Wherever the Nazis invaded, Jews and other minorities were exterminated, with one exception. Among those responsible for this deviation was – a Nazi.
Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz was born on September 29, 1904, in Bremen, Germany. By the 1930s, he was a businessman dealing with Scandinavian countries. He listened to Hitler speaking passionately about the suffering and humiliation of the German people. Hitler promised to address those issues and vowed to build a mighty empire for all Germans.
Duckwitz agreed and joined the Nazi Party in 1932. He secured a post with the foreign policy office, but as the regime’s brutality developed, Duckwitz’s became disillusioned. He left to work for a shipping company.
In 1939, he was asked to return to government. As he spoke Danish fluently and understood the country, he was assigned to the German embassy in Copenhagen as a maritime attaché. He was pleased as Germany had signed a Treaty of Non-Aggression with Denmark on May 31, 1939.
Then on April 9, 1940, Germany invaded Denmark. Fortunately for most Danes, they were deemed “Aryan” – which made them human in German eyes. They were allowed to keep their government, retain control over their media, and their king (Christian X) was allowed to stay on as the titular head.
Germany wanted to use Denmark as a “model protectorate” to show the world how wonderful it was to be under German rule. Although the Danish population was allowed to continue as before, not all were happy. The government discouraged active resistance, fearing violent reprisals against its citizens. Although resistance groups sprang up, they limited themselves to spying on the occupiers and reporting to the Allies.
The Danes refused to treat their Jewish population differently. Jews were allowed to keep their jobs and go about their lives. Nor would the Danish government consent to their expulsion.
Events changed on June 22, 1941, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union. They also banned the Danish Communist Party and arrested all its members. That sparked protests nationwide, as well as the beginning of sabotage operations against German forces and factories supplying Germany.
Germany declared a state of emergency and took over the government. The king responded by resigning and declaring himself a POW in his own country.
From 1942 Duckwitz worked with Karl Rudolf Werner Best – the Nazi civilian administrator of France and Denmark. Best was also a member of the Schutzstaffel (SS) – the Nazi party’s paramilitary wing in charge of Germany’s racial policies. He was also a co-founder of the Gestapo – the secret state police.
It was Best who told Gestapo trainees to think of themselves as doctors. Nazi Germany was their patient. To keep the country healthy, they had to get rid of “pathogens” and “diseases” – meaning Communists, Freemasons, and of course, Jews.
On September 11, 1943, Best asked Hitler for permission to begin rounding up Danish Jews.
Duckwitz protested, so Best told him to speak to Hitler about it. The attaché flew to Berlin but with predictable results failed to stop the planned deportations. Desperate, he traveled to neutral Sweden on September 22 and began the deal of his life. Fortunately, it worked.
Swedish president Per Albin Hansson was determined to keep his country neutral. However, if by chance Danish Jews happened to make it across the Øresund Strait to his country, then Swedish immigration officials would be happy to look the other way.
Duckwitz then warned the Danish resistance and high-ranking members of the Jewish community. He also had help from an unlikely source – Best, who told him the date of the roundup.
It was set for October 1, 1943 – Rosh Hashanah, the first of the two-day celebrations which mark the Jewish New Year. Traditionally, Jews spend time at home with family and friends. Due to Duckwitz, hardly any were in when the Gestapo went knocking.
Members of the resistance, some police, and other sympathetic Danes, had taken them to hiding places. Taxi drivers armed with phone books looked for addresses of Jewish-sounding surnames to drive entire families to safety. The rest of Denmark protested in the streets, as did the king and several churches, while universities closed their doors for a week.
For the next three weeks, fishing vessels took off from the Danish coastline at night. They crossed the roughly five-mile Øresund Strait where they were met by Swedes who helped unload the Danish Jews.
Most Jews paid their way, while others had their passage paid for by members of the resistance and donations from the Danish public. Not all made it. A few were caught by Nazi patrol boats and sent back to Denmark, while some fishermen paid a heavier price. Some boats capsized due to overcrowding – perhaps 23 drowned that way.
Of Denmark’s almost 8,000 Jews, some 7,200 made it to Sweden together with about 700 non-Jews who needed to flee. About 580 were caught by the Gestapo dragnet and sent to the Theresienstadt camp in Czechoslovakia – but the Danes did not give up on them.
The Danish Foreign Ministry visited the camp to check on the detainees armed with food parcels provided by the public. It was followed by frequent visits from the Danish Red Cross. The Swedish Red Cross later managed to bring over the remaining Jews. By the end of the war, some 423 of them had survived, the rest succumbing to disease, old age, or suicide.
On March 21, 1979, Duckwitz was recognized as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. The Danish Resistance and King Christian were also recognized at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial with an honorary tree and an authentic Danish fishing boat.