a sister during the crossing, and he never talked about it,” Freddy said.

In his family, not a word was uttered about their escape and Sweden while for Silja, “we could not avoid talking about it”.

“I've had nightmares all my life and worked a lot to try to not cry,” she said with a sob.

“We'll always be refugees.”

READ ALSO: Danish Nazis killed 1,400 Jews in WWII: book


Denmark suspends asylum centre talks with Rwanda

Denmark now aims to work with other EU countries to transfer asylum seekers to centres outside Europe and has suspended talks with Rwanda as it no longer plans to go it alone, its migration minister said on Wednesday.

Denmark suspends asylum centre talks with Rwanda

The Scandinavian country’s plans, first announced by the previous Social Democratic government, called for people seeking asylum in Denmark to be transferred to reception centres outside the European Union while their requests were processed.

A law adopted in June 2021 did not specify which country would host the centre, but said asylum seekers should stay there even after they were granted refugee status.

Discussions were launched with Rwanda and other countries, but they have now been suspended since the installation of a new Danish left-right government in December headed by the Social Democrats.

“We are not holding any negotiations at the moment about the establishment of a Danish reception centre in Rwanda”, Migration and Integration Minister Kaare Dybvad told daily Altinget.

“This is a new government. We still have the same ambition, but we have a different process”, he added. “The new government’s programme calls for the establishment of a reception centre outside Europe “in cooperation with the EU or a number of other countries”.

The change is an about-face for the Social Democrats, which had until now rejected any European collaboration, judging it slow and thorny.

“While the wider approach also makes sense to us, [Denmark’s change of heart] is precisely because there has been movement on the issue among many European countries”, Dybvad said. “There are many now pushing for a stricter asylum policy in Europe”, he said.


Inger Støjberg, leader of the Denmark Democrats said on Facebook that she was “honestly disgusted” by the government’s decision to delay plans for a reception centre in Rwanda, pointing out that Kaare Dybvad had said during the election campaign that a deal would be done with Rwanda within a year. 

“Call us old-fashioned, but we say the same thing both before and after an election. We stand firm on a strict immigration policy. The Social Democrats, Liberals and Moderates clearly do not,” she said. 

Lars Boje Mathiesen from the New Right Party accused the government of perpetrating a “deadly fraud” on the Danish people. 

“It is said in Christiansborg that it is paused. But we all know what that means,” he wrote on Facebook, accusing Danish prime minister Mette Frederiksen of “empty words” in the run-up to the election. 

In the face of this reaction, Dybvad told the Ritzau newswire that although talks with Rwanda were not happening at present, the government had not given up on a deal with the African nation. He also said that he was confident that asylum reception centres outside of the EU would be a reality within five years.

EU interior ministers are meeting in Stockholm this week to discuss asylum reform. Those talks are expected to focus on how to speed up the process of returning undocumented migrants to their country of origin in cases where their asylum bid fails.

Denmark’s immigration policy has been influenced by the far-right for more than 20 years. Even Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, the head of the Social Democrats, has pursued a “zero refugee” policy since coming to power in 2019.

Copenhagen has over the years implemented a slew of initiatives to discourage migrants and made Danish citizenship harder to obtain. In 2020, it became the only country in Europe to withdraw residency permits from Syrians from Damascus, judging that the situation there was now safe enough for them to return.