Different Slants

Seeing the World from a New Angle

The Brave Danes of Gilleleja…by Robert M. Katzman

Filed under: Friendship & Compassion,Jewish Themes,Life & Death,Love and Romance,Marriage and Family — Bob at 10:59 am on Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Copyright June 20, 2017 by Robert M. Katzman

(written at the very cool Bluebird Guesthouse in Portland, Oregon)

Although history evaporates as first the witnesses to an event or a period of situations occur, grow old, die and then their children die, to some people history matters very much. Current national events in politics in the United States are not only riveting now for the cartoon-like of behavior of some of the players, but will be the pages that people rabidly turn to read about in the future, long after most every significant person has died.

But only for so long.

President John F. Kennedy is in the news right now because his 100th birthday has just passed on May 29th, 2017. He was elected in November 1960 when I was ten and died by assassination when I was thirteen on November 22, 1963.

Today I’m sixty-seven and while the second incident remains vivid to me, the first one does not. The youngest person to be able to vote for JFK, as he was affectionately referred to in 1960, would have had to be twenty-one and born in 1939.

Those voters today in 2017 would be at least seventy-eight years old and less of them continue to exist every day. With their deaths go all their emotions and reactions to whom that extraordinarily popular and tragic man was. If a person reading this were to ask an average teenager or even someone in their twenties to tell them something about JFK, there would likely be some hesitation, then a flat recitation of facts as recalled from history classes they had to take. The memories might be flawed or accurate, but there wouldn’t be any visceral connection to the tumult of how America felt in the 1,037 days JFK was president of the United States.

But ask most anyone except for a history teacher or professional historian about William McKinley, (1843-1901) who was also assassinated on September 14, 1901 and you’ll likely get a: “Who?” from an average person. Those that actually do remember him will probably do so because his death first brought the dynamic Theodore Roosevelt to the presidency and then national attention, and who proved to be a colorful, popular figure in American history and thus slightly more remembered.

The point is even great fame doesn’t keep a name alive in popular imaginations for very long, and no fame at all means virtually instant indifference. This short story is about a great many very brave and resolute people living in eastern Demark, a tiny country just north of Germany and west of Sweden, during World War Two.

At that time, Denmark, a country about the same size as the American state of West Virginia and with a population at that time of about four million, was occupied by the Nazi government of Germany, a country the size of the American state of Montana and with a population of approximately eighty million, including some conquered nearby areas. So not two places anyone would consider equal opponents in any conflict of any kind.

While numerous people of Jewish ancestry or Danish ancestry with an interest in their own history might still have a pretty good memory of one of the most famous acts of national bravery in Denmark, on October 1, 1943, when Hitler, antagonized by tiny neighboring Denmark’s overwhelmingly Christian Danish citizens refusing to remain quiet and cooperative with Germany’s extermination policies in Europe regarding collecting and removing all Jews (and Gypsies, gay people, and many others) from all countries occupied by Germany, and having them sent to concentration camps and then to their deaths, ordered the collection and removal of all of Denmark’s approximately 7,800 Jews.

Germany had given Denmark as sort of “pass” in terms of how they treated their neighbor because they needed the tremendous output of Danish eggs, milk, butter and meat to feed their own citizens and army, and if no acts of terrorism or resistance to the German occupation of Denmark happened, the Danes would have an easier time of it, plus the Jews living among them would be left alone.

For a time, several years, that was the state of things. But the Danes eventually did form a small resistance, did blow up German ammunition dumps and train tracks to inhibit the movement of German troops. The Danes also considered their Jewish neighbors to be completely integrated into the general society and not some distinct group where there were no human relationships between the two peoples. Jews were not disposable to the Danes.

In two days—and I am not detailing this very much for a reason—after Hitler’s order, almost 100% of the Jewish population of Denmark was removed in about two days by thousands of individual Danish fisherman an many others in their small boats and by other means including sealed rail cars to nearby Sweden who agreed to accept and shelter as many Danish Jews would be able to come there for the duration of the war. Sweden was neutral in World War Two but during the early years of the Nazis rise to power, had chosen to invest in such an incredible level of defensive weaponry and warplanes, that even with Sweden’s small population, the Germans knew trying to subjugate Sweden would be a major undertaking with a great loss of their German soldiers lives and war-making supplies, so Sweden was never attacked in the war.

