First transport of Danish Jews with 83 people arrived in the Terezin ghetto on 5th October 1943. Within the next ten days their amount in the Terezín ghetto rose to more than 450, later reaching the final number of 466 persons.
The position of Jews in Denmark before World War II was characterized by a high degree of their integration in society. Relatively small local Jewish population was gradually growing thanks to immigration waves of European Jews, who were seeking refuge in Denmark from spreading Nazi ideology.
After the occupation by Nazi Germany in April 1940, Denmark retained its own government and military forces and maintained diplomatic relations with Germany. Despite considerable efforts, the occupiers did not succeed in enforcing anti-Jewish law in Denmark within the next three years, however, after the destabilization of the political situation and the abdication of the Danish government in the late 1943, Jews found themselves in jeopardy. Nevertheless, at that time the Reich plenipotentiary in Denmark Werner Best was playing a complicated double game. On one hand, he himself encouraged an assessment of the Jewish question in Denmark, on the other hand, he adopted steps towards the protection of the local Jewish population. With help of his colleague, a shipbuilder G. F. Duckwitz, he intentionally disclosed plans concerning an impending action against Jews. Subsequent arrests by the Nazis were so thwarted by a rescue operation supported by many residents of Denmark along with a number of social organizations and public institutions. Approximately 7,000 people of Jewish origin saved their lives through mass escapes to neutral Sweden, but less than 500 were arrested in the country and then deported to the ghetto in Terezín.
Unlike Jews deported to Terezín from other countries, the clothing of Danish Jews was not marked with the Star of David at the time of their arrival in the ghetto. In many other respects as well, Danish Jews were largely spared of humiliating discriminatory measures usual in countries under Nazi domination. Their adaptation to the conditions of the Terezín ghetto was therefore much more demanding. Danes did not receive a yellow star with the word Jude and a transport number, assigned to all internees as prison identity, prior to their arrival in Terezin. After the war, Jytte Borstein, in 1943 an eight-year-old girl, described the receipt of her transport number in the following words: “… My mum told me that I had to remember my transport number. I should be able to say it immediately anybody asks about it. Then my mother explained in a sharp tone, so I understood the importance of the matter, that even woken up in the middle of the night I had to recall my number and say it. Otherwise, the Germans might shoot me.”
After overcoming the initial shock of the Terezin conditions, the majority of Danish Jews joined the company of other prisoners and were not conspicuously different. Danes performed various jobs, received poor Terezín diet, lived in mass barracks, etc., just like their fellow prisoners. Yet, in one crucial respect, the life of Danes differed – they were excluded from the major threat, the transports heading from Terezín to extermination camps in the East (with one exception only). This privilege remained to Danes throughout their entire stay in Terezín, as a result of Best’s negotiation with Eichmann in November 1943.
Due to exclusion from transports to the East, the small group of Danish Jews seemed somewhat prominent to other Terezin inmates. This impression grew in early 1944, after the Danes started receiving packages of food sent by the Danish Red Cross. Danish Jews thus gained not only scarce food, but also an opportunity to exchange the food for things indispensable in the ghetto, and so improve their living conditions. In this respect, the position of Danish Jews in the camp was commented after the war by Professor Emil Utitz, at the time of his Terezín internment Head of the Central Ghetto Library: “They were “the rich ones” and it must be gratefully acknowledged that they amicably shared with others and their cheerful and friendly nature, their proper mindset and unwavering calmness were of genuine benefaction”. In Terezín, Danes engaged in cultural and lecturing activities, e.g. the lectures of Rabbi Max Friediger became very popular.
The quarters of Danes also lay on the route visited by the inspecting delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross on 23rd June 1944. Before the arrival of the delegates, the dwellings of Danes were refurnished, cramped quarters made into rooms occupied by only one family, windows decorated with flowers, etc. This newly created illusion should illustrate a common standard of accommodation in the ghetto. Former Terezín prisoner Alex Eisenberg wrote in his post-war memoir: “… the Danes moved into renovated and newly furnished houses, where only small number of people shared each room. A few days before the visit of the delegation I was standing in the workshop where wooden legs for tables and chairs had been made thinking: The Commission must feel that the furniture is completely new, because it still smells of fresh pine wood”. Despite Eisenberg’s assumption, the delegation did not disclose the prepared deception.
After participation in this fraudulent “play-act” prepared in the ghetto for the visit of the ICRC delegation, part of the Danish community was also made to assist in shooting a propaganda film. Salle Fischermann, at the time of filming a fourteen-year-old Danish boy, accompanied the crew and helped with small work. Fischermann is cought in one of the surviving film sequences, where he is asked, while visiting a shoe workshop, to join the other workers and imitate their work: “… I sat down and did what the others did, it took about 3-4 minutes and then all of us were asked to leave. And as everyone is leaving, you may notice that I am the only one without an apron. I had to to turn my head away (during the shot, ed. JŠ), because I found it really funny.”
The participation of Danish Jews on the life of Terezín inmates was completed after a year and a half. On 13th April 1945 all Danes in Terezin received a written command to pack up their bags and come to the Jäger Barracks. The call also contained a note saying that Danes should soon be leaving Terezín. The situation in the Jäger Barracks was described after the war by Rachel Berkowitz, at that time a sixteen-year-old girl: “That night when we were waiting for white buses in the barracks, various rumours went around and all of us were terribly nervous and scared. One rumour worse than another.” Luckily, prisoners’ concerns about another deceptive trick of the Nazis proved wrong, and the entire group of Danish Jews left Terezín on 15th April. Their departure was a result of successful negotiations of a Swedish diplomat Count Folke Bernadotte, then Vice President of the Swedish Red Cross, who enforced, at the Reich’s government, the release of several thousand prisoners from Nazi concentration camps.
After leaving Terezin, freed Danish Jews went through destroyed Germany, and only passed through their Nordic country on the way to neutral Sweden. They could not return back home until after the German capitulation.
Memory fragments of former Danish prisoners come from:
documentary: “THERESIENSTADT – Danish Children in Nazi Captivity”
Memory fragment of Dr. Emil Utitz is taken out of:
UTITZ, Emil: The Psychology of Life in the Terezín Concentration Camp, Dělnické nakladatelství (Worker’s Publishing House) , Prague 1947, pg. 50