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Georg Duckwitz and the “bias” of memory

remembering the rescue of Denmark’s Jews

These days we are marking the anniversary of one of the greatest rescue deeds of World War Two, the rescue of the Danish Jews. Over the night between 1 and 2 October 1943, in fact, the Danish resistance movement, helped by a vast majority of the population, managed to bring to safety almost all the 7,000 Jews of the country. Certainly, we should remember that the German presence in Denmark was very peculiar, with characteristic diametrically opposed to the occupation of the other European countries. The Nazi troops crossed the Danish border on 9 April 1940, and were ordered not to irk the local population. “The Dane is no Pole”, said the Luftwaffe officers, but rather a Teuton”. The relation that arose between the occupier and the occupied was absolutely peculiar, and left to Copenhagen an unusual degree of independence: the national government, the Parliament and the army remained in the hands of king Christian X, and Denmark formally remained a free State – albeit with German troops quartered on its territory. 

The reasons of this uniqueness were essentially political and economic. Copenhagen exported two thirds of its resources to Germany and steadily provided the Reich with labour force. 
It was precisely because of this kind of “protectorate” that the Jewish community of Denmark was not immediately persecuted.
 The situation worsened dramatically in September 1943, when Hitler started worrying about the growing hostility of the Danish population and therefore ordered that his plenipotentiary Werner Brest take on full power and establish the emergency state in the country. The Danish Jews were now approaching the “final solution”. Here a peculiar figure entered into play, and namely the delegate of the Maritime affairs of the German Embassy in Copenhagen Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz – who was remembered also by Gabriele Nissim in The tribunal of Good (Mondadori). A close aide of Best’s, the man had been informed already on 28 September of the plan to start rounding up the country’s Jews, but instead of carrying out the Reich’s plans, Duckwitz strongly opposed this solution. Hence he decided to meet with the Social democratic leader Hans Hedtoft to inform him about Best’s plan. The regime’s will to keep the deportation, planned for the night of 1 and 2 November, secret, 
reminds us of what happened in Bulgaria, where the trains to the death camps had been prepared without informing the vicepresident of the Parliament Dimitar Peshev, who was made aware of the decision only by his Jewish friend Jako Baruch. Differently from Sofia, where the commitment of a single man – Peshev – to rescue the 48,000 country’s Jews, in Copenhagen there was an extraordinary act of solidarity from the population, which decided to shelter the Jews in their home to bring them into safety from Nazi roundups, and help them embark on the ships heading for Sweden. Thanks to Duckwitz, to the courage of the Danish citizens and the local Church – which not only was not silence, but instead called for helping and defending the persecuted – nearly all 7,000 Jews of the country were rescued. Duckwitz though was put on the background in the aftermath of war. With reference to the rescue of the Danish Jews the prevailing narration focused on the behaviour of the authorities and the population, but not of this diplomat. He was confronted with the same prejudice that Oskar Schindler had met: could a Nazi be recognized as a Righteous? 

And yet the man had risked his life to rescue the Jews, and had been forced to go underground to escape shooting by the SS. Only in 1971, nearly 30 years after the rescue of the Danish Jews, this “bias of memory” has been addressed, and Duckwitz was recognized as Righteous by Yad Vashem. When they asked him for the reason of his deeds, he replied: “I did not consider my life as more important than the one of 7,000 Jews. We should be able to put ourselves in other people’s shoes”.

Martina Landi, Gariwo Editor

Analysis by Martina Landi, Gariwo Editor

14 October 2013

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whoever saves a life saves the entire world

In Yad Vashem's Memorial, in Jerusalem, the Garden of the Righteous remembers those who tried to rescue the Jews in the Holocaust: those who hidd them, helped them expatriate with forged documents, nourished them or gave them a job; those who, seeing them suffer, helped them somehow instead of remaining indifferent.In Yerevan's Wall of Remembrance the memorial stones remember the rescuers of Armenians during the genocide of 1915, those who tried to stop the massacre, refused to obey orders, sheltered children, reported the extermination that was occurring beneath their hopeless eyes to the world's public opinion.
In 1994 in Rwanda, some Tutsies who were hunted by the interahamwe militias were protected by neighbours, friends - some times strangers, too - belonginf to the Hutu ethnic group, who refused participating in the "man hunt" with machetes that had been planned by other Hutus to exterminate the country's Tutsi minority.
While ethnic cleansing was ravaging Bosnia leading to the murder of thousands innocent victims some people trying to escape the massacre were helped in the same way by neighbours, school mates, friends, or strangers, who were members of other ethnic groups.
Still todate, in many places in the world, there are such rescuers who risk and sometimes lose their lives in the attempt of helping the victims, and become victims themselves. Other times they lose their jobs, wellbeing, social status or they are imprisoned, tortured, cast out. At any rate, even before starting their endeavours, they know they run a serious risk, but they prefer doing so rather than bearing the weigh of remorse for remaining indifferent for the rest of their lives. Everytime by their action they "save the entire world", as stands in the Talmud.

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