Sweden also accepted and protected the small number of Norwegian Jews who suffered greatly under Nazi occupation in Norway, and some managed to escape, especially during Germany’s massively and deliberately destructive retreat from Norway as the war turned against the Nazi army and as Germany’s battle losses mounted.

As a result of Denmark and Sweden’s kind, generous and cooperative decision to protect Denmark’s Jewish population, almost all of that small country’s Jews survived the war.

But my reason to write the above is not what I wanted to write about. It was meant to be a prologue to tell of something very important and brave which also occurred in Denmark and which is so obscure as to be most likely completely forgotten by everyone everywhere. But not by me.

What follows is a brief story that encompasses all of the above, but in a tiny village with the name of Gilleleje in eastern Denmark. Though I never do this when writing my stories, it would be very difficult for me to paraphrase what has already been written by someone in Wikipedia. I am quite grateful for that someone, because Joyce, my wife of forever who died this past Mother’s Day on May 14, 2017, and I were both there in that tiny village.

Why?

Because while I am a Jew, and even though Joy converted prior to our 1978 marriage, Joy is also part Danish and this is part of her heritage, too. I honor her with this recollection.

Here is the history as written by Wikipedia:

 

“The outer harbor was finished in 1902, and Gilleleje continued to thrive on its fishing until 1941 when the Germans occupied Denmark. Like most other Danes at the time, the Gillelejere were against the oppression and helped the Jews by hiding them various places in the town. However, on 2 October 1943, the Gestapo set out to capture all Danish Jews. The Jews in Gilleleje were hidden on the church-loft, and the fishermen prepared for taking them across the sound to Sweden in their cutters.

They could not leave immediately, though, because of the German patrols in the street. After several days of hiding, an informer let the Germans know where the roughly 75 Jews were hiding, and they were all captured, bar a single boy who hid behind a gravestone in the cemetery. According to local lore, the priest was so mortified by the situation that he never really became normal again.

A memorable exchange resulted after the Gestapo seized Jewish families in the town. “The poor Jews!” exclaimed one villager to a Gestapo officer. When the German responded that it was “written in the Bible that this shall be their fate,” the villager retorted, “but it is not written that it has to happen in Gilleleje.” [2]

After the occupation was over, several memorials have been put up in the town, both commemorating the Jews and the fishermen who lost their lives when colliding with sea mines.”

 

In 1990, Joy and I traveled to this place I’d read about and decided that we had to know more, and Joy agreed that we should visit the village. How small a village? Almost one hundred per cent of its inhabitants spoke only Danish, and its older residents also spoke German, which is only a few miles south of that village. Neither Joy or were aware of that language barrier, but I did and still do speak primitive and limited German/Yiddish because my parents were fluent in Yiddish and because I took one year of German in my senior year in high school to be able to put all the nouns and verbs together coherently in short sentences in case I ever needed to be able to speak to someone who only spoke German, some day. As it happened, later, I went to Germany five times.

That class, I should note, was taught by a very tall, thin, patient and understanding Germany-born man named Greggor Heggen who though I failed every single test he ever gave me in 1968 involving conjugation and all the rest, decided to pass me anyway, because he was aware that I really, really wanted to be able to speak his language, sort of, even though I would get no credit toward graduation because I only took one year of it, out of the two required.

I also think he had an impish humor and was amused by my stubborn determination despite my limited ability to understand such a formal and complex language. Herr Heggen, as he was called, had spent the war years as a teen-aged prisoner-of-war in England, he told me, picking potatoes. He died about a year ago, at a very advanced age. I still miss him. The perfect teacher.

When Joy and I arrived at the village which was at the end of a spur from the main train line which connects all of Denmark, we saw a few houses, the ancient shoreline with many sail-less boats, masts there swaying back and forth with the waves and some houses with thatched roofs that had some green covering on top of the thatch which was growing there. I found a bakery, tried a few words of German, which the friendly elderly woman behind the counter understood and responded to, and Joy and I loaded up on wonderful Danish pastries, because there were no restaurants there, as far as we could tell.

