Adolf’s Hitler’s monstrous Third Reich regime engulfed Europe in a period of hatred, violence, death and destruction, especially during the Holocaust, which resulted in the deaths of more than six million Jews in Europe and other occupied territories.
However, it has been said that most of Denmark’s Jewish population was able to escape the Holocaust, in what is described as a miracle.
Within the blight of a hate-filled regime, there was a small glimmer of hope for an elderly couple, along with countless other Jews in Denmark, who were all saved by their own enemy. The twists and turns of their survival lives on in a play by their grandson.
A family in danger
According to playwright Alexander Bodin Saphir, who headed the play Rosenbaum’s Rescue, his grandparents, Fanny and Raphael Bodin, were living in Denmark at the time of the Nazi occupation, three years after the blitzkrieg invasions of 1940.
In 1943, in addition to being a member of the Danish Home Guard, Raphael – known by his nickname, Folle – was learning to be a tailor, working in his brother-in-law Nathan’s tailor shop in Copenhagen.
The two measured new customers and recorded them down on A5 cards, which were then kept inside a bureau in the ship.
One day, the shop was visited by a high-ranking Nazi officer. Presumably frightened by the appearance of a vital figure of the oppressive regime, the two got his measurements done before the officer, oblivious to their identities, thanked them and gave them a warning:
“Get out, while you still can,” he said. “There’s a round-up coming.”
Although the Jews of Denmark were relatively safe to operate in the nation, unlike most parts of occupied Europe, the government in charge was beginning to transport them to Germany “for processing.”
Once the occupation was rounding up suspected enemies, Folle and Fanny, along with their 15-month-old daughter, Lis, planned to flee the area. They waited at the dock of a harbour on the east coast of Denmark, in the dark of the night in Oct. 1943. They hoped to seek safety within the grounds of neutral Sweden.
Then, they paid a fisherman for the trip to Sweden through the Oresund – between Denmark and Sweden. Unfortunately, the cries of their baby Lis echoed through the ship forcing the fisherman to present the couple with a dilemma – either abandon the baby or be forced out altogether. Folle and Fanny chose to leave the boat, watching it drift off with not only the money they paid, but the chance of fleeing the Nazis.
While they lost the chance for a quick getaway, Fanny and Folle would find a new chance to escape. A night after being left behind, they became part of a mass escape from Denmark.
Thousands of Jews fled the country and set sail for Sweden, boarding boats, canoes, ferries and cargo ships to the safety of a neutral country. Some even swam their way in a desperate attempt to escape the occupation.
The Nazi secret police — the Gestapo — ordered the deportation of all Danish Jews to the concentration camps, culminating in a raid scheduled for the Jewish Sabbath dinner on Oct. 1, 1943.
However, upon raiding their homes, fewer than only 300 people were found. Ironically, the lack of results from the Gestapo was thanks to someone from within the Nazi chain of command.
Before the raid, a German naval attache named Georg Duckwitz, who worked at the German embassy in Copenhagen, tipped off Hans Hedtoft of the Danish Social Democrat Party. Formerly a proud member of the Nazi party, Duckwitz became disillusioned from the party after their true colors were shown.
Hedtoft then passed the information to chief rabbi, Marcus Melchior, who then told his congregation that there will be no service the day before Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Everyone was told to go home and prepare for “any means of escape.”
By boat, thousands of Jews made the journey to Sweden, safe from Nazi persecution and murder. However, their exile in a foreign country was not without its problems with the local populace.
“People would complain that we were taking their coffee rations, or whatever was rationed at the time,” Marcus’ son, Bent, recounted to the BBC. “As refugees we had to queue up to buy second-hand underwear, which they had decided was good enough for us.
“All these denigrating signs, I can still feel today.”
An oblivious savior
More than 7,500 Danish Jews escaped the clutches of Nazi tyranny in what was deemed the “Miracle Rescue”, but several Danish historians believed there was something off about the event.
Years after the war, Saphir’s cousin Margit Bodin was told by Nathan that the Nazi officer that revealed the round-up to him in the first place was none other than Dr. Karl Rudolph Werner Best. She visited the bureau where Nathan stored his measurement cards, startled that she had found the name of the Nazi official in the records.
Best was known as the Butcher of Paris for his views and actions against the Jews of France before he was made not only deputy head of the Schutzstaffel (SS), the Nazi paramlitary organization, but also Germany’s plenipotentiary in Denmark.
He is described as a doctor of law and had “an uncanny ability to bend the law in his favour,” as he demonstrated when he was able to avoid the death sentence by Danish law after the war. Years later, he again avoided further punishment after he was accused of issuing death warrants for 8,000 Poles.
He was in charge of supervising the collection of Denmark’s Jews to the concentration camps where they would be killed. He was to make Denmark Judenrein, “free of Jews.”
However, in 1943, Danish resistance intensified and, according to historian Sofie Lene Bak, should Jews be persecuted, resistance would reach further heights. This probably prompted Best to organize the round-up as soon as possible.
That was when he made that fateful trip to the tailor store of Nathan Bodin, where he unintentionally revealed to a pair of Jews his plans.
During the round-up itself, soldiers were ordered to knock on the doors or ring the door bells of Jewish homes. However, they were not to break down any doors or windows, making it a more passive operation. In fact, one family was even reported to have slept through the event.
When it became clear that Jews were escaping through the Oresund to Sweden, German patrol boats were sent to the harbour, where they remained for three weeks.
Sofie Lene Bak expressed how “unique” the Nazi restraint in Denmark was when compared to everywhere else in Europe.
“Not only in terms of method on the night of the raid but in terms of the limited resources used to hunt for Jews after the raid,” she said.
Ultimately, Werner Best was the man responsible for the escape of so many Jews. After realizing the failure of Best’s round-up, Hitler then ordered him to explain himself. Best then told the Fuhrer that he had done what was asked.
Regardless, the brave efforts of both the Danish people and their Resistance remained the same; a heroic and hopeful tale of overcoming atrocity for a better tomorrow.
After the war, Fanny and Folle returned to Denmark in June 1945, a month after Hitler’s Third Reich fell to the Allies. Like so many others, they were welcomed home with celebrations, given flowers by their Danish neighbors.
George Duckwitz was appointed Ambassador to Denmark for West Germany after the war, and was declared “Righteous Amongst Nations” by Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Center, Yad Vashem.
Folle and Fanny’s grandson, Saphir, would go on to write Rosenbaum’s Rescue, a play released in 2019 that told the story of a Nazi’s tip-off to his tailor may have saved the lives of thousands of Danish Jews.
“The play tries to understand how and why their desire to save their Jewish community resulted in a more successful evacuation than say Holland, where they also had a big Resistance, but a very different occupation,” Saphir said in 2019. “This is a play exploring truth, identity, and the nature of history, and as people who live in 2019 viewers can decide how it relates to today’s world.”
Much like Steven Spielberg’s hit movie, Schindler’s List (1993), for every blight, there does exist a speck of good like George Duckwitz that could help save the good in many people. On the other hand, while he was certainly no hero, Werner Best’s inability to stop the escape proves that evil can never succeed in suppressing the good of humanity.
Hope and the will to live is what will keep us going when the going gets rough.