By Rosh Hashanah 1943, Adolf Hitler had ruled Germany for 10 years. During those years Germany gained control of Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark, Norway, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Lithuania, Yugoslavia, Greece and a portion of the western part of the Soviet Union. Nazi Germany was allied with Finland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia and Italy. Sweden, Switzerland and Spain remained neutral.
By Rosh Hashanah 1943, World War II had ravaged Europe for two years. The United States had entered the war after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. The Battle of Britain and the Blitz saw Great Britain successfully defending itself from bombings from Nazi Germany’s air force.
By Rosh Hashanah 1943, Nazi Germany was implementing the Final Solution, murdering all the Jews of Europe. The Einsatzgruppen, special SS and police units in Eastern Europe, along with local collaborators and police battalions, murdered over a million Soviet Jews and tens of thousands of other “enemies of the state” in the lands of the former Soviet Union. By 1943, German authorities had built and set in motion gassing facilities at centralized killing centers.
By Rosh Hashanah 1943, hundreds of thousands of Jews had been deported from ghettos to these killing centers: from Lodz to Chelmno, from France and the Netherlands to Auschwitz, from Warsaw, Poland, to Treblinka.
By Rosh Hashanah 1943, ordinary people witnessed their friends, neighbors and co-workers being rounded up and deported. Most stood by and did nothing. Some, however, felt compelled to respond, providing hiding places, underground escape routes, false papers, food, clothing, money, and sometimes even weapons.
Denmark was the only occupied country that actively resisted the Nazi attempts to deport its Jewish citizens. On September 28, 1943, Georg Duckwitz, a German diplomat, secretly informed the Danish resistance that the Nazis were planning to deport the Jews of Denmark.
On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, Wednesday, September 29, 1943, Marcus Melchior, rabbi of the main synagogue in Copenhagen, warned his congregation that the Germans planned a mass roundup of Jews the next day, when the Nazis knew families would be gathered in their homes for the holiday. “The situation,” Rabbi Melchior said, “is very serious. We must take action immediately.”
As word spread, non-Jewish Danes mobilized. They hid Jews in their homes and in hospitals, churches, convents and schools all over Denmark. They protested the roundup of the Jews. Politicians made statements. Newspapers published editorials. The people of Denmark, almost as one, reacted to the threat to their Jewish brothers and sisters.
Reaction also came from the Lutheran Church, the official state church of Denmark.
The Church had always strongly opposed anti-Semitism and included Jews within its “universe of concern.” By Rosh Hashanah 1943, the Church was prepared to act. On Sunday, October 3, a protest against the roundup of the Jews was read aloud in Lutheran churches throughout Denmark. The church roused its people and provided shelter and support.
A long-range plan by the Danes soon emerged. They organized a nationwide effort to smuggle Jews by sea to neutral Sweden. In only two weeks, Danish fishermen helped ferry 7,200 Danish Jews and 680 of their non-Jewish family members to safety across the water separating Denmark from Sweden.
By Rosh Hashanah 1943, Jews in other western European countries had been required to identify themselves and surrender their property and businesses. Many were forced into ghettos. Many had been shot or sent to killing centers. Not so in Denmark. Including Jews in their “universe of concern,” most of the Jews in Denmark were led to the rescue, by the Danes. It is estimated that only 120 Danish Jews died during the Holocaust. This number represents one of the highest Jewish survival rates for any German-occupied European country.
This Rosh Hashanah, may we learn from the courage of the Danish people. May we recognize and respond to prejudice, anti-semitism, racism and genocide, wherever they occur. This Rosh Hashanah may we, like the Danish people in 1943, have the courage to act, to include all people in our “universe of concern.”