We left there, walked further into the center of the village, immediately found the Lutheran church, a small building about two stories tall and when we tried it, the thick carved wooden door was locked. I went next door to a house to see if someone living there would let us in, but the woman who answered my knock didn’t understand me. So we tried the next house, but this time, after some creative sign language, the man came out to see who we were and what we wanted. While I have long accepted that I look sort of vaguely Middle-Eastern and which annoys airport security people, ummm, about one hundred per cent of the time I travel, Joy’s good looks, blonde hair, blue eyes, and her wonderful smile have saved the day many times when we confronted people suspicious of me, yet she still persuaded them to open doors to us.

Oh, I miss that woman.

The man went back home as we followed him like stray cats, then he made a phone call, motioned us to go back to the church and wait there. We did that. A few minutes later, a lovely woman, about forty-five with snow white page-boy style hair and a big smile, wearing a Lutheran minister’s clothing, came to us speaking English fluently, immediately opened the door and told us the story as she knew it about what had happened there. She invited us to go up the very tight curving stairway to the second floor of the church, its attic, actually.

Joy and I had read about this place and that almost all of the seventy-five Jews survived and later dispersed, to many places, mainly to Israel and the United States, but also to South America and other parts of the Mediterranean and western Europe. When these people traveled, they and later their children took the story of the bravery and friendship of the Christian Danish people of Gilleleje along with them and then told others about it.

An incredible, to me still, story about how kindness was possible under the worst of circumstances and that people could be brave in the face of evil armed men even without an army or without guns to defend themselves or the Jews they were hiding. The remarkable story of the little church which attempted to become a sanctuary spread around the world.

Joy and I, then forty years old, had no idea what we might see as we crept up the small, steep, creaking wooden stairs to the attic. The minister followed. When we reached the top and looked about the small space which housed the seventy-five frightened Jews, we saw an incredible sight.

There were hundreds of ribbons of many colors attached with pins to the dozen ancient rafters of the very old church from synagogues and individuals in different languages and from everywhere in the world. The ribbons expressed thanks and gratitude to the people of Gilleleja for what they either did for the actual survivors themselves or ribbons sent by their children and grandchildren. It was stunning. So many of them in the gloom of the small space, the only light coming from small distorted glass looking down on the church’s cemetery. Like a rainbow of a rain of appreciation from people long gone from that place, but who never forgot what happened there, decades before.

The minister was silent, used to what has happened before there in her attic with visitors, as Joy and I looked with wonder as such a stunning sight and the tears flowed freely from our eyes onto our clothing and we stood there holding each other. The tears come now, as well, for what we both saw that day and for my now missing Joyce, too.

I write to tell the story of Gilleleja, of its heroes, of its church and because Joy and I stood there and experienced something that magically combined our pride of our Jewishness, her Danishness and how happy it made us feel to be together at such a moment.

I think there are no time limits to tears, and to my memory of my wife, Joy, either, but that moment was one of the great ones of our long life together as friends and lovers, and she would want me to share it with all of you.

A blessing on Denmark, and thank you for reading my story. I hope you will tell others to read this story, too.

 

Contact the writer at: robertmkatzman@gmail.com

I welcome comments. Thank you.

More highly detailed history from wonderful wikipedia, to learn more: 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rescue_of_the_Danish_Jews

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gilleleje

4 Comments »

Comment by Brad Dechter

June 20, 2017 @ 11:31 am

You brought tears to my eyes- thank you.
A unique story that I never knew- thanks for sharing!
Be good Bob!

Comment by Bill Skeens

June 20, 2017 @ 3:07 pm

Amazing story Bob. Sometimes the true heroes are the simple people who extend the kindness and humanity to those that are in need. Clearly the people of Gilleleja were just those types of heroes. Thank you for sharing the memory of when you and Joy where there. It really touched me.

Comment by Charlie Newman

June 20, 2017 @ 8:59 pm

as always, bob…well done…kudos

Comment by Eileen Schroeder

June 22, 2017 @ 5:37 am

always a tender story